6 Places Offering Shelter From the Crowds

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Greece

Instead of Santorini, Tinos

Tinos, Greece.
Maria Mavropoulou for The New York Times

The luminescent sunset in Oia at the northern tip of the Greek island of Santorini, has become one of the world’s most Instagrammable events: The fire-orange sun sinking behind an azure horizon; the sky blurring into a pearly shimmer; pink clouds tinting a whitewashed village on a volcanic cliff.

It’s a magical moment — except for the thousand or so sweaty bodies packed on the narrow streets, arms extended to capture the perfect shot.

Santorini has been struggling with overtourism for years, a victim of its own success after the island, and the Greek government, sought to lure tourists back following an eight-year financial crisis. Now this idyllic destination has reached a saturation point.

[If Venice is the capital of overtourism, then its quieter neighbor, Treviso, may be its antidote. Read more about both cities here.]

At the height of recent vacation seasons, cruise ships disgorged up to 15,000 travelers a day — most headed to Oia for that sunset, or the nearby town of Fira, with its view over Santorini’s volcanic caldera. Local authorities have been scrambling to address the issue, mainly by capping cruise passengers to 8,000 a day. But with tourism in Greece expected to set a record this year — 33 million visitors flooded the country in 2018 — it’s worth reflecting on whether you really need that Santorini sunset pic.

A more authentic Greece — the one that Santorini offered before the crowds — can be found in the Cycladic haven of Tinos. With its own enchanting sunsets and rugged charm, this under-the-radar gem is an alluring alternative.

A two-hour ferry ride from Santorini and a half-hour from Mykonos, Tinos is the laid-back sister to Greece’s high-watt destinations. Beckoning to be explored, Tinos is dotted with villages, hidden inland to protect them from pirates during a bygone age, and an unusual network of 18th-century dovecotes perched on hillsides and above ravines. The Panagia Evangelistria church in the capital, Chora, built around what is said to be a miraculous icon, is a destination for pilgrims around the world.

Where Santorini boasts a volcano, Tinos, with its mountainous spine and unusual rock formations, is renowned for the pure white marble used since ancient times to build its houses, archways, streets, churches and fountains.

At the heart of it all is Pyrgos at Tinos’s northern tip, honeycombed with sculptors’ ateliers, picturesque paths and marble carvings framed by fuchsia bougainvillea. Visitors can take home marble artwork as souvenirs, or decide to make a base in Pyrgos to learn the art of marble carving in one of several workshops.

At the center of the island is the otherworldly landscape of Volax, scattered with boulders, some the height of small buildings. In ancient Greece, Tinos was reputed to be the home of Aeolis, the king of the winds, who whipped around the mountains and carved giant sculptures from the dark granite. To the west, Tinos’s cliffs are filled with gorgeous green marble that has been used in architectural projects at Buckingham Palace and the Louvre.

Exploring other villages is a chance to sample artichokes, capers, black squid-ink noodles and local cheeses, including Castellano, scented with the aromatic mastic plant, and Kopanisti, a pungent local cheese.

Tinos’s beaches are more expansive than Santorini’s, and under the blazing sun, the turquoise sea is calm. And as night falls, the sunset from one of Tinos’s mountainside villages is about as breathtaking as a sunset on Santorini — minus the hordes.

Liz Alderman

The Netherlands

Instead of Amsterdam, Delft and The Hague

Delft, the Netherlands.
Joann Pai for The New York Times

The view from the top of the twisting, 376-step staircase in the tower of Delft’s 15th-century Nieuwe Kerk is worth the climb. On a clear day, the view seems to encompass all of South Holland: the Rotterdam skyline, The Hague and its port, and, just beyond the horizon, Keukenhof and its tulips.

Absent from the view is Amsterdam, one of the most visited cities in Northern Europe. With its museums, canal ring and energetic night life, Amsterdam remains the big Dutch attraction, but for many, the crowds — and their sometimes loutish behavior — are destroying the very thing they came to see.

In 2017 Amsterdam was visited by 19 million people, two million more than live in the entire country. The city has a particular problem with tourists on a tight budget — many arriving via low-cost airlines from Britain, France, Germany and beyond, and staying at Airbnbs (which the city is trying to curb), in hostels or in their cars and, spending much of their time partying in the red-light district. There the crowds get so dense that on weekend summer nights rescue workers often can’t get to people who fall sick or faint.

Last year, the city reminded its visitors how to behave (and threatened steep fines to those who ignored the warnings). In March it started banning tours of the red-light district, and since last October, the tourism board has stopped promoting Amsterdam and is encouraging visitors to visit other Dutch destinations.

Among those destinations are two that can be easily combined: Delft and, about 10 miles away, The Hague, the seat of Dutch government (as well as the royal court). Both are ideal for visitors looking for great museums, canals, wild North Sea beaches — and no crowds.

A medieval trade city, Delft’s main canal circles the old town. Smaller canals thread through the preserved old town. The water network can be explored on guided boat tours or on paddle boats. Delft caters mostly to locals and Dutch visitors. Though the open-air antique market draws people on Saturdays in the summer, the pace remains leisurely.

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Delft has drawn international visitors since the movie “Girl with a Pearl Earring” brought attention to one of the town’s most famous sons: Johannes Vermeer. More about the life and works of the 17th-century painter can be found at the Vermeer Centrum Delft, right off the main market square. Another museum, Prinsenhof Delft Museum, has an impressive permanent collection of paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Delft is also famous for its blue-and-white porcelain. The Royal Delft, founded in the 17th century, is the sole remaining traditional earthenware factory in town. Its artisans still craft and hand-paint so-called Royal Delftware, and visitors can tour the factory and watch demonstrations.

But for serious museum goers, The Hague cannot be beat.

Mauritshuis, the city’s best-known museum (it houses the original “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” Fabritius’s “Goldfinch,” and an impressive collection of Rembrandt paintings), is right next to the Binnenhof, the medieval royal court that is now the site of the country’s government, and partially open to visitors on guided tours. The Gemeentemuseum is known for its works by Piet Mondrian — the biggest in the world, as well as works by Degas, Monet, Picasso and van Gogh, among others. The museum Escher in Het Paleis, right next to the American Embassy, offers a tour of the graphic artist’s life and works.

Looking for night life? Between Easter and October, 75 beach bars are set up on a seven-mile stretch of wild north beach in the neighborhood of Scheveningen. (Those who want to see the Wild Dutch Sea side, nearby Oostduinpark is a perfect place for a hike).

And if you want to taste the flavors of the many immigrants who have come to the Netherlands since the middle of the last century, the city has a sprawling market where you can sample olives from Greece, fruit from Turkey and bakabana from Suriname, and, of course, fresh fish from the Dutch fishing fleet whose port is just a few miles away.

Christopher F. Schuetze

Spain

Instead of Barcelona, Valencia

Ever since Barcelona’s 1888 Universal Exhibition turned the site of a massive old fortress into a splendid park, local civic leaders have been beautifying their city and luring visitors to enjoy its charms. The payoff for residents was improved infrastructure and sometimes whole new neighborhoods. After the 1992 Summer Olympics and 2004’s Universal Forum of Cultures, long stretches of urban coastline went from industrial wasteland to prime beaches.

But in 2019 — with Airbnb and other temporary rentals displacing residents; bathing-suit-clad stag parties staggering around the Cathedral of Barcelona; and cruise ships depositing thousands of day-trippers daily — the city is scrambling for a new playbook.

In 2015 hotel licenses were frozen and Airbnb was issued some of its first fines for illegal listings. A few years later, protesters bearing signs reading, “this is not a beach resort” in Catalan stood between the shimmering Mediterranean Sea and sunbathing tourists on the sand. Even prostitutes along the city’s most famously crowded boulevard, La Rambla, are unwittingly pitching in by mobbing and robbing tourists too drunk to defend themselves.

Whichever city eventually wins the title of “the next Venice,” Barcelona — with 1.6 million residents and about 30 million visitors per year — seems headed for the playoffs.

For a less frenetic dose of cosmopolitan Mediterranean charm, head 220 miles down the coast to Valencia, Spain’s third-largest city, with 800,000 residents and barely 2 million visitors per year. Founded as a retirement community for Roman soldiers, it has many of the same attributes as Barcelona — both were ancient walled cities — with a sprawling, mazelike center filled with Gothic, Romanesque, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. All styles were combined in Valencia’s Cathedral, built between the 13th and 18th centuries; architectural purists should not miss the 15th-century Silk Exchange, a Unesco World Heritage Site and a stunning reminder of the city’s mercantile importance.

Wrapped around the center is a ribbon of parks in what was once the Turia River, which was diverted in the 1950s after severe flooding. Sitting at one end of the park is the City of the Arts and the Sciences, with its extraterrestrial-looking opera house, science museum and aquarium (Europe’s largest), all designed by Santiago Calatrava.

Of not quite such recent vintage are the city’s early 20th-century modernista structures like the Central and Colón markets, among the most beautiful in Europe. There’s also IVAM, Spain’s first modern art center. Bustling neighborhoods like El Carmen and Russafa have drawn creative types from across Spain and Europe, and are appropriately packed with galleries, cool cafes and engaging street art.

Of late there has been a hotel boom with the Marques House opening steps away from the National Ceramics Museum, and the NH Collection Valencia Colón, with chic maximalist interiors by Lorenzo Castillo.

A region known as Spain’s vegetable garden and the birthplace of paella — try lunch at one of the paella palaces like La Marcelina along the Malvarossa beach — will have a lot on the menu. For a serious meal, go to Vicente Patiño’s restaurant Saiti, or the two-Michelin-star Ricard Camarena Restaurant in an old pump factory.

For 21st-century Valencians, beaches are not a battlefield but a way of life to be savored. The port built for the America’s Cup races in 2007 and 2009, and the Las Arenas Resort and Spa led an upscale revival that continues today.

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Obviously any European city with more than 300 days of sunshine a year, endless beaches, world-class culture, gastronomy and architecture is never devoid of tourists, but Valencia maintains an under-the-radar vibe and is blissfully free of masses of tourists racing from monument to monument, leaving plastic water bottles and local resentment in their wake.

Andrew Ferren

The Adriatic

Instead of Dubrovnik, Kotor

Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Susan Wright for The New York Times

Some 60 miles apart, Dubrovnik, Croatia, and Kotor, Montenegro, are both striking walled cities on the Adriatic that were once ruled by Venice. But while the former is battling overtourism, the latter is still fighting for attention.

Dubrovnik has long been Croatia’s coastal star, luring travelers before “Game of Thrones” made it a “set-jetter” destination for fans eager to visit the locations of the HBO hit. But Hollywood’s spotlight, compounded by the cruise industry’s expansion over the last decade, has driven record numbers of visitors to Dubrovnik, threatening to overrun the walled old town, where about 1,000 residents have been overwhelmed by up to ten times that many visitors daily in high season. In 2016, Unesco warned Dubrovnik that its World Heritage status was at risk unless something was done to ease the pressure.

Something has been done, namely the Respect the City campaign that now limits cruise passengers, who account for about 60 percent of the 1.2 million annual visitors, to 4,000 each morning and another 4,000 in the afternoon.

If that still sounds like too many, consider visiting Kotor. At the end of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor and ringed with mountains, Kotor echoes Dubrovnik in its old quarter, a fortress built between the 12th and 14th centuries and filled with churches, cafes and homes with terra-cotta rooftops. In 2018, Kotor received nearly 140,000 tourists, a fraction of Dubrovnik’s.

Last spring, my family and I left our rental car outside the city walls that circumscribe the pedestrian zone. Dragging our bags over the uneven stones of winding lanes, we got lost before reaching the Hotel Monte Cristo Kotor, where our room overlooked a plaza with awning-shaded cafes.

Kotor’s chief attraction is best reserved for the fit. A rough stone staircase leads approximately 900 feet up St. John’s Hill, tracing a protective wall to St. John’s Fortress, a serene spot to watch the sun set over the bay. Beyond Kotor’s fortifications, a trail with about 70 switchbacks, known as the Ladder of Kotor, zigzags some 3,000 feet up the mountains.

In town, Orthodox priests chat with parishioners outside the many churches, and charismatic cats rule the cobblestone streets (there’s even a Cats Museum). Boat tours visit Our Lady of the Rocks, a church on a bay island. Back in town, admiring Kotor’s old town architecture, including the central clock tower, built in 1602, is a pastime day or night.

After sunset, ask for a table on the patio at Bastion beside the city’s north gate to dine on local seafood. Then make your way back toward the main gate through alleys and plazas where more cats doze, children play soccer and sailors drink Niksicko Pivo beer at outdoor tables.

Both the airports in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, and Dubrovnik are a 90-minute drive from Kotor. Because Dubrovnik offers more flights than Podgorica, it and Kotor make a logical pair for those game to join the Throne throngs — and ditch them, too.

Elaine Glusac

Czech Republic

Instead of Prague, Olomouc

Few capitals in Central and Eastern Europe offer anything like Prague’s combination of picture-perfect architecture and vibrant night life. Throughout Old Town, many bars stay open until either very late or very early, depending on your point of view, with decadent subterranean clubs like Le Valmont keeping the party going until sunrise.

Such attractions have brought more tourists to the city every year, hitting 7.9 million visitors in 2018 (many of them from elsewhere in the Czech Republic), up 3.2 percent from the year before, according to the Czech Statistical Office. Although such growth seems sustainable, earning a rank of the fifth most-popular destination in Europe has come with a price: The Czech capital is often packed with tourists, especially on party-focused streets like Dlouha, where the local government has recently attempted to limit nighttime noise and public drinking.

The City of a Hundred Spires is certainly still worth a visit — just prepare yourself for the possibility of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on the busiest days at sites like St. Vitus Cathedral and Charles Bridge.

But if you do feel overwhelmed, consider a trip to Olomouc, about two hours away in the country’s eastern region of Moravia. Like Prague, Olomouc has a spot on the Unesco World Heritage list, breathtaking Gothic and Baroque buildings and a famous astronomical clock. Unlike Prague, it still has relatively few tourists. Home to 100,000 permanent residents and 21,000 university students, Olomouc offers a small-scale taste of Prague’s history and architecture, as well as plenty of college-town fun and great places to eat and drink.

Chief among them is the three-year-old restaurant Entrée, with multicourse tasting menus that start with five courses and an amuse-bouche for the equivalent of about $50, not including drinks. Under the chef Premek Forejt, Entrée slams New Nordic straight into Old Moravian, sending out updated flavors like pumpkin soup with shiso and coriander, a savory potato “strudel” alongside pan-seared sturgeon and roast lamb with cauliflower “couscous.”

Every university town also needs its budget meals. Among several good Vietnamese restaurants, a trend in the Czech lands, Codo offers an airy, uncrowded atmosphere and good pho soup, fresh spring rolls and tangy bun cha noodle bowls.

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To fuel up in the morning, pick up a flat white from the city’s best coffee roaster, Kikafe, and buy a fresh buchta bun, filled with quark (a low-fat curd cheese), or poppy seeds, or a delicious strawberry kolac tart at the nearby Dalaman bakery, then head to the city’s massive “minor” basilica on Svaty Kopecek, a large hill just outside of town. The number 11 bus will get you there in 18 minutes from the platform in front of the city’s main train station.

Although the basilica is currently undergoing renovation work, its grand collection of paintings and sculptures from renowned Baroque artists is still open to the public, and the panoramic views it offers are truly spectacular.

When you’re back, take some snaps of the Holy Trinity Column, a Baroque-era construction celebrating the end of a plague outbreak on the main square, Horni Namesti. Nearby is the astronomical clock, originally completed before 1422, but starkly refinished in the Socialist Realist style in 1955.

The best plan is probably to wander Olomouc’s walkable neighborhoods, taking in sites as you find them. The Olomouc Archdiocesan Museum has won awards for its sleek, modern design, and its small collection of religious art includes several weird reliquaries and ornate monstrances, as well as the gilded, 17th-century coach of Bishop von Troyerstein.

Come evening, you’ll find plenty of busy bars downtown. The former meat market Masne Kramy has been turned into a dozen student bars. For cocktails, try Gin & Tonic Bar, aka 47 Opic, currently home to 267 types of gin, along with some 40 brands of tonic.

Even lodgings in Olomouc rival those of the capital, at least at the budget end: the upscale hostel Long Story Short offers minimalist décor that feels like a design hotel. And in 2017, the Prague boutique hotel Miss Sophie’s opened its first branch here.

It might not exactly be a Moravian version of Athens, Ga., though it’s worth noting that Athens-founded R.E.M. does refer to Olomouc in its song “Disappear.” If the crowds in Prague get to be too much, you could do worse than to disappear here.

Evan Rail

Italy

Instead of Florence, Lucca

In the realm of Renaissance art and history, Florence is incomparable. Home to Michelangelo’s “David,” the Uffizi galleries, and Brunelleschi’s dome, the Tuscan capital is dizzyingly dense with masterpieces both artistic and architectural. It’s also swarmed with tourists.

In 2018, more than 10 million tourists visited this city of 380,000. During the sun-scorched summer season, movement through the congested center slows to a snail-like crawl. Recently, the city began instituting measures to minimize the impacts of mass tourism — fines for snacking on certain streets, an instructive #EnjoyRespectFirenze social media campaign — but Florence’s popularity shows no signs of abating.

For a glimpse of Renaissance glory with a bit more breathing room, look about 50 miles west to the city of Lucca.

Situated beside the Serchio River in northwestern Tuscany, Lucca is perhaps best known for its well-preserved city walls. Forming a perfect ring around the center, the Renaissance-era fortification was later transformed into a public park: a leafy two-and-a-half-mile elevated allée with views across green ramparts and terra-cotta rooftops. Once a prosperous hub of the silk trade, this handsome town has served as a backdrop in films and television shows, from “The Portrait of a Lady,” to a memorable “Top Gear” segment, among many others.

But beneath the camera-ready facade are charms both cultural and culinary.

On the menu, you’ll find eggy fresh pasta with rabbit ragù — or better yet, summer truffles — and raisin-studded cakes known as buccellato. (One food writer declared the local cuisine the best in Tuscany.)

Music is also central in this highbrow city, the birthplace of Giacomo Puccini. In honor of the composer, concerts are staged nightly from March through October at the Church of San Giovanni, and range from intimate recitals to full orchestral performances. In summer, melodies waft through the town from Piazza Napoleone, which hosts the Lucca Summer Festival, an annual outdoor concert series. This summer’s edition, from June 28 to July 29, features Macklemore, Janelle Monáe, Elton John and Sting, among others.

Lucca’s true appeal, however, lies not in its sights and shows, but in its quotidian pleasures. It’s in the first mouthful of hazelnut gelato from Cremeria Opera, an artisanal gelateria that ranks among Italy’s best. It’s in the cool breeze while peddling a rented bicycle atop the city walls. And it’s in an evening aperitivo on Piazza San Michele, where the view — the magnificent Romanesque Church of San Michele in Foro and its 12th-century bell tower — invites lingering over a second Campari spritz.

It’s also in a simple plate of tordelli lucchese, a meat-stuffed pasta smothered with meaty ragù that’s on the menu at every local trattoria worth its name. It’s in an evening passeggiata along ancient stone-paved alleys. And it’s in an early morning atop Torre Guinigi, a 14th-century brick-and-stone tower with seven oak trees growing from its rooftop.

From there, the view is classic Tuscany: terra-cotta rooftops as far as the eye can see. True, there may not be a singular landmark to anchor the scene, like the Duomo in Florence. But Lucca, with its smattering of medieval towers framed by the green slopes of the Apennine Mountains, is an enchanting alternative.

Ingrid K. Williams



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