When you think of underrated travel destinations, Athens is probably not the first place that comes to mind.
With its iconic attractions like the Acropolis, the Ancient Agora and the Panathenaic Stadium, the Greek capital has always been a mandatory day trip for anyone visiting the country. Around 3 million tourists visited Athens last year. Yet it still feels like one of the world’s most underrated travel destinations.
For a whole generation, tourism authorities promoted the Greek islands to the detriment of Athens. But during this summer’s tourism renaissance, officials are working to change that – and you could be the beneficiary. Their efforts highlight a list of other underrated European destinations that could be worth visiting as the pandemic begins to fade.
Why is Athens an underrated destination?
Tourism officials won’t easily admit Athens’ understated status. But a look at the statistics suggests it’s neglected, at least by the standards of a European capital. Tourists often land in Athens and if they stay, they take a day trip to see the highlights. Why? Tourism insiders say Athens couldn’t offer a traditional tourist experience with beaches and five-star resorts.
But then travelers began to change their minds. Many longed for a more cultural and immersive experience. Instead of sitting on the beach all day, they wanted an urban adventure with exciting restaurants and cultural experiences. And this Athens could offer. So today tourism officials in Athens are trying to reverse 40 years of messages that said “Go to the islands”.
How to do that? One way is to use traditional promotions. But Athens has just restarted a program called Athens with a local chapter that matches you with a volunteer guide. I met my guide, Spyridon Kagkas, and visited the Pangrati district east of the city center this week.
Athens with a Local is trying to change the perception of Athens as a quick stop on your way to the islands, he says. Like many tourist towns, Athens is actually made up of two towns: the old town where you will find all the ancient attractions; and a series of bustling residential neighborhoods with cafes, restaurants and theaters.
Volunteer guides know all the secrets of the city, some of which you won’t find in any guidebook. For example, Kagkas showed me the lesser-known entrance to the historic Panathenaic Stadium, the only stadium built entirely of marble. Turns out you can get to the upper level of the stadium — used mostly by runners — and skip the $11 entry fee.
“If you’re a local, you know this place,” says Kagkas, digital and community manager for This Is Athens, an agency that promotes tourism in Athens.
How do destinations become underrated?
Athens is just one of many destinations struggling to attract tourists. Madrid has also caught the eye of tourists, who have preferred Spanish destinations like Barcelona. Portugal has been trying for many years to attract more tourists to Lisbon, another capital that has often disappeared from tourist radars.
The United States has no shortage of places that are not popular with tourists, despite its rich cultural heritage, nearby attractions and reliable tourist infrastructure. On the West Coast alone, cities like Sacramento, California, Salem, Oregon, and Olympia, Washington, are being overlooked in favor of places like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle.
Experts say a destination can be overlooked due to a combination of location, lack of promotional opportunities and public perception. But there are ways to change that. Madrid’s efforts to promote itself as a world-class destination have recently paid off. The same goes for Lisbon, which is now buzzing with tourists. Other overlooked destination attempts to get noticed are underway.
These are the most underrated destinations in Europe
There is no authoritative list of the world’s most underrated destinations. But that didn’t stop anyone from trying to create one. Perhaps the most high-profile effort to date occurred on Reddit, where users answered the question, “What’s an underrated travel destination that you would highly recommend?”
Here are the ten most unknown places in Europe.
Azores — This chain of islands is remote but welcoming to visitors. If you like nature and mild winters, the Azores are worth a visit.
Bratislava — The Slovak capital offers central access to other European destinations such as Vienna and Budapest.
Bulgaria — This Balkan country, sandwiched between Turkey and Romania, is on many lists of up-and-coming destinations.
Northern Greece — Athens is not the only Greek destination that has been neglected. Thessaloniki is also on the list of lesser known places and worth a visit.
Maastricht, Netherlands — If medieval architecture is your thing, you’ll want to visit this university town in the north of the Netherlands.
The Scottish Highlands — The least populated area of the highlands is also one of the most scenic, with rolling hills and a rich cultural heritage. Here is more information about visiting Scotland.
Sicily “Like the Azores and the Highlands, it’s not easy to get to, but the journey has its rewards. Gastronomy, culture and a warm climate await you in Sicily.
Slovenia — Often overlooked in favor of Italy or Austria, Slovenia offers a taste of both. It offers hill stations, architecture and excellent food and wine.
Tallinn, Estonia — The capital of Estonia is incredibly charming, with its cobbled streets and medieval buildings. It is also cool during the summer months, thanks to its location along the Baltic.
North Wales — If you enjoy hiking along rugged coastlines and immersing yourself in Celtic culture, North Wales is worth a visit.
How to plan your vacation around an underrated destination
Generally speaking, underrated destinations go the extra mile to attract visitors. This means you can find special incentives, like hotel deals and packages, that will save you money.
But that’s not the only reason to visit an underrated destination. You want to go precisely because it’s neglected. You know where everyone goes on vacation. Be different.
Here are some strategies for booking an underrated destination:
Find a specialist. Since you will be visiting a place few others visit, you will need to speak to a professional. Find a travel consultant who knows the part of the world you want to visit. Bonus points if they have been to the destination you are going to or if they have special certification for that area. You can find an excellent agent on the American Society of Travel Advisors website.
Contact the tourist office. Often, overlooked destinations will post plenty of material to help you plan a successful vacation. And look for discount offers, which you’ll often find online at tourist sites. For example, This is Athens has a comprehensive site with information on accommodation, transportation, and activities.
Play it safe. If you’re going far away, you’ll want to make sure you have the right travel insurance and medical evacuation membership – just in case. While many European destinations on this list are close to hospitals and airports, some are quite remote. If you’re planning a vacation to an overlooked destination, don’t overlook insurance.
Maybe it’s the summer to get out and explore. Destinations like Athens hope you won’t forget them when you visit Europe. In fact, there’s a long list of places vying for your vacation dollar. This may be the year to visit an underrated destination in Europe.