My first trip to Europe was a heady mix of excitement, nerves, and total awe. At 19, I wandered the streets of Le Marais wide-eyed, marveled at the sorbet-colored architecture in Positano with disbelief, and was completely transfixed by how quickly the culture and landscape changed when you crossed a border. It wasn't a one-time reaction, either: I've felt the magnetic pull to explore Europe over the last nine years, returning almost every summer to swim, hike, and eat my way through 26 countries.
Having spent the majority of my 20s exploring the region and visiting over half of the countries in Europe, I'm often asked by travelers which places I recommend. Of course, the answer varies depending on the type of vacation you want and the amount of time you can spare, but without fail, these five lesser-known locales always make my list. The common thread? They're all exceptionally beautiful, somewhat unpredictable, and absolutely live up to the hype. Having spent almost a decade exploring Europe, these are the five spots I'd return to again and again.
If I had to pinpoint one destination in Europe that absolutely blew me away, it's Cappadocia. I had seen pictures of the rose-tinted terrain and bobbing hot air balloons on Instagram, but nothing could prepare me for how utterly beautiful it is in real life.
The biggest mistake travelers make is only visiting for one day. The sunrise hot air balloon ride is the top tourist attraction, but weather can be unpredictable, so it's worth staying for three days. It might look desolate, but there's a lot to do in Cappadocia: Be sure to visit the underground city, hire ATVs to traverse the dusty landscape, hike through the "fairy chimneys," and explore the markets.
The Croatian coast is a popular summer vacation destination, but I prefer its neighbor, Montenegro. There are fewer non-European travelers, the old towns are picturesque, the seafood is world-class, and the scenery is absolutely breathtaking.
Of the three towns we visited, Kotor was the standout. The fortified town on Montenegro's Adriatic coast has the perfect mix of pristine pebble beaches, limestone cliffs, and historic buildings. Dedicate two to three days to explore the town and be sure to hike to the Castle of San Giovanni for a spectacular view of the mountains.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
I heard about the natural beauty of Slovenia from other travelers, but this small European country absolutely exceeded my expectations. It has some of the best traits from its neighbors Italy, Croatia, Austria, and Hungary, but with a local twist.
Slovenia is the ideal place to practice slow travel, so plan to spend at least one week and hire a car to explore the countryside at your leisure. Start in the quaint capital, Ljubljana, then drive to romantic Lake Bled and hire a rowboat to paddle around the 17th-century church on Bled Island. Hikers should venture on to the Julian Alps, home to some of the most spectacular mountains in the region.
Positano is hardly an under-the-radar vacation spot, but it certainly lives up to the hype. Located on Italy's Amalfi Coast, the cliffside village is every bit as divine as the postcards portray. Picture mosaic-tiled churches, pastel houses, row upon row of bright beach umbrellas, and the scent of fresh lemons wafting from the local cliffside gardens.
If you love Italian cuisine, venture up the hillside to Nocelle, a small village with exceptional homemade pasta. We loved La Tagliata, a casual, unpretentious Italian restaurant with amazing views of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Ask for a glass of the locally made limoncello at the end of your meal—it's not to be missed.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
I came across Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina, during a road trip from Hungary to Montenegro. We'd planned to pass through, perhaps spending one night in the ancient city and ended up extending our trip. It was unlike anywhere I'd visited in Europe, boasting a beautiful Ottoman town that dates back to the 15th century, lively bars and restaurants, and an incredible curved bridge that locals dive off (yes, really).
Mostar is also a great base to explore the rest of the Balkan country. Don't miss Blagaj Tekke, a 600-year-old Dervish monastery built under a cliff, and Kravica Waterfalls, a beautiful swim spot. It might be a small country, but it's one that will entice you to return again and again.
Ready to fly? Here's what I wear on a plane every time I travel.