In Europe, where do you go where the tourists aren't? Mind you, I'm not looking for places with no tourism at all, but those whose tourist numbers are moderate and harmless.
And why is the search for low-scale tourism so important? It's because the great cities of western Europe have grown so popular that some are often difficult to visit. Pick the wrong time of year for your stays in Venice or Florence--as one example--and you’ll be caught up in crowds, lines, and general anxiety.
So where can you enjoy the fabled pleasures of Europe as they used to be had? I have six locations to recommend that receive reasonable--not overwhelming--numbers of visitors, and do not become difficult to enjoy in high season.
*Stockholm: This dignified city is toured, first, by relatively small numbers of thoughtful tourists interested in the novel policies of a controversial welfare state; many of them go to the downtown headquarters of the Swedish Institute which passes out English-language pamphlets explaining the Swedish approach to things, and if contacted several weeks in advance, will arrange for visits by you to places associated with your own profession (hospitals, courts, schools, etc.) Other thoughtful tourists enjoy impressive museums, one of which displays the only Renaissance-era battleship (the Wasa) to have been rescued intact from the deep after a maritime accident).
*Belgium: It is undeservedly avoided by the bulk of tourists, because its main sights are medieval works of architecture and art, too little appreciated by most foreign visitors. The great city of Bruges is like an open-air museum of fifteenth-century architecture, as are such other cities as Ghent (whose medieval cathedral displays the incomparable “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb”) and Antwerp (the House of Rubens) easily reached in one-hour train trips from Brussels (with its awesome Grand Place of perfectly-preserved Guild Halls of the Middle Ages). Tourists are present in numbers, but not so many as to interfere with your own quiet enjoyment of antiquity.
*Water works of The Netherlands: Though visited by many, too few tourists venture forth from Amsterdam to view the great Dams erected by the Dutch to hold back the sea from their below-sea-level cities. A short car journey from Amsterdam or The Hague brings you to the 17-mile-long Afsluitdijk (“Enclosure Dike”) completed in 1932 to wall off the Zuider Zee (Inland Sea) from the tempestuous North Sea. If the Dutch had not devoted the immense resources needed to construct this barrier, the city of Amsterdam would have been under 13 feet of water during a particular weather crisis in 1953. What you see of these developments is an object lesson in the work that will now be needed in numerous nations to prevent climate change and the rise of water levels from inundating coastal areas. And you view all this free, to a large extent, from tourist crowds.
*Sicily: Though visited my millions, its size is such that you rarely encounter crowds of other tourists. Most smart visitors rent a car in Palermo and then follow a leisurely counter-clockwise route along the coastal road that takes them, among other places, to Agrigento (Fifth Century Greek temples), Siracusa (as important in ancient times as Athens), and Taormina (a glamorous resort city devoted to pleasure), before returning to Palermo for a flight or ferry to Naples/Rome.
*Berlin: It is such a vast city, with a greater land area than any other, that its civic and cultural life is far too great to be dominated by tourism. And because, for many postwar years, it was divided into East and West Berlin, each operating as a separate city, it tends to have far more civic and cultural institutions than most other cities: it has two Grand Opera Houses, two City Halls, countless museums, two sprawling districts of theaters, two and more great shopping areas. Its population, which regards itself as far more intellectual and counter-cultural than elsewhere in Germany, produces an atmosphere of excitement and social ferment, fascinating to view.
*Poland: Though as many as 13 million foreigners visit Poland each year, the number is slight in respect to the country's size, and tourism never dominates the scene in three of Poland's most popular destinations: Warsaw, Kracow and Gdansk, all of them rebuilt and restored after the destruction of World War II. Of the tourists to Poland from North America, the overwhelming number are of Polish descent visiting relatives, and they provide little competition for the available hotel space and chief attractions. I was stunned, on a recent visit, to see how easy it is to travel about Poland and to visit museums and historic sites that compare favorably with those in more heavily visited locales.
So there you are. On your next trans-Atlantic journey, why not substitute Sweden, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sicily, Berlin and Poland, for England, France, Italy and Spain?