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Europe’s anti-tourist traps revealed

Which of these two scenarios is more appealing to you?

Your footsteps echo on the marble steps as you approach the gallery’s paintings. A few artists with sketch pads are scattered throughout the room, drawing intently, but otherwise you have the gallery to yourself. After admiring the work uninterrupted, you walk outside, wander the town’s winding streets, and stop by a cafe to enjoy a mid-afternoon snack and a televised football game with the locals.

Or:

You step up to the ticket counter after a long wait in line, pay the admission, and then head with the throngs to find the Mona Lisa. Once in sight, you jockey with other tourists, blinking among flashing cameras, to see Da Vinci’s famous painting. You work with the crowd to get close and then get away, getting elbowed and shoved in the process as hundreds of other tourists eagerly scoot toward the painting.

We like the first option better, too. In that spirit, here are some recommendations for lesser-known European destinations worth seeking out. Many of these anti-tourist traps are inexpensive, too. Some are even free.

British Isles

England

  • In London, head to Primrose Hill for city views without the crowds. Plus, explore area parks, boutiques, and impressive homes.
  • Spend an afternoon at Highgate Cemetery in North London, where you can see the graves of George Eliot, Karl Marx, and the tombs of prominent London families.
  • Rather than battling the throngs at Stonehenge just for a faraway glimpse of the stones, head to Avebury to see one of Europe’s largest prehistoric stone circles, where you can get up close and even touch the stones.

Ireland

  • To avoid the crowds of downtown Galway, take a leisurely drive through the county’s countryside, stopping at the quiet Dunguaire Castle.
  • Stay among the locals in Clontarf, a seaside town just outside of Dublin. Buses run from Clontarf to the city center every few minutes, so you can even leave your rental car behind.
  • Find an unspoiled, tourist-free [% 317330 | | time machine to Ireland’s ancient past with a day trip to Skellig Michael %], an island eight miles off the western coast.

Scotland

  • Skip stuffy Edinburgh Castle in favor of Craigmillar Castle, located just outside the city. Accessible by bus, Craigmillar is a ruined castle that visitors can explore freely with great city views from its tower.

Western Europe

Germany

  • While Munich and Frankfurt are pretty crowded, Darmstadt is a smaller, more quaint option. The town, about a half-hour drive from Frankfurt, has historic castles, a university, and a zoo.
  • Andechs, a Bavarian mountain town just outside Munich, is known for its monastery, brewery, and restaurant. Hike up to the monastery for tours, tastings, and an authentic German meal.

Italy

  • In Rome, visit historic monuments such as the Trevi Fountain at night. You’ll often have them all to yourself.
  • Rather than take an expensive gondola ride, see Venice’s famous waterways from the back of a vaporetto, or water taxi. Get off at a stop toward the end of the island, and just walk among the locals. You’ll find plenty of markets, restaurants, and quiet streets to explore.

France

  • Get a great view of the Paris skyline by heading to the roof of the Printemps department store. You’ll avoid both the long lines and high admission prices for the Eiffel Tower’s tip-top view.
  • For a different kind of view, consider heading underground to explore the catacombs. They’re rarely crowded and show a unique (and macabre) slice of Parisian history.
  • The Buttes de Chaumont park offers an alternative to Paris’s crowded central parks. Here, you’ll also see unusual sites such as suspension bridges, waterfalls, and even a cave.

Eastern Europe

Hungary

  • In Budapest, skip the big-name bathhouses for a local favorite such as the [% 328205 | | Szechenyi Baths %], where you can see the authentic comings and goings of daily town life, and pay a cheaper admission price.
  • Outside Budapest, you can tour Hungary’s wine country with a visit to towns such as Tokaji and Eger. The area is also known for its spas.

Poland

  • Although increasingly popular for its superb skiing and hiking, Zakopane, in the Tatra Mountains, provides tourists a less-crowded place to visit than Krakow or Warsaw.
  • In Krakow, skip an organized tour in favor of a self-guided walking tour. The city is compact enough to do on your own.

Slovakia

  • For an alternative to Bratislava, consider Kosice, home to the Forgach Palace, historic cathedrals, and a Slovakian culture museum. It’s a less expensive destination, to boot.

Online resources

Our picks are just a sampling of non-touristy attractions throughout Europe. To start searching for possibilities in the region you wish to visit, check the following resources:

  • Fodor’s Overlooked and Underrated series offers updated coverage on tourist-free destinations worth visiting around the world. Recent European recommendations include Oporto, Portugal; Padua, Italy; and Dingle, Ireland.
  • Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree community board offers worldwide recommendations from budget travelers, backpackers, and others willing to forego the mainstream for more authentic local destinations.
  • Community travel boards are great places to get advice and hear experiences from fellow travelers. Good places to check include Frommers’ Travel Talk, [% 333056 | | Trip Advisor %] (a partner site of SmarterTravel.com), and IgoUgo.com.

Recommendations from other experts

Edie Clark, columnist and travel writer, Yankee Magazine: “My favorite anti-touristy thing to do is the same the world over: visit the churches, which are open and free and usually representative of the local culture. Cemeteries are also fascinating.”

Hillary Geronemus, freelance travel writer: “If you’re looking for an alternative to normal city life, spend a day in Christiania, an experimental, self-governing, “free city” on the outskirts of Copenhagen. This little utopia was created 36 years ago in an abandoned section of town once used by the Ministry of Defense. Now it is a vibrant arts community where ordinary laws cease to exist. The only rules: No hard drugs, no weapons, no violence, and no cars.”

Barbara Rogers, co-author of four books on northern Italy: “In Venice, I leave the crowded name-brand San Marco-to-Rialto streets to the tourists, cross the Rialto Bridge, and head into the San Polo neighborhood. The restaurants and cafes are cheaper and filled with Venetians, and two of the most outstanding art sites are here: Tintoretto’s magnificent walls and ceilings at Scuola San Rocco and the Friari church.”

“In Verona, instead of trying to crowd into the tour-group-packed courtyard to see the totally phony “Juliet’s Balcony”—construction completed in 1940—cross the Adige River on Ponte Pietro, behind the Duomo, and climb to the top of the first-century Roman theater for views of the city and the river. It’s about the same age as the better-known Roman arena in Piazza Bra, also worth seeing.”

Regardless of where you choose to visit, seeking out less-visited destinations will be a rewarding experience. Whether you’re looking for cheaper prices, having a place all to yourself, or mingling among the locals, finding a non-touristy place to visit can make your European vacation even more memorable.

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