While seemingly small compared to the vast landscapes of the Americas, Asia, and Africa, the continent of Europe packs a punch with its own quilt of diverse and colorful countries. From the frozen tundra of Finland to the azure Mediterranean Sea, explore tantalizingly tiny cobbled towns, soaring mountain peaks, and wind-swept islands. These are 15 of the most beautiful places in Europe.
Český Krumlov, Czechia
Maybe the most idyllic small town in Czechia (Czech Republic), Český Krumlov is as picturesque as it comes. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, Český Krumlov is only a two-hour drive or three-hour train from bustling Prague but its rustic setting in the Bohemian countryside will make you feel worlds away. While it is now more of a well-trodden tourist destination you can have the speck of town all to yourself after the day-tripper crowds clear out. Spend the night and wander the romantic cobbled streets to see for yourself why Český Krumlov is so special.
Climb the 162 steps to the top of the Castle Tower for sweeping views of the Vltava River encircling the historic old town. Be sure to try trdelník, a cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted dough that is baked in a coil to resemble a chimney. You can find these being sold out of windows in the central square.
The Dolomites, Italy
Sunset-stained skies, jagged finger-like peaks, and rolling alpine meadows converge in northern Italy to create the region known as the Dolomites. Once a part of Austria before WWI, this part of Italy still enjoys a unique mixture of Austrian and Italian traditions. A stay in a rifugio is one of the best ways to soak up local culture in this region and making friends is about as easy as pouring a glass of schnapps. The Dolomites create a natural border between Italy and Austria and the influence is perhaps felt best in the cuisine. Try schlutzkrapfen, a ravioli like pasta filled with spinach and ricotta.
For the daredevils, via ferrata, protected mountain climbing routes, are a favorite pastime. For those who would rather keep both feet firmly planted on the ground, traipsing through the largest high alpine meadow in Europe, the Alpe di Siusi, should suit you nicely. If your pursuit of Europe’s most beautiful continues after the Dolomites, consider stopping in Lake Como or Venice, two stunning destinations that are only a few hours' drive away.
Caucasus Region, Georgia
The Caucasus is a feast for the intrepid explorer's eyes and a delightful reminder that there are still hidden gems sprinkled throughout Europe. Picturesque villages are utterly dwarfed by the soaring peaks surrounding them causing the mountains to look even grander through optical illusion. Ushguli, one of the highest inhabited places in all of Europe, is a gorgeous example of the tiny Medieval hamlets that have dotted the Caucasus mountains of Georgia for the last thousand years. Spend time in the Svaneti area and you’ll soon understand why this part of Georgia is a burgeoning outdoor lover’s dream destination.
No visit to the Caucasus would be complete without laying eyes on the orthodox Gergeti Trinity church in Oni. Peer out from its perch atop a treeless hill at Mount Kazbek. After a long day of hiking through staggeringly beautiful mountain scenery, refuel with Georgian specialties like khinkali, or soup dumplings, and khachapuri, a cheesy bread that is slightly reminiscent of pizza. Don’t skip the wine; it’s thought that Georgia could be the oldest wine region in the world.
The Aran Islands, Ireland
While Ireland has countless beautiful vistas to explore, the rugged, windswept landscape of the Aran Islands is unparalleled. Ancient forts perched at the very edge of craggy cliffs rival those of Moher making the “Islands of Saints and Scholars” an unforgettable destination. The qualities that lend to the Aran's beauty also made it an extremely difficult place to eke out a life. Most residents lead an isolated existence and it’s one of only a few places left in Ireland where locals regularly converse in the traditional Irish language.
What makes the Aran Islands a true hidden gem is the fact that they’re still largely undiscovered and few tourists make it here on a trip to the Emerald Isle. Three islands make up this little archipelago — Inis Meain, Inis Mór, and Inis Oirr — and they are only accessible by ferry or private boat. Stop in for a pint in one of only a few pubs and listen closely. You might hear locals conversing quietly in Gaelic.
From steamy thermal bath houses to raucous ruin bars, Budapest is a scenic city that truly has it all. Split into the two distinct neighborhoods of Buda and Pest, the city’s enigmatic qualities are endless. Intricately tiled roofs and soaring cathedrals make up most of the city’s most prestigious and stunning architectural features. Climb up Castle Hill for sweeping views of the Danube, punctuated by the reflection of the Hungarian Parliament Building, and to see the stunning St. Stephen’s Basilica and Fisherman’s Bastion.
After taking in the awe-inspiring architectural beauty, feast on Hungarian specialties laced with oodles of paprika like goulash and chicken paprikash. Lángos, deep-fried flatbread smothered in cheese and sour cream, are another specialty that is sure to satisfy after a long day of wandering. For the perfect finale, soak away your troubles at the Széchenyi Baths, the largest and most beautiful of Budapest’s thermal spas.
Located in Upper Carniola in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, the small town of Bled sits cradled in an alpine valley. Tourists and locals alike flock here to visit the Medieval Bled Castle and the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary, poised stoically in the center of the lake. The best way to get out to Bled Island is by pletna, the tiny ferries that cart visitors back and forth from the mainland. Be sure to grab a slice of Bled cake from a local bakery in town to enjoy by the water.
Lake Bled is a vision in winter with snow-capped peaks in the distance and a radiant summer destination for swimming and lazily napping beneath the lush forests that surround the lakeshore. Only a 20-minute drive from Bled is the beautiful, alpine Lake Bohinj. Go the extra mile and you’ll be well rewarded with less crowds, expansive views, and crystal-clear water.
The Azores, Portugal
Sitting 1,000 miles west off the coast of Portugal, the Azores are a whirlwind of rugged coastline, emerald hills, and slumbering volcanoes. This verdant archipelago is made up of nine islands, three of which are recognized as UNESCO biospheres, a testament to how naturally diverse these isles are.
São Miguel is probably the best base for an island-hopping trip around this volcanic archipelago. Also called Ilha Verde, or Green Island, no one would blame you for sticking to this area for the entire trip. Hike to Sete Cidades, the chartreuse twin lakes, go on a whale-watching tour, or take a day trip to the Furnas Valley, a dormant caldera. This is your opportunity to soak in geothermal hot springs or slurp on cozido, a meat and vegetable stew, cooked underground in clay pots.
Probably the least-known of the three major Balearic Islands, Menorca is a diamond in the rough. Ancient stone fences still attempt to keep in the donkeys, lush rolling hills sweep across the countryside, and dazzling beaches are nestled in bays lined with pine and olive trees. Cala Mitjaneta is a stunning slice of beach on Menorca’s southwestern coast just begging to be enjoyed. Only a short walk away is the smaller and subsequently lesser-known Cala Trebaluger, a true ode to pristine natural beauty and your best chance at an unspoiled beach.
Should you take a drive in rural areas of Menorca you’ll see dairy cows grazing in the inner fields. They give rise to one of the best cheeses in Europe, Queso de Mahón. Menorca boasts a myriad of local delicacies such as sobrasada, a spicy sausage, and pomada, an alcoholic drink made from local gin and cloudy lemonade.
Stunning waterfalls, winding roads with commanding vistas, and natural hot tubs too, this is Iceland’s Westfjords region. The most remote part of Iceland, the Westfjords enjoys deserted roads and quiet villages even during peak summer, something hard to come by in a country so well-loved and popular. Roaring waterfalls tumble their way down the fjord's steep walls as reflections of charming churches paint a scene in the mirror of the sea.
The Hornstrandir hike is a particularly evocative natural wonder everyone should consider. Be sure to reserve an hour or two to delight in the rite of passage that is taking a dip in an Icelandic hot spring. The Hörgshlíðarlaug Hot Spring, located near the town of Reykjanes, is particularly incredible although you’ll have to ask special permission from the farmer who owns the land to enjoy it. Plunge into the warm water and enjoy panoramic views of the fjord it sits on.
Crete, the birthplace of Zeus himself and the largest of all the Greek Islands, lies 160 kilometers south of the Greek mainland. The “Island of Heroes” has a little something for everyone, making it one of the best to visit. Ancient Greek ruins, endless beaches, bustling city centers, and wild landscapes have inspired centuries of poems and songs that sing of the island's beauty. If you’re on the hunt for iconic Greek sunbathing, Elafonisi Beach is particularly sought after for its pink sand and crystalline water.
Crete is a food lover's wonderland to boot. The Cretan national dish is called dakos, dried barley rusk topped with traditional mizithra cheese, tomatoes, olives, capers, fresh oregano, and of course, drizzled with olive oil. Another crowd favorite are kalitsounia, cheese and herb pastries. Stopping into a taverna is basically a rite of passage in Crete. Knock back a few raki, the fire water of Greece, and stare into the sunset over the azure Mediterranean.
Mont Saint-Michel, France
On top of a tidal island in the English Channel, Mont Saint-Michel not only looks as if it sprung from a fairytale but has the folklore to back it up. Legend has it that Saint Michael, the Archangel, came to a local bishop in a dream three times, asking him to build a monastery on the island of Mont Tombe, Mont Saint-Michel’s original name. Although Saint Aubert tried to ignore him, Saint Michael eventually burned a hole in the bishop’s head, further convincing him.
Look out from the top of the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey at the tendrils of the Couesnon river that meets the sea. In ancient times, pilgrims would pay a local man to help guide them across the tidal basin to ensure they wouldn’t drown from the rushing tides that were said to sweep in as fast as a galloping horse. Be sure to try the local Normandy specialties of caramel, cider, and moules frites, mussels and fries. The perfect base for your explorations through Normandy’s countryside is the charming, seaside town of Saint Malo, surrounded by a fortified wall to protect it from the ever-encroaching sea.
Set in a trough valley with glacial runoff creating jaw-dropping waterfalls, Lauterbrunnen is heavenly. One of the largest nature conservancy areas in all of Switzerland, Lauterbrunnen literally translates to “many fountains” and is home to one of the highest free-falling waterfalls in Europe, Staubbach Falls. Stroll past half-timbered houses with flower boxes spilling over with geraniums and petunias, and it won’t be difficult to see why Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world to call home.
A great year-round destination, Lauterbrunnen offers prestigious ski slopes in winter and hundreds of trails cutting through high alpine meadows come summer. It’s also the perfect place to base yourself for day trips to Jungfrau and Grindelwald if you’re in search of towering peaks and even grander vistas.
While a visit to Lapland is beautiful at any time of year, it truly shines in the thick of winter. The northern lights dance overhead in unison with the twinkling stars and frequent snow storms give way to icy, almost alien landscapes. One of the best ways to get up close and personal with this frozen tundra is to stay in a glass igloo. Before falling asleep, gaze up at the dark night sky where ribbons of the aurora borealis might just be twirling overhead.
Lapland is as close to the North Pole as many of us will get — in fact, you can visit Santa himself in the quaint town of Rovaniemi. Reindeer here are not only a vestige of Christmas but a native animal. Be sure to thaw out from your icy endeavors with a traditional Finnish sauna experience. A typical sauna routine includes being brushed with birch branches to help increase blood circulation and, sometimes, an icy plunge into a nearby lake.
An 800-square-mile plot of land replete with rolling, grassy hills and thousands of sheep, the Cotswolds are beloved for a reason. Thatched, medieval villages built from the iconic pale yellow Cotswold stone and thick woodlands abound in King Cod’s Land. It’s so idyllic in fact that several movies have been filmed here, including Harry Potter and Bridgerton.
Stow-on-the-Wold, Upper and Lower Slaughter, Bourton-on-the-Water, and Cheltenham are just a few of the quaint villages you can visit on a trip through the Cotswolds. If you happen to be visiting in May, the annual cheese rolling festival in Gloucester is a can’t-miss, rough-and-tumble celebration of the Gloucester good stuff . If you’re feeling up for a challenge, the Cotswold Way is a 108-mile hiking trail that cuts through the best the region has to offer and will give you an in-depth look at the life and beauty of rural England.
Isle of Skye, Scotland
You can feel the magic in the air in Scotland but perhaps nowhere better than the rugged Isle of Skye. As the northernmost and largest island of the Inner Hebrides archipelago, the Isle of Skye is a picture-perfect slice of what makes Scotland feel so otherworldly. Misty lochs, grazing highland cows, and the ever-present scent of peat hanging in the air all lend to its mystical appeal. The Gaelic name for the Isle of Skye was the Island of Mist, given because of the thick fog that frequently inundates these isles.
Hiking the Old Man of Storr, with its sweeping vantage point, or through the idyllic crags of the Fairy Pools, are sure to inspire the dawning of a new age of exploration in your heart. Renting a car is the best way to experience the Isle of Skye and you’ll relish in the ability to stop frequently, as stunning vistas pass outside the window. Cozy up to a warm fireplace in the quaint fishing village of Portree with a glass of Scottish whiskey and you’ll feel right at home.