Europe is one of the premier travel destinations in the world – and the southern region, in particular, is no stranger on itineraries of those looking for scenic coastlines, a balmy Mediterranean climate, and intriguing cultures unlike anywhere else in the world.
While cities like Rome, Barcelona, and Athens may come to mind when you think about must-see destinations in southern Europe, there are a whole host of other underrated destinations that are just as breathtaking – and free from the swaths of tourists that often plague their more popular counterparts.
Now more than ever travelers are looking for clandestine locations that are yet to be the next tourist hot spot, and southern Europe has plenty of options.
Whether you’re a history buff looking to check out some ancient architecture, a nature lover hoping to immerse yourself in the great outdoors, or a beach bum on the hunt for the best stretch of sand, continue reading to discover the 30 best-hidden gems in southern Europe.
Table of Contents
- 1. Berat, Albania
- 2. Lake Komani, Albania
- 3. Bosnia and Herzegovina
- 4. Bansko, Bulgaria
- 5. Bisevo, Croatia
- 6. Varazdin, Croatia
- 7. Zadar, Croatia
- 8. Naxos, Greece
- 9. Nisyros, Greece
- 10. Syros, Greece
- 11. Brisighella, Italy
- 12. Cefalu, Italy
- 13. Mantua, Italy
- 14. Ostuni, Italy
- 15. Lake Skadar, Montenegro/Albania
- 16. Tara Canyon, Montenegro
- 17. Ohrid, North Macedonia
- 18. Skopje, North Macedonia
- 19. Alentejo, Portugal
- 20. Costa Nova, Portugal
- 21. Ilha das Flores, Portugal
- 22. Sistelo, Portugal
- 23. Sighisoara, Romania
- 24. San Marino
- 25. Triglav National Park, Slovenia
- 26. Vipava Valley, Slovenia
- 23. Agüero, Spain
- 28. Cartagena, Spain
- 29. Cuenca, Spain
- 30. Setenil de las Bodegas, Spain
1. Berat, Albania
Albania as a whole is a country that never quite gets the attention it deserves, and it’s one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe. The city of Berat, in particular, is criminally underrated – and those who make the day trip here from the capital city of Tirana will be rewarded with a quiet ambiance, impressive views, and some ancient architecture that will blow your mind.
Often referred to as “the city of a thousand windows”, Berat is brimming with hillside houses that date back to the Ottoman Empire. These homes are bedecked with tons of windows facing out over the gorgeous valley, and it’s not hard to see why the residents would want to soak in as much of this view as possible.
Berat is one of just two towns in Albania that has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you can spend your days here ambling through the magical Old Town, with its cobbled streets and market stalls. For the best view in town head across the Ura e Varur Bridge – and don’t miss the 13th-century castle or the iconic Church of Saint Mary while you’re in town, either.
2. Lake Komani, Albania
Nature lovers looking to breathe in a breath of fresh air while vacationing in Albania shouldn’t miss Lake Komani, located in the northern part of the country. This is one of the most off-the-grid locations on our list, and while it may not be the easiest area to access (especially without a car), it’s certainly one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe.
Reminiscent of the fjords of Norway with the staggering green cliffs that surround it, Lake Komani is as beautiful as it is entertaining.
Those looking to get their blood pumping can access a series of hiking trails that pass by the lake, while those hoping for some rest and relaxation can take a ferry to the middle of the lake and book a stay at one of the stone houses located there. While you won’t have access to any electricity, you will be treated to homemade cheese, honey, and liquor (not to mention the epic views and utter tranquility, too).
3. Bosnia and Herzegovina
While the capital city of Sarajevo and the lovely little town of Mostar are starting to gain in popularity, the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina is still mostly unknown – and therefore one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe.
There are endless incredible areas to discover in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including:
- The ancient hillside city of Pocitelj
- The mountain village of Lukimor
- The stunning Rama Lake (complete with an ancient monastery on one of its islands)
- The postcard-perfect Kravica Waterfalls
This magical country is still relatively cheap to visit too – so budget-friendly travelers can rest easy knowing this slice of paradise won’t break the bank.
Those who visit Bosnia and Herzegovina usually end up adding it to their list of favorite countries – and there’s no doubt that this little gem won’t stay hidden for long, so you may want to consider visiting before it becomes completely inundated with tourists.
4. Bansko, Bulgaria
One of the best hidden gems in Europe can be found high in the hills of southwest Bulgaria. While there are plenty of popular ski slopes around Europe, the resort town of Bansko has yet to become an overly in-demand location. Its stunning views, cheap prices, and large collection of recreational offerings should put Bansko at the top of any outdoor lover’s bucket list.
During the winter, the ski resorts are the main draw to Bansko, and while the slopes rival those of some of the most premier spots around the continent, the prices are a fraction of what you’d pay at some of the more popular destinations.
Even if you’re not looking for a winter holiday, Bansko is beautiful in all four seasons. The town is surrounded by the beautiful Pirin National Park, where hiking and wildlife watching are common activities. Many people who visit Bansko do it solely to access this UNESCO-protected park – and we can’t say we blame them!
Bansko itself is definitely worth spending some time in, however, and you’ll find a beautiful Old Town with traditional buildings and a quaint, but ever so lovely Orthodox church.
5. Bisevo, Croatia
While island-hopping in Croatia is anything but a secret, the little island of Bisevo has remained a hidden gem. It’s a far cry from the glamorous shores of Hvar and Brac, and with less than 20 residents on the island, you won’t find any lively nightclubs here either.
Bisevo is all about nature, and while the island is as stunning as any other off the coast of Croatia, this one is all about what’s underneath the surface. Bisevo is known for its gorgeous caves, and two of the most beautiful can only be accessed by boat.
Monk Seal Cave features a high, arched opening, and once you’re through the narrow slit of rock, you’ll find a small, white sand beach that was once home to (you guessed it) a colony of Monk Seals.
The other famous cave on Bisevo is the equally as aptly named Blue Cave. If you visit the cave on a bright sunny day, the light hits the water and the white sand underneath in a way that creates a brilliant blue effect you’d have to see to believe.
6. Varazdin, Croatia
When you think about Croatia, many picture the dazzling coastline and lovely chain of islands, but the quaint inland city of Varazdin is one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe.
The ancient castle is perhaps the main draw to Varazdin, and construction of this stately edifice began back in the 14th century. Over the years it was built and rebuilt in various styles of the time, and today it stands proud in white stone with an iconic red-tiled roof that is similar to those in the rest of the town. Inside you’ll find the town’s historic museum complete with a large collection of paintings, monuments, weapons, documents, and so much more.
Next to the castle are two lovely cemeteries, and – while it might seem a bit sinister to amble through a graveyard while on vacation – the area is more like a well-manicured garden with beautiful tree-lined rows and a peaceful ambiance that is hard to beat.
7. Zadar, Croatia
Situated on the northern coast of Croatia and well off the beaten path of the ever-popular southern region of the country, Zadar is one of southern Europe’s best hidden gems. Not only is Zadar home to some ancient Roman ruins, fantastic sea views, and even better seafood, the city is a great branching-off point to visit some of the nearby islands.
You’ll be able to do so at a fraction of the price of cities like Dubrovnik and Split, and the northern islands are much less known and therefore less crowded with tourists.
Even if you decide to keep both feet on land, you’ll find plenty of beautiful sites in Zadar proper, from the stunning old church and ancient Roman tombstones that stand beside it to the hidden seaside monuments, and all the fantastic restaurants in between.
8. Naxos, Greece
Greece is another popular destination for island hopping, and with nearly 3,000 islets (over 200 that are inhabited) making up this massive archipelago, there are dozens of islands that are yet to become popular amongst vacationers. Naxos is one such island – and it boasts beautiful beaches, friendly locals, and vacation vibes, all without the crowds!
Naxos is fairly close to Athens, and the transit time here is even shorter than some of the other more popular Greek islands. You’ll find plenty of soft sand beaches around the island, one of which is even within walking distance of the ferry port.
While the beaches are a lovely place to spend some time, be sure to wander around the Old Town area, also known as Chora, once you’ve had enough sun. You’ll be able to experience the best history and culture that Naxos has to offer while taking in stunning views of the ancient architecture.
There are even some ruins of an old Venetian Castle located high up on a hill, overlooking the city and the breathtaking coastline.
9. Nisyros, Greece
More known for its active volcano than its white sand beaches, the island of Nisyros is one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe for those looking for a unique destination. Here you’ll find the lovely white-washed buildings with the blue frames that the country is known for, and you’ll also have the opportunity to witness a bubbling volcano up close and personal.
Although many choose to visit Nisyros only as a day trip, consider spending a few nights there if you have the time. Life moves slower on Nisyros, and you can take your time sipping fresh Greek coffee, reading by the waterfront, and spending lazy afternoons exploring the scenic mountain villages of the island.
10. Syros, Greece
Syros is another Greek island that never gets enough attention, so those in search of the best hidden gems in southern Europe can add this one to their list.
Its location between Greece’s mainland and the uberly popular island of Mykonos makes Syros anything but clandestine – yet this lovely island doesn’t often see an overabundance of tourists. Luckily, Syros doesn’t depend on the tourism industry too heavily, and those looking for an authentic Greek experience can find it here year-round.
Syros has been inhabited since prehistoric times (around 4000 BC!), and its wealth of historic and cultural assets mesh perfectly with the modern amenities that can be found there today.
Ermoupolis, the island’s capital city, boasts tons of incredible architecture like Venitian mansions, neoclassical buildings, and plenty of charming cobblestone streets.
The rest of the island is full of beautiful beaches and charming coastal towns – and you can enjoy it all without another tourist in sight.
11. Brisighella, Italy
Postcard-perfect Brisighella has somehow evaded the radar of tourists hungry for Insta-worthy snapshots, making it one of southern Europe’s best hidden gems.
This small commune in the Emilia Romagna region of northeast Italy gives off some serious medieval village vibes with its uniform red roof tiles, a hilltop castle, and (most likely) zero other tourists ambling along the cobblestone streets.
It goes without saying that the best view can be found at the hilltop castle, though don’t expect a grand fortress awaiting you; there are mainly only ruins left today.
Although there’s not much to do besides taking in the sheer beauty of it, you can take your time exploring and breathing in the fresh air or venture a bit further outside of town to access some of the area’s best hiking trails.
12. Cefalu, Italy
While there are plenty of beautiful cities in Sicily, many are no strangers to tourists’ itineraries. Cefalu is still one of southern Europe’s best hidden gems, but this small town may not stay a secret for long.
Those who are looking to experience the real authenticity of Sicily should put this ancient fishing village at the top of their list. Cefalu has everything you could wish for in a vacation destination including gorgeous beaches, medieval architecture, and a beautiful mountain backdrop to top it all off.
Beach bums searching for the best place to work on their tan should head straight for the Spiaggia Lungomare, a golden sand beach with turquoise blue waters lapping at its shore. The scenery is also splendid; after you take some time soaking it in, you can head into the center of town and check out the stunning Roman Catholic Cefalu Cathedral or climb up to the top of La Rocca di Cefalu for the best views of the town and sea below.
13. Mantua, Italy
Although quite popular with Italians, Mantua has not yet become famous amongst foreign visitors, making it one of the best hidden gems in Southern Europe. Located in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, Mantua was once ruled by the powerful Gonzaga family, and the influence of their reign can still be seen around the city today.
The grand architecture is the main draw to this ancient city, with the Ducal Palace as the focal point. This massive residential building boasts 600 rooms filled with grand frescos and other beautiful artwork that could easily entertain for hours on end.
Another one of the main attractions in Mantua is equally as impressive Te Palace, also a remnant of the Gonzaga rule. While the most notable feature is the Chamber of Giants (which is covered from head to toe with fascinating mythological scenes), the Teatro Bibiena is perhaps this building’s most stunning room.
14. Ostuni, Italy
While much of southern Italy has fallen prey to the hordes of tourists that flock there to take in the stunning scenery, the region of Puglia has evaded much of this attention and remains one of the most authentic areas in the country. Ostuni is one of the region’s best hidden gems – and this beautiful white-washed city is reminiscent of the pages of a storybook.
It’s actually referred to as “Italy’s White City”, and you may feel like you’re exploring an ancient Greek town rather than an Italian one. Once you catch sight of the classic Piazzetta Cattedrale and lively Piazza Della Liberta, however, you’ll know you’re in Italy – and if those clues weren’t a dead giveaway, the numerous gelaterias around town will leave no room for doubt.
Ostuni is a great place for a day trip, but you could also make it your home base – and explore more of Puglia’s ancient cities and scenic countryside that is bursting with olive groves and vineyards.
15. Lake Skadar, Montenegro/Albania
As the largest lake in the Balkans, it’s amazing that Lake Skadar isn’t more well known, let alone more popular with tourists. Those seeking out the best hidden gems in southern Europe may have come across the name a time or two (it also answers to Lake Scutari, Lake Shkodra, and Lake Shkoder).
Whatever you want to call it, the lake straddles the border of Montenegro and Albania and is just a 30-minute drive from the former’s capital city – Podgorica. The lake is massive, and there are a few different areas that really encapsulate the beauty of it best.
On the Montenegrin side, the small village of Virpazar is your best bet. There you’ll find various roadside lookouts, boat tours, a beautiful hilltop fortress, and a few local wineries.
On the Albanian side, Shkoder is a popular choice, especially for those looking to get out and enjoy the great outdoors. You can hike, bike, or simply enjoy the tranquility of the lake. The picturesque Old Town is also complete with a hilltop castle, boasting some of the best views over the lake.
16. Tara Canyon, Montenegro
For one of southern Europe’s best hidden gems, head into the wilderness of northern Montenegro. Tara Canyon is an outdoor lover’s paradise, offering untapped amounts of adrenaline-pumping recreation. You can spend your time hiking, white water rafting, or simply taking in the incredible views.
Many people choose to drive around the canyon, and the towering black cliffs combined with the cerulean waters below are worth going out of your way for. Although it may feel like you’re hours away from civilization, you’ll find some small towns in the nearby area where you can make your home base while exploring this outdoor oasis.
17. Ohrid, North Macedonia
The ancient city of Ohrid situated on the lake of the same name is one of southern Europe’s best hidden gems. This small town is located in the southwest part of North Macedonia and is both a cultural and a natural UNESCO World Heritage Site.
History buffs will love discovering the 13th century Church of St. John at Kaneo, and even if you’re not that into old architecture, the church’s clifftop location overlooking Lake Ohrid is one of the best views you’ll find in the entire city.
Another must-see spot in Ohrid is the Old Town, where you’ll find enchanting traditional architecture, winding cobblestone streets, and even a 10th-century fortress. Tsar Samuel’s Fortress is located high up on a hill and boasts panoramic views of the Old Town and the lake.
If you’re looking for a relaxing vacation, you can find it down by the lake where there are plenty of waterfront restaurants with exceptional views and even a few swimming beaches if you want to take a dip.
18. Skopje, North Macedonia
The capital city of North Macedonia is another one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe, and if you’re spending any time at all in the Balkans don’t miss out on Skopje. This city is full of awe-inspiring architecture (and an obscene amount of statues) that makes the riverfront a beautiful place to walk around.
Besides strolling around the waterfront and taking in the beautiful views, you can spend your time in Skopje perusing the Old Bazar. This 12-century marketplace is amongst the oldest and largest in the Balkans, and you’ll find everything from tantalizing street food and artisanal coffee shops to souvenirs and jewelry shops. There’s also a ton of ancient architecture in this area, so even if you don’t open your wallets you should still consider checking out the market.
After your day at the market, you can head to the nearby Kale Fortress and take in a beautiful sunset over the city of Skopje and the mountains beyond.
19. Alentejo, Portugal
While the sun-kissed shores of the Algarve region and the lovely river banks of Porto draw endless amounts of tourists, there are still some areas of Portugal that have evaded the limelight. The Alentejo region is one such area, and it’s one of the best hidden gems in Southern Europe.
The Alentejo Province has often been called the “Tuscany of Portugal”, and you’ll indeed find stunning landscapes, little stone villages, and lots and lots of wine in this region. You’ll also find some of Europe’s best beaches here, and amazingly, tourists have not yet descended on the 100 kilometer stretch of spectacular coastline that starts in Porto Covo and continues south.
The Portuguese have kept this area a well-hidden secret, and it’s mostly a popular vacation destination with locals looking for a tranquil, relaxed holiday. That being said, there are plenty of fun activities in this region including surfing the windswept coastline, exploring dunes, tasting copious amounts of wine, and exploring the vibrant cities of Beja and Evora.
20. Costa Nova, Portugal
Another one of Portugal’s hidden gems is the coastal city of Costa Nova, located about an hour south of Porto. This old fishing village is now a popular summer vacation destination for Portuguese vacationers.
Characterized by its colorful striped houses that line the streets all over town in hues of green, red, blue, and yellow, they make for an Insta-worthy photo-op – however, there’s plenty of other things to do while in town.
Costa Nova is the perfect spot for those looking for an authentic beach vacation while in Portugal, and you’ll find plenty of opportunities for sun tanning on white-sand beaches, sailing, surfing, rowing, and so much more.
While today this area is more of a vacation spot than a fisherman’s village, there are still tons of mouth-watering restaurants serving up fresh seafood.
21. Ilha das Flores, Portugal
While Ilha das Flores is technically part of the Azores, it is still one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe thanks to its location on the northernmost part of the archipelago.
Ilha das Flores is an oasis for both nature lovers and adrenaline junkies alike, and there are plenty of activities here to excite both categories. Take a hike amongst the island’s flora and fauna, do some whale and dolphin watching, or simply soak up some rays at one of the island’s fantastic beaches. Once you’re ready to turn it up a notch, you can go canyoning, diving, or swimming at the mouth of some breathtaking waterfalls.
It’s truly surprising that Ilha das Flores isn’t on the radar of more outdoor-lovers, but those looking to have a slice of this paradise all to themselves should not hesitate to visit before it becomes more popular.
22. Sistelo, Portugal
The tiny village of Sistelo is more reminiscent of the landscapes seen in eastern Asia than those of northern Portugal, and is often referred to as the “Little Portuguese Tibet”. It’s also considered one of the country’s seven wonders – and one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe.
The green terraced hills that Sistelo sits upon are used to cultivate corn, and while practical, the verdant thatched landscape combined with the white granite houses, clear water flowing through the area, and cows meandering about make this place postcard-perfect.
Some of the best views can be found at the Cha da Armada lookout point, and those looking to learn more about the history of this area can visit the Sistelo Castle.
There are also tons of hiking trails around Sistelo, and you can spend the day exploring these verdant pathways or embark on a multi-day trek.
23. Sighisoara, Romania
Tucked into the historic Transylvania region of Romania is one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe. The city of Sighisoara is thought to be one of the most well preserved medieval towns on the entire continent, and the Old Town is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This lovely area is home to winding cobblestone streets, pastel-colored houses, and rich history dating back to the 1100s. There are tons of museums around town where you can dive into the past, and if you have to visit just one while you’re in Sighisoara, make it the one inside of the clock tower – as it’s the one that’ll give you some of the best views in town.
While we can’t say that Sighisoara is completely unknown amongst tourists, if you visit during the off-season, you’ll likely find the streets more or less deserted. That being said, the wildflowers that bloom in the summer might entice you to take on the crowds that flock there during this time of year.
24. San Marino
One of the smallest countries in the world is entirely surrounded by northern Italy, and San Marino is one of the best hidden gems in southern Europe. This micro-country is the oldest republic in the entire world, and amazingly it has retained much of its historic architecture.
The most famous structures are the mountain-top castle and ancient citadels that sit on the neighboring peaks. Although this tiny country might seem like a great day trip while in northern Italy, don’t make the mistake of staying for only a few hours. If you stay a night or two, you’ll be treated to some impressive sunrises and sunsets and some streets void of any other tourists – which really adds to the magic of this fairytale-like place.
25. Triglav National Park, Slovenia
Slovenia is synonymous with nature, and there are tons of hidden gems tucked into the country’s verdant countryside. Triglav National Park is one such treasure trove, and those who visit will be spoiled with some of the best hiking trails in Europe.
As you walk, you’ll be treated to incredible views of the Julian Alps in the distance along with lush pastures, beautiful lakes, and verdant valleys. It isn’t just hiking enthusiasts that can enjoy the area either; you’ll also find plenty of opportunities for mountain biking, horseback riding, skiing, and water sports.
One of the best things about this park is that it’s one of the most sustainable destinations on the entire continent, and it’s also one of the safest.
Triglav National Park is a protected UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and this small, 340 square-mile area is home to over 7,000 different species of animals. If you’re looking to reconnect with nature while traveling through southern Europe, this hidden gem might be your best bet.
26. Vipava Valley, Slovenia
Another one of Slovenia’s hidden gems is the Vipava Valley, located along the country’s eastern border. Not only is this luscious area popular with outdoor lovers, but it also pulls out all the stops for wine enthusiasts and foodies.
Life moves slower in the Vipava Valley, and you can take your time driving through the vineyard terraced hills that are equal to those of Tuscany.
You could also choose to hike or bike between the little villages that dot the area or head up into the mountainous landscape and experience some of the best paragliding in the world.
Wherever you wander in the Vipava Valley, you’re sure to find plenty of tantalizing restaurants and wine cellars around every corner, not to mention incredible views that follow you wherever you go.
23. Agüero, Spain
While Spain is mostly known for the lively metropolises like Barcelona and Madrid, there are tons of hidden gems tucked away in the lesser-known areas of this sun-soaked country. The village of Aguero is a must-see for those looking to experience Spain off the beaten path – but the domineering rock formations behind the town are the real draw to this area.
Popular with rock climbers and photographers alike, the 200-meter high formations (also known as Las Mallos) are technically mountain peaks, though they’re likely unlike any you’ve ever seen.
The town is also known for its 12th-century church with its intricate stained glass windows and the town’s annual festival, where local food and wine flow plentifully.
28. Cartagena, Spain
Although Cartagena is a popular port for docking cruise ships in southern Spain, most see it solely as a gateway city rather than the gem that it truly is. Located on the Mediterranean coast of the Murcia province, this small town is as pretty as it is historic – yet it’s somehow yet to be overrun by tourists.
The tranquility just adds to the charm of the place, not that it really needs any help. You can spend your time in Cartagena learning about its incredible history, and the best guides are the buildings. Be sure to check out the ancient Roman Theatre, the Modernista Gran Hotel, and the large collection of neo-baroque buildings sprinkled throughout the city.
There are also some beautiful stretches of golden sand right outside the city – and it’s not uncommon to have the entire beach all to yourself.
29. Cuenca, Spain
You may think that an ancient city perched precariously on the edge of a cliff face would garner more attention, but the medieval city of Cuenca is one of southern Europe’s best hidden gems.
Dating back to the 1300s, Cuenca is full to the brim with magical charm, from the dangling houses of Casas Colgadas to the many churches from various time periods. Its Old City is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site, and you might want to put it at the top of your bucket list before word gets out about this stunning city.
Besides the ancient (if not perilous) architecture, the karst topography and beautiful blue river on the outskirts of Cuenca make this a fun destination for anyone looking to experience an authentic Spanish town.
30. Setenil de las Bodegas, Spain
If you thought the cliffside facades of Cuenca were impressive, you’ll be amazed by Setenil de las Bodegas, located in the Cadiz province of Andalucia. The village was actually built inside of a canyon – and many of the homes are, in fact, part cave.
The best way to experience Setenil de las Bodegas is to walk along the boulder-covered streets, and while it may seem a bit daunting, it’s entirely safe. You could also choose to dine in one of the cave-side restaurants, and even stay in one of the bed and breakfasts that have been made out of a few of these cave houses.
Aside from the locals, this village is mostly deserted, so you won’t have to worry about many (if any) other tourists crowding the streets during your time in Setenil de las Bodegas.