June 26, 2012 at 8:05 AM ET
Americans can’t get enough of Paris, as becomes painfully clear each summer, when it swarms with tourists. Relief waits a train ride away in Île de Noirmoutier: You’ll be greeted by the scent of mimosa and the sight of bobbing yachts and families picnicking on the beach.
Thankfully, Europe is still full of under-the-radar gems like this French retreat. And we can’t resist spreading the word about the latest emerging hot spots, from Eastern Europe’s hippest art scene to a sleepy district of lakes and castles.
The continent is so varied that even with 17 countries sharing the euro currency, it can barely keep from splintering into thousands of microcultures. While this complicates the financial markets, it has an upside for travelers: continued opportunities for discovery. You’ll never walk into a beach bar in Bergen, Holland, and one on the Aegean Islands and have the same experience.
So while the hunt is always on for the next Tuscany, you’ll find that Spain’s answer — the little-touristed northeast Matarranya region — has its own distinctive accent. Its patchwork of vineyards, rivers and olive groves lies at the confluence of the ancient Aragon, Valencia and Catalonia kingdoms. The feeling is still a bit regal, especially at the Hotel Torre del Visco, a surprisingly affordable 15th-century palace in Fuentespalda (population: 368).
Farther afield, in Estonia, there’s a secret island of juniper forests, fishing villages and small farms that was the last stronghold of Estonian pagans until the 13th century. Looking for a windmill? You’ll get your photo-op with the country’s last working wooden version here.
For more of a scene, look to the Netherlands and a beach town that’s recently made waves. Like the Hamptons, but with clogs, Bergen is becoming a second-home haven for newly monied Germans and Dutch who prefer bike rides and outdoor cafés to power lunches.
It takes extra effort, sure, to reach these European spots, but the reward comes with that sense of being let in on a fantastic secret — and the opportunity to experience a place rooted in local tradition before it’s really discovered and altered.
And if you just can’t forget Paris, consider you’ll probably get to transit through one such glittering European hub along the way.
More from Travel + Leisure