London might get all the press as the world floods in for the Olympics, but elsewhere in Europe plenty of intriguing destinations are on the rise, either due to special events planned for this year or new attractions that are just beginning to draw visitors. So what are Europe’s best holiday ideas in 2012? We’ve picked our top five. Read on…

Albanian Riviera

Savvy beach bums have begun to chart a course for a still-wild stretch of the Mediterranean: Albania’s shores, between the cities of Vlorë and Sarande. You may have to ride a rattle-trap bus to get there, but you won’t regret that when you settle in to a dinner of fresh calamari in front of the electric blue sea.

Amsterdam, Netherlands

View from canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands

Many of Amsterdam’s best museums have been under renovation for years, but now finally the scaffolding is coming down. The Maritime Museum has recently reopened, with engaging new exhibits charting the Dutch history of seafaring, and the contemporary Stedelijk art museum will soon unveil its odd new wing, which locals have dubbed “The Bathtub”. A long-needed hotel boom should also make it easier and cheaper to get a room – which has never been an easy task in the Dutch capital.

Wroclaw, Poland

Beautiful houses at Main Market Square in Old Town Wroclaw of Poland

The Euro 2012 football tournament, to be held here in June (and elsewhere in Poland and Ukraine), is catapulting this small Polish city into the international limelight – and perhaps even teaching the world how to pronounce its name (try “Vrots-waf”). Best known for its meticulously preserved medieval market square, the Rynek, Wroclaw is a university town with plenty of watering holes and charm in abundance. Time your visit after the footie fans disperse if you want an easier time of gnome-spotting: more than a hundred odd gnome statues are hidden around town, inspired by a symbol associated with anti-communist activists in the 1980s.

Guimarães, Portugal

Oliveira Square, Guimaraes, Portugal

Designated a European Capital of Culture in 2012, Portugal’s so-called “cradle city” (since it’s considered the birthplace of national culture) is more than a millennium old – its medieval core is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But its population is very young, more than half under the age of 30, which has created a particularly vibrant arts scene. This year, the cultural calendar will be packed with avant-garde orchestras, new theatre and plenty of arts installations in repurposed industrial spaces.

Girona, Spain

Girona, Onyar River

For years, travellers knew this small city in Catalonia only as the place where cheap flights to Barcelona landed. But recently it has become a destination in its own right, especially for foodies. According to the judges at Restaurant magazine, El Celler de Can Roca is the second-best restaurant in the world (after Copenhagen’s Noma). Even if you can’t get a table at this innovative spot, there are scores of other places to sample this region’s complex, seafood-rich cuisine.

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