Kotor, Montenegro (Dreamstime)
List 27 June

Beat the crowds! 13 secret European breaks

Think you know Europe well? Think again – it’s time to experience it anew. The continent has plenty of secrets ready to be unearthed, and these trips will help you find them...

1: Cruise away from the crowds in Portugal

Alqueva Lake (Sunvil)

Alqueva Lake (Sunvil)

Hop on board a self-drive motorboat and Cruise Alqueva Lake in Portugal’s Alentejo region with Sunvil. Spend time in sleepy bankside villages and medieval hilltop towns, tasting regional favourites like black pork from the area’s acorn-fed pigs. Hop off to wander footpaths through cork forests to medieval hilltop towns or sun-dappled vineyards – stopping to sip the local wine along the way, of course – or simply kayak the serene waters of the lake. 

Who: Sunvil (020 8758 4722)

When: Year round

How long: 7 nights

How much: From £1,295 (incl flights)

2: Find 'the other Venice' in Italy

Sip your way through Italy's wine regions (Exodus)

Sip your way through Italy's wine regions (Exodus)

Escape the hubbub of tourist-heavy Venice for the nearby foothills of the Dolomites on Exodus’s Walking the Prosecco Hills tour. Trace Italy’s oldest wine route, passing the undulating vineyards that make the region’s prized export: Prosecco. Walk through the rolling hills and visit local producers to taste their wares in between stops at medieval villages such as Cison and Asolo, before finishing in pretty, canal-veined Treviso – a fine alternative to Venice.

Who: Exodus (020 3131 0641)

When: 6, 13 and 20 October 2018; 6 April 2019 (other dates are available)

How long: 8 days

How much: From £1,269 (incl flights)

3: Lap up Lviv before everyone else does

Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet (Regent Holidays)

Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet (Regent Holidays)

Regent Holidays’ Lviv Short Break puts the city’s central European charm front row and centre, as you explore a region that is worlds apart from Ukraine’s Soviet east. Pace the cobbles of its Old Town, spying a rare mix of architectural styles, while sniffing out the coffee houses that populate Rynok Square. Pop into its wealth of museums and galleries and spend a night at its opera house before finishing sweetly in one of the city’s many artisan chocolate shops.

Who: Regent Holidays (020 7666 1244)

When: Year round

How long: 3 nights

How much: From £295 (incl flights)

4: Enjoy a lakeside pedal in Switzerland

Cycle the lakes of Switzerland (UTracks)

Cycle the lakes of Switzerland (UTracks)

See Switzerland’s oft-overlooked Italian fringe on UTracks’ Ticino Lakes Cycle trip. Pedal lakes Maggiore and Lugano, spying the botanical gardens of Brissago Island and a trio of UNESCO-listed castles in medieval Bellinzona, as you explore the lesser-seen Swiss border.

Who: UTracks (0845 241 7599)

When: April-June, August-October 2018

How long: 6 days

How much: From £695 (excl flights)

5: Explore forgotten Gallic history in France

Carcassonne (Andante Travels)

Carcassonne (Andante Travels)

Journey into medieval France with Andante Travels on its Languedoc – Cathars & Crusaders trip. Visit the townhouses of fortified Cordes-sur-Ciel and the fairytale Châteux de Foix, as well as icons such as the walled medieval city of Carcassonne and Romanesque basilica of Toulouse, unravelling a forgotten era in European history with an expert in tow.

Who: Andante Travels (01722 569456)

When: 10 and 17 September 2018; 9 and 23 September 2019

How long: 8 days

How much: From £2,495 (incl flights)

6: See a secret slice of Eastern Europe

Explore Moldova's architecture (Jules Verne)

Explore Moldova's architecture (Jules Verne)

Visit a lost principality on Jules Verne’s Secret Moldavia trip. In Moldova, spy churches and cathedrals in Iasi, wander the leafy parks and old presidential palace of Moldovan capital Chisinau, and spend a day in the micronation of Transnistria. Finish in Romania among finely painted churches in Sucevita.

Who: Jules Verne (020 3733 4017)

When: 7 and 21 September, 5 October 2018

How long: 7 nights

How much: From £1,025 (incl flights)

7: Drive through the Emerald Isle’s epic centre

Lough Rynn Castle (Irish Ferries)

Lough Rynn Castle (Irish Ferries)

Skip the country’s busy fringes for a self-drive adventure through Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands with Irish Ferries. Walk or pedal beside the calm waters of Lough Rinn, explore the central market town of Athlone and its 13th-century castle, then finish back among the glorious medieval cobbles of Dublin for the ferry back to Holyhead.

Who: Irish Ferries (08717 300400)

When: Year round

How long: 7 days

How much: From £634 (incl ferry crossings)

8: Spy the northern lights in peace in Finland

Northern lights (Timo Halonen)

Northern lights (Timo Halonen)

Join The Aurora Zone to see the northern lights without the crowds. Join the Menesjarvi – Wilderness Auroras tour for the milder weather and darker skies of autumn, and twin aurora-spotting with a photography masterclass, husky safari and a reindeer farm visit, to complete your Arctic break.

Who: The Aurora Zone (01670 785012)

When: Selected dates 5 September - 18 November 2018

How long: 4 nights

How much: From £1,495 (incl flights)

9: Explore a hidden corner of The Balkans

Serbian Orthodox priest (Travel the Unknown)

Serbian Orthodox priest (Travel the Unknown)

Blaze a trail across lesser-known Europe on Travel the Unknown’s Balkan Explorer tour. See Albania’s medieval stone towns, spy orthodox monasteries in Serbian capital Belgrade, climb Mostar’s iconic bridge in Bosnia & Herzegovina, sail through picture-perfect bays in Montenegro, and sip Macedonian wine – before finishing with the Ottoman grandeur of Kosovo. Phew!

Who: Travel the Unknown (020 7183 6371)

When: 29 September 2018

How long: 20 days

How much: From £3,595 (incl flights)

10: Walk hidden trails in Romania and Bulgaria

Carpathian Mountains (Dreamstime)

Carpathian Mountains (Dreamstime)

Tread through two countries on KE Adventure’s Rural Romania and Backroads of Bulgaria tour. In Bulgaria, wander Sofia’s Old Town and hop from hut to hut in the lush forest of the Central Balkan National Park, ending in the old tsar city of Veliko Tarnovo. Hop over the Danube and spy the giant Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest before lacing up again and heading deep into the rugged Carpathian Mountains, while spending time with local shepherds.

Who: KE Adventure Travel (01768 773966)

When: 1 September 2018; 25 May, 20 July and 7 September 2019

How long: 14 days

How much: From £1,245 (excl flights)

11: Get in a flap in Montenegro

Montenegro (NatureTrek)

Montenegro (NatureTrek)

Discover a new birdwatching hotspot on Naturetrek’s Montenegro trip. Pitch up on the banks of Lake Skadar and spy Dalmatian pelicans and pygmy cormorants, and nip over the Albanian border to see stone curlews, European bee-eaters and more. Back in Montenegro, head for the peaks and forests of Durmitor NP, ticking off goshawks, golden and short-toed eagles, among many others.

Who: Naturetrek (01962 733051)

When: 21 April 2019

How long: 9 days

How much: From £2,195 (incl flights)

12: Discover Ireland's west by rail

Eire rail (Ffestiniog Travel)

Eire rail (Ffestiniog Travel)

See The Far West of Ireland on rails with Ffestiniog Travel. Spend a day exploring Dublin before boarding a carriage and skirting the spectacular Galway Coast. Hop on a nostalgic steam train ride on the West Clare Railway to Limerick, before wandering the wild cliffs and beaches of the Dingle Peninsula and finishing among the Georgian avenues of Cork.

Who: Ffestiniog Travel (01766 512400)

When: 20 Sep 2018

How long: 10 days

How much: From £1,640 (incl ferry from Holyhead)

13: Tread a secret slice of Spain

Explore Spain's great outdoors (Pura Aventura)

Explore Spain's great outdoors (Pura Aventura)

Walk a diverse mix of landscapes on Pura Aventura’s Ebro Inn-to-Inn trip. Track the upper section of the Ebro River as it carves its way through the plains of Castile, weaving between vineyards, gorges and forest. Pass through bird-rich wilds, remote villages, ancient Roman architecture – and stay overnight in inns along the way.

Who: Pura Aventura (01273 676712)

When: September-November 2018

How long: 8 days

How much: From £1,415 (excl flights)