Europe without the crowds: Travelers say these are the best crowd-free spots this summer

Europe's summer season is notoriously busy, hot and crowded, but it doesn't have to be that way. I spoke with several travel experts who recommended these uncrowded alternatives to some of the continent's most popular cities. Here's where to go in Europe this summer without the crowds.

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1. In France, see Strasbourg instead of Paris

"If what you’re really after is fresh, flaky croissants, picturesque streets and endless French charm, go to Strasbourg," says travel writer Meena Thiruvengadam. Just a two-hour train ride from Paris, Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament. It's also calmer, cleaner and less intimidating than Paris.

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"Wander through La Petite France, an idyllic canal-side district that’ll make you feel like you’re walking through a postcard," Thiruvengadam says. "Shop for books in one of the earliest cities in Europe to print them. Dive into art, history and geopolitics at two dozen area museums. See the astrological clock at Strasbourg’s Notre Dame Cathedral. Stroll lush parks, sample Alsatian gingerbread and have unforgettable meals for half the price of what you might pay in Paris."

2. In Portugal, visit Porto instead of Lisbon

Porto is the jumping-off point on Intrepid’s walking tour of Portugal and Spain.
Porto is the jumping-off point on Intrepid’s walking tour of Portugal and Spain.

Easily accessible from the U.S. with direct flights out of New York, Porto is an appealing summer destination in northern Portugal. "Tradition seamlessly blends with modernity in Porto," says Charlie Neville from JayWay Travel, a boutique European tour operator. Porto is famous for its port wine, historic Ribeira district, and the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge.

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Neville recommends checking out the Foz do Douro neighborhood where the Douro River meets the Atlantic Ocean. Renowned for its charming beaches, exceptional dining establishments and diverse architecture, the Foz district is seamlessly connected to other parts of Porto via the tram network. You can explore the Felgueiras lighthouse, unwind at Praia dos Ingleses or Praia das Pastoras beaches, and stroll beneath a covered walkway along the Atlantic called the Pergola da Foz.

You can also experience more of northern Portugal on a visit to Porto, Neville says. "The Douro Valley offers scenic vineyards, while Braga features historic cathedrals in its ancient streets. Guimarães, known as the birthplace of Portugal, is unique in its medieval heritage. Coastal Viana do Castelo and the historic charm of Amarante further showcase the region's variety."

3. In Spain, Girona is a better pick than Barcelona

Barcelona-based travel writer Jamie Ditaranto recommends Girona, which tourists typically experience as a day trip. "There’s so much to see in this medieval town – you can't just do it all in one day," Ditaranto says. "The medieval center of Girona feels so much more frozen in time than the one in Barcelona – that's why they chose it as a shooting location for 'Game of Thrones' – and you could spend hours walking around and visiting the museums. There are Roman foundations, Arab baths, and you can walk on top of the old walls of the city for the best views."

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On top of its history and location, Girona has a cool local vibe with great restaurants that include the Michelin three-star Celler Can Roca, which does high-gastro Catalan food. If that's too pricey, Ditaranto says, you can try ice cream from the same family of chefs at Rocambolesc. Cyclists and beachgoers will also be happy here: There are bike routes in the surrounding mountains and easy bus connections to the beaches on the Costa Brava for a day trip.

4. Skip the Amalfi Coast for Puglia and neighboring Matera in Italy

Puglia, the region of Italy that forms the heel of the "boot," is on the Adriatic Sea opposite Amalfi and tends to attract Italian tourists, although it's slowly becoming more popular for international tourists as well. Coastal towns like Monopoli and Polignano a Mare, which are just south of the region’s capital, Bari, offer beaches and boat trips, while the interior villages are home to trullos, olive oil farms and wineries.

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"When I flew into Bari last year, I went straight for Matera, a smaller city about an hour inland in the tiny Southern Italian region of Basilicata," Ditaranto says. "Matera is one of the oldest cities in the world, and the oldest in Europe. I went there because I was following my family roots in a nearby town, but I was beyond impressed by Matera's archaeological and cultural heritage."

You may recognize Matera from "The Passion of the Christ" and "No Time to Die," which both used the sassi, or valley of ancient cave dwellings, as a filming location. Matera was once known as "the shame of Italy" for its poor living conditions, and the government eventually moved the population out. "The sassi was abandoned until the 1990s when UNESCO recognized Matera, and investments were made to transform the sassi into a walkable site filled with hotels and bed-and-breakfasts built into the ancient cave walls," Ditaranto. "Across the ravine, you can even visit the cave houses which some researchers believe were first used by people in the Paleolithic era − 12,000 years ago."

5. Avoid the Dubrovnik crowds and head to Split, Croatia

Just a three-hour drive from Dubrovnik and a four-hour drive from the capital, Zagreb, sensational Split sits on the less touristy Dalmatian Coast. Here you'll find Roman ruins, sparkling blue waters, mountain views and fresh seafood. "On a Viking cruise through the Adriatic Sea, I stopped in Split after visiting Dubrovnik and fell in love with its relaxed, beachy vibe and timeless architecture," says travel writer Amanda Ogle. "I loved that it was slightly less crowded than Dubrovnik while still offering plenty to explore."

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Ogle recommends visiting Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in the third century for Roman emperor Diocletian and is now home to some of the best Roman ruins in Europe. Take a day trip to Stella Croatica, a family estate where you can cook, taste, and learn about Croatian olive oil, bread, botanicals and sweets.

6. Pick Geneva over Zurich, Switzerland

Don't let Geneva's reputation fool you, says travel writer Erin Levi, who has spent many summers in Geneva as a student and later as a frugal travel writer. "This francophone city, which suffers from a reputation for being boring and expensive, can’t be beaten in the warmer months – especially if you’re on a budget."

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Levi recommends swimming and hanging out at Bains des Paquis, cycling one of the city’s complimentary bikes, hiking up Mont Salève, and taking a guided tour of CERN, where scientists are trying to re-create the big bang, the birth of the universe. Located near the French border, Geneva is also a convenient jumping-off point for seeing the wider Lake Geneva region, including attractions like the UNESCO-listed Lavaux Vineyards, and taking the new GoldenPass Express from Montreux to Interlaken. "It's one of the prettiest train rides in Europe," Levi says.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Where to go in Europe this summer without the big crowds