When you think of underrated travel destinations, Athens probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind.
With its iconic attractions like the Acropolis, the ancient Agora, and Panathenaic Stadium, the Greek capital has always been a mandatory day trip for anyone visiting the country. About 3 million tourists visited Athens last year. Yet it still feels like one of the world’s most underrated travel destinations.
For an entire generation, tourism authorities have promoted the Greek islands at the expense of Athens. But during this summer’s tourism renaissance, officials are working to change that — and you could be the beneficiary. Their efforts highlight a list of other underrated European destinations that might be worth visiting as the pandemic begins to fade.
Why is Athens an underrated destination?
Tourism officials won’t readily admit to Athens’ underrated status. But a review of the statistics suggests that it’s overlooked, at least by the standards of a European capital. Tourists often land in Athens and if they stay, they take a one-day tour to hit the highlights. Why? Tourism insiders say that Athens couldn’t offer a traditional tourism experience featuring beaches and five-star resorts.
But then travelers started to change their minds. Many craved a more cultural, immersive experience. Instead of sitting on the beach all day, they wanted an urban adventure with exciting restaurants and cultural experiences. And that Athens could offer. So today, tourism officials in Athens are trying to reverse 40 years of messaging that said, “Go to the islands.”
How to do that? One way is through traditional promotions. But Athens just restarted a program called Athens with a Local that pairs you with a volunteer guide. I met my guide, Spyridon Kagkas, and toured the Pangrati neighborhood east of the city center this week.
Athens with a Local is trying to change the perception of Athens as a quick stop on your way to the islands, he says. Like many tourist towns, Athens is really two cities: the old town where you’ll find all of the ancient attractions; and a series of lively residential neighborhoods with cafes, restaurants and theaters.
The volunteer guides know all the city’s secrets, some of which you won’t find in any guidebook. For example, Kagkas showed me the lesser-known entrance to the historic Panathenaic Stadium, the only stadium built entirely of marble. It turns out you can access the upper level of the stadium — used mainly by runners — and avoid the $11 entrance fee.
“If you’re a local, you know about this place,” says Kagkas, a digital and community manager for This Is Athens, an agency that promotes tourism to Athens.
How do destinations become underrated?
Athens is just one of several destinations that have struggled to attract tourists. Madrid has also pushed for more attention from tourists, who have preferred Spanish destinations like Barcelona. Portugal has been trying for many years to draw more tourists to Lisbon, another capital city that has often languished off the tourist radar.
The United States has no shortage of places that get little love from tourists, despite their rich cultural heritage, nearby attractions, and reliable tourism infrastructure. On the West Coast alone, cities like Sacramento, Calif., Salem, Ore., and Olympia, Wash., are overlooked in favor of places such as San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.
Experts say a destination can be neglected because of a combination of location, lack of promotional opportunities, and public perception. But there are ways to change that. Madrid’s efforts to promote itself as a world-class destination have paid off recently. So have Lisbon’s, which is now buzzing with tourists. Other attempts by overlooked destinations to get noticed are ongoing.
These are the most underrated destinations in Europe
There’s no authoritative list of the world’s most underrated destinations. But that hasn’t stopped anyone from trying to create one. Perhaps the most high-profile effort to date happened on Reddit, where users answered the question, “What is an underrated travel destination that you would highly recommend?”
Here are the ten most overlooked places in Europe.
Azores — This island chain is remote but friendly to visitors. If you like nature and mild winters, the Azores are worth a visit.
Bratislava — The Slovak capital city offers central access to other European destinations like Vienna and Budapest.
Bulgaria — This Balkan country, sandwiched between Turkey and Romania, is on lots of lists of up-and-coming destinations.
Northern Greece — Athens isn’t the only Greek destination that has been overlooked. Thessaloniki is also on the list of lesser-known places and well worth visiting.
Maastricht, Netherlands — If medieval architecture is your thing, you’ll want to check out this college town in the northern part of the Netherlands.
The Scottish Uplands — The least populated area of uplands is also one of the most scenic, with rolling hills and a rich cultural heritage. Here’s more information about visiting Scotland.
Sicily — Like the Azores and the Uplands, it isn’t easy to reach, but the journey has its rewards. Food, culture and warm weather await in Sicily.
Slovenia — Often overlooked in favor of Italy or Austria, Slovenia offers a taste of both. It offers mountain resorts, architecture and great food and wine.
Tallinn, Estonia — Estonia’s capital is impossibly charming, with its cobblestone streets and medieval buildings. It’s also cool during the summer months, thanks to its location along the Baltic.
Northern Wales — If you like hiking along rugged coastlines and immersing in Celtic culture, then northern Wales is worth checking out.
How to plan your vacation around an underrated destination
Generally speaking, underrated destinations make an extra effort to attract visitors. That means you can find special incentives, like hotel deals and packages, that will save you money.
But that’s not the only reason to visit an overlooked destination. You want to go precisely because it’s overlooked. You know where everyone goes on vacation. Be different.
Here are a few strategies for booking an underrated destination:
Find a specialist. Since you’ll be visiting a place that few others do, you’ll need to talk to a pro. Find a travel advisor who knows the part of the world you want to visit. Bonus points if they’ve been to the destination you’re going or have a special certification for that area. You can find a great agent on the American Society of Travel Advisors site.
Contact the tourism bureau. Often, overlooked destinations will publish extensive material to help you plan a successful vacation. And look for discount offers, which you’ll often find online at tourism sites For example, This is Athens has an extensive site with information about accommodations, transportation and activities.
Play it safe. If you’re going far afield, you’ll want to make sure you have the right travel insurance and medical evacuation membership — just in case. While many European destinations on this list are near hospitals and airports, some are quite remote. If you’re planning a vacation to an overlooked destination, don’t overlook insurance.
This may be the summer to get out and explore. Destinations like Athens hope you don’t skip them when you’re visiting Europe. In fact, there’s a long list of places that are vying for your vacation dollar. Maybe this is the year to visit an overlooked destination in Europe.