Members of Hungarian Miskolc Symphonical
Attila Kisbenedek  /  AFP/Getty Images
Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst, located underneath the border between Hungary and Slovakia, is a series of seven caves and is one of Eastern Europe's natural wonders. It's also an excellent antidote to the common cold — Gombasek Cave has been used for salt therapy to help clear mucus buildup.
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updated 9/29/2009 8:56:00 AM ET 2009-09-29T12:56:00

First settled more than 2,000 years ago, the town of Stari Grad is one of Europe's oldest. Indeed, the name Stari Grad is Croatian for "old town." Consequently, tourists overlook the tiny village — and miss one of the most delightful attractions on the continent.

"Most visitors disembark the ferry at Stari Grad and head straight to Hvar Town, with its sleek hotels, flashy nightclubs and luxury yachts," says Michelle Finkelstein, vice president of travel agency OurPersonalGuest. "Unfortunately they miss out on this quaint hamlet with cobblestone streets, gelaterias and quirky art galleries."

Imbued with old-world charm, Stari Grad is one of those destinations often overshadowed by other legendary landmarks. Such locales are almost always less crowded — and, in some cases, more spectacular — than famous tourist traps.

In France, for example, the Eiffel Tower may be the country's most iconic structure, but the Amiens Cathedral in Amiens (a two-hour drive north of Paris), is quite impressive in its own right — and travelers don't have to wait hours to go inside and see this medieval marvel. Completed in 1247, the cathedral soars 350 feet into the heavens; its interior is the largest of any medieval cathedral in Western Europe.

In Greece, most visitors flock to the Acropolis in Athens. But just five hours north by car, near the mountain town of Kalambaka, the ancient monasteries of Metéora rise from the tops of giant rock formations. When the fog rolls in, the structures sometimes appear to be floating in the air — hence the name "Metéora," derived from the Greek expression meaning "suspended in the air."

Searching for fems
In order to come up with Europe's 10 best-hidden travel gems, we solicited nominations from travel professionals including Patrick Evans, spokesman for STA Travel, a travel agency that caters to students; George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com; and Finkelstein. Our final list includes the most frequently and vociferously mentioned locations by the trio.

Europe's natural wonders bear little resemblance to the charred desert landscapes of the American Southwest. But the continent's craggy cliffs and ancient citadels possess a mystique all their own.

One such edifice is Denmark's Kronborg Castle. This sprawling stronghold is famous not only for its considerable size, but also as the setting for Shakespeare's “Hamlet”. Located near the town of Helsingør — dubbed Elsinore by Shakespeare —Kronborg has played host to actors including Laurence Olivier and Jude Law.

Bialowieza Forest
Janek Skarzynski  /  AFP/Getty Images
Stretching from Poland to Belarus, this nature reserve is one of Europe's last surviving old-growth forests. On the Polish side, the Bialowieza Glade offers a hotel and horse-drawn carriage tours of the woodlands. On the Belarus side, the Belavezhskaya Pushcha offers rather dilapidated lodging and a zoo. Evans recommends trying to catch a glimpse of local wisent — European Buffalo — the continent's heaviest land animal.

And although Northern Ireland isn't technically in continental Europe, it is a part of the European Union, thus rendering its attractions eligible for our list. Visitors to the Emerald Isle are often concerned with kissing the Blarney Stone, but Northern Ireland's CausewayCoast offers a salty embrace with its sweeping sea vistas. Start your trip along the coast in Derry, an ancient city protected by a wall that has kept out intruders since the year 400.

"The city is yet to be overrun by tourists," says Evans. "You can still grab a pint with the locals in the pubs." Finish up at Giant's Causeway, a seaside stretch of some 40,000 basalt columns left over from an ancient volcanic eruption.

Getting there
Pricey airfare is one of the main obstacles to vacationing in Europe. Ireland and Germany traditionally have been the cheapest entry points, according to Hobica, because of lower landing fees and heavy intercontinental traffic to support frequent flights. But the recession has been driving up prices in recent months.

"At the present moment, the airlines have really jacked up fares to Europe, even for dead-of-winter-travel," says Hobica. "We can only guess it's because they're cutting flights and parking planes in the desert."

There is, however, a silver lining for Americans craving a European getaway.

"We did see a few fares this week to Germany in the $500s, round-trip, with tax," says Hobica. "So we're hoping that the airlines will say uncle and have some sales."

On the other hand, travelers looking to visit quaint Stari Grad in Croatia may just have to wait. Roundtrip flights to the country's capital from New York rarely dip below $1,000.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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