Travelers are making up for lost time this summer with their biggest European vacations yet.
A whopping 600% more Americans are going to Europe this summer than in 2021. That’s 55% more than last year’s already insane crowds, according to travel insurance company Allianz.
Demand is so high that travel agencies are turning customers away. Industry experts are urging travelers to either wait until the fall or go off path.
Since travelers aren’t likely to wait months for their dream trips, heading for hidden gems and lesser-known cities seems the way to go.
Here are the six most underrated destinations in Eastern Europe to beat the crowds this summer:
Novo Mesto, Slovenia
What if we told you that you could stay in a real-life castle – without breaking the bank?
Situated in the heart of the Dolenjska region’s wine country and forested Gorjanci hills, Novo Mesto is the definition of European charm. And, out in the middle of the town’s picturesque Krka river, a “Gothic water castle” offers the chance to play European royalty for a night or two.
For the price of a standard hotel room in Paris or London this summer, you could stay at Otočec Castle instead and experience five-star Slovenian hospitality.
There’s so much more to love about Novo Mesto than its island castle, though. If the views from Trška Gora Hill don’t take your breath away, the Old Town is bound to sweep you off your feet.
Breg (which translates to ‘steep beach’ or river bank) is the core of Novo Mesto’s Old Town along the river, featuring 500-year-old storybook houses – both abandoned and restored – plus a few hidden caves. It’s the perfect destination to live out your own fairy tale.
Lake Ohrid lies under the radar between the bordering mountains of Albania and Macedonia, but it’s unlikely to be a hidden gem for much longer. Think — the Italian lakes region minus the crowds and A-list prices.
There are plenty of exciting and affordable ways to enjoy being on the water at Lake Ohrid. Take a leisurely boat trip along the lake to St. Naum monastery for less than $15, or paddleboard through the region’s hidden caves on a $30 tour.
From $12 per night hostels to $90 luxury villas, there’s peaceful lakeview accommodation for travelers on any budget in Ohrid.
Visitors wandering the cobblestone streets of Ohrid’s old town will find a side of a charm to go with delicious local specialties like lamb-stuffed peppers, sizzling baked cheese, and fresh grilled fish.
Local meals focus on simple, strong flavors sourced nearby, like sheep’s yogurt and ivar, a spicy preserved red pepper spread. Best of all, they average $5 per person (try Viva Ksantika tucked down Tsar Samoil Street).
Now for the crowd favorite: gorgeous lake vistas are all around.
Visitors tend to fall in love with the sunset spot at St. Kaneo Church, perched high on the hillside past a charming stone pathway that runs along the lakeside. Bring a bottle of criminally underpriced Macedonian wine for a picnic that’s as budget-friendly as it is scenic.
While White Lotus set-jetters pack like sardines onto overpriced Sicilian beaches, smart off-path tourists are headed the Albanian Riviera.
Did you know that the Albanian coast is just a short ferry away from Barri, Italy?
Sandwiched in between popular beach destinations Vlorë and Sarandë, Himarë is home to a dazzling collection of some of the most underrated beaches in the world.
This small southern Albanian town was once a fishing village, but it’s quickly becoming a popular seaside destination – and it’s easy to see why. There’s something for every kind of traveler, all at insanely affordable prices.
- Want a secluded spot to yourself? Take the challenging hike down to Filikuri “Secret” Beach, a pristine pebble beach with crystal clear waters and not a living soul around.
- Looking for adventure? Kayak through Himarë’s hidden sea caves.
- Want white sand and turquoise waters? Take a $20 boat trip to Gjipe or Llamani Beaches.
- Low-key beach clubs are more your speed? Try Himarë’s two central beach strips.
When the beach day is done, kick back with a local $1 beer and enjoy the freshest grilled fish for less than $10.
While nearby Sicilian beaches have skyrocketed to prohibitive prices, the Albanian Riviera remains largely affordable.
This is especially true for Himarë, where vacation apartments and guesthouses average just $35 a night.
Dubrovnik, the “Games of Thrones” Croatian favorite, just beat out Venice as the most over-touristed city in Europe. Last month, there were nearly 50% more tourists than last year’s already chaotic summer season.
Travelers will be glad to hear that Marmaris, Turkey offers a castle-studded seaside alternative to Dubrovnik. More charm, fewer tourists, and drastically lower prices – what’s not to love?
In this Turkish beach town, travelers will find the same tangerine rooftops, sloping hillsides, and cinematic fortresses that have become synonymous with the Croatian coast. As an added bonus, you can enjoy world-famous Turkish coffee and breakfast while taking in those views.
Marmaris is home to dark sandy beaches with calm, turquoise waters. If white sand is what you’re after, there are plenty of breathtaking Aegean islands and beaches a short boat ride away:
- Turtle Beach – 2 hours by boat, the most popular boat trip destination
- “Cleopatra” Sedir Island – 30 minutes by boat
- Symi Island – 2-hour drive to Bodrum, then 1.5 hour ferry
- Rhodes – 1-hour ferry
Rila Lakes, Bulgaria
Settled within the northern mountains of Bulgaria lie seven glacial lakes with crystalline waters and world-class hiking. And did we mention the 1,000-year-old monastery?
Rila is a popular Balkan favorite, but it’s still shamefully underrated among international travelers. Bulgaria is also one of the absolute cheapest countries in Europe, making a trip to Rila Lakes as affordable as it is scenic.
The lakes are just a 2-hour drive or bus ride from Sofia. Rest assured; this underrated natural wonder is most definitely worth the trip.
Mountain peaks Suhi Chal, Otovishki, and Haramiya encircle a series of clear pools. The easiest and most popular route around the lakes starts from Rila Lakes hut and goes up to Dry Ridge for a panoramic view, then down to The Kidney Lake, all in just 5 hours.
If you’re not much of a hiker, don’t worry. There are plenty of low-incline, easy paths to the lakes that skip the peaks. For the chillest option, just enjoy a chairlift ride or soak up the view from the area’s scenic cabins.
But budget airlines like Wizz Air really put Kutaisi on the map a few years ago when they opened up bases at Kutaisi International Airport. New dirt-cheap direct flights to this Georgian cultural gem breathed a whole new life into its tourism industry.
Today, travelers keep coming back to Kutaisi for its rich history, beautiful old town, and wondrous nature.
Visitors love the UNESCO-listed Gelati Monastery and enjoy exploring the cultural sites of Kutaisi’s endearing old town. For the brave of heart, there are the hanging bridges and awe-inspiring waterfalls at Okatse and Martvili, plus dozens more canyons and caves to explore.
Travelers looking for a more relaxing holiday will be glad to hear that Kutaisi is home to one of the oldest wine regions in the world. ‘Wine & Dine’ tours here are as popular as they are affordable.
If you can’t make it to Kutaisi this summer, don’t worry. The Imereti region’s mountain landscapes are most scenic in the fall, anyway – but plan your trip soon to experience these vibrant turning colors.
Nothing is keeping travelers away from Europe this summer. Sky-high airfare, pricey hotels, and record crowds don’t seem to be making a dent on demand.
This peak summer season, consider going off-path to get the most out of your valuable adventure. Whether you’re looking for beach vibes or cobblestone charm, there’s a hidden gem in Eastern Europe waiting for you.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com