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Europe's best-kept secrets: 20 places you'd never thought to visit

Our destination experts suggest 20 holiday destinations that the British are yet to discover. 

Gargano, Puglia

“The spur on the heel of Italy, the Gargano is a national park with long, sandy beaches, great forests of pine and a geographical location that tempers the summer heat with breezes blowing in from the sea on three sides,” says Paul Lay. “Come in August and you'll barely hear an accent other than Italian.”

A decade on, the region is still little known outside of Italy, according to Tim Jepson.

21 places in Italy you never thought to visit (but really should)

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Extremadura, Spain

Spain’s most overlooked region, according to Sally Davies, with good food, even better wine and three cities worth exploring. “Trujillo and Cáceres are stunning, my favourite towns in Spain,” she says. “Mérida less so, but it has a spectacular collection of Roman remains.”

Following a visit in 2012, Anthony Peregrine wrote: “Under a vast sky, the scorched tableland rolled away enormously, interrupted here and there by tough hills, and then Portugal. This was a land to gallop across with a band of desperate brigands. Lacking same, we drove through the dehesa lands of holm oaks whose acorns feed the pigs that feed the world Ibérico hams. Gradually, the countryside grew loftier and greener and we were soon among more beauty than I could readily assimilate.”

Isabella Noble urges a trip to the region's northern valleys: La Vera, Valle del Jerte and Valle del Ambroz. “Pretty La Vera is known for producing pimentón (paprika) and for its odd-angled, half-timbered houses, and hosts a brilliant Parador at Jarandilla de la Vera,” she says. “The Valle del Jerte comes alive with cherry blossom in early spring (late March or April); it also has lovely hikes along the Garganta del Infierno gorge. There’s more hiking in the Valle del Ambroz, where the town of Hervás flaunts wonderfully a preserved Jewish quarter and some surprisingly fine restaurants. Drivers can easily reach this area from Madrid, 150 miles east, and you can drive between the three valleys via a series of spectacular mountain passes.”

Lozère, Languedoc, France

La France profonde at its deepest – and highest,” says Anthony Peregrine. “At southern end of Massif Central, the county has highest mean altitude of any in the country. There are glorious uplands with no-one about, bar a few peasants, a real here-I-am, here-I-stand landscape, which includes the Cévennes hills and Causses limestone plateaus, plus the fabulous Tarn gorges. I simply can’t tell you how much I like this little region.”

The places in France you'd never thought to visit (but really should)

Stoupa and the Mani Peninsula, Peloponnese, Greece

Jane Foster explains: “Mountainous and relatively inaccessible, Greeks consider the Mani peninsular to be wild and remote. In the Outer Mani, set amid olive groves, Stoupa sits below the rocky peaks of the Taygetos mountain range, whose highest point, Profitis Ilias, soars 2407 m (7896 ft). Built around three sheltered turquoise bays, Stoupa offers a peaceful retreat from modern day life, and plenty of inspiration to delve into the ancient myths of gods and nymphs, and the tales of medieval tower houses and blood feuds for which the region is notorious.”

Secret Greece: 18 hidden gems you'd never thought to visit (but really should)

Meck-Pomm, Germany

Chances are you've never heard of Meck-Pomm (or, more formally, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern). It's “Germany's answer to Norfolk”, according to John Gimlette, “vast, lightly populated, and with an enormous seascape”. Go for remote beaches, busy little seaside towns, and - for the inevitable rainy day - a pair of Germany’s newest and brightest museums: Phantechnikum (home to a brilliant collection of curiosities and gadgets) and Ozeaneum (an aquarium with a family of penguins on the roof). 

Triglav National Park, Slovenia

Slovenia’s tallest mountain presides over an Alpine playground for hikers and rafters, made all the more enchanting by fairy-tale beasts and ancient gods. May to September is hiking season, but mid-September brings an extra dash of creamy local flavour: the Bohinj cow parade fêtes the return of cattle from the pastures. 

The Soča River dances across the western third of Triglav National Park. Take a white-water rafting trip along the river’s prettiest stretch, starting from 136m-high Boka Waterfall.

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Guimarães, Portugal

“If any city can be described as adorable, then it is Guimarães,” says Tim Pozzi of Portugal's down-to-earth former capital. “Its pedestrianised heart is a web of gently winding cobbled streets and washing-hung alleyways bejewelled with tiny bars and cute cafés.”

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Piano Grande, Umbria

“One of Europe’s finest upland plains, it situated above 4,000ft, ringed by mountains,” says Tim Jepson. “In late May and early June it is renowned for its extraordinary floral displays: swathes of wild crocuses one week, narcissi the next, grape hyacinth, wild tulips, poppies, thousands of orchids and rarities such as snakes' head fritillaries, among many others.”

Aragón, Spain

Annie Bennett explains: “West of Catalonia, you enter the vast region of Aragón. The town of Teruel, with its astonishing Mudéjar architecture, the pretty villages of Albarracín and Alqúezar, and the Ordesa National Park, are just a few of the things to see in this undervisited part of the country. And you can fly direct to the capital, Zaragoza, with Ryanair.” 

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The Sarthe, Pays de la Loire, France

“If you've never heard of the Sarthe, you'll surely know its capital, Le Mans,” says Anthony Peregeine. “It's where folk drive fast for 24 hours, ending up where they started. I don't have that kind of patience, so much prefer the town's world-class potted meat (rillettes du Mans) and wandering in Northern France's finest medieval centre. Beyond Le Mans, the region runs to rural rhythms ditched by most of France during the Fourth Republic. To the south, the Loir valley meanders through a past of wildflowers, forest and hills, wine and small towns where a chain store is still the local ironmonger's. To the west, the Sarthe river runs to Solesmes, whose abbey is world HQ of Gregorian chanting. Then it rises to the Alpes Mancelles hills which, if not quite Alpine, might pass nicely as the Black Forest. To the east, the Perche district is so deeply bucolic that one is surprised to find colour television.”

Pelion, Thessaly, Greece

“Mount Pelion was allegedly where the gods of Olympus idled away their summer holidays,” says Rachel Howard. “And with its cascading rivers, cobbled villages, and olive groves spilling down to glassy bays, Pelion still feels like a mythical wonderland. There’s even a single-gauge railway that chugs over stone bridges and giddying gorges from Ano Lechonia to Milies. Many of the 19th century mansions have been converted into guest-houses. My favourite is The Old Silk Store (doubles from €65) in Mouressi. British owner Jill Sleeman serves one of the best breakfasts in Greece – warm bread, scrambled eggs, and baked pears served on antique china in a sun-dappled orchard. It’s only 5km to a string of three fabulous beaches (Papa Nera, Agios Ioannis and Plaka).”

Cíes Islands, Galicia, Spain

Off the coast of Galicia lies the Cíes Islands, billed as the region’s answer to the Caribbean - and perfect for those in search of isolation. “There are several walking routes and the islands are popular with hikers and birdwatchers, particularly in the autumn,” explains Annie Bennett. “Part of the Galician Atlantic Islands National Park, the land and the surrounding sea are highly protected. Visitors are limited to 2,200 a day; there are no hotels – only a campsite – and just a couple of basic restaurants. There are no bikes, let alone cars.”

Bergamo, Lombardy, Italy

Largely ignored by travellers in favour of nearby Milan, Bergamo is Lombardy's “finest hill town”, according to Janette Griffiths, while its Piazza Vecchia is “one of the loveliest” in Italy.

The journalist and broadcaster Sian Williams is also a fan: “It's a charming walled city with lovely little winding streets where you can pick up a gelato, and is also the perfect base from which to explore the Lombardy countryside and the Italian lakes. The city and surrounding area are so romantic and just made for a short spring break.”

Durmitor National Park, Montenegro

A glorious kingdom of sky-scraping peaks, jade-green glacial lakes, ancient black pines, mossy forests and plunging river canyons, Montenegro’s Durmitor National Park is pure perfection. December to March is ski season, with spring, summer and autumn best for hiking and rafting. The mountains are cool even on the hottest days, though spring and autumn are particularly divine for their wild flowers and turning leaves, respectively. 

Beautiful European national parks you've never heard of

Koster Islands, Sweden

The Scandinavian summer - bright nights and welcoming temperatures - finds its feet in July. And does so with gusto in the Koster Islands - a tiny archipelago 100 miles north of Gothenburg in the Skagerrak Strait. Car-free, these birdlife havens proffer gentle days of hiking and cycling.

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Lake Orta, Piedmont, Italy

“It is one of the country’s most beautiful lakes, yet it remains off the tourist track,” says Kiki Deere, our Italian Lakes expert. “Even Italians haven’t heard of it!”

Found just a few miles west of the better known Maggiore, visitors say it has an ethereal quality to it. Michael Aspel, writing for Telegraph Travel, compared it to an opera set. “I've been going there for 40 years or more, having discovered it when I went on holiday to Italy with a BBC cameraman,” he said. “As we were driving along a road, I spotted some water below, went to investigate and simply fell in love with this pretty little jewel of a lake, with an island crowned by a 14th-century basilica.”

Tim Jepson agrees: “If you want an unspoiled Italian Lakes experience on an intimate scale, go for Orta. Like the main lakes of Garda, Como and Maggiore, it has its built-up portions – Omegna is the main culprit – but the west shore, especially, is divine. Orta San Giulio is the lake’s best overall base, and its quaint main square, Piazza Mario Motta, is the point of embarkation for boats to the lake’s little island, Isola San Giulio.”

Segovia and Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

“Go to Segovia for one single stunning Roman view, and a spectacular piece of Roman engineering,” advises Mary Beard, the broadcaster and classicist. “The huge aqueduct, built at the end of the first century AD, on a series of double-decker arches almost thirty metres tall, still comes right into the middle of the modern town, dominating the central square. There is little else Roman to be seen, but Segovia is a World Heritage Site, not simply for the aqueduct, but also for its medieval architecture, from palace and cathedral to monasteries and taverns.”

To the west of Segovia, and also in Castile and León, lies Salamanca, also a Unesco World Heritage site. Fiona Duncan writes: “Its intricately carved golden sandstone churches, palaces and plazas blaze in the sun high above the river Tormes. At night, they are magically floodlit, and the city bubbles, Spanish style, with life. It's hard to think of another city that so perfectly combines youthful energy with intellectual pursuit and aesthetic beauty as Salamanca. Its university rivals in historic importance that of Oxford and Bologna and a mix of native Castilians and international students throng the thoroughfares (side streets and squares are mostly delightfully quiet) night and day.” 

Beaujolais, Burgundy, France

“The most famous unknown bit of France,” reckons Anthony Peregrine. “Famous for the wines, unknown because no-one goes there. Serious mistake. To the north of Lyon and west of the Rhône, it’s a grand land of hills, vineyards on near perpendicular slopes, fine little villages and much over-indulgence. Some of the villages – notably the 'golden stone' ones to the south of the region – would be standing room only, were they in Provence or Tuscany. But they aren’t.”

Karavostasi and Epirus, Greece

“Epirus remains the preserve of the Greeks largely thanks to its relative inaccessibility and lack of sandy beaches,” says Caroline Shearing. “The most mountainous region in Greece, it is instead blessed with a lush and soaring landscape reminiscent of Scotland at its finest, mountain villages to rival (whisper it) the best of Provence, and gloriously unspoiled coastline. Add to this a densely forested landscape (home to brown bears, wolves and jackals), lonely clifftop monasteries, and skies patrolled by birds of prey, and it’s easy to see why the Greeks have been keeping it a secret for so long.”

Visitors to the region that do require a beach should head to Karavostasi, says Marc Dubin. “It's tucked away several kilometres off the main coastal highway between busy Sývota and Párga - but the journey is worth it. The beach here, cradled between two headlands, is an appealing 500 metres of sand, giving on to a rich blue sea. Straight ahead, you'll glimpse the southern tip of Corfu on the horizon, and the capes of Sývota just to the right.”

The Faroe Islands

Familiar to most people only from the shipping forecast, the windswept Faroe Islands together form an autonomous province of Denmark. The archipelago possesses some lovely beaches - not least at Sandur, a village on the island of Sandoy with a population of 600 - to go with starkly beautiful mountainous interiors.

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