Swans, castles, secluded lakes… green meadows sprinkled with wildflowers. These European destinations are the stuff of fairytales, but they require a bit of extra effort to reach them.
If you’re ready to take the road less traveled on your Europe trip, add one of these picturesque destinations to your itinerary!
Nearby major city: Salzburg, Austria (1 hr)
Drive south from Salzburg and you’ll soon be surrounded by grassy hillsides, beautiful lakes and snow-capped mountains in every direction. Charming towns are speckled every few miles where you’ll find picture perfect hillside farms, church steeples, and local restaurant/hotels with amazing views. One hour along B158 will take you to Hallstatt, lakeside town and UNESCO world heritage site where you can rent a rowboat, go for a hike, or take the Dachstein cable car up 400 meters for a bird’s eye view of Lake Hallstatt and beyond. Swans included.
Nearby major cities: Munich, Germany (1.75 hrs) and Innsbruck, Austria (2 hrs)
A two-hour countryside drive from Munich or Innsbruck will take you to Schwangau where you’ll find grassy fields filled with dandelions, small herds of adorable brown cows, and Neuschwanstein Castle. It’s not hard to see why it’s one of the most photographed castles in the world, as it’s majestically positioned halfway up the mountainside and has that perfect white stone fairytale castle look. Stop your car at a designated pull-out and walk into the meadow for a photo, or head up to the castle on foot, by shuttlebus or horse-drawn carriage.
Nearby major city: Málaga, Spain (2 hrs)
Placed strategically at the southern tip of Spain, the British overseas territory of Gibraltar offers one of the most unique views in the world, as you can gaze across the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa. For the most magical adventure, trek to the top of the Rock of Gibraltar on foot for a nearly 360 degree sea view and the joyful company of barbary macaques, the small resident apes that hang out curiously along the roadside. For a faster and less strenuous trip, reach the Rock by cable car or hired vehicle.
Travel Tip: Though it’s not the only transportation option, you can easily reach each destination listed here by car. We’ve had good experiences renting from Hertz in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Slovenia. If you choose to rent a car, be sure to research or inquire locally about any toll road permits or driving restrictions that may apply to the route you plan to drive.
Nearby major city: Milan, Italy (1 hr)
Just a one-hour train ride from Milan will take you to Como, a sleepy lakeside city in the north of Italy (and the idyllic wedding setting for Anakin and Padme in Star Wars Episode II). In just an afternoon, you can enjoy a gelato, stroll around the lake, observe the resident swans and seaplanes, and hike up the hillside for a supurb view. In town you’ll also find the beautiful Duomo di Como, a gothic-style Catholic cathedral constructed across five centuries!
Nearby major city: Bologna, Italy (1.75 hrs)
Landlocked on all sides in northeastern Italy, San Marino holds claim to the title of oldest surviving sovereign state and constitutional republic in the world. The beauty of this UNESCO world heritage site is in the combination of historic stone architecture and its mountaintop location. The entire historic centre is like a sprawling castle up in the clouds! After driving up the mountain, enter the city by foot through a majestic stone gate. Follow the cobblestone footpaths to the three towers of San Marino — pay a small fee to go inside two — and climb staircases built into the fortress walls for magnificent views of both countryside and city below.
Nearby major cities: Bergen, Norway (0 hrs) and many more
If your European travels take you to Scandinavia, you won’t want to miss the fjords. Access the fjords along the west coast for amazing nature views, or experience some city fjord life in a major coastal city like Bergen. Take a cruise to see a variety of fjords, or in the warmer summer months, hike to the famous Trolltunga and Preikestolen for some of the most fantastic fjord views you’ll see in your life. For a less active adventure, take the train between Oslo and Bergen on “one of the most beautiful train rides in the world” to see a huge variety of scenery — from mountains to fjords to the sea.
Nearby major city: Ljubljana (.75 hrs)
As if Ljubljana isn’t already fairytale enough, less than one hour away, Bled has a different sort of enchantment. Peering over a gorgeous lake, you’ll find a mountain-side castle with astounding views below of abundant birdlife (including swans), rowing team practice, and the cutest little island in the lake’s center. Venture down to the lake and rent a rowboat to explore the lake and for a closer look at that island. If rain’s in the forecast, pack an umbrella for a quiet lakeside stroll in the fog.
Whether your European adventure takes you to the shores of a swan-filled lake or to the heights of a castle in the clouds, these destinations are sure to add some “once upon a time” to your travel tales!
About the Author
- In March 2014, Diana called it quits on her traditional American working life and set out to explore the world with her partner in crime (and love of her life) Ian Norman. They now live a sustainable life of full time travel, working for themselves and seeking adventure at the same time. Here on North to South, Diana documents their journey in achieving and maintaining this "road less traveled" way of life.