13 of Europe’s hidden hot spots

Story highlights

From ancient castles to modern club scenes, Europe offers many hidden treasures

Ancient history buffs will enjoy the cave dwellings and rock churches of Matera, Italy

Local nature lovers flock to Île de Noirmoutier, France, a hot spot flush with wildlife

Looking for energy? Try Formentera, Spain's celebrity-friendly beaches and clubs

Travel + Leisure  — 

Americans can’t get enough of Paris, as becomes painfully clear each summer, when it swarms with tourists.

Relief waits a train ride away in Île de Noirmoutier: You’ll be greeted by the scent of mimosa and the sight of bobbing yachts and families picnicking on the beach.

Thankfully, Europe is still full of under-the-radar gems like this French retreat. And we can’t resist spreading the word about the latest emerging hot spots, from Eastern Europe’s hippest art scene to a sleepy district of lakes and castles.

It takes extra effort, sure, to reach these European spots, but the reward comes with that sense of being let in on a fantastic secret – and the opportunity to experience a place rooted in local tradition before it’s really discovered and altered. And if you just can’t forget Paris, consider you’ll probably get to transit through one such glittering European hub along the way.

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Matera, Italy

Tourists are taking their sweet time to get the message about this starkly beautiful, monochromatic town of ancient architecture. Yet Matera has been a favorite of film directors (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mel Gibson) for decades, and Francis Ford Coppola is opening his sixth hotel in nearby Bernalda, where his grandfather was born.

Carved out of a limestone gorge, the millennia-old town in the southern region of Basilicata – the arch of Italy’s boot – was abandoned for decades, until artists and hippies began repopulating it in the 1950s and UNESCO declared the old town a World Heritage Site in 1993.

From the natural-rock pool at the Locanda di San Martino, you can float while surveying the sassi (ancient cave dwellings) and hundreds of rock churches that date back to the Byzantine era.

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Fermanagh Lakelands, Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland’s self-styled lake district isn’t as dramatic as its English sister, which has given it reprieve from the millions of visitors who come to the region’s shores. Here, instead of membership-only clubs and helipads, you get crenellated castles from the 17th and 18th centuries, misty loughs (lakes), and views of the distant Donegal Mountains.

For a truly Irish experience, stay in the west wing of Crom Castle, the historic seat of the earls of Erne for more than 350 years. Its 1,900 rolling acres are filled with every possible amenity to fulfill your outdoor Gaelic fantasies – and reachable within a two-hour drive from Belfast or Dublin.

Muhu Island, Estonia

On the tiny island of Muhu – accessed by an ice road in winter – you’ll find working windmills, thatched cottages, and a 13th-century pagan church. The population is only around 2,000, but this island 100 miles from Tallinn is rich with tradition, dating back to 1227 when an army of Christians crossed the ice and ended the Estonian Crusade.

Padaste Manor may not be that old, but it still has some 700 years of history under its Danish-style eaves. Experience what a descendant of one of those crusaders (the last private owner, Baron Axel von Buxhoeveden) thought of as impeccable taste in the hotel, whose outbuildings merge the old world styles of St. Petersburg (to the east) and Denmark (to the west).

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Matarranya Region, Southern Aragon, Spain

Spain’s answer to Tuscany is striped with vineyards and rivers, then dotted with olive groves and tree-lined peaks. It rests at the confluence of the ancient Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia kingdoms, and the feeling is still a bit regal (one can imagine a king, on horseback, hunting for buck).

The pace of life is typically slow, leaving plenty of time for long walks in the hills, mountain-bike rides, and visits to vineyards. The center of it all is at Hotel Torre del Visco, a 15th-century palace in Fuentespalda (population: 368) that is often host to Europe’s remaining royalty; its remoteness is hard to match elsewhere. And it’s surprisingly affordable – about $200 per night including breakfast; seems even landed gentry like a good deal. Wander the labyrinthine fortress and pretend you’re on the set of the Spanish version of “Game of Thrones.”