No matter where you live, the version of a city seen from a tour bus bears little resemblance to the experience of actually living there. Nowhere is that more true than history-rich Europe.
You might see everything in London (The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, The Globe, and The Sherlock Holmes Museum) without getting a true sense of what it’s like to live there. By the same token, a born Londoner will get coffee at their favorite cart (adjacent to Westminster Abbey) without giving the monument a second glance. A Berlin itinerary that includes the Reichstag building and the Berlin Cathedral but skips the Club Der Visionaere would be a waste of time to any music-loving Berliner.
Since we’re always looking for ways to have our cake and eat it, too, we picked the brains of a few well-informed European locals to bring you the very best hidden gems in some the world’s most fascinating cities. Consider it a local’s guide to off-the-grid musts. (Fair warning: some are naughtier than others.) With this expertly-curated list, you can explore Europe’s best underground offerings and still have time to hit the Eiffel Tower.
Local Guide: Dan
City: Berlin, Germany
Hangout: Atonal Festival
This sound and light festival happens once a year. Set in a converted abandoned power plant in central Berlin, the space is entirely cement, with 300-400 foot ceilings, multiple floors, and totally awe-inspiring. As you explore the space, you realize it’s a labyrinth. You’ll find more and more hidden rooms. It’s impossible to explore them all.
Upon arrival at this year’s festival, everyone went to the second floor, where it was pitch black and silent. (Picture that crazy party scene in The Matrix: It’s just like that.) Eventually, a man rose on a podium, raised his hands, and lights shone beneath him. Surrounding him, a choir began to sing.
Later explorations of the space exposed more bars within bars, rooms within rooms turned into art exhibits. At midnight, the place turned into a discotheque. Consider this a much more interesting alternative to the Berghain.
Local Guide: Peter
City: Berlin, Germany
SpreePark is a true local secret. The story goes that a decade or two ago, the owner got into some trouble and had to close this amusement park. Now, it’s like a cross between Little Shop Of Horrors, The Boxcar Children, and Harry Potter. It’s enclosed by a gate which in-the-know ruffians jump over to sneak around and explore.
The place looks frozen in time — railways, an enormous Ferris wheel, cobweb-covered space cars, a merry-go-round. Circus tents and swamps that once were gorgeous ponds — it’s a deserted wonderland.
You’ll definitely see rebellious kids walking around, but everyone’s on tiptoe. Guards patrol the area to keep people out, though it’s an open secret that people do. From what I understand, the worst thing that happens is they write down your name and ask you to leave. Hiding in the bushes, sneaking around and exploring, it feels a bit like Mission Impossible. It’s magical, and a must-do for more adventurous visitors.
Local Guide: Jean
City: Paris, France
Agua is a multistory dance boat that’s permanently docked on the Seine. The entrance is definitely not asking for attention — you have to go down a winding staircase to get there. But if you like salsa, the dancing is unbelievable, and salsa on the Seine is an attraction in itself. One floor is devoted to salsa, one to Kizomba and Semba. The event happens every Tuesday, 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
Local Guide: Angelique
City: Paris, France
Hangout: Sacré-Coeur Basilica, Montmartre
At the top of Montmartre, this stunning work of architecture is worth a trip on its own merit. But if you put aside the religious and historical significance of the building, the basilica remains a slice of Paris that shouldn’t be passed over. Montmartre is a large hill in Paris’s 18th arrondissement that overlooks the city.
It’s the best place to watch the many fireworks shows that happen throughout the year, in celebration of things like Bastille Day. I suggest grabbing a blanket, getting coffee at the Café de 2 Moulins (Audrey Tatou’s workplace as the titular character in Amélie), and watching the sun set over the city. Fireworks or none, it’s an idyllic, romantic way to spend an evening.
Local Guide: Jenny
City: Gosport, England
Hangout: Hill Head
There’s not much to do in Gosport, so adventurous types often take the ferry to Portsmouth (only partly because there might be a shop or two there that doesn’t card, but you didn’t hear it from me). Then, you fill a duffle bag with booze, and ferry to Hill Head.
You have to walk past a couple of police stations to get there, which adds to the manufactured sense of thrill. You know you’ve made it when you reach a rocky outcropping on the far side of some boulders. It overlooks The Isle of Wight, across the Solent, and has a beautiful view of Portsmouth, beyond the bay.
The liquor isn’t a requirement to enjoy the quiet and the view. You might see one or two fellow adventurers, but they’ll be enjoying their own private musings. If you’re visiting England, finding picturesque places to reflect, away from the noise and bustle of the city, is a lovely and necessary respite.
This post was first posted on Hipmunk’s Tailwind blog on October 22, 2015 by The Hipmunk.