Sarajevo is my 2022 travel shout-out. There is no such thing as the unbeaten path in Europe. Every path, track, village, city and alpine pass has been trodden over and picked through for centuries.
There are no true hidden gems – by the time you make it to a proclaimed private space there’s a steady trickle of tourists behind you. Even so, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina felt underrated.
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Destinations in Europe become trendy, revived and gentrified, others lose their aura of quirky, cool or welcoming. Through it all there are the stand-out stars, the grand dames that grace nearly every tour itinerary. You know them, I know them. They grace postcards, fridge magnets, t-shirts and are romantic film sets: Paris, London, Rome, Florence, Venice, Amsterdam, Barcelona, maybe the south of France, a diversion to Santorini and Dubrovnik or Berlin if there’s time.
It’s the new Grand Tour of Europe, the bucket list for many, the must-sees and many of which have witnessed strong signs of overtourism.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that you can’t piece together a European holiday without including any of the above in your itinerary. You can, and you’ll be rewarded with an eclectic holiday that dodges tourists traps, rip-offs and hop-on, hop-off bus tours while still giving you a taste of the Continental life, jaw-dropping scenery and necessary culture shock.
It’s not just Sarajevo that makes the list of shunned Slavic cities, with only Croatian destinations like Split and Dubrovnik crossing over into mass tourism in recent years.
That is a real shame as the Balkans sit at a cultural crossroads in the south-eastern corner of Europe and offer tourists a melting pot of cultures at a fraction of the price of the Eurozone.
Belgrade and Athens (Greece is Balkan!) have excellent nightlife, while smaller cities like Ljubljana and Kotor balance Austro-Hungarian or Venetian pastelled elegance with Communist-era grunginess depending on the borough you’re in.
The same filo, cheese and spinach pastry snack goes by half a dozen names depending on where, you are in the region.
Turbulent and brutal recent history of war in the 1990s is still etched on buildings and faces and learning about it takes on added value in these current times. A walking tour of Sarajevo to hear about the dramatic siege it withstood in 1994 is a must-do.
Away from that, pebbled waters range from inky blue to brilliant turquoise hues and stretch along the Adriatic from Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania, while inland the same rugged mountain ranges that make the travel times longer also offer everything that home does for adventure-seekers.
Make it happen: Fly into Athens and train north into North Macedonia or start at the top training East from Venice’s lagoon through Trieste and into Slovenia.
The Baltic States fit together because they don’t quite fit anywhere else: Too Western to be in the Russian sphere, a little bit Scandi but without the hefty bills, Germanic architecture in parts but without the rigid efficiency.
Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are same, same but different to their surroundings. Staunchly pro-European since ditching the USSR following the collapse of Communism, they embrace Western tourists and don’t shy away from reflecting on their occupation.
Estonian capital Tallinn is a standout in the beauty stakes, with a still intact old town, Riga in Latvia has a more youthful vibe and great nightlife, while quieter Vilnius in Lithuania still has enough to do for a couple of days.
There is a frequent ferry between Tallinn and Finland’s costly capital Helsinki, so you can experience the icy dips and saunas of the Nordic city at a fraction of the price if you stay in the Baltic States.
Make it happen: Budget carriers serve these capitals, or flying into Helsinki remains an option. The fact that it’s a bit of a dog-leg keeps it off many itineraries.
Yolo in yodel land
Many typical tourist itineraries take a route around central Europe shaped like a doughnut, maybe within sight of the Alps, but never really through them.
Call it aversion to high prices in Swiss francs or a preference for Med beaches over Bavaria, but there is plenty to enjoy in this alpine region any time of year.
Better yet, it’s well-served by high-speed cross-country and regional train services throughout Switzerland, Austria, Northern Italy, Germany and into Slovakia and Hungary. See your rail pass as an investment and soak up the scenery of snow-capped peaks, ravines, waterfalls and chocolate box villages whooshing by.
Travelling west to east from Zurich through the Alps you could take a diversion into the microstate of Liechtenstein, through the Dolomites to the German-accented Italian city of Bolzano or carry on through Tyrolean slopes into Innsbruck and then stunning Sound of Music country, Salzburg.
Bavarian Germany is just a hop over the border, but you’ll get used to seeing lederhosen and beer gardens along the main streets by now. Round off this itinerary by stretching further away from the Alps and into Budapest, Hungary, with its grand buildings, thermal baths, “ruin” bars in rundown-then-repurposed concrete buildings, and fascinating recent history.
Make it happen: Vienna, obviously a well-known classical capital of Austria is a major train hub, so is another gateway city and jumping off point. Zurich and Munich are hub airports of Air New Zealand’s Star Alliance partners Lufthansa and Swiss.
Get it strait
The south of Spain is no shrinking violet. The coastline resort cities along the ‘Costas’ are teaming with Brits, Germans and Dutch families between June and September soaking up sun, sangria and tasty tapas.
Away from the coast though you can enjoy all that, with fewer crowds, in the cities of Seville, Granada and Córdoba each with a postcard-perfect architectural symbol (the Alcazar, Alhambra and Cathedral, respectively).
Rooftop pools are a must though as the mercury can near 40 degrees in August. Hike the Sierra Nevada trails, explore the picturesque town of Ronda, or people-watch at the beach (there always seems to be a requisite game of frescobol happening). Then head down the coast, via British outpost Gibraltar to spot red telephone boxes, eat fish and chips and see barbary macaques on ‘The Rock’.
Then, ditch Europe altogether, via a two-hour ferry across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, Morocco for a feast for the senses. Tagine, tanneries, rabbit warren souks and mint teas await in Fez. The Atlas Mountains are great for multi-day tramping trips (get a guide), while the blue city of Chefchaouen’s alleyways have a chilled backpacker vibe.
Make it happen: There are one-stop connections to Madrid, Spain and Casablanca, Morocco from Auckland, or you can tack this on to a Western Europe itinerary via trains to the Spanish capital or Barcelona.