Ten European countries few tourists visit

So you think you’ve done Europe? You probably haven’t even begun – here are 10 great countries beyond the tried and tested, writes Ute Junker.

Looking for the new frontier in travel? Welcome to Europe. Yes, seriously. You may have meandered through plazas, piazzas and palazzos. You may even have savoured scones in London, croissants in Paris and pretzels in Munich. But there's so much more to see.

There are 50 countries in Europe, but most travellers confine their hit list to a dozen or so – or even less. Our favourite destinations have remained unchanged since the Victorian age, when young men went on the Grand Tour to appreciate the art and culture of France and Italy, Greece and Germany. 

Europe has changed dramatically since those days. In countries that were once largely covered by wolf-infested woods, you can now find elegant cities with chic bars and boutique hotels. 

Whole new countries have been born. Cities that once required weeks of hard travel can now be reached within hours, thanks to fast trains and modern airports in everywhere from Tblisi and Pristina to Ljubljana and Yerevan.

Getting around may be easier than ever before, but wonderful discoveries still await those who venture off the well-trodden tourists trails. Countries like Poland and Malta have as much culture and history as their better-known neighbours, without the inflated prices and long queues that drive tourists crazy in Venice and Paris. So take the road less travelled and discover a different side to this much-loved continent. 

ART AND ELEGANCE

Instead of France, try Russia

Mornings spent in world-class museums, afternoons wandering by the river, evenings in a chic restaurant. You think Paris is the best place to live out this itinerary? That's because you've never been to Russia.

Where do I start? St Petersburg, of course. The townhouses lining the canals are as elegant as anything on a Parisian boulevard, and the Hermitage Museum leaves the Louvre for dead. 

Fans of Versailles will love Russia's palaces, from the mighty tsarist monuments of the Peterhof and the Grand Palace, to the extravagant private mansions such as the Yusupov Palace. And for really over-the-top decor, the Church of the Saviour on the Spilled Blood is a must-see.

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Anything else? We haven't even made it to Moscow yet! Make sure your itinerary includes The Kremlin (The Armoury museum's royal treasures include everything from Faberge eggs to ball gowns and carriages) and at least one of the city's great museums, the Pushkin or the Tretyakov. 

The Moscow metro is an attraction in itself: more people pass through its ornate stations every day than in Paris and London combined. They may not have the grand culinary history of the French, but the Russians have a flair for high end dining. 

Food for thought: In St Petersburg, try L'Europe restaurant inside the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe or Asian fusion at Terrassa; in Moscow, try Cafe Pushkin or Bolshoi. For something lighter, one of modern Russia's favourite snack foods is sushi, which you will find on virtually every street corner.

Need to know: Signs in the Cyrillic alphabet can be confusing. If you're catching the metro, it's easier to memorise the number of stops than to try to memorise the station name. See russia-travel.com; visit-petersburg.ru

ANCIENT SPLENDOUR

Instead of Italy, try Turkey

Those ancient Italians weren't the only ones who left a grand past behind. As the capital of first the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empires, Istanbul has a grand history stretching back almost two thousand years. Travel the rest of the country and you'll discover the histories of countless other lesser-known empires, including the Hittites, the Phrygians, the Persians and the Celts.

Where do I start? Istanbul, of course. However long you decide to stay, it simply won't be long enough. Start by crossing a couple of big items off your list – such as the Blue Mosque, the  Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace – then spend some time just wandering the crooked streets and ancient alleys of this endearingly chaotic city. A session in a hamam, or Turkish bath, is always a highlight.

Anything else? How much are you up for? If you love ruins, head for the marble paved streets of Ephesus and the theatres of Aspendos. Other favourite destinations include the warm pools of Pamukkale, set into a spectacular calcite setting, and a cruise in a traditional gullet along the Turquoise Coast. 

Food for thought: Think you don't know anything about Turkish food apart from doner kebabs? Think again. Get past the exotic names and you will find many traditional dishes instantly familiar, from yaprak sarma (stuffed vine leaves) to lahmacun, a topped flat bread similar to pizza. In the mood for a big night out? Istanbul's fine dining scene has burgeoned in recent years, with restaurants such as Mikla and Mezze by Lemon Tree leading the way. The true taste of Istanbul, however, is a simple sandwich stuffed with fresh fish, washed down with pomegranate juice. 

Need to know: The vendors in and around the Grand Bazaar are persistent and persuasive. Don't take up their offer of a glass of apple tea unless you are prepared to head home with a new carpet. See goturkey.com; istanbul.gov.tr

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

Instead of Germany, try Slovenia

Walked the Black Forest and hiked the Alps? Then head for Slovenia. This former Yugoslav republic is a fraction the size of Germany but covers all the bases, from Alpine skiing and hiking to white water rafting. It even has some Adriatic beaches. 

Where do I start? The capital, Ljubljana, is small but perfectly-formed, with elegant baroque architecture and pretty bridges over the Ljubljanica River. From here, it's only a short drive to Lake Bled, one of the most picturesque spots in Europe, with its Gothic church on an island surrounded by forest-covered mountains. From here, you can choose from a wealth of outdoor activities, from rafting down the stunning Soca river to exploring Slovenia's 7,000km of hiking trails.

Anything else? Why, yes. In summer, explore the pretty Adriatic town of Piran, with its Venetian Gothic architecture; in winter, ski resorts such as Vogel offer some of the best value in Europe. For something different, the spectacular Postojna Cave is so large, an electric train takes visitors through the first section, after which they continue on foot.

What about food? The Slovenes have a way of turning simple dishes, such as smoked ham and cabbage soup, into delicious meals. Zlikrofi, potato-filled dumplings, are another specialty that are the perfect re-fuel option after a hard morning's hiking. Treat yourself to some of the tasty local white wines: rebula and sivi pinot are good choices.

Need to know: Slovenia was once part of Yugoslavia. Slovakia was once part of Czechoslovakia. They are separate countries. Do not get them confused. See slovenia.info; visitljubljana.com

FEAST FOR THE SENSES

Instead of Spain, try Poland

From Gaudi cathedrals and Andalusian flamenco to coastal getaways and ancient castles, Spain's mosaic of experiences never gets dull. Savvy Europeans have discovered that Poland's ancient cities and pristine landscapes can be just as enchanting: isn't it time we caught on?

Where do I start? Krakow, the royal capital in the south of the country, is one of Europe's most underrated destinations, with an elegant cityscape to rival Prague or Vienna. Just outside town, the Wieliczka salt mine offers a fascinating tour that takes in an underground lake and chandeliers carved out of rock salt. In the north, the historic Hanseatic city of Gdansk also has a beautiful old town. For those who love some ocean action on their holiday, the nearby resort town of Sopot has golden beaches – although the Baltic is somewhat colder than the Mediterranean. 

Anything else? If you're feeling active, you can go kayaking in the Mazury lake district, or hike or ski the Tatra Mountains. If history is your thing, there is the mighty Teutonic Knights fortress at Malbork, or the moving memorial at Auschwitz. 

What about food? The Poles have yet to invent a culinary craze as popular as tapas, but they do have some tasty treats, including pierogi, incredibly more-ish dumplings, and barszcz, or beetroot soup. 

Need to know: It's considered impolite to leave the country without at least sampling the local vodka. Go carefully – it's strong stuff. 

ISLAND ESCAPE

Instead of Britain, try Malta

It's a tiny dot on the map, no larger than the Isle of Wight, but Malta packs one heck of a punch. Like the UK, this Commonwealth country has a rich history – but with a Mediterranean location, its climate leaves England's for dead.  

Where do I start? Valletta may be one of the smallest capital cities in the world – just 600 metres by 1000m – but there's a lot to see in this lovely city. The buildings created for the military order of the Knights of St John, who once ran the island – including the Grand Master's Palace and St John's Co-Cathedral – are baroque knock-outs. Malta also has a rich pre-history. High on your list should be the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, a prehistoric underground necropolis, the megalithic Tarxien Temples, and the fascinating exhibits at the National Museum of Archaeology.

Anything else? Malta has a tiny archipelago of its own: the tranquil islands of Gozo and Comino, where you can enjoy a classic Mediterranean getaway. Hike through the countryside, then cool off with a dip in one of the beautiful coves, such as the photogenic Blue Lagoon on Comino. Divers will want to explore the Blue Hole, a spectacular vertical chimney that leads straight into the open sea. 

Food for thought: A Mediterranean melting pot, local cuisine includes such tasty treats as lampuki fish pie; bigilla, a broad bean and garlic pate; and pastizzi filled with ricotta or peas.

Need to know: The Maltese language is related to Arabic, but English is the island's other official language.

 

FIVE MORE COUNTRIES TO CONSIDER

LATVIA

It won't be long before the scenic Baltic country of Latvia becomes a major tourist destination. Its capital, Riga, has one of the most charming Old Towns in Europe. Elsewhere in town, check out the astonishing art nouveau houses designed by Mikhail Eisenstein (father of film director Sergei), or go boating on the canals that ring the town centre. Beyond Riga, visit the pretty seaside town of Jurmala, the Baroque Rundale Palace, or go hiking in the Gauja National Park.

BELGIUM

Although it didn't exist as an independent country until 1830, Belgium has plenty of history. Bruges and Antwerp, once among the richest and most powerful cities in Europe, are still wonderfully atmospheric. Into art and architecture? Head to Antwerp for Rubens and Van Eyck, or to Brussels for Magritte and a museum dedicated to Herge, creator of cartoon hero Tintin. Feast on superb chocolate, beer, and frites, or dine at acclaimed restaurants such as the three Michelin starred De Karmeliet in Bruges.

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA

If Croatia is the tourist trap of the Balkans Peninsula, neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina is an underrated gem. The capital, Sarajevo, survived a four-year siege during the 1990s Balkan War; a visit to the Sarajevo War Tunnel brings that grim history to life.  However, this pretty city also has centuries of history as a lively harmonious, crossroads between east and west. Neoclassical buildings sit next to eastern minarets; in chic restaurants, Asian stirfries are presented as elaborate Ottoman feasts. Nearby Mostar is also a must-see, and there is excellent hiking as well as kayaking along the Trebizat River. 

NORWAY

Until recently, most of Norway's visitors were skiers and hikers.  Aside from its ridiculously picturesque fiords and mountains, however, Norway is also rich in culture. Oslo has sculpture parks, a Viking ship museum and striking modern architecture. In the historic town of Bergen, defined by its brightly-painted warehouses, you will find museums devoted to everything from composer Edvard Grieg to leprosy. Even the deep north has its impressive monuments, such as the gobsmacking Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim.

PORTUGAL

With its striking hilltop setting overlooking the Tejo river, gothic cathedrals and striking modern buildings such as the Gare do Oriente, Lisbon is one of western Europe's most underrated capitals. Hop aboard the bright yellow trams to explore the city's diverse neighbourhoods, from atmospheric Alfama to the hip bars and restaurants in hilltop Bairro Alto. From Lisbon, head on to the wineries of the beautiful Douro Valley and the raffish charm of Porto.

 

BEEN THERE, DONE THAT?

Five new takes on five long-time favourite destinations.

Instead of skiing the Swiss Alps try...

Lounging by a lake. Sample Switzerland in summer and you'll quickly get hooked. Picturesque towns such Basel, Lucerne, Geneva and Lugano, perched beside a lake or river, combine cultural attractions with plenty of water sports.

Instead of the Greek islands try...

Exploring the mainland. There's a host of things to discover on the mainland, from the cliff-top monasteries of Meteora, to the caves at Diros and the Byzantine frescoes at Mystras.

Instead of London and surrounds try...

Heading north. Where to start? Manchester for elegant Victorian architecture and the hip bars of the Northern Quarter, or visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park for works by Tracey Emin and Henry Moore.

Instead of summer on the Amalfi Coast try...

Autumn in Piemonte.The countryside around Turin is rich in soaring mountains, sloping hillside, and medieval villages flanked by vineyards. Many of the local specialities, from Gorgonzola and rich red wines to truffles, are at their best in autumn.

Instead of the pleasures of Provence

Try the beauty of Brittany. With picturesque fishing villages, medieval towns, a windswept coastline and welcoming locals, it's surprising that Brittany isn't a more popular destination. It also has some of the best seafood in France.

 

Five travellers nominate their favourite Euro discoveries

Silvia Colloca, cookbook author (Silvia's Cucina) and SBS TV's Made In Italy

I don't know why Le Marche, on Italy's Adriatic coast, doesn't have an international profile. It's just a beautiful as Tuscany is with a really rich peasant cuisine and incredible seafood.

Melissa Barnard, cello player, Australian Chamber Orchestra

The north coast of Sicily is so beautiful – intense blue water, white pebble beaches. We stayed at the pretty little town of Scopello. Everything is very local – if you ask where the wine is from, they just point to the hills and say, "Up there."

Pasi Petanen, chef, Cafe Paci, Darlinghurst, Sydney

There's a lovely place called Tertin Kartano in eastern Finland, about two hours from Helsinki, that is a great weekend getaway. It's a typical Finnish farmhouse where you can eat, sauna, and stay overnight. There are lakes everywhere in which you can swim.

Myf Warhurst, presenter, ABC Double Jay radio

The small town of Vejer de la Frontera, in southern Spain, is such a glorious place. It's a Moorish village all painted white, like something out of a picture book. It's a low-key place where you can really wind down and become part of village life.

Darrell Wade, Intrepid Travel co-founder and chief executive

I once had three days stuck in Ceuta, which is officially a part of Spain, although it's actually located in Africa.  It's a beautiful place, with the best sardines in the world!

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