Tourists go to Europe in search of authentic experiences, old world charm and elegance and, of course, great food. What we find often differs dramatically from this ideal.
Some of the most popular cities at the peak of tourist season feel like a cross between Disney World and Time Square. Food can be overpriced and mediocre, lines for attractions are miles long and locals are clamoring to either curb or escape the droves of tourists visiting their cities.
It doesn’t have to be so. There are still lots of places where you don’t have to feel like you are constantly battling the crowds. Here are a few alternative destinations that don’t get quite so overrun in the peak months.
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
One of the most famous European cities, the Venice of the North, is often overcrowded come July and August. The city of less than a million people welcomed 17 million tourists last year. Hotel and food prices are rising, and local services are struggling to keep up with tourist demand.
Where to go instead?
Copenhagen is a lovely city, full of Northern European charm but far less crowded. Quaint canals, beautiful architecture, friendly locals and very long summer days – all make for an unforgettable trip. Crime rate is low, you can see locals leaving unlocked bikes near their homes and offices all the time.
Just like Amsterdam, Copenhagen is a very bike-friendly city. Hotels lend bikes to guests at no charge, and it seems like an overwhelming majority of the city is out biking at any given time in the summer. Copenhagen is walkable, very compact and all the major attractions are close to each other.
The canal boat tour is a must in my opinion! The tickets are valid for 48 hours so don’t wait till your last day to do the tour. You can hop on and hop off in many locations around the city. The boat will take you to the famous mermaid sculpture, the most overrated and underwhelming Copenhagen attraction. Don’t bother to get off, you can see it better from the water.
Using Points in Copenhagen
The Copenhagen Marriott Hotel is a great choice in this city of very expensive hotels. The location is perfect (ask for a room with a water view and you won’t be disappointed). In summer, the room at this hotel costs close to $400. It’s possible redeem Marriott points at 50,000 Marriott points/night. Remember to take advantage of the book four nights, get fifth nights free offer when using points. I wouldn’t call this a bargain, but it beats paying $400/night at this, or many other hotels in Copenhagen.
As a reminder, Chase Ultimate Rewards Points can be transferred directly to Marriott Rewards at a 3:1 rate. The intro bonus from a single Chase Sapphire card (Reserve or Preferred) is sufficient to cover three nights here.
Canals, brick facades and painted roofs all create this unmistakable Norther European charm but with far fewer tourists than Amsterdam. Performing arts, edgy bars and lots of great restaurants – Hamburg has it all.
Using Points in Hamburg
There’s no shortage of hotels in this German city, including all major U.S. brands. Park Hyatt Hamburg offers a great value at just 15,000 World of Hyatt points. In my opinion, any Park Hyatt redemption at 15,000 points is a bargain, especially in Europe. The cash price for this hotel in summer is about $250. Right now, the introductory bonus on the World of Hyatt Credit Card is 60,000 World of Hyatt points, enough for four nights at this five star property.
If you don’t have Hyatt points, Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer 1 to 1 to Hyatt and the transfer is instant.
Cinque Terre, Italy
Cinque Terre is so overrun with tourists that Italian government is considering measures to limit the number of people who are able to visit this beautiful region. Tiny coastal villages can barely cope with the increasing number of visitors. The trains between villages are crowded and the narrow streets are thick with tourists.
If you have to visit, come by boat, or go during off peak season.
Where to Go Instead?
Tiny fishing village on the Italian Riviera that has all the charm of Cinque Terre but without the crowds. It’s not exactly an undiscovered destination but the big crowds haven’t arrived yet. Camogli is just four minutes by train from Santa Margherita Ligure, a regional hub.
Portofino is another postcard town on the Italian Riviera, but with a distinctly upscale vibe. Big white yachts are moored in its picturesque harbor. Italian glitterati snack at stretches of restaurants and cafes. Take a boat to Portofino from Santa Margherita Ligure, a beautiful and very underrated town on the Ligurean Sea, and enjoy beautiful scenery on the way to Portofino.
Using Points on Italian Riviera
This region of Italy doesn’t have many chain hotels; the best you can hope for is a Best Western. However, if you have Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, you can book many wonderful local hotels through Chase Travel portal. Santa Margherita Ligure is a lovely town with great food, shopping and many beautiful locally owned hotels.
My husband and I stayed at Lido Palace, an oceanfront hotel just across from a little beach. Using Ultimate Rewards through the Sapphire Reserve card offers great value at 1.5 cents/point. If you have other Ultimate Rewards earning cards such as Chase Ink Business Preferred, combine all the points and book through the Reserve card – you will get better value. This is a great redemption option when you don’t have the major chains or good transfer options.
It is no coincidence that yet another Italian destination made the list. Last year, 58.25 million tourists visited Italy. Who could blame them? With so many things to see and experience, it’s possible to visit Italy countless times and not get through a must-see list. Most tourists, especially on their first (and sadly often only) visit, go to the same major cities, like Rome and Venice.
The city is drowning in tourists and might soon end up on UNESCO’s list of endangered heritage sites.
Where to Go Instead?
While not exactly an undiscovered gem, Verona is far less crowded. Leave the throngs of tourists congregating under Juliet’s balcony, and wonder the old cobblestone streets away from the crowds. Cross the Adige river and get lost in a warren of little streets still populated by Italian artisans. This is where the locals live – you can see moms picking up kids from school and old Italian ladies going about their business.
A quaint little town with picturesque canals, lovely half-timbered houses and tiny cobbled streets free of traffic. It is located on the Alsace wine route – visiting wineries is always a good thing.
Using Points in Verona and Colmar
There are no major U.S. chain hotels in Verona or Colmar, so Chase Ultimate Rewards points will come in handy here as well. Book a charming local hotel through Chase Travel portal such as Hotel Saint-Martin in Colmar. AirBnB is a great option too, you can stay at one of the newly renovated farmhouses in the surrounding area.
This beautiful Croatian city had passed legislation limiting the number of tourists allowed to enter the medieval walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Most tourist arrive in Dubrovnic via cruise ships. The hugely popular TV show Game of Thrones also brings in thousands of show’s fans. If you are unlucky enough to arrive at the same time as cruise passengers descend on this besieged city, you might not be able to enter the old town until crowds subside.
Where to Go Instead?
Tel Aviv, Israel
The old and very walkable historic district of Yaffo can rival the charm of Dubrovnic’s old town, the views of the Mediterranean are breathtaking and the food is epic. Tel Aviv has some of the best beaches lined with bars and cafes that offer all day/all night service. Fewer cities have better food and nightlife, you will definitely never be bored or hungry in Tel Aviv.
Using Points in Tel Aviv
Most major U.S. hotel chains have a presence in Tel Aviv. You can also get a lovely AirBnB in one of the recently renovated apartment buildings in a trendy neighborhood, like Florentin or Neve Tzedek.
Croatia’s Balkan neighbor has beautiful medieval villages, picture-perfect mountains and narrow beaches along the Adriatic sea. Montenegro exudes similar Balkan vibe as Croatia, but with far fewer tourists competing for the limited resources.
Using Points in Montenegro
In Montenegro, use Chase Ultimate Rewards points for a local hotel. The Chedi Lustica Bay in Montenegro has Mediterranean-inspired design, stunning views and won’t break your points “bank”.
Over 30 million people visited Barcelona in 2017. The city is a magnet for architecture lovers from all over the world. Lots of history, great weather and delicious food – all are major attractions for tourists who flock to Barcelona in record numbers. Prices are rising and the locals are calling to curb the rising tide of tourism.
Where to Go Instead?
San Sebastian, Spain
A resort town in the Basque country attracts far fewer visitors. Here you’ll find sweeping beaches, phenomenal food scene and many vineyards in the surrounding areas making unique Txacoli wine.
Using Points in San Sebastian
Hotel Maria Cristina, a Luxury Collection Hotel, has stunning location and is a perfect example of old world elegance. This amazing property can be booked with 60,000 Marriott points. Don’t forget to take advantage of book four nights, get fifth night free when booking with points.
Seville offers Gothic architecture, Moorish buildings and, of course, Flamenco. Alcazar Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is one of the most beautiful palaces in Europe.
Using Points in Seville
Marriott has a few mid range and luxury properties in Seville, such as AC Hotel Ciudad de Sevilla (17,500 points/night) or Hotel Alfonso III, a Luxury Collection Seville (60,000/night). Chase Ultimate Rewards points can also be used to book one of many charming local hotels.
There are still lots of places in Europe that don’t feel like tourist traps, feel authentic and aren’t too far off the beaten path. Share your favorite European discovery in comments. Where would you go instead of visiting the most popular European cities?
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