10 Less-Touristy European Getaways

Hidden adventures

Photo: Mike Norton [CC by 2.0]/Flickr

Europe can be expensive, especially in the spring and summertime. But this year, things are different. The U.S. dollar continues to gain on the euro. Currently, €1 costs just over $1. Last year, traveling Americans had to part with as much as $1.50 to get €1. This favorable swing of the exchange rate makes Europe much more reasonable for transatlantic travelers.

That's the good news; the bad news is that plenty of Americans know it, and they're starting to book their vacations. The most popular destinations on the continent are going to be more crowded than ever this summer. Luckily, Europe is filled with off-the-beaten-track destinations that offer the same excitement as their mainstream peers without the crowds, lines and jacked-up prices.

Here are 10 less-touristy places in Europe that could be a part of your next itinerary.

Riga, Latvia

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Latvia sits on the Baltic Sea. Many travelers see it as a cheaper alternative to its neighbor, super-expensive Scandinavia. However, this tiny country is attractive for more than the price tag. The capital, Riga, is considered one of the most beautiful cities in northern Europe. Its Old Town is dominated by German-style art nouveau architecture. Tourists and locals alike spend summer afternoons wandering the cobblestone streets and soaking in the historic atmosphere.

Riga also has a vibrant nightlife scene as well as sporting options such as go-karting, kayaking and bungee jumping. You can even ride on the bobsled track if you happen to travel early enough in April. Souvenir shops are quite common in Old Town, but you can get much better deals at the district's mom-and-pop shops or at the Central Market, which is housed in a series of 1930s-era pavilions that were originally built to hold German zeppelins.

Hay on Wye, Wales

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Hay-on-Wye is a Welsh market town that has a permanent population of around 2,000 people. It is known for its bookshops. Some second-hand books are not housed inside these stores at all, but on shelves that are placed outside along the road.

The town is also known for the Hay Festival, an annual event in May that draws bibliophiles from around the world. Hay on Wye's bookstores, many of which also sell antiques, are open all year, so even if you miss the festival, you can still enjoy the literary scene. A number of historic structures from as early as the 13th century, including Hay Castle, are popular amongst visitors.

Calabria, Italy

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Calabria is the "toe" of boot-shaped Italy. In-the-know tourists and domestic travelers are well aware of the beaches, Greek ruins and rural charms of this region. However, it falls too far down the list of must-visits for most mainstream travelers, who opt for place like Milan, Venice, Rome, Florence and the Tuscan wine country.

The infrastructure is less developed in Calabria than in the north, and you will come across fewer people who can speak English. At the same time, the beaches are among the best in Europe, and the unique dishes, known for their liberal use of spicy pepperoncinis, will open your eyes to the surprising diversity of Italy's regional cooking styles.

Bled, Slovenia

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Some travelers consider Slovenia one of Europe's most underrated destinations. Bled is a town that sits next to its namesake lake in that country. The lake boasts fairy-tale-like scenery. A castle sits on the shore and an ancient church and cemetery can be found on a small island in the middle of the water. The nearby Iglica Waterfall and a series of caves (called the Hag's Tooth Caves) add to the list of attractions.

Midsummer is a great time to visit Bled. Classical concerts take place in July and folk music artists come to town in August. The height of festival season is when Bled Days are held. This local late-July celebration has carnival attractions, concerts, costumes and fireworks displays.

Salema, Portugal

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Portugal's Algarve region is a popular summertime getaway spot for Europeans from all points north. Salema is an isolated fishing village that seems frozen in time (unlike the surrounding resort areas). The village, with its whitewashed homes, quiet lanes and beachside location, offers a taste of pre-tourist-boom life in the Algarve.

Aside from spending time on the sand, visitors can hike along the coastal cliff-top trails and then head back to town to indulge in fresh seafood dishes. Hotels and short-term apartments can be rented in and around Salema, and home-stays are also available.

Cres, Croatia

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Sitting in the Gulf of Kvarner, Cres is one of the largest Croatian islands in the Adriatic Sea. Because of its location, off of the Istrian Peninsula, Cres has a vaguely Italian feel. The attractive historic ambiance is the first trait that strikes tourists. The real attraction here, however, is the abundant nature and untouched scenery.

Tall mountains dominate the island's inland. From the peaks of the two highest, Gorice and Sis, you can enjoy panoramas of the Adriatic. Cres also features rugged Mediterranean landscapes, thick forests and the freshwater Lake Vrana.

Bonn, Germany

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Bonn was the birthplace of famed composer Ludwig van Beethoven. It was also the capital of West Germany before reunification. Today, this midsize city is known for its lively summertime street scene and for its history, which is rich is artistic and political highlights. Some people affectionately compare Bonn to Italian cities because of its cafes and squares.

People who come for the Beethoven sites are usually surprised by what else they find in Bonn. In addition to a quality orchestra and the popular Beethoven-Haus, tourists will find a glut of other museums and some quirky itinerary options, such as a tour of the headquarters of the famous Haribo candy factory, home of the orginal Gummi Bear.

Helsinki, Finland

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Helsinki is certainly a well-known city, but most people do not consider it a tourist destination. Finland's capital may offer long winters and cool summers, but it's rank as one of the world's foremost design centers is a draw. Local people go out of their way to enjoy the summer weather. Outdoor cafes and beer gardens are packed day and night during the warmer months.

More than its Norwegian or Swedish peers, Helsinki has an easy-going feel. Some visitors describe the metropolis as having a small-town vibe. Summer is festival season in Helsinki, with events like electronic music's Flow Festival on the calendar. And of course you can always head to department stores and showrooms to revel in Finland's cutting-edge furniture and interior design scenes.

Myvatn, Iceland

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Iceland is known for its geothermal activity. Many tourists decide to visit this island nation so that they can soak in Reykjavik's Blue Lagoon. One of the most interesting geothermal areas is actually in the northern part of the island around Lake Myvatn. There is even a nature bath here, with water that is pumped from underground so that it retains its beneficial minerals.

The stark landscapes around Myvatn have an almost otherworldly feel. Myvatn is also a birdwatcher's paradise. Migratory birds flock to the area each summer to fish and nest in the wetlands around the lake.

Belfast, N. Ireland

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From the 1960s through much of the 1990s, Belfast was one of Europe's most notorious cities. Riddled with violence, Northern Ireland's capital was the center of a political and religious conflict between pro-English protestants and pro-Irish catholics. After a truce just before the turn of the century, the conflict died down.

Today, Belfast is on the rise as a tourist destination thanks to its amazing history, modern features and unique culture. More and more people see it as an alternative to the island's other metropolis, Dublin. Sights include conflict-era murals, historic buildings like Belfast City Hall and historic pubs, some of which have been open for centuries. Tourists also flock to the newly developed Titanic Quarter. Yes, THAT Titanic, which was built in Belfast.