Planning a trip to Europe? Try places off the beaten path

By Dheza Marie Aguilar, ABS-CBN Europe News Bureau

Posted at May 03 2013 01:46 PM | Updated as of May 09 2013 11:57 PM

Europe will always be a magnet for tourists. Its old-world charm never ceases to draw crowds. Many people want to experience the smorgasbord of delicious cuisine, pompous architecture, shopping and see the opulence of its powerful monarchies that Europe so proudly displays for the curious outsiders.

There is romance in thinking that you have walked the same streets as the people who you used to read before like Shakespeare and Hugo, seen the landscapes that inspired artists like Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Monet, experience the culture that is the subject of many bestsellers and Hollywood movies and be in the same rooms where the queens and kings of England and France once lived.

For first timers, it is almost mandatory to visit the cities of Paris, Venice, Amsterdam or Berlin, especially for the photo-ops that Asians are known for. But when you've been to Europe several times and are getting tired of touristy sights and the crowd that comes with it, here are 10 alternatives to the usual places.

View from the other side of the River Brente in Basanno del Grappa, Italy. Photos for by Dheza Marie Aguilar

1. Bassano del Grappa, Italy

Only an hour and a half away from Venice by train, this sleepy town in the region of Veneto is perhaps Italy’s best-kept secret. From the covered wooden bridge designed by famous Italian architect Andrea Palladio, one can see the postcard-perfect panorama of colorful Italian houses lining the banks of River Brenta, its crystal-clear water running noisily in the middle of the town and the snow-covered peak of the Montegrappa in the distance.

In the summer, have a leisurely lunch at the balcony of Al Ponte restaurant, enjoy a glass of grappa, listen to Italian men chatter their afternoon away and let the laid-back provincial life relax your senses. The good-looking bartender Roberto might even give you a free shot of apple liqueur if you stay until sunset.

Otherwise visit the city’s cathedral, old houses turned into a museum or explore Museo del Grappa and discover the drink that put this city on the map and kept Ernest Hemingway inspired while writing Farewell to Arms.

Grapes are ripe and ready to be harvested in late August in Umbria, Italy.

2. Umbria, Italy

If spending a week in Rome or Milan drains your energy, renting an old vineyard villa in Umbria would be the perfect weekend getaway to escape the crowd and rejuvenate during your Italian escapades. In case your budget is too short for a villa, there is no shortage of affordable hotels and bed and breakfasts.

Bordering the region of Tuscany, Umbria is home to towns like Assisi where St. Francis was born and famous for its beautiful, rolling hills.

The sea of green blanketing the hills of Umbria in the summer explodes into different hues of brown, yellow and red when fall season sets in, turning every place into romantic Italian towns often depicted in movies like Under the Tuscan Sun. For an authentic Italian experience, visit Umbria’s vineyards, Victorian houses and old churches, dine in small al fresco restaurants in the squares and tour the countryside preferably on a Vespa or a Fiat 500.

Macaroons at La Maison Larnicol in Nantes, France are even better than Laduree.

3. Nantes, France

It might be a bit farther from the French capital but Nantes is a city that is very much like Paris but not as overrated. If shopping and dining are on the top of your list, Nantes does not disappoint. One of the city’s prime tourist draw is the elaborately-designed Passage de Pommeraye at Rue Crebellion, a covered shopping complex with glass roof and renaissance-inspired sculptures.

In terms of style, it’s like a mini version of Piazza Duomo in Milan but with less designer boutiques. You can spend your money on the little Hermes shop inside or the more affordable French labels like Le Tanneur. If money is tight, just engage your sweet tooth at La Maison Larnicol where they sell moist macaroons that are even better than Laduree.

The city has its share of churches, cathedrals, chateaux and castles so you wouldn’t exactly miss French architecture. You can also take a cruise in the Erdre down to the Loire river and discover how relaxing it is to be on a cruise boat without guides.

After a day of shopping and exploring, book a table at Le petit Bacchus for authentic French dining. Housed in a 17th century building, Le petit Bacchus give you a warm, cozy feeling of dining among locals and occasional businessmen, all enjoying good food at a very affordable price. When in doubt which wine to pair with your meal, order a Muscadet with your foie gras and Anjou Rouge for your steak, wines from the nearby Loire Valley or indulge yourself with a bottle of champagne.

An evening walk around the city centre and the well-lighted Chateau des Ducs de Bretagne will quickly dispel any buzz especially on a chilly spring night.

Grachten houses in Ghent, Belgium

4. Ghent, Belgium

Like its more popular cousins - Brussels, Bruges and Antwerp - the city of Ghent is also an architectural gem. Aside from the usual crowd-drawer like a Belfry, medieval streets (Patershol), castle (Castle of the Counts), bridges (St. Michael’s Bridge), Ghent’s (and one of the world’s) most famous religious treasure is on display at St. Bavo’s Cathedral - a panel painting called The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb.

Completed in 1432 by the Van Eyck brothers, this unique work of art features huge panels painted with scenes from the bible, religious figures and even common people who were related to the existence of the Mystic Lamb. During World War II, it barely escaped the wrath of Hitler when it was smuggled to a salt mine to avoid destruction.

Ghent has a lovely boardwalk situated at the embankment facing Graslei and Korenlei - the city’s row of historical buildings representing the best of Dutch/Belgian gable houses. The boardwalk is lighted in the evening and ideal for a short romantic walk, just like in the banks of Seine River in Paris. There are several cafes and patio restaurants by the water where you can have dinner and cocktails. If you fancy exotic food, don't forget to try rabbits, sometimes stewed in Belgian chocolates or Belgian beer.

To complete the medieval experience, stay at the old Monasterium PoortAckere, a building which was transformed into many institutions before it became a hotel. Monasterium PoortAckere used to be a monastery, an orphanage, a house for young women and a student’s dorm until it became Ghent’s unique tourist lodging. Although not very many ghost stories had been heard about Monasterium PoortAckere, its eerie hallways, high ceilings, century-old windows, and church-like ambiance is enough to send chills down your spine when you return to your rooms after a night-out in Ghent.

A view of Dordrecht's city center.

5. Dordrecht, the Netherlands

If you want a wild weekend of booze, sex and drugs without having to worry about getting jailed, then Amsterdam is the only place you have to visit in the Netherlands. But Amsterdam is only a part representation of the country that is famous for its cheeses, windmills, tulips and capitalism.

The country’s oldest city is not even Amsterdam but Dordrecht, a city in South Holland that is about an hour away by train. Unlike Amsterdam which is reeking of marijuana in most part, Dordrecht is a breath of fresh air with almost the same attractions - leaning gable houses, canals, small outdoor cafes and rare paintings of Dutch masters exhibited at the Dordrechts Museum. And yes, they do have coffee shops there as well.

Several interesting places which shows the city’s wealthy history include the Gothic-style Grote Kerk (Big Church) with an altar decorated with Europe’s biggest carillon (pipe organ) and a floor that served as a graveyard for some of it’s important residents, Het Hof said to be the cradle of the Netherlands because this is where the Dutch revolutionaries plotted for freedom against Spain and the original city gate, Groothoofdspoort which overlooks three big Dutch rivers.

You can also do canal boat tours and hang out in al fresco cafes in the city’s square without having to share your space with fellow tourists.

The rest of the top 10 list can be found here.