Hidden Europe Gems You Need to Visit in 2022
1. Extremadura Region, Spain
Perhaps the least touristed region of Spain, Extremadura, which translates to ‘extreme-hard’, might conjure up images of wide-open dusty plateaus of olive grows at first glance. Yet, upon further inspection, it’s a region rich in gastronomy, culture and heritage that surely can’t stay as under the radar for too long.
Best avoided in the harsh summer heat and winter cold, the two provinces of Caceres and Badajoz are sandwiched between some of the most popular destinations in Spain (Andalusia and Castile and León) and, to the west, Portugal. But here, you’ll not only find the best Roman ruins in the country in UNESCO listed Merida, where amphitheatres, museums of mosaics, and ancient aqueducts will take you back in time, but an additional two UNESCO Heritage Site cities and further listed natural parks.
Discover the old city walls of Caceres, where the Old Town combines Gothic, Renaissance, Roman and Morish architecture with ease. Admire another feat in blended architectural styles at the pilgrimage site of The Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe. Hop between small villages like Hervas, famous for the white-washed Jewish quarter, or quaint cities like Plasencia, where narrow streets and grand cathedrals combine.
Once you have finished taking in the urban history, heed the call to slow down as you meander through the impressive, bird-strewn landscape of Monfragüe National Park, or one of the many other biosphere reserves in the region, before rounding it all off with a feast of mouthwatering delights.
For, one of the best rewards of going off the beaten path in Europe to Extremadura is the excellent cuisine– and, given here was the birthplace of the famous, and true, Jamon Iberico, you are in for a treat. Whether you are sipping the local Cherry beer, devouring the creamy Torta del Casar cheese coated in the local smoked paprika, or dining on historic dishes like the breadcrumb-meat combined migas, you’ll not struggle to be well fed in Extremadura.
2. Vipava Valley, Slovenia
I’m so glad to see Slovenia getting the attention it deserves, with the green capital of Ljubljana and the mystical-magic of Lake Bled becoming firm traveler favorites.
But much of the country remains blissfully off the beaten path, and Vipava Valley is undoubtedly one of Europes best-hidden gems … for now!
Slow-travel and sustainability aren’t buzz words in Slovenia; they are a way of life, and nowhere is this truer than in Vipava Valley. A gorgeous set of greenery, hills and vineyards, you could easily mistake this for Tuscany at first glance.
The joy of visiting Vipava is in cycling or hiking between little villages, heading into the mountains, enjoying Paragliding with their famous winds, and sampling everything that is put in front of you. There is an unknown number of wine cellars here, as everyone seems to have on under their house. The most inauspicious home doubles up as a restaurant serving local delights and home-made wine, and the whole place is pretty as a postcard. Whether you want a couple of days of downtime with a foodie focus, or a week escaping modern life in favour for local flavours, this small part of Slovenia will deliver you back home feeling totally refreshed.
3. The Azores, Portugal
Imagine, if you will, a kind of Switzerland meets New Zealand, but on a much smaller scale and surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean. Located between Portugal and Canada and formed by volcanic activity, you’ll be spoilt for natural wonders on the nine islands of the Azores, an autonomous region of Portugal.
Whether it’s responsibly swimming nearby dolphins or spotting the local whale population, hiking crater lakes that shimmer in hues of cerulean and shamrock, or taking in the geothermal activity bathing in the ocean or watching geysers bubble, you’ll be amazed– and that’s only on São Miguel island.
With a flurry of new flights launching in 2022, it’s fair to say this hidden gem of Europe won’t remain so for long– although some of the islands are bound to stay much less visited. Far-flung Flores– translated as flowers– but which should really be called Waterfalls, as a verdant escape of blissful hikes to cascading streams. On Pico, you can summit the highest mountain in all of Portugal, head underground in extinct Lava Tubes, or taste the unique local volcanic wine.
Sao Jorge, a personal favourite, serves up incredible faja (lava-spill) views on its network of impressive trails, while the otherworldly landscape of Faial, where an eruption in the 1900’s created a whole new black-desert like side of the island, will truly feel like another planet.
4. Bosnia and Herzegovina
Can I get away with calling a whole county a Europe hidden gem? Well, I’m sure going to try! For the most part, exploring Bosnia and Herzegovina is still a relatively off the beaten path experience in Europe. I’ve been here twice now, and the second visit firmly cemented my love for the country. On both visits, I was on a road trip, as it’s the best way to get to some of the lesser-visited spots.
Sure, beautiful Mostar is rightly famed, and now getting very popular with day-trippers from Dubrovnik, and Sarajevo, the capital city, is starting to attract more and more visitors thanks to its affordable pricing, fantastic cultural mix, and historically significant, especially in relation to WWI, but the country offers so much more to experience.
For adventure lovers, the rafting around Konjic is fantastic, with the water so clear and illuminated it looks photoshopped, a common theme of all lakes you’ll find around the country. The water-based magic extends to the postcard-perfect Kravica Waterfalls and the monastery in a lake at Rama in Scit. For cultural adventures and hiking, head to Lukimor, one of the last remaining mountains villages, or if you are in the area in the winter months, Skiing is available.
But the real magic for me in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the little moments, whether it’s staying in a converted railway station in Zavala, a town with a population of two where you are serenaded by guitar playing owner pouring you their homemade wine before whisking you into epic caves or enjoying a chilled lemonade or Arabic coffee looking out on the Ottoman wonder village of Počitelj.
It feels like around every corner there is a new experience, place or person to bring a smile to your face, and I wholeheartedly believe if you want a real adventure, and to enjoy Europe off the beaten path, Bosnia and Herzegovina will bring you sheer joy.
5. The Georgian Caucasus Mountains
Spanning from Georgia to Azerbaijan and connecting two continents, the Georgian Caucasus Mountains offer incredible hiking trails in the warmer months, through to snowy escapades in the winter– when certain stretches become inaccessible.
Georgia, especially the capital city of Tbilisi, has been growing in popularity in the digital nomad community for years, thanks to the one-year visa and low nomad tax rates, but you can find the real magic of the nation amongst the highest peaks.
Dormant Mount Kazbek, climbing to an elevation of 5055 metres, is a real sight to behold, and the surrounding area around Stepantsminda, a town set in the valley, is one of the most popular year-round destinations thanks to its position on the main Georgia– Russia highway keeping it accessible. Monasteries sit above the clouds, friendly dogs will volunteer to be your trekking ‘guides’, and hospitable homestays will start as a place to crash and quickly become a home with new friends.
Don’t miss experiencing the warmth and charm of Georgian hospitality, served up with some of the worlds best and oldest wines, local spirit chacha, and mountains of delicious food. From the twisted dough dumplings of Khinkali to the cheese-stuffed Khachapuri bread, the mountains will soon feel secondary to the gastronomic delights that will never stop being delivered to your table!
6. The Hague, The Netherlands
One of my favourite city-breaks ever, it’s fair to say The Hague really shocked me with how cool it is, and how much is going on there, hence naming it a Europe hidden gem!
As a city more known for politics and social justice, I was impressed with the fantastic food and bar scene, especially for vegetarians, the in-depth and fascinating museums such as Humanity House, the never-ending selection of chic-clubs and bars along the gold sandy beach, and of course, the critical work the city does international for Peace and Justice.
I’ll admit before I visited I wasn’t sure how I ‘d fill a long-weekend in The Hague, but with Amsterdam about to burst, this second-city, and political capital of The Netherlands is a well worthy alternative. It might not have as many canals or as much coffee-culture as Amsterdam, but it more than makes up for it with the laid back vibes, friendly locals, and culture to gorge on. Seriously, if you are looking for a Europe city-break in 2022, you can’t go wrong with The Hague!
7. Mantua, Italy
After five trips to Italy in 2019, from the Dolomites in the far-north region of Trentino to the epic coasts in the heel of Puglia, I think it was going to be a given I ‘d discover a few of Europe’s hidden gems while here, and Mantua was one of the most surprising, earning it top spot on this years Europe hidden gems list– especially given so many of Italy’s top tourist attractions are quite simply put, overflowing with tourists.
To be honest, I’m shocked this city isn’t all over everyone’s bucket lists, and while it seems like local Italian tourists adore visiting, and those in the know head here, for most of us, we are sadly unaware of what an extraordinary city this is.
Located in the Lombardia region of Italy, it’s easiest accessed by car, although train connections from Verona, Venice and Milan can bring you here. Its best calling is the art and architecture that bring so many of us to Italy’s most famous cities, and here there is an abundance.
Home to the largest residential building in Europe, after the Vatican, Mantua (or Mantova) is surrounded by three artificial lakes, one coated in lilypads which call out for a sunset boat cruise. We have to thank the Gonzaga rulers for most of the grand architecture in Mantua, whose Ducal Palace presents some 600 odd rooms. While only some are open to the public, they are an architectural feast, with grand frescos and beautiful art and you can spend hours exploring them all.
Also impressive and worth a visit is the Te Palace (which has nothing to do with the drink) which also offers some rather grand halls, and perhaps my favourite spot, the Teatro Bibiena, a real Italy hidden gem if ever there was one– and I couldn’t believe that for less than a price of coffee we could tour it, and be the only visitors.
Combining this incredible architecture, indescribable art, the call of northern-Italian cuisine and wine, and the chance to take epic day trips across the Lombardia region from Mantua makes this city for me an absolute joy to discover, and I do hope to make it back one day.
8. Porto Santo Island, Portugal
Madeira, one of my favourite islands in the whole world, is another Portuguese destination enjoying a moment in the spotlight. But Madeira isn’t just one island, and the ‘baby-sister’, if you will, of Porto Santo, remains on the best off the beaten path Europe beach escapes.
With limited flight options, and most people arriving by ferry from Madeira, the 9km stretch of golden sands, backed by rolling hills and easy hiking routes, makes for a perfect beach escape whether with friends, family, or a loved one.
With a mixture of accommodation options, ranging from upscale resorts, to down to earth home rentals, Porto Santo is all about easy days spent relaxing, whether it’s cycling around the island, enjoying on the peaceful trails, or just sipping a cocktail at the beach.
9. Cuenca, Spain
This seriously underrated hidden gem in Spain was my final trip of 2018, and what a place it was to discover.
While most online discussion around this medieval city is on the Casa Colgados, the hanging houses which seem to dangle off the side of the rock, the whole old city is magical and deserving of its UNESCO world heritage status.
Perched upon a rock and with a history that can be traced back around 1300-years, the colourful houses, castle ruins, and cathedral packed with architecture spanning through various time periods come together to provide another world like feel. Stepping into Cuenca is like stepping back in town, and the surrounding nature of the karst mountains, coupled with the crystal blue river provides an awesome adventure playground alongside your city break.
10. Durham, England
If you are looking for the quintessential British experience that has it all, then don’t look any further than a visit to Durham. Durham’s city boasts a UNESCO listed castle and cathedral, while the rest of the region is packed full of hidden gems with history, nature and one of the best museums I’ve ever visited.
Durham city itself is most famed for the castle and cathedral, both spectacular and deserving of a few hours to tour, while cool cafes, river water sports and historic architecture are close by. Outside of the city, you have the Durham Heritage Coast, ideal for hiking and relaxing, and plenty of castles and green rolling hills in the region, with Raby Castle the favourite of those I visited. Durham is also reasonably easy to get around by public transport for those not wishing to hire a car, which is a huge bonus when visiting England.
Be sure to visit Beamish Museum, a living museum which I ended up spending a full day in, it was that good! Imagine a museum meets theme park vibe, where everything is fully interactive, and you can discover the history of England from the 1800s onwards. From old-school sweet shops and photography studios fully staffed to vintage trams and busses driving around, the chance to see history played out, there are actors in the ‘homes’ and ‘schools’ for example makes this an excellent opportunity to experience history.