Summer is coming up and inevitably, tourists will flock to the classic European destinations. They’ll pack the canals of Amsterdam and Venice. From the beaches of Barcelona to the roads of Rome, one might find themselves struggling to enjoy their holiday as they squeeze through sweaty sightseers. To avoid yourself getting stuck in the throes of sunset crowds in Santorini, here are some amazing alternatives to the typical European summer destinations.
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When I first visited Albania, I didn’t have too many expectations. In fact, what drove me to Albania was how overcrowded Greece was during the summer season. I’m as go-with-the-flow of a traveler as it gets, and that usually means that I simply rock up to a destination and try to find accommodation then and there. In Greece, that usually meant I was left with bottom of the barrel hostels. After a month in Greece, I took a ferry from Corfu to Albania. I still remember my initial feelings as the ferry pulled into Saranda.
Greece was charming and aesthetic everywhere you looked. Albania… not so much. Not to worry. Saranda isn’t exactly the best that Albania has to offer. It took a couple of days for Albania to grow on me, but once it did, it quickly became my favorite of the Balkan countries.
To the north, you had the rugged and untamed mountains of the Albanian Alps. Along the coast, turquoise Mediterranean waters shimmered towards the endless horizon. I didn’t speak the language, I hardly ever had internet, and my most common form of transportation was sticking my thumb out and hoping for the best. The Albanian people never hesitated to lend a helping hand. As soon as it became clear to a group of Albanians that you were a foreigner, you were suddenly a celebrity and they would do everything in their power to ensure you had a wonderful time in their country.
The hostel scene in Albania is also among the best I’ve ever encountered in my many years of backpacking. Stone City Hostel in Gjirokaster and Berat Backpacker’s in Berat are in a league of their own. Wanderer’s Hostel in Shkoder took hospitality to another level, and despite not vibing with Saranda, Wallaby Hostel was a bright spot in a relatively bleak city.
Albania charmed me in many ways. Visit this country with an open heart and open mind and it will win you over as well.
The Crash Course Guide to Traveling Albania
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I have a bad problem with FOMO. When my friends told me they were going to a festival in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, I was like, “what is a Cluj-Napoca – okay anyway booked”. I partied my face off at Untold Festival for four days straight. I was absolutely unhinged at Untold, and it was amazing. After my friends, the DJs, and the serotonin, had come and gone, I figured, hey, I was already here. Why not stick it out in Romania a little longer? So I did.
That festival comedown was the worst I’ve ever had, but there were few better places I could’ve imagined having to deal with it. I lounged around in Cluj-Napoca for a couple of days, enjoying the laid-back vibes and delicious food of this overlooked destination. Eventually, I began hopping on trains and leapfrogging from village to village. Roaming through these quiet, colorful villages made me feel like I was living a fairy-tale. I was Belle singing her little intro song in Beauty and the Beast, except I didn’t want much more than this provincial life.
Romania has something for every type of traveler. If you like mountains, you’ve got the breathtaking Carpathians running through the center of the country. History lovers can find it in every corner of this storied country. Relax by the black sea, party it up in Bucharest, explore extravagant castles, or just be like Belle and read a book in a small village like Sighisoara. Brasov was a personal favorite destination of mine, and while the capital city of Bucharest isn’t a traveler-favorite, I quite enjoyed the grungy, alternative nightlife scene of the city.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Like most countries in the Balkans, I didn’t really know what to expect from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The hospitality I experienced in Albania was second-to-none, until I arrived in Bosnia. I hopped on a bus from Montenegro to Sarajevo, only to realize I was well outside the city center of Sarajevo with no SIM card and no local currency. I lasted about three seconds of looking clueless before someone offered me a ride into the city center, no strings attached.
I checked into my accommodation, Hostel Kucha, and settled into my shared dorm. The owner apologized profusely because I arrived before they were able to vacuum the floors. I thought nothing of it, because honestly, I really couldn’t care less. However, I left for a walk through the city and came back to four free beers on my bed gifted by the hostel owner. Bosnian hospitality is amazing.
Sarajevo is an incredible city. For its small size, it boasts an unbelievable amount of culture, history, and character. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world, not just for the rolling hills surrounding the city, the abundance of hiking options, or the beautiful historic center. Sarajevo is alive. It’s hard to describe, but knowing the trauma that Sarajevo and Bosnia were recently put through, yet how upbeat, lively, and hospitable the people remain despite it all, it’s a powerful thing.
I didn’t explore too much of Bosnia, just hitting Sarajevo, Mostar, and Blagaj before bouncing down to Croatia, but it is a country that I know I will explore again. People are the best part of traveling, and Bosnians left a mark on my heart that will draw me and many others back to their country time and time again.
Montenegro is a tough one for me to talk about. On one hand, it boasts an incredible diversity of natural beauty. From the Bay of Kotor to the Montenegrin Alps, the Tara Canyon to Skadar Lake and the miles and miles of Mediterranean Coastline, Montenegro has a lot to offer. Objectively, Montenegro is one of the most beautiful in all of Europe.
But like I said in the previous blurb about Bosnia, the people are usually what leave their mark on me. Montenegro was hit-or-miss when it came to people’s attitude towards travelers, or maybe just Asian travelers. It was so bad that I genuinely considered taking a bus back to Albania after just two days in Budva. My friend had a heatstroke and collapsed in the bathroom of the hostel, just mustering enough energy to call me. Unfortunately, I was about 40 minutes away so I frantically called the hostel and they just laughed and did absolutely nothing. A group of friends and I had to carry her about 20 minutes outside the car-free old town before we could get her into a taxi to the hospital… where they did absolutely nothing besides help drag her unconscious body into another taxi and tell us to go to Kotor.
That taxi driver was the only one who seemed to care during our whole ordeal, but I could go on and on. However, that trip to Kotor’s hospital convinced me that I should at the very least spend a few days in Kotor, which redeemed the country for me. It was an amazing time, and Kotor remains one of my favorite destinations in the Balkans. Staying at Old Town Hostel was the best decision I made in Montenegro, and they helped me get my feet set and figure out any Montenegrin adventure I could have imagined.
I decided to give Montenegro another chance, and was met with angry glares in Niksic and waiters who probably spit in my food in Zabljak. So yeah, as beautiful as Montenegro is, it can also be quite unwelcoming towards travelers. My Montenegrin friend told me that they aren’t used to travelers yet, and are in general, not a very smiley group of people. I don’t usually complain about bad experiences with people, because hey, maybe they were just having a bad day. But, when it happens consistently, I do kind of begin to wonder if there is a trend. Those views, though.
For a small country the size of Massachusetts, Slovenia packs a punch. This country boasts stunning natural beauty, from its lush green hills to its sliver of Mediterranean coastline. Lake Bled is Slovenia’s most famous destination, but it’s so much more than that. In the northern parts of this small country, you’ll find beautiful alpine lakes and gorgeous mountain ranges. Summiting Triglav, the country’s tallest mountain, is a rite of passage for any Slovenian. However, it’s a pretty dang cool thing to do as a traveler, as well, and one that I’ll undoubtedly be back for.
The capital of Ljubljana is a charming small city that serves as a perfect home base for exploring the country. A hike up to the castle on the hill is an essential stop for some epic views of Ljubljana city and the towering snow-capped peaks in the distance. Ljubljana almost feels like a fever dream, that’s how perfect the city is. People riding bikes while their dog trots along besides them, friendly people selling fresh produce at their market stalls, historic, yet pristine buildings line the narrow, cobbled streets. It’s like… too perfect, you know what I mean? Even the air in Slovenia just feels like premium air. Life is simply better here.
Make sure to take a day trip over to Postojna Caves, one of the world’s largest cave systems. It’s so big that you can actually take a small train through the caves. Nearby, you’ll find Predjama Castle, a unique castle in that it’s built into a cave. Slovenia also has an underrated wine region that few people have heard of. Basically, there’s quite a lot to do in such a small country.
For now, Slovenia still falls under the shadow of its neighboring tourist hotspots Italy, Croatia, and Austria. However, don’t skip over this amazing country, or any of the others on this list.
Italy, France, Spain, and Greece are tried-and-true travel destinations. I could revisit them time and time again, but every now and then, an off-the-beaten-path adventure is much-needed. You’ll undoubtedly find hidden gems and make some unforgettable memories in these lesser-visited European countries.
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