Last Updated on September 12, 2023
When you travel a lot, especially with tour groups, there comes that time when you can only take so much sightseeing. That’s when you realize you need a place to hide…
Estimated reading time: 24 minutes
By Jim Ferri
Did you ever return home from a trip to Europe and try to remember in which city you saw that beautiful church? Or which was the city where you had that fantastic lunch? Let’s face it; despite the beauty of many European cities, you can only do so much sightseeing before everything becomes a blur.
When you travel a lot, especially with large tour groups, there comes that time when you realize you need a place to unwind. When you just want to relax and enjoy a place without having to listen to a guide or page through a guidebook
Perhaps that’s the signal you should take off a few hours to wander about aimlessly. It happens to me every so often and it’s when I need to get away and relax for a while.
Luckily, since I often return to many European cities multiple times, I know places where I like to relax and escape the tourist hubbub. They’re my “hidden gems of Europe” – which, although they’re “getaways,” they all continue to connect me with the vitality and “exoticism” of the locale.
For everyone who needs a “hidden gem,” I’d like to gift you 20 of my European favorites.
London: Hidden Gems On the South Bank
Like any large city, London can sometimes feel overwhelming. When that happens, I head for this hidden gem in Europe on the south bank of the Thames (take the Tube to Waterloo Station and then walk a few minutes north to the river).
There’s a lot to see and do in this area of London, including just sitting alongside the river and watching the world go by.
The big draw on the South Bank for travelers is the incredible London Eye. Hop aboard, and you’ll have a view of the city you’ll have nowhere else. But there’s much more to see here, putting you on cultural overload. In fact, this area is a cultural hotspot of the city.
A 20-minute walk downriver is the Tate Modern, a superb modern and contemporary art museum housed in an old power station. Next door to it is The Globe Theatre, a recreation of the original 16th-century theater made famous by Shakespeare.
Near The Eye, you’ll also find the esteemed National Theatre and the cultural complex of the Southbank Centre.
If you’re hungry, which I often am, you’ll also find a great outdoor food market behind the Royal Festival Hall on the river. Grab a bite to eat and wander along the river past Jubilee Gardens towards the London Eye.
Relax on one of the benches along the bank; you’ll have a great view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The best time to go is on a weekend when families come there on outings, although at that time, the line for the London Eye can be excruciating.
Paris: Escape to the Old Jewish Quarter
Except for the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens, forget the Left Bank if you’re looking for a hidden gem in Paris where you can relax.
Go instead to the old Jewish Quarter of Paris, also known as Pletzl, in the Marais district. To find it, walk east along Rue Rivoli to the Saint-Paul Metro stop, then turn left up Rue Malher.
Then, just walk north a few blocks to Rue des Rosiers, and you’ll be in the heart of the historic neighborhood. All around this hidden gem in Europe, you’ll find medieval lanes, museums, mansions, and numerous cafés, restaurants, and hip nightspots.
It’s also home to several noteworthy museums including the Picasso, Carnavalet, and Cognacq-Jay. You’ll also find the Place de la Bastille and the Place des Vosges, the oldest (and, to some, the prettiest) square in Paris.
The Quarter was established in the 13th century by Jewish settlers in Paris. It became a center of Jewish culture and commerce during the following centuries. Unfortunately, a large part of the Quarter was destroyed by the Nazis in World War 2. Today, this historical Marais neighborhood is a beautiful, quiet, hidden Parisian neighborhood. Enjoy a few hours at a sidewalk cafe or restaurant.
You can also enjoy several wonderful walks in Paris that will take you to more gems.
Brussels: Relax at the Place du Grand Sablon
Brussels has many beautiful places to relax and have a meal and a beer or glass of wine. The Grand Place is the most popular and best known but overflowing with tourists.
Instead, I go to the Place du Grand Sablon, a picturesque and charming square in plain sight right in the heart of the Belgian capital. It’s lined with beautiful Renaissance, Baroque, and Gothic buildings, some dating back to the 17th century. You’ll also find several world-famous chocolatiers and various cafés and restaurants.
It is also home to several high-end art and antiques shops and an excellent outdoor antique market. (There’s also a flea market every weekend.) All this is quite near the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, several other fascinating museums, and the Royal Palace. You can easily spend an entire day in this hidden gem in Europe.
Amsterdam: a Surprising Hidden Gem
The Leidseplein is Amsterdam’s hub for nightlife and music, meaning it can get crowded and raucous sometimes. That should make one wonder why I’d seek it out for an escape.
But for me, it’s still a comfortable place to sit and relax after a short 10-minute or so walk from the Museumplein. After I’ve feasted on the treasures in the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh, or Stedelijk Museums, I find relaxing with a beer or glass of wine one of the joys of Amsterdam. And for me, Leidseplein fits the bill. Besides, I always leave this hidden gem in Europe before the noise begins.
And lest I forget, Leidsestraat, which connects the area with the famous Dam Square, is a popular shopping street for many travelers.
Venice: A Wonderful Hidden Gem In a Sestieri
Dorsoduro is one of Venice’s six sestieri, or districts, and one of the top places to visit in Italy. It’s one of my favorite hidden gems in Europe because it’s a great place to walk about and teems with activity. Incredibly, it’s also one of the lesser-known areas of Venice.
Located just across the Grand Canal from San Marco (stand on Punta della Gogana, the tip of the little peninsula, for a beautiful view), charming Dorsoduro is rife with restaurants and museums. In fact, the world-renowned Gallerie dell’ Accademia, with a superb collection of Italian-Renaissance art, was born here as an art school in 1750.
And there’s more. Along the Grand Canal side of Dorsoduro is the incredible Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art (think Jackson Pollock, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, etc.). Befittingly, the museum’s home is an elegant palazzo with a beautiful sculpture garden.
A few minutes ferry ride back down the Grand Canal, you’ll find Ca’ Rezzonico, an 18th-century palace housing a wide range of Venetian art, including paintings, furniture, and glassware. Go a few minutes up the Grand, and you’ll find the beautiful Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. The monumental church is gorgeous and is an incredibly cool respite on a hot summer day.
However, don’t just stroll along the Grand Canal or Fondamenta Zattere, the waterfront promenade, on the opposite side of the island; delve deeper into its maze of streets crisscrossed with canals and little bridges. Throughout Dorsoduro, history, art, and charming piazzas are everywhere. Most famous is Campo Santa Margherita, home to numerous restaurants, cafes, bars, and gelaterias.
Madrid: Plaza Mayor, Still As Beautiful As Ever
In Madrid, I always spend an hour or two in Plaza Mayor every time I visit the city. It’s the city’s main square and one of the most famous in Europe, a magnet that pulls me back to this hidden gem repeatedly. And it is so large (it can hold 50,000 people) I don’t feel crowded in it, except, perhaps, in one of its outdoor cafés on a sunny late afternoon.
It’s been influential in Spain’s history since its construction in the 17th century. Today, with its colorful facades and frescoes, the plaza remains as beautiful as ever. And you’ll always find street entertainers by the square’s famous statue of King Philip III on his stallion and artists near the entrances. It’s not just the beautiful square that draws me here; this gem is just a two-minute walk from the famous Mercado San Miguel, a great place to stop for tapas and drinks. You’ll also find several other hidden gems in the city.
Rome: My Hidden Gem Near the Pantheon
The Pantheon is an ancient Roman temple and the most preserved monument of ancient Rome. It’s considered a remarkable edifice not only for its beauty, size, and design but also for its construction, which is still not fully understood today. You may want to take one of these walks in Rome to see its ancient magnificence.
Although located in Rome’s historic center (along with the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, and vast crowds of tourists), I love wandering about (and getting lost in) the streets around the Pantheon. For me, it’s an area that embodies all of the charms of the ancient city, best seen from a café or while strolling with a gelato. When you visit Europe you may actually wind up in this Roman hidden gem without even realizing it.
The Piazza della Rotonda surrounding the Pantheon is always, understandably, a hive of activity. But more fascinating is just wandering about the surrounding neighborhoods, which blend ancient and modern. In fact, at the Pantheon, you are well-positioned to wander off to several other areas. The beautiful Piazza Navona, for example, is only a five-minute walk. The Trevi Fountain is less than twice that.
Grab a Gelato and set off.
Prague: Go Beyond Old Town Square
Prague’s Old Town Square – rimmed by the Church of Our Lady Before Týn and the Old Town Hall with its famous Astronomical Clock, is one of the most recognizable squares in Europe. And one of the most beautiful and most atmospheric. In addition, there are also numerous cafés where you can spend an hour over a coffee or beer while planning your day. (We’ve found the cafes under the Astronomical Clock exceptionally well-placed since you can watch the clock’s mechanical performance every hour.)
Depending on the time of day, I may stop in one of its cafés but then continue eastward from the square through neighborhoods where the warren of streets peppered with little shops. You can easily escape the crowds in this hidden gem in Europe. And unknown to many, Prague is also as wonderful in the winter as it is the rest of the year.
Also, you may want to walk eastward along Celetna, a busy pedestrian street that connects Old Town Square with Republic Square. Near Republic Square, visit the beautiful Municipal House, only about a six-minute walk. Don’t miss seeing Municipal House. It is one of the city’s finest Art Nouveau buildings and is home to several beautiful restaurants and Smetana Hall, where classical music concerts are held.
Budapest: Views From The Castle District
In Budapest, the Castle District in Buda, on the western-hilly side of the Danube, provides the best views of Budapest and the river. Also known as North Buda, it includes plenty of cultural fodder and some of the best restaurants in the city in the area of Viziváros. Atop Castle Hill, this area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that provides superb city views.
While some travelers only come to Buda to see the Fishermen’s Bastion, a fairy-tale-like structure that provides a panoramic view of the river and city. Its seven towers represent the seven tribes that founded Hungary. Walk along the streets beyond it to understand this hidden gem in Europe.
I enjoy visiting the Hungarian National Gallery, one of the world’s great galleries next to the Royal Palace, and wandering about the beautiful neighborhood that rambles about Mátyás Church.
Mátyás Church, also known as the Church of Our Lady, is a stunning Gothic-style church with a colorful tiled roof and beautiful interior design. It’s one of the most beautiful churches in Budapest.
There’s a lot you can see and do in the city, even if you can only spare two days in Budapest.
Lisbon: Rua Augusta, the Not-So-Hidden Gem
Lisbon’s Rua Augusta, with its ancient buildings and beautifully tiled street, is a not-so-hidden gem. It epitomizes Old Lisbon, and I love to walk along it. It’s the most central street downtown and one of the most famous streets in the city. You’ll be at the beginning of Rua Augusta, an elegant pedestrian boulevard lined with restaurants and shops. It’s quite different from other hidden gems in Europe because of its size.
The best way to tour Lisbon and see this gem is to walk along Rua Augusta is to start at the river’s edge at Praça do Comércio and then walk north through the triumphal Rua Augusta Arch. The arch was constructed to commemorate the city’s reconstruction following a catastrophic earthquake in 1755.
You’ll find many of the buildings on Rua Augusta, with their elegant facades and entrances, to be beautiful. Don’t worry about traffic since the street is a pedestrian zone.
Augusta continues north to Rossio, the city’s main square, about a 10-minute walk. However, you might want to turn left at Rua de Santa Justa to take the Neo-Gothic Elevador de Santa Justa up to a terrace to view the city.
Stockholm: My Hidden Gem On the Island of Djurgården
If you’re going to Sweden on your trip to Europe, you’ll love this hidden gem. In, fact, if you’ve visited Stockholm, you’ve likely been here: the island of Djurgården. After all, the famous Vasa Museum (the well-preserved 17th-century warship) and Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum (founded in 1891), are located. Both are fascinating, as is the entire island, which is an oasis quite close to the city center.
Djurgården is a beautiful mix of nature, recreation, and culture that you’ll be hard put to find elsewhere. It’s a great place to spend a few days, which is relatively easy since the island, royal land since the 15th century, is also home to several other attractions. In addition to the Vasa and Skansen, they also include The Nordiska Museum, ABBA The Museum, and the Gröna Lund amusement park. Djurgården is easily reachable by foot, taxi, tram or boat.
The island is also home to several parks, providing the opportunity to rent a kayak, bicycle, or paddleboard or just take a boat tour of the archipelago. In the winter, there’s ice skating and cross-country skiing.
Oslo: innovative Architecture at Aker Brygge
In Oslo, wander about Aker Brygge, a former harbor shipyard transformed into an attractive car-free area filled with shops, restaurants, and cafés, many crowded in the evening. It’s my hidden European gem in Oslo, a nice place to walk and unwind. Along the Oslofjord, it’s west of the city’s center.
Aker Brygge is best known for its waterfront promenade with its view of the Oslofjord. Walk along the promenade, and you’ll see many moored boats and plenty of art installations, boutiques, department stores, and restaurants.
Tjunholmen, the city’s newest glittering borough, is anchored to it by a small bridge. It comprises two small islands chockablock with galleries, restaurants, and Oslo’s Museum of Modern Art. Next to the museum is the hotel The Thief, filled with art and high-tech luxury suites. Even if you’re not a guest, drop in for a look.
The area is renowned for its innovative architecture, combining old industrial buildings and modern glass structures. If you tire of walking, rent a kayak or hire a boat to tour the islands and Norwegian coast.
Berlin: A Fabulous Dinner In a Department Store
For someone who travels a lot in Europe, it may seem odd that my favorite hidden gem in Berlin is in a department store.
But this isn’t just any department store.
Kaufhaus des Westens, better known as KaDeWe, is the largest department store in Continental Europe. It is the purveyor of more than 3 million products, many of them in the luxury category. It’s located on Kurfürstendamm, one of Berlin’s famous shopping avenues.
But I traipse to KaDeWe not to shop but to eat in its mammoth gourmet food halls on its sixth and seventh floors. In this European gem, you’ll find a bouillabaisse of little counter-restaurants dedicated to different meals: steaks, pasta, lamb, pork, seafood, and other delectables. They’re all prepared before you while you relax with a glass of wine, champagne, or beer.
At KaDeWe, you can enjoy a delicious gourmet lunch or dinner at a cost lower than that at a good restaurant. My wife and I love it.
An added bonus is that the top floor, the “Wintergarden,” provides a panoramic view of the city. And there’s also a Rooftop Terrace.
You’ll find it at Tauentzienstr 21-24.
Vienna: Enjoy Stephansplatz and Graben
Vienna’s Stephansplatz is a mash-up of old and new, where medieval alleyways run into modern stores and horse-carriages abound. Its nucleus is the beautiful Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral (you can visit its interior and catacombs), about which the city has grown for centuries.
But when visiting Stephansplatz, leave time to wander through this gem’s surrounding streets. A five-minute walk will bring you to Graben, a pedestrianized shopping street with beautiful buildings, luxury shops, and cafes. You’ll likely see the Plague Column (Wiener Pestsäule) on Graben. There’s a Starbucks right around the corner if you need a caffeine fix.
A few minutes from Graben, you’ll find Kohlmarkt Street, famous for its elegant boutiques.
If, instead, you opt for something a bit more regal while at Stephansplatz, you can walk to Hofburg Palace in 15 minutes. Also, at the Stephansplatz U-Bahn stop, you can board a train to almost anywhere in the city.
Helsinki: People-Watch On The Esplanade
Many travelers don’t rate Helsinki highly, mainly because it lacks the glitz of Stockholm and other European capitals. But it’s that very difference that I find appealing. In fact, every time I’ve visited the city, I’ve taken a walk along the city’s Esplanade. For me, it’s the park and walkway where everyone relaxes.
In the heart of Helsinki, this beautiful promenade stretches from the famous Stockmann’s department store down to the harbor. It’s well known for its picturesque atmosphere with gardens and benches for people to sit, relax, and enjoy their surroundings.
This European hidden gem is just a narrow strip of land with a roadway, sidewalk, and shops on each side. Some shops, such as Marimekko, are world-renowned, while others are purely local. There are cafes, bars, and restaurants, including Kappeli, at this beautiful mini-park’s eastern/harbor end. Opened in 1867, it was a local favorite among poets, writers, and artists in the 19th and 20th centuries. It still gets high reviews from travelers.
The Esplanade’s broad park-like center has gardens and a walkway lined with benches, perfect for having a snack and people-watching.
Munich: Relax Over a Meal Near the Marienplatz
Interestingly, all my favorite places to relax in Munich are in the Marienplatz area and are food-related.
Marienplatz is the famous central square in the heart of Munich. It’s a lively square popular with Münchners (a transportation hub) and visitors who come to view the famous Glockenspiel on the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall). Every day at 11 am and 12 pm (and additionally at 5 pm in the summer), the Glockenspiel’s prominent figures re-enact two historic Munich stories from the 16th century. As you can imagine, it draws quite a crowd.
Also drawing a crowd to Marienplatz is the century-old Rischart’s Café, renowned for its pastries, cakes, and bread, although sandwiches and other meals are also available. I found nirvana there when my wife and I stopped by to relax with a coffee and an incredible strawberry cheesecake.
You can walk off the calories at the nearby Viktualienmarkt, one of Europe’s most renowned outdoor markets. Adjacent to it is the Münchner Schrannenhalle, a specialty food hall on the city’s old grain market site. We found everything edible there, from handmade chocolates and gummy bears to aged beef. It’s also an excellent place to have lunch.
A block or so from Marienplatz, you can relax at Dallmayr Delicatessen (Dienerstraße 14–15), a purveyor of food to royalty since 1700. It’s a great place to enjoy a light bite or something more substantial while you take a break from sightseeing. Its fine-dining restaurant Alois, above the delicatessen, has two Michelin stars.
Edinburgh: Dine in Pub and Restaurant Heaven
Some years ago, wanting to take a break from days of sightseeing in Edinburgh and enjoy a relaxing meal, I sought suggestions from several locals. Amazingly, each told me I should go to Grassmarket in the Old Town. It is just south of the Royal Mile and Edinburgh Castle, a historic area in the city’s heart. And in Europe you’ll likely not find another hidden gem quite like it.
It was the perfect way to relax and spend the evening. It also provided a choice of many restaurants and pubs in which to relax for an evening. One of the latter, the “Last Drop,” is so named because years ago, it was where those condemned to hanging were brought to have their last drink and meal. The gallows were conveniently located across the street in Grassmarket in Edinburgh.
Several doors down, I found the White Hart, one of the oldest pubs in Edinburgh, which also has a vast selection of Scottish malts.
Even if you’re not interested in the malts, you may want to stop by to be infused with its history. Robert Burns and William Wordsworth used to frequent this Grassmarket pub. A couple of infamous Scot murderers also found their prey here, later providing them for dissection at the local university. And it’s probably the only place you’ll ever visit that was bombed by a German Zeppelin in WWI.
I decided, however, on the Maison Bleue, which looked to be a great place to relax. More importantly, though, it promised me “the best Scottish beef and seafood.”
And it delivered on its promise.
Dublin: Grab a Takeaway Lunch In St. Stephen’s Green
St. Stephen’s Green is a beautiful, famous 27-acre oasis in central Dublin, open daily from sunrise to sunset. It’s a great place to relax, as evidenced by Dubliners you’ll see strolling about or relaxing while reading a book. Better yet, for visitors to Dublin, it’s pretty accessible, near the National Museum of Ireland and only a 10-minute walk from Trinity College.
In medieval times, the park was a marsh used for grazing cattle before being developed into a formal garden in the 17th century. In the 19th century, it was purchased by Sir Arthur Guinness and transformed into a public park. Wander about today, and you’ll find a large pond and see memorials to many Irish greats, including James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, and Henry Moore.
In Europe you’ll find this hidden gem to be natural place to relax in the heart of the city. Grab a takeaway lunch from a local shop and find yourself a park bench. You’ll likely find it a relaxing hour’s respite from the city as I did.
Barcelona: Pockets of Tranquility In the Gothic Quarter
Barcelona’s charming old city, also known as Ciutat Vella, comprises several neighborhoods, each with its own character.
One of the most famous is the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gotic), a warren of narrow, cobbled streets, medieval buildings, and Gothic architecture built atop the old Roman settlement of Barcino. You still find traces of the old Jewish Quarter, now coexisting with modern shops.
There are several museums and other sights here. A notable site is the Barcelona Cathedral, built between the 13th and 15th centuries. It’s a beautiful place that has a collection of religious art. And don’t miss the cloisters.
The cathedral is the area’s focal point, and you should see it first. From there, it’s only a 10-minute walk to the excellent Museo Picasso, about the same as the Palau de la Música Catalana. Both are sights you shouldn’t miss.
There is a lot to see in this relatively small city area. But as you walk about, you’ll be surprised by the numerous pockets of tranquility you’ll discover. You’ll also find many tapas bars, in which you can relax as you take a break on your Gothic tour.
Bruges: Find Your Hidden Gem and Your Chocolate Nirvana
Bruges is not only one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium but also in all of Europe. It’s loved by many travelers for its picturesque canals and well-preserved Medieval architecture. For others, you can also add beer and chocolate to the list.
Bruges’ entire historic center is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One of its landmarks is its medieval bell tower, also known as the “Belfry of Bruges.” If you need that panoramic city photo, here’s your opportunity. Just climb its 366 steps to the top.
It’s also a city of art, as evidenced by the spectacular Groeningemuseum. Even though it’s not as large as renowned art museums in Brussels and Antwerp, it’s a fantastic and celebrated museum. Among its treasures is Belgium’s finest collection of works by the Flemish Primitives, including Jan van Eyck, Hans Memling, Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, and Gerard David.
But as alluded to earlier, many people come to Bruges for chocolate. And if you’d like to know where to find the best chocolate, see “In Search of the Best Chocolate in Bruges.” It even includes a map if you want to “sample the evidence.” And in Bruges, you’ll quickly find that sampling chocolate is very relaxing…