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Monument and sculptures in a green space

Europe's secret holiday destinations

So now is probably not the time to be squeezing into the Sistine Chapel with 2,000 other tourists (yes, it really does get that many in one go). But that’s OK, because even Europe’s biggest holiday destinations have lesser-known, little-visited attractions that are as weird as they are wonderful. Ed Grenby explores... 

01/11/2020Updated 26/05/2023

The Raft of Lampedusa sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor lies on the Lanzarote sea bed (@jasondecairestaylor)


Everyone knows Lanzarote means serious beach business but, rather than spending the day on a towel, grab some SCUBA gear and head waterwards to the country’s most unusual attraction. The Museo Atlántico is Europe’s only underwater art gallery, sunk 14m beneath the waves off Playa Blanca. It’s accessible to snorkellers, but only really reveals its true, ahem, depths to scuba divers. Even those who’ve never dived can be taught the basics and experience the museum in a day, though, and it’s worth the faff: the sculptures, by Briton Jason deCaires Taylor, are no mere gimmicks, but truly haunting works of art.

If you like your fun a little shallower, try the delicious natural rock pools at nearby Los Charcones (look out for the spooky abandoned hotel). And why not abandon hotels yourself and book a spacious villa for all the family?

Take off to Lanzarote

The Santorini cable car connects the port with the town of Fira and can carry 1,200 people an hour (Getty Images)


What is it that draws the Heidi Klums and Alessandra Ambrosios of this world to the ever-popular Greek island of Santorini? Well, we don’t want to stereotype supermodels or anything, but we have a feeling it ain’t the isle’s Tomato Industrial Museum. More fool them, though: the idiosyncratic little former factory on the island’s south coast is the best way to get inside Santorini’s history (tomatoes were the island’s biggest business before tourism and are still what the place is famous for, if you ask the Greeks). And attached to the museum is the Santorini Arts Factory, home to some of the Cyclades’ hippest music, theatre and visual arts events (as well as a shop selling the kind of chic Greek wares Klum would love).

Other nearby under-the-radar unmissables are the ruins of Akrotiri, a mini Minoan Pompeii preserved by the same volcanic lava that destroyed it (and a possible inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis); and the rickety old cable-car linking the town of Fira with its Old Port for great, if slightly unnerving, views.

Take off to Santorini

Carciofi alla giudìa, aka Roman-Jewish fried artichokes (Adobe Stock)


Pizza… pasta… gelato… and repeat. Stick to what you know in Rome’s restaurants, and – well, you’ll be sticking to what you know. Go a little off piste, however, and you have the ingredients of a truly memorable trip. Carciofi alla giudìa (artichokes fried in the style of the city’s mediaeval Jewish Ghetto) has been the culinary connoisseur’s hottest ticket for the last few years, and you should also try stuffed fried rice-ball supplì, battered salt-cod baccalà and anything involving quinto quarto (offal, like everything else, sounds better in Italian than English).

But for the full not-for-tourists experience, seek out pajata. Vegetarians should look away now, as it involves the intestines of calves tied into little spirals so that the milk in their stomachs is retained and transforms into the most exquisitely meaty-cheesy concoction when cooked. Try it at Ristorante La Tavernaccia da Bruno in Trastevere.

Take off to Rome

Buchstaben Museum (Museum of Letters) is devoted to preserving and documenting letterforms (@vanishingberlin)


The German capital, of course, is home to some of the most historically significant, architecturally unique and morally important museums and memorials in the world – and that David Hasselhoff one. Situated in a cellar beneath The Circus Hostel in the middle of town, it’s small but… big enough.

Other offbeat finds include museums – all of them bizarrely brilliant – devoted to robotic monsters, magic, The Ramones, ‘Rescued Letters’ (typographical signage), ‘Unheard-of Things’ (random objects with made-up stories attached) and, indeed, simply ‘Things’ (mass-produced trinkets of the 20th and 21st centuries).

You’ll want a lie-down after wending your way round that lot, so try the Liquidrom: it’s a vast spa complex, odd-looking on the outside and downright surreal on the inside, where the surprisingly relaxing moonbase aesthetic reaches its height in the otherworldly saltwater flotation pool with its underwater music and lights.

Take off to Berlin

Old Woman and Young Man (Mother and Son) at Frogner Park (aka Vigeland Sculpture Park)  (Roberto Meazza)
Opening image: granite Monolith at Vigeland Sculpture Park (Frank Eivind Rundholt)


Wrap up warm, we’re starting with a go on Norway’s most popular toboggan run, the Korketrekkeren (it means ‘corkscrew’, so don’t say you weren’t warned). You can hire a sled, and the track runs conveniently between two Metro stops, so no need to climb uphill.

Staying outdoors, it’s off to Vigeland Sculpture Park, popular with locals for summer picnics, but atmospheric year-round thanks to its strange but moving mid-20th-century monolithic statues by Gustav Vigeland. Male and female forms fight, unite, face death, reach out to the divine, and speak powerfully to us of the human condition (parents will find Man Attacked By Babies particularly resonant!).

If you want to go way off-beam, hit the self-built museum/mausoleum of Vigeland’s brother, Emanuel, for its dark, echoing atmosphere and sexually explicit murals. Or, for something (slightly) saner, try The Mini Bottle Gallery, where you’ll find 53,000 miniatures (like those you get on planes or in hotel mini-bars) on display. Sadly, they’re all empty. Happily, there’s an actual bar, too…

Take off to Oslo