It would be so easy to assume that all of Europe has been discovered, that the whole continent has been visited, that it's been descended upon by the masses. This is, after all, one of the most popular tourism destinations on the planet, and in this age of insta-media and endless information, you could be forgiven for thinking that every sight and attraction in Europe has already been found.
However, you would be wrong. The truly great thing about this historic and beautiful continent is that its attractions are so numerous and its sights so abundant that there still lies plenty of hidden gems. All it takes is a little local knowledge and you can shun the crowds and see what Europe is really all about.
There's much to love about Slovakia, the small and little-known country wedged between Western and Eastern Europe. To begin with there's its history, which reflects the country's straddling of that geographical and philosophical divide, shown in its Baroque cities and ruins of medieval castles, as well as in more modern Soviet-era architecture. Slovakia also has plenty of natural beauty to boast, with nine national parks riven with hiking trails, as well as an energetic modern culture in cities such as the capital, Bratislava.
DON'T MISS A visit to the old town of Bratislava is a fantastic way to appreciate much of what Slovakia has to offer. The country's long and fascinating history is reflected in its capital's mix of architectural styles, which range from 18th-century Rococo design to more modern communist-era structures.
You know Austria, of course. You know the famous locations: the streets of Salzburg and its "lively" hills; the spectacular mountains of Innsbruck; the remnants of the Hapsburg empire strewn throughout. However, there's still much to be discovered in this stunning country, still plenty that flies under the mainstream tourism radar. The Wachau Valley is one of the world's most scenic (and underrated) wine regions, and even the Austrian capital, Vienna, has its secrets, from its museums and concert halls to its landmark St Stephens Cathedral.
DON'T MISS One of Austria's most spectacular experiences is one that many people will never have the chance to partake in. In Vienna, APT's Royal Signature Experience is a night at Liechtenstein's City Palace. Attend an exclusive cocktail reception, before sitting back for a private recital of works by the likes of Mozart and Strauss, and a performance by members of the Mozart Boys' Choir.
As soon as you set foot in Budapest, you'll wonder how the rest of the world hasn't already caught on to this beautiful city's charms. Hungary in its entirety is a fantastic and mostly undiscovered gem; however, historic Budapest is where the country really turns it on. From the Roman-style baths to the communist-era sculpture park, the Basilica of St Stephen to the stunning Parliament House, it's amazing the Hungarian capital isn't better known. An arrival in the city by ship on the mighty Danube is an experience you'll never forget.
DON'T MISS APT's newest exclusive Royal Signature Experience in Hungary, which operates on select departures, is a ride on the Grand Empress Steam Train, a classic that features carriages from the early 1900s. This is true royal style – follow in the footsteps of Elisabeth of Bavaria (Sisi) – on an imperial train journey from Budapest to Gödöllő Palace.
Amsterdam, of course, is well known to travellers. However, the Netherlands has far more to offer those willing to get off the beaten track and explore. Towns such as Utrecht, Rotterdam and The Hague ooze charm; however, for the classic Dutch experience – windmills, tulips, canals, quaint wooden houses – check out the village of Zaanse Schans, just north of Amsterdam. It's the perfect introduction to the real Netherlands.
DON'T MISS Every spring the Keukenhof Gardens, a stunning 70-acre reserve filled with flowers and other botanical wonders, opens to the public, and provides a truly spectacular excursion. It's one of Europe's most picturesque attractions, and a must for nature lovers, as well as anyone keen on seeing a different side to the Netherlands to the bustle of its cities and towns.
Though Germany's major cities, places such as Munich, Berlin and Cologne, have always been popular tourist attractions, it's the country's rural areas, with their rich histories and living culture, that visitors should really be excited about. The Rhine, Rhone and Main rivers snake their way past many of Germany's most charming towns and villages, places such as Rudesheim, with its wineries and castle ruins; Miltenberg, with its cobblestone alleyways; Wurzburg, with its Bavarian culture; and Nuremburg, with its World War II history.
DON'T MISS Namedy Castle is a 14th-century residence that is most definitely flying under the radar as a tourist attraction – as it's still in the possession of Princess Heide von Hohenzollern, the only way to view it is when she opens the doors of the castle to APT guests for a special exclusive dinner and piano recital. This is high German culture at its finest.
There's a real sense of mystery to the Czech Republic, and a sense of romance, too. It's the history here – the recent history of communist rule, and the more distant past of kings and foreign rulers, reflected in the Gothic architecture, in the classic old bridges, and in the scattered remains of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Czech cities such as Prague and Český Krumlov are all medieval charm with a backdrop of communist gloom, fascinating places that woo visitors with the greatest of ease.
DON'T MISS Though Prague is the most popular destination in the Czech Republic, and deservedly so, it's worth taking the time to visit nearby Český Krumlov, APT's Freedom of Choice option on the Magnificent Europe itinerary. This picture-perfect little city is a UNESCO world heritage site, and boasts plenty of Renaissance and Baroque architecture encircled by the Vlatava River.
When APT tour guide Florian Brun first began showing travellers around his homeland, he thought the job would merely act as a way to support his university education – however, 15 years later, the German native is still passionate about the job that became a profession. "I enjoy travelling and exploring new places myself so much," Florian says. "It's great to see faraway – and not so far away – countries and learn more about them. And the idea of me becoming a part of someone else's trip and teaching people more about the part of Germany I grew up in is very cool." Florian says his favourite place to visit is the Austrian town of Salzburg, though he is originally from Wurzburg, one of the stops on APT's "Magnificent Europe" tour. "Anyone coming to the area that I live in should take the time to see one of the old wine cellars," he advises. "There is quite a lot of unexpected grandeur hidden underground."
This article is produced in association with APT.
Experience the historic attractions and beautiful hidden gems across Europe. All it takes is a little local knowledge to see what Europe has to offer. For more information visit www.aptouring.com.au/traveller, call 1300 290 669 or contact your local travel agent.