Best places to visit in Europe
(CNN) — The Grand Tour was a right of passage for men and women of certain wealth and status in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, taking in the best Europe had to offer.
And with cheap flights, high speed rail connections and plenty of spectacular, not to mention off-the-radar, destinations on offer, there’s ample scope for the modern traveler to undertake their very own epic, cross-continental journey.
Here are 17 of Europe’s best destinations to visit today:
Picos de Europa, Spain
Home to Spain’s first national park, the Picos de Europa are one of western Europe’s most overlooked mountain ranges. Jagged limestone peaks and plunging gorges are crisscrossed by well-marked hiking trails, with deep caves enticing more intrepid travelers. The vertiginous Fuente Dé cable car offers sweeping views and access to excellent walking routes.
Lofoten Islands, Norway
Lofoten Islands: Northern Lights hotspot.
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Deep within the Arctic Circle, Norway’s Lofoten Islands are a dream destination for outdoor fanatics, nature lovers and those who prefer their adventures well off the beaten track. Come between May and July and the sun does not dip below the horizon. Visit in midwinter and the dark skies dance with aurora borealis.
The islands’ craggy mountains and crystal clear inlets are home to a huge array of seabirds and marine life, while the beaches are regarded as some of the best in the northern hemisphere for surfing.
Throw in picture-postcard fishing villages and perfectly preserved Viking archeology and you’ve got ample reason to make the effort to get here.
Apuseni mountains, Romania
Romania’s Apuseni mountains offer cooler temperatures and uncrowded paths to summer hikers.
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Part of the western Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania, the Apuseni make for the ideal summer break, with cooler temperatures and uncrowded paths through ancient woodland and limestone crags.
Brown bears and wolves prowl these hills, although it takes patience and a keen eye to spot them. Climbers can try a number of different protected via ferrata routes which rise from the riverbank south of the village of Vadu Crisului.
Ephesus: Europe’s most complete classical city.
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The ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus, located near Selçuk in modern-day Turkey, is the most complete classical city in Europe, thanks to painstaking excavation and restoration.
It pays to take a guide here, as there’s a huge amount that can be easily missed. The 2nd-century Library of Celsus is the most famous of the ancient metropolis’ sights, closely followed by the main thoroughfare of the Curetes Way and the vast Great Theater. The latter could apparently seat 25,000 people, with Saint Paul believed to have preached there.
Avignon: History and culture in the south of France.
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For a city with fewer than 100,000 residents, Avignon has an incredible abundance of both historical and cultural attractions.
Having played home to the papacy during the 14th century, the Papal Palace, 12th-century cathedral and the ruins of the Pont Saint-Bénezet (of “Sur le pont d’Avignon” song fame) make it worth spending more than just a couple of days here.
Its annual arts festival, held each July, is one of Europe’s biggest cultural events. Add in casual wine bars selling the best tipples from across Provence, and there’s no reason to rush home.
The fishermen of Cascais rise at dawn to catch the seafood that will later become the dish of the day
The Portuguese capital’s food scene has boomed in recent years, making it a go-to for those who hit the road with the sole purpose of eating and drinking.
Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
The Dingle Peninsula’s rolling landscape and rugged coast are paradise for outdoor adventurers.
The Dingle Peninsula, in County Kerry on Ireland’s southwest coast, is paradise for those who like their trips active and adventurous.
Mount Brandon offers a strenuous hike, rewarding walkers with views over the Atlantic and across the entire peninsula. Surfers can take to the water at Inch Beach, with waves to suit first timers or hardened pros.
The colorful streets of the small port of Dingle have plenty of bars for kicking back and easing aching joints over a pint.
Wander the streets of Bulgaria’s second largest city, from its Roman amphitheater to its colorful buildings.
But beyond these one-off events, Plovdiv has plenty to charm visitors whenever they come. The well-preserved 2nd-century Roman theater is one of the finest archeological sites in eastern Europe, while the cobbled Old Town, with its colorful houses and warren-like streets, is made for ambling.
Pompeii: A perfectly preserved ancient city.
Pulling in more than 2.5 million visitors a year, there’s never a quiet time to visit Pompeii. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth making as much time for it as possible when in southern Italy.
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The perfectly preserved ancient city, buried under ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, is unlike anything else in Europe. It’s possible to see exactly how life was lived before the disaster, from the graffiti on the walls to the utensils used by the city’s people. The baths, forums and villas are just as they were almost 2,000 years ago.
A decade on from Greece’s financial crisis, the people of Athens are enjoying life like never before.
The UNESCO-protected Acropolis is the most obvious, not to mention most popular, sight in Athens. Its ancient ruins are a huge draw, with the attached museum one of the most fascinating in Europe.
But with sightseeing out of the way, Greece’s capital has plenty more to offer. The edgy, graffiti-covered neighborhood of Exarcheia is the perfect spot for grabbing a coffee on a street corner or catching jazz in a smoky bar. Just be aware that the creep of gentrification isn’t beloved by all the locals.
Salzburg is home to blockbuster Mozart and “Sound of Music” tours.
With the Alps looming over the 11th-century Hohensalzburg Fortress and array of beautiful palaces and churches, Salzburg is arguably the most picturesque city in central Europe.
Protected by UNESCO, the modern world feels pleasingly elsewhere. The city’s most famous son, Mozart, vies for tourist attention with “The Sound of Music,” which was filmed and set here.
Henne Strand, Denmark
Henne Strand: Wild and windswept.
Beaches don’t come much more windswept than this. On the west coast of Jutland, Henne Strand is a holiday haven for Danes who love the outdoors.
Bruges: Brimming with medieval charm — and beer.
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It’s very easy to fall in love with Bruges. Its medieval streets and winding canals have a distinct charm, while the Markt, the city’s main square, is the perfect place to quaff a local Belgian beer and watch the world go by.
Brave the queues and clamber to the top of the 83-meter (272-foot) Belfort, or belfry, for views over the rooftops, with the port of Zeebrugge in the distance. Bruges is small and can get crowded, so it pays to visit in winter when things are quieter, especially in January and February.
Dusseldorf: Germany’s go-to destination for hip travelers.
Ultra-modern Düsseldorf might not seem like the most obvious city in Germany for a Grand Tour stop off, but thanks to a booming art scene — helped in no small part by the internationally revered Art Düsseldorf art fair — it has become a go-to for Europe’s hippest travelers.
Wroclaw, Poland, boasts superb architecture.
Krakow and Warsaw often grab the headlines, but Wrocław is a Polish city to behold, thanks to its truly superb architecture. The Gothic Old Town Hall on the city’s main square is perhaps the most famous building in town, but there are plenty more for culture fiends to spend time staring at.
The University of Wroclaw lights up the night sky on the banks of the River Oder, while the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist dominates the skyline. Be sure to head to the Racławice Panorama, a circular painting housed in a Brutalist rotunda, which celebrates the Poles’ victory over Russia in the Battle of Racławice in 1794.
Groningen: A winning alternative to Amsterdam.
Young and hip, Groningen is a winning alternative to Amsterdam. The canals and classic Dutch buildings are all in evidence, but without the bustling hordes of tourists. The bike is king here, with the majority of journeys taken on two wheels.
The Cairngorms, Scotland
Cairngorms: Britain at its wildest and most beautiful.