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Tabernas Desert, Almeria, Spain
Photograph: Shutterstock

11 places in Europe that look nothing like Europe

From glittering glaciers to sun-drenched deserts, you don’t have to travel far to see the best of the world’s natural wonders in Europe

India-Jayne Trainor
Written by
India-Jayne Trainor

If you’re a Brit, Europe’s on your doorstep – but how much of the continent have you really explored? Many of us are guilty of heading to the same destinations again and again (no offence, Paris), saving up all our money and time off for big trips to far-flung destinations. But you don’t have to endure a long-haul flight to sunbathe on alabaster beaches, chase waterfalls and explore rainforest-covered islands. All of them can be found within Europe. 

From the glaciers and fjords of Norway in the north to the hot southern Mediterranean coastline, Europe has it all, and taking a trip won’t even make much of a dent in your annual leave. So swap eleven-hour flights and a hit to your wallet with a short-haul trip to the deserts, lakes and mountains of Spain, Albania or Italy – we won’t tell if you don’t. 

India-Jayne Trainor is a British-Australian travel writer based in London. At Time Out, all of our travel guides are written by local writers who know their cities inside out. For more about how we curate, see our editorial guidelines and check out our latest travel guides written by local experts.

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1. Lake Koman, Albania

The limestone karsts in Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay have won prizes for their beauty, but Albania’s northern region packs in plenty of scenery to blow them out of the water. Incredible, towering cliffs? Tick. Sparkling emerald waters? Tick. Simply hop on the local ferry at Koman for a 3.5-hour adventure, passing through mountains, fjords, gorges and canyons. If you’re still pining for Thailand’s powdery beaches, let us recommend a side trip to the Albanian Riviera. Did we mention that the flight is only three hours from London?

2. Haukadalur Valley, Iceland

Put them side by side and it would be hard to tell the difference between the geothermal pools in Iceland’s Haukadalur Valley and those of Yellowstone National Park. Bubbling mud pots, powerful geysers and steaming hot springs dominate this region of southern Iceland, caused by the volcanic activity the country is famous for. Part of the island’s Golden Circle, you’ll have all the waterfalls, glaciers and lagoons you could wish for – and not a grizzly bear in sight. 


3. Azores

Despite being halfway across the Atlantic, the nine islands in the Azores archipelago belong to Portugal. Home to ancient craters, extinct volcanoes and glittering blue lakes, the scenery is reminiscent of Hawaii’s dramatic Na Pali coast where Jurassic Park was filmed. Luckily, there are no dinosaurs here and you’ll barely have to change time zones. Hike up to the viewpoints at Lagoa de Santiago, kick back on a black sand beach or spot whales and dolphins offshore. Hawaiian shirt not included.

4. Krka National Park, Croatia

Europe’s long, hot summers call for one thing: cooling off under a waterfall, like the cascades in Croatia’s Krka National Park. Tumbling down from the rocks above, the park’s most famous turquoise pools at Skradinski Falls are the perfect place to soak up the sunshine or hike to scenic lookouts in the surrounding forest. It’s just a short distance from the coastal city of Split and, in our opinion, far easier to find than its Asian doppelgänger in Ban Gioc, Vietnam. 


5. Matterhorn, Switzerland

Although the Matterhorn just makes us crave a Toblerone, Switzerland’s Alps rival any of the world’s best mountain ranges, from the Himalayas to the Andes. Aside from great chocolate and cheese, in the region surrounding the Matterhorn, you’ll find crystalline lakes, lush forest walking routes and world-class skiing to boot. Not to be outdone by its winter activities, summer is equally as stunning around Zermatt when its valleys flood with greenery – and activities like hiking and kayaking don’t require a snowsuit. 

6. Trollfjord, Norway

Dense pine forests, thundering waterfalls and towering peaks reflected in still, vast waterways. Are we talking about New Zealand’s Milford Sound or Trollfjord in Norway? Luckily, there’s no need to travel to the ends of the (middle) Earth for these landscapes, as northern Norway has them in spades. Trollfjord is only accessible by boat, with hair-raisingly narrow openings and Arctic wildlife such as whales, seals and dolphins playing in the background. Packing list: all the thermals.


7. Las Salinas de Torrevieja, Spain

Who else is shocked to learn we have a pink lake in Europe? No, they aren’t just in remote countries like Mexico and Australia; Spain’s been hiding one this entire time. If it wasn’t Instagrammable enough already, it’s also home to hundreds of pink flamingoes – and just like in the Dead Sea, the lake’s mud has minerals that are great for the skin. For the cost of a 2.5-hour flight from London, you can be living out your Barbie dreams on the Spanish coast.

8. Menton, France

Forget St Tropez or Cannes. Instead, head straight for the town of Menton on the French Riviera. The blue water, palm trees and multicoloured houses wouldn’t look out of place on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Okay, so the weather won’t be quite as warm, but the golden beaches, Mediterranean cuisine and stunning baroque architecture should more than make up for that. Pair with a day trip to Nice or Monaco for celeb-spotting and designer shopping. 


9. Pamukkale, Türkiye

Türkiye somehow manages to cram everything into one country, from the pristine beaches of Antalya and the stunning mosques in Istanbul to the fairytale landscapes of Cappadocia and now, Pamukkale. Trying to compare the neon blue thermal waters that spill gently down Pamukkale’s white travertine terraces is virtually impossible (unless you’ve heard of the remote Huanglong National Park in China). With mineral-rich waters loved by everyone from Cleopatra to the Romans, it’s a European treasure and one we’re more than happy to keep to ourselves.  

10. Dolomites, Italy

For those keen on winter destinations, there’s no need to start a Rocky Mountains Pinterest board just yet. Instead, say ciao to snowy peaks, fairytale villages and year-round adventures in Italy’s northern Dolomites. The wintery powder is some of the best in the world, while summertime activities range from hang-gliding to mountain biking. If thrill-seeking isn’t quite the vibe you’re after, there’s also pizza, pasta and some excellent local wines (or so we’ve heard). 


11. Tabernas Desert, Spain

Europe might not have its own Hollywood or Palm Springs like California, but Spain’s Tabernas Desert can rival Joshua Tree National Park any day of the week. Located in Spain’s Almeria province, it’s the only desert in Europe and has actually been used in movies as a faux Wild West landscape. There are no sand dunes, but you can still hop on a horse or camel, tour filming locations and soak up the sun, which shines for over half the year. 

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