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October 1, 2008 2:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for underrated, obscure European vacation stops.

A couple friends and I are going to Europe for a month (Nov/Dec), and we plan on doing the whole Eurorail/hostel thing across several countries. 1/3rd of the destination stops are for my choosing, and while I know they'll be making the saturated, obvious choices like Rome, Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, etc., I'd like to spice things up with places that don't automatically spring to mind but offer the same level (if not more) of awe. Ideally, cities that aren't automatic tourist stops where most everyone speaks English and there's a McDonald's on every corner (but also not so far out of the way from mid-Europe like some hole-in-the-wall, Eastern-European Caspian city).

What sort of places have you visited that you would recommend?
posted by Christ, what an asshole to Travel & Transportation (33 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Dubrovnik. It's pretty popular but still not the really beaten track. Decades since I was there, mind.
posted by Abiezer at 2:08 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I haven't been there, but a well-traveled friend of mine never shuts up about how over the top cool, friendly and surprising Krakow, Poland was.
posted by jeff-o-matic at 2:09 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was in Bled, Slovenia for a conference last summer, and it was great. It was very easy to get along in English. The food was great. It's a tourist town, which can actually be nice (see the comment on English above---all the menus were in Slovenian, English, German and Italian, as I recall). Slovenia uses the Euro.

There were some fun sights to see: a really nice castle, a picturesque church on an island in the middle of a lake, a nice gorge just outside of town...
posted by leahwrenn at 2:15 PM on October 1, 2008

Some of my favorite smaller stops:

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic (just awesome)
Kutna Horic, Czech Republic (church of bones!)
Bled, Slovenia (again, just awesome! hike to the vintgar gorge)
Olomouc, Czech Republic (quiet little college town outside of prague)
posted by nitsuj at 2:16 PM on October 1, 2008

Do you want obscure for Americans or obscure for everyone? There are many great destinations that Americans never seem to bother with, e.g. Vienna. Prague's more popular than it used to be, but it's an overnight train away from Krakow and if you've never been to Europe before it's worth checking out. Prague - Krakow - Vienna is a popular train route amongst backpackers like yourself, but be sure to sleep in shifts on any night train in Eastern Europe (thieves).

If you're looking to avoid the megatouristy places, you should be alright anywhere but Paris/Rome/Venice etc., November/December is a low-tourism season just about everywhere.
posted by Ndwright at 2:17 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Sorry, Kutna Hora
posted by nitsuj at 2:17 PM on October 1, 2008

Paris kind of sucked in November. Rainy and cold, although the holiday displays on the department stores were pretty.

Inland Greece is excellent in November. The weather is nice and there are zero crowds. Places like Olympia and Delfi and Epidaurus.
posted by smackfu at 2:25 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

anywhere in Bulgaria
posted by Pants! at 2:37 PM on October 1, 2008

Seconding nitsuj, the towns of Czech Moravia are beautiful and friendly: Mikulov, Vranov, Valtice, and Lednice, but most of all Telč.
posted by nicwolff at 2:39 PM on October 1, 2008

For a specific city recommendation, I really enjoyed Bruges in Belgium. It is still fairly touristy, but it has a real charm to it. Freiburg in Germany is another place which is totally worth a weekend of your life (probably more). Bruges for the beer and the flatness and the canals and the general WOW of the architecture (don't miss the brewery tour), Freiburg for the setting and the mountains and the laid-backness and the black-forest-gateau joy of cake (don't miss Germanys longest cable car ride).

However, you have to remember that just because everyone goes to Paris and Amsterdam, doesn't mean that they all do the same things. In Paris, for example - try visiting the Parc de la Vilette which is awesomely strange and so very very French, and you can get an underground canal boat there (no kidding) from the Bastille (St Martins canal information). Or go for a peppermint tea and some arabic sweets and gaze at the fascinating windows in l'institute du monde arabe.... There are hundreds of thousands of things to do in Paris which aren't the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe.

To be honest I have found the best places when just diverging from a plan and finding a medium sized town - you'll find marvellous big towns/little cities all over Europe, and that's where you'll come across places which don't speak English and don't have too many McDonalds. Small town Holland/Belgium/Germany/France/Spain... all fairly good in my book. I've had huge fun in places that the Rough Guide has described as ultra dull (Tilburg, NL springs to mind). If you've got an open mind and don't mind chatting to people (and make a bit of an effort with the language, outside Holland, where 80% of the people really do speak perfect english) you'll be fine.
posted by handee at 2:47 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

As others have said, in Nov-Dec even bigger cities will be relatively untouristed, or at least the other tourists will be a little more interesting than the summer crowds. And even in the big cities, there's obscure places that few people bother to see. For example, this article about a "macbre tourist" in Rome.

For example, I would definitely go to Prague. The weather is lousy which means everyone hangs out in bars and there are great clubs and bands. Much better than the summer. And its a good base for other trips.

I would also find a list of festivals that are going on while you're traveling and try to go to as many of those as possible.

And I'd try to shape the trip based on what you're into. Food? How about Istria for truffles and Maly Ston for oysters. Modern art? Andy Warhol museum in Medzilaborce, Slovakia. Music? Probably Prague, but maybe there's some great bands on tour somewhere else or a relatively obscure European band that you can see on their home turf. Renaissance architecture? Telc in the Czech-Moravian highlands. Writing? Maybe Trieste for the Joyce and Richard Burton connections. Whatever.

You may be disappointed by what you find when you get there, but having a destination and a purpose makes the trip much more interesting than just getting off a train somewhere and not knowing why you're there.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 2:59 PM on October 1, 2008

Seconding Bruges, and it's really easy to get there from your other stops. I stayed in this hostel and would definitely go again -- the bar is a great, authentic place to hang out, and the guy who works there can point you toward the not-too-touristy places in town.

Eastern Europe is fantastic but pay attention to where your Eurail pass will actually get you -- I had one in the spring of 2007 and I don't think the pass worked in Croatia (also sometimes you need boats there).
posted by TrixieRamble at 3:08 PM on October 1, 2008

Sicily - particularly Syracuse - is wonderful, and yet not intimidating. It's also a quick hop over to Malta, which has the advantage of a lot of English-speakers but also an absolutely unique atmosphere.
posted by Paragon at 3:16 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Lisbon. We do have a few McDonald's, but then again nothing's perfect. The only obstacle I can see is that it is quite out of the way, back here in the Southwestern tip of Europe. But if you do go to Spain and you do, say, Barcelona and/or Madrid, I'd suggest coming to Lisbon, stopping by Évora on the way, which is totally beautiful and one day is enough to cover it. To get back to Central Europe, I'd reccomend going through the north of Spain, from Santiago de Compostela to S. Sebastian, and from there on to France.
posted by neblina_matinal at 3:26 PM on October 1, 2008

Seconding Vienna. Also Salzburg and Innsbruck.

I would add someplace in Switzerland. Berne, Lucerne, Zurich - all great cities with a plethora of day trips to astounding scenery. And I loved loved loved the Ticino region of Switzerland - Lugano was incredible - travel town to town on the lakes or there are great hikes. Semitropical vegetation with surrounding snow-capped mountains and northern Italian cuisine - what's not to like? There certainly were a good many tourists in Switzerland when I was there, but Americans were relatively rare. In the smaller towns and the Ticino region, you didn't hear a lot of English.

Portugal has a lot to offer at very reasonable prices - Lisbon, the Algarve, Evora. Also Spain. For a really nifty place, try Cadaques on the Costa Brava - combine it with a few days in or around Barcelona, a really fun and hip city. Also went to Seville and loved it! I will definitely go back to Spain.

I often pick a city as a base and then make several day or over-night trips to smaller places from that city. I used Nice as a base in France once, and found many great day trips: Antibes, Cannes, St Paul. de Vence, Monte Carlo. That was a great trip, and might be a nice southerly point with a milder climate - it can be pretty cold in Paris in November!

I am jealous.
posted by madamjujujive at 3:34 PM on October 1, 2008

I agree with Kunta Hora--not far outside of Prague. There is the Sedlec Ossuary and the city was the site for the mint--the mint tour is worth it!

Dachau was interesting, especially the time of year you are going. We went end of December and tried to imagine how the prisoners must have felt standing outside for roll call. Dachau (the city) was nicer than I thought it would be. We took a train from Munich to get there.

posted by 6:1 at 4:03 PM on October 1, 2008

The Harz mountain area in Germany is fabulous. It's in an area that formerly part of East Germany and is often overlooked by many U.S. tourists. The area is just loaded with really old historical sites going back to Charlemagne and other kings/emperors/conquerors. Walking trails everywhere and people are quite friendly - like they are most everywhere in the world, really.

The Harzquerbahn is a really cool way of exploring the area.

More generally, this was an interesting travel series recently in the NYT, but not terribly out-of-the-way places. Still, worth a perusal.
posted by webhund at 4:31 PM on October 1, 2008

I love Sweden during the holidays. Check out Stockholm or Gothenburg. I believe Sweden honors the Eurail pass.
posted by trinity8-director at 5:03 PM on October 1, 2008

2 of my favorite cities are Salzburg, Austria and Strasbourg, France. Both have a tourist element, but it's not overwhelming.

If you do wind up in Salzburg, I had a great hostel experience with the Institut St. Sebastien. It's a music school that will rent out its dorm rooms to backpackers.

If you do wind up in Strasbourg, be sure to stop by Les Trois Brasseurs restaurant/pub on Rue St. Etienne for beer brewed in-house and delicious tartes flambees.

People speak English in both cities, and both are "user-friendly" and relatively accessible via Eurail.
posted by saturn25 at 5:08 PM on October 1, 2008

madamjujujive hit two of my favourite spots - Berne and Cadaques.
I also want to recommend Granada in Spain -- go see the Alhambra. Do some reading about history first so you understand how amazing a place it is before you get there.
posted by PercussivePaul at 5:12 PM on October 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

sighisoara, romania! if you're into the medieval vibe.
posted by emptyinside at 6:59 PM on October 1, 2008

I asked a similiar question very recently. Hope that helps.
posted by Admira at 7:29 PM on October 1, 2008

This list is kind of all over the place. But I have to say, Prague is gorgeous in November/December.

Prague, Vienna, St. Anton (Austria), Innsbruck, Budapest, Bratislava, Florence, Sienna (Tuscany), Capri (Almalfi Coast in general), and Berlin.
posted by kirstk at 8:03 PM on October 1, 2008

Montpéllier, France. It's a college town, near the Med (not a bad winter, though it can get rainy). Very bouncy happy vibe in the middle of town, lots of clubs and night life. Plus you can investigate the coal tar derivatives. If you're feeling more adventurous, you could try Bandol, which is quite a bit smaller than Montpéllier. It is right on the Med, with a busy and interesting street life. Bandol is more touristed in the summer so a lot of the tourist area warnings apply.
posted by jet_silver at 8:10 PM on October 1, 2008

If you're going to Amsterdam, Den Haag and Delft are about an hour away. Den Haag has lots of fabulous museums and Delft is probably the prettiest town in the Netherlands. If you're into museums and food, Rotterdam has lots of both that are awesome, but the town itself isn't really that exciting.

Nthing Bruges--it's touristy (probably not so much now), but it's fucking beautiful. And there's a bar there that serves 400 beers. Don't stay at the Bauhaus hostel.
posted by calistasm at 9:07 PM on October 1, 2008

Lauterbrunnen Switzerland. I wouldn't call it obscure, but it certainly is more obscure than Prague or Vienna. More photos. I'm not sure of the particulars in that time of the year, but during the summer you can go up to the peak of the 10,000+ foot Schilthorn via gondola and the shoulder of the Jungfrau (and Europe's largest glacier) via cog wheel train. It's an absolutely amazing place.
posted by cnc at 10:54 PM on October 1, 2008

Seconding the Harz mountain area of Germany. Gingerbread towns, awesome vistas across the mountains. I was there two years ago - my son married a German girl, and after the wedding the families went to Wernigerode. I took a few pictures, start with this one and click "Next Picture" until the end.
posted by JParker at 11:27 PM on October 1, 2008

Go to any city that's not the capital of a country, and then brag about how far "off the beaten track" you went.

Or, if you actually want to go somewhere "obscure", get off the train in a place that isn't on this list, or that you can't find a recommendation for or against. Maybe a place without a train station - a little town in the mountains that's between point A and point B on your grand touristic itinerary. Get off the internet and have a little sense of adventure.
posted by xanthippe at 12:17 AM on October 2, 2008

Go east! Europe does not end at the Elbe. :)

Virtually all of Poland, including Kraków (go during the week, though - a bit easier to manage!), is gorgeous in the winter, especially anywhere with "history", which is pretty much the whole country. I spent November and December 2005 there and between the Christmas market, the icy Vistula, Wawel Castle, and the best nightlife in the country, it wasn't long enough! Polish isn't really an issue for basic tourist-y things, and Kraków is the biggest tourist destination in the country, so one shouldn't have any logistical problems visiting. Of all the places mentioned so far, a few days in Kraków is the best idea I've seen so far.

Beyond Kraków, Toruń, Poland is a UNESCO World Heritage Site less than a three-hour train from Warsaw. It's popular with Polish, German, and other regional tourists, and virtually everyone who deals with tourists in the Old Town speaks some English, especially those under 30; one of the best universities in Poland is here (oh yeah, full disclaimer, I live in Toruń!). Larger cities off the beaten American-tourist path include Wrocław ("VROHTS-wov") and Gdańsk. Even Warsaw, which was leveled during the war, is full of some of the best museums and culture in the country - the Warsaw Uprising Museum to name just one.

Even Kotor, Montenegro is a short bus trip from Dubrovnik (itself a ferry ride from Italy) and is at the head of an amazing Mediterranean fjord; the whole eastern coast of the Adriatic is gorgeous and it's the off-season, so you might find it much less crowded while still being not as frigid as some other destinations!

but also not so far out of the way from mid-Europe like some hole-in-the-wall, Eastern-European Caspian city

If you're coming this "far" east and just want to hit one or two places, fly. WizzAir, SkyEurope, and a number of other Central Europe-based low-cost airlines link places like Warsaw, Kraków, and Vienna with, well, pretty much everywhere else; your friends probably know about Ryanair and Easyjet, too - they're the granddaddies of the European low-cost airline market. The 10 countries which joined the EU in 2004 are now all part of the Schengen Agreement, too, so there's no passport control on a flight between (say) Barcelona and Ljubljana, Slovenia (which is also worth checking out!).
posted by mdonley at 12:27 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've always lobbied for Rotterdam. It's an hour-long train ride from Amsterdam, and also its polar opposite. Rotterdam was bombed to pieces in the war and is now a mecca of modern architecture and art (modern museums, street art, etc.) considered much more down-to-earth than the more hifalutin Amsterdam. Definitely worth a visit.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:11 AM on October 2, 2008

Zagreb in Croatia is one of the best places to hang out in Europe, if you ask me - great food to be had, a supremely geeky Technical Museum (lots of Tesla stuff), beautiful architecture, great flea markets, incredibly friendly people, lots of cool bars. Very, very cheap. The only downside is crossing borders in the former Yugoslavia, which I found a little hairy, what with the guns, torches shined in the face, &c, but then I'm not really a seasoned traveller.

Also, Budapest. Though it has a very touristy/stag night destination reputation, I didn't find it that way at all, only bumping into tourists in the lobby of our hotel. Stunningly beautiful city, really great café culture, very good museums, superb (if occasionally bizarrely salty) food, and kind of seedy in places, in a good way.
posted by jack_mo at 11:15 AM on October 2, 2008

The Pink Palace on Corfu is a blast. Do not miss it if you are in Greece. Santorini is also a great spot. Both have their fair share of tourists, though they are not in the same league as, say, Athens. Although Athens is pretty great.

Sicily is amazing. Some of my favorite spots are Palermo, Catania and Cefalu. All 3 are relatively American-free.

I thought Ljubljana was a great weekend getaway when I was living in Turin. Not the most exciting place, but the people are nice and nothing is too expensive. Turin actually has some great museums as well and would make a good stop for a few days.

Finally, I have heard great things about Reykjavik, Talinn and Riga. Reykjavik in particular is supposed to be lots of fun.
posted by charlesv at 11:43 AM on October 2, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'll echo all the recommendations for Prague. That city is amazingly beautiful, with plenty of fabulous and historic buildings that for the most part escaped the heavy bombing of WWII.

It's super, super cheap there, too--something like 12 kroners to the dollar last time I was there (although that was before the current economic situation, and I know that a lot of places are on the Euro now, so YMMV).

If you go, definitely check out Kutna Horic. It's like a 1/2 hr. train-ride away and is one of those places you'll never forget.

We had a great time in Slovakia.... all of Eastern Europe, actually. Everyone was super-friendly.

Croatia on the coast is supposed to be beautiful, and about half the price of Italy.
posted by word_virus at 12:02 PM on October 2, 2008

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