Americans can't get enough of Paris, as becomes painfully clear each summer, when it swarms with tourists. Relief waits a train ride away in Île de Noirmoutier: You'll be greeted by the scent of mimosa and the sight of bobbing yachts and families picnicking on the beach.
Thankfully, Europe is still full of under-the-radar gems like this French retreat. And we can't resist spreading the word about the latest emerging hot spots, from Eastern Europe's hippest art scene to a sleepy district of lakes and castles.
The continent is so varied that even with 17 countries sharing the euro currency, it can barely keep from splintering back into thousands of microcultures. While this complicates the financial markets, it has an upside for travelers: continued opportunities for discovery. You'll never walk into a beach bar in Bergen, Holland, and one on the Aegean Islands and have the same experience.
It takes extra effort, sure, to reach these European spots, but the reward comes with that sense of being let in on a fantastic secret--and the opportunity to experience a place rooted in local tradition before it's really discovered and altered.
And if you just can't forget Paris, consider you'll probably get to transit through one such glittering European hub along the way.
Northern Ireland’s self-styled lake district isn’t as dramatic as its English sister, which has given it reprieve from the millions of visitors who come to the region’s shores. Here, instead of membership-only clubs and helipads, you get crenellated castles from the 17th and 18th centuries, misty loughs (lakes), and views of the distant Donegal Mountains. For a truly Irish experience, stay in the west wing of Crom Castle, the historic seat of the earls of Erne for more than 350 years. Its 1,900 rolling acres are filled with every possible amenity to fulfill your outdoor Gaelic fantasies—and reachable within a two-hour drive from Belfast or Dublin.<br><br> <a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/europes-secret-hot-spots/2" target="_hplink">See More Secret Hot Spots Here</a><br><br> <em>Photo: Design Pics Inc. - RM Content / Alamy</em>
On the tiny island of Muhu—accessed by an ice road in winter—you’ll find working windmills, thatched cottages, and a 13th-century pagan church. The population is only around 2,000, but this island 100 miles from Tallinn is rich with tradition, dating back to 1227 when an army of Christians crossed the ice and ended the Estonian Crusade. Padaste Manor may not be that old, but it still has some 700 years of history under its Danish-style eaves. Experience what a descendant of one of those crusaders (the last private owner, Baron Axel von Buxhoeveden) thought of as impeccable taste in the hotel, whose outbuildings merge the old world styles of St. Petersburg (to the east) and Denmark (to the west). <br><br> <a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/europes-secret-hot-spots/4" target="_hplink">See More Secret Hot Spots Here</a><br><br> <em> Photo: Courtesy of Pädaste Manor</em>
Spain’s answer to Tuscany is striped with vineyards and rivers, then dotted with olive groves and tree-lined peaks. It rests at the confluence of the ancient Aragon, Valencia, and Catalonia kingdoms, and the feeling is still a bit regal (one can imagine a king, on horseback, hunting for buck). The pace of life is typically slow, leaving plenty of time for long walks in the hills, mountain-bike rides, and visits to vineyards. The center of it all is at Hotel Torre del Visco, a 15th-century palace in Fuentespalda (population: 368) that is often host to Europe’s remaining royalty; its remoteness is hard to match elsewhere. And it’s surprisingly affordable—about $200 per night including breakfast; seems even landed gentry like a good deal. Wander the labyrinthine fortress and pretend you’re on the set of the Spanish version of Game of Thrones. <br><br><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/europes-secret-hot-spots/5" target="_hplink">See More Secret Hot Spots Here</a><br><br><em>Photo: Sergio Padura</em>
Thrown into the North Sea, out past Skye, is a tiny island that only the hearty Scottish could conjure. Lewis is part of the Outer Hebrides, but it’s also a world of its own. Its beaches look straight out of the Caribbean—careful, that water is cold. The language is still Gaelic, and Harris Tweed (from the island adjacent) is worn even in summer. You can breathe in the smell of peat being cut and head out for a fishing jaunt in the choppy waters. For a little socializing, there’s Auberge Carnish, a five-room farm retreat with a restaurant overlooking the rocky bay. Owners Richard and Jo Leparoux grow their own produce and breed chicken and lamb to create the best meals this side of Skibo Castle. <br><br><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/europes-secret-hot-spots/6" target="_hplink">See More Secret Hot Spots Here</a><br><br><em>Photo: C Ross</em>
Lovingly called the Poor Man’s Île de Ré, this nature destination on the Vendée coast is rife with wildlife: on the beaches, in the marshes and dunes, and in the forest. Take the TGV from Paris, and four hours later you’ll be greeted by the scent of mimosa blossoms, even in winter, and the sight of yachts grabbing the wind for white-knuckle races. For families, this is French paradise—picture your kids harvesting oysters and their own salt for a beach picnic, exploring the aquarium and the nature reserve teeming with birds, then curling up with a good book back in the villa. As if they’d even think of cracking open that iPad here. <br><br><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/europes-secret-hot-spots/7" target="_hplink">See More Secret Hot Spots Here</a><br><br><em>Photo: Hilke Maunder / Alamy</em>
The third biggest town in Poland comes from industrial roots (it was called the Manchester of the East), but lately, for culture, few evolving Eastern European cities can compare. Art in all forms is everywhere—from Hollylodz, the center of Polish cinematography (its film school has three Oscar-winning alumni, including Roman Polanski) to the Lodz Atlas Arena, where Elton John will perform in Summer 2012. Along Piotrkowska Street, one of the longest in Europe, there are more than 100 bars, often heaving with live music, and restaurants serving fantastic Polish and Jewish dishes (try Anatewka, where a violinist serenades guests). All roads eventually lead to Manufaktura, a 74-acre 19th-century industrial campus now filled with shops, museums, a carousel, cinemas, party spaces, and everyone you need to meet in Lodz. <br><br><a href="http://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/europes-secret-hot-spots/8" target="_hplink">See More Secret Hot Spots Here</a><br><br><em>Photo: Jan Wlodarczyk / Alamy</em>
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