5 Best (Scenic) Places to See in Western Europe

I recently had a conversation with a man who traveled to Europe a few times. He’d seen many of the big cities, and while he liked them, he felt that he wasn’t seeing what he described as the real “Europe”. During our chat he asked me what my favorite places were. As I started listing them off, I realized they all had fresh air and green space, not dusty museums or long tourist lines.

So here’s a thought, if you’ve dabbled in European travel but you’re looking for a fresh European adventure, skip the cities and get out into the country. Europe is so much more. And you’ll find that typically, the best places are the least tourist-populated places. Next time you plan a Euro-vacation, consider these 5 breathtaking, scenic places as an alternative to the city smog.

1. Scottish Highlands, Scotland

I first went to the highlands when I lived in Cambridge, England for a year. I was 12 years old and my family would take weekend trips around the U.K. between weeks of school. We bought a van (which, on the tiny European roads, was an adventure in itself) and in June 2002 we headed up to the highlands. We visited Loch Lomond, the largest lake in Great Britain, by surface area, and it lies on the Highland Boundary Fault (the east-to-west line that separates the highlands from the lowlands of Scotland.) We hiked partway up Ben Nevis, the highest peak in Scotland, on a trail that brought us up to a mountain meadow and a gorgeous highland waterfall. If you love hiking in the U.K., this is the place to be. And even though Loch Ness is super touristy, I’d highly recommend a visit–it’s still beautiful!

Camping Tip: Temperatures for tent camping are great in June but be warned, midges (an annoying, biting, nat-like bug) are everywhere. Putting up and taking down your equipment will be hell if you don’t lather on the bug dope.

Read about how climbing Scottish trees or jumping in a freezing Scottish lake changed my perspective on other cultures.

The Encompass program in the Scottish highlands challenged me to think in new ways.

2. Italian Riviera, Italy

Cinqueterre (meaning the “five lands” in Italian) is a rugged coastline connecting five small Italian villages on the west coast: Monterroso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Hiking from village to village can be done in a day, and if you’re patient with transportation, you can take a succession of trains from Florence to get there. A friend and I hiked this coastline a few summers ago when we lived in Florence, and I can safely say it is one of my favorite places in the entire world. The colors of the ocean are so vivid from the higher altitudes and the Italian towns are little rural villages with great shops, gelaterias, and beaches to jump in the ocean and cool off. I always tell people you can’t really say you’ve been to Italy without hiking this coastline…trust me, the views are worth the sweaty, breathless ascent.

Hiking Tip: Carry water with you, bring extra cash to buy food, and wear sturdy shoes… the hiking trail is manageable for most fitness levels but in many places there’s no barrier between you and the cliff and one unsure step will send you tumbling down.

3. Dingle Peninsula, Ireland

The Dingle Peninsula is the farthest north peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland, and is named after the town Dingle. The peninsula itself is made of the same sandstone that also makes up the Slieve Mish mountain range and the other mountain ranges on the Dingle. When we lived in Ireland we actually took a coach bus up the Dingle’s winding roads through the Conor Pass, which runs along the southern end of the peninsula toward Brandon Bay. It’s the highest mountain pass in Ireland and the road is literally five or six feet wide. Our (very experienced) coach driver managed to keep the bus within inches of the sheer drop. If you can brave driving the Conor Pass, you’ll get gorgeous panoramic views of County Kerry, the high corrie lakes, and the uninhabited Blasket Islands that lie a few miles off the west coast.

4. Normandy Beaches, France

On another excursion to the continent, my family and I took a ferry from Dover, England, to Calais, France, and toured most of Northern France. In our explorations, we included many WWI and WWII battle sites, memorials and graveyards. The most impressive thing for me was the five D-Day invasion Normandy Beaches, as part of the Allied forces in Operation Overlord, June 6 1944, in France. The Allied forces refer to them by code names: Juno, Gold, Omaha, Utah, and Sword. If you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan’ with Tom Hanks, the opening ten minutes depicts the battle on Omaha beach–the deadliest battle sustaining the most casualties, but that was ultimately a victory.  In the miles of French countryside, you can find mass graves, unnamed soldier graves, and expansive cemeteries. But most vividly, I remember walking along the beach, the tide was out, and I could see down miles and miles of sand. It was so eerily quiet, and I could almost feel a presence in the air. For some unexplainable reason, the beaches felt sacred. And I highly recommend that any American traveling in France take the time to visit–it gave me a whole new perspective on the value of life, and lives lost.

5. The Black Forest, ‘Schwarzwald’, Germany

The Black Forrest is a wooded mountain range in southwestern Germany bordered by the Rhine Valley and very near France. The Danube River originates in The Black Forrest, and along with mountain lakes, you can visit the famous All Saints Waterfalls and the Triberg Waterfalls. My family and I tent camped through here as well and between day-hiking, we stopped at small German villages both bordering and inside The Black Forrest. My favorite was Oberammergau, a tiny German village in Bavaria, famous for it’s Catholic Easter passion plays (they produce once every ten years) and extremely intricate wood carving art. Walking through the village, you’ll find painted murals of scenes from the passion on the sides of buildings and surrounding the town in the east valley is a German military camp built before WWII and is now NATO weapons school.

Camping Tip: April is probably too  cold to tent camp. We started our trip spending our nights huddling in our sleeping bags, wearing every single clothing item we owned, and eventually graduated to hostels. It’s doable, but bring warm clothes, hats, gloves and prepare to be cold.

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