Summer in Europe: 5 Perfect Picks
Updated for 2023 Summer Travel
Summer in Europe officially made its comeback last year. Many destinations clocked record numbers of visitors. While the infusion of visitors (and their wallets) breathed new life into struggling businesses, it was also a very crowded summer. You may be dreaming of summer travel already, but probably not massive crowds.
Choosing somewhat unexpected destinations will give you some room to breathe. You can also dodge crowds even in more popular destinations with some clever planning. Visiting a mix of classic and unknown destinations helps spread your valuable tourism dollar to communities and businesses that can really benefit!
*This post contains select affiliate links. If you use them to make a booking, I receive a tiny commission at no additional cost to you. *
Travel is much easier going into 2023, with far fewer restrictions and steps. Of course it’s always wise to double check, especially before booking anything non refundable. Look for the official government website, as secondary sites may not be properly updated.
Now let’s get to the fun part – 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. Croatia’s popularity has really exploded since 2021, but you can still find some solitude. Visiting at the very beginning to tail end of summer will make a difference too.
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.
The famous Plitvice Lakes are stunning but crowded in summer, but you have options. Head to Krka National Park. While smaller, it’s not quite as famous so you may dodge some crowds by going here instead. It’s also more convenient for a day trip, sitting close to the coast about halfway between Split and Zadar. It’s the perfect 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.
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, with many schedules focusing 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.
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. These will make for a very crowded summer in Europe experience.
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 renaissance of sorts in recent years. Stroll Bari Vecchia, where nonne (Italian for grandmothers) 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 your personal summer travel season is longer.
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.
It’s important to know that Puglia’s popularity as a European summer travel hotspot is growing rapidly. August is the busiest month, and it’s advisable to avoid it altogether. June through mid-July and September are a better time to enjoy summer but not drown in crowds.
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 L to R: Bucharest, Balea Lake, Sibiu
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 is definitely a popular choice for a sun-drenched European summer vacation. Of course one could go for the the likes of uber-famous Mykonos and Santorini – but be prepared for some serious expectation vs reality vibes. Venture past the most famous islands and head inland or to lesser known islands. Now you can 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.
Travel Planning Tips for Your Summer in Europe
Start tracking flight prices now. If you are coming from outside Europe (the U.S. is where I’m usually flying from), expect to pay $1000 or more for a summer flight in economy. If you find a deal for $800 or less you should probably snag it. Just read the fine print carefully and make sure the connections aren’t too tight.
The sooner you book where you’ll be staying, the more choice you’ll have. Rooms go fast in the summer travel season. Delaying risks spending more and not much to choose from. This is true from hostels to luxury properties.
Airbnb is a bit of a crapshoot now, and merits its own post. Between rising fees and the negative impact on local housing situations, I’ve moved away from using this option. Once exception is using it to book a room in a home – it’s usually extra income for the person who lives there and is a great option for solo travelers.
I’ve been quite happy using Booking.com to find a variety of hotels, B&Bs, and even apartments. In small towns I’ll also search on Google maps, as they often don’t have listings and may offer deals when you book directly.
Renting a car gives you freedom but can be stressful if you’ve never done so. Typically the lowest rates are for airport or train station locations, and picking up/dropping off at the same location. Cheaper options will usually have a branded shuttle to take you from the airport to their nearby office.
Sometimes I book direct, but I’ve also used Discover Cars to find rental car deals in Europe. No matter where you rent, read the fine print with extreme caution. When picking up/dropping off, take detailed photos of the car and keep them for at least 3 months. Also check if your credit card offers additional coverage – if it does, you can decline the extra coverage option and save some money.
Be sure to check if you need to have an International Driving Permit. This is not a separate permit but a translation of your driver’s license. Not every country requires it, but not having it may mean you can’t rent a car or heavy fines if caught without it.
Feeling a little overwhelmed? I would love to help you plan your perfect summer in Europe! Explore my travel consulting and coordination options. Bon Voyage!