When you have children, it’s very tempting to stick to the same family-friendly holiday destination each year. There’s something reassuring, when you’re parting with lots of hard earned money, to return to the same child-friendly destination which you know will keep the whole family happy. However, if you’ve decided you’d like to try somewhere new, in this post I’ve put together some of the best hidden gems in Europe. I spent many years as a travel agent researching interesting and off the beaten track holidays in Europe for families.
If you’ve had some great family holidays in the Algarve in Portugal or perhaps you always return to the child-friendly beaches of Corfu, I hope some of these alternative ideas for a family holiday in Europe off the beaten path will appeal to you. So many destinations in Europe suffer from over-tourism and yet there are plenty of hidden gem European holiday ideas for families close by which work just as well. And of course, many off the beaten track holiday destinations are cheaper than their more well known counterparts.
Italy off the beaten track: tried Puglia? Try Calabria
Best for: young families or explorers
You can’t go too wrong taking a family holiday in Italy but some regions work better for beach holidays than others. You’d have to head over to Sardinia to rival Puglia’s fantastic coastline of sandy beaches but if you’re keen to explore a less visited and good value region of Italy, I’d recommend the toe of Italy’s boot, Calabria.
I have great memories, as a student, of spending hours snorkelling off the beaches in Calabria. The coastline is rockier than Puglia’s (but still with plenty of sand) so there’s more going on beneath the waves. You can take day trips to the Aeolian Islands and if your family are active and you’re looking to combine beach with hiking, the Pollino National Park is impressive (just don’t go there in the height of summer, it’s hot).
Calabria is still quite an impoverished, predominantly agricultural region and you won’t find the same number of charming towns that draws tourists to Puglia. However, stay close to the pretty seaside towns of Tropea or Scilla and the beaches of Capo Vaticano and you’ll be glad that there’s no need to stray too far, you’ll have everything you need right there. Off the beaten path holidays don’t come much better than this.
I’m intrigued by the accommodation reviewed by the Guardian recently, at Eco Belmonte Albergo Diffuso. It looks like an interesting project. Alternatively, if you’re keen to be closer to a beach (and you’re happy to pay a bit more), the Costa Azzura or La Conchiglia should both offer an authentic Italian holiday experience.
Calabria is tricky to get to from the UK (just Ryanair at the moment from Stansted) but think of that as part of the appeal. Fly indirectly via Rome or Milan and you won’t add on too much time to your journey.
Swap England for Northern Ireland
Best for: amazing beaches, ruined castles and no traffic jams
What key ingredients add up to a fun family holiday in the UK? For me, it’s good beaches, awe-inspiring landscapes, somewhere interesting to stay, good food and a few cultural attractions. Obviously weather is key too, I’ll get on to that in a minute.
Northern Ireland squeezes all these elements into a compact area – the North Antrim Coast has some of the best beaches I’ve seen; the south of the country has the atmospheric Mourne Mountains; there are lots of characterful places to stay; great pubs serving traditional and contemporary fare, there are ruined castles aplenty and the country has some genuinely brilliant museums which families will love.
The weather in the UK is unpredictable. Not so in Northern Ireland… it is cooler and it does rain more, that’s pretty much guaranteed – there’s no point in lying about it. However, it doesn’t rain every day and you shouldn’t let the weather put you off visiting what I think is an incredibly underrated summer holiday destination. We were on the beach pretty much every day of our summer holiday in Northern Ireland. And the benefits of a holiday in Northern Ireland definitely outweigh the dodgy weather – no traffic jams, plenty of parking right next to every beach, staying in a cottage with an incredible sea view (without paying a fortune for it).
Northern Ireland is one of the best hidden gems in Europe. If you’d like to learn more about family holidays in Northern Ireland, check out my post on the best things to do in Northern Ireland with kids.
An alternative to Tuscany: Le Marche
Best for: an Italian villa holiday off the beaten track
Whilst Le Marche doesn’t have an equivalent big hitter like Florence up its sleeve, it can rival its neighbour for incredible scenery, sleepy hilltop towns and some very good wine. Le Marche is located on the eastern coast of Italy and shares a border with Emilia Romagna, Umbria and Abruzzo as well as Tuscany. Le Marche’s interior features rolling countryside backed by the mighty Sibillini Mountains.
Each tiny village hidden amid the vineyards and sunflower fields has its own traditional food festival, usually in summertime. Larger towns such as seaside Fano and the lovely university town of Macerata, hold excellent music festivals.
Art historians will appreciate the museums and galleries of Urbino in the north of the region and Ascoli Piceno in the south. Beach lovers meanwhile are spoilt for choice with a huge coastline of sandy beaches perfect for families. We enjoyed visiting Grottammare which has excellent facilities and a long beachfront promenade. Nearer to Ancona, the protected Parco del Conero offers a more remote and wild beach experience more suited to families with older children.
There are some very good value villa holidays in Le Marche. We enjoyed a brilliant stay at a Le Marche villa near the village of Montedinove. The scenery was incredible with some very impressive sunsets. So, if you love Tuscany but fancy a more off the beaten track destination, Le Marche is hard to beat.
Escape the crowds of mainland France: head to Corsica
Prior to visiting St Florent on the north coast of Corsica, I read somewhere that it was the island’s answer to Saint Tropez. While I didn’t think this was a very accurate description of the sleepy seaside town I visited, I was delighted by what I discovered on this underrated French island.
Corsica has a rugged coastline with endless pockets of sandy beaches. The interior is mountainous with villages so very “off the beaten track” that they’re actually been abandoned. There are some amazing rivers for swimming in and the hiking is excellent if you avoid the heat of the summer. I love the food in Corsica – a great mix of French and Italian. There are some pockets where tourism has taken hold, sometimes in a detrimental way, but most visitors are French which is refreshing if you’ve come to Corsica to escape the UK and English voices.
We visited Corsica as part of an epic family European summer road trip in 2018. We stayed just north of Porto Vecchio on the south west coast. Our children absolutely loved swimming in the rivers which took centre stage in their minds. On a previous trip some 10 years ago, we explored the far north of the island which is less developed. I remember asking in the tourist office in St Florent about heading into Cap Corse, as the region is known. The lady looked at me rather strangely as if I was making a big mistake, “C’est sauvage”. So we packed our tent into the car and set off. The scenery was indeed “wild” but in a very beautiful way. And the food was incredible.
Off the beaten path holidays in Portugal: tried the Algarve? Try the Costa Vicentina
Best for: surfers and kids who don’t mind getting knocked down by waves
The Alentejo coastline is seriously beautiful and the protected Costa Vicentina natural park is particularly special. Beaches backed cliffs, forests, wildflowers; pick your preferred natural backdrop and you’ll find it on Portugal’s southern Atlantic coast. We visited the region for a wedding when our older son was a year old. I can’t remember the names of all the beaches we visited or the wonderful restaurants we ate in (my first year of motherhood has left some sizeable gaps in my memory), I just know that I want to return.
As this is the Atlantic coast, the beaches are perfect for surfers and body boarders, but there are a number of more sheltered beaches too. We had a lovely meal overlooking Odeceixe beach which has a river running down to the sea, perfect for toddlers.
There are strict building restrictions in the national park so you won’t find beachfront properties here, however, there are some fantastic places to stay within a short drive of the coast which offer great character and hospitality. The Casas Brancas website is pretty comprehensive and includes Monte da Vilarinha which I briefly visited, it looked heavenly.
The Alentejo coast can be reached from either Faro or Lisbon airports. The former is closer (1 hour 45 minutes) but you’ll have a more rewarding drive from the latter (2 hours 45 minutes).
Greece off the beaten track: tried the Ionian Islands? Try the Small Cyclades
Best for: island hopping adventurers
If you’re lamenting the over-development of your favourite Greek island, you’ll be reassured to know that Greece has enough islands to ensure holidaymakers don’t run out of “undiscovered destinations” any time soon.
I wrote about the Cyclades group of islands in a previous post on holidaying with teens but the Small Cyclades in particular will appeal to families with children of any age looking for a relaxing beach holiday off the beaten track. Just bear in mind that there’s a 4 hour flight followed by one or more ferries to contend with.
To get to the Small Cyclades you can fly to either Athens, Santorini or Mykonos and then take a ferry. Some of the islands, such as Koufonissi, have little more than a harbour and a scattering of houses but if you’re after that quintessential Greek Island holiday, the Cyclades are hard to beat. The main mode of transport is your feet or perhaps a donkey. And most roads (or rather tracks) lead to a beach. I’ve earmarked Amorgos for a future trip.
The proximity of the big-name Cycladic isles means that families with differing ideas of what constitutes a holiday should find something to keep everyone happy. Selfie-stickers and Instagrammers will love Santorini, party animals can go wild in Mykonos and beach lovers who like a few more people to mingle with should find Naxos to their liking.
There are tour operators who have always specialised in the lesser known Greek islands who can recommend suitable accommodation in the Cyclades, Sunvil have a good range and can help with ferry bookings.
Secret Spain: tried the Costa Brava? Try Galicia in Spain’s north west
Best for: lovers of seafood and dramatic coastlines (and pilgrims)
We had a lovely family holiday on the Costa Brava in May several years ago, but it’s heaving with visitors in August. By contrast, Spain’s remote north west coast sees far fewer tourists and yet it has just as many (if not more) stunning beaches. It’s perfect for an off the beaten track family holiday. Cooler and greener than much of Spain, Galicia boasts an impressively rugged coastline including the archway-studded Playa de los Catedrales. Of the various off the beaten track holiday destinations I’m keen to visit, this one sits pretty high on the list.
There are beaches for all tastes in Galicia: from protected stretches of sand for toddlers to the exposed Atlantic coast for surfers. Most countries have a place which they like to refer to as their “Caribbean” and in Galicia it’s the tiny islands of Cies and Ons. Just writing this makes me want to go there.
It’s worth taking a few day trips away from Galicia’s beaches; as the third largest pilgramage site, Santiago de Compostela needs no introduction but further south you’ll also find delights such as the medieval harbour town of Baiona and the estuary town of Pontevedra. They’re great for wandering and even better for feasting on the excellent and good value seafood for which the region is renowned.
Self catering in Galicia is noticeably cheaper than eastern and southern Spain. Casas Cantabricas covers the whole of the north west and features some very reasonably priced places to stay. Vintage Travel specialises in Galicia and offers quality villas with pools, some within walking distance of a beach.
Galicia is accessible from various London airports with Ryanair and Vueling while across the border in Portugal, Porto can be reached from a number of regional UK airports.
Holidays in the UK off the beaten track: tried mainland Cornwall? Try the Isles of Scilly
Best for: a good old fashioned seaside holiday
Hardly a secret this one, but it still surprises me that so few Brits have visited the Isles of Scilly. No doubt the pricey flights (relative to the distance) or the journey along the traffic-packed roads of south west England come summertime play a part in discouraging visitors. However, those who make the journey to the Scillies discover an unspoilt archipelago of peaceful harbours and stunning beaches and a more relaxed way of life. If you’re looking for off the beaten track UK holidays, they don’t come much better than this.
We visited the Isles of Scilly several summers ago and combined it with a stay in Cornwall. It was a real revelation – a holiday destination where houses are left unlocked, cars (of which there are very few) have their keys left in them and beaches which are empty in the height of summer. Wherever you stay on the Scilly Isles, you’re only a short walk to an incredible beach. One of the highlights for me as a parent, was being able to sit in a beachfront café with an evening drink while my kids played safely on the sand. Because there are so few people on the Isles of Scilly, it’s difficult to misplace your children which makes for a relaxing break for families.
There’s a good range of accommodation in the Isles of Scilly, ranging from basic camping to contemporary hotels with everything in between. I’ve put together a guide to holidays in the Scilly Islands to help fellow families decide which island to stay on (there’s a choice of five) and how to get there. Just make sure you book early, a lot of the properties are reserved for regular visitors so what’s left over gets snapped up pretty quickly.
Do you have any recommendations for off the beaten track holidays in Europe for families? Let me know in the comments below.
Some of the images in this post are courtesy of Pixabay.
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