The Hidden Gems of Europe

I’ve spent the past 8 years exploring the hidden gems of Europe and there is still so much more to uncover. This is a collection of my favourite European Highlights and some I still long to visit.

Highlights
Nordurljosavegur 9, 240 Grindavík, Iceland
Iceland’s largest and most famous geothermal spa lies around an hour outside Reykjavik, quite close to Keflavik Airport. With a dramatic setting amidst large black lava boulders, the steam-filled, creamy-blue pool area is a striking and surreal sight. The Blue Lagoon has been open since the 1980s and today draws some 700,000 visitors a year. The pools are actually created by heated seawater that flows from the adjacent geothermal power station. The waters allegedly cure all manner of skin-related ailments (eczema, psoriasis), but whether these claims are true or not, it’s certainly an atmospheric place to unwind, with very comfortable (99 degrees Fahrenheit) temperatures. The complex includes a small bar that dispenses healthy juices and beer, as well as a spa area for massages andbeauty treatments, and a very good restaurant; there’s also an upscale hotel if you wish to stay overnight.
Freyr 12, 5540 Hastière, Belgium
With hundreds of castles and chateaux in Belgium, open to the public, it’s hard to know which ones to visit. The castle of Freÿr, in Wallonia, is a great place to start. This grand building has remained in the same family for 20 generations and one wing is still home to the current owners. Exploring the interior of the castle is a must, as you’ll be visiting some of the same rooms as Louis XIV and the Archduchess Maria-Christina. The best place to take in the scope of the castle and its grand formal gardens, however, is across the river. You’ll need a good GPS or map to find the 2 unmarked lookout points. You’ll be rewarded for your diligence by this spectacular view.
2-4 Kelenhegyi Way
Throughout Budapest are a whopping 123 therapeutic hot springs, but these, in the stately, slightly dusty Hotel Gellért (built in 1918) might be the most famous. The communal bath in the center of the hotel spa is for everyone, but the most interesting traditional spa experience is in the back thermal pools, which have been coed since 2013. Here, join Hungarian locals in pools of varied temperatures, steam baths, and saunas, and jumping into ice-cold baths in between. Everyone takes their time to not only bask in the baths but also gaze at the Art Nouveau tiling on the walls and vaulted ceilings.
10 Place de l'Opéra, 75009 Paris, France
The Palais Garnier, the national opera house of Paris, is a magnificent building dripping in ornate details and glittering with gold. The five-ton chandelier, made famous in The Phantom of the Opera, still takes center stage in the auditorium. It is surrounded by a swirling, colorful ceiling painting by Marc Chagall. The decoration goes beyond the auditorium: The grand foyer rivals the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, and the grand staircase is an entryway fit for royalty. You don’t need to buy a ticket to the opera to see the space: Tours are given daily in a variety of languages.
Paseo de Cristóbal Colón, 11, 41001 Sevilla, Spain
Colour, music and dancing are an integral part of life in Andalusia, Spain. For a taste of the region’s Flamenco, head to El Patio Sevillano in Seville (Sevilla). A variety of dancers, in colourful traditional costumes, will whirl and stomp across the stage, while a band plays authentic Flamenco music. Catch an early show and then hit the town for tapas and drinks at a nearby Taverna.
Calle Real de la Alhambra, s/n, 18009 Granada, Spain
A visit to Granada, Spain isn’t complete without a stop at the Alhambra. The Moorish architecture, robust gardens, and stunning views of Granada combine to make a truly memorable experience. Start your day with a tour of the Generalife Gardens. Take it slow to fully enjoy the blooming flowers and stunning water features at every turn. Make sure to pre-book your tickets to the Alhambra or you may miss out on a visit to the breathtaking Nasrid Palace portion. Tickets are easily purchased through the official Ticketmaster site, where you are able to schedule a morning or afternoon time slot. If you are unable to secure a ticket to The Nasrid Palace you can still purchase a pass to the Generalife Gardens and Alcazaba Fortress, and it’s well worth the time and money.
1000 Brussels, Belgium
Every even-numbered year, for a week, in August, Brussels’ beautiful Grand Place is even more stunning. The ground is covered in 600,000 flowers, creating a unique pattern. Thousands of visitors flood the market square to capture the perfect photo of the Flower Carpet. Last year, I managed to have it almost entirely to myself, by getting up with the sun. Arrive at Grand Place before 7am and you too can have this peaceful experience. If you’re lucky, like me, you may even catch the golden sun shining on Brussels’ Town Hall. The next Flower Carpet is in 2014.
Calle Cardenal Herrero, 1, 14003 Córdoba, Spain
The landmark cathedral in Cordoba, Spain is the Mosque of Córdoba. You might be amazed by the bell tower, the stone path, and the orange trees. However, the moment you stepped into the prayer hall, it will take your breath away.
Estrada de Monserrate, 2710-405 Sintra, Portugal
While the tourist hordes in beautiful Sintra, Portugal, are flocking to Pena Palace, head instead to Monserrate. The gardens here are massive and have been recently restored. We wandered here for hours without hardly seeing another person. The palace itself, although not as large as Pena, is just as grand, if not more so. Every inch of the architecture is covered in delicate carving. The Moorish and Indian influences work together to create a cohesive and beautiful design.
Calle Judíos, Córdoba, Spain
If you are looking for truly unique and beautiful gifts from Andalusia, Spain, look no farther than the Zoco Artisan Market in Cordoba. This shop is filled with jewelry, hand painted tiles, shawls, pottery and other local crafts. There are workshops and studios on site so you may even have a chance to see some artists at work. Even if you’re not in the market to shop, the beautiful inner courtyard is worth a peek for its hanging flowers and burbling water-feature.
Praça do Império 1400-206 Lisboa, 1400-206 Lisboa, Portugal
Jerónimos Monastery, also known as the Hieronymites Monastery, or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Portuguese, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Lisbon. This stunning building took 100 years to build and it’s no wonder once you experience the level of detail for yourself. I could have spent an entire day there, with my camera, photographing the stunning architecture. The archways surrounding the inner courtyard look like something from a fairy tale.
In such a densely populated and developed little country, it seems impossible to escape civilization. But there is one beautiful corner of Belgium where you can be truly alone—the Hautes Fagnes Natural Reserve, in Belgium’s Eastern Cantons. The Hautes Fagnes (or Hohes Venn in Dutch) is Belgium’s largest nature reserve and part of the 700km2 Hohes Venn-Eifel park, which spans the Belgian-German border. The park includes 10,000-year-old alpine sphagnum bogs, waterfalls, and hundreds of kilometers of hiking trails. While some of the trails are paved and easily accessible, others see you clambering over tree roots, climbing slopes, and wading through streams. You can feel a million miles from the nearest human being, all within easy reach of civilization.
Athinas, Athina 105 51, Greece
Athens’ Central Market is a home to a tremendous number of vendors selling everything from fresh Aegean octopus, fish and meat of every variety, to spices, olives, and cheeses. The area is surrounded by little eateries, tavernas, and cafes taking advantage of the fresh produce and catering to the bustling crowds. Even if you’re not in the market for meat or fish products, it’s an interesting visit and a great way to experience a slice of local culture. Nose your way to Mokka on Athinas Street for freshly ground Greek coffee roast over hot sand; Karamanlidika tou Fani, a charming deli-cum-ouzeri, for spicy salami, pickled vegetables, and salt fish to accompany your ouzo; and Diporto, a basement tavern that’s been in business since 1887. There’s no sign, no menu, no tablecloths—but the simple food is good and the atmosphere wholly authentic, despite the fact that there are often more tourists than market traders eating lunch there these days.
Buizingen, 1501 Halle, Belgium
Hallerbos (Flemish) or Bois de Halle (French) is a beech forest just south of Brussels. It’s a popular spot for walking, cycling and horseback-riding. Every spring, for a few short weeks, the forest makes a magical transformation into a blue carpeted wonderland. Millions of tiny bluebell flowers bloom under the shade of the beech trees and people flock to the forest to catch a glimpse. Timing is everything, too soon and the bluebells aren’t out yet; too late and you’ve missed the show for another year. But that’s what makes seeing it so special.
Athens 105 57, Greece
In front of the Parliament House in Athens, the Evzones, an infantry unit of the Greek Army, guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The Evzones wear traditional Greek red and blue uniforms. The changing of the guards takes place every hour and their marching is truly unique. This is one tourist spot where you need to shoot video and not just photos.
Ul. od Sigurate 7, 20000, Dubrovnik, Croatia
A city of red-tiled rooftops, pine- and cypress-shaded hills, and sparkling turquoise waters, the Old Town of Dubrovnik stuns with both its architecture and scenery. Its surrounding stone walls, built between the 11th and 13th centuries to protect the city from war and epidemics, stretch for a full 1.3 miles, comprising an immense system of forts, bastions, and walkways that offer breathtaking views. Hike along them, then be sure to check out the Lovrijenac Fortress, built atop a 100-foot rock looking out toward Venice (Dubrovnik’s historic rival). The Old Town’s main street of Stradun, known locally as Placa, is also worth exploring. It’s especially nice in the late afternoon, when the sun shines off the historic buildings and swallows soar in the blue sky above.
This dramatic two-tier waterfall, whose name translates as “Golden Falls,” a reference to the shimmering mist that sometimes appears around the falls, is one of Iceland’s most famous—which is saying something in a country abundant with waterfalls. Saved from oblivion during the 1920s (foreign investors wanted to dam the falls to create hydropower), the waterfall lies in a canyon on the Hvítá river and is backed by scenic snowcapped peaks. It’s possible to follow the falls as they flow downstream through the canyon, either via a walking trail or on a rafting trip, though it’s worth noting that the paths are wet and can be slippery. The visitor center has a canteen that serves up surprisingly tasty local dishes like lamb soup; there are also a gift shop and a local exhibition centered around traditional life in the area.
Budapest, Andrássy út 22, 1061 Hungary
Budapest, Hungary is brimming with art, culture and a touch of decadence. Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Hungarian State Opera House on the luxurious Andrássy Way. If you don’t have the time or money to take in a concert in this opulent theatre, you can still get a dose of culture by taking one of the daily guided tours. Crane your neck to take in the ceiling murals and twinkling chandeliers while you sit in the plush velvet seats, sweep down the grand staircase of the main hall and play out your fantasies of living life at court, or just learn about the theatre, without all of the dramatic bits. Tours are offered in Hungarian, English, German, Spanish, Italian and French everyday, and Japanese several times a week. You can also stay for a mini concert in the theatre. After the tour, pop next door to the Callas Restaurant, where you can sip champagne on the terrace while admiring the Opera House’s stunning facade.
Rue du Château, 64000 Pau, France
If you’re looking for the prefect French vacation destination, the picturesque city of Pau, in Southwest France, may just have it all. Its location is perfect, almost equidistant from the stunning Pyrenees Mountains, for hiking and skiing, and the seaside, for enjoying the sun and surf. It is surrounded by rolling hills covered in vineyards, producing sweet white jurancon, and rich fruity red wines. The bustling city market is one of the nicest I’ve visited in France and the restaurant offerings are varied and of excellent caliber. Throw in a photogenic chateau, friendly locals and proximity to international airports and you have the perfect holiday spot. The only problem is, (like me) you may not want to leave.
29 Sankt Annæ Gade
You can see the black and gold spiral steeple of the Church of our Saviour, or Vor Frelsers Kirke, all over Copenhagen. It’s not until you are standing beneath it you realize that golden spiral is actually a staircase—on the outside. If you are among the brave, you can climb the stairs all the way to the top of the steeple, for a view over the lively Christianshavn neighbourhood of Copenhagen. If (like me) you are afraid of heights, you can admire the church from below and muster your courage... for next time.
1000 Brussels, Belgium
The Grand Place in Brussels is the magnificent main square in Brussels. The square is the main tourist attraction in Brussels and is surrounded by numerous cafes and shops. Most of the buildings were constructed in the late 17th century, although market activity in the square dates back to the 12th Century. It’s a great place to hang out, grab a coffee or a liege waffle, and people watch.
Rue Montagne de la Cour 2, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium
My favourite building in Brussels is the Old England on Mont des Arts, just around the corner from Place Royal. It’s a striking concoction of steel and glass in the Art Nouveau style Brussels is so famous for. But what’s on the inside is just as good as the beautiful exterior. Once a department store, the Old England building now houses the Musical Instrument Museum, or MIM. This fascinating collection of more than 8000 instruments is internationally renowned. Rather than just looking at the exhibits, you actually get to experience them. An audio-guide is included in the cost of admission, but this is no stuffy commentary. As you approach particular exhibits in the MIM, your guide begins to play the music of the instrument you are looking at. It’s a wonderfully interactive approach to learning. I have one more reason to love the Old England building and that is the cafe on the top floor. The food is good, but the selling point of this particular restaurant is the view – one of the best in the city centre. In nice weather, you can even dine on the roof terrace. You don’t have to visit the museum to enjoy the restaurant (although you should). Just tell the door attendant you want to go to the cafe and he’ll load you into the period glass and steel elevator and take you to the top floor.
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