Off the beaten track European summer destinations are still possible to find. You need to look just beyond Europe’s obvious summer hotspots – the Cinque Terre, Côte d’Azur, Italian Lakes and so on – as sometimes Europe’s secret beaches, sleepy cities, quiet towns, and cool retreats are close by.
A few days ago a friend who gets to Europe for summer fairly frequently asked me where she should go this year. She wanted suggestions for off the beaten track European summer destinations that weren’t swarming with tourists. She knows that it’s challenging to find quiet towns and completely empty beaches in Europe in summer, but if she was going to go somewhere busy she preferred that it be crowded with locals.
These are my recommendations for off the beaten track European summer destinations. Sometimes they’re regions, islands and places that might be packed with locals, but they are places that are off the radar for many foreign (especially non-European) travellers. At other times they’re recommendations for empty beaches in popular summer places or cities and towns that are sleepy because all the locals are at the beach.
Off The Beaten Track European Summer Destinations
Move over Sicily and Puglia, it’s Calabria’s time to shine. While Italians leave Capri and the Amalfi to foreign tourists and flock to this ruggedly beautiful southern Italian region every August, Calabria, one of Europe’s last frontiers, still remains something of a secret to everyone else. And as far as we’re concerned it’s one of the best off the beaten track European summer destinations. So where should you go? Start with enchanting Tropea, Southern Italy’s Positano, before stretching out your towel on more of the region’s stunning beaches. When you’ve had enough sun, hire a car and do some short road trips to take in the region’s other sophisticated little cities, such as Reggio di Calabria, atmospheric hilltop towns like Altomonte, Amantea and Morano Calabro, and pristine national parks such as Sila National Park, with its glassy lakes skirted by sandy beaches, lush green meadows flourishing with wildflowers, and fragrant forests of fir and pine. See our itineraries to exploring this undiscovered part of Italy.
Forget Dubrovnik, which is overrun with Games of Thrones fans this summer. Instead, make a beeline south and for Montenegro’s magical walled city of Kotor, another of our favourite off the beaten track European summer destinations. While gorgeous beaches aren’t far away, you can swim in Kotor’s glittering bay, often likened to a Mediterranean equivalent of a Norwegian fjord. There’s also plenty to do in the elegant old town. Hike up to the ruins of Kotor’s Castle of San Giovanni or Castle of St John for breathtaking bay views then do our self-guided walking tour around Kotor’s old town or Stari Grad. (Look out for local character, ‘Cedo from the desert’ at the city entrance.) Kotor is a revelation for food and drink lovers, too, with plenty of seafood restaurants offering fresh fish (try the fantastic fish soup, riblja corba, and learn to make it with our recipe), which should be washed down with Slivovica, the plum brandy beloved by locals, and local specialties to snack on. See our itinerary to two perfect days in Kotor. Fancy going further afield, contact local guide, Vesna Alavanja. Need further inspiration? See Terence’s mesmerising timelapses of Kotor at sunset (and the equally stunning test here). A warning: Kotor does get crowded with cruise ship passengers at times but don’t worry, they never stay long.
Okay, so the Spanish island of Mallorca in the Balearics is hardly a secret – it’s Ibiza for grown-ups and can get insanely crowded in summer – however, this popular island is home to some of our favourite off the beaten track European summer destinations. Firstly, you will need to hire a car to discover the lesser-visited parts of Mallorca, which you need to book ahead in summer. Next: see our Mallorca road trips guide and whatever you do, make sure you drive the dramatic west coast through the Tramuntana Mountain range. Then: mark the more secluded Mallorca beaches and hidden coves on a map. Also see our favourite places to stay on Mallorca, from boutique hotels in castles and manor houses and renovated fincas (farm houses) to self-catering casitas (cottages), remote monasteries and mountaintop retreats. Note: when you’ve had enough sun, Mallorca is home to some marvellous examples of Modernismo (yes, Gaudi was here) in the island capital, Palma, and beyond. And there are other outdoorsy things to do, like birdwatching.
Sardinia is another one of those Mediterranean islands that is a popular holiday spot for those living in the region, yet for Australians and Americans is one of those off the beaten track European summer destinations we dream of going yet never seem to get around to it. Like Mallorca, parts of Sardinia heave with holidaymakers in summer – Costa Smeralda, for instance, is hugely popular with the mega-rich – but like Mallorca it’s also possible to get off the beaten track. Perhaps more so, because Sardinia, one of the Med’s largest islands, has over 1,800 kilometres of stunning coastline, skirted by stretches of pristine windswept beaches, dramatic cliffs and tranquil bays. Inland there are wetlands teeming with birdlife, prehistoric villages, and ancient ruins. We finally got to Sardinia for a couple of weeks one spring, when we stayed in a beautiful holiday house as off the beaten track as one can get, in laidback Teulada. We got a taste of village life – and the village specialties – dined in the local pizzerias and trattorias, visited local wineries to learn about Sardinian wine, and cooked in, inviting the neighbours and hosts for dinner (what was Terence thinking?). Rich in traditions, there seems to be a festival on the island every day and we were lucky to witness the Feast of Saint Isidoro.
Skip St Tropez, Nice and the overcrowded Côte d’Azur and head further south toward the Spanish border to the French city of Perpignan, another one of our favourite off the beaten track European summer destinations – and a fantastic city for food lovers. Perpignan has its moments of course, when the old walled city gets packed with people, especially during festivals and religious holidays, such as the spooky Procession de la Sanch. But things can quieten down a tad in August when the locals make a beeline for the beach. Then it’s time to check into an old town apartment, buy local produce at Perpignan’s gourmet shops, explore its multicultural neighbourhoods, and sit in its sunny squares sipping wine. When you get the urge to hit the sand, head to one of the many beaches around Perpignan, such as North Argèles, which attracts families to its beach houses and camping grounds, or La Franqui, which has long white sandy beaches, one of which is popular with wind-surfers. Those breezes keep the masses away. When you need to retreat from the heat, head up the mountains to Ceret, a Catalan town with a rich culture and traditions, a love of rugby, and a lively weekend market, that was an inspiring artistic retreat for some of France’s greatest painters. You’ll find more delicious local specialties, Languedoc-Roussillon wines, and beautiful products made from the famous Catalan candy-striped cloth in Ceret.