Take the road less traveled with these European gems
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Ski slopes without lift lines. Steaming thermal baths. Rich fireside meals. While most people flock to Europe in the summer, winter has its own charms — especially if you avoid the most popular destinations like France and Italy. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by what you’ll find: intricate architecture, alluring streets, free-flowing wine; in other words, everything you’d expect from Europe — but with fewer crowds and, in some cases, for half the price. This winter, here are three European destinations you should consider.
Seeking mild weather this winter? Portugal is a fantastic choice. Start in the romantic city of Lisbon — and if you don’t mind hills, stay in the enchanting Alfama neighborhood, which has been inhabited since the fifth century.
Because of its relatively warm temperatures (in the 50s) and small crowds, Paula Oliveira, executive director of Turismo de Lisboa, calls winter “a perfect period to come for a short break.” She recommends visiting at Christmas or New Year’s, when you can sample specialty pastries and witness the city’s sparkling and festive city lights.
You could probably spend an entire week simply wandering Lisbon by foot or streetcar, but I recommend a food and wine walk with the tour group Inside Lisbon. On our three-hour excursion, we sampled pastel de nata and espresso, cheese and port, and bacalhau (salted cod) and green (referring to its age, not its color) wine, learning about the city’s culture and history with each bite. For more yummy eats, check out restaurant Ze da Mouraria and the Time Out Market.
When you’d like to escape the city, travel an hour northwest by train to Sintra. This small town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is filled with castles. Among the most notable are the National Palace of Pena, a colorful 19th-century building that looks like it’s straight out of a Disney movie; the Castle of the Moors, a hilltop fortress with gorgeous views of the surrounding valley; and the Quinta de Regaleira, a Gothic mansion with expansive gardens.
For a different vibe, you could then head 186 miles south to the Algarve region, breathtaking with its craggy bays, steep cliffs and sandy beaches.
“Start the day with a long walk on the beach, followed by a seafood lunch on any sunny deck by the shore and then a cycle along the Vicentina route,” recommends Helga Cruz of the Algarve Tourism Bureau.
As a spectacular finale, she suggests catching the sunset at Cape St. Vincent, the southwestern-most point in Europe.
For something more remote, take a 2.5-hour flight to the Azores, a collection of nine islands off Portugal’s western coast. João Barbosa, a market manager for the Azores Promotion Board, recommends geothermal baths like Termas da Ferraria on São Miguel and Termas do Carapacho on Graciosa.
When to go: Portugal is blessed with mild weather year-round. Avoid the peak summer months, when cities and beaches get crowded.
Language: Portuguese, but English is widely spoken.
Getting around: Trains are quite convenient, although renting a car can be nice, too. To get to the Azores, you’ll need to fly.
Getting there: Lisbon (LIS) is the main international airport. You can also fly directly from the U.S. to the Algarve (FAO) or the Azores (PDL).
I admit that when I first decided to visit Georgia, I wasn’t sure exactly where it was. Turns out, this small country is sandwiched between the Black and Caspian seas, bordering Russia to the north and Turkey to the south — and well worth a visit.
First, spend some time in the capital city of Tbilisi (which never gets easier to spell). Its narrow alleys and crumbling buildings are all part of the city’s charm. When the weather gets cold, warm up with some Georgian comfort food. The tastiest treat I recommend trying is khachapuri, an oven-baked boat of dough filled with creamy cheese and topped with an egg. I probably ate four in my weeklong trip and don’t regret a single bite.
Don’t forget the wine. Georgia lays claim to being one of its birthplaces, as people have been making wine here for 8,000 years. You won’t be able to see how grapes grow during the winter, but you can still enjoy the end result by visiting one of the country’s many wineries.
Robert Cooper, owner of the Tbilisi bar DiveXFabrika, suggests Pheasant’s Tears winery in Sighnaghi, a 70-mile drive from the capital. “During the winter, it’s magical,” he says. “You’re looking out over the fertile Khahetian valley, with snow-capped mountains in the backdrop, imagining all the historical events that took place there.”
And, of course, a trip to Georgia wouldn’t be complete without a foray into those mountains, namely the Caucasus range. “Its beauty is peerless,” says Cooper. “There are few tourists, unlimited wine, the ski infrastructure is sufficient and the prices are comically low.”
Stay at the Rooms Hotels Kazbegi — one of my favorite hotels in the world — for panoramic views and polished décor. Or, head down the road to Gudauri, a popular ski resort that has 22 runs — and lift tickets that cost less than $20.
When to go: Any time of year, depending on your travel preferences. Visit in spring for temperate weather; summer for hiking and beaches; autumn for the wine harvest and winter for mountain sports.
Currency: Georgian Lari
Language: Georgian (which has its own alphabet). English is spoken in the tourist hubs.
Getting around: Renting a car is the best option; buses and trains are also available.
Getting there: Tbilisi (TBS) is the biggest airport, with connections to many European cities.
Although many think of Romania as the setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, exploring the country feels more like traipsing through one of Grimms’ fairy tales. It has everything a visitor to Europe is seeking: cobblestone streets, majestic castles and quaint cafes, all in a spectacular alpine setting.
You’ll likely start your trip in Bucharest, and should give the city a few days. Learning about its complicated history will provide an important base for understanding the rest of the country. Take the fascinating Tour of Communism, run by guides who openly share what their lives were like under communism. Each city stop is full of historical tidbits and personal anecdotes, revealing a side to Bucharest visitors might never discover on their own.
Once you’ve tired of the city, take a train into Transylvania and explore the surrounding Carpathian Mountains via snowmobile, dogsled or skis.
“Slopes are easily accessible, lift tickets are a fraction of the cost in North America or Western Europe and there’s no danger of avalanches,” says Simion Alb, founder of RomaniaTourism.com, a nonprofit that encourages travel to the area.
There are a number of castles to explore in this part of the country. You’ll be able to visit the modern and decadent PeleȘ Castle, as well as take a day trip to Bran Castle. Just don’t put too much stock in the latter’s “Dracula’s Castle” moniker; although the famous Vlad Dracul may have slept here for a night or two, his real castle lies in ruins on the other side of the country.
Next, head to the historic towns of BraȘov, SighiȘoara and Sibiu, where you’ll find cozy hotels like the Hotel Bella Muzica. You’ll also find tasty traditional food at places like Restaurant Mărginimea Sibiului outside Sibiu and Gasthaus Alte Post in SighiȘoara, where you can enjoy a lovely dinner for two — with wine — for $15.
Finish your trip with some relaxation. Romania is home to more than one-third of Europe’s natural spas, says Alb. Choose from 70 facilities, like Sovata, that promise relief. Located in the forested region of Transylvania, the spa boasts it can soothe multiple afflictions.
For a unique experience, visit the vast underground caverns of the Turda Salt Mine, an incredible museum and salt mine that is expertly preserved and a big draw in Transylvania. While there, visitors can also enjoy spa treatments.
When to go: Spring and fall have the best weather, but try winter for skiing or snowmobiling.
Currency: Romanian leu
Language: Romanian, but English is spoken in tourist areas.
Getting around: You can rent a car, although driving in Bucharest is not for the faint of heart. Throughout Transylvania, trains are convenient.
Getting there: Bucharest (OTP) is the main international airport. You can also fly into Sibiu (SBZ) from other European cities; discount airline Wizz Air flies direct from London and Madrid.
Susan Shain, USA TODAY