Travelers to Europe always want to see the same things: The Roman Forum. Stonehenge. The Cliffs of Moher. It becomes a scavenger hunt, checking off boxes on some “must-see” list. The trouble is, everyone has the same ideas, so these places are often impossibly clogged with tourist crowds.
The good news is, there are alternatives to the headline locations which will give visitors every bit the rewarding experience, without bumping into everyone’s fanny packs. They’re easier to get to, nicer to see, and often cheaper to visit. Here are a few of our favorite “alternate” European sights. All photos below are from those alternate sights.
The massive stones of Stonehenge are indeed a most impressive sight; its view is also obstructed by a large fence, and nearly always a huge gaggle of tourists. A similar, much less touristed sight is the huge standing stone circle at the nearby small town of Avebury. You can walk the very large ring of stones, which actually intersects the tiny town. The local pub, the Red Lion, is considered one of the most haunted places in England.
2. Cliffs of Moher/Loop Head Peninsula
The Cliffs of Moher are one of the most popular sights in all Ireland. Their dizzying height and scope draws thousands of visitors each day. If you want to see these cliffs without the tourist crowds, visit them at sunrise. You’ll be completely alone, and have an excellent opportunity to get lots of beautiful pictures. Alternatively, you can visit the cliffs at the end of the Loop Head Peninsula. The cliffs there are just as high, but you won’t have issues with huge crowds of tourists. At the very end of the peninsula is Loop Head Lighthouse, which you can climb for a small fee. One of the light-keeper’s cottages here is available as a vacation lodging.
3. Roman Forum/Ostia Antica
The old Roman Forum is one of the most visited sights in Rome, and in Europe itself. As such, it is always full of tourists – and worse, pickpockets. A similar Roman site is Ostia Antica: These ancient city ruins are just a few minutes’ drive from the Rome airport, and costs just €6 to enter. You should plan to spend several hours here, as there are extensive building ruins, a theater, several temples, many mosaics, and a large ancient road system; best of all, it is a sight that is largely passed over by tourist crowds.
4. Lake Como/Lago Maggiore
Lake Como is the most popular northern Italian lake, and it is stunning in its beauty. It is also much more expensive and crowded than other lakes, and more geared to tourists. A great alternative to Lake Como is nearby Lago Maggiore. The lake’s northern tip in in Switzerland, so you can take a day trip via boat to see that country. The lake boasts three gorgeous islands: Isola Madre, with its wild roaming peacocks and gardens that are reminiscent of the Garden of Eden; Isola Bella with its formalized Renaissance gardens; and Isola Pescatori, the only residential island, with its excellent restaurants, artisans, and a beautiful 11th-century church. Maggiore is much more authentic and affordable than Como, while being every bit as beautiful.
5. San Marino/San Leo
The town of San Marino – entirely embedded in Italian territory but an independent city-state – sits atop a rocky outcropping in the mountains of eastern Emilia-Romagna. San Marino is beautiful and ancient – and crowded and expensive. Instead, find its little twin brother, San Leo. Founded in the same period of antiquity (the two towns were early Christian settlements in the 4th century), San Leo offers stunning architecture, museums, great local food, and gorgeous views of the countryside. Bonus for history/literature buffs: Dante Alighieri resided here at one point; his writing is said to have been influenced heavily by his time here.
6. Munich’s Hofbrauhaus/Andechs Monastery
The famous Munich beer-hall where Mozart drank and in which Adolf Hitler rallied his fellow sociopaths in 1920 is now a site of congenial community; tourists flock here to check off the “history” box on their itineraries as well as to sample the famously delicious beer and perhaps an absurdly large pretzel. The place is also a favorite of many locals, making it a crowded affair at all times. But less than an hour to the southwest is the beautiful Andechs Monastery. Not only is the place rife with history, but the monks here make what is widely regarded as the best beer in Germany. Their beer hall patio offers traditional fare and delicious beers surrounded by an idyllic, pastoral setting.
Lovely Vernazza and the other four towns of Italy’s Cinque Terre are indeed beautiful, picturesque, and unique – which is why they are swarmed with tourists ten months out of the year. But one of the five is not like the rest: Corniglia, the middle of the five, sits atop a cliff rather than nestling right on the coast as do the others. In fact, it’s a climb up 365 steps from the train station, which is why many visitors give it a pass. Here you’ll find every bit the same magical charm, stacks of colorful houses, and sweeping sea views, but with a fraction of the crowds in the other towns.
Ah, the Amalfi Coast! Everyone’s heard of it, seen it in movies, and wants to go there. Positano is one of those colorful towns piled up on the gorgeous coastal cliffs south of Naples. Its car-free streets are perfect for strolling – which is why the place is packed most of the time with people bumping each others’ fanny-packs. A few minutes’ drive to the east leads to Praiano: Smaller, less glamorous, but offering the same sea views and the same fresh seafood, in a more authentic setting that is not geared towards tourists.
9. Ring of Kerry/Ring of Beara
The drive around the Kerry Peninsula is perhaps the most famous section of western Ireland’s scenic roadways. Every turn offers another beautiful view – of the back of a tour bus, or of a long line of cars trying to squeeze through the narrow stretches of road. Give it a pass, and instead venture further south to County Cork and the Beara Peninsula. Abbey ruins, Neolithic stone circles, adorable and colorful towns, and breathtaking scenery await the travelers who choose to venture off of the beaten path to this relatively undiscovered area of Ireland.