Is Europe on your wish list for 2016? Lonely Planet’s travel experts have combed the continent to create the ultimate selection of European destinations to see this year.
1. The Peloponnese, Greece
Travellers to Greece tend to flock to the myriad islands or marvel at the iconic Acropolis, but one of the country’s most diverse, vibrant regions is often forgotten: the Peloponnese. It remains an affordable enclave of magnificent ancient sights like Olympia, Mycenae and Mystras, which are scattered across a rich landscape of stone villages, teal seas and snow-capped mountains.
2016 brings the chance to hike the Peloponnese’s new Menalon trail or take a tipple in the Nemean wine region, with its vintages gaining prominence around the globe. You can dive shipwrecks off the Navarino coast or visit the wild and remote Mani, home to ancient stone towers converted into boutique luxury lodgings. Beautiful Nafplio blends contemporary art with atmospheric architecture and classic town squares, ideal for a long, lazy lunch.
2. Aarhus, Denmark
Step aside, Copenhagen. You’re not the only Danish city boasting cool-cat neighbourhoods, head-turning architecture and culinary wizardry. Aarhus is fast gaining fans – and accolades, too. In 2017 its titles include European Capital of Culture and European Region of Gastronomy – visit now to stay ahead of the curve.
Aarhus’ harbourfront is showing off fabulous new public spaces like Dokk1 (dokk1.dk) (home to Scandinavia’s largest library), as well as show-stopping developments such as the photogenic Iceberg (jdsa.eu). Big-name museums ARoS and the newly re-housed Moesgaard captivate with daring design, plus quirks like a rainbow-hued rooftop walkway and a millennia-old ‘bog body’. Calendar-worthy events range from Viking moots to music festivals, and local produce is getting everyone excited. Book a table at the restaurants awarded Michelin stars in 2015, when the food-lovers’ bible finally began scouting beyond the Scandi capitals. It’s a trend well worth following.
3. Venice, Italy
Venice’s 124 islands splinter off Italy’s northeastern coast like shards of glass; from this vantage, early Venetians looked out at the world and built a seafaring empire to rival that of Rome. But at heart they remained land lovers, building one of the world’s most beautiful cities out of pearly white marble.
Now is a fantastic time to delve a little deeper into Venice’s history. In 2016, the city commemorates the 500-year history of the Venetian ghetto – an island at the heart of this island city. Like Venice itself, the ghetto turned its physical constraints into a virtue; in its cramped quarters Jewish culture and ideas thrived. Celebrate its extraordinary contribution to history at the Ducal Palace, host to a major new exhibition; explore the newly restored synagogues and Jewish Museum; or catch a showing of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice staged for the first time in the ghetto.
4. The Dordogne, France
Nowhere does French art de vivre (art of living) quite like the Dordogne. This quiet Garden of Eden is stitched from dreamy chateaux, medieval towns and walnut groves; gourmet village bistros and Saturday-morning food markets, where sweet Gariguette strawberries and seasonal black truffles are as common as muck. For travellers following the increasingly hip ‘local produce, homemade’ mantra, this foodie region – sans the crowds of Provence and 100% au naturel – has never been so alluring.
Prehistoric Cro-Magnon man trailblazed world-class cave art here in the Vézère Valley. Grotte de Lascaux is the region’s ace, and the new augmented-reality animation at Le Thot and a brand new prehistoric-themed mirror maze in Le Bugue sur Vézère are tiny tasters of the hi-tech high jinks promised at Lascaux 4. Little wonder British Airways is starting direct London City-Bergerac flights this May.
5. Lviv, Ukraine
Ukraine has had a turbulent time recently, but what many don’t realise is that events have had little direct effect on the country’s west; some places have even prospered in the new order. One of those is Lviv, a wonderfully welcoming central European city, boasting the best Ukraine has to offer. It’s the festival capital of the region, with a record 100 events this year – the most popular dedicated to coffee, jazz and Ukrainian independence. These take place against a backdrop of by far the greatest concentration of architectural treasures in the country.
And 2016 is the year to come; the locals are happier than ever to see foreigners wandering their country and favourable exchange rates get you more bang for your buck. Comparisons with Prague and Kraków are often made – so get here before the secret’s out for good.
6. Warwickshire, England
It's straightforward enough being seduced by Warwickshire's bucolic hills, sublime castles, historic market towns and unhurried Heart-of-England rhythms, but the county's undisputed claim to fame – Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare – is acquiring further sheen in 2016 as it commemorates the 400th anniversary of the playwright's death.
Once you've had your fill of Shakespearean merriment, the atmospheric ruins of Kenilworth Castle (including Queen Elizabeth I's rooms, inaccessible for three and a half centuries until 2014) deserve your attention. They look even better at sunset – followed, we suggest, by dinner at Michelin-starred The Cross, one of the UK's most acclaimed gastropubs.
This year, Warwick Castle restored and relaunched its 22-tonne trebuchet, the world's largest siege machine; earmark a day to relive medieval warfare before dropping down a gear to peruse the Regency architecture, parks and Royal Pump Rooms of nearby Leamington Spa.
7. Extremadura, Spain
Extremadura has always been one of the least-known regions in one of Europe's best-known countries. But things are stirring out here in the west, and Extremadura is appearing on the radar of discerning travellers eager to explore Spain without the stereotypes.
Extremadura’s many attractions have an ageless quality. Spain's best Roman ruins dominate the city of Mérida; medieval jewels like Trujillo and Cáceres resemble Tuscan hill towns without the crowds; while the Parque Nacional de Monfragüe is a dramatic natural gorge with abundant birdlife. Extremadura also produces some of Spain’s most celebrated cheeses and jamón.
Building on this extraordinary foundation, Extremadura’s restored old palaces and formidable castles are re-opening to the public; a spell as Spain’s official gastronomic capital in 2015 bequeathed to Cáceres numerous new restaurants and tapas bars; and the regional government’s plans to subsidise flights into Badajoz promise to make Extremadura that much more accessible.
8. East Coast Tenerife
Tenerife may not be the first destination that springs to mind when you hear the words ‘hidden gem’. But step beyond the rowdy revelry and all-inclusive resorts and you’ll find an extraordinary island of volcanic moonscapes, simple fishing villages and dramatic cliffs. Then there’s the balmy climate, making it a reliable option for those looking for some winter sunshine.
Often missed is Tenerife’s eastern coast, a twinkling tiara of some little-known beauties such as Abades – a tranquil fishing village overlooked by an extraordinary abandoned leper colony – and El Medano. The latter is home to the best natural beach on the island, which is dramatically split in two by a volcanic cone. But if you really want to get away from it all, head to the stunning Anaga mountains in the far northeast where locals still stare at tourists and you need Spanish to order a beer.
9. Texel, the Netherlands
The largest of the Netherlands' Wadden Sea Islands, Texel ('tes-sel') is beloved by Dutch and German visitors but otherwise remains relatively unknown. Situated just 3km north of the coast of Noord-Holland and reached by ferry from Den Helder, the 25km-long, 9km-wide island shelters unspoilt dunescapes preserved as part of Nationaal Park Duinen van Texel (Texel Dunes National Park), as well as wildlife reserves, gloriously deserted white-sand beaches and pine forests.
Plan your 2016 travels now to take in the island's myriad summer festivals, including the spectacular Ronde om Texel, the world's largest catamaran race, this year held on 25 June. The island offers all sorts of activities, from boat cruises to horse riding and skydiving, as well as superb local produce (Texel boasts a winery, brewery and numerous dairies) and unique accommodation options, such as Camp Silver's Dutch-design-fitted Airstream trailers. Get there before the rest of Europe catches on.
10. Northern Dalmatia, Croatia
Rugged and wild, Northern Dalmatia encompasses all the cultural highlights of Adriatic travel along with some of Europe’s most jaw-droppingly pristine nature. The region is embraced by the imposing Velebit mountain range, Unesco World Biosphere reserve and focus of a European ‘rewilding’ initiative, making it one of the most rewarding and under-the-radar European destinations – particularly for nature lovers.
Long overshadowed by its more famous southern neighbours, Split and Dubrovnik, Zadar is the heart of Northern Dalmatia and is fast gaining popularity with travellers looking to explore a lesser-known Croatian city. Intriguing and vibrant, this top transport hub sits in a lovely location looking out to sea and combines an exceptionally rich cultural history with a radical forward-looking attitude. This combined with the region’s soaring karst mountains, cinematic waterfalls and limpid blue waters makes Northern Dalmatia a must in 2016.
Now find out which destinations made Lonely Planet’s latest Best in Europe list.