Of the 10 most visited countries in the world, seven are located in Europe. The continent that stretches from Asia to the Atlantic, Africa to the Arctic, welcomes over 580 million international travellers per year. That figure equates to roughly half the worldwide tourism market and is showing no signs of slowing down.
From frozen tundras in the north to sun-soaked Mediterranean coastlines in the south, it's not hard to see why. With the ease of crossing borders, allure of a potential romance befit of an Audrey Hepburn film, ancient ruins juxtaposed with cosmopolitan cities and tantalising flavours passed down from generation to generation, Europe is by all accounts, awe-inspiring. And that's just the beginning.
Although it can be hard to find a path that millions have not trod before you, the feat is not impossible. You only have to think beyond that black taxi or snaking museum queue to find something unique and truly worth writing home about.
Like many before me, I too ventured to the United Kingdom for the obligatory gap year. I sought great adventures and life experiences, all while delaying the humdrum demands of the nine-to-five grind. Though, not one to follow the majority of the Australian contingent, I swapped the high streets of London for the historic spires of bonny Edinburgh.
Instead of battling Oxford Street crowds and timing Tube connections, I strolled with ease from Edinburgh's Old Town to New Town. My time in the enchanting city was spent exploring rambling closes, climbing sky high for city views, lazing in sprawling parks and enjoying a taste of student life. At least, the academic pursuits found in dingy pubs!
Over in Ireland, I bypassed Dublin and its Guinness Museum in favour of the small-town charm of Armagh in the north. Though this ecclesiastical city is bite-sized and unassuming, I still managed to find plenty of good craic among the cathedrals, including the world's best bagels.
I left the United Kingdom behind for a whirlwind tour of Europe. Not one to simply wing it, nor feel constrained by organised itineraries, I chose Busabout's flexible network to get from A to B, but also for the advantage of staying longer in C and bypassing B completely. With Busabout, you can hop on and off at your leisure on set routes, including the new East loop which includes Poland, Hungary and Slovenia.
While I'll happily admit I did the required toss of the coin into the Trevi Fountain and ambled down the Champs Elysees; I still made a few discoveries of my own, including a certain blink-and-you'll-miss-it pintxos bar hidden in San Sebastian's Old Town. But you'll have to find that one for yourself.
These days, the stigma of an escorted tour is slowly easing.
Forget mindlessly trailing after guides from church to cathedral, museum to mausoleum, the Europe tours of today are anything but. You'll meet families, quirky characters and partake in traditions you wouldn't normally be able to do so on your own. Plus, by limiting traveller numbers, operators such as Trafalgar and Back-Roads Touring can take you beyond the tourist haunts, venturing deep into the heart of ancient civilisations and cultures. Whether you explore the culinary treasures of Italy's Piedmont region or the natural wonders of Fionnphort in the Isle of Mull, there is a treasure trove of hidden secrets in Europe few have experienced before. The best part is that you don't have to do any of the leg work, either – just ensure you're back on the bus on time.
There's no doubting the awe and esteem bestowed on Europe's main attractions. Tick off the Colosseum, stroll Barcelona's La Rambla, soak up the laidback, yet lively atmosphere of Ios, but don't forget to wander off the tourist trail.
Considering a villa stay in wine country? Popular destinations like Tuscany generally command the highest rates, so consider travelling to smaller European wine regions like Umbria or Provence for a fraction of the cost. For those seeking a sea change, the resplendent Istrian Coast in Croatia or Turkey's Lycian Coast are affordable alternatives to the famous Greek Islands, serving up sun-soaked jewels of their own.
There are few stones left unturned in Europe, though swap like for like and you'll find yourself on an adventure you'd never thought possible.