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20 Unusual European Hotspots

Done Paris, London and Rome? Think Prague is passé and find Barcelona boring? Here are 20 Euro destinations beyond the usual tourist haunts. By David Whitley

We’ve picked out 20 great Euro destinations for second- or third-time visitors looking for a different take on the continent: some are staging major events; some have the get-there-before-they’re-big factor; some are suddenly great value with the high Aussie dollar and bumbling euro.

But none of them will bore you.

The next big trip to the other side of the world starts here… and a few very pleasant surprises are in store.

Montpellier, France

Why now? Find France too fusty for your tastes? Montpellier may change your mind. Jean Nouvel’s RBC Design Centre and Zaha Hadid’s new Pierre Vives building join the Christian Lacroix-decorated trams to give this young-feeling, student-packed city a counterpoint to the medieval courtyards in the centre. Almost permanent sunshine kinda helps too…

You just gotta… Wander around the Antigone District, a giant public housing project full of pompous neo-classical buildings and showy monuments. It’s The Truman Show with a Greco-Roman twist.

Northern Iceland

Why now? The 2012 northern lights are being hyped as the best in years, while direct flights into Akureyri from other European hubs have eliminated the need to transit via Reykjavik.
Also, the krona has crumbled during the global financial crisis – Iceland is much, much cheaper than it once was.

You just gotta… Hire a car and go inland.
Sure, the whale-watching tours from Húsavik are among the best in the world, but Northern Iceland’s real stars are the active volcanoes, glaciers and gorge-riddled national parks.

Kiev, Ukraine

Why now? Kiev will host the final of the Euro 2012 football championships at the end of June – and whichever competing nations get there, it’ll be one hell of a party.
The Ukrainian capital doesn’t quite fit into the usual Euro circuit, which has spared it the drowning-in-tour-groups fate of Prague and Budapest.
Golden domes, ludicrous Communist-era statues, labyrinthine monasteries dug into caves and a feisty spirit combine to make it Eastern Europe with energy and edge.

You just gotta… Push the hedonism button at Hydropark.
This island in the Dnipro river combines an outdoor gym made from scrap metal, fairgrounds and some seriously sexy bar-club hybrids.

Bologna, Italy

Why now? Bologna is the smart choice beyond the usual Florence, Venice and Rome trio.
It’s a place that works as a whole – the red brick palazzos and 38km of porticos and arcades give it a unified grandeur.

You just gotta… Tuck into tagliatelle al ragù, the king of pasta meals.
Don’t trust anywhere that serves spaghetti Bolognese – that has never been the trad dish here.

Belgrade, Serbia

Why now? The backpackers are on to the Serbian capital – hostels are mushrooming.
But so are the stylish designer hotels; get there before Belgrade appears on all the “Twenty-Thirteen Cool Destinations” lists.

You just gotta… Arrive hungry. Areal foodie scene has transformed Belgrade, and there’s surely no other city in Europe where you can eat so consistently well for so little.
Also, pack your party gear – sleeping is for wimps here: the Danube party boats and riverside clubs go off.

Innsbruck, Austria

Why now? Outside of Vienna, Austria’s reputation for costliness proves largely unfounded.
And with the Aussie dollar riding high, Innsbruck is a relative bargain. It may be the perfect small European city, with the medieval old town and grand baroque palaces married to Zaha Hadid’s striking modern architecture.
More importantly, the Alps are right on the doorstep; funiculars and cable cars take you up from the city centre.

You just gotta… Hire an e-bike from the tourist office in the village of Igls, then take on some motor-assisted mountain biking.

Basque Country, Spain

Why now? The eurozone’s hammering has led to better bargains across Europe, but especially so in Spain.
While the package tourists head off for enticing deals on the south and east coasts, smart travellers will head north.

You just gotta… Get the culture fix at Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum, then gorge yourself on pintxos in San Sebastian – a small city that’s almost universally regarded as one of the world’s great foodie destinations.
For active types, the Pyrenees look close enough to reach out and touch, while castles, beaches and postcard-perfect fishing villages can be gleefully shoehorned into any itinerary.

Warsaw, Poland

Why now? Kiev may host the final, but Warsaw has Euro 2012’s opening ceremony and many of the key games throughout June.
It’s a city that surprises most visitors – the green outweighs the concrete, the grit dovetails with the gorgeous, and many of the most exciting bars and restaurants are found in hidden courtyards off the main thoroughfares.

You just gotta… Visit the Warsaw Rising Museum, which tells the horrific story of Warsaw’s WWII destruction in a bold, visceral style.


Why now? Still wanting those Adriatic beaches without the crowds? Then go south to Albania.
The south of the country, in particular, is starting to develop a European version of the Thai beach backpacker scene.
Yes, the beer is predictably cheap…
You just gotta… Soak up the timewarp.
One day, Albania will change and fully modernise. But for now it’s like Cuba: somewhere to see with its idiosyncrasies before the world rolls in.
The countryside remains full of concrete pillbox machine-gun posts introduced by former leader Enver Hoxha.
And the cities? Chaos and Communist architecture.

The Faroe Islands

Why now? Another region starting to get the hype machine behind it, the Faroes offer a rural side to Europe that’s often forgotten.
The islands do the puffins, sheep, rugged coast and waterfalls thing beautifully.

You just gotta… Grab some binoculars, join a boat tour and go ogling the only crowds you’re likely to see in the Faroes: the Vestmanna bird cliffs see tens of thousands of seabirds fighting for perching and nesting space.

Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Why now? If you’re picturing a war-torn wasteland, you’re massively mistaken.
Church spires and minarets battle across the skyline, ski fields sit tantalisingly close by, and the narrow streets seem to have a different gallery or craft stall on every corner.

You just gotta… Take the train down to Mostar; partly for the scenery on the way, partly for the glassy green river, famous bridge and Ottoman-era bazaars once there.


Why now? If you can pick just one English destination outside of London, Liverpool arguably has more going for it than anywhere else.
The newly opened Museum of Liverpool adds to an impressive cultural collection at Albert Dock, while Beatlemania should get a second kick later this year with the 50th anniversary of the Fab Four’s first record.

You just gotta… Do the obligatory Beatles Tour, which takes in the likes of Strawberry Field, Penny Lane and the church where John first met Paul.

Hamburg, Germany

Why now? Arguably the coolest new building in the world, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie is the figurehead for the massive HafenCity development project.
But the glorious old brick warehouses remain – many now turned into museums and slightly tacky tourist attractions – while the St Pauli district offers cartoonish red-lit sauciness and Beatles heritage galore.

You just gotta… Take a cruise around Hamburg’s gigantic port.
The sheer scale wows alone, before you even start ogling the megayachts that have cruised in for repair.


Why now?  Maribor is one of the two European Capitals of Culture for 2012 (along with Guimarães in northern Portugal). But call that the excuse rather than the reason to go.
There’s probably not a more agreeable country in Europe than Slovenia right now. It’s manageably small, infrastructure is good and prices are relatively low.
Meanwhile beaches, wineries, mountains and caves compliment the instantly loveable and relaxed capital, Ljubljana.

You just gotta… Hit Lake Bled, with its hiking trails and adventure sports for the active, and thermal spa pools for the lazy. 

Alentejo, Portugal

Why now? The region – between the Algarve, Lisbon and the Spanish border – is just starting to get pushed elsewhere in Europe.
Chances are it won’t stay unspoiled for long. But right now it’s beautiful and virtually untouched.

You just gotta… Mix it up over a few days.
There’s a slow-burning, Tuscany-goes-to-Portugal feel if you combine the gorgeous walled towns like Évora, Mértola and Monsaraz with the wine regions and the wild, evocative beaches of the Atlantic coast.

Berlin, Germany

Why now? The recent Hotel Price Index named Berlin the cheapest city in the world for five star hotel accommodation.
There’s simply no better city in Europe for affordable luxury.
The influx of flights to the new Willy Brandt Airport – which opens in June – should make getting there much cheaper too.

You just gotta… Roll with the quirks, whether that’s staying in a GDR-themed nostalgia hotel, swimming in the buff in a cocoon-shaped public pool on the Spree River, or taking underground tours through networks of nuclear bunkers.

Belfast, Northern Ireland

Why now? April 2012 saw the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, and the city where the ship was built is not afraid to go overboard on the subject.
The new Titanic Belfast attraction traces the ship’s story from conception to destruction over nine galleries and a ride through the reconstructed shipyard. Kate and Leo fans can be excused for getting excited.

You just gotta… Take a black taxi tour around the trouble spots from Belfast’s dark days of sectarian violence.
The stories will shock, the murals disturb, and the attempts to build bridges encourage.

Helsinki, Finland

Why now? Dubbed the World Design Capital 2012, it’s a fitting title, given the indie shopping pleasures to be found in the downtown Design District, and collection of distinctive, often rather bizarre architecture.

You just gotta… Get a cultural fix at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art, then complete a distinctly Finnish quartet: swim nude in a public pool; get sweaty in a sauna (most hotels have one); then find a heavy metal pub and drink pear cider.

Inland Montenegro

Why now? Anyone declaring the beaches of Montenegro’s Adriatic coast to be Europe’s new secret hotspot is five years out of date.
But the mountainous inland regions of Montenegro are only beginning to be tapped.
Touring company Undiscovered Montenegro, for example, is focusing on Lake Skadar, where the freshwater beaches and caves are genuinely unspoilt.

You just gotta… Get active. If hiking, kayaking and mountain biking in pristine surrounds is your thing, then you’ll not be battling the crowds here.


Why now? Steadily, more flights are connecting Macedonia with the rest of Europe.
It won’t be long before this mountainous former Yugoslav state becomes whispered about as the new Balkan hotspot.
For now, it’s dirt cheap and relatively empty.

You just gotta… Discover Lake Ohrid. The churches and monasteries dotting the lake’s shore make it one of the most picturesque spots in Europe, while Ohrid itself is a resort town that packs in the fun factor.


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