If you’re looking to tap into the local pulse on your next trip to Europe, one of the best ways to do it is by choosing your lodging wisely. The difference between staying in a heavily starred “guidebook hotel” and staying in an agritourism farm at the edge of an ocean cliff on an unmarked road can be dramatic. At the former, you may get great room service; at the latter, you eat with the proprietors at the family table.
The challenge is, of course, to find those special places to stay. The obvious choices show up on the booking engines and in the guidebooks, but how do you find anything else, and in particular the right place for you? Here are some offbeat tactics for finding off-the-beaten-path lodging on your next trip to Europe.
Maps on Steroids
The upside to using a mapping application such as Google Maps or to find lodging lies in the ability to search not by price, name or major city, but by location. More importantly, you can search a region rather than merely a city — so if you want to stay in the countryside near a major metropolis, you can see many lodging options throughout a larger geographical range.
So say you are headed to the Guggenheim Bilbao. Instead of putting “Bilbao” into a booking engine and clicking endlessly through a list of hotels within the somewhat drab city limits, you can use these sites to navigate to the Bilbao area and see lodging options both in and around the city itself. In a place like Bilbao, the surrounding areas are beautiful and worthy of attention on their own merits; staying in the outskirts is great way to have it all.
Using these sites can offer the same pitfalls as using an iPhone — it can be difficult just to figure out how to use the thing well and to capacity. Luckily, it’s not too hard to find lodging in Europe by using the following steps:
– Navigate to the area in which you would like to stay
– Choose “Search nearby”
– Type “hotel” into the search field
Other search terms I have used with considerable success: agriturismo (and the English agritourism to a lesser extent), bed and breakfast, inn, and hostel. Note that complete search results may not all appear on the map immediately — you may need to scroll through several pages of listings in order to get to the ones farther outside of town.
The search results show location, hotel name and even user reviews, as well as links to the lodging Web site when available.
Inns, B&B’s, Vacation Rentals, Agriturismo, Homestyle/Family Style and More
One of the limitations of any travel search application, whether it be a booking engine or a mapping application, is that your results will of necessity be a subset of what is actually out there in the real world. No application or service lists every single lodging option, and they will be particularly remiss when it comes to small inns, B&B’s, vacation homes and other non-hotel establishments. My experience has been that I do locate many less mainstream options using Google Maps, but definitely not all. I tested the theory on Matzuri Erregetia, a beautiful “nekazalturismoa” (the Basque term for agritourism) place I stayed in a few years ago near Mutrika in northern Spain, and Google failed the test. So how do you find places like this?
In my case, we were driving through northern Spain, asked some folks for a nice place to stay on the coast and, after a lot of driving on unmarked, snaky roads, made it in time for a late supper. The family that ran the place sat talking into the night in the common room, and we had a great evening. In the morning we realized what we had found — the place was in a truly beautiful location.
How to find these places? Word of mouth is still the best resource, and with the proliferation of traveler review sites on the Web, our access to the discoveries of our fellow travelers is unprecedented. Select “B&B and Inns” or “Specialty Lodging” as your property type on TripAdvisor, and you will be able to find your way to dozens of inns, hostels, cottages and more; it’s almost a surfeit of choices, but in the end you will not fail to find a great, possibly perfect room.
Staying in a vacation rental, where you rent out a resident’s house or apartment, is an interesting way to plug into the life of a neighborhood. Our own article on Finding a Vacation Rental has a solid list of places to start looking for vacation rentals worldwide.
Another alternative is to stay as a guest in someone’s home or on a farm. Learn more about this option with our guide to Homestays and Farmstays.
If you’re looking for inexpensive lodging, don’t count out hostels. You may be turned off by the idea of staying in dorm-style accommodations, but many hostels also offer clean (if basic) private rooms, with either shared or private bathrooms. The best place to start searching for hostels is, which promises more listings than any other online hostel database, along with “real uncensored reviews” from both travelers and paid reviewers.
Another interesting resource is Lonely Planet’s Hotels and Hostels page, where you can browse properties that have been reviewed and recommended by Lonely Planet authors.
Occasionally sites will list vacation rentals, agritourism outfits, B&Bs and inns in the same place. Here are some more I’ve come across over the past few years:
As you browse these sites, reviews can appear in many languages; use Google Chrome’s translate function and you may find you have a true local’s perspective — in the native language!
The Farther You Go, the Deeper You Get
One rule of thumb: The farther afield you search, the deeper into the culture you may find yourself. We hope the tips and resources above will help you escape the tyranny of the search engines and find your way out into the Europe known mostly, but not exclusively, to Europeans.