The hidden gems in Europe I’m about to share with you are some of my all-time favorite European destinations!
So it’s no secret that Paris, Rome, and Amsterdam are amazing cities and great places to visit in Europe. Each year, tens of millions of tourists flock to these popular European cities to take in the culture, the history, the architecture, and many more great things these cities offer.
Yet I find that the smaller, tucked-away European towns and villages are just as — or even more! — fascinating places to visit. Still brimming with history and culture, these quieter places make for a more intimate travel experience and will leave you with incredible travel memories to last a lifetime.
While I thoroughly enjoy visiting the big-city destinations in Europe, there is something special about exploring a tiny town. There’s a particular allure of meandering the streets of small towns, of catching the eye of a shopkeeper and striking up a conversation. These off-the-beaten-track locales are places where you can have authentic interactions with locals and experience the distinct and diverse culture, food, and art of a region.
So, where are the hidden treasures I’m speaking so highly about? I’m glad you asked… Here are 10 hidden gems in western Europe you must visit!
1. Colmar, France
Colmar will always be a special place to me as it is where I first practiced my French skills confidently. The locals here are some of the most friendly people and, with each passing day spent here, everyone made me feel more and more welcome.
Situated in the Alsace region of northeastern France, the town of Colmar is straight out of a fairytale. Literally. This town was the inspiration for Belle’s hometown in Disney’s Beauty & the Beast. Wander through the cobbled streets of the Vieille Ville (Old Town), admire the colourful medieval and Renaissance buildings, the flower-lined canals, and sidewalk cafes, and soak up the fairytale charm!
Looking for where to stay in Colmar, France?
Check out Agoda for deals as low as 48 EUR for a private room. My favourite site to look for accommodation, HostelWorld, doesn’t have any listings for Colmar, but you can google ‘hostels in Colmar’ for cheaper options starting from 26 EUR. I stayed in a lovely place called Auberge de Jeunesse “Mittelharth” — because it was low-season, they gave me a room all to myself for the price of a dorm!
2. Salzburg, Austria
As the birthplace of beloved musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, this charming Austrian city looks much like it did when Mozart was born nearly three centuries ago. Its picturesque Old Town, Altstadt, is the largest UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world and emanates charm and shows layers of history from every corner. Visit the museum in Mozart’s Geburtshaus (birthplace) and perhaps even bump into Mozart in the flesh!
There are a lot more things to do in Salzburg than just Mozart-related activities. Visit the Hohensalzburg Castle, take a stroll through the gardens of Mirabell Palace, or venture into one of the five surrounding mountains and go for an alpine hike.
Looking for where to stay in Salzburg, Austria?
Check out HostelWorld for deals as low as 26 EUR for a dorm or Agoda for deals as low as 28 EUR for a private room. I stayed at Hotel-Annex Der Salzburger Hof with a friend and would defintiely recommend it.
3. Tübingen, Germany
This endearing, traditional university town is one of Germany’s true hidden gems. Tübingen’s Altstadt is one of the few completely intact old towns in Germany, surviving World War II unscathed due to lack of heavy industry. This draws visitors from all over Germany, yet international tourism here is still quite low.
Located less than an hour away from Stuttgart by bus or train, Tübingen is one of the most charming places in Europe. With a vibrant arts culture as well as nightlife, this town is a must-visit. Fun fact: this town also hosts the biggest chocolate festival in Europe every December. This place is a must for any chocolate lover!
Looking for where to stay in Tübingen, Germany?
Check out Agoda for deals as low as 49 EUR for a private room. Again, HostelWorld does not have any listings but there are several jugendherberges (youth hostels) starting from 23 EUR. I stayed at DJH Jugendherberge Tübingen.
4. Lucca, Italy
Located in the heart of Tuscany, Lucca is surrounded by almost five kilometres of ancient Renaissance walls and is a living testimony to past times. Stroll along the narrow cobblestone lanes lined with tiny churches and tempting trattorias (Italian restaurants focusing on home-style cooking). Discover the rich and quirky history here — underwear is what made the town wealthy! Or relax over a glass or two of wine and enjoy some rustic Italian cuisine.
Lucca is a two-hour train ride from Florence and is definitely worth the visit. This cultured and peaceful small city is Tuscany’s best-kept secret.
Looking for where to stay in Lucca, Italy?
Check out Agoda for deals as low as 33 EUR for a private room. Strangely, Hostel World has dorm room options starting from 45 EUR. Personally, I loved my stay at B&B Camera con Vista, a small, friendly hotel in the city center.
5. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany
Nicknamed the “Jewel of the Black Forest”, Freiburg is the sunniest and warmest place in Germany — perhaps that’s why everyone I met here was so friendly and helpful! My two favourite things about this place are their Black Forest Cake (delicious!) and the fact that you can hike into the Black Forest right from the city centre.
Some must-see sights in this secluded, wine-rich university town include the beautiful Münster cathedral, the historic and current Rathäuser (city halls), and the Bächle that line the streets in the city centre. The Bächle are small canals once used to provide water to fight fires; they are now used in the summer to provide natural cooling of the air. Legend has it, if you accidently fall or step into one of the Bächle, you will marry a local!
Looking for where to stay in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany?
Check out Agoda for deals as low as 37 EUR for a private room. Again, HostelWorld does not have any listings but if you google ‘hostels in Freiburg’, you should find hostel dorm rooms for as low as 27 EUR. My stay at the Black Forest Hostel was pretty good. While they didn’t have wifi and only provided computer terminals where you could go online, this acutally means that everyone in the hostel is a lot more open to chatting and it makes it easier to meet people.
6. Leiden, Netherlands
You know the famous equation, E=mc^2? Imagine being taught that with Albert Einstein himself as your professor… Well, fun fact: Einstein was a regular professor in Leiden a few decades ago!
Located just a short half-hour train ride from Amsterdam, Leiden is a wonderful place for a day trip. Stroll along streets woven with canals, and take in the charm of the distinct Dutch buildings of the Netherlands without the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam.
Looking for where to stay in Leiden, Netherlands?
Check out Agoda for deals as low as 47 EUR for a private room. Alternatively, there is a hostel called Flying Pig Beach Hostel that has dorms starting from as low as 9 EUR! I used this as a base to explore Amsterdam, Leiden, and Gouda (another great little gem with amazing Gouda cheese!).
7. Heidelberg, Germany
A relic of the period of Romanticism, Heidelberg is a place that is sure to capture your heart. It is nestled between the foothills of the Odenwald Mountains and the banks of the River Neckar.
Overlooking the city, the ruins of Heidelberg Castle sit on the terraced hillside waiting for you to explore. Other fun ideas include simply wandering around the Altstadt taking in the charm and character (make sure to stop by the Old Bridge), taking some time to walk and reflect along the Philosopher’s Walk, and visiting the Karzer student prison — a place where students had to do time for minor transgressions such as duelling and playing pranks (reminds me of Harry Potter, no?).
Looking for where to stay in Heidelberg, Germany?
Check out Agoda for deals as low as 29 EUR for a private room. HostelWorld has dorm room options starting from 32 EUR. I stayed at Steffis Hostel Heidelberg, a friendly and green oasis in the heart of Heidelberg. I really enjoyed the coziness and nature theme of this place.
8. Annecy, France
Set against a picturesque mountain backdrop, this alpine town in southeastern France is one of my favourite European destinations. An idyllic little place trapped between sparkling lake and snow-capped mountains, its population has remained stagnant at just over 50 000.
There is unparalleled choice of activities, culture and entertainment here in the “Pearl of French Alps”. Have a few outdoor adventures and cycle or paddle around Lake Annecy, stroll along the Vieille Ville of Annecy, get a photo op with the iconic Palais de l’Ile (which was once a prison!), shop at the various markets, and visit the Pont des Amours. There’s a whimsical tale that goes along with Annecy’s Love Bridge that says that if two people kiss while on the bridge, they will stay together forever. Sound like something you’d like to try?
Looking for where to stay in Annecy, France?
Check out HostelWorld for deals as low as 35 EUR for a dorm room or Agoda for deals as low as 70 EUR for a private room. I stayed at Annecy Hostel. It’s a bit farther from the Vieille Ville (still within walking distance) but you will wake up to a beautiful mountain view.
9. Hallstatt, Austria
Hallstatt is arguably Austria’s most picturesque village. The Chinese love it so much, they even created a replica of it in Luoyang, China!
Nestled in the mountains of Austria, Hallstatt is home to less than one thousand inhabitants and is one of the most charming places to see in Europe. Learn about its salt mining history at Salzbergwerk, visit the small churches and museums, or venture further with some short hikes into the surrounding mountains. Hallstatt also makes a great day or overnight trip from Salzburg.
Looking for where to stay in Hallstatt, Austria?
Check out Agoda for deals as low as 42 EUR for a private room. Hostel World does not have any listings but there is a youth hostel in Hallstatt with dorms starting from 33 EUR. I made a day trip of Hallstatt and stayed at Hotel-Annex Der Salzburger Hof back in Salzburg.
10. Cinque Terre, Italy
As a little bonus, the last place on this list is not one, but a string of five centuries-old coastal villages. Cinque Terre, meaning Five Lands in Italian, comprises the five villages of Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore, each perched along the rugged Italian Riviera.
Part of the charm of this place is the lack of visible modern development. Take in the colorful houses and vineyards clinging to steep terraces reminiscent of centuries past, breathe in the inviting smells of pasta and seafood wafting from the trattoriae and try some of the region’s signature pesto sauce, stroll along the harbors that are, to this day, filled with fishing boats. Cinque Terre is the perfect place to learn more about Italian culture and history.
You could also get some great hiking in while here. The five villages are connected by four trails of varying length and difficulty, each offering sweeping vista views. There is also a train system linking the villages so if you ever get tired, you could do that as well. This UNESCO World Heritage site is becoming an ever-more popular European destination so I recommend you go sooner rather than later.
Looking for where to stay in Cinque Terre, Italy?
Check out HostelWorld for deals as low as 24 EUR for a dorm. Alternatively, check out Riomaggiore on Agoda for private rooms starting from 35 EUR or Vernazza on Agoda for deals as low as 45 EUR. I stayed in Ostello Tramonti in the village of Biassa and took a bus and a train into Cinque Terre each day.
And there you have it — these hidden gems in Western Europe are some my favorite places in Europe and are definite must-sees!