The Ultimate Travel Top 50
Text: Arne Adriaenssens | Unsplash
A lifetime is much too short to be able to walk every square metre of the earth. Therefore, some choices have to be made. But how do you decide which places to visit and which to pass on? As experts on all that’s Southern European, our in-house jury has selected the ultimate travel destinations in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal for you. From exciting cities to majestic mountain peaks, from scenic beaches to marvellous monuments: our Ultimate Travel Top 50 has it all. Join us on a trip past Southern Europe’s 50 greatest destinations to visit this year.
Granada, Andalusia, Spain
Few Spanish buildings are as iconic as the regal fortress that is the Alhambra. Adorning the hills around the vibrant city of Granada, it is a stunning souvenir of Spain’s Moorish past. From the 11th until the late-15th century, the lion’s share of the Iberian Peninsula formed the Islamic empire of Al-Andalus. Being progressive and tolerant, the Moors ignited a pre-renaissance on the peninsula, creating an atmosphere of creation and innovation. Pay the Alhambra a visit and see for yourself how ahead of their time the Moors were, and what they were capable of doing.
2. Mont Saint-Michel
Mont-Saint Michel, Normandy, France
For 12 hours a day, it is an island; the other 12, it is just a rock near the coast. The enchanting hill that is Mont-Saint Michel is what fairy tales are made of. Its vibrant, cobbled streets and the majestic abbey on top of the hill – which was used to remind the peasants at all times that God was all-seeing – transport you back to the busy city life of the Middle Ages. Most of the houses (the oldest of which are 13 centuries old) are stuffed with souvenirs and French delicacies, and the abbey is open to visitors. Since 2014, you can leave the island during all tides over the elevated pedestrian bridge. For the full pilgrim’s experience, however, you take a one-kilometre hike from the mainland to the island, passing giant puddles and dangerous quicksand. You had best do this with a guide, as they know when high tide kicks in and which zones to avoid.
3. Amalfi Coast
Few coastlines are as picture-perfect and lush as the legendary Amalfi Coast. Anywhere the soft, crystal-clear, Mediterranean waves touch land, you will find colourful houses, built against the mountain slopes. The history of the area takes us back millennia and is strongly entangled with the stories of the many tribes and people who passed here or even conquered it. Today, it is mainly tourists who conquer Amalfi’s streets. The numerous boats leaving the harbours are full of picture-craving travellers and the narrow streets you find in the towns count numerous souvenir shops. With a local guide, however, you might just escape the tourist bubble and discover the real Amalfi, a place 2,000 years in the making.
Paris, Île-de-France, France
The city of Paris is monumental – both literally and figuratively. That’s why a little help from the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau will make your family trip one to remember forever. Whether you’re planning a whistle-stop tour or an extended break, the cultural and culinary capital of the world will capture the imaginations of even the most jaded of youngsters.
5. Benagil Caves
Lagao, Algarv, Portugal
The Algarves, in the far south of the European continent, are a popular destination for beach lovers. Its rough, rocky coastline caters to the many sunbathers, as well as to hikers and nature gazers. Even more impressive than its stunning sandpits are the Benagil Caves, a natural dome with a hole on top, covering the grotto in daylight. The unpredictable tides make it dangerous to swim to the caves, so you are better to go by boat or on a stand-up paddleboard.
Pyrenees, Catalonia, Spain
Aigüestortes is a natural gem, hidden amidst the Catalan Pyrenees. The peaks’ shadows, ice-cold mountain lakes, meandering rivers and the sporadic pine trees shape this unique national park. In summer, the place is perfect for hiking and for finding your inner peace. In winter, it becomes a snowy wonderland.
7. Château de Chambord
Chambord, Loire Valley, France
The Loire Valley is home to over 300 chateaux. Yet, the Château de Chambord easily stands out from the crowd. With 440 rooms, 365 towers, 1,036 windows and a 5,500-hectare estate, this 16th-century castle is as huge as it is elegant. Oddly enough, it never served as a primary residence, but only as a summerhouse for five centuries of wealthy aristocrats.
The Dolomites are a mountain range on the northern border of Italy. With its unique, steep peaks, it looks nothing like any other European mountain range. For the best views, head to the Gardena Pass, Mount Settsass or the iconic Tre Crime de Lavaredo (Three Peaks of Lavaredo), of which the steep walls climb as high as 2,999 metres.
Venice, Veneto, Italy
With its magical channels, elegant façades and colourful people, it is no wonder that Venice adorns millions of travel bucket lists. Its glory era was the 12th century when the Venetian Republic stretched as far as Greece and its capital was a trading crossroad. These traders, you won’t find here anymore. But while strolling through the alleys, floating through the Canal Grande or visiting the Dodges Palace, it isn’t hard to imagine how it must have been.
Located centrally in the Mediterranean Sea, Corsica has it all. The island’s core is one big natural park and at its edges, you will find cosy villages with appealing terraces and mighty, rocky cliffs. Adventurers can walk the GR20, a challenging walking trail of 200 kilometres through the mountains. Although you are conquering the island’s core, you have seascapes from beginning to end.
11. Palace of Versailles
Versailles, Île-de-France, France
Rather than having been the scene of many a historic event, the Palace of Versailles is instead a symbol of Louis XIV – the Sun King’s – hybris. The castle is one of the biggest ones in the world; at its glory days, between 3,000 and 10,000 people worked in it daily. To visit it, you had better free up two days, as the garden alone requires more than a day of exploring. Yet, it all becomes worth it once you start to wander through the incredible corridors.
Ronda, Andalusia, Spain
Although the city itself is drenched in Andalusian beauty, Ronda is at its prettiest from a distance. The city is split by a 98-metre-deep gorge. Crossing it, you do so over the Moorish Puente Nuevo, a feat of engineering that took almost half a century to build. If you have got time, walk down to the river through the Camino de los Molinos. In spring, the bottom of the gorge is covered in bright-yellow, wild flowers.
Sintra, Estremadura, Portugal
When the king buys himself a summer house in the countryside, the rest of the country’s aristocrats follows. So it happened that the once-so-quiet, hilly coastal town of Sintra became a palace hotspot. Today, you can visit most of them, but most interesting is the bright-yellow eclectic castle on top of the hill, which once belonged to the king.
14. Fargas de Eume
The Fargas de Eume is one of Europe’s few temperate rainforests. Its many streams, mossy trunks and humid climate make you forget that you are in Spain. It took a long time for tourism to kick off here, as the woods are a maze which only a few locals could orientate. Therefore, it is still an untainted and vibrant biotope for many rare ferns and amphibians.
15. Cirque de Mafate
In one of the French Empire’s furthest stretches, the island of Réunion, you enter the world of Cirque de Mafate. This green area in the centre of the island is only accessible on foot and by helicopter. La Nouvelle, the only village in the reserve, still houses 180 locals who live separate from the other islanders. The hospitable people do, however, give passing hikers a warm welcome. So, make sure to plan a stop in this unique village.
16. San Gimignano
San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy
When approaching the medieval village of San Gimignano, it is hard to miss the 14 towers that peak above its skyline. From the 12th until the 14th century, there were up to 72 of them, which served as houses, defence towers and – foremost – objects of prestige. Today, they fit in beautifully with the slender, tall cypresses and the hilly nature of the Tuscan landscape.
17. El Baix Empordà
Although all of Costa Brava is known for its beautiful cliffs and enchanting beaches, nothing compares to El Baix Empordà. In this region, stunning villages like Pals, Begur and the charming Calella de Palafrugell are connected by the amazing Cami de Ronda, a 43-kilometre trail over beaches and rocks with stunning seascapes from beginning to end. Make sure to take a dive and discover the area’s vivid underwater world.
18. Madeira Peaks
While the Portuguese island is famous for its food and its eponymous wine, it is mainly popular as a hiking destination. In its core, a beautiful walking trail leads you to the island’s roof, 1,862 metres above the Atlantic Ocean. Due to the humid climate, you are often up in the clouds at this height, providing you with an unforgettable view of the sea of clouds amidst the peaks.
19. Cíes Islands
Cíes Islands, Galicia, Spain
Located mere kilometres from the Galician coast, the Cíes Islands seem a world away from civilisation. The archipelago is practically uninhabited and is one big nature reserve. In summer, tourists head here to enjoy a day in nature or to lay on the Rodas Beach, which was named ‘best beach in the world’ by The Guardian. Cleanliness is key, however. The island has no dust bins, so you are expected to take all your waste back with you, leaving the place paradisiacal and pure.
Nîmes, Occitanie, France
The origins of the city of Nîmes date back to 600 BC, and that long history is still tangible in its centre. With the Arena of Nîmes (a theatre inspired by the Colosseum) and the Maison Carrée (the best-preserved Roman temple around), the city is drenched in Roman elegance. In its elegant city park, you stumble upon the springs around which the Kelts built their original settlement.
Segovia, Castile and Léon, Spain
Far away from the costas, at the so-called backside of Spain, lies Segovia, the underrated capital of Castile and Léon. Its old town is declared world heritage by UNESCO and that has everything to do with its mighty cathedral and the immense viaduct that crosses the city. 19 centuries ago, this feat of engineering transported water from the mountains to the city, a 15-kilometre trip.
22. Domaine de la Corniche
Rolleboise, Île-de-France, France
Float downstream along the Seine, and you’ll soon end up at the breathtaking Domaine de la Corniche. Plucked straight out of a Claude Monet painting, this charming hotel, spa and Michelin-star restaurant offers unparalleled views across France’s most famous river. Now’s the chance to recharge your batteries and soak up the Giverny region – which is a work of art in itself.
In winter, the village of Chamonix is the perfect place to isolate yourself from the rest of the world. Adjoined by the Alps’ highest peaks and the Mer de Glace glacier, it is perfect for winter sports aficionados or to read a book at a toasty fireplace.
24. San Sebastián
San Sebastián, Basque Country, Spain
The Basque city of San Sebastián is mainly known as a culinary paradise but is way more than that. Its u-shaped bay offers plenty of white beaches on which to catch a tan, and right outside of the city centre, plenty of natural beauty awaits hikers, cyclists and surfers.
25. La Maddalena
La Maddalena, Sardinia, Italy
Off the coast of Sardinia lies the La Maddalena archipelago, a paradise with bright-blue water, pearl-white beaches and deep-green flora. Its few hamlets are covered in Mediterranean tranquillity, making it the perfect setting for a weekend away.
Morella, Valencia, Spain
From a distance, it vaguely resembles a volcano. Up close, you will see how it’s a vibrant city with a giant fortress, tens of metres above the town. The stronghold was once used as a defence against its many enemies, who wanted to settle on this strategic location themselves. Today, it earns it a spot in the official list of Spain’s nicest villages.
27. Islet of Vila Franca do Campo
Vila Franca do Campo, São Miguel, Azores, Portugal
Right off the coast of São Miguel, lies the sunken volcano of Vila Franca do Campo. Throughout the ages, it sunk deeper inside the sea, showing just the circular outline of the crater, today. This makes it very appealing to snorkelers and cliff divers.
Carcassonne, Occitanie, France
Simple watch towers, city walls with battlements… The historic centre of Carcassonne is textbook medieval charm. Stroll over the walls, explore the fortress and amble through the alleys of France’s most authentic town.
29. Puy de Sancy
Massif Central, France
Although it is the little brother of the famous Puy-de-Dôme mountain, the narrow ridge of the Puy de Sancy provides you with some great vistas, as well. A lush green stretches out as far as you can see while you head from one peak to the next.
30. Marqués de Riscal
La Rioja, Spain
Drinking wine is an experience, and if this experience is matched with beautiful surroundings, great company and amazing culture, it can create memories that, with a just a sniff and a taste of the same wine, can forever be recalled and relived. Marqués de Riscal prides itself in helping people to create these everlasting memories, especially when visiting its winery. It is one of the most visited wineries in the world and the fact that it is located in the prestigious Rioja region is only one of the many reasons behind this.
Ostuni, Apulië, Italy
La Città Bianca: that is how they refer to Ostuni. In bright contrast with the surrounding olive fields, nearly every wall of this town is painted in white. Even from up close, while walking through the streets, it is hard to spot a touch of colour, apart from the flowers on the balconies or an occasional bright-coloured door.
32. Corral de la Morería
If you want to experience Flamenco, Corral de la Morería is the place to do so. With over 60 years on the counter, it is the oldest theatre in the city and it attracts the greatest artists. So, order a drink and enjoy a lively spectacle of music and dance.
33. Garajonay National Park
La Gomera, Canary Islands, Spain
Star Wars-lovers might mistake it for the Dagobah System, but in fact, it is just planet Earth. The Garajonay National Park is a humid forest with mainly laurel trees. Its eternal fog, mystical light and mossy trunks give the place an intriguing, swampy feel.
34. Marqueyssac Gardens
Vézac, Dordogne, France
Of all France’s gardens, the one of Marqueyssac is perhaps the most peculiar. Here, trimming has been elevated to an art form, and hedges and bushes stand out with their unique shapes. From smooth and organic to straight and geometrical, there’s plenty to admire, right here.
35. Le Corbier
Villarembert, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, France
Whether you’re a blue run beginner or you’ve got some skills on the slopes, there are many factors involved in making a skiing holiday sensational. If you’re setting foot on the snow this season, Le Corbier – found in the heart of Les Sybelles, France’s fourth largest ski area – boasts 310 kilometres of snow-covered slopes for all levels, as well as a wide range of fun, family-friendly activities.
Formentera, Balearic Islands, Spain
While not as famous as Mallorca or Ibiza, Formentera is everything you could want for your island holiday. The water’s shade is of the softest blue and the idyllical beaches are often entirely tourist-free. This is the ideal place to relax, far away from all that is mass tourism.
Menton, Côte d’Azur, France
Right on the border with Italy, Menton shows what the French Riviera is all about. Its colourful buildings, bright-blue port and laid-back lifestyle simply scream ‘La douce France’. Don’t miss de Rue Piétonne, where a farmers’ market lets you sample France’s greatest delicacies.
Amiens, Somme, France
While Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral is being restored, you can visit this one in Amiens. Not only is it less busy than its Parisian counterpart, but it is also way bigger. In fact, it is the biggest Gothic cathedral of France and one of the world’s best examples of Gothic architecture.
Monsanto, Centro, Portugal
Build on top of – and with – granite, the village of Monsanto is well-camouflaged in its surroundings. At some places, the smooth, mammoth rocks even curve themselves around the picturesque houses and through their roofs.
40. Théâtre de la Reine Blanche
Paris, Île-de-France, France
Petri dishes and particle physics, performance and props. Could the two ever truly bond? Like splitting the atom, bringing science and the arts together is a trying task indeed. However, the Théâtre de la Reine Blanche, a dynamic cultural space nestled in Paris’ 18th arrondissement, has fused these two elements in the most electrifying way.
Turin, Piëmont, Italy
A walk through Turin is a bit like a ‘palazzo crawl’. Wherever you look, you find elegant palazzos and other regal buildings to visit. Some house museums, other are kept in their original shape, taking visitors back in time.
Babia, Castile and Léon, Spain
The region of Babia shows how desolate Spain can be if you venture away from the coast. In the shadow of the mountains, a few hamlets still live very simple lives in strong connection to nature.
Kaysersberg, Alsace, France
A walk through the Alsace always feels like a trip to Germany. The village of Kaysersberg, for example, is one of white plastering and timber beams. Much more than in cities like Colmar or Strasbourg, the Beauty and the Beast-atmosphere still lingers through its streets.
Cefalù, Sicily, Italy
With a mammoth rock on top of it, Cefalù is nicknamed ‘the city with the hat’. Cramped in between the sea and the cliffs, it is one of Sicily’s most unique places. Don’t expect to do much sightseeing here, however. Cafalù is for sunbathing, strolling and swimming.
Carnac, Brittany, France
Forget the 30 monoliths of Stonehenge: in Carnac, they have 1,029 of them, lined up in four neat rows. What they were used for is a mystery, how they managed to move them 6,500 years ago an even bigger one. So, fantasise away while walking amidst these peculiar rocks.
Évora, Alentejo, Portugal
The ancient, UNESCO-protected city of Évora is a history-lover’s paradise. Besides its stunning cathedral and Roman Temple, you can’t miss the Capela dos Ossos, a chapel with walls that are covered in human bones and skulls. The bones were dug up when 43 cemeteries in and around the city had to make room for houses and farms in the late-16th century.
47. Verdon Gorge
Many a gorge connoisseur calls it the most beautiful one around; and who are we to disagree? The tower-high, white walls and the soft-blue water set the perfect setting for some kayak sightseeing. The river flows amidst the mountains for 25 kilometres before it arrives in the gigantic Lake of Sainte-Croix.
Toledo, Castile-La Mancha, Spain
Protected by the surrounding river Taag and with the mighty Alcázar of Toledo looking over the town and its surroundings, it isn’t hard to see why the city formed an important strategic centre from the Roman Empire until the Spanish Civil War. Today, you can visit the many souvenirs that these battles, peoples and cultures have left behind.
Pantelleria, Sicily, Italy
If it’s swimming you’re after, there is no better spot than the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. Besides a beautiful coastline and many luxury hotels with swimming pools, the Lago di Venere (an enchanting lake with attractive sandy beaches all around) is a great spot to take a plunge.
Braga, Norte, Portugal
Athletic as we are, we can therefore never say no to a great staircase. To visit the sanctuary of Bon Jesus do Monte in Braga, pilgrims must first conquer 577 steps. Real devotees do this on their knees, to suffer like Jesus. Yet, if you can get up on foot, you can be proud of yourself just as much.
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