9 quirky destinations in Europe you have to see to believe

Apr 23, 2020

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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 so many other countries are on your doorstep. Think of how many countries are a two-hour flight or train journey away. With such short travel times and all sorts of options to maximise your points, you can even fly to a new country and back in one weekend.

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.

Travelling is all about creating lifelong memories, so here are nine spots not too far away in Europe that are inspiring, thought-provoking, beautiful or even just plain weird.

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1. Palace of Versailles, France

Immortalised 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.

(Photo by Clark Van Der Beken/Unsplash)
(Photo by Clark Van Der Beken/Unsplash)

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 queue-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

It’s just 12 miles from Paris city centre and getting to Paris by train or plane is easy. Eurostar is quite fun if you’re travelling as a family and you also avoid air taxes and fees. With Club Eurostar, you will earn one point for every £1 you spend on Eurostar travel. 

You can also earn Club Eurostar points by converting Membership Rewards points earned from select U.K. American Express cards. Points convert at a15:1 rate into Club Eurostar points, which less than ideal. But the American Express Platinum card also comes with a great Eurostar benefit — lounge access. You can enjoy any Eurostar lounge with any ticket type in select cities.

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. 

Matera, townscape at sunset from Belvedere della Murgia. Basilicata, Italy. (Photo by Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Getty Images)
Townscape at sunset from Belvedere della Murgia. (Photo by Francesco Riccardo Iacomino/Getty Images)

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 200-metre 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 mesmerised 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 EasyJetIf 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. 

Spectacular Northern Lights over Kirkjufell Mountain Snæfellsnes peninsula, near the town of Grundarfjörður Iceland. (Photo by Natthawat/Getty Images)
The spectacular Northern Lights over Kirkjufell Mountain Snæfellsnes peninsula, near the town of Grundarfjörður, Iceland. (Photo by Natthawat/Getty Images)

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.

How to get there

As well as British Airways, low-cost carriers Wizz Air and Icelandair both fly to Reykjavík (KEF). Wizz Air has a Discount Club where for 30 euro a year, you plus a companion can benefit from discounts of 10 euro on ticket fares and 5 euro on checked-in bags, so membership could pay for itself quickly. It comes down to planning your travel over the and year and seeing whether you think you will fly Wizz Air enough to make it count. 

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.

(Photo courtesy of Portugal do Pequenitos)

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. Many U.K. carriers fly nonstop to Porto, so it is a good opportunity to take advantage of cheap cash fares.

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.

(Picture by picture alliance / Contributor/Getty Images)
(Picture by picture alliance/Contributor/Getty Images)

Visiting Tropical Islands during winter is weird as you will go from freezing temperatures outside to an inside air temperature of 25 degrees Celsius 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

British Airways operates direct daily flights to Berlin Tegel (TXL) from a range of airports including London City (LCY). If you have lounge access, the BA lounge at TXL is also undergoing a refurb. 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 251 metres 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.

(Photo by Andrew Merry/Getty Images)
(Photo by Andrew Merry/Getty Images)

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. The train from London takes around five hours but the views on the way up will make the time whizz by.

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.

Hallstatt village in Alps at cloudy day, Austria
(Photo by Mustang_79/Getty Images)

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. Getting there from the U.K. is pretty easy. There are year-round daily flights from Gatwick (LGW) with British Airways and year-round, five-weekly flights with Ryanair from Stansted (STN). From the rest of the U.K., flights to Salzburg are usually seasonal and operated on weekends by airlines like Jet2, EasyJet and TUI.

8. Skradinski Buk Falls, Croatia

We love a waterfall. What makes Skradinski Buk Falls amazing is that rather than the water flowing in one clean line down the falls, the falls is a collection of nearly twenty separate falls which excitingly range in height. This is the longest waterfall on the Krka River and the largest travertine cascade system in Europe. The width of the falls is impressive as well, varying between 200 metres and 400 metres.
(Photo by Julia Lavrinenko/Getty Images)
(Photo by Julia Lavrinenko/Getty Images)
This waterfall isn’t just for admiring as it ends in a large pool, which is popular for swimming. For the daredevils amongst you, you can also jump from the final fall (12 metres high) into the pool below. The best time to visit is the rainy season around September/October. During winter, the river Krka swells and the water level can be almost a metre higher than usual.

How to get there

The nearest airport is Split (SPU), which is 42 miles away from the waterfall and just under an hour’s drive away. The entrance for Skradinski Buk is at a big car park near Lozovac, which is also the main park entrance. You can also access the falls from the village of Skradin where you can take a boat trip to the entrance.

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 1,440-metre 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.

Photo taken in Paltinis, Romania
(Photo by Roberto Sorin Opreanu/EyeEm/Getty Images)

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 odorising 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.

Bottom line

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 from the U.K. 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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