Ready to venture beyond the classic European destinations and discover a different side of the continent? Europe is filled with spectacular landscapes forged by nature, offering fantasy-like destinations. Yet, some of them are surprisingly (hopefully?) overlooked by tourists.
From lunar and desert-like landscapes to lush and tropical paradises, get ready to discover five secret places with breathtaking views, each reminiscent of more famous destinations.
Dune du Pilat, France
In the Arcachon lagoon in France, three natural landscapes coexist side by side: desert, crystalline water and intense greenery. Yet, Dune du Pilat is surprisingly overlooked by tourists, who mostly flock to the Mediterranean.
Formed over thousands of years, the changing climate in the region and multiple windstorms led the sand to pile up and create myriad hills, many of which measure 340-feet high. To stop the sand from invading the villages and farms, Napoléon Bonaparte commissioned the planting of a pine forest in 1801, resulting in this magical landscape stretching across 15,000 acres. Transport yourself to the Sahara on one end or Whitehaven Beach in Australia on the other.
For a unique experience, walk barefoot on the mud of the lagoon at low tide to reach the stilted wooden huts of the Île aux Oiseaux (Birds’ Island). At sunset, head to Cap Ferret, a chic resort village known for its jet-set vibe, to indulge in fresh oysters at one of the coveted waterside restaurants.
Getting there: Hop on a train from Bordeaux to reach Arcachon in less than one hour, and take the bus BAIA Ligne 1 to Dune du Pilat.
Dreaming of Canada? If you can’t get to Maligne Lake, Alberta, head to its German doppelganger, the Eibsee, located at the foot of the Bavarian Alps.
Once a valley, the lake was formed after the collapse of part of the Zugspitze glacier. The depression then filled with water, fed by underground sources and melting snow, changing the valley into a 104-feet deep lake.
Rent a boat or paddleboard to explore the lake and its islets, boasting aquamarine and emerald hues. Enjoy a refreshing dip in the crystalline waters that reach 71°F in summer. In wintertime, the lake freezes and the whole area is covered with a white blanket of snow, offering a fairytale-like setting.
Take the cable car to Zugspitze, located to the east of the lake. Reach the top in 10 minutes and enjoy a truly thrilling view of the Alps. Intrepid hikers can head to GletschErlebnisWeg, a trail that tells the story of Zugspitze’s glacier.
Getting there: From Munich, reach Garmisch-Partenkirchen by train, and take the EIBSEE bus to arrive at the lake.
Bardenas Reales Desert, Spain
What about something that reminds you of the American West? A trip to the United States can be a bit tricky for Europeans but Spain is a great second choice.
The Bardenas Reales Desert is a mysterious, almost lunar landscape, strangely still unknown even to locals. Reminiscent of Death Valley, California, it stretches across an area of 103,700 acres in the Navarre region.
After a long period of mountain depression and drastic drops in water levels, arid plains gave way to rocky clay and limestone hills. Divided into three areas with three distinct topographies, the desert is a stunning panorama of warm colours that change according to the sun’s position in the sky. While La Blanca is the driest area with clay deposits, El Plano abounds with wheat fields and La Negra is dotted with rolling hills.
With 430 miles of trails, biking is the best way to explore the site. The eight-mile-long itinerary starts in La Blanca and takes you past La Pisquerra and El Rallon where white, yellow, beige and ochre-coloured hills and cliffs abound.
Getting there: Access the Bardenas Reales from Tudela de Navarra, quickly reachable by train from Zaragoza.
Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy
On its rocky cliff, Civita di Bagnorio takes on the air of a lost city, surrounded by lush greenery and rolling hills, similar to the ancient rock fortress, citadel and Buddhist temple of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. The medieval Italian town is also said to have inspired Hayao Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky.”
In ancient times, its foundation was formed with clay and mud, suggesting the presence of water in the past, but volcanic remnants left an upper plateau made of tuffo. Over the centuries, this fragile structure couldn’t resist erosion and earthquakes, which pushed residents to leave the city.
Today, you can enjoy its stark beauty, a setting that seems frozen in time. Entirely pedestrian, wander peacefully through the medieval streets adorned with flowered walls and balconies. Unexpected and breathtaking views over the lush Italian countryside await around every corner.
Enjoy a repast of fettuccine or scaloppine at one of the rustic restaurants and trattorias carved into the tuff and stone.
Getting there: From Rome, take the train to Bagnoregio. From there, take the pathway to access Civita di Bagnoregio.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Perfect for tropical landscape lovers, the Plitvice Lakes National Parc in Croatia is a modest but no less stunning version of Iguazu Falls in Brazil, mixing emerald water and lush greenery.
The cascades were formed through a geological and hydraulic process dissolving limestone and dolomite rocks. The process resulted in gorgeous interconnected lakes, cascading waterfalls, gorges and caves.
The National Parc boasts 16 large lakes and dense forests, named “Hell gardens” because of their thickness. Follow one of the hiking trails to peacefully explore the site. You can also rent a boat inside the park to navigate some of its lakes. In winter, ski lovers hit the slopes located just a few miles from the park entrance.
Getting there: From Zagreb, hop on a bus and get to Plitvice Jezera in less than three hours. The bus stop is just a few steps from the second entrance of the site.