Lesser-known European attractions where you can avoid the crowds

Tourists have returned to Europe’s best cities in droves this summer and are converging on the continent’s most famous attractions.

So don’t expect to find space and serenity at must-see sites such as the Colosseum in Rome, Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, Park Guell in Barcelona, ​​Hyde Park in London or the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. .

Luckily, if you want to avoid the hordes, each of these towns offers equally impressive and much quieter alternatives.

Barcelona: Modernist Sant Pau Recinte

Although he has been dead for almost a century, the Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi continues to wield enormous influence in Barcelona, ​​in terms of the city’s appearance, artistic heritage and tourist appeal. From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, Catalan genius decorated the city with a series of avant-garde buildings.

Seven of its most famous structures in Barcelona have been collectively listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They include several of Barcelona’s most visited attractions: the eccentric Parc Guell, the art hall Casa Mila and the breathtaking Sagrada Familia cathedral.

Much less known and visited is the unique place where Gaudi died, known as “the most beautiful hospital in the world”. It is a magnificent complex designed by the architect who taught and inspired Gaudi.

Sant Pau Recinte Modernista was built in the early 1900s and designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner in a brash but beautiful architectural style he helped create and Gaudi relied on, Catalan modernism.

Embellished by intricate mosaics, splendid stained glass, intricate stonework and a vibrant color palette, it now acts as an open-air museum and art gallery, and is immensely photogenic.

Rome: Circus Maximus

Rome's Circus Maximus was one of the largest sports stadiums ever built.  Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Few tourist attractions are as instantly recognizable as Rome’s 1,900-year-old Colosseum. After all these years, this huge oval-shaped amphitheater still dominates the ancient center of the Italian capital. It once hosted raucous crowds of up to 50,000 people, who came to watch bloody gladiatorial contests and public executions.

Yet, in ancient times, the Colosseum was not even close to being the largest place in Rome. Just 600 meters to the south are the remains of an installation that overshadowed it. Designed to accommodate 250,000 spectators, the Circus Maximus is one of the largest sports stadiums to ever exist.

As I stood in the center of this 600 meter long by 190 meter wide site, I could imagine the startling roar of such a crowd. Although a small portion of the original structure is intact, its sunken form and surrounding shoreline remain, making it easy to conjure up mental images of the chariot races and other sporting events that once took place here. .

Paris: Saint-Merri church

The Church of Saint-Merri in Paris features intricate window tracery, ribbed vaulting and some of the most spectacular stained glass in the city.  Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Notre-Dame is now only partially accessible to visitors, due to ongoing restoration efforts after the devastating 2019 fire that caused more than 1 billion dirhams in damage to this famous cathedral.

Yet when I visited Paris recently, I still saw crowds of tourists posing for photos in the church forecourt. This outdoor space is the only part of Notre Dame currently accessible, with the cathedral not expected to fully reopen until 2024.

A great alternative to Notre-Dame is just 700 meters to the north. Although equally spectacular, the Church of St. Merri was still surprisingly empty when I visited. Built nearly 500 years ago, this grand church has an intimidating Gothic exterior.

It also has many interior design features in common with Notre Dame, including intricate window tracery, ribbed vaulting, and some of the most spectacular stained glass in the city. Saint-Merri’s most famous feature, however, is its 14th-century bell, which is the oldest in Paris and still rings every day in the city.

London: Holland Park

Holland Park in London is a quieter option than Hyde Park.  Photo: Ronan O'Connell

A sprawling area in the heart of London, Hyde Park is not only one of the most beautiful green spaces in the city, but also attracts tourists due to its royal connection. It is the site of Kensington Palace, the former home of the late Princess Diana. Long lines of tourists can often be seen outside this royal residence, the gardens and interior of which can be explored.

Just a mile to the west is the neglected but equally scenic Holland Park. This too was once home to a royal residence, Cope Castle. Today, it’s nearly 22 hectares of public parkland that is wonderfully serene despite being in the middle of one of the busiest cities in the world.

Compared to Hyde Park, which is decorated by wide open lawns, Holland Park is more densely vegetated. This means there are plenty of intimate nooks where visitors can picnic or take a nap while feeling truly secluded. What impressed me most about Holland Park, however, were its two main gardens.

Its traditional English-style flower garden is covered in colorful carnations and tulips. Meanwhile, its classic Japanese garden is more subdued but equally attractive thanks to its carefully arranged ponds, waterfalls, bridges and pebble beds.

Amsterdam: Amsterdam Museum

The Amsterdam Museum is a modern facility that has 100,000 objects and works of art.  Photo: Ronan O'Connell

Amsterdam’s most visited attraction, the Rijksmuseum is a colossal facility famous for its giant collection of works of art by Dutch masters such as Van Gogh and Rembrandt. Unsurprisingly, there are people. So much so that the only way to get in is to pre-book tickets online for a specific date and time.

If you want to be able to walk straight into a museum, head to the much less crowded Amsterdam Museum. This impressive modern facility houses 100,000 objects and works of art that explain the history of the Netherlands and its capital.

The museum’s trove of Dutch royal artefacts is particularly fascinating, including vibrant artwork once painted on the royal stagecoach.

Updated: August 11, 2022, 07:29

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