Why do Americans like traveling to Europe so much? Striking, timeless architecture that’s different from anything at home is one good reason. Losing yourself in a different, but somehow familiar, culture is another. Throw in landscapes, food, languages and ancient heritage and suddenly you have the makings of a classic vacay.
But deciding which European country to visit from a list of around 50 (depending on how you count transcontinental nations) is harder than choosing which of the American States to see. For every traveler, there are a lot of factors to consider.
Well, if “road less traveled but still worthwhile” is one of your deciding factors, consider these emerging European stars.
Although not as popular as neighboring Spain, Portugal offers a potent European education. While traveling up the Iberian coast in a single day, you can see limestone buildings perched atop Atlantic shoreline, intimate alleyways, glamorous beaches, desert landscapes and vine-covered mountains to the North. The people and food along the way are equally enchanting. Best of all: Portugal is widely regarded as the “best value” destination on the entire continent, letting you do more for less.
With the Dutch to the north, Germans to the east and French to the sound, Belgium sits at the crossroads of Western Europe. It speaks those same three languages and is packed with medieval, art nouveau and pre-modern architecture. Now, you won’t get any bonus points from friends for visiting low-profile Belgium. To hell with them. You’ll get everything the country is famous for—beer, chocolate truffles, waffles and fries—whether you visit Brussels, Bruges, the Belgian countryside or the Ardennes Forest.
With the rest of Europe crowding it out, it’s easy to miss this New Hampshire-sized gem. But of all the places in Europe, Slovenia is one of the most picturesque. Half of the country is covered in forest, which blankets its slice of the Alps Range in an inviting green. The villages, castles and churches (Lake Bled is pictured above) are neat and precise. The surprisingly suntanned locals are welcoming—now it is just time for you to go … trust us.
To the south of Slovenia sits another European looker (pictured at top) you probably haven’t considered until today: Croatia. This country becomes less of a secret with every passing day, but for those who don’t know: Croatia is opposite of Italy on the east side of the Adriatic sea and its highlight include Dubrovnik, the capital of Zagreb, and 1,200 islands. Wherever you go, you’re sure to encounter sun-drenched weather, clear water, and a Mediterranean mindset.
One of the bigger countries in Europe, Poland persists in the shadows of cultural continental giants Germany, Italy and France. But Poland’s equally rich in timeless traditions, architectural treasures and Prague-like charm. Like Portugal, Poland is also one of the most affordable European spots. Which means you can enjoy the incredibly nice, welcoming and generous people while en route to a hearty but inexpensive meal, dirt-cheap lodgings or discounted shopping in relaxing market squares.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Visit his website or follow @blakesnow.