Want to try something different on your next excursion? I’ve got you covered. This is part 1 of my favorite spots off the beaten path. As fun as big cities can be, I always enjoy heading to places that many of my fellow Americans have never heard of, and they tend to be places that end up being the most authentic. Grab your backpacks and enjoy the ride!
I’ll start this post off by being extremely biased. I love this city. After living there for 3 months, I have a connection to it that I’ve never had with any other city (and I’ve lived in many cities for that length of time or longer). The chill nightlife, the history, the beauty of the Elbe in the springtime sunshine—for me it doesn’t get any better. There is an impressive military museum there—and that is saying something since I am SO over museums—along with the stunning Zwinger palace, Opera house, and the Frauenkirche, a church that was bombed during WWII and then rebuilt using much of the blackened old stones from the original. I believe my admiration for this city comes partially from their desire to replicate what used to be. The level of thought that has gone into preserving its history when it was almost all erased sends a powerful message, a message of human strength, stamina, and what can be achieved in the face of adversity. Plus, the Radeberger Brewery is just a train ride away AND you can find amazing Schnitzel at my favorite restaurant, Bautzner Tor, which you can wash down with 5 Euro Maßkrüge (the famous 1L beers you see at Oktoberfest).
Charm. Good old Irish charm. This town encapsulates all of the goodness of Irish living, while also being unencumbered by mass tourism. Our relatives came from this area so it was an obvious destination for us on our family trip last year and I thank Great-great-grandfather Higgins for the connection. Cute streets, lively pubs, delicious bakeries—all found within the few blocks that make up the downtown area. Westport itself is quite small and you can walk around the town several times in a day. We rented bikes from Westport Bike Hire and rode them along the Great Western Greenway to Newport and back, passing rolling hills scattered with sheep and cows, and taking in the fresh May breeze as it swept along the countryside. Next time I hope to climb Croagh Patrick, a 2,500 foot mountain that is the location of an important pilgrimage every July—and, like many, to do it bare feet!
My backpacking partner and I chose to visit Perugia at random. We had only a few more days in Europe and we wanted to be within a day’s journey from Milan, our departure city, so a quick Google search led us here. Located in central Italy, Perugia is an ancient walled city with a vast history, dating back to the Etruscans. As luck would have it, we arrived in October, when one of the biggest chocolate festivals in the world was taking place. It was exciting to witness, but I would also love to see this city rid of the thousands of visitors the festival garners every year. Filled with tiny offshoots and alleyways, the main part of the city was a labyrinth of centuries-old stone buildings and cobbled streets, what one imagines and hopes to find while venturing through Italy. We also stayed outside of the city, at a small hostel on a farm, where we experienced the countryside of Italy, riding bikes on the dirt roads, tasting wine at the local vineyard, and touring the Nestle chocolate factory, where their signature Baci chocolates are made.
Romania is a highly underrated country for tourism. Incredibly cheap and stunningly beautiful, it is scattered with medieval towns reminiscent of old fairytales, and Brasov (pronounced Brashov) is my personal favorite. Located in Transylvania, the northern half of Romania, the regions Austria-Hungarian past is very apparent with one look at the city center. If you didn’t know better, you could be told you’re in Austria or Germany and totally believe it. Two castles are nearby: Rasnov Castle and the infamous Bran Castle, AKA Dracula’s Castle—but don’t expect much talk of Dracula, since the real life guy, Vlad the Impaler, only supposedly spent a few months there once. Both castles are real beauts and add to the nostalgia of the region. The best view of the city comes from atop Mount Tampa, but most of all, my favorite thing to do is to just stroll along the many streets, taking in the atmosphere and people watching, perhaps with a Ciuc beer or Kürtőskalács (say that 5 times fast), a regional cake that is cylindrical, hollow, and drool-worthy.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Speaking of old fairytales, Brasov is not the only town on my list that makes me daydream of chivalric knights and wide-eyed princesses. In the game of medieval charm, Rothenburg ob der Tauber gives Brasov a run for its money. One of the most magical towns I’ve ever had the fortune to visit, Rothenburg is perched upon a hilltop in central Germany on the western edge of Bavaria. As it wasn’t touched during the war, it is now one of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany and in the world. In fact, we visited a house that had been in the same family for 400 years! My mom, backpacking buddy, and I all highly enjoyed the Nightwatchman Tour, which was both incredibly entertaining and educational, with an extra bit of spook involved as it took place after the sun went down. You can also walk along the original walls of the city, built 800 years ago. And don’t forget to taste a Schneeball, or snowball, a regional pastry shaped as a, you guessed it, snowball.
Ah Zakopane, you get me. This mountain town is my favorite place in Poland. When I say mountains, I mean the mountains tower over the town as they provide the backdrop for this popular Polish destination (popular in Poland, no one outside of it ever hears about it). Walking the small streets lined with shops and carts selling traditional smoked cheese and hot wine, Zakopane makes for the perfect winter getaway. I’ve been here twice and both times have been highlights of my travels. My first visit was in September 2014, which was the perfect time to hike the Tatras and remains to this day one of the best hikes of my life. My second time was in January of this year and I felt like I really saw Zakopane for what it was—a true winter wonderland, with a calming quiet as I walked between the mountains. We stayed a bit outside the city, which meant we found restaurants that were very traditional and very yummy, and also tried hot beer, which I will never try again but at least I can say I did!
The fairytale vibes strike again! Mystras is located on a hillside near Sparta, and I wouldn’t recommend visiting Sparta without traipsing through this Byzantine settlement (it will quell the post-Sparta disappointment that comes when you gaze upon the remains of the once powerful city-state—a mound of grass. Exciting.). On a sunny day, Mystras sparkles as though its sole purpose is to whisk visitors away to a medieval paradise. These days, a convent of nuns resides here. Some of them speak English and you can ask them about their lives while browsing through a selection of handmade crafts for sale; I bought a needlework tablecloth for my mom that still sits on our dinning room table. Speaking to the nuns was a blissful experience in itself—their joy and peace of mind was a breath of fresh air and I’ll never forget them. When I was there, there were no other visitors except for our small group, which makes for the perfect, peaceful getaway. Mystras is truly one of a kind.
*All photos are my own unless otherwise indicated.