Today is Happy Europe Day - here are 7 amazing places you probably haven't visited before.
Bored of Budapest? Conquered Krakow? Pissed-off with Prague? Here’s seven hidden gems you may want to visit instead, featuring the home of lager, and the world’s most sexed-up street.
Mostar – Bosnia
Nestled deep in the green hills of southern Bosnia is Mostar, a town that has maintained every inch of its unique beauty despite a tragic recent history. The iconic old bridge built by Turkish rulers in 1566 was infamously bombed to bits by Croats during the Yugoslavian war, but in 2004 it was rebuilt exactly how it stood, once again acting as the most photogenic of city centrepieces. Surrounding the bridge are open air cafes and restaurants serving burek and cevapi (sausages and cream cheese with chewy pitta), Turkish market stalls, street-side bars and even an underground nightclub where the student population converge every night.
In summer, the most daring locals collect money from tourists wishing to witness one of eastern Europe’s most popular attractions – the 21m bridge dive. Contributors will not be disappointed. If you fancy a swim yourself, visit the stunning Niagara-like Kravice waterfalls, about half an hour away, a scene of undeniable natural splendour. Prettier and more petite than capital Sarajevo, Mostar encompasses the fascinating past and ever-present exquisiteness of Europe’s most underrated nation. It’s dirt cheap as well.
Plzen – Czech Republic
In 1842 lager was invented in Plzen, and when you visit, they let you know about it. Just 40 minutes from Prague, never has a location built so much of its tourism around one beautiful commodity.
It’s the home of the Pilsner Urquell Brewery and the separate Brewery Museum, where tours attract beer enthusiasts the world over who want to taste lager in its purest form. The city’s specialist unfiltered beer can be sampled at the outdoor beer bar at the gothic Church of St Bartholomew. Yes, an outdoor beer bar next to a church. It’s no surprise in Plzen though, where beer used to be brewed, stored and served in underground tunnels. Just outside the city in Chodova Plana is a Beer Spa, where you can bath in the stuff. Get there for August 27 for Czech Republic’s biggest beer festival, Pilsner Fest. Although, having said that, most days feel like a beer festival in Plzen.
Prettier and more petite than capital Sarajevo, Mostar encompasses the fascinating past and ever-present exquisiteness of Europe’s most underrated nation.
Ljubljana / Lake Bled – Slovenia
The quaintest of capitals, Ljubljana is relaxing and hazy by day, and comes alive at night. During the summer, its English-speaking students switch from coffee to alcohol as the evening draws in, making it the perfect location for a chilled-out all day session ending in one of the cities numerous clubs. The beauty of Ljubljana is in its size: you can do the whole place in a day, and if you can drag yourself away from delicious local brew Lasko and the student stunners on the next table, you can scale up the town’s hill-top castle for a breathtaking view of the whole city. It’s easy to get to and makes an ideal first stop on any eastern European tour.
But it’s Lake Bled, do-able on a day trip from Ljubljana, where nature has done its hard work. The greenest of waters surrounds a tiny mid-lake island, to where you can set sail from the surrounding forest-covered Julian Alps for a couple of quid’s boat hire. It’s Slovenia’s most popular tourist destination, but the tranquillity of the lake calms all comers.
Hamburg / St Pauli – Germany
The only thing holding back Hamburg from being the most popular city-break or stag-do destination must be the slight increase in prices compared to the rest of Europe, because apart from that it has everything you could wish for. Germany’s second-biggest city has the mother of all red-light districts, a sleaziness seeping through the walls of every dingy rock bar, an all-encompassing liberal artiness and possibly the most passionately supported football team in Europe. Forget the prices, this place is well worth it.
There’s one place to start and end in Hamburg – the St Pauli district. The main street, the Reeperbahn, is the world’s most sexually-charged thoroughfare, offering peep-shows, strip clubs, sex shops and the famous Herbertstrasse – a 60m long strip, off limits to women and boys, which has been wall-to-wall prostitutes since the early 19th century. With Beatles-themed rock bars wedged between the filthiness, you’re never far from a good tune either. At the eastern end of the Reeperbahn is the Millerntor Stadion, home of FC St Pauli, known worldwide for the hostility generated by the anti-fascist fans in its standing terrace. There are more pristine areas of Hamburg with designer shops and striking architecture, but for music, sex and football, St Pauli is Germany’s capital.
Germany’s second-biggest city has the mother of all red-light districts, a sleaziness seeping through the walls of every dingy rock bar, an all-encompassing liberal artiness and possibly the most passionately supported football team in Europe.
Budva – Montenegro
Budva is where Blackpool meets Ibiza. It’s on the coast, it’s cheap, and in the summer folk from all over mainland Europe go there for revelry. The mile-long strip along the beach is packed with bars and bathers by day, offers top-notch seafood restaurants in the evening, and turns into a big party as night draws in.
If you’re on a budget it’s perfect. Most of the daytime activities are free or ridiculously cheap: sunbathing, drinking, and wandering round the historic walled old town, while the street barbeques serving grilled meat and fish ensure you’re well nourished. From about 9pm onwards the families have returned to their resorts, house and rock music pump out of the open air bars, half-naked girls dance on tables and a good time is had by all until the early hours. It’s easy to get to, and a coach ride away from the more-often-visited-by-Brits Split and Dubrovnik.
Cinque Terre – Italy
Something about Cinque Terre (five villages) doesn’t feel real. It’s almost too perfect, like the Gods of Breathtaking Scenery have spent years honing every minute detail like fine artists. Staggered high into the seaside rocks of Italy’s underarm, with miniature churches and restaurants flanking the tiny alleyways and olive-skinned beauties selling pasta and wine from baskets, it feels like you’re walking round a film set.
Each tiny settlement is connected via train, with the southernmost, Riomaggiore, about 15 minutes from Monterosso in the north. It’s a place to relax, and although there are late-night bars, the appeal of Cinque Terre is in watching fishing boats float lazily in and out of the bays, sampling local gelato and taking in the dramatic coastline. With Pisa, Florence and Milan airports all under two hours away it’s simple enough to get to, and couldn’t be a more perfect antidote to the suffocation of the inner-city.
Brasov / Bran – Romania
Romanian capital Bucharest has joined Prague, Krakow and the rest in becoming a stag-do staple over the past few years. If you’re after cheap beer and beautiful women, and I realise I’ve just ticked the top two boxes on a stag-do checklist, then it deserves recognition, but by day it’s a pretty boring place to be. Brasov, about 100 north of Bucharest and easily reachable by train, is Romania’s jewel for excellent reason.
Castles and Dracula are all you need to know. Legend says that Bran Castle, just up the road from Brasov, was the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula and was where Vlad the Impaler supposedly once lived. The sweeping Carpathian Mountains offer a fantasy film-like backdrop in nearby Rasnov, too. Back in the city, the main square has outdoor bars with huge seating areas serving refreshing Ursus beer, which is brewed in the town. It’s cheap, the women are more pleased to see you than in Bucharest, and you get to go to some castles.
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