BEST IN EUROPE: The essential destinations in Europe this year

Lonely Planet’s travel experts have explored every part of Europe in search of the continent’s hotspots for 2018.

From regions that make the mouth water to the siren call of little-known islands and the rise of reinvigorated cities, all these destinations make a powerful play for inclusion on your bucket list this year.

The only question is, where to go first?

1. Emilia-Romagna, Italy

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Traditional stores and food stalls in the Via Pescherie Vecchie, a famous alley in the medieval heart of Bologna, Emilia-Romagna © Google images

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

Is Emilia-Romagna the best place to eat in Italy? With a quartetto of culinary traditions originating here, the case is strong: ragù – not to be confused with the misnamed spaghetti bolognese – hails from the delectable capital, Bolognaprosciutto di Parma comes from, you guessed it, Parma; balsamic vinegar is the pride and joy of Modena (along with Osteria Francescana, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant crowned the second-best in the world in 2017); and parmigiano reggiano (Parmesan cheese) was also born in the region.

Between wildly satisfying meals, new attractions like Bologna's FICO (the world's largest culinary theme park), Ferrara's National Museum of Italian Judaism and Shoah, and Rimini's restored Cinema Fulgor, which will soon feature a museum about legendary film-maker Federico Fellini, nourish the mind as well. Add new flights from London Stansted to Rimini, and Emilia-Romagna looks like a feast for travellers in 2018.

2. Cantabria, Spain

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Mist rises as the sun sets on San Vicente de la Barquera, one of Cantabria's many picturesque towns © Google images

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

The invitingly green region of Cantabria is one of Spain’s unexpected treasures: a land of wild, sandy beaches, mist-shrouded mountains, enchanting villages like Santillana del Mar and Comillas, lost-in-time churches hewn from the Ebro River’s sandstone banks, and some of Europe’s finest prehistoric cave art.

Gateway to the region, the lively port of Santander has revitalized its waterfront with the opening of the Centro Botín – renowned architect Renzo Piano’s startlingly modernist cultural centre – and this year the city welcomes new visitors thanks to the introduction of direct ferries from Ireland. Forming a jaw-dropping backdrop to it all, Spain’s oldest national park, Picos de Europa, celebrates its centennial this summer, prompting a flurry of events, and offering another reason to explore the jagged peaks, alpine meadows and limestone gorges which lie to the west.

3. Friesland, the Netherlands

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Historic houses line the canals of Leeuwarden, the provincial capital of little-visited Friesland © Shahid Khan / Shutterstock

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

Most people visiting the Netherlands make a beeline for Amsterdam, but this year the province of Friesland is stepping into the limelight. It joins its capital Leeuwarden, a small city with a thriving cafe culture, eclectic shopping and canals lined with historic houses, as European Capital of Culture in 2018. The city is going all out with a program of installations, festivals and events, including a major exhibition in the Fries Museuminspired by one of Leeuwarden’s best-known former residents: artist M.C. Escher.

Beyond the city, fertile fields criss-crossed by dykes frame a new art route – Sense of Place – that will celebrate the region’s beguiling landscape, a highlight of which is the peaceful quartet of islands in the Unesco World Heritage-listed Wadden Sea, the perfect spot to escape amid sand dunes, long beaches and tidal flats.

4. Kosovo

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The Ottomen-era city of Prizren is one of Kosovo's up-and-coming spots © milosk50 / Shutterstock

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

Continually mentioned as an on-the-cusp destination, tiny Kosovo, wedged between two mountain ranges in the heart of the Balkans, has somehow stayed below the radar of most travellers. But with the country celebrating 10 years of (albeit disputed) independence in 2018, that looks set to change.

Coursing with energy, the world’s second-newest nation also boasts Europe’s youngest median population – and it’s their verve fuelling its development. The Kosovan section of the Balkans-spanning Via Dinarica hiking trail showcases the country’s peak-laden landscape to dramatic effect; more film fans each summer flock to Dokufest, an acclaimed festival in the sublime Ottoman-era city of Prizren; and when the trekking and movie-going ends, the burgeoning wine region of Rahovec beckons with more than a dozen vineyards.

5. Provence, France

Image result for Provence's drop-dead gorgeous coastline conceals a series of dreamy coves

Provence's drop-dead gorgeous coastline conceals a series of dreamy coves called calanques © sam74100 / Getty Images

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

Nowhere embodies the French l’art de vivre like Provence. Indulge your romantic side among the lavender fields and olive groves that have long captured the world’s artistic imagination; unwind on a coast blessed with charming towns and turquoise calanques(hidden, steep-sided coves); explore chic Aix-en-Provence and bustling Marseille, which offer cool back-street bars, Michelin-starred eateries and a grittier, contemporary arts scene.

The arts continue to flourish here this year with the opening of the Fondation Carmignac exhibition space on Île de Porquerolles, plus an impressive artistic programme taking over the refurbished railway warehouses at the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Luma in Arles. Getting to Provence will be even easier too as Eurostar reopens a direct route from London St Pancras International to Avignon and Marseille, offering services up to four days a week.

6. Dundee, Scotland

Image result for The opening of the V&A Dundee is the first phase of the Scottish city's radical reinvention

The opening of the V&A Dundee is the first phase of the Scottish city's radical reinvention © Ross Fraser McLean / V&A

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

With the opening of the newest branch of the V&A this September, Dundee is a city with an eye on the future. Perched at the edge of Craig Harbour, architect Kengo Kuma’s angular concrete structure, which draws inspiration from the contours of a Scottish cliff face, will be the country’s leading centre for design, showcasing 300 years of innovation.

Remarkable ideas deserve a remarkable home and this space-age museum is the first step in a £1 billion, 30-year regeneration project that builds on Dundee’s Unesco City of Design award in 2014. The redevelopment will transform the historic waterfront, providing a social ‘living room’ at the edge of the silvery River Tay, while further fuelling a creative scene that increasingly attracts some of the UK’s most visionary talent.

7. Small Cyclades, Greece

Image result for Traditional fishing boats bob in the shallows of Koufonisia, the best-known of the Small Cyclades

Traditional fishing boats bob in the shallows of Koufonisia, the best-known of the Small Cyclades © Nicole Kwiatkowski / Shutterstock

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

Scattered in the Aegean Sea between Naxos and Amorgos, the Small Cyclades are off the radar of most visitors to this charmed part of the world, although one of them – Koufonisia – has become an increasingly sizeable blip for in-the-know travellers. Head to these beauties for a taste of the Greek Islands as they were decades ago, especially on Iraklia, Schinousa and Donousa.

Their charm lies in pristine, one-taverna beaches, a slow pace of life and a rare sense of timelessness – the ideal ingredients for switching off. Don’t take too long to visit though: more high-speed ferry companies are adding the Small Cyclades to their schedules, particularly Koufonisia, the rising star with seductive beaches and a long, whitewashed main street lined with restaurants and cafes.

8. Vilnius, Lithuania

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Cafes in Stikliu Street in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius © Go Vilnius

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors 

The other two Baltic states have been hogging the attention in recent years, but Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, has been quietly staging an alternative show. Its fascinating yet sometimes harrowing history remains palpable, from its splendid Baroque Old Town to painful memories of a WWII-era Jewish ghetto, but this is a city with a youthful energy, and it’s on an undeniable upswing.

Understated cool hangs in the air: regenerated artists’ neighbourhood Užupis boasts new creative spaces, while a flourishing craft beer scene complements a clutch of New Nordic-inspired restaurants to rival many across the Baltic Sea. This year marks the centenary of Lithuania’s Act of Independence, with year-long celebrations including a rousing song festival throughout July; a hundred years on, Vilnius has found its confident, quirky voice – and it’s only a matter of time before the world cottons on.

9. Vipava Valley, Slovenia

Image result for Slovenia's Vipava Valley attracts in-the-know wine lovers who want to get off the beaten track

Slovenia's Vipava Valley attracts in-the-know wine lovers who want to get off the beaten track © Mny-Jhee / Getty Images

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

Peppered with terracotta-tiled hamlets and gothic spires, and lined with grapevines stretching along gentle slopes, it would be easy to mistake the Vipava Valley for a rustic Tuscan idyll. But these fertile winelands, bounded by steep karst plateaus to the north and south, are still remarkably undiscovered – and they’re hiding in plain sight, just west of Ljubljana.

Vines have been cultivated in Slovenia for millennia, but today this is a land of boutique winemakers whose experimental varietals and techniques are producing outstanding results and attracting adventurous oenophiles. The valley is best explored on two wheels: local-led cycle tours pick their way down quiet lanes between vines, pausing at wineries for tastings and conversation with the makers.

10. Tirana, Albania

Image result for The bright colours of Tirana's apartment blocks are an eye-catching reminder of its regeneration

The bright colours of Tirana's apartment blocks are an eye-catching reminder of its regeneration © Google images

 

© Mapbox© OpenStreetMap contributors

One would be hard-pressed to imagine a better-placed travel hub than Tirana, which sits between the Adriatic Coast and the Albanian Alps. But this is no gateway town; rather, it’s a vigorous metropolis that has undergone a transformation thanks to its former mayor (now Albania’s prime minister), who had drab buildings painted in primary colours, encouraged commuters to eschew their cars for bikes, and placed greater emphasis on the city’s green spaces. The result is compelling.

A typical day might include catching a cable car from the centre to the city’s peak, Mount Dajti, for panoramic views, lingering over a slow-food experience at a local bistro, and then a night-time tour of the cocktail lounges and designer boutiques of the fashionable Blloku neighbourhood, once the territory of corrupt communist bosses.

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