Image: Lake Bled vs. Lake Como
Viorika Prikhodko  /  iStockphoto.com
Even before George Clooney decided to call Lake Como home, the lovely lake was teeming with tourists. Sidle up to Slovenia instead, where Bled blends Old World opulence with the tranquil beauty of one of Europe's best-kept secrets.
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updated 8/14/2008 2:54:30 PM ET 2008-08-14T18:54:30

“It was the summer of 1973,” says Gene Openshaw, recalling his first trip to Europe with a hint of nostalgia. “We traveled for two and a half months, from the top of the continent to the bottom: Norway to Athens to Morocco, and points in between.” The classic Eurail pass-toting backpacker, he was touring the continent with a childhood friend and celebrating his high school graduation in grand style.

“It really felt like we were on this great adventure into the unknown,” he says, more than three decades later. In the years since, Openshaw has returned to Europe more than two dozen times—both as a tourist and writer. The childhood friend and traveling accomplice was Rick Steves, and the two men would go on to establish one of America’s most successful travel guides, "Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door."

For the generations of travelers who have followed in Openshaw’s (as he puts it) “fumbling” footsteps, crossing the pond can still be an adventure. But what was virgin territory in 1973 is anything but today. This summer, those Americans undeterred by the surging euro will bombard Barcelona, rampage across Rome and pound the pavement in Paris, crowding the continent’s most famous tourist traps. With the European Union inching eastward—and savvy travelers following suit—it might seem like there’s not a corner of the continent that hasn’t been overrun by daypack-toting tourists.

There is hope—if you know where to look. Smitten by the rolling hills of Tuscany? Try Croatia’s stunning Istria region instead, where the sun-drenched vineyards and charming medieval towns draw a fraction of the Tuscan tourist crowds. Fed up with the French Riviera? Sylt, the “St. Tropez of Germany,” is sunny, sexy and still undiscovered by American travelers. Whether you’re picturing Provence in the Hungarian hills of Tokaj or imagining Amsterdam as you coast across the canals of Bruges, Europe’s top under-the-radar retreats have just as much to offer as their better-known neighbors. What they don’t have is the hype—or the crowds that go with it.

For Greg Tepper, president of the Tampa-based travel group Exeter International, it’s not just about dodging the tour buses. Places that “fly under the radar [are] much more interesting than the obvious destinations,” he says, citing the appeal of cities and countries still untouched by mass tourism.

Take the Ukraine. While undiscovered by most American tourists, the country’s ancient capital, Kiev, is a vibrant city with a rich heritage dating back to the 10th century. Its domed churches and historic monasteries—pillars of the Russian Orthodox faith—draw religious pilgrims from across Europe. Yet the city sees few tourists, says Tepper, even though it “offers almost as much as Moscow.”

And then there’s the case of Bratislava. While Prague is overrun with tourists, the capital of neighboring Slovakia is only just awakening to its tourist potential.

“Bratislava is the Prague of 15 years ago,” says Tepper, noting that a spate of new museums and luxury hotels have recently opened their doors. Chic boutiques and trendy bistros sit side by side with beautiful Baroque palaces, and the buzz around town has as much to do with the city’s proud past as its promising future. Bargain-hunters will also approve of the friendly prices; Tepper notes that Bratislava offers world-class opera that costs 70 percent less than in other European capitals.

Image: Cascais vs. San Sebastian
Hotéis Real
In-the-know Iberians are flocking to Cascais, long considered to be Portugal's coastal crown jewel, instead of popular San Sebastian.
With economic woes putting a dent in the travel plans of many Americans, Europe’s under-the-radar cities are also a good choice to stretch the declining dollar. In Kiev, Tepper says that “dinner for two is just $60 at most top restaurants.” And while a cappuccino at a Roman tourist haunt might set you back as much as ten dollars, Naples offers a taste of la dolce vita at more reasonable prices.

For Openshaw, it also offers an experience that—for better and for worse—doesn’t come with the fresh-scrubbed polish of its more-touristy neighbors. “The chickens hanging in the windows, and the kids playing soccer against the church door,” he says, listing the city’s atmospheric charms. “And yes, the pickpockets, and the garbage littering the street. You do get all of it there.”

Sometimes, the allure of the obvious is too much to resist. “The majority of my clients always want to do the Art Cities,” says Margot Cushing, an award-winning travel agent with the New York-based Linden Travel Bureau, whose clients frequently flock to Florence, Venice and Rome when visiting Italy for the first time. Encouraging them to look past the usual haunts is one of her greatest challenges, even if she has to save her suggestions for the second trip.

Image: Naples vs. Rome
Hotel Excelsior
Visigoths at the gates again? No, this time it's tourists on the rampage in Rome. With prices in the Eternal City eternally rising, neighboring Naples makes a strong case for taking a holiday from that Roman holiday.
“When I get them back again, then I can propose other places,” she says, citing Parma as a personal favorite.

Yet even the places picked over by hordes of tourists can yield their own rewards. Often the thrill of returning to Europe has less to do with finding the next great destination than finding the well-kept secret—a rustic restaurant, a charming country villa—in a familiar place. “You can look for things that are off the radar, and off the beaten track,” says Openshaw, “but a lot of it is just finding hidden gems and less familiar sights in those cities that people are used to going to.”

He adds, “For me, it’s not so much going for the breadth of the European landscape, it’s the depth—the inner meaning of the same places.”

It’s the inner meaning of other places, after all, that makes us leave home to begin with. Whether in Kiev or Croatia, in Bratislava or Bled, our top under-the-radar retreats offer plenty of reasons to pack your bags.

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