9 quirky destinations in Europe you have to see to believe
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Editor’s note: The team at The Points Guy loves to travel, but now is not the time for unnecessary trips. Health officials note that the fastest way to return to normalcy is to stop coming in contact with others. That includes ceasing travel. We are publishing travel deals and destination content because we should all use this time to think about and plan our next adventures. TPG doesn’t advise booking trips for travel until the late spring or early summer — and even then be mindful of cancellation policies.
The beauty of Europe is that once you’re in the area so many other countries are on your doorstep. Think of how many countries are a two-hour flight or train journey away from one another. With such short travel times and all sorts of options to maximize your points, you can even fly to a new country and back in just a few days.
To many people outside Europe, it is the ultimate travel experience due to the history, romance and variety of cultures on offer. Although we can’t travel at the moment, there are some interesting places to visit — including some not on the typical tourist route and all geared to give you some inspiration when booking your next trip away.
Traveling is all about creating lifelong memories, so here are nine spots in Europe that are inspiring, thought-provoking, beautiful or even just plain weird.
1. Palace of Versailles, France
Immortalized by the smash-hit BBC drama Versailles, goosebumps begin as you approach the estate that spans over 1,977 acres. This is a bucket-list destination even for the French, as it’s awe-inspiring, educational and above all, heavily gilded. This mind-blowing historic marvel is one of France’s most opulent jewels and is crucial to understanding the country’s history as it was home to the legendary Louis XIV and his rather louche court.
The palace is open all year round and includes bedrooms, state apartments, the amazing Hall of Mirrors and 2,000 other rooms. Outside, there are parks, gardens, water fountains, stables and loads more, so no wonder it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s best to buy tickets online in advance, which vary in price according to how much you want to see, with line-jump tickets also available.
To experience the palace and the grounds properly, plan at least a full day and use its tour guide service. From 2021, you can extend your stay overnight at the 14-bedroom uber-luxury Le Grand Contrôle, one of the most anticipated hotel openings in the world.
How to get there
2. The cave city of Matera, Italy
A lot of us have visited Venice and Rome, but have you considered heading south to Matera, Europe’s Culture Capital of 2019? Explore the cave-city of Matera, famous for its sassi (stone houses carved out of the caves and cliffs) and incredible views of more than 3,000 stone caves built into the town (deemed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO). Haunting and beautiful, the sassi stretch below the rim of a vast ravine and is like a giant nativity scene.
The best way to experience this magical city of stone is to walk through the labyrinth of alleys and streets of the two sassi districts, Sasso Barisano and Sasso Caveoso where history is etched all over. For a stunning view of the sassi lit up by the dusk at sunset, head for the Belvedere on the opposite side of the 650-foot deep ravine formed by the Gravina River and watch the cathedral spire rising above the stone-city lights. Restaurants, bars and hotels all make the most of their unique architecture and you’ll be mesmerized at every turn.
How to get there
The closest airport to fly into is Bari (BRI) which connects to several European hubs on low-cost carriers like Ryanair or EasyJet. If you prefer, British Airways also has direct flights. From the airport, rent a car and drive an hour to Matera.
3. The Northern Lights, Iceland
Aurora borealis occur when solar particles collide with atmospheric gases to create a neon light show that can last for minutes or even days at a time. You can also see this marvel from other European countries like Norway, Finland, Sweden and even Scotland, but Iceland is great because the aurora can be spotted from the comforts of thermal hot springs or the serenity of your own private campervan in the untouched wilderness.
The best time to see these magical lights is early September to the end of April. With only two major cities — Reykjavík and Akureyi — you’re a 15-minute drive from a perfect viewing spot almost anywhere in Iceland. There is an overwhelming number of tours available. Iceland’s Met Office meteorology website is comprehensive and even shows cloud coverage across the country as well as a forecast for how likely it is you’ll catch the Northern Lights on any given day.
4. Portugal do Pequenitos, Portugal
We all love miniatures when we travel — from miniature hotel toiletries to miniature bottles of gin on the plane. How about seeing the whole of Portugal, in miniature? At Portugal do Pequenitos (Portugal of the Little Ones) in Coimbra, you can see the entire country (and all other Portuguese speaking countries on earth) at this miniature monument, which is open all year.
Stroll amongst all of Portugal’s famous monumental buildings and marvel at telescoped examples of its regional architecture. No trip to Portugal is complete without a visit to the Azores and Madeira on your way to the miniature dress collection and model Naval Museum. After you conquer Portugal, you can then see Brazil, Macau, Lusophone Africa, East Timor and even India in an hour. Think of all the money you could save on airfare.
While you are there, indulge in some port tasting in Vila Nova de Gaia (near Porto airport) where you can take the cable car running alongside the wineries and the river’s edge for glorious views of the bridge, sipping ports along the way.
How to get there
Porto (OPO) is the closest airport to Coimbra, which is an hour’s drive away.
5. Tropical Islands in Germany
50 miles south of Berlin, there’s a sense of surrealism as you enter this huge former hangar and find yourself face to face with a self-contained universe of palm trees, Germany’s longest white water river, Europe’s largest tropical sauna complex, flamingos and exotic birds roaming around, beaches, makeshift pirate ships and hot air balloons.
Visiting Tropical Islands during winter is weird as you will go from freezing temperatures outside to an inside air temperature of 77 degrees Fahrenheit and a pleasant 40% to 60% humidity, perfect conditions for plants and animals from all over the world. There is also underfloor heating in the Lagoon and the Tropical Sea area so you won’t get any cold feet. Just a little word of warning on the sauna and spa area — goosebumps are guaranteed as clothing is discouraged here. They recommend that you visit the entire area naked and strictly no clothes or bathing costumes are allowed in the sauna cabins and whirlpools.
How to get there
Berlin Brandenburg (BER) will be the closest airport to Tropical Islands when it is set to open later this year.
6. Arthur’s Seat, Scotland
Located in Holyrood Park at the end of the Royal Mile, this large grass-covered hill is the remains of an extinct volcano that erupted 350 million years ago and sits 820 feet above sea level. Although the origin of the name is uncertain, some claim that Arthur’s Seat may have been the location of the legendary Camelot.
After hiking up, you will be rewarded with one of the best 360-degree views of Edinburgh, and it’s free, too. After you experience Arthur’s Seat, check out the 640-acre Royal Park next to Holyrood Palace. There are also two National Parks in Scotland to explore if you want to embrace more of the outdoors.
How to get there
Edinburgh Airport (EDI) is 10 miles from Arthur’s Seat and there are a few public transport options to get into the city as well as taxis.
7. Hallstatt, Austria
The inspiration behind the kingdom of Arendelle in the popular Disney film Frozen, Hallstatt is just an hour’s drive from Salzburg and would make a great half-day stop for capturing some fairytale-inspired photos. The village itself was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status and you can visit its famous 7,000-year-old salt mine, the oldest on earth. Hallstatt actually means “place of salt” and thanks to the salt industry, the town became rich.
Set between the Dachstein and Salzkammergut mountain ranges and overlooking a glassy lake, the sleepy Alpine village of Hallstatt is a truly stunning sight to behold. After seeing this wonder, make your way to the market square, weave in and out of the streets and visit shops along the lake for trinkets. Hallstatt is small (end-to-end it’s not even a mile long), so take your time and take in the views.
How to get there
Fly to Salzburg (SZG) and book a coach to Hallstatt.
8. Skradinski Buk Falls, Croatia
How to get there
9. Păltiniş, Transylvania
Transylvania is massive and makes up a third of Romania. Although it has a spooky Draculian reputation, there are some wonderful places to discover. Păltiniş is an in-the-know resort 20 miles from Sibiu and the oldest ski resort in Romania. Set at a 4,700-foot altitude, it features numerous slopes for skiers in winter with snow six months of the year and is famed for its peacefulness in summer as the resort is located in the heart of a pine forest.
Paltinis is famous for the therapeutic air, which is why it was established in 1894 as a medical treatment resort. The main therapeutic factor is actually the alpine climate with strong odorizing air, rich in aerosols and ultraviolet radiation which is said to heal all sorts of ailments.
How to get there
Sibiu International Airport (SBZ) is 20 miles from Păltiniş. Many flights are operated by low-cost carriers.
When I travel, a destination always gives me a feeling. Europe is full of inspiring places to visit that are great for travel all year round — so get planning for your next trip. Whether incredible nature scenes are your thing or unusual architecture, adventure or luxury, Europe has it all. And one of the best aspects is that you can get almost anywhere in Europe on a short-haul flight. Be the envy of your friends after your next European jaunt by visiting some of the above destinations that they wish they’d thought of.
Featured photo by DaLiu/Getty Images
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