The heat and hassle of European cities can be difficult to deal with in the summer, when people cover the public spaces and loud, lively festivals abound. Luckily, it’s not too difficult to get out of the frenetic urban surroundings and into a heavenly space of clean mountain air, but you’ll have to decide on what you want out of the experience. If you’re looking for high-energy sports and world-class hiking, the alpine mainstays (like Chamonix or Zermatt) may be your best bet, but there’s a wealth of quieter villages and tree-lined glacial valleys to stretch your legs and restore your spirit. These eight remarkable sites reinvent the mountain lifestyle in beautiful ways, and are sure to inspire and comfort any nature-seeker.
Veneto Dolomites, Italy
The Italian Dolomites are a perfect blend of rustic and refined: rocky slopes draw hundreds of hikers and rock climbers, while the idyllic villages at the base of the mountain chain toast the surroundings with legendary wine and cuisine. Belluno sits on a cliff side over the Piave River, laced with Renaissance buildings and serving up its famous creamy Schiz and Malga Belluneuse cheeses. Wine lovers should move along to Conegliano, where the rocky hillsides produce some of the highest graded prosecco in Italy, and the pretty town center reveals a treasure trove of medieval and Renaissance art and architecture. The towns are charming in their own right, but the alpine backdrop is the icing on the cake.
Julian Alps, Slovenia
Slovenia is far off the tourist trail for most European travelers, and that helps to keep the nation’s phenomenal mountain region peaceful and pristine. Towering peaks and lush valleys await in the Triglav National Park, and Alpine trails cut through the mountains and snuggle into the landscape. There is plenty of adventure sports to try if you’re up for a bit of activity, but the emerald green river systems, natural thermal spas, and traditional agricultural lifestyle are certainly inclined to a quiet, relaxing holiday. There are plenty of ways to explore the region, and a level of accommodation to suit every sort of traveler, form rustic huts on mountain passes to refined hotels in sleepy spa towns.
A haven for climbers, hikers, skiers, and sightseers, the region of Tyrol is the heart of the Austrian stretch of the Alps. Whether you’re in the mood for sitting around or scaling mountains, the capital of Innsbruck is a wonderful place to touch down for a refreshing getaway: right at the foot of huge alpine peaks, the city combines the staggering beauty of its surroundings with a rich history and lovely Old Town. Baroque architecture and majestic palaces preserve a slice of Austria’s illustrious 18th century life, and there are plenty of top-notch museums to punctuate your day hikes into the mountains. If you’re looking for something more low-key, check out the little village of Ellmau, with its selection of rambling foot paths and Austria’s longest mountain funicular to whisk visitors up to the summit for an unforgettable view.
Bernese Oberland, Switzerland
An area that has been enjoyed since the Roman era, this section of the Bernese Alps boast some of Switzerland’s most glorious and legendary alpine terrain, including the monolithic Jungfrau. There are several sections within the region, including the popular ski destination of Grindewald, but one of the most beautiful and accessible spots for a summer retreat is Interlakan, a chain of villages and resorts between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun. It's the epitome of a glacial mountain getaway, with free flowing spring water, glassy lakes, untouched flowering meadows, and a mosaic of mountain wildlife. A hiker’s paradise, you could easily take a week to explore the exquisite terrain, but a short stay at one of the spa resorts in town is equally pleasant and nearly as picturesque.
Tucked into the Spanish province of Aragón, the village of Torla sits happily unchanged for centuries among glaciers, waterfalls, and the gentle slopes of the Ordesa Valley. Part of the Ordesa-Vinamala Biosphere Reserve, this protected village is a bit more difficult to get to than other mountain spots, but the diverse natural beauty of pine forests and cool waterfalls are well worth the effort. The glacial valley is understandably a hotspot for hikers, but Torla also has plenty of medieval charms and unique culinary traditions that make for a calm and indulgent stay if you’re just looking for some downtime.
Nordfjord region, Norway
Norway is far from the Alps of the mainland, but its fjords are just as mesmerizing and humbling, and the mountain villages are as picturesque as they come. Take Olden for instance, a small, scenic town at the foot of Jostedalsbreen National Park, where the 500 inhabitants live in relative seclusion among the glacial lakes and waterfalls that pepper Nordfjorden, the country’s longest fjord. The town has seen a rise in tourism, as more cruise ships have begun to dock nearby, but if you go six kilometers north to the village of Leon, you’ll get a quieter experience: stroll through green meadows among some of the oldest farms in Norway, and relax against the backdrop of the mountain Skåla and the Tindefjellbreen glacier.
Cerdagne, French Pyrenees
The Pyrenees Mountains are culturally diverse, staggeringly beautiful, and immensely popular – the touristy villages can be overrun with families and holidaymakers from across the country, especially in the summer. However, there are still some spots that offer a breath of fresh air without the hustle and bustle of the established resort towns, such as Airotel Pyrenees, a modern campsite not far from the well-loved town of Luz Saint Sauveur, with impressive facilities and an abundance of rustic charm. For a unique Pyrenees experience, make your way up to the French Cerdagne – a slice of mountain landscape squeezed between Spain and France, sitting happily on the sidelines of modern civilization.
The Majella, Italy
Located in Italy’s Abruzzo region, the Majella National Park is a pleasantly underrated mountain area, full of rolling meadows, wooded valleys, and as more wilderness than you would ever expect in the Italian interior. You are guaranteed a good deal of peace and quiet as you explore the gorges and sprawling forests, but you may meet some wildlife along the way – wold boar, wolves, and an array of smaller critters call this place home. A few sleepy villages pepper the region, and they don’t have a huge amount to offer the tourist. You may like to sign up for an organized tour that includes accommodation, car rental, maps of the trails, and some guided group walks to get your bearings.
Regardless of your intentions, it’s always a good idea to check out accommodation options, road work projects, and event schedules well in advance of your trip; certain small villages can become major centers for festivals and celebrations, and twisting mountain roads are always subject to rock falls and other misfortunes that can interrupt your route. As long as you know what’s ahead, and tack on a few extra days to counter any unanticipated bump in the road, you should be able to enjoy the journey through the mountains as much as the destination.