From floating villages to deserted towns: Are these Europe’s best hidden gems?

From floating villages to deserted towns: Are these Europe’s best hidden gems?

Spain has topped a new list celebrating Europe’s hidden gems - coming in first and second place with the towns of Villajoyosa and Ares del Maestrat.

European Best Destinations has just published its annual ranking of the ‘best hidden gems in Europe’ for 2024, a list that acknowledges places off the beaten track.

This year’s selection includes 18 places across Europe, from Spain to Georgia, and focuses on spots far from the crowds that few tourists will ever have visited.

The top 10 are particularly noteworthy. Here’s why you should add each of them to your travel bucket list.

Enjoy the best of Spanish gastronomy in Villajoyosa, Costa Blanca

Villajoyosa translates from Spanish into ‘happy town’, which seems appropriate given that it has so much to offer.

Situated south of Valencia and north of Murcia, it may be fewer than 20 minutes by car from famously cheap and cheerful Benidorm, but it is worlds apart from the tourist hotspot.

Villajoyosa boasts colourful houses, golden beaches and world class food.

Being on the coast, fresh fish and seafood are particular favourites, but chocolate is the real delicacy.

Villajoyosa's colourful houses, beaches and top notch food make it the top 'hidden destination' for 2024
Villajoyosa's colourful houses, beaches and top notch food make it the top 'hidden destination' for 2024 - Håkon Grimstad via Unsplash

The area’s history with the sweet treat dates back to the 17th century and three factories are still open today, including Chocolates Valor, complete with a museum taking visitors through the journey of chocolate from cacao pods to the bars we all enjoy today.

If you’re more into sporty activities, head to the beaches of Puntes del Moro and El Xarco which are brilliant for snorkelling. For naturists, Racó de Conill and L’Esparrelló beaches will appeal, as they are two clothing-optional offerings.

Marvel at the Maestrazgo massif with a visit to Ares del Maestre

Located halfway between Barcelona and Valencia and on top of a rocky hill, Ares del Maestre offers breathtaking views of the Maestrazgo landscape beyond.

The city dates back to the 14th century and while it’s home to pretty, narrow streets, it’s perhaps best known for its castle, Mola, which has seen years of battle thanks to its strategic placement.

Being Spain, it’s likely your trip will get a little warm. In that case, it’s worth paying a visit to the Museo de la Cueva del Castillo, a hidden place dug into rock where former inhabitants would shelter from the assaults, often for more than a year.

Ares del Maestre sits atop a rocky hill between Valencia and Barcelona
Ares del Maestre sits atop a rocky hill between Valencia and Barcelona - Wikimedia Commons

History lovers won’t want to miss the gothic town hall and neoclassical parish church and sporty types can try paragliding from the popular Tossal d'Orenga mountain.

Relax on one of the Balkans’ best beaches in Primosten

Croatia is ever popular as a holiday destination - and for good reason.

This list, though, suggests bypassing the likes of Dubrovnik or Hvar and, instead, going to the far less popular Primosten.

Located in Dalmatia, it’s just 30 minutes by car from Sibenik airport and is a top destination for sun and sea lovers.

Raduca Mala beach is one of the longest in the whole of Croatia at two kilometres. Its golden sands and crystal blue waters are lined with bars and restaurants where you can sample some of the best food the nation has to offer - think black risotto and stuffed peppers.

Water-based activities are also hugely popular here, meaning that if you’re more adrenaline junkie than relaxer, it’s the ideal spot for you too.

Croatian hidden gem Primosten, pictured from above
Croatian hidden gem Primosten, pictured from above - Hrvoje_Photography via UnSplash

Experience Asia in the middle of Europe at the Bokodi Floating Village in Hungary

Many of us dream of travelling to one of Asia’s many floating villages and passing days in an overwater bungalow.

If that’s out of reach, Bokodi Floating Village could be the place for you.

Located on Lake Bokod, just a few kilometres from the city of Oroszlany, it’s a one hour journey by car from Budapest - but is like a different world entirely.

Known for its fabulous sunsets, it’s the perfect place for a tranquil escape.

This artificial lake was created in 1961 by the Oroszlány Thermal Power Company and the water was kept warm all year round until the power plant shut off the supply in 2015.

It still remains a popular fishing destination and offers a truly unique experience.

The wooden houses surrounding the lake are mostly private properties, but some welcome visitors and allow them to access roof terraces to take in this surreal spot.

A must for Moomins fans: Naantali in Finland

Not far from Turku in southwestern Finland, you’ll find Naantali. It’s a charming small town with plenty to offer in terms of culture and gastronomy.

Its biggest draw though? Muumimaailma - a theme park dedicated to the iconic, animated Moomins.

Created by Finnish author Tove Jansson in 1945, the hippopotamus-like creatures have delighted children for generations.

Muumimaailma - which translates to the world of Moomins - can be found on the island of Kailo, just across the water from Naantali itself.

When you’ve had your fill of Moomins, Naantali is worth exploring in its own right. One of the oldest towns in all of Finland, it was founded around the mediaeval Brigittine convent Nådendal Abbey, which still dominates the town’s skyline today.

Get amongst ancient history in Bour, Faroe Islands

Certainly one of the oldest places on this list, Bour in the Faroe Islands dates back nearly a millennia.

Today, it’s home to just 75 people and is often hailed as entirely unspoiled.

Boasting pretty wooden houses with green roofs, the tiny village offers breathtaking views of landscapes rarely seen.

Bour is located on the West-Side of Vagar Island and has unique views over the sea and the impressive ‘Tindholmur’, a remarkable rock that rises from the water.

The quaint houses are bunched together, with narrow lanes between them, and surround a tiny church, which was built in 1865.

Due to its small size, there is not a great deal known about Bour and it’s still unclear when the first village church was built. Perhaps you might be able to find out for yourself on a visit to this hidden gem.

Bour in the Faroe Islands is tiny - but well worth a visit
Bour in the Faroe Islands is tiny - but well worth a visit - Andrew Svk via Unsplash

Learn about Scandinavian history with a trip to Blavand in Denmark

As Denmark’s westernmost point and not far from the German border, Blavand has a great deal to offer - not least for history lovers.

Just 30 minutes from Esbjerg airport and three hours by car outside of Copenhagen, this little visited enclave is an excellent place to discover less famous aspects of Denmark’s history.

One of the most defended places in all of Denmark in the Second World War, it features bunkers built on the beaches during that time that have since been artistically transformed. They now feature sculptures of horses, a universal symbol of peace.

Once you’ve had our fill of wartime history, marvel at the Blavand lighthouse - the most westerly building in Denmark - or carry on the horse theme with a ride along the sandy beaches on one of the majestic creatures.

Spot the horse bunkers: Blavand beach in Denmark's west
Spot the horse bunkers: Blavand beach in Denmark's west - Stefan Pasch via Unsplash

Experience fairytale charm in Ulm, Germany

Ulm in the picturesque region of Baden-Wurttemberg in Germany is on the border with Bavaria and features the very best of both areas.

This charming city offers a balance of modernity and tradition from its old town to its modern architecture in the cultural centre.

Highlights for history lovers include the town hall with its colourful facade and Saint-Nicolas chapel which dates from the 13th century. If you prefer modern architecture, head to the cultural centre, which is home to 20th century buildings as well as many museums, expositions, and a variety of theatres and stages.

Located on the Danube river, it’s the perfect destination for foodies too. The fishermens’ and craftsmans' quarters have countless bars and restaurants offering up hearty fare.

Ulm’s location means you can cross the Danube on foot and discover Neu-Ulm - the Bavarian little sister of Ulm, a place that offers plenty of charm.

Ulm offers all the charm Germany has to offer in one place
Ulm offers all the charm Germany has to offer in one place - Luis Fernando Felipe Alves via UnSplash

Breathe in the purest air in all of Europe in Aljezur, Portugal

Straddling the Algarve and the Alentejo regions of Portugal, Aljezur is a small market town which, despite its diminutive size, encapsulates the best of the country.

It’s a sanctuary with protected nature as well as world class history, gastronomy, beaches and natural parks.

Although relatively undiscovered, Aljezur’s historic castle actually appears on the flag of Portugal, meaning it’s an important place for the nation.

The town is full to the brim with trendy restaurants and bars and has some of Portugal’s best beaches, like the iconic Arrifana and Monte Clérigo where top surfers train.

If you’re in need of a healthy break, Aljezur could also be the best destination for you.

Surrounded by eucalyptus and pine trees, it’s known as the place with the purest air in all of Europe.

Aljezur in Portugal boasts some of the country's best beaches - and cleanest airs
Aljezur in Portugal boasts some of the country's best beaches - and cleanest airs - Thibault Mokuenko via Unsplash

Discover the most beautiful village in all of Georgia in Dartlo

Georgia is one of the least visited countries in Europe, despite being hailed as one of the most aesthetically pleasing places in the world.

Dartlo in the north is considered to be the most beautiful village in the country.

Amid green hills and mountains, you’ll find historic houses, clan defence towers and churches. They’re all made from ancient stone and give the village an otherworldly appearance.

It’s the perfect place to visit if you’re into hiking, as the start or end point for many of Georgia’s best rambles.

At 1,850 metres above sea level, it provides the best views of the Greater Caucasus region and, thanks to its varied history, culture and nature, it embodies almost everything the wider Tusheti area has to offer in one place.

Dartlo is known as the most beautiful village in Georgia - and it's certainly one of the most unusual
Dartlo is known as the most beautiful village in Georgia - and it's certainly one of the most unusual - World Bank/Flickr

Although there are no permanent residents in Dartlo, there are 56 individual hotels and guest houses, many with local families, meaning you can get right into the heart of this lesser-known region.

Rounding out the European Best Destinations list are - in order: Castro Urdiale, Spain; Landmannalaugar, Iceland; Cicmany, Slovakia; Pico Island in the Azores, Portugal; Pont-en-Royans in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France; Wuppertal, Germany; Le Puy-en-Velay, also in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France; and Staithes in North Yorkshire, United Kingdom.