By David Barclay | June 14, 2023
2023 is setting new records for travel to Europe and eclipsing the incredible travel demand of 2022. The most popular places to visit in Europe are more crowded, have low availability of accommodations, drivers, and guides. And as expected from basic economics, with higher demand comes higher prices. Today’s blog will focus on alternatives to some of the most popular and/or expensive European countries to visit. These suggestions are great places to visit but have yet to get on the radar of the average traveler. This means they are great places to visit if you want to avoid the crowds or want to stretch your vacation dollars a little further.
Instead of Italy, consider Croatia
Located on the other side of the Adriatic Sea from Italy, a trip to Croatia can be a great alternative to an Italian vacation. Croatia shares many characteristics with Italy, including many beautiful old towns & villages, a great wine country, dramatic limestone cliffs, and great beaches. For travelers that like the water and seaside towns, the Dalmatian Coast provides a plethora of islands and island towns to visit. Visitors can charter a boat for the day and lazily island hop while traveling between Dubrovnik and Hvar, or Hvar and Split. While the Italian island of Capri has its famous Blue Grotto, the island of Biševo has a similar blue grotto which provides the same awe to visitors.
Travelers to many of Croatia’s coastal towns and villages will notice a very Italian feel to the architecture. This isn’t surprising as Venice controlled this area in its heyday and built some of the key structures in many of these towns.
Wine lovers will enjoy the many wine regions in Croatia, mostly located near the coastal area of the country. These wine regions produce spicy reds and crisp white wines. The wine region of Istria in the north is considered a stronghold for orange wines, which have gained in popularity in recent years.
Croatia is also known for beautiful geography. A visit to the Plitvice Lakes National Park in central Croatia or the Krka National Park in the south is a must for any trip to Croatia. Both parks have beautiful, terraced waterfalls that captivate visitors with their sheer splendor.
While prices are highest in July and August, when the most tourists travel to Croatia, even then prices tend to be less than in Italy. In the shoulder seasons, Croatia can easily allow visitors to stretch their travel dollars further, especially for travelers willing to visit Croatia’s less touristy areas.
Instead of Spain, consider Portugal
Sharing the Iberian Peninsula with Spain, Portugal is often overlooked by travelers focused on visiting this part of Europe. In 2021, Portugal welcomed less than 1/3 as many tourists as its neighbor Spain, however Portugal has as much to offer visitors. While Portugal and Spain are two countries with different cultures and languages, they also have a lot of similarities. Visitors will notice similarities in Portuguese cuisine, in fact Portuguese petisco will seem very familiar to fans of Spanish tapas and petisco walking tours are very popular among foodies.
Visitors to Portugal can fly into and out of Lisbon, spending several days there exploring this wonderful city. Lisbon is known for the street cars that traverse the city and many Americans think Lisbon bears many similarities to San Francisco.
From there, wine lovers can head up to Porto and explore the Douro valley and the wonderful port wines produced in this region. Travelers that enjoy historic towns can take a day trip out of Lisbon to visit the smaller towns of Sintra and Cascais. Vacationers who want some fun in the sun and a Mediterranean Riviera experience can travel to The Algarve on Portugal’s southern coast. Here they can enjoy soaring cliffs, golden beaches, and quaint seaside towns.
Travelers who still need to get a taste of Spain while on their vacation are in luck. Seville is only about a 4hr drive from Lisbon and a visit to both cities can easily be included in a weeklong trip.
While Portugal is not a budget destination, visitors will notice that costs are lower than in Spain.
Instead of Switzerland, consider Slovenia
Slovenia is a wonderful country that’s quickly building a reputation as a great vacation destination. Although a relatively small country, it offers mountains and lakes, castles and alpine forests, vineyards and meadows, beaches and island resorts. Because of is broad variation in geography, Slovenia is a great alternative for numerous more popular European countries. I could easily have picked Slovenia as an alternative to Italy, Austria, or Croatia. However, one place I think Slovenia shines is as an alternative to Switzerland.
Travelers visit Switzerland to experience its soaring snow-capped peaks, alpine lakes and meadows, and interesting architecture in historic towns. But visiting Switzerland comes at a cost, literally, it’s one of the more expensive European countries to visit. Slovenia offers a similar mountainous experience but requires a significantly lower travel budget (or allows travelers to upgrade to a more luxurious experience for the same travel budget).
Instead of France, consider Belgium
France is one of the most visited European countries, most years it holds either the first or second spot in visitation rankings. For those looking to get away from the crowds, consider visiting France’s smaller neighbor to the north. Although a small country, Belgium has a lot to offer visitors.
Visitors can start in Brussels, the capital of Belgium, where they can visit museums, shop, and eat the delicious and ubiquitous Belgium frites sold at kiosks throughout the city. Belgium is also known for its Trappist beers and visitors can take a tour of a brewery using the traditional method for making lambic beers. They can then travel to the small town of Bruges, famous for its chocolates, canals and bridges. Travelers interested in fashion and design can visit Antwerp, shopping in the trendy fashion district and visiting the Fashion Museum Antwerp.
Due to its position as a crossroads in Europe, Belgium has three official languages, Dutch (Flemish), French, and German. So those fluent or semi-fluent in French will find it easy to communicate with the locals in their native tongue. Belgium is also easily reached by train from Paris, allowing visitors to combine a visit to the City of Lights with an exploration of this lovely country.
Instead of Iceland or Norway, consider a small ship cruise to these countries
Iceland & Norway offer incredible geographic splendor, but they are also two of the most expensive countries in Europe for tourists. Unfortunately, there aren’t good substitutes for these two countries (except maybe each other). So rather than pick an alternate country to visit, I’d like to suggest picking an alternate way to visit and explore these countries, via a luxury cruise.
Travelers can enjoy 5-star service on board a cruise ship and the entire trip will likely be significantly less expensive than similar land-based options. Visiting these countries can require visitors to travel significant distances to see many of the popular sites. A cruise opens up travel to some of the more remote areas. For example, traveling into a fjord in Norway or visiting Tromsø, Norway’s northern most city, is easily accomplished on a cruise ship, but requires more meaningful logistical planning on an overland trip.
Owner, Barclay & Company Travel
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