Europe's secrets for holidays off the beaten track

Going off the beaten track is the hottest new way to see Europe and travel companies are seeing a huge increase in demand from British holidaymakers visiting unusual and exciting locations on the Continent, from discovering hidden villages in Greece, to exploring the unsung islands off Sicily.

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Adventure tour operator Exodus Travels, for instance, tells us that it recently had to add extra departures to many of its European adventure holidays, including walking in Italy and Spain's Camino de Santiago trek, while many tourists are eager to visit the less-trodden Eastern European destinations to escape the crowds and see untouched Europe.

It's not just lesser-known locations that are attracting intrepid travellers but the types of holidays they take, too. Active, solo and wildlife holidays are bigger than ever, and you don't have to fly as far as Asia or Africa to get the best of these holidays.

Europe offers a wealth of opportunities for travellers in search of unforgettable animal encounters, such as the Biebrza Marshes and Bialowieza Forest in north-eastern Poland, where you can come face-to-face with bison, elk and wolves.

For us, there's nowhere better than Europe for a city break and we're over Copenhagen and Rome as there are lesser-known cities in the likes of Denmark and Italy just waiting to welcome visitors to their foodie, social and art scenes.

Explore our pick of the best off-the-beaten-path holidays to experience Europe at its very best...

Off-the-beaten-track holidays in Europe
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Off-the-beaten-track holidays in Europe

Charming, cheap, but little visited compared with most of Europe, Bulgaria straddles the border between Europe and the old Ottoman Empire. Although it’s gaining in popularity as a ski and beach destination, few people are aware of its many cultural attractions, its great food or magnificent scenery. A highlight is the monastery at Rila, a fortified complex with gorgeous frescoes and carvings. On a short trip with Native Eye, you’ll sample some of the country’s excellent wines at Melnik, head up to the Rhodope Mountains to explore the picturesque village of Leshten, visit old towns and fortresses, and visit the renowned Thracian Tomb at Kazaniak, a reminder of when Bulgaria was once the cradle of powerful civilisations. The nine-day Monasteries and Mountains tour costs from £899 per person, excluding flights.

While the crowds head to Copenhagen, you can head to Aarhus, Denmark's second city for an off-the-beaten-path city break in Europe. Diverse, modern and fun, Aarhus is one of the happiest cities on Earth. It also happens to be the European Capital of Culture 2017. A visit to Aarhus' art galleries, cosy Latin Quarter or the Old Town will show you just why Aarhus' residents and visitors are so happy. The dynamic city is located on the Jutland peninsula, where the beach, harbour and forest are all only a 15-minute bike ride away. Book a stylish apartment with Airbnb from just £36 per night.

Meet bison, elk and wolves in the winter as you travel through the snow-covered landscapes of the Biebrza Marshes and Bialowieza Forest in north-eastern Poland on a European wildlife holiday to remember. Enjoy encounters with large yet elusive mammals including elk, otter, European beaver, red deer, wild boar and even wolf or lynx, while also visiting one of the largest wintering bat sites in Eastern Europe. The Travelling Naturalist offers a five-day Bison, Elk & Wolves in Winter from £995 per person, including flights.

Those with a yen for the unusual will love the small, friendly, laid-back island of Rugen in Germany, with its timeless elegance. Mostly undiscovered by British holidaymakers, it boasts almost 600km of sandy shores and is one of Germany’s sunniest corners, much loved by the Germans. Visitors can cycle gently on country lanes and quiet paths, take in the views over towering chalk cliffs and quaint fishing villages, and hop onto the Rasender Roland narrow-gauge steam train to let it take some of the strain. Inntravel's Rugen - an Island Revealed holiday costs from £950 per person for one week, excluding flights.

Forget the Costas and Canaries. Intrepid travellers can walk from inn to inn through northern Spain’s Picos de Europa Mountains, the country's biggest and best-kept secret. Hike through valleys, villages, forests and high mountains, along ancient pathways and while staying at charming village inns as you take in all three provinces in the area (Leon, Asturias and Cantabria). With Responsible Travel's Picos Inn to Inn Walking Holiday you can enjoy well-paced days and relax as your bags are transported ahead of you each day to await your arrival. The eight-day trip costs from £980 per person, excluding flights.

Experience an unmissable trek to the island of Crete to explore the incredibly variable piece of mountainous land floating on the Mediterranean Sea, away from the cosmopolitan beaches and towns. On a 12-day Crete: Trekking into the Wild tour with Evaneos Travel, visitors have the chance to see the unexplored and unspoiled nature of the most impressive Cretan mountains; White and Lassithi. The trip takes in staggering paths, gorges, coastal trails, swimming in the sea, relaxing on pristine beaches and visiting traditional villages, while led by an expert local guide who knows the land better than anyone. The trip costs from £920 per person, excluding flights.

Head for the overlooked city of Bologna to enjoy an Italian city break away from the crowds of Rome or Florence. Bologna's series of atmospheric squares are linked by twisting alleys and tiny streets. On Riviera Travel's Bologna, Parma & Ravenna Tour, you will also visit Parma, with its sublime cathedral home to the famed Palazzo della Pilotta, a huge complex of brick buildings housing works by Correggio. And Ravenna is nothing short of a masterpiece. It has a host of religious buildings, wonderfully adorned with early Christian paintings and the world’s finest mosaics. The trip takes in culinary delights of the region, such as Parma ham, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, wild boar and truffles. The five-day break costs from £619 per person, including flights.

History and geography conspired to make Transylvania, in central Romania, one of Europe’s most beautifully wild and fascinating regions. For centuries the locals have existed in harmony with a variety of wildlife, including Europe’s highest concentration of bears, wolves and lynx, and dense forests have remained largely untouched. Exodus Travels' Carpathian Walking & Bears trip takes you on walks through spectacular canyons, virgin forests and Saxon villages. You will go in search of brown bears and explore the medieval town of Brasov. The eight-day holiday costs from £1,099 per person, including flights.

Discover the paradise islands off Sicily’s north-eastern coast on a tour of the Aeolian Islands. This volcanic archipelago consists of seven beautiful and rugged islands, which were honoured with UNESCO World Heritage status in 2000. Wexas Travel’s Aeolian Islands Discovery holiday begins in Lipari, the largest of the seven islands. Here, you will become accustomed to island-hopping life, visiting the busy port and pastel-coloured seafront set against a typical Mediterranean landscape. The next stop, Stromboli, is sure to entertain nature lovers with dramatic volcanic silhouettes and black-sand beaches, before ending in Salina, home to lush landscapes and the famous Malvasia wines. The eight-day holidays costs from £1,075 per person.

The border lands of northern Albania and western Macedonia are truly one of the last hidden gems of Europe. Sweeping gorges are carved by crystal blue waters that flow into tranquil lakes, while rocky peaks and plateaux rise high above the lush green landscape. Ancient villages, rarely visited by tourists nestle themselves into the valleys, some of which retain a way of life that has been unchanged for centuries. Exodus Travels' Cycle Macedonia & Northern Albania holiday combines a carefully chosen route through some of the best scenery these fascinating countries have to offer, with exciting cycling that equally challenges and rewards. The eight-day trip costs from£1,069 per person, including flights.

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