Luxury destinations to avoid the tourists
Story and photographs by Stephanie Gutierrez
Discovery, even in its simplest form, offers unparalleled fulfillment. There is no feeling quite like stumbling across a hidden gem that fills you with sheer and utter joy. We must be willing to cultivate our curiosity, take a chance, and go off the beaten path. In light of the recent tragedies, these locations were selected to offer an alternative experience for exploration. While many people travel, few fully immerse themselves into a new culture. When we decided to backpack Europe for five weeks, we were intentional about what we hoped to get out of the experience. More than just beautiful sights, we wanted to dive into each place; we wanted to experience cities as locals do.
SORRENTO & CAPRI
Our trip began in Sorrento, a small town nestled along the southern coast of Italy. From the moment we arrived, we were enamored by the charismatic town. The smell of the ocean air lingered through the narrow, cobblestone streets. The town was filled with life, as travelers and locals alike clinked their glasses of orange spritzers and limoncello, the region’s famous lemon liquor.
After settling in, we wandered down to the port in hopes of catching a ferry to Capri, a beautiful island set just off the coast. We were discouraged when we were told the last ferry had departed for the day, until we spotted a small booth with “Private Boat Tours” written along top of it. There, we found a family-run business ness that offered private day trips to the island and enthusiastically professed there was one last boat available for the day. The trip included a private driver, an afternoon stop in Capri, champagne and a light lunch. To our delight, we were treated to Caprese sandwiches, made up of fresh mozzarella and sweet tomatoes, garnished with basil, olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Our driver’s face lit up as he explained that the lunch was made that morning by his grandmother, who finds joy in introducing passengers to their family’s specialty.
As we took off, we were captivated by the deep blue water, so clear you could see the fish swimming below. The island was lined with boats of all sizes and bright umbrellas that filled the sandy beaches. Capri offered the perfect day-trip spot, where high-end shops are plentiful and breathtaking views are at every turn. We made it back to Sorrento in time for the captivating sunset that set along the coastline.
A short drive from Sorrento is Positano, a sister city on the Amalfi Coast (pictured in header). We caught a cab the following afternoon, and the driver offered to take us there and back for a reasonable price, allowing time to pass through the shops and soak in the stunning views. Our driver explained the legend behind the colorful buildings, which are said to be designed so that fishermen at sea could point out their houses when they returned home.
When mapping out our trip, we were careful not to over-plan, as we knew we would become intrigued by certain people or places and decide to hop on a train to a new city on a whim. Had we not left room for spontaneity, we may have never experienced the enchanting San Sebastian. This northern Spanish town is built around stunning white beaches, where you will find aerobics classes in the mornings, surfers catching waves throughout the day and sailboats dotting a distant horizon. Walk through the quaint streets and the aroma of pintxos, or Spanish tapas, pour out of the open windows into the corridors. While we had used Airbnb in the United States, we did not anticipate how much it would impact our time abroad. Upon arriving to our studio apartment, we stumbled across a handwritten note with a detailed list of the owner’s favorite spots. The suggestions led us to a gorgeous hike overlooking the city, warm, friendly faces at a local jewelry shop, as well as the most decadent feast we have had to date. The city is a food-lover’s dream, with numerous Michelin-star restaurants scattered throughout. Prix fix menus offer reasonable prices while featuring fresh-caught seafood, delectable desserts and the country’s renowned wine. San Sebastian’s charisma is truly undeniable, offering a well-balanced vacation spot for people of all ages.
To visit Lisbon, Portugal, is to become absolutely smitten. One of the last stops on our trip, we were captivated by the city’s gothic flare woven throughout every detail of its architecture. The buildings and cathedrals are colorful and intricate, ranging from pastels to detailed tile. The charismatic people, bustling windy streets, and breathtaking views deemed it as one our most cherished destinations.
Walk toward the nearest central plaza, and you will likely stumble upon a food and artisan market, offering darling trinkets and fresh produce. We were encouraged to explore the city by way of tuk-tuk, which resemble a motorized golf cart. We zipped through the streets with the warm, crisp air at our fingertips, soaking in the sites surrounding us. We headed toward the Barrio Alto neighborhood, where string lights and decorations hang throughout the vibrant quarters. Upon dropping us off, our driver pointed us in the direction of his favorite rooftop restaurant, which looked over the city’s notable red bridge, mirroring that of San Francisco’s Golden Gate. We watched the sun set over the Tagus River as we joined the restaurant’s cheerful crowd and sipped on Port Wine Sangria. Despite being a weeknight, the abundant energy that flowed through the streets was contagious. Live music played throughout, and men and women joined hands as they swung through the alleyways. The city is overflowing with culture and cheerfulness, stealing the hearts of visitors.
Within minutes of arriving in Bruges, you will feel as though you have walked into a fairy tale. Pastel buildings line the brick pathways, intersected by canals that reflect the enchanting charm that lingers throughout the city.
The city center is bustling with tourists by day and quiet by night, offering the perfect serene getaway. Choose any narrow pathway off the city center, and you are destined to come across a local spot that offers a unique, intimate setting. The path we chose led us to Cafe Rose Red, where red roses hang delicately from the ceiling, cultivating a warm atmosphere that makes you lose sight of time.
We sat back and reflected on our travels over red wine and small plates, as the friendly staff encouraged us to check out Willy’s house, a local hidden gem. They revealed few details, aside from the emphasis they put on arriving by 8 p.m. and not a minute later. Intrigued, we wrapped up our delightful dinner and made our way over to the recommended spot. When we arrived, we found a small bell and a handwritten note with “ring to open” in bold letters. Once we rang, a man in a tuxedo opened the door, exchanging drink tickets for a 10 euro cover. He encouraged us to make ourselves at home and meet him in the back parlor after we finished exploring.
We walked through the eccentric mansion that is filled with an array of antiques, abstract paintings and eclectic collectables. A group of fellow travelers joined us on a confusing yet exciting tour as we explored each room, which played different music, offering a strange yet whimsical vibe. We finished off our tour with fresh mojitos and interesting conversations with Willy, who refers to himself as the butler, explaining the history behind the experience and the history of Bruges. Bruges is filled with gems like Willy’s house and the Red Rose bar. If you find yourself in Belgium, take the road less traveled and wander to Bruges — a romantic, quaint experience that you are guaranteed to never forget.
Discover all of the beauty of Europe by making your trip unique. Check out ELYSIAN’s top picks for the most luxurious Airbnb destinations across Europe.