Explore the Scenic Underrated Destinations

The world's top cities inevitably draw big crowds. But there are lots of other destinations that have just as much to offer. So you want somewhere great to go on a summer holiday but don't fancy sharing it with lots of other people? Sounds impossible in this jet-setting age, but there are still some great places that fit the bill. While not exactly off the beaten track, our top five destination options for Europe holidays, give you a little more space to breathe without stinting on world-beating attractions. Just remember, this is our little secret.

1. Hvar, Croatia

Yes, this is the island where Prince Harry fell into a pool. So no, Hvar isn't exactly remote. But it's much less crowded than Dubrovnik, where there isn't room to swing a cat when the cruise ships dock. Despite its glitzy reputation, Hvar Town has a fair choice of mid-range hotels for bargain hunters, as well as hostels and a campsite just to the north.

However, if you want to escape from it all during your holidays to Croatia, you might want to abandon the island's capital for Stari Grad (see below). The island's at its very best in spring when it's aromatic with lavender and thyme, and it's also suitable for an autumn holiday as the sun still shines well into October. 

Best for: Wine tasting in the interiors and mega-yacht watching in the marinas. 

2. Lugano, Switzerland

Lugano is smaller than some of the more famous Swiss lakeside towns, but that only adds to its charm. You have everything you want from a Swiss holiday, all within easy reach, which makes it a good option for families. If you're into flowers, spring is the best time to visit. Camelias and magnolias thrive in the subtropical climate – and so do Swiss bankers, who have added some striking modern buildings to the town skyline.

The best place to experience this mix of lush greenery and civilised attractions is the Parco Civio-Ciano, a lakeside park where you can wander flower beds and copses, with museums to check out and play areas for kids. The town is overlooked by Monte Bre, officially the sunniest mountain in Switzerland. And what makes it even more friendly is the fact that there's a funicular to take you to the top, so you can enjoy the views without breaking a sweat. 

Best time to visit: Walking down from the summit of Monte Bre. 

3. Bologna, Italy

Bologna stacks up against any Italian town when it comes to Renaissance glories. The Piazza Maggiore features an impressive basilica (fancy name for church) and several striking palazzi (fancy name for a townhouse). Maybe the town's dignitaries were trying to compensate for something because Bologna also has more than its fair share of tall, thrusting towers. Currently, you can only go inside one of them, the Torre de Asinelli.

If you're up for climbing the nearly 500 steps, you can see northwards to the Plains, which aren't plain at all, with their rivers and meadows. This is a destination where you can steep yourself in Italian culture all year round. In the autumn when thick fogs rise from the Po delta, the medieval town centre takes on a cosy feel thanks to its miles of ancient arcades. And that nip in the air will only sharpen your appetite for some hearty Northern Italian cuisine, whether that's spaghetti and meatballs or veal schnitzel. 

Best for: Window shopping between great meals and maybe taking a pasta class. 

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4. Tavira, Portugal

Tavira provides all the glamour of the Algarve without the hectic tourist activity of more famous resorts like Albufeira or Vilamoura. This is especially true if you go there early in late February or early March. Sun worshippers will want to take a five-minute ferry boat from town to Tavira Island, a little sliver of an islet that offers some of the region's most tranquil, unspoilt beaches. It's popular with nudists – but if you glimpse something pink in the corner of your eye, don't panic because it might just be a flock of flamingos.

The town's good for a bit of culture too. One of the main historic sites is its Roman Bridge. Funny thing, it's not actually Roman, but it's still great for a photo op. For the perfect panoramic selfie backdrop, though, try Tavira castle. It mostly fell to bits in an earthquake in 1755, but you can explore what is left for free and go scrambling up the stone turrets. Probably just as well that you can't visit the ruins after dark as they're said to be haunted by the ghost of a kidnapped Moorish princess – spooky! 

Best for: Visiting Tavira Island by ferry boat or aqua taxi.

5. Utrecht, Holland

Utrecht has everything Amsterdam has – museums, canals, art – minus the seedy side. Among other things, it's home to the Dom bell tower. Even if you don't relish the views from the top, it's 465 steps offer one helluva buns of steel workout. The town is divided into six central districts, each more laid back than the next. The quietest of all is the Stadhuis District, a handy place to browse for uniquely Dutch gifts and keepsakes.

If you're travelling with kids who badly need to burn off some energy, the tourism department has come up with a bunch of recommended cycle routes, ranging from 40-minute excursions for younger children to deep forays around the local waterways and nature parks that last several hours. Whichever itinerary you choose, it will probably include regular stops for cupcakes and other things to eat and drink.  

Best forKeen bikers who want a nice mix of town and country to check out on two wheels.

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