After 15 countries, 34 cities and 99 days backpacking through Europe I can honestly say that it was not the big name cities that ended up being our favourites. It turned out to be the smaller cities and towns that we had never heard of. These were the gems that other travellers recommended – or day trips that turned into overnight stays because we had fallen in love with an unplanned place.
A year ago my best friend and I sat down to plan this trip through Europe. And while sitting at home in Whitehorse in January of 2016, it was electric to think of soon walking through the streets of Paris or London or Rome or Berlin. The big city names were exciting, but, unexpectedly, it was the lesser known destinations that turned out to be the greatest. Here’s a small collection of some of the best places that are easy to overlook.
After two and a half hours on a bus ride from Dublin, we reached the western coast of Ireland and the city of Galway. I had only ever heard of Galway because it was in the movie P.S. I Love You, which we shamelessly watched on the bus ride over.
We found ourselves set right in the middle of Eyre Square, an 18th century public park, and the hub of the city. Within a few minutes of the square were shopping areas, the Spanish Arch and the Latin quarter.
Every which way I looked in the Latin quarter I saw the heavy dark stone facades of cafés, art galleries and shops, all while hearing live Irish folk music float out of the countless old pubs.
In certain areas I could spot medieval walls jutting up and blending seamlessly with the surroundings. As with most Irish towns, the nightlife is not limited to the weekend. We soon found out why Galway has a reputation for being Ireland’s “most Irish town,” because above all else you must have fun. And fun times, or craic, is something this city has plenty of.
Day trip: Within two hours of Galway we reached the Cliffs of Moher, a 400 to 700 foot high set of sheer cliffs, buffeted by wind and covered in flowing green grass. The cliffs overlook the steely blue Atlantic Ocean, which blew droplets of water all the way up the cliffs and into our faces.
After leaving Munich (and Oktoberfest) we decided we weren’t quite ready for Berlin, which we had heard was all hustle and bustle and fun, so we chose a spot midway between the two cities to spend a couple of nights, and Dresden seemed as good a place as any.
Shortly after arriving and meeting up with a friend, we found out that this city is made up of two parts: the old quarter and the new quarter. After World War II the city lay in ruins, and was rebuilt using the charred black brick from the original buildings.
Rising up in the middle of the old quarter is the baroque Lutheran church and belltower, called Frauenkirche, which lay only a few minutes walk from the Zwinger Palace and the 102 metre long gold porcelain mural called “The Procession of Princes,” which was so high I could barely fit myself and it in a photo.
Completely contrasting with the old quarter, Dresden’s modern new quarter is filled with bars, shops and art galleries that cater to a younger crowd and offer a wide selection of restaurants and eateries that could satisfy any hipster craving we ever had.
Day trip: About a half an hour train ride from Dresden lies the tiny village of Rathen. Rathen sits at the base of the Bastei, a 300 metre high rock formation, upon which used to sit a medieval castle. After crossing over the river on a small ferry, we climbed up the staircase towards the Bastei – which took a whole hour to climb – and crossed Bastei Bridge (Basteibrücke) built in 1851 to catch a glimpse of the Saxon Switzerland National Park and the Elbe River.
Split is the second largest city in Croatia, but somehow I had never heard of it. With limited time for Croatia, a new friend told us that Split was where we would enjoy our time the most.
One overnight train later we arrived, and to our surprise it was like a vacation within our vacation. Palm trees rose up from the hills overlooking rock beaches on the Adriatic Sea. The city is made up of white stone streets that lead directly into the ocean, and buildings with terracotta roofs.
Diocletian’s Palace sits right at the centre of town, and is not just a building but rather a whole complex built in the 4th century that now houses a large portion of the city’s main businesses, residences and open air markets.
Even in late October the weather hovered at 25ºC and the ocean was crystal clear. We chose to spend an evening hiking up Marjan Hill, towards a 10 metre high cross that offers an unbeatable view of the sunset.
Day trip: We rented a car in Split and drove an hour and a half towards Krka National Park, which features a set of seven incredible waterfalls surrounded by lush forests, nature trails and the mountains of central Croatia.
We did hit a lot of the big ticket cities and a lot of classic tourist points. We adored Prague, Budapest, Barcelona and Amsterdam – honestly, everything was incredible. We quickly found out that it was impossible to go wrong when picking new places to see.
However, the lesson we learned in planning our travels was a classic one: less is more. The less we planned, the better it got. We ended up in places we had never expected to be, and these hidden, unplanned adventures turned out to be the best ones.