10 Way-Too-Popular European Destinations and Where to Go Instead
Liz Biscevic—Moral Compass
We’ve been hearing about it for years now: Over-tourism is ruining the old-world charm of Europe’s most popular destinations. Some residents have taken to staging protests in the streets—an attempt both to rally support for government regulation and raise global awareness. As foreign dollars and preferences make it difficult for family-owned businesses to compete, corporate chains and throngs of tourists are slowly pushing aside local culture. It’s an uncomfortable situation both for residents and visitors. Fortunately, there’s a pretty easy solution: Center your travel plans around Europe’s lesser-known (but quite delightful) cities, instead. Not only will you have a totally unique vacation, you’ll likely save money, too.
Instead of Barcelona: Sintra, Portugal
Barcelona residents have fiercely protested to keep tourists out of their city, but that isn’t stopping throngs of visitors from outnumbering locals, especially during the summer months when Barcelona’s beaches beckon. As a result, the historic La Rambla street is virtually unrecognizable—mom and pop shops and longtime local restaurants have been overtaken by hotels and multinational chains. Instead of traveling to this overcrowded Spanish hotspot during peak season, consider visiting Sintra, Portugal, for hilltop castles and forests with refreshing Atlantic beaches down below. Known in the past as a royal sanctuary, Sintra has been recognized as uniquely lovely by everyone from Lord Byron (who called it a “glorious Eden”) to UNESCO.
Instead of Amsterdam: Utrecht, Netherlands
We get it. Everyone wants to visit the bustling Dutch capital, known for its beautiful architecture, colorful nightlife, unique museums, pretty canals, and of course, lenient drug policies. But just a 25-minute train away is Utrecht: a college town where many Dutch millennials settle down to avoid the tourist masses. One of the Netherlands’ oldest cities, Utrecht features a stunning Gothic cathedral and a split-level medieval city center engineered around its canals, with waterside restaurants below street-level shops and businesses. With a sizeable college-age population and plenty of pubs lining the main canal, Utrecht is no slouch when it comes to nightlife, but it’s balanced by small, quirky museums highlighting Dutch culture, music, and art.
Instead of Venice: Colmar, France
As tourism continues to grow in Venice, locals are being priced out of the city, locally owned restaurants are closing, and polluted water is causing a stench that can overpower the canals’ famed beauty. But there are plenty of other romantic riverside destinations in Western Europe. Consider, for instance, the Alsatian town Colmar, renowned for its wine production as well as its charming French and German architecture dating back to the 9th century. The colorful, timber-lined houses will make you feel like you’re in Belle’s hometown from Beauty and the Beast, and you won’t be hustled for being a tourist.
Instead of Reykjavik: The Faroe Islands
Last year, American tourists outnumbered locals in Iceland. Though they ostensibly visit for the landscapes, the mythology, and the history, travelers tend to spend most of their time in the capital city of Reykjavik, which is turning into a Disneyland for adults, full of cheaply produced souvenirs and fast-fashion. For similar breathtaking, cold-weather scenery, visit the Faroe Islands, a self-governing territory of Denmark. The main city, Torshavn, is known for its booming foodie scene, lively pubs, and friendly locals recounting Nordic legends of old.
Instead of Prague: Kosice, Slovakia
Known mostly for its fairytale architecture and art scene, Prague is one of Central Europe’s most popular destinations. The result? Prague is expensive, even by tourist standards, especially when using euros, accepted unofficially at an inflated rate in place of the Czech crown currency. Cost-conscience travelers should look to Kosice, nestled in the castle-strewn mountains of eastern Slovakia. The city dates back to the 13th century and boasts architecture from various ages—gothic, renaissance, baroque, and art-nouveau. The city center also has the largest number of historical monuments in the entire country.
Instead of Paris: Tromso, Norway
Let’s be honest. We travel to Paris because it’s Paris. Yeah, Notre Dame is cool and the Eiffel Tower is very high, but we go to Paris for the name, and for that reason, Parisians hate us. According to market research company Euromonitor International, Paris is the fifth-most visited city in the world. That’s unlikely to change, especially given the recent news about the 2024 Summer Olympics. But those of us who hate crowds, dislike overpaying for things, and aren’t a fan of being ignored or mocked by locals, should travel to “the Paris of the North,” aka Tromso, Norway. Its quaint cafes, Nordic architecture, and excellent food scene will make your trip just as romantic as Paris, without the crowds or snobbery. Located above the Arctic Circle, you can even see the northern lights!
Instead of London: Berlin, Germany
London is the most popular European destination, predicted to host 20 million overnight visitors in 2017. Though its charm is undeniable, travelers looking to visit a less-touristy European hub could visit Berlin instead. Unlike Britain's controversial Brexit from the EU, Germany has been growing its reputation as a leader in the European Union, and it shows in the capital city. In 2005, Berlin was awarded “The City of Design” by UNESCO, and many believe it to be the tech capital of Europe. Artists of all stripes flock to Berlin from around the world for its welcoming community and affordable living—which gives it an edge on stuffy London.
Instead of Dubrovnik: Taormina, Sicily
Ever since Game of Thrones debuted on HBO, Dubrovnik—commonly referred to as “King’s Landing” by tourists—has become a must-see destination. At first, this created opportunities for local businesses (even if these businesses traded in the fake history of Westeros instead of their own stories). But now there’s so much foot traffic in the city, UNESCO is worried that it will cause permanent damage to the some of its oldest buildings. Locals know to avoid the city center in the afternoons when cruise ships drop off thousands of people for day trips. Instead of fighting off throngs of tourists, consider visiting Taormina, Sicily. Like Dubrovnik, Taormina boasts crystal clear water and swimming holes, beautiful architecture, Mediterranean cuisine, a temperate climate, and tons of history—mostly without the crowds.
Instead of Rome: Genoa, Italy
It’s impossible to replace Italy’s capital and all it has to offer—the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Roman Forum, to name but a few famous spots—but ethical travelers planning to visit Italy, especially during the summer months when tourism in Rome gets really out of control, should set their sights on the port town of Genoa. This laidback Ligurian city on the Italian Riviera predates the Roman empire, making it a hit with history buffs. It’s also got plenty of shopping, dining, and sightseeing opportunities for those willing to put in a little legwork.
Instead of Dublin: Galway, Ireland
Dublin has been a popular international destination for years, and it shows in the hotel prices. Go beyond the typical Emerald Isle hotspot and visit Galway, which calls itself “Ireland’s Cultural Heart,” a claim backed up by frequent Irish folk dance, music, and theater performances. It’s a two-and-a-half hour bus ride from Dublin, so you can still take a day trip while saving money on lodging and food. Galway is also close to popular Irish destinations like the Aran Islands and the Cliffs of Moher.