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You might notice a change in the title of our destination series. While for the past two years we’ve been featuring a Destination of the Week with information on using miles to get there and points to stay at various hotels, we’re branching out and trying something new we’re calling Destination Edition. Posts in our new series will cover everything from planning quick getaways to strategies for extended trips, the top sights and attractions in various cities, our favorite eats, and more. We’re excited to be changing things up and exploring new places in a new way, and we hope you are too. So without further ado, here’s the first post in our new Destination Edition series!
Inspired by the idea of traveling some not-so-well known destinations thanks to a recent trip to Fernando do Noronha in Brazil, TPG asked Madrid-based European correspondent Lori Zaino for some of her recommendations for some lesser known, emerging European travel spots.
One of the best things about living in Europe is having access to so many great places, most of which are only a 2-3 hour flight away from Madrid, where I am based. In the six years I’ve been living aboard, I have been lucky enough to visit some of the most well known European destinations, and also some that aren’t quite as popular. I watched Dubrovnik and Porto emerge as a hot new destination spots a few years ago, and here are my picks for some emerging vacation spots in 2014.
Chania, Crete, Greece
When you think of the Greek Islands, Mykonos comes to mind for its endless summer parties or Santorini for its picturesque sunsets and romantic hilltops. Crete is a gorgeous Greek island that is completely overlooked in my opinion, and also has plenty of idyllic beaches, sunsets and partying if that’s what you are looking for. The island is the largest of all the Greek islands and is separated into four regions, Heraklion, Rethymno, Chania and Lasithi.
Arrival: There are actually two airports on the island, one is Heraklion and the other in Chania. Several low cost airlines such as Easy Jet, Germanwings, Volotea, Vueling and Wizz Air operate summer seasonal flights to Heraklion. Aegean, Condor, Alitalia and Air Berlin also fly there from select European spots. Seasonal flights begin on April 1, 2014 on Ryanair to Chania from Bergamo, Billund, Bologna, Bournemouth,Bremen, Bristol, Charleroi, Dublin, East Midlands, Eindhoven, Glasgow-Prestwick, Hahn, Katowice, Leeds/Bradford, London-Stansted, Marseille, Memmingen, Moss/Rygge, Pisa, Rome-Ciampino, Stockholm-Skavsta, Treviso, Vilnius, Warsaw-Modlin, Weeze, Wrocław. Aegean, Finnair, Easyjet and more also fly to Chania airport. From the US, connect on Aegean from Athens, or first stop in one of many European cities and get a low cost flight over to either airport.
Accommodation: I recommend staying in Almyrida in the Chania region, where I stayed in a no frills apartment called Ansi Apartments. Just 100 steps away from the beach, Georgio and his wife welcomed us into their apartment building with traditional Greek Pasteries and a bottle of wine. The sunset views from our balcony were breathtaking and the apartment was clean and basic. I was intrigued at the fact you could rent two beach chairs and an umbrella, that also come with a large bottle of water, for just 5 euros (less than $7) on the unspoiled, uncrowded beach. This is definitely not Miami at $20 a chair!
I suggest ordering fresh seafood at Lagos Taverna and make sure to enjoy your free shot of ouzo afterwards. For 20 days, I didn’t see a single other American tourist, though I have a feeling that may change now that I have spilled the beans!
Chania is my favorite of all the regions, for having some of the most beautiful beaches and small clifftop towns, and for having a mixture of authentic local flavor and tourism. Chania is actually a small city within the region (25 minute drive from Almyrida), and its winding streets and ivy trellised colored apartment buildings is reminscent of Trastevere in Rome or Verona, Italy. Located right on the water, the city boosts a Venetian lighthouse, historical old town, and countless terraces and outdoor hot spots where you can watch the sunset, dine, and drink the night away. The small and winding streets lined with shops and bed and breakfasts are romantic and charming (a few of my personal favorites are the Fatma Boutique Hotel, the Evgenia, and the Palazzo Duca). A short drive from Chania in either direction, you can find any style of beach your heart desires, small and untouched, busy and bustling, rocky areas perfect for diving and more. Great spots are Elafonnisi, Kissamos beach to watch the sunset or tiny seaside village Loutro.
Tips and Tricks: Car rental is pretty crucial if you want to explore Crete, especially if you want to visit other regions or big tourist attractions like Knosses Palace or hike the Samaria Gorge. Beware, as few speak English here, make sure to zone in a couple key Greek phrases during your travel. There is also total disorder at the Heraklion airport, so I highly recommend getting to the airport 3 hours in advance during high tourist season. We arrive a little over two hours and had to run to catch our flight, security is a total mess.
Vilnius is a surprisingly charming city that is becoming more up-and-coming by the minute. Its picturesque old town is a UNESCO Heritage Site with tons of Jewish cultural sites to explore, and was also selected as the European Capital of Culture in 2009.
Arrival: The Vilnius Aiport is located just a few miles outside the city center. It is mainly serviced by low cost airlines such as Wizzair and Ryanair and also has flights from LOT, Aeroflot, Brussels Airlines, Lufthansa and Finnair. The cheapest and easiest way to arrival from the US is to fly direct to Frankfurt and continue on to Vilnius, or you have the option of going to Warsaw or Brussels nonstop and then routing to Vilnius. Another option is to fly on SAS and connect through Stockholm from Newark. From many other cities like London and Barcelona you can fly low cost nonstop.
Accommodation: The Stikliai hotel is a wonderful local and authentic hotel. It was once a glass-making factory – the name Stikliai means glass makers in Lithuanian. The owners, Anya and Alexandr are always on site and very welcoming and the hotel is a very charming experience. The onsite restaurant has one Michelin star and the Stikliai Tavern has incredible draniki or “potato pancakes”.
Throughout the old city center, there are several beautiful churches, plus a cathedral and the castle to visit. Wandering around is a lot of fun, as there are so many little shops and cafes and of course, lots of beautiful and historic architecture to stare at. The rather creepy Gruto garden is an outdoor exhibit consisting of 86 statues by 46 different sculptors, is organized into spheres. Each of the statues features a Soviet or socialist activist, many of them ethnic Lithuanians. The exhibit is haunting and intriguing, giving visitors a look into Soviet culture.
If you are a beer lover, Vilnius is one of the best cities to be in! This is little known, but Vilnius is known for its locally brewed beers within the Baltic region. Bambalyne is a great cellar beer bar and shop where you can get many different varieties of local beer. Vilinus has everything it takes to be a popular European travel destination…time will tell!
Tips and Tricks: Beware of taxi drivers overcharging, this commonly occurs here. A bike tour is also a great way to get to know the city, so rent one yourself or sign up for a tour.
Alghero, Sardinia, Italy
Sardinia is usually overlooked in favor of its well known sister island, Sicily, which gets most of the attention. However, this Mediterranean gem is well worth a visit.The walled city of Alghero is located on the northwest cost of Italy and it’s a charming, sleepy medieval beach town.
Alghero is unique because it was actually once an outpost of the Catalan kingdom, therefore the Alghero dialect is a mix of Sardinian Italian with Catalan and Spanish mixed in. Alghero is and has been a hot destination for Italians living on the mainland, especially from Rome, as it’s quite close.
Arrival: Alitalia flies there from Rome and Milan, and Ryanair from several destinations around Europe. When I was searching for flights from Madrid, I found Ryanair for 100 euros roundtrip nonstop approximately 2 hours, or Alitalia for 400 euros, with a layover in Rome, entire trip approximately 6 hours. Obviously, I chose the Ryanair! The city is abuzz with excitement as Ryanair has been expanding, connecting Alghero nonstop with more and more several cities in Europe, therefore increasing tourism. However, if you are flying from the USA, you could fly on Alitalia to Rome or Milan and connect over to Alghero. Wizzair also flies to Alghero from Romania.The Alghero airport is only a 20 minute bus or taxi ride to the historical city center.
Accommodation: I found a perfect apartment on my favorite apartment search website, which I have been using for the past six years before Airbnb even existed called Owners Direct. I love this site because it doesn’t charge any extra fees to rent. The fees are actually paid by those advertising their properties, which I prefer. Not only is it fee-free for me, but I think the renters are more serious as they have to pay to advertise their property. Luigi’s studio, in the “centro storico” number IT1432 was perfect, though the medieval walls were so thick I had trouble getting a phone and WiFi signal inside, actually a common problem in most areas of ancient city.
Recently, it’s seen a growth in tourism from visitors around Europe and Russia, and even for Americans. The old city is hilly with cobblestone lined streets overlooking a large port-boating and fishing is a huge industry for Alghero. As you can see in the above photo, there is a lot of dried algae on the beaches, hence the name “Alghero”. I spent 6 weeks roaming this town last summer, taking Italian classes at Pintadera (which I highly recommend if you would like to learn Italian) and exploring the Algherese community, trying to interact as much as possible with locals. Not to be missed is the trendy “Le Bombarde” beach. Filled with scantily clad young 20-40 somethings, this stunning beach is well known among locals for those wanting to suntan, meet with friends and try their luck at windsurfing.
Another hotspot is Stintino, about an hour drive from Alghero, which is one of the top beaches in all of Italy. Try some pizza at Bella Napoli in the Piazza Civica, or for even more authentic Italian fare, make sure to visit an agriturismo. “Agriculture tourism” or Agriturismo consists of small farms located inland that offer a fixed menu dinner, usually from about 20-40 euros, and most of the food they serve is locally grown on the farm. Some also offer accommodation as well.
Tips and Tricks: Most of the time I spent there, I used a bike to get around to and from the city beach, and for a longer ride out to Le Bombarde beach. I rented a scooter for a few days to explore the caves of Neptunes Grotto and Capo Caccia, and a car to visit Stintino, but a car rental is not absolutely necessary. Really, depending on your cup of tea (eg relaxing beach vacation, medieval city, yachting adventure) all of Sardinia is up-and-coming, so make sure to add it to your list of places to see.
Everyone is saying how Krakow is the new Prague. Cheap and relatively unknown, Krakow has that cool Eastern European vibe that Prague had many years ago and Budapest is still grasping for. Why the comparison? Prague is heavily touristy and slowly becoming more expensive, and Krakow is still rather untouched, in spite of its medieval roots. The delicious restaurants here are cheap, there are tons of museums and historical sights, and the city is considered Poland’s art, theater and culture capital.
As the second largest city in Poland, Krakow dates back to the 7th century and is rich in history, especially Jewish history. The historic city center is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Arrival: Getting there is easy-John Paul II International Airport Kraków-Balice is located approximately 15 Km from the city of Krakow. From the US, you can fly nonstop to Warsaw and connect on to Krakow, and from other European cities, you can fly via Ryanair, Easy Jet, Alitalia, Air Berlin, Lufthansa, Vueling and more. Ryanair flies direct from Madrid, so it was a no-brainer for me.
Accommodation: There are a variety of different hotel choices here, from budget hostels for backpackers to uber luxury digs, but as it’s a big city, if you have Starwood points, you can stay at the Sheraton Krakow for just under 10,000 Starpoints per night. If you are looking for something more boutique with a local feel, try the Hotel Stary.
Of course you have to begin with the Market Square and wander around Krakow’s city center and then the old Jewish quarter called Kazimierz. For a more local feel, I rented a bike and rode around the Planty Park, which a two and half mile stretch of greenery that was once the wall around the city. The wall was torn down in the 19th century and replaced by a small moat, grass, and trees and hooks around the Old Town. There are museums and monuments all throughout the city but I most enjoyed simply wandering the streets and getting lost in the historical center, and the castle is a beautiful spot as well For a cup of coffee and traditional polish pastry, try Vanilla, and for a hearty Polish meal at a great price in a trendy atmosphere, try Bombonierka in the Jewish quarter.
Some day trips include visiting the Wieliczka salt mine or the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum. With both options you can go on your own by bus or train, or get a guided tour.
Tip and Tricks: Make sure to validate your train or bus tickets. You will get a fine if they catch you! Also be aware that the tap water is not always drinkable, so make sure to confirm with your hotel whether or not it is safe, or just stick with bottled water during the trip if you are concerned.
The tranquil sister island located next to Ibiza, this place has always been calm and underdeveloped compared to the other three Balearic Islands in Spain: Mallorca, Menorca and Ibzia. Perhaps it’s because you can only arrive by boat, as there is no airport on the island. Formentera was virtually unknown until the 1970’s and now it’s a haven for Spanish vacationers who want some serious relaxation. It’s a huge leap from the German tourism of Mallorca or crazy partying in Ibiza, and is slowly growing each year.
An increase in boats from the mainland recently (from Denia) has also helped to increase tourism, and people are starting to rave about this beautiful beach destination.
Arrival: From the US, your best bet is to fly into Barcelona and then either fly or boat over to Ibiza. It can easily be combined with a trip to Barcelona or a visit to the other Balnearic islands. A speedboat or ferry over to Formentera from Ibiza is only 30 minutes, short enough for a day trip if you don’t fancy staying overnight or would rather be partying in Ibiza.
There isn’t much to do here but beach. The island itself is only about 12 miles long. Rent a bike and spend your days here relaxing. Playa Illetes is the most popular beach here, and has been compared to the Caribbean, as it has white sand and soft blue water. For watersports, try Playa Es Pujols, which is also the biggest resort area of the island. Find fresh and delicious seafood at Es Moli de Sal. I find that this town is extremely “Spanish” in the sense the locals and tourists alike really just love to relax and enjoy. It has a much more authentic feel than any of the other Balearic islands.
Tips and Tricks: Remember that just as many smaller towns do in Spain, most shops are closed during “siesta” time, usually around 1 or 2 pm to 4 or 5 pm. If you desperately need to get the post office/pharmacy/grocery store, keep that in mind. Many places are also closed on Sundays.
Most skiers have never even heard of this small ski town just an hour and a half south of Zurich, hidden deep in a valley of about 3,500 inhabitants. The great thing about Engelberg is that it’s pretty much guaranteed snow cover, and for some reason it’s fairly unknown and therefore continues to be well priced. Engelberg also has the first revolving gondola—the 1993 Rotair—that takes adventurous skiers all the way to the top of Titlis, which is a 3,020-meter (10,000 feet) peak. The mountain top even offers a bar (you may need something to calm those nerves before you tackle this!)
Arrival: Getting here is much easier than a lot of other ski destinations, as it’s located a short drive from Zurich, and most other ski resorts are located much further away along the border of France or Austria (again, befuddling why no one seems to have discovered this place yet!). You can fly to Zurich from several US destinations and then take a bus, train or rent a car to get you 50 miles to Engelberg.
I think I have discovered the problem – that the town is really not built for skiing. A two-minute shuttle bus ride or fifteen minute hike on foot to the main lift station seems less than convenient. However, when you consider the 10,000-foot glacier that lies ahead, it seems more valid. Beware…major growth is coming soon. There is a plan to form a lift link with the Meiringen ski region to the west would put Engelberg up there with the big guns, making a large international impact. So head here soon before it Engelberg gets too cool and too expensive.
Accommodation: Stay at the Ski Lodge Engelberg. This resort was opened up by two Swedish ski bums who loved the charm of the tiny village. This cozy lodge features a restaurant and they even offer transfer services to the Basel or Zurich airports.
The village operates the lift all year round, so this can also be a great destination for hiking and other warm weather activities. Also worth a visit is the Engelberg Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1120. The Alpenclub is also a nice hotel and even better a delicious restaurant. Same goes for the restaurant and hotel Spannort.
The town is slowly growing and isn’t the same nightlife scene you might find in one of the bigger, more well known ski resorts, but it has its own charm…and judging by their plans, it may not stay small much longer!
Ljubljana pronounced Lublanschna (if you practice about 20 times, you might get it) is the capital of Slovenia. Slovenia is a small country sandwiched between Italy, Croatia, Hungary and Austria. The country was a part of Communist Yugoslavia until 1991, and entered the European Union in 2004. This city has also been compared to Prague for it’s immense cultural offerings, cool bar scene and quirky details (like the shoes hanging from telephone wires all over the city – apparently students toss them up when school lets out!). The architect who build Prague’s famous castle, Jože Plečnik , is actually from Ljubljana and is a responsible for creating much of the old city’s unique architecture, including the Triple Bridge. However, in contrast to crowded Prague, for some reason this city has remained relatively un-touristy, and rather authentic, perhaps overshadowed by it’s glamorous neighbors like Croatia, Italy and Austria. Slovenia also remains the cheapest country that holds a range of the Alps.
Arrival: Jože Pučnik Airport, also known as Brnik Airport (LJU) is located 17 miles north of Ljubljana. Unfortunately you cannot fly direct from the US. However, Adria Air is a member of Star Alliance so you can get to several other cities like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London or Paris on a partner airline and then continue on via Adria Air to Ljubljana. You can also get there nonstop from several cities in Europe on Easy Jet and Wizz Air.
Accommodation: If you want some local flavor, stay at the Vander Urbani Resort, a local boutique hotel located smack in the pedestrian center of Ljubljana. The hotel is sleek and urban, while still holding onto some of that Eastern European charm. This hotel is also a Visa Signature, so if you’d like those extra benefits, book through them.
The first thing you should do upon arrival in Ljubljana is take a free walking tour. This is a great and cheap way to get to the know the city from a local viewpoint. Usually these tours are led by students with a bright outlook and positive attitude, and I have always have a great time doing these types of tours. Plus, they are free! Tip as you wish.
The city center is small and you can get around by foot or renting a bike. The city’s bike rental program offers special rentals for just 1 euro ($1.38) for an entire week, but you can only use for 60 minutes at a time or you will be charged more. You can book and pre-pay this on your credit card here.
Another cool resource is the Ljubljana card. If purchased online for either 24, 48 or 72 hours it costs just 20-30 euros ($27-$42), and you have access to all the museums and tourist attractions in the city at no charge, get free WiFi around the city, free bus rides, a free boat tour along the Ljubljanica River and more.
The city features some beautiful squares, a unique castle, and even Roman ruins. Art Nouveau was big here in the 19th and 20th centuries so there are many beautiful, colorful buildings to see. Pass through the Tivioli park or visit a variety of different museums with history about Slovenia or art. There is also an opera house to check out where you can still see opera in the evenings. The city has a lot of quirky, cool things like small antique shops, vintage boutiques, used book stores and more. Even the bar scene is a little different. For example, Pr’Skelet Bar is a dungeon bar with decorated with skeletons where you can get one of a kind cocktails. For eats, try the intimate bistro Marley & Me, or if you prefer dining with a view, visit the restaurant Strelec on top of the castle with top chef Igor Jagodic. Spajza restaurant has a beautiful outdoor courtyard.
Do you know any great destinations that are a little off the beaten path or haven’t been “discovered” yet? Have you already visited any of the aforementioned destinations? If so, share in the comments section below!