Ever since I was a child, I've dreamed of falling in love in Paris. It's cliché, I know, but my 10-year-old self was convinced the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower might as well have been the Disney castle, and that a fairy-tale romance would ensue. Fast-forward to 2012, when I visited Paris for the first time with my boyfriend, and I'll admit that it wasn't what I expected. Braving selfie stick–touting crowds to climb 674 stairs to the top of the city's most iconic building didn't quite match the dreamy postcard image from my youth.
Since that moment, I decided to ditch the major cities and search for Europe's hidden gems: romantic piazzas with live music, quaint and quiet winding canals, wine tasting in France (as listed in this Burgundy travel guide), and whitewashed buildings perched on the shore of the Mediterranean without a tour group in sight. That, to me, is true romance. Whether you're planning a destination date with your S.O. or are looking for a little-known locale to spend some time solo, these off-the-grid European towns should be at the top of your bucket list. Forget the usual list toppers—this is where you should plan your next getaway.
See: Slovenia's capital might not have the romantic reputation of its neighbors Venice and Vienna, but Ljubljana (pronounced lub-lee-arna) is fast becoming a strong rival. A day spent wandering the cobbled streets reveals its charm: Traditional buildings flank the winding river that splits the town in two, while a majestic medieval castle perched on a nearby hill peeps above the treetops.
Do: Spend a night perusing the city center, stopping to watch musical performances in the main square and sampling chef-prepared dishes from the open-air market. The next day, venture to Lake Bled, a fairy-tale of a town less than an hour's drive from the capital, and hire a rowboat to explore the tiny island at its center.
Stay: Vander Urbani Resort, an ultra-modern design hotel that sits under Castle Hill on the banks of the Ljubljanica River. Despite its tradition exterior, the hotel suites feature mirrored panels, soothing gray and lavender décor, and views of the leafy cafe-lined streets below.
See: Love Croatia? Leave the Game of Thrones fan tours in Dubrovnik and set your sights on Kotor, a coastal town in Montenegro. The port town is surrounded by fortifications built by the Venetians, and it has glistening clear beaches sheltered by dramatic mountains.
Do: Choose your own adventure: Active couples should climb to the top of Kotor's fortification to watch the sunset over the brooding mountains atop the ruins. Consider yourself more of a foodie? Sample the local seafood in one of the many candlelit restaurants in the labyrinth of marble streets.
Stay: Rest up in Boutique Hotel Astoria, which is located in the 13th-century Buca Palace in the heart of Kotor's historic quarter. The nine suites have traditional décor, marble bathrooms, and exposed stone walls.
See: Lisbon might garner attention for its gorgeous tiled buildings, but there's a nearby town that outdoes the Portuguese capital in the romance stakes: Sintra. A mere half-hour drive from Lisbon, this stunning town is like a real-life fairytale, with colorful castles and moss-covered gardens rich in history.
Do: Sintra might be small, but there is a ton to do, so be sure to plan your time wisely. The best option is to hire a Vespa to drive to the many heritage-listed castles. Our favorite? Be sure to see the Initiation Well in Quinta da Regaleira, an 88-foot-deep well with winding underground passages that allow you to venture to the moss-covered base.
Stay: If you can spare the time, it's well worth staying in Sintra for at least a night. Go all-out on a suite at Tivoli Palácio de Seteais, a romantic five-star hotel with palatial interior design and views of Castelo dos Mouros and Palácio da Pena, two of Sintra's main attractions.
See: Often dubbed "Venice of the East," Piran offers a unique hybrid of Italian and Slovenian culture. Located near the Italian border, this Adriatic coastal town has one of the best-preserved historical towns in Europe.
Do: Piran's uncanny resemblance to Venice isn't a coincidence—the Cathedral of St. George is said to be modeled on the campanile of San Marco. Climb the bell tower for views of the terra-cotta–tiled roofs, and then enjoy an Aperol spritz at sunset at one of the many oceanfront bars.
Stay: You won't find glitzy designer hotels in this down-to-earth beachside town. Instead, opt for a B&B or apartment in the old town to feel like a local during your stay.
See: Don't get us wrong—Santorini is a destination every romantic should have on their bucket list, but if you've visited the whitewashed caldera, where to next? If flashy Mykonos isn't quite your scene, consider Paros. The large island—part of the Cyclades—boasts pristine beaches, traditional villages, and Byzantine ruins.
Do: Spend a day exploring the white-and-blue boutiques in Parikia, then take a boat to Antiparos, a tiny island off the coast with quiet beaches that is loved by locals and one of the oldest caves systems in Greece.
Stay: Retreat to one of the lush suites at Yria Island Boutique Hotel & Spa, located near Parasporos Beach.
See: Been to Barcelona? Add Seville to your travel itinerary. The Andalusian capital is blessed with gorgeous Spanish architecture, a thriving arts scene, and some of the best flamenco performances you'll find in the region.
Do: Head straight to the Alcázar. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the castle was built by the Moorish Muslim kings, and it has intricate mosaics, finely carved archways, and manicured gardens.
Stay: Make Hotel Palacio de Villapanes your base for exploring Seville. The luxury five-star boutique hotel has considered, refined décor with wooden doors, antique accents, and a marble bathtub from the 19th century.
See: You'd be forgiven for mistaking a photograph of Annecy for Amsterdam. After all, the small French town has similar canals and dusty-hued buildings, but that's where the similarities end. Located near the Swiss border, Annecy is a go-to for French vacations in both summer and winter; Lake Annecy is a startling turquoise color during these seasons, and the snowcapped mountains make this quaint town even more picturesque.
Do: It's hard to spend time indoors, given the beautiful natural surroundings. Start your day with breakfast at one of the lakeside cafés, and then wander the old town, Vieille Ville, to take a dip in the azure water while gazing up at the mountains.
Stay: Looking to splurge on accommodations? The Imperial Palace is for you. Situated on the banks of Lake Annecy, the über-luxe hotel has a Belle Époque façade and modern rooms with views of the picture-perfect lake.