Make Your Next Trip Extraordinary

Secrets of Europe: The Spots Most Travelers Miss

by | December 4, 2020

As travel returns to its usual rhythms in the coming years, nowhere will it be more necessary—and more difficult—to get off the beaten track than in the iconic tourist magnets of Europe, where every street and sight can be swarmed by with crowds on the same group tours and guidebook routes. But with the right local fixer, you can experience popular places in safer ways that are not only more private but more immersive, focusing on the hidden villages and locals-only hangouts, and taking in the best views, walks, and meals at the optimal moments. Below are readers’ reviews from favorite European trips; their memories are reminders of how wonderful travel can be, and how much we have to look forward to in the future. You’ll find more trip inspiration among our traveler reviews, as well as the latest safety intel our Covid-19 travel section.

Avoiding the usual tourist spots in Switzerland

View to Lugano city, Lugano lake and Monte San Salvatore from Monte Bre, Ticino, Switzerland - Image

Switzerland’s Ticino are is less visited by tourists and full of natural beauty. Photo: Shutterstock

Nina did a fantastic job of listening to our preferences to avoid the usual tourist spots and spend time off the beaten path. The hotels she suggested were exceptional. The views from our rooms at Villa Orselina and Coeur des Alpes were amazing, and we truly enjoyed the mountain-hut experience at Guarda Val. The guides they picked for us were great, particularly Anna in Ticino, who led us on a magical walk through the Bavona Valley; Nikki in Zermatt, who was a delight and took us on a great hike and gave us ideas for our next two days of hiking; and Albert in Zurich, who suggested a side trip to Rapperswil that was very enjoyable. Nina’s suggestion of a first-class Swiss rail pass was excellent: We used it for boat rides in Ascona, Zurich and Lucerne, a bus ride in Ticino, and side train trips to Bellinzona, Lucerne, and Rapperswil. Well worth it! Restaurant suggestions were all excellent, from dinner in the castle in Bellinzona to dinner on the terrace of Sonnmatten in Zermatt. An exceptional trip.” —Gary Reading

Read reviews of Nina. Then contact her to maximize your experience of Switzerland. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Floating through Scotland

eilean-donan-castle-Scotland UK

Scotland’s Eilean Donan Castle has been featured in many films. Photo: Bernd Hildebrandt from Pixabay

“We wanted to experience Scotland by barge, and Ellen and her team were so helpful in selecting the right one: Spirit of Scotland, in Inverness in July. The accommodations were beautiful, clean and very comfortable for two people. The lounge, dining room and outside areas were comfortable and offered shade and sun to enjoy the amazing scenery and to experience fabulous food, wine, and entertainment. Local folks came to serenade us with folk music, stories, and bagpipes. Each day was a perfect mix of moving along the canals and traveling to beautiful castles, parks, and villages. I loved the experience so much that next year will include a barge cruise in France.” —Helene Bard

Read reviews of Ellen. Then contact her to maximize your experience of European canal barge trips. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Seeing the real Provence by foot, bike, horse, canoe…

Leafy town square with fountain in a picturesque village in Provence, France

Saignon is one of Provence’s hilltop villages with few crowds, beautiful views, and delicious restaurants. Photo: Shutterstock

“We requested an active trip in Provence, and Philip created the perfect itinerary for my daughter and me: We went horseback riding in the Camargue region, biking in the Luberon, canoeing in the Verdon Gorge. The local guides Philip arranged for us were amazing, ensuring we experienced the unique and out-of-the-way places known only to locals. They were fun, spontaneous, and adaptable. At a moment’s notice, they would take us up a hill to show us a great view, or walk us to the remote and charming village of Lacoste, or take us to get the best crepes at a place that was underground and accessible only if you know it is there. Each restaurant was more fantastic than the last. Incredible food, breathtaking views. A highlight: Le Petit Café in Oppède-le-Vieux. We also had a cooking class in a private home after picking the ingredients at the weekly market and sampling wines in a local vineyard. We could not have been happier.” —Kimberly Byron

Read reviews of Philip. Then contact him to maximize your experience of France. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Meeting artisans, families, and farmers in Romania

Valena Zalanului, guesthouses, Romania

Romania is dotted with old-world villages and packed with old-world charm. Photo: Beyond Dracula

“Our trip to Romania was a perfect mix of city and country, led by wonderful local guides who gave us a sense of Romanians past and present. Some of the special experiences that Raluca arranged for us were an afternoon carving wooden spoons with a fantastic wood artist; a day visiting a local market and cooking with a wonderful woman known for the herbs, jams, and handmade christening gowns she sells in Romania and abroad; and four days in the village of Viscri (up from the two days originally planned because we didn’t want to leave), where we visited shepherds in the hills as they milked 500 sheep, spent time with a family tasting delicious foods and homemade cherry brandy and learning to cook a few dishes, and watched the cows ambling home down the village street each evening.” —Lori Lander

 Read reviews of Raluca. Then contact her to maximize your experience of Romania. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Savoring private experiences in Portugal

Cork oak tree (Quercus suber) in evening sun, Alentejo Portugal Europe

The rolling hills, cork oak trees, and villages of the Alentejo region have a special beauty. Photo: Shutterstock

“We had only one week for Portugal—in peak season. Our goal was to somehow thread the needle between exploring a country we’d never visited, having deep and personal experiences, avoiding tons of crowds, not bouncing around too much, and relaxing. Got it? Goncalo put together an itinerary that fit exactly what we were looking for. He had us stay in three different, small, unique, hotels—Areias do Seixo (on the coast an hour north of Lisbon), Barrocal in the Alentejo, and Santiago de Alfama in Lisbon—and each really enriched our experience of the location. Our favorite stop was the Alentejo region, and we would highly encourage others to include it in their plans. It’s beautiful, serene, has very special medieval towns, is extremely welcoming to visitors, and is much less visited than Lisbon, Porto, and the Douro Valley. Barrocal, a farm converted into a 5-star hotel, was a phenomenal homebase there. Our single favorite experience was visiting Herdade de Esparao winery, where we somehow spent almost six hours on a sweltering 104-degree day. Our private tour was followed by a private tasting and then an amazing five-course lunch with wine pairings. It was probably the best meal we had in Portugal.” —Jeremy Silverman

Read reviews of Gonçalo. Then contact him to maximize your experience of Portugal. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Finding exhilarating activities you didn’t know exist

Start of paraglider at Mannlichen top point above Grindelwald, Switzerland. - Image

Paragliders above Grindelwald get a unique view of Switzlerand. Photo: Shutterstock

Nina created an itinerary that included many excellent suggestions that we were not aware of, even though I had done a fair amount of research on my own to know what Switzerland had to offer. Paragliding in Grindelwald, a Canyon Swing, a Jet Boat in Interlaken, a private cave tour, glacier trekking, a helicopter transfer from Jungfraujoch to Gstaad, the Via Ferrata in Mürren-Gimmelwald, the Gorner Gorge adventure in Zermatt….AWESOME! The execution of the trip was flawless: When the helicopter landed in Gstaad in a grassy field, the driver was right there waiting for us. There would have been no way to plan this trip on our own and have everything run as smoothly as it did.” —Travis Schmitt

Read reviews of Nina. Then contact her to maximize your experience of Switzerland. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

“It was so unexpected and right out of a romance movie…”

Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Italy

Positano on the Amalfi Coast, Italy. Photo: Shutterstock

“We had two standout experiences on the Amalfi Coast, thanks to Andrea. One was an entire day seeing the coast by sea. We did not know what to expect when we arrived at the wharf—where there were so many tour boats—and were a little confused when a very large, beautiful yacht pulled up. My husband said, “You should have seen your face when they held up a sign with our name on it!” Captain Beni gave us an experience we will never forget, including a stop for a delicious meal at a restaurant high above the sea and accessible only by boat. A perfect day! The second amazing experience was when our driver was taking us from Positano to Ravello and we were supposed to have a three-hour stop in the town of Amalfi. It was a gray, drizzly day, so our driver asked us if we would rather go to his friend’s winery. The owner gave us a very personal tour and then joined us for a lunch that his wife had prepared. It was so unexpected and right out of a romance movie.” —Carrie Hadden

Read reviews of Andrea. Then contact her to maximize your experience of Italy. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Experiencing Greece’s ancient places in unusual ways

A village street of Santorini is bright white and blue, with pops of pink bougainvillea flowers

The village streets of Santorini are bright white and blue, with pops of pink bougainvillea flowers. Photo: Shutterstock

“We are just back from an extraordinary two weeks in Greece, thanks to Jacoline and all her planning. To begin with, all four of the hotels she selected for us were spectacular, unique in their own ways, and specific to the locations. Perivolas on Santorini was one of the most exquisite properties we have ever stayed at. In Athens, biking around the ancient ruins and a walking food tour through the back streets will stay with us forever. In Crete, highlights included the morning and lunch we had with a master beekeeper in the mountains, the stunning drive through a gorge to an amazing slow-food taverna called Dounias, and our day-long private sail off Chania. Thank you, Wendy—we could not have done this without Jacoline, which means we could not have done this without you.” —Jessica Tolmach

Read reviews of Jacoline. Then contact her to maximize your experience of Greece. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

Making meaningful connections over shared interests in St. Petersburg and Moscow

Saint Isaac Cathedral across Moyka river, St Petersburg, Russia

Saint Isaac Cathedral across Moyka river, St Petersburg, Russia. Photo: Shutterstock

“My wife Anne-Lise and I enjoy being independent, and Greg put together a marvelous custom trip to Russia that allowed for that. We spent three nights in Moscow, two in Suzdal (one of the historic towns of the Golden Circle), and four in St Petersburg, traveling between them via high-speed bullet trains. Luda, our private Englsh-speaking guide in St Petersburg, was particularly adept at maneuvering us through the unexpected hordes of tour groups at some of St Petersburg’s primary attractions. Our private visit to the Amber Room workshop at Catherine Palace and the classical concert for an audience of 50 at Grand Duke Vladimir Palace were special. Greg even arranged for me to meet up with Father Roman in Moscow at the Danilov Monastery. Father Roman was our Russian bell expert who came to Harvard University a decade ago to advise us on the exchange of 18 new bells to replace the originals that were rescued from Moscow during the Stalin era; the originals returned home to Danilov Monastery. Greg’s contact got in touch with Father Roman, and we ended up chasing him up the tower, where he played the bells in the weekly Sunday ringing. It was a wonderful reunion.” —Pat and Anne-Lise Morss

Read reviews of Greg. Then contact him to maximize your experience of Russia. You’ll be marked as a VIP and get the best possible trip.

We’re Here to Help

Right now is a remarkable opportunity for global travelers who are vaccinated. When your friends say that travel is problematic as a result of the pandemic—rental cars aren’t available, service even at 5-star hotels is shoddy—the problem is they’re not planning their trips right! Travel can be spectacular now if you choose the right destination, know the savviest local fixers, and approach them the optimal way. Check out these recent trip reviews to see the difference that Wendy’s WOW approach to trip planning makes. And if you’re looking for a similarly carefree travel experience, contact us at Ask Wendy.

Be a safer, smarter traveler: Sign up for Wendy’s weekly newsletter to stay in the know. And read real travelers’ reviews of Wendy’s WOW List and use it to plan your next trip.

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