Discover 20 European hidden gems for curious gay explorers



Ah, Europe; impressed with ancient civilisations, papal riches and weather the English beg for, you’re sure to have the continent high on your list of travel priorities. Packing 50 countries onto its turf, layered like Mille-feuille on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea – Europe and its biggest cities are firmly on the international radar, though much more lies beyond the beaten path. Have you seen Portugal’s dolphins or the secret nation of San Merino hidden in Italy? Have you gone east to taste Slavic cuisine and Ottoman influence? Make sure to catch on before the crowds with our list of the top 20 hidden gems in Europe.

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Azores | Photo: Tom Swinnen

1. Ilha das Flores, The Azores, Portugal

Sail the seas of Portugal’s coast to find Ilha das Flores, within the Azores archipelago, a destination labelled as the Hawaii of the mid-Atlantic. Flores comes set with all the natural attractions you could ever wish for, including mud pots, caverns and crater lakes lined with peaceful hiking trails and white-water rivers leading to a paradise coastline where whale- and dolphin-watching is always on the schedule. Base yourself in the old town of Angra do Heroismo on Terceira for a sweet taste of island life and guava jam, moving on horseback or bicycle to the vineyards of Pico for richer fruits yet. To relax, the waterfalls and natural pools of Santa Cruz or the beaches of Lajes das Flores and Faja Grande can help you do just that in style, while adventurers can up the pace with paragliding, diving and canyoning. Fly in direct from Ponta Delgada on San Miguel Island, first touring the island by boat to get the best views of the Santa Cruz das Flores Arch and the flower-covered islet of Maria Vaz.

The Azores, Portugal | Photo: Ferdinand Stohr

Photo: Alessio Cesario

2. Tbilisi, Georgia

One third of Georgia’s population has the lucky fortune to call Tbilisi home, a hipster city hype with a techno baseline contrasted by a pretty Old Town where relaxing and drinking wine is the call of the day. Settled in the valley of the Mtatsminda Mountains, Tbilisi comes cooler and less frenetic than Georgia’s other cities. Sure, the Old Town with its winding lanes and ancient architecture can get busy but, uncovering alternative routes will soon lead you to leafy neighbourhoods redolent in village vibes. Stay at a lodging with a balcony overlooking the action, viewing mountains, lively squares and the 1,700-year-old Narikala Fortress foregrounding it all.

A Soviet nation for many years, Georgia still works to shrug off its austere past by investing heavily in its tourism industry. Visitors can benefit from the capital’s warm hospitality, finding cheap and excellent restaurants and the most underrated wine scene in the whole of Europe! What’s more is that Tbilisi lies just an hour from some amazing mountain destinations, including ski resorts and hiking trails to rival the Alps. Brittle in winter and scorching in summer, Georgia is best visited in the shoulder seasons of April to May or October to December when the weather is mild enough for both city slicking and mountain trekking.

Tbilisi, Georgia | Photo: Rudolf Kirchner

3. Bohinj, Slovenia

Home of Lake Bohinj and countless other natural attractions, Slovenia really should be on everyone’s radar. Tucked away within the Julian Alps, Bohinj comes protected under the UNESCO biosphere reserve of Triglav National Park, one of Europe’s most beautiful parks hosting 1,600 species of plant and 7,000 species of animal. Awarded the EDEN prize for best sustainable tourism in Europe, Bohinj is a winner for ecotourism in view of pine-packed mountains, farming pastures and the centrepiece of Lake Bohinj. Stay in any of the smaller hamlets surrounding the lake, including Ukanc, Stara Fužina, Studor and Srednja Vas, or try the big boy of Bohinjska Bistrica, 6 kilometres east. As well as becoming a skiing paradise in winter, when the snow melts, Bohinj becomes the go-to destination for hiking, cycling and horse-riding, with various wellness resorts ready to ease your tired muscles. For more action meanwhile, stroll on down to the lake where kayaking and water sports take over the crystal waters.

Bohinj, Slovenia | Photo: Zan Janzekovic

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Sheltered within the Bay of Naples, Procida Island lies as one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, enjoying far fewer crowds than its mainland counterpart

4. Procida Island, Italy

Sheltered within the Bay of Naples, Procida Island lies as one of Italy’s best-kept secrets, enjoying far fewer crowds than its mainland counterpart. Nor is Procida the island you might expect, named as the country’s Capital of Culture 2022 thanks to its inviting local community of 10,000 residents all eager to share their island’s rich history dating back to 1400 BC. As well as producing some of the most famed Roman poets – Hello Virgil – Procida Island remains an artists’ enclave, inspiring the likes of contemporary author Elsa Morante and director Anthony Minghella who both set their stories here. Start your own narrative in the hotels near Marina Grande, Marina Corricella or Marina di Chiaiolella, strolling along traditional harbourside to meet pastel houses heavy with bougainvillaea before venturing to the island’s preferred beach, Lido de Procida.

Procida Island, Italy | Photo: Sasuke_ASC

Procida Island | Photo: Falco

5. Hallerbos, Belgium

A forest with many names in Halle just 20 kilometres outside of Brussels, Hallerbos, (aka ‘The Blue Forest’) is a yearly wonder. Every spring, in something akin to Japan’s cherry blossom phenomenon, the floor of Hallerbos Forest becomes entirely carpeted in bluebells. The magic happens between mid-April and early May in the Reebokwandeling area, under the canopy of huge sequoia trees and young beech leaves. As the site grows in popularity there’s even more importance in respecting the land here, sticking to the set trails even if it means foregoing an optimum photo opportunity.

6. Murcia, Spain

With Holy Grail beaches, juicy tapas and lemons the size of your head, Spain needs no justification for sun-seeking travellers. And in order to get off the beaten path in Europe, we rest on Spain’s Murcia region, known moreover for its vineyards and historic cities. While the student city of Murcia will have you rapt with its centrepiece cathedral complex and religious heritage (made all the more fun with an atmospheric bar scene), the port city of Cartagena, along the 250-kilometre Costa Calida, is an alternative spot to get your fill of Murcian culture. A naval base dating back 3,000 years, Cartagena lies in sight of some of Spain’s most ruggedly beautiful geography, coves and beaches, with prized excavations and museums charting the Roman occupation in town. Though day trips from the coast can bring you in reach of wild mountains, rural fruit farms and all of the wine, to find the calmest waters, make sure to visit the land strip of La Manga de Mar Menor, a natural beach barrier fronting a seawater lagoon cut off from the choppy Mediterranean Sea.

Murcia | Photo: Victor Garcia

Murcia, Spain | Photo: Eduardo Madrid

7. Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Laid on hills once full of silver, the medieval city of Kutná Hore in the Czech Republic is next in our rundown of Europe hidden gems. If you like Gothic grandeur, Kutná Hora is the place for you, reachable within a day trip from Prague to find the former site of King Wenceslas II’s royal mint, established in 1308. Though the mines have long since dried up, there remains much in the way of grand architecture and historic intrigue, all within the UNESCO World Heritage town centre, where Pilsner comes tearjerkingly cheap. Walk the town’s cobblestone streets to find talking points such as the Cathedral of Our Lady of Sedlec, the spooky Church of Bones (Sedlecká Kostnice), as well as the impressive 12th century Krumlov Castle, venturing into the fairy-tale woodland by bike once done with provincial town life.

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic | Photo: Ekaterina Vysotina

8. Kalamata, Greece

Put on the map for its moreish olives, Kalamata remains relatively underappreciated as an international destination. Locals aren’t so foolish however and Kalamata has long been a region for domestic tourism without the hiked prices or crowds of resort islands such as Santorini and Mykonos. Instead, what you get from Kalamata is a chilled, unpretentious vibe best enjoyed to the max on a road trip around the Peloponnese peninsula. Stop off at Avia or Voidokilia bay to find the perfect pebbled beach spot, moving back into the cobbled old town to savour regional flavours and artisanal produce (including the famed olives, honey, lalagia and apples). Full to bursting with historic finds, the region also boasts the Theban ruins of Messini, complete with a huge amphitheatre, agora and standing columns, based on the hillside below the village of Mavromati. If the sun burns too hot however, the Archaeological Museum nearby can also help you step back 2,300 years into a time of Theban rule and Spartan conflict.

Kalamata, Greece | Photo: Stelios Kontoulis

Photo: James Barr

9. Sirmione, Lombardia, Italy

A sinuous stretch of land jutting out into the Lago di Gardo, Sirmione is the lakeside destination you’ve been waiting for. Offering all the beauty of Italy’s most sought-after lakes with none of the pretensions at a fraction of the price, Sirmione lays low in the Lombardy region, just 90 minutes’ drive from Milan or 30 minutes from Verona Airport. Sirmione already has its admirers, as such prettiness undoubtedly deserves, and though some may say it’s all too popular in the summer months, outside of peak season you’re in for a treat. The town itself has a history among poets and nobles, luring the likes of poet Catullus and opera star Maria Callas to its shores for tranquil retreats filled with strolling, eating and pampering. By morning, see the sights of the 13th century Scaligero Castle and the Roman ruins of Villa Romana, re-enacting the dig scene from Armie Hammer’s Call me By Your Name, before resting up at Terme di Sirmione, one of two Roman baths in the area.

10. Bosnia and Herzegovina

Hosting history of a different empire is Bosnia and Herzegovina, a nation blending Ottoman-era architecture with Austro-Hungarian sensibilities and Slavic quirks, all among some of Eastern Europe’s most beautiful wilderness. What’s more, is that all this come at amazing value and with fewer crowds than in those nations across the Adriatic. Still recovering from the civil war of the 1990s, Bosnia and Herzegovina may have its scars but when faced with smiling locals this fact is somewhat easy to overlook. Opt to stay in the cultural capital of Sarajevo, the adventure town of Konjic or the rare mountain village of Lukimor, in reach of several peaks to hike up or ski down depending on the season. Mostar is another historic centre to consider, with quirky side streets laden in Turkish heritage. Come for the cafés, bars and barbeque but stay for the arts scene before heading off to trek to Kravica Waterfalls or visit the lake-centred monastery at Rama.

Bosnia and Herzegovina | Photo: PixelRaw

11. Rijeka, Croatia 

Another of the hidden gems of Europe lies now in Rijeka, Croatia, a port city en route to outlying islands just off the Kvarner Coast and Dalmatia. Rather than speed through, however, stick around to discover Rijeka and its unique Austro-Hungarian stylings with a diverse population centred on the seafront. Arts is one of the city’s strong points, with locals regularly making way for colourful parades and festivals which transform the historic streets. Of these events, Rijeka Carnival is one of the most vibrant, bringing live music and heightened nightlife across town. Having undergone a total facelift in recent years to become the European Capital of Culture 2020, Rijeka is no longer the concrete lump it once was. Travel down Korzo pedestrian street to see its trendiest side, taking in the restored 19th-century architecture and crumbling fortifications before boarding the old Hungarian railroads to easily access the beaches of Opatija and beyond.

Rijeka, Croatia | Photo: Paulina

12. Durham, England

A small slice of middle England replete with a majestic cathedral, castle and cobbled streets, Durham is easily one of the UK’s most underrated cities, beautiful enough for us to honorarily restore its European status! Though overshadowed by Oxford, Durham offers an equal number of quintessentially English affairs, with great transport links connecting all the best pubs and old-school tuck shops dotted about. The city also does well to cater to its student population with river water sports and wild nightlife, but for something a little more muted, spend the morning charting the history of England at the Beamish Museum or venture out into the hilly countryside for hiking and roaming Raby Castle, taking a cosy cream tea along the heritage coast even on the most blustery days. Or, try something a little closer to the capital with our 5 best day trips from London by train.

Photo: Andrea Piacquadio

Durham | Photo: Emphyrio

13. Erfurt and Thuringia, Germany

Lying in the less-explored east side of Germany, Thuringia is a significant region naming Erfurt as its enchanting capital. Not only is Erfurt beautifully preserved in much medieval glory, with grand churches, cobbled squares and the notable Wartburg Fortress, but it is also the site of much historical and cultural clout, being the birthplace of the Weimar Republic and an influence for many German composers and authors. Among the names associated with Erfurt, there’s Bach, Goethe, Luther, Schiller and Wagner, with nearby Jena complimenting the culture scene with many scientific and technological institutes. Stay in the centre of Mühlhausen on the Gera River, basking in the charming atmosphere while making the rounds as the best beer, bratwurst and ice-cream joints. Named as a World Heritage Site, the city can easily keep you immersed in history, but, to take a break, move out to the Kyffhäuser Mountains and the Thuringian Forest for an unforgettable day in German wilderness.

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The epitome of ‘hidden gems in Europe’, San Marino is a curious enigma, having side-stepped Italian rule to become the world’s oldest sovereign state and oldest republic, established in 301AD

14. San Marino

A tiny landlocked gem less than two hours’ drive southeast of Bologna, San Marino is the epitome of ‘hidden gems in Europe’ that many don’t even know exists! San Marino is a curious nation, having side-stepped Italian rule to become the world’s oldest sovereign state and oldest republic, established in 301AD. Rich as well as fascinating, the nation enjoys the world’s highest GDP per capita with the population split across just 61 kilometres, including Dogana, the largest town, and the more popular, UNESCO-listed capital, Città di San Merino. Based upon Mount Titano, San Merino City offers up its best Adriatic Coast views atop its fortress towers, Cesta Tower in particular, which also hosts a collection of old weapons. Back on the ground, San Marino wows with its hilly, staircase-ridden streets, best tackled in the early morning or outside of peak summer. Stay longer than just a day to witness the best sunsets and sunrises in the whole of Italy, not forgetting to add the regional Italian food capital of Emilia Romagna to your itinerary before heading onto Florence.

San Marino | Photo: Lorenzo Castagnone

15. Lake Komani, Albania

One for knowing nature lovers vacationing in Albania is Lake Komani. Reminding some visitors of Norway’s fjord lakes, Lake Komani lies in a valley of the Accursed Mountains and hosts some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes. It’s not just aesthetics however because the area can also keep you busy with its range of water sports, caving and trekking opportunities within the vast Valbona National Park or on neighbouring Lake Skadar. Though some prefer to base themselves in the lively city of Shkoder, with easier access to bars and restaurants, others may try the more off-grid approach, renting an eco guesthouse at the centre of the lake, which comes without electricity but with a good supply of local cheese, honey and liquor.

Lake Komani, Albania | Photo: Yves Alarie

16. The Hague, Netherlands

The political heart of the Neverlands, The Hague is less stuffy than that fact implies, as a big, cosmopolitan city on the North Sea coast with an array of sunny sights to see and experimental culture to get involved in. Travel around with ease on the city tram, first heading to heritage builds such as the stately Noordeinde Palace and arts institutions including Nederlands Dans Theater. More culture is easily had now that the Spuiplein precinct is nearing completion, an area with an exciting culinary scene close to the new party hotspot of Grote Market and the Paard, a popular live music venue. The sandy coastline and its cool beach bars are also never far away, allowing for a break after a heavy museum session at Humanity House and Mauritshaus.

The Hague, Netherlands | Photo: Cor Gaasbeek

17. Bansko & Pirin National Park, Bulgaria

Next in unique Europe is a Bulgarian offering, namely Bansko ski resort and Pirin National Park. Listed by UNESCO, the entire national park spans 400 square kilometres of pine forest, mountain peaks and a total of 176 lakes in the southern region around two hours’ drive from capital Sofia. Named after the Slavic thunder god Perun, Pirin National Park is certainly epic, with 100 peaks reaching upwards of 2,000 metres tall. Of course, hiking, wildlife watching and lake hunting are top draws in spring and summer, but, come winter, skiing reigns as the go-to activity. In particular, it’s Bansko that receives the bulk of visitors, offering pistes of up to 2,600 metres and a playful après-ski culture, made more interesting with a mix of locals, Russians and Brits. Though in peak season Bansko runs the risk of crowds, travel at any other time to enjoy the cobblestone old town is peace, taking in the 19th-century mansions and fortified stone-and-timber residences, once serving as protection from the Turks.

18. Cefalu, Sicily, Italy

Another medieval port town in the Italian region of Sicily, Cefalu is authenticity personified, combining tradition fishing lifestyles with Europe’s most prized Arab-Norman architecture. As well as picture-perfect plazas and its mosaic-covered cathedral, Cefalu comes surrounded by both mountains and beachfront, allowing for diverse getaways all in one place. Walk easily from the cobbled old centre to the lively fishing hub, taking in the smells of fresh catch and salty Mediterranean air to awaken your tastebuds. Once hungry, sample any of the cafés or restaurants lining the piazzas, venturing to Tempio de Diana for a post-lunch panorama to remember. Other attractions in the area include La Rocca mountain for its coastal vistas, as well as the main beach, most tranquil in the shoulder seasons.

Cefalu, Italy | Photo: Jacek Dylag

19. Foix, Ariege, France

Appealing to the Francophiles is our penultimate offering of Foix in the Ariège Valley of France. One of the lesser-visited towns at the foot of the Pyrenees, Foix comes hidden among lush mountains that make for epic hiking trails among fortified castles and medieval ruins. Base yourself in the historic centre for closeness to Chateau de Foix, a regal hilltop residence turned museum built in the 10th century and recently renovated to its former glory. Learn all about pre-historic, Gallo-Roman and medieval archaeology in the region, revelling in tales of counts, knights and fair maidens as well as important battles over the border. If you like to soak up culture through your stomach, Foix comes fully prepared to fill you with puffs and buns at its patisseries and boulangeries, many of which operate near the old market square, along alleyways that lead off towards second-hand markets and fancy boutiques.

20. The Ore Mountains, Saxony, Germany

Known for its quirky mix of German precision and Slavic colours, Saxony stands as a significant place in Central European history, as the centre of the Reformation, Napoleonic Wars and the velvet revolutions of the 1980s. Saxony is also naturally stunning, where the mountains come cut through by the Elbe River and feature several baroque settlements. The dominant peaks spanning the region on the German-Czech border are the Ore Mountains, home to the skiing, snowboarding and bob-sledding paradise of Fichtelberg as well as vast forests for hiking and biking in warmer months. The mountain town of Seiffen is also a consideration for its wood carving craftsmanship, while Annaberg-Buchholz dazzles with one of the nation’s best Christmas markets as well as various festivals throughout the year, including the Grand Mountain Parade, Fashion Night and the Annaberg KÄT fair.

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Procida Island, Italy | Photo: DonJamon63

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