A European vacation is, for most of us, once-in-a-lifetime. Of course there is France, Spain, Britain, Germany, and all those countries that readily come to mind when we say “Europe,” but let’s think outside the box. How often do you think of Sweden when considering a European trip? How about Croatia? Malta and Georgia (yes, there is a country named Georgia) are located on the continent as well. Does Albania sound exciting? Here we’ll explore five countries that most would-be travelers might never consider, and who knows? Maybe some families will decide to take a break from the ordinary and discover the parts of Europe that most of us never get to see.

(1) Sweden

In our minds we group Sweden with Norway, Denmark, and other Scandinavian countries and it does indeed have a Scandinavian flavor, but it’s actually very unique in its own way. In fact, all European countries with a long and exciting history seem to capture the imagination. Sweden was one of the “Viking countries,” one of the home-bases for those fierce and determined warriors who “came to life” in our school textbooks and history lessons. One of the cities most connected to the Vikings and the early Middle Ages is Uppsala. Although visitors won’t find remnants of Viking days, there are lots of things to see like museums, gardens, and even a castle. For something unique, check out the Old Uppsala Train Station.

While in Sweden, don’t miss the popular Stockholm. If you only have a few days in Europe, this is *not* the right choice because there are various activities to consider. Like many European countries, Stockholm is full of museums of different genres. If stuffy museums aren’t your thing, the open-air museum may be more to your liking. One beautiful historic attraction is the Drottningholm Palace and Court Theater, constructed in the 17th century. This elegant mansion makes a wonderful photo backdrop and is great to explore. The Royal Palace is another “romantic” option for those who love historic architecture.

(2) Malta.

malta

Malta (how many people know it’s located in Europe?) has a completely different ambiance in a few separate ways. Not only is it little-known, but it is a beautiful European destination with old temples, stunning religious structures, and lovely waterways. One city not to miss is Valletta. Don’t forget Mnajdra (this should be an interesting pronunciation!) while in the area. Believed to have been constructed over a thousand years before the Pyramids of Giza, Mnajdra can immerse you in ancient history. Parts of the walls and the entranceway are amazingly well-preserved considering how many centuries this temple has seen.

There are some wonderful churches in Valletta, such as St. Paul’s Anglican Church and the oddly-named Church of St. Paul’s Shipwreck, but one of the most interesting attractions in the city is Fort St. Elmo. If you’re not wary of photographing the view from the sky it will be an amazing picture. Even up-close and personal, the fort is an important attraction. Another attraction option is the Grand Masters’ Palace, associated with the mysterious Knights of St. John. For those interested in this order, check out St. John’s Co-Cathedral to learn more about the knights.

(3) Albania

is one of the continent’s little secrets. Visitors may be surprised to discover this is actually a European country and unfortunately doesn’t get the attention it deserves. Don’t forget to visit the capital city of Tirana while trekking this cultural gem. If you’ve never heard of Tirana and what it has to offer, here are some suggestions: Skanderberg Square, the Natural History Museum, and an ancient place known as the Fortress of Justinian. The fortress dates from the 500s AD and is a terrific stop for history lovers. Skanderberg Square is the right choice if crowds and noisy street corners are preferable to quiet retreats.

(4) Georgia

Many of us have seen the state, but few have seen the country! While visiting Europe, the first stop on a trip to Georgia should always be Tbilisi. One of the most important reasons is the architecture. Narikhala Fortress and Sioni Cathedral Church are both located in this major city; visit Narikhala to see the last vestiges of ancient days. The Ministry of Road Building is one of the strangest buildings Americans could ever hope to see. Even with the historic places, there are many modern structures as well, row upon row of newer homes and hotels.

Vardzia is another Georgian attraction that all visitors should work into their itinerary. This is actually a series of dwellings hewn from the rock, a type of “town” where religious groups lived a separate life from their fellow human beings. The complex was built in the late 12th century and occupied until the 1500s. Don’t be surprised to get a very peaceful feeling here away from the bustle of city life. Travelers can reflect on spirituality, faith, and tranquility; at least until it’s time to explore more of the country.

(5) Croatia.

Anyone who has visited this beautiful country will probably recommend Dubrovnik. This city is recognized by its row upon row of red roofs (broken up only occasionally by a large church or other building) and its historical value. Even the old walls have stood for centuries. Don’t miss the oldest part of the city known appropriately as Old Town. If churches and other religious buildings are of particular interest, the Franciscan Monastery should be the first stop. The monastery, especially the inner courtyard, is a tranquil and beautiful complex that puts one in mind of the Spanish courtyards of Granada.

Still have some time in Croatia?

Check out Zagreb. Nature-lovers will enjoy the Black Marsh nature reserve, city-trekkers can explore Upper Town and King Tomislav Square, and religious history enthusiasts can find St. Mark’s Church and the Cathedral of the Assumption. The cathedral almost has a Notre Dame flavor, especially in its Gothic look and towering front entrance. The Church of St. Mark is interesting in a different way; two huge flags decorate its roof.

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