10 Best European Towns – You’ve Never Heard of

Photo taken in town center of La Maddalena, Italy

Sure, there are lots of great cities out there that have reasons for being world famous, or even relatively well known.  But then there are smaller towns and cities that have not made their way into the limelight as they should have by now.

Having lived abroad for 15 years, I was fortunate and blessed enough to get to have experiences and see places most people can only dream of. But for those of you who are looking for some places a little off the beaten track, here are the top 10 destinations in Europe that you’ve definitely never heard of, but definitely need to visit.

10. Tata, Hungary

Photo taken during a summer festival on the lake, in 2008

This little northern Hungarian town, located on Lake Öreg (English: Old Lake) is one of the most charming places in the country, which most people have yet to discover. And while there are many other towns in Hungary which deserve recognition, this is one of my top favorites.  

Though Hungary does have bitter cold winters, the town itself offers a warm vibe which most Hungarian cities, sadly, do not possess. While I never had a chance to really get to know the locals in this particular town, the architecture and scenic beauty count for much.

Tata castle, which was built in the mid-14th century, sits proudly on the bank of the lake, offering tourists and locals both a stunning view as they walk around ‘Öreg ’.

The castle, which is obviously medieval, offers visitors the option of touring the castle (or at least they did when I was there in 2008), giving anyone interested in Hungarian history a glimpse into life back when knights wore shining armor, and plotted to foil their enemies from window tops overlooking the shimmering lake.

In the summer months, the town is even more peacefully electrifying, giving people the opportunity to jet across the lake in motorized boats, kayak and some may even swim. The one thing that is important to note about Tata, is that aside from its beauty and peacefulness, it’s also strategically located within the country, affording it easy access to surrounding cities- and even countries. Only a 45 minute drive to the Slovakian border, it also sits less than an hour’s drive from the country’s capital of Budapest, and 45 minutes to another one of Hungary’s more well known and western cities, Győr.

Tata is one of those special little gems that most people haven’t had the chance to learn about, but if given the opportunity should absolutely make the effort to go check out.

9. Llandudno, Wales

Ever wonder from where Alice in Wonderland actually came? So did I. As it’s my all time favorite Disney movie, and I suspect it’s the favorite of many people out there, I was shocked to learn that while working in a town in Northern Wales in 2013, there was a little coastal town known as Lalandudno, which had some very interesting history involving the author of the classic children’s tale. Lewis Carroll, as he was known in the written world, was born  Charles Dodgson.  During his young adulthood he’d brefriended a well-to-do family with small children, whose family name was Liddell. During his relationship with the family he become amused, and intrigued by the activities and fanciful play of their young daughter, Alice. Through her adventures, allegedly while vacationing in the town of Llandudno, he penned the novel we have since all come to know and love. Though there is speculation that some of this may not be altogether accurate information, legend remains firm in the tourist town.

Because of this, the town is now host to thousands who flock to the tourist destination each year, not just due to the folklore of the author and his inspirational child figure, but also because of Llandudno’s beautiful coastal cliffs, stunning views and vacation retreat.

Throughout the town, one can maze through the little trails they have available (for free of course) to anyone curious as Alice was, in discovering the vivaciously green and fresh-aired territory which Llandando calls home.

Statues of the famous characters lay all about the town, and the trails help one uncover where you will be led to discover the next of the bunch.

Even if you’re not a fan of Alice in Wonderland, and even if you don’t feel like being a little kid and following the rabbit down the hole, so to speak, Llandando is still a beautiful town to visit, and if I’d had the money at the time, I would have indulged in some of the more high end resortesque experiences they had on offer there. Restaurants, spas, and more await, but what makes it most attractive is that as a vacation spot, it’s ideal not just for families with chidlren, but also adults looking for a solo or couple’s getaway.

8. Évora, Portugal

You’ve heard of Lisbon, and you’ve probably heard of Porto. Many vacation in the Algarve, but not many know about Évora, which is Portgual’s most hidden and special gem. Évora, which is located in the region of Alentejo, sits approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes east of the country’s capital, Lisbon. The little town holds just over 53,000 inhabitants, but when visiting the town, it feels much, much smaller. Though there are some tourist-like spots in the center of town, generally speaking it is void of tourists, and you will feel like you’ve found a spot only the locals really know about, creating a sense that you yourself are one with the town.

The pace here is slow and comfortable, and from the moment you arrive, there is a peaceful vibe that surrounds you.

While I was not impressed with the region’s food in general, the one spot to definitely check out here, is Tábua do Naldo, where they have some of the most flavorful and creative dishes I’ve ever seen, and for sure the best in all of Portugal.

 

The ambiance of the town is charming, very reminiscent of Italian towns, but still holds their own unique cultural elements. Évora’s stillness and tranquility are matched with its friendly locals, ideal climate and historical architecture.  The countryside surrounding the beautiful town is golden and somewhat flat in nature, but there are those odd rolling hills that do remind one of Tuscany to a certain extent.

The city is rife with photo opportunities, and whether it’s during  the day or even at night, you will find it almost impossible to get lost in this magical little town.

For those looking for a calmer experience in Portugal while on vacation, Evora is definitely the city where you should book your next trip. Not that you should skip Lisbon or Porto altogether, but Évora is for sure not to be missed.

7. Varazze, Italy

Overshadowed by its neighbors Savona, and even more world famous, Cinque Terre, Varazze is a beautifully elegant, quiet and down right must-see town in the region of Liguria, Italy. Right on the water, Varazze is strategically located along the Ligurian Sea, only 1 hour from Genova, and 20 minutes by bus to Savona. Remarkably clean, you will find it to be an unusually pristine town in a country that in many cities does not hold cleanliness up there with godliness.

I had the pleasure of getting to stay here one night while traveling around the country and fell in love with this unknown spot. As it happened, I booked a room at a hotel in the middle of the afternoon as a rather impromptu necessity while checking out Cinque Terre during the day.

I wanted something cheap and quick, and after searching on booking.com, I found a place that was in my budget and not too terribly far from where I was already located by train. The town was quiet, sophisticated and had an ambiance I had never really found in the rest of the country. I was hooked from the moment I arrived, and never wanted to leave.

If and when you go to Varazze, you must make sure that you bring some money, as it is not a cheap destination, and I managed to secure a lovely hotel that had a special price for the night. Normally though rates are quite steep, but the food, friendliness of the locals and the scenic views all make Varazze a place you need to ensure you see before leaving the beautiful country.

6. Tokaj, Hungary

Those who are familiar with the world renowned sweet wine, may not be aware of where it comes from, which is the small northeastern Hungarian town with the same name. Tokaj’s little town of only 4,000 people, half of which are wineries and wine cellars, is a quaint and charming town that most people don’t know much about, if anything at all. The town which was first mentioned in historical documents in 1067, has a long- standing reputation for its sweet (and sometimes, dry) white wines. Anyone that visits the tiny touristy town inevitably goes there for the wine tasting, and it’s  not just wineries and wine cellars that offer those tastings – it’s bars too. There’s no question that if you’re headed to Tokaj to do some drinking, you will be staggering back to your room by the day’s end. And not only are the wines incredibly delicious, but unbelievably cheap too. Due to the fact that most foreigners (with the exception of German, Austrian and the occasional Slovakian) don’t know about the small eastern town, prices remain quite low. Back in 2006 when I escorted a group of Americans there, we were all shocked to find that 2 bottles of wine at a cellar were being sold for a whole $3.50 American.

The quality of the wine, pretty much no matter where you go is phenomenal, but I would most recommend, Peter Pince (Peter’s Wine Cellar), as the wines were top notch and the ambiance low key and more personal.

These days the costs of course have gone up considerably since 2006, but they still remain much lower than that of Hungary’s other wine capital counterpart, Eger, which boasts the reds rather than the whites. More tourists know about Eger, which is one of the reasons their prices can be set much higher. The same year that I was able to procure two bottles directly at a wine cellar in Tokaj for only $3.50, a wine tasting of only three wines (i.e. three quarter filled glasses ) at a fancier cellar in Eger at the time was an outrageous $10.00 – which in those days was considerably steep with respect to the Hungarian economy. Therefore, it stands to reason that while prices have risen, Tokaj is still much lower in price and higher in value.

Tokaj is also known for its festivals, both wine and food.

If you are not into wine, that’s not a problem. People who are not wine enthusiasts can still enjoy Tokaj for its town’s charm, quietness and array of hotels and spas. If you’re looking for the best B&B in the whole country (in my humble opinion) you need to stay at La Bor Boutique Hotel & Bistro, which not only offers delightfully comfortable and beautiful rooms right in the heart of Tokaj, but they also offer selected wines in their bistro, and some of the most delicious and elegantly presented food you will have while in Hungary.

With its high hills (which the Hungarians like to refer to as “mountains”), Tokaj sits right on the humble Tisza River, where you can take a slow-paced boat tour and enjoy the calm surrounding nature of the area.

Strolling along Tokaj’s quaint side and main streets are worth visiting the town alone, but of course sipping wine or just a coffee helps add to the overall charm.

Tokaj is a beautiful town for all seasons and for all people in search of different things to do and see. So make sure when you’re in Hungary you take the time to visit the charming town where some of the world’s most delicious wine comes from, before you jet off to your next destination.

5. Scuol, Switzerland

Chances are you have never in your life heard of this tiny little town in southern Switzerland. Bordering Northern Italy, the official language of the country is one I would bet money 90% of the population is unfamiliar with – Romanash. A combination of Italian, German, and I think Esperanto, the langauge is funny to listen to, if you have any kind of an ear for foreign langauges. The town though is quite spectacular, and you might not realize you’re in such a small town as the Silvretta and Dolomite mountains surround the tiny populace of only 4,600.

Though a luxurious resort town, you won’t find as many tourists here as locals, and the main reason for that, I would imagine are the exorbitant costs of everything. While visiting on my birthday in March of 2014, a cup of coffee was astronomical and when I visited their local Coop grocery store for fun, pasta, which would cost about 1 Euro in neighboring Italy, was about three times the price here. And unlike in Italy where you will find an entire aisle at the grocery store dedicated to solely pasta, in Switzerland, it’s chocolate.

But aside from its high prices, the stunning views alone are what make Scuol so necessary to visit. Show stopping in sight there’s nothing quite like it, and I would say that the scenery in Scuol is actually more impressive and mesmerizing than that of Zurich – which is also a definite city to visit if you’re in Switzerland.

The town itself is simple and quiet, with not much to do but admire the imposing mountains around you, it’s not a bad place to take an afternoon to stroll around. The main reason to go if you’re in that general area though is to just take in the views – they’re simply breathtaking.

4. Feltre, Italy

In January of 2012, I was offered a job in this tiny remote town in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains. 2 hours from the well- known Trento, and only an hour and a half from the world famous Venice, Feltre gets lost in the mix of these more prominently established cities that the whole world flocks to visit each and every year. Though not a town most, if any, have ever heard of, Feltre has one of the most contagiously graceful charms in any town or city for that matter, that I’ve ever had the privilege to live in.

Feltre is a particularly clean town, which is saying something as most Venetian cities are not so. Venice unfortunately, even has a bad reputation among native Italians for being particularly dirty, though still quite beautiful and important historically speaking.

But Feltre has an ancient character to it, especially in the historical center of the town. Though I lived in the more modern portion of the northeastern town, which some might even make the leap to call a small city, even in the area I resided, it was still older in nature. My apartment building for example, had been built, at the most recent, in the 1960s, and the building where I worked had been built, if I understand correctly in 1684. Incidentally, the building where I worked also had a Catholic seminary which operated in the same hallway as where I taught English through a private language school.

 

Photo taken of the building where I worked, from the front door of my apartment complex. It was a quick commute each day.

With a lengthy history, the town was established in 49 BC  – which is a way long time ago. The town saw the likes of Venetian soldiers in the 16th century, Nazis during World War II, and even the French for a brief period when it was occupied by them in the late 1700’s.

The town center is where all the hustle and bustle is located, but even there you won’t find hardly any noise or activitiy. With scattered shops, bars and restaurants, you should bring your wallet, and make sure it’s full if you want to do any kind of shopping here. For as humble as Feltre appears in nature, it is not so modest in cost.

The town’s more “modern” center, compared to its historical center

The people here are friendly, though they are not as friendly as Italians you’ll find in the south. My overall impression of people in Feltre were that they were kind, but also a bit on the snooty side. They tend to look down on those who didn’t have more of a  fashion sense, or spend money like drunken sailors. Ironically the same is true for a small town in the south where I also lived.

Feltre is also very, very cold. No surprise considering that it’s nestled at the foothills of the Dolomites in the region of Veneto. In late March of 2013, I remember the town getting 88 cm of snow. And I also remember being perpetually frozen the entire time I lived here. Heat is not a popular thing in the older buildings, nor amongst the locals who live here, as they are accustomed to how cold it gets.

Sheep being herded out of the center of town into the countryside

Overall though, Feltre is a charming and captivating little town, it’s hard not to love it. Innumerable spots grace the general area for picturesque photo opportunities, and a general sense of gratefulness to God for creating such a beautiful world. This is just one of His many majestic spots.

3. Talamone, Italy

The first time I arrived in Talamone, I was absolutely mesmerized by its charm and beauty. Talamone, which can’t even be considered a proper town, but is rather a fishing village, has a population of 280 people. Undoubtedly, here, everybody knows everybody and where they are and what they’re doing at all times. Talamone is a place that not even the average Italian knows about, and I know this for a fact because many times over my years in the country I stumped natives with geography of their own territory.

What makes Talamone particularly unique is not just the fact that it’s located on the edge of the map, but that it’s so quaint and unknown. The charm here is that it has, by all intents and purposes, been undiscovered by the general tourist population. In fact, if you are coming to Talamone, you are either most certainly someone from the greater Grosseto area who knows about Talamone, or you’re a fisherman. Either way, you’re definitely not a foreigner. Which is what made my experience here all the more exciting and unique. Not only do they not get many tourists or foreigners in general here, but they definitely don’t get many Americans – if any.

Photo taken near the beach, Bagno delle Donne in 2009

My  first time visiting Talamone was in February or March of 2009, while I was working for a family as an Au Pair. They had a summer home in Talamone, right up the road from where they lived in Grosseto. Talamone, as they say in Italian is a “frazione” of Grosseto, or in other words, a fraction, or part of Grosseto. The Tuscan village is not just charming in its center, which really doesn’t have much to it, but also its one and only beach. The Bagno delle Donne – Bath of the Women – which loses something in translation, is one of the most spectacular beaches you will ever go to. It’s not because the water is clear, because it’s not, or because there’s white sand, because there’s not, or because there’s much sand at all, because there’s not – there are rocks. But instead, it’s because atop the rocky cliff of the beach lies a castle, which at night is one of the most romantic and glorious things I’ve ever seen in my life, also because it’s illuminated. The beach is completely vacant by nightfall, and if you’re anything like me and like to be alone in the dark in a foreign country then  you’ll relish in the awe-inspiring site of this particular location.

Back in the village 7 years later, in 2016

Talamone is not tourist-minded, as it only has two restaurants (at least, that’s how it was when I was last there in 2016), and only 1 or two tobacco shops, and 1 or 2 cafes. The point of Talamone is to relax, take it slow and enjoy the fishing opportunities and sunbathing, rather than worry about taking in the sites.

But one thing is for sure, even if you’re only interested in passing through, Talamone should be at the top of your list of places to check off before leaving Italy.

2. La Maddalena, Italy

I literally lived on an island. And I can tell you, after having lived on an island, I will never live on an island again. But if you have to live on an island, it should be La Maddalena. Not even an island, this little archipelago is essentially an island off the coast of an island. And though La Maddalena is quite literally one of the most stunning and incredible places any human being can visit on planet earth, it’s also quite complicated getting to this place.

The day I moved to La Maddalena all the way from the United States, with all my stuff…including my pillow. It took 1 long airplane ride, 2 trains, 2 ferries and 3 taxis, but I finally made it there after 2 long days.

The archipelago of La Maddalena is just off the northeast coast of the island of Sardinia. Not many people realize it exists, or that it has some fame all its own outside of  Sardinia. Most noteworthy is its sister island which you can only get to by boat, which is home to Spiaggia Rosa – Pink Beach. It would be a lie to say that the pink-sanded isle is not inhabited by anyone, because it is. But only by one person. A Robinson Crusoe type character, who I had the privilege of meeting one day when I worked for a tour boat company. The people who worked on the crew knew him and introduced us. I was beyond excited to meet him, as he’d been featured in a national geographic documentary and was, for all intents and purposes, world famous. A kind old man, he lives his life on the beach with no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and, we all probably shudder to think, no internet.

La Spiaggia Rosa – The Pink Beach

The famous (on purpose) castaway, Mauro

The singleton spends his days relaxing on the beach, keeping watch over the site, ensuring that no one who visits the isle steals any of that precious pink sand, though most of it is gone for that very reason.

But let’s talk about the real star of the show, which is the island of La Maddalena itself, and also the city’s name. Yes, it’s confusing, and believe me, trying to explain it to people is a hassle, so I would advise you just to go with it.

La Maddalena is more than a unique place to set foot on. It’s an experience all its own. While there are thousands of places around the world where you can find beautiful beaches and have great vacations – La Maddalena is one of those one-in-a-million type deals that only a few special people get to experience. And I got to be one of those fortunate people. And what makes my story all the more special, is that not only did I get to visit once as a tourist on a simple day trip, I got to go back and actually live there for around 9 months.

At Christmas time, while there’s not much to do and it’s quite cold, the “commune” does a fabulous job of making it just as charming for the holiday season as it always is during the warmer months.

What’s important to know about La Maddalena is that while it’s simply one of the most incredibly stunning places on planet earth, it is also one of the most painfully boring places to live if you have nothing to do. And even with things to do, it’s still pretty dang boring. You can indulge in the beaches in the summer, but once the cold hits (and it’s surprisingly very cold), you are no longer lounging around in your swimsuit frolicking in the clearer than cloudless sky waters.

But it’s not just the beaches that make La Maddalena such a phenomenally spectacular place scenically speaking – it’s the rock formations too. Not that the actual island of Sardinia doesn’t have this going on as well, because it does, but La Maddalena takes it to a whole other level.

I happened to be there in 2017 when it snowed for the first time since the mid-1980s.

The island of Caprera which is connected to La Maddalena by bridge

The bridge between La Maddalena and Caprera

La Maddalena also boasts not one, but 7 different islands in total, one of which is connected by a little bridge built underwater, which might make some out there a little nervous to go over.

From the time I was there on my initial visit, to long after I had lived there a while, I was constantly spellbound by the other worldly composition of those rock formations. Most of the time, when I was outside of the city and in the more “wild” parts of the island where there was no civilization around, I felt like I was actually on a different planet, something like what we would think Mars to look like, rather than anything on earth.

The city center is quite charming and lovely, with not a lot going on, but just enough to keep you fed if you need a restaurant, hydrated if you need a good hard drink or a café in the morning to perk you up.  Though there are places to buy clothes, shoes and accessories, there’s not much. And what there is will definitely cost you. La Maddalena is home to many rich occupants who enjoy spending their free time on their boats and yachts, whether the island is just their summer retreat or their full-time place of residence.

By night the center is illuminated in a purple hue, which is quite extraordinary and unlike anything I’ve seen in any other part of the country.

 

The island of Caprera  is a wholly natural and an uninhibited island (save a few fast-food like stands which are closed by dusk in the summer months). The fact that there are no people who live on the island is what gives it its profoundly wild essence. You will see some flora and fauna here, but I’m not aware of any snakes or bears that live on the island. Be mindful of the trees though, this windy island – which Chicago has nothing on – can build up some powerful wind storms causing even ancient trees to fall down and break.

On the island of Caprera, during one of my many walks to and from each island

One of the best parts of living on an island is getting to explore all the different beaches it has to offer. This was on Caprera during the summer of 2017.

And if all of this wasn’t enough, one of my personal favorite things about the islands as a whole were how gloriously colorful they were all the way around. Whether it was the buildings, the doors of some people’s homes, or most specifically the flowers which graced the island naturally throughout the spring and summer months. Whatever it was, there was always vibrant color everywhere I went.

One day, a local noted to me while laying on the beach together, that in Italian poetry, an author once wrote,

“Sardinia is at the foot of God.”

So while it’s immensely complicated to get to the island, and winter may not be the time you would want to visit, La Maddalena is just one of those places you must see before you die, so that you have a glimpse of what heaven will look like.

The view from the outside of my first apartment on the island

1. Pescia Romana, Italy

Posing beside our private pool which sat in front of our private cottage, overlooking the Tuscan hills

One could argue that this can’t even technically be considered a town, as it’s barely a village. The population is just slightly over 1,000 people – and that honestly sounds high to me. The reason this place is number one on my list is not because the town, or more accurately, the village itself is anything special – it’s because of its countryside. I had the most incredible fortune to spend a summer here working as an Au Pair for a well-to-do businessman from Rome, taking care of his 11-year old son. The job was easy, the pay terrific, and the perks exceptional and unforgettable.

The man I worked for had a holiday home in the hills of Pescia Romana, which is technically located in Lazio, but everyone refers to it as Tuscany as it’s right on the border;  literally the beach we went to every day (Capalbio Scala) was in Tuscany.

The days were long and relaxing. I would wake up each morning to the sound of sheep grazing in the field, only able to hear their ba’as and jingling of their bells. I would sit out on the front patio sipping café macchiatos prepared by the handsome businessman I worked for, giving him an hour English lesson, after which he would send me off to lounge by their private pool while he played with his son. After a few hours of poolside enjoyment, I would hop in his Mercedes and the three of us would venture down to the beach in Tuscany, where he would rent he and I beds to lie on and while he attended to written work he needed to do, I would read my John Grisham novel, and his son would swim in the sea.

The days ended with me cooking for the two of them in the little cottage we stayed in, and I would fall asleep to the sound of crickets out in the stillness of the Tuscan hills.

 

That was my life for three beautiful weeks, and that is essentially why this place remains number one on my list. Granted, not everyone will have the same experience that I did if they come to this little dot on the map – and I assure you, it is in fact a dot. The center of town offers maybe one pizza by the slice stop, maybe not even a gas station and perhaps one tobacco shop. But although it may not have much in the way of nightlife, entertainment or shopping – it has so much more in genuine beauty, nature and God-given enjoyment.

The ruralness of the landscape is one that I suppose is what inspires poets, painters and other artists of the like to pontificate about the beauty of Tuscany. Anglo-saxons have long been fascinated and charmed by its splendor and wonderment, and long before I came on the scene it was a popular place to go – Tuscany, that is. And while the surrounding areas of Siena, Florence or even the area of Maramar might be a little more in line with the stereotypical idea of Tuscan wonderment, there’s no question this area can and will capture anyone’s heart, as it did mine so tightly.

In some sense the overall vibe of that spot was like being transported back to the 1960s. It was like being in a time long gone by, but getting to experience it if only for a moment. And it is a memory that will long surround the deepest, most special avenues of my mind for years to come.

The golden haystacks in the deep green fields placed in the foreground of the rich golden brown terrain which lay for miles and miles as far as the eye can see. With the empty vastness that stretches beyond anything near in sight, it’s no wonder this area is so peaceful, relaxing and a perfect spot for people like the man I worked for to find solitude and rest after a long year in the hustle and bustle of Rome – just a short hour and 30 minute drive away.

View of our cottage (left) from a distance

While I understand that not everyone may want to live in a cottage in the middle of the Italian countryside – though I’m not sure who those crazy people are – the experience is so incredibly wonderful, I can safely say, it’s truly the most perfect place I’ve ever been, even my own experience put aside.

Father and son play soccer in front of the private cottage one evening at dusk