Have you ever travelled to a new place but felt like you were surrounded by more tourists than locals? This, usually, is a telltale sign that the destination is experiencing some degree of overtourism. Overtourism doesn’t just affect the authenticity of a destination; it can negatively impact the lives of locals, cause damage to the natural environment, and even erode the destination’s historic heritage. Rent and restaurant prices can increase at a higher rate, noise and light pollution can be greater, littering can be widespread, and local wildlife and cultural experiences can be exploited. Overtourism can happen anywhere, from Venice and Cinque Terre in Italy, to Peru’s Machu Pichu, Boracay in the Philippines, and even Mount Everest in Nepal.
One of the best ways to avoid being caught up in overtourism is, unsurprisingly, by shaking up your holiday plans and not limiting yourself to visiting just those cities that already welcome hordes of tourists. Those with their eye on Europe for their next holiday have a smorgasbord of city and destination swaps to pick from. Ahead are just a handful of the possible alternatives you may want to add to your European itinerary.
The Italian Lakes
Venice is one of the most visited cities in Europe, and it’s become one of the poster children for overtourism in the 21st century. In fact, on any given day during the high season, Venice can have more tourists than residents wandering its streets and canals. If it’s the water that draws you to Venice, you can enjoy a similar Italian getaway by heading to the lakes of northern Italy. Lake Como is arguably the most popular among visitors (including a spate of celebrities and royalty), and Lake Garda and Lake Maggiore can both promise more peaceful settings than Venice. Much like gondolas are a favourite experience for tourists in Venice, heading out onto the water is among the top things to do here, too. It is the best way to take in the region’s stunning scenery and admire the ornate villas scattered around the lakes.
Or Ljubljana, Slovenia
Cross over the border from Italy into Slovenia to take in scenery reminiscent of some of Venice’s best features. The capital Ljubljana is awash with river canals, historic bridges and colourful buildings similar to what you’d see on the Venetian islands. Walks along the canals are a beautiful way to spend a day in the city, or there are bicycle paths for those wanting to get about on two wheels. Much of Ljubljana is also a car traffic-restricted zone. Some of the top attractions in the city include Triple Bridge, Ljubljana Castle, and the Baroque-style Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. Slovenia’s famous Lake Bled is also a quick train journey away from the capital.
Barcelona may be the capital of Spain’s Catalonia region, but it isn’t the only place you can learn about Catalan culture. The smaller city of Tarragona, located about an hours’ drive away from Barcelona, sits on the Mediterranean Sea and boasts just as much excellent food, historic landmarks, winding medieval laneways and Gaudi architecture as Barcelona. Ancient Roman ruins are another major jure for Tarragona and the city is home to the second most important Roman site in Spain – something unique that you won’t see around the centre of Barcelona.
Or San Sebastian
San Sebastian, in the Basque region of Spain’s north, is certainly not an undiscovered destination but it still maintains a less frenetic atmosphere than Barcelona, especially if you visit out of the high season. The town has several beaches along the Bay of Biscay and these stretches of sand definitely rival those found in the Spanish capital. Plus, San Sebastian is an ideal destination for foodies, thanks to its incredible restaurant scene, pintxos bars and proximity to vineyards. It’s also a quick car ride to the bustling (but not too touristy) city of Bilbao.
France’s third most populated city Lyon is teeming with things to do, and it sees only a fraction of the tourist numbers that Paris does. And while Paris may get the lion’s share of recognition for its bistros and bakeries, Lyon is the true gastronomic capital of France. Sit down to a table at one of the traditional restaurants called bouchons to get a true taste of Lyonnaise cuisine, such as coq au vin, saucisson de Lyon, and Lyonnaise potatoes. In between meals, there are plenty of sights to see. And despite Lyon’s landmarks not being as internationally renowned as the icons of Paris, the city’s gorgeous architecture encompasses an endless selection of museums and historic sites – Basilique Notre Dame de Fourviere, Museum of Fine Arts of Lyon, and the streets of Vieux Lyon.
Reims is a small city that is only a stone’s throw away from the French capital – about a 90-minute drive or 40 minutes’ journey by train. The architecture in Reims is akin to what you’d see around Paris, such as Reims Cathedral and the adjoining Palace of Tau – both closely resembled Notre-Dame before it was damaged in 2019. Reims is located in the Champagne region of France, so it’s also an excellent base if you’re hoping to do some vineyard hopping. Tour the champagne houses of Mumm, Tattinger or Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin, among others.
Delft and The Hague
Amsterdam’s canals, history and rich culture draw in thousands of visitors, but the Dutch capital isn’t the only place to experience these things in northwestern Europe. Delft and its neighbour The Hague may not immediately come to mind for many international visitors, but their canals and traditional architecture closely resemble Amsterdam. Delft also has its own form of pottery, which sets the city apart from its more famous Dutch neighbour. Delftware is famous around the world for its signature blue-and-white designs and it makes an excellent souvenir from the Netherlands.
Or Ghent, Belgium
Head further south into Belgium’s Flanders region, which shares a very similar lifestyle to the Netherlands. Ghent is a quaint, fascinating city where you can wander along canals that are lined with colourful and narrow buildings. Some of the must-visit attractions in the city include the medieval St. Bavo’s Abbey and Gravensteen Castle. When you need of a pitstop to recharge and refuel, look to one of Ghent’s bars or craft breweries and sit down to sample some fine Belgian beers.
Rome lives up to its nickname ‘The Eternal City’ by being a timeless destination. However, its crowds can reach near-crushing numbers in the high season, making the prospect of visiting smaller Italian destinations sound even more appealing. Foodies should make a beeline for Bologna, in the Emilia-Romagna region. This city remains relatively quiet compared to the likes of Rome, Venice and Florence, and is considered as one of the gastronomic capitals of Italy. Some of the must-eats in Bologna include tortellini, mortadella, Parmigiano Reggiano and, of course, ragu Bolognese. Hang out in Piazza Maggiore, admire the Gothic design of San Petronio, look at the works inside Bologna National Gallery, and take in the view from atop Monte della Guardia.
Sicily is on the up. This island has all the history, beautiful beaches, and incredible cuisine of the Italian mainland, yet still remains relatively untapped by tourists. Flights to Sicily leave from Rome and Florence, or you can catch a ferry from a number of ports. Head to the isle’s capital, Palermo, to see its Gothic palaces and chaotic streets, or move to the east of the island to make the drive up the famed Mt. Etna. Visit small working villages and tiny villages, learn about ancient Roman ruins at the Valley of the Temples and Teatro Antico de Taormina, and sample some of Sicily’s greatest culinary contributions, such as ricotta-filled cannoli, almond or lemon granita, Modica chocolate, thick-cut pizza (sfincione), and fried rice balls (arancina).
Prague was once an underrated destination, but is now one of Europe’s most visited cities. The crowds in the Czech capital are legendary, but you can get a taste of similar Czech culture, architecture and history in Cesky Krumlov. This small town in South Bohemia is about a two-hour drive away from Prague and looks as though it was plucked from a fairytale. The old section of the town has the feel of a charming medieval village, with its centrepiece being the stunning Cesky Krumlov Castle. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the legendary Bear Moat, plus the grounds also house a historic theatre, a revolving auditorium and gorgeous gardens. Other things to do around Cesky Krumlov Head include kayaking along River Vltava or hiking Mount Klet.
Or Bratislava, Slovakia
Venture into neighbouring Slovakia if you’re keen to soak up the atmosphere of a big city. Bratislava has plenty of attractions and excellent craft beers to rival the ones you’ll find in the Czech Republic. The architecture in the city encompasses styles from medieval to Art Nouveau, with grand palaces built for nobles, a glorious castle, and minimalist builds that are a nod to Slovakia’s Communist heritage. Bratislava is a popular destination for day-trippers arriving from Vienna, however it’s worth spending more than a few hours in the city so you can really experience all it has to offer. Top attractions to visit in Bratislava include the Primatial Palace, the Presidential Palace and the Blue Church.
Dubrovnik is one of the jewels along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, and it was launched onto the tourist radar thanks to its cameos in HBO’s Game of Thrones series. The old town has especially borne the brunt of overtourism. There are plenty of other spots to soak up the delights of the Adriatic Sea if you’re looking to avoid the swarms in Dubrovnik. Zadar is located four hours’ drive north of Dubrovnik and is both a city and a county. Although is popular with international visitors, it still sees fewer tourists than its southern neighbour. See Zadar Cathedral, the Church of St. Donatus, and the collection of artefacts inside the Treasury. Soak up the sun on the steps of the Sea Organ, sample a nip of Maraska liqueur, or plan day on the sand at Kolovare, Punta Rozica, Borik or Ninska Laguna beaches.
Or Sarandë, Albania
Sarandë, Albania is another stunning spot where you’ll come across more locals than visitors. Its location on the Albanian Riviera promises visitors the lure of secluded beaches, swims in bright blue water, the archaeological site at Butrint, and the natural phenomenon of the Blue Eye Spring. It is a holiday haven for residents of Tirana during the summer months, but Sarandë makes a pleasant go-to no matter the time of year – the city sees an average of 300 sunny days per year. When you’ve seen your pick of the sights and are keen for a day excursion, you could even take a 30-minute ferry ride to the gorgeous island of Corfu, Greece.
What If You Still Want To Visit These Busy Cities?
Moving away from the main tourist path is great, but is almost inevitable that you find yourself in at least one of the world’s most visited cities throughout your travels. After all, you can only see the Eiffel Tower in Paris or tour the Vatican in Rome. Those eager to make minimal contributions to overtourism in major cities can do so with some simple steps and swaps.
Make the most of carbon offset programs
Carbon offset programs are an excellent way to travel mindfully and take action in reducing the carbon footprint of your trip. These programs support conservation and environmental projects that work to neutralise the impacts that overtourism has on the planet.
Travel outside of peak periods
Overtourism peaks during a destination’s high season. Travelling outside of this period means cities are quieter and there is less stress on public transport networks, tourist attractions and restaurants. Planning your visit for during low season also means you are more likely get a more authentic picture of a destination.
Keep your spends local
If possible, try to avoid chain restaurants and shops while travelling overseas. Instead, support the regional economy by spending with small businesses, including restaurants, cafes, and experiences and tours operated by local guides.