When planning a trip to Europe, it can be difficult to decide exactly where to go and what to do. There are countless places to visit, and you would need multiple lifetimes to see and do it all! My past travels have led me to some VERY cool and interesting places in Europe, and the following are some of my favorite unique things to see and do there. If you’re trying to narrow down your own travel options, I hope you’ll find some inspiration here for planning your next European adventure!
France – The Mechanical Elephant at Les Machines de l’île
I went to Nantes several years ago for a conference. I knew next to nothing about the city beforehand, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I loved it! Situated along the Loire, beautiful Nantes is the sixth-largest city in France and was once the home of the Dukes of Brittany.
In fact, the Dukes lived in the lovely castle built in the 1200s that still stands in Nantes today (and is now used as a history museum). We spent most of our time in the area around the castle, and there were plenty of restaurants, bars, and shops to entertain us, and it was fun to just wander through this pretty little city.
The one thing I had learned about Nantes before visiting, though, was that they had a mechanical elephant that you can ride! 50 passengers can board the 50-ton, 4-story high contraption at Les Machines de l’île and head out for a 1-3 mph stroll on the Île de Nantes. The elephant lumbers along, just as you would expect an elephant to do, and it is such a delight to see the giant in action (and to take a ride!)
Since I visited, they have added more machines and you can also walk through the machine workshop to see new ones being built. The design is said to be inspired by Jules Verne and Leonardo da Vinci, and the end product is nothing short of magical. If you’ve already visited Paris but would love to pull out that high school French of yours again, consider a visit to Nantes and be sure to enjoy Les Machines de l’île!
Gibraltar – Gibraltar Nature Reserve
Gibraltar is a small British territory situated at the southern tip of Spain, along the Strait of Gibraltar. From its location, you can actually see the mountains of Morocco across the Strait in Africa. Everything about Gibraltar is unique, and its history is long and fascinating. And, since it’s a fairly small territory, you can cover most of the highlights during a day trip!
For me, the most unique part of visiting was crossing the border from Spain into Gibraltar which requires you to walk across the airport’s runway! Can’t say I’ve ever done that before…
You’ve probably heard of the “Rock” of Gibraltar, and the Rock is really the majority of the land Gibraltar occupies. Standing at 1,400 feet tall, the Rock is home to the Gibraltar Nature Reserve, which encompasses about 40% of Gibraltar’s territory.
Within the Reserve, you can hike and birdwatch, wander through caves and old WWII military tunnels, visit a medieval castle, and say hello to some wild macaques who might just try to jump into your car! Best of all, you can access everything via cable car with a combo ticket that lets you visit most of the attractions within the Reserve.
Check out my recent post about my visit to Gibraltar a couple years ago to learn more!
Northern Ireland – Giant’s Causeway
I was in Dublin several years ago for work, and since I had been a couple times before, I wanted to take a day trip a bit further afield. I settled on a tour that went up along the eastern coast of Ireland and into Northern Ireland, where we were able to visit Belfast, a rather terrifying rope bridge (Carrick-a-Rede), and finally the Giant’s Causeway.
As you might imagine, the drive up the coast was pretty spectacular and Ireland and Northern Ireland are both gorgeous places with plenty to delight the eyes. However, the Giant’s Causeway definitely stood out as a highlight on this trip. So…what is it, you ask?
Well, the Giant’s Causeway is a series of 40,000 interlocking basalt columns. Basically, millions of years ago there was a whole lot of volcanic activity in the area, and as lava was formed and cooled, it contracted and created the columns you can see there today.
The legend, though, is that they were actually created by a giant who built the causeway in order to cross the channel to fight with another giant. As cool as that definitely sounds, I think I’m going to go with the scientific explanation on this one!
Either way, the Giant’s Causeway is a fascinating place to wander around and climb, and all the rock formations are soooo cool to look at. Even on a rainy, dreary day (like the day I visited!), the Giant’s Causeway is an excellent stop if you’re ever in Northern Ireland.
Scotland – The Jacobite Steam Train (aka, the Hogwarts Express!)
Like many (ok, most) people in the world, I positively adored the Harry Potter books. I actually just finished re-reading all of them because I love them so much. And though I wasn’t really a kid anymore when they were first published, I was no less interested in hopping aboard the Hogwarts Express than my younger fellow fans were.
So imagine my delight and surprise to learn that you can ride the Hogwarts Express! Ok, so you don’t get to run through Platform 9 ¾ and you won’t actually arrive at Hogwarts in the end, but you can ride the Jacobite Steam Train, which was used in the Harry Potter movies. You will even travel across some of the same ground that was featured in the movies, including riding across the Glenfinnan Viaduct.
The train is totally legit, too. It’s a steam engine, powered by coal, so don’t be surprised if little flecks of coal find their way in through the window during your journey. And don’t forget to have your camera ready when it’s time to cross the Viaduct! The train will slow down a bit before you get there so that you don’t miss it.
Scotland is storybook beautiful, so pretty much the entire train ride was stunning. But getting to actually live out the pages of a storybook was an experience I will not soon forget!
Spain – Gaudí Architecture in Barcelona
Antoni Gaudí was a Spanish architect, famous for much of the unique and unusual architecture you see in Barcelona. His work is indescribable and no other architect’s work is comparable as far as style and design are concerned. Several of his works have even been given UNESCO World Heritage Site designations.
Barcelona is probably the most gorgeous European city I’ve been to, and a visit there cannot be complete without seeing some of Gaudí’s work. His masterpiece, the church called Sagrada Familia, is the most visited tourist destination in Barcelona, and Gaudí devoted the later years of his life solely to its design and creation.
You’ll find more of his work around Barcelona, both indoors and outdoors, from old apartment buildings to sprawling parks. His style embraces rounded edges and swirling design, as well as beautiful mosaics and patterns. And all of it is breathtaking.
Check out my recent post about Gaudí to see more photos and learn about some of my other favorite Gaudí sites that are worth a visit in Barcelona!
Switzerland – St. Pierre Cathedral and Archeological Site
I was in Geneva this past fall for work, and though I expected it would be a lovely city, I had no idea it would have so many hidden gems! There are quite a few unique places to visit in the city, and one that I found particularly interesting was the St. Pierre Cathedral and the archeological site hidden down below it.
The Cathedral itself is lovely, and you can climb up into both of its towers. The stairways are so narrow, they actually had a traffic light to control the traffic flow since only one person can pass at a time. But it’s what’s beneath the Cathedral that was far more surprising.
You see, though the Cathedral was built in the 12th century, it is not the first church to stand in this spot. Back in the 70s, an excavation project revealed the remains of two other churches that were there before, the oldest of which dates back to the year 380 AD.
As you wander beneath the Cathedral, you’ll see layer upon layer of history buried below. There are even some tunnels built throughout the site so you can see the layers up close, and there are charts that indicate the century the remains in each layer date back to. The excavations have also unearthed some fantastic mosaics from the 5th century that are still partially intact.
Geneva is full of surprises, but nothing was quite so surprising as getting to see century upon century of history all in one place. The Cathedral should be on your must-do list if you find yourself in Geneva, and you can check my previous post on Geneva to see more of my other favorite spots in the city.
Turkey – Cappadocia
And finally, we reach the archeological and geological wonder that is Cappadocia. I was in Istanbul for a conference, and all the research I did on Turkey led me to Cappadocia. It looked incredible in every single photo I saw, and I knew I would have to check it out while in the country.
It’s not close to Istanbul – I actually arranged a tour which had me fly there and back on the same day! But it’s a short and easy flight, and Cappadocia is worth every penny you’ll spend to get there.
Cappadocia is an area in Turkey with spectacular rock formations called “fairy chimneys”. If you’ve been to some of the U.S. national parks like Bryce Canyon, you’re probably familiar with the rock formations called hoodoos – fairy chimneys are essentially the same! These are formed over centuries, as the soft rock erodes below leaving the harder rock still sitting on top.
What is even cooler about Cappadocia, though, is that there were entire towns that had been built inside caves and cliff walls throughout the region. Today, you can wander through some of the remains of these old towns in the Göreme Open Air Museum and see the ruins of churches and homes that once existed. Some of the caves are even being used as hotels nowadays!
While I did not do it myself, hot-air ballooning is incredibly popular in Cappadocia, and it must be absolutely breathtaking to see the region from above in the crisp morning air. Balloon trips tend to leave very early in the morning, so if you want to do this, you might just want to consider an overnight in one of the cave hotels so you’ll be there bright and early to board your balloon.
Cappadocia is amazing from any point of view – ground or sky – and it is by far one of the most beautiful and intriguing places I’ve visited in all my travels.
I hope this list gives you a bit to think about as you decide where in Europe you might want to travel next (or where to plan a first visit!) Of course, this list just barely scratches the surface of all there is to do in Europe, and each city and country on the continent has its own wonderful and unique qualities to entice you.
Have you already been to some of the places on this list? What was your favorite?
What other unique things to see and do in Europe do YOU think should be added to this list???