With summer travel for Europe finally opening back up, many people are still seeking destinations that allow you to have some space. Not just literally, but also figuratively. It’s been a rocky 15 (ish) months in many ways for many people and a low key location is just what the travel doctor ordered. Kick back and relax in fresh air and take in stunning views. Choosing somewhat unexpected destinations will give you some room to breathe. Even better, it will help small communities and businesses that may take longer to bounce back than their more famous brethren.
With the majority of EU member countries finally agreeing on entry rules, and the hotly debated Green Certificate, summer travel to Europe just got easier. Last minute travel will of course be much easier for EU citizens/residents. For those coming from further afield, I would definitely make sure all bookings can at least be rescheduled if not refunded. Start by checking various travel restrictions and requirements for the EU and then head to individual countries’ government sites to confirm.
Now let’s get to the part we’ve all been waiting a very long time for – deciding where to go!
Dubrovnik was already famous when Game of Thrones launched it even further into the stratosphere. The crush of tourism in recent years had even prompted discussions of a ticket system for certain parts of the old city. Head north a bit and inland to discover that Croatia has so much more to offer than the stand-in for King’s Landing. Unless you’re obsessed with GOT or have several extra days in shoulder or off season, take the path (relatively) less traveled and find some room to breathe.
While the famous Plitvice Lakes are indeed stunning, they also become EXTREMELY crowded in the summer (save them for winter when they’re a frosty fairyland!) and you can’t swim in them either. Head instead to Krka National Park. While smaller, it’s also more convenient for a day trip and less crowded than Plitvice. It sits close to the coast about halfway between Split and Zadar. It’s the perfect cooling break in nature for your European summer travel kickoff.
Kick off with a few days in Split, reserving one day for Krka and another to hop a ferry to the idyllic island of Brac. Mosey up the coast and stop off in Zadar. Stroll the promenade and listen to the Sea Organ, which is effectively “played” harmonica-like by the waves. Enjoy a fabulous seaside dinner then get up early the next day to visit the charming seaside village of Rovinj. Afterwards, head inland to the capital city of Zagreb. Here you can choose from numerous hikes in the Croatian countryside while enjoying easy access to culture and nightlife.
Keep in Mind
While not a Schengen country (yet), Croatia is an EU member. They even permitted foreign leisure travelers during the summer of 2020 (after being one of the first EU countries to close to visitors in March), though there were restrictions in place during much of fall and winter. They are currently open to US travelers with certain required steps like a recent negative PCR test or proof of vaccination/recent recovery from Covid. Check up on Croatia travel restrictions regularly, as they are of course subject to adjustment at any time.
UPDATE July 17, 2021: Malta has just changed their entry requirements. They are now ONLY allowing vaccinated travelers to visit without quarantine, with just a handful of very specific exceptions that permit a negative COVID test. Restrictions for gatherings and masks have also been updated.
Sitting southwest of Sicily, the petite island nation of Malta has been steadily gaining popularity in recent years. If you’re coming from Sicily, hop the ferry from Pozzallo. Over 30 airlines fly into Malta, though many schedules focus on the summer travel season. It’s perfect if you’re taking a shorter getaway. You can reach pretty much any part of the main island in an hour or less with your own wheels.
It is possible to explore Malta sans car, as they’ve been working hard to upgrade their bus services. The even tinier islands of Gozo & Comino offer lagoons, snorkeling, swimming, and sunsets to rival Greece or Sicily. Comino only has a single hotel (which appears to be closed at this time), but you can stay on Gozo and hop a ferry service to Comino for a day. Both are quite walkable (especially Comino, which doesn’t allow most cars anyway) so a car is pretty much unnecessary if you’re a “walker” to begin with.
Back on the main island of Malta, where the architecture looks as if Greece and Sicily collided, there’s no shortage of exploration to be had. A midday visit on a charter to the Blue Grotto showcases the azure waters glowing with light. The city of Valletta itself is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site but it has two others if that’s your jam: Megalithic temples scattered over several locations and Hagar Qim which dates back to 3,600 BC!
If more recent archeology with a hearty dash of kitsch is your thing, visit Popeye Village. It was built for the movie and is now a kooky tourist attraction if you’re feeling silly. Take in sweeping views from Dingli Cliffs or wander the sleepy streets of and charming cafes of Mdina, the original capital of Malta. Explore the charm of the itsy fishing village Marsaxlokk (ten points to you if you know how to say it!) or the impressive Mosta Rotunda. Malta in general is chock full of museums, forts, and gardens.
Keep in Mind
It’s also an affordable destination, ideal for a longer trip or a wallet friendly quick getaway. If your summer travel budget took a hit, this is a great way to get bang for your buck. A quick AirBnB search turned up numerous options around Valletta under $65. There is a hostel in Malta that’s just $30 per night (and well rated) so it is possible to travel even cheaper.
While Malta has been courting summer tourists heavily, there are still some restrictions. Like many countries, you’ll need proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test. Cross check all the entry requirements for Malta before booking anything. There are extra restrictions for countries deemed red zones, but many are amber. Be sure to frequently check for updates on Malta travel restrictions.
This is a bit broad so let’s narrow it down right off the bat. Skip (gasp!) the obvious darlings of Rome/Florence/Venice. Double down and skip even the Amalfi Coast and Naples. For beach loving, vinophile gourmands, slide on down to Puglia (aka Apulia) in the heel of the famous boot. Dine on local fresh-caught seafood, and sip fabulous wines in piazzas of white-washed villages. You can stay in an agriturismo (a working farm) or an elegant masseria (a repurposed farm) in the countryside or steps from the aforementioned stunning beaches.
All roads might lead to Rome, but did you know the Appian Way used to go all the way to Puglia? There are numerous options to get to the region. Ultimately you’ll need a car, so you can rent from a larger city and drive down, or upon arrival. Fly into Bari or Brindisi, or take a train from major cities like Rome or Naples.
Bari has begun enjoying a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Stroll Bari Vecchia, where nonne hand-make orecchiette along Arco Basso aka “Strada de Orecchiette”. Take in the beautiful architecture of various palazzi, browse contemporary art galleries, and even visit a Norman castle. Bari is also where you could take a ferry to Dubrovnik or several Greek ports if you’re taking a longer tour around Europe.
Puglia is roughly 250 miles long, so if you have a week or less pick one area. If you have 10-14 days, you can sample the whole region. The southernmost Salento peninsula includes the incredible Baroque town of Lecce (often called the Florence of the south) and some of the best beaches in all of Europe. For whitewashed quaint villages – including the distinctive Trulli-filled Alberobello, stay around Ostuni. Ostuni is called the Citta Bianca, and it’s easy access to the equally charming villages of Martina Franca and Locorotondo. The eastern coast boasts the famous Polignano a Mare but don’t sleep on the likes of Monopoli or Brindisi either. Brindisi is also a busy port, with numerous ferries to Greece and even Albania.
The northern end of Puglia has the oft overlooked (by non-Europeans) Gargano Peninsula. The small spur boasts cliff-clinging villages and a trio of islands surrounded by wildly blue sea. If you’re looking for something different or have an extra 3-5 days you should definitely explore the area. Rent an apartment in Vieste or Peschici, which gives access to ferries to the aforementioned Tremiti Islands but also is close to the shady forests of the Parco Nazionale del Gargano.
Keep in Mind
Puglia has long been a popular destination for European summer travel, especially amongst Brits, Germans, & Italians. August has historically been the busiest month, and while this year is unpredictable it’s best to aim for July or September. The best part is, it’s truly a year round destination if you’re not after the snazzy beach clubs. If you can’t make it this summer, definitely look into October or April. You’ll find perfect weather, minimal crowds, and noticeably lower prices.
Italy just updated their travel requirements again. You can find the requirements to enter Italy on their government health site. Currently for most people that means proof of vaccination, a test within 48 hours of departure, or proof of recovery from Covid within a specific time frame. Filling out the Digital Passenger Locator Form is still required.
Romania is truly a gem that so far remains largely under the radar. It does take a bit of effort to get to as it’s one of the easternmost European countries. Romania might not be the first country to pop into your head when considering your summer travel options, but it should be. With stunning mountain ranges, imposing castles, mild summer temperatures, and excellent value across the board you can’t lose. It’s easiest to fly into Bucharest and rent a car.
From there, cruise north towards the likes of Brasov, Sighisoara, Sibiu, and Cluj Napoca. As you head towards Sibiu, detour to the Transfagarasan road. The twisty, switchback packed route takes you to Balea Lake, a popular spot for photo ops and picnics. Continue west through the countryside where you can lunch in Sibiu or keep going and visit the stunning Castle Corvin.
Spend a couple of days in Cluj Napoca, stroll the charming streets and spend a little time in nature at the botanical gardens. Later take a half day trip to Turda. It’s home to one of the largest active salt mines in the world. As you head back south to close the loop, stop off for a night in Sighisoara. It may be one of the most relaxing and charming medieval towns around. From there it’s a short hop to Brasov, a charming medium sized city that makes a great base for exploring the stunning Ciucas Mountains or Bucegi Natural Park. It’s also close to the very famous Bran’s Castle. After that, return to Bucharest where you can spend a couple of nights taking in city life before heading home.
Keep in Mind
Speed limits are fairly modest on many of the roads, many of which are 2 lane. Just allow extra time to get from one destination to the next. The scenery is beautiful and so it’s hardly an inconvenience. Travel restrictions for Romania are similar to the EU, with most visitors able to enter with vaccination or negative test proof. Some countries do require quarantine, so check the list carefully. It’s anticipated restrictions will relax further as of July 1. You can also check road closures on the site, as sections of Transfagarasan may be closed outside the height of summer..
Greece was one of the first European countries to take concrete steps towards opening for foreign tourism. With tourism accounting for almost a fifth of its GDP, Greece is another country that felt the sting of the global freeze acutely. Of course one could go for the the likes of uber-famous Mykonos and Santorini – exceedingly popular summer travel destinations. Instead, spread out and enjoy idyllic solitude and spectacular views with a fraction of the crowds – and expense!
Check out Naxos for music and culture, Thasos for more adventurous pursuits, or Zakynthos for some of the bluest waters you’ve ever seen and an opportunity to snorkel or participate in conservation efforts. With over 200 (inhabited) islands, you’ll surely claim your piece of paradise on one of these underrated Greek islands.
But hang on a minute – don’t forget that Greece also has some amazing offerings on the mainland. Go beyond Athens and check out the Meteora. It’s famous for its monastery but also a great locale for hiking or rock climbing. If archeological sites and Greek mythology are your jam, add Olympia and Delphi to your Athens itinerary. You can also visit Pelion, which is seaside but also offers mountain hikes, waterfalls. It makes a perfect overnight addition to the bustle of Athens or Thessaloniki.
Keep in Mind
Rules for your Greek vacation are similar to the other countries on this list. You’ll need either proof of vaccination, a negative PCR test, or proof of recovery from Covid. They have a dedicated site where you can make sure you check off all the requirements to travel in Greece prior to booking your travels.
If you haven’t started booking already, do so now. As long as you have the option of free cancellation/change until about a week before your booking, you should be safe. Just double check on appropriate government sites and make sure to check (and re-check) all your documents at least 24 hours before departure.
Do be sure to check if there are any local curfews, reservation requirements for attractions, and reserve ahead for any special restaurants or activities you don’t want to miss.
For assistance in planning your summer adventures, learn about my travel consulting and coordination options. Bon Voyage!