In the rush to see the great sights of Europe’s big cities we can sometimes forget the delights of the hinterland. Often, all it takes is a short bus or train ride to reach lesser-known gems that you may have all to yourself. Here are six to get you started. Feel free to add your own suggestions.
Not just the summer residence of the Pope but also the site of the Vatican Observatory, Castel Gandolfo is a greenlakeside retreat in a breathtaking location in the Alban Hills nineteen miles southeast of Rome. There’s not much to do here apart from enjoying the astonishing views of Lake Albano and wandering the alleyways of the town, but it feels as far removed from Rome’s noise and traffic as anywhere else on earth. And it's only a half hour’s bus ride from Anagnina metro station.
Venice may have good looks and great views, but there’s one thing it hasn’t got: ancient history. The lagoon city’s founders didn’t strike out from the Italian mainland until the Dark Ages, by which time Verona already had its magnificent arena. Built by the Romans for gladiatorial combat, today it’s arguably the world’s most beautiful opera venue. Verona is the home of Juliet's fictional beau, and there’s an equally fictional balcony to gawp at. Verona’s army of church and gallery-crawling devotees will tell you it’s love at first sight.
There’s only one reason to make the 92km (57 mile) journey from Paris to Chartres, but what a reason. Chartres Cathedral is one of the world’s great buildings: a soaring triumph from the medieval age which taunts today’s architects from down the years. Below the two spires – one Gothic, one Romanesque – is an interior of humbling scale and lit by the world’s most complete collection of medieval stained glass. Were it located an hour up the road northeast in Paris, the cathedral would be top of any city itinerary. You can have it pretty much to yourself, though try to get on one of the guided tours for a proper look around. Complete a visit with a lazy lunch in the shadow of the church itself.
Offering a concentrated blast of history and a dash of Moorish magic, Toledo had a strong case to be made Spain’s capital when Philip II was weighing up his options in the sixteenth century. He chose Madrid, but this thumbing of the royal nose failed to dent Toledo’s majesty. El Greco’s strong connection with the city draws many visitors from Madrid, but it is the mighty alcázar (castle) and enormous cathedral which linger longest in the memory.
From Stockholm: the Stockholm archipelago.
Travel time from city centre: varies from 1 to 2.5 hours
Sweden’s capital city has a unique neighbour: a vast playground of 24,000 islands. The Stockholm archipelago is a haven for sailors, kayakers and anyone who fancies getting a taste of Sweden’s very civilised take on the great outdoors. Many jaunts from the city dip their toe in with a tour and simply take in the scenery, but a night on one of the islands is a relaxing change of pace from the big city. The 990m long island of Finnhamm (2.5 hours ferry trip from the mainland) is home to woods and meadows and quiet coves, while Arholma (from 70 minutes) is the place to head for beaches.
Londoners have been taking the air and escaping to Broadstairs in Kent for generations. One of London’s greatest citizens, Charles Dickens, spent a month or more in the Kent seaside resort for many summers, writing some of his finest works at the same time. The town makes much of its literary connections, but beyond Dickens Broadstairs has much to reward the day-tripper who hops on one of the regular trains here from Victoria Station. There’s a golden strip of sand perfect for walking and kite-flying and small, independent shops dot the cobbled streets of the town. For something unusual, investigate the Crampton Tower, dedicated to locally born engineer Thomas Russell Crampton, who among other notable achievements was instrumental in laying the first international submarine telegraph cable.
Got any other suggestions? Let us know.