Photo: canadastock/Shutterstock

40 European Small Towns That Are Straight Out of a Storybook

Europe Art + Architecture
by Eben Diskin Oct 9, 2020

Sometimes we just want to live in the past. Luckily, in many places around Europe that’s still possible. Some small towns have resisted the onslaught of modernization and overwrought tourism infrastructure and managed to retain their old-world, charming identity.

In these small towns in Europe, from England to Romania, you’ll find well-preserved architecture dating back hundreds of years, and a pace of life that yanks you back through time. Although no destination is immune to the impact of tourism, these towns have so far been spared and still retain their postcard-esque aesthetic. Here are 40 European small towns that are straight out of a storybook.

1. Cinque Terre, Italy

small towns in Europe

Photo: Anton Watman/Shutterstock

The five villages that comprise Cinque Terre — Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore — have taken measures to remain as tranquil as possible. These fishing villages on the country’s Riviera, although busy with tourists year around, have mostly banned cars off their streets and are connected by hiking trails and a railway line.

Cinque Terre is known for its picturesque cliffs, colorful homes, and terraces overlooking the Mediterranean. Recognized by UNESCO in 1997 as a national park and protected marine area, Cinque Terre is immensely attractive to visitors craving a slice of small-town Italian living.

2. Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy

Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy

Photo: pegasophoto/Shutterstock

An ancient Etruscan and Roman village, Castigilion Fiorentino allows visitors to dip their toes into history. Medieval stone fortresses and cobblestone streets still remain, and archaeologists have even discovered a sacred area under the village’s modern piazza dating back to the fifth century BC. The village of 13,000 is home to an art gallery inside the Church of Sant’Angelo with jewelry from the 13th century on display, and in the underground Civic Museum of Archaeology and Excavation you’ll find monumental archeological discoveries from the area.

3. Gruyeres, Switzerland

small towns in Europe

Photo: canadastock/Shutterstock

Famed for producing the cheese of the same name, Gruyeres is a medieval gateway to the Swiss Alps where the only traffic jam you’ll encounter is the one created by cows on their way to pastures. The cobbled streets lined with flowers and rustic houses make the small town a picture-perfect medieval Alpine village. The first thing you’ll notice when you set foot in Gruyeres is the 13th century Castle of Gruyeres, and you actually tour the ramparts, towers, and gardens.

The town is perhaps most notable, however, for the famous Gruyere AOP cheese. Visitors are able to watch the cheese-making process in action by taking an interactive tour.

4. Saint-Emilion, France

Saint-Emilion, France

Photo: sebduv/Shutterstock

This UNESCO World Heritage site in France’s Bordeaux region features Roman ruins and steep cobblestone streets. It’s known for its iconic 13th-century La Tour du Roy tower, Romanesque church, and medieval cobbled streets, but it’s perhaps even more renowned for its wine. Saint-Emilion has been in the wine business since the second century BC. The town is surrounded by vineyards that have existed since the days of Ancient Rome and is home to some of France’s most prestigious wines. Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Angelus, Figeac, and Pavis are all based around Saint-Emilion.

5. Bruges, Belgium

small towns in Europe

Photo: Ruslan Kalnitsky/Shutterstock

If you’ve seen the movie In Bruges, you probably don’t need much convincing to go visit. In the movie, Brendan Gleeson’s character sums it up perfectly when he says, “It’s like a f*cking fairytale or something.” The 14th century port city is defined by its cobbled squares and alleys, towering Belfry, and labyrinth of canals that earned it the nickname, “The Venice of the North.”

You could easily spend the entire day just cruising along the canals and taking in the sights, or get lost in the winding alleyways on foot. Make sure to check out the Hof Bladelin, previously a branch of the Medici bank. Now it serves as a convent you can visit.

6. Colmar, France

Photo: canadastock/Shutterstock

Colmar is a popular stop in France’s Alsace region — and for good reason. The little cottages and colorful shops will transport you back in time. What really makes Colmar unique, however, is the intersection of French and German culture. It’s located in the Alsace region, which has been passed between France and Germany for years. Although occupied briefly by Germany during World War II, it was the last French town liberated by the Allies and has remained French ever since. You’ll still be able to see the German influence on Colmar’s architecture.

7. Gimmelwald, Switzerland

small towns in Europe

Photo: Victor Flower Fly/Shutterstock

Step off the tram and into another century in Switzerland’s best-preserved alpine village. Since the whole community has been declared an avalanche zone, the town has managed to stave off modern development and retain its charm. Often neglected by tourists in favor of the nearby — and more famous — Grindelwald, Gimmelwald is a much less-traveled village and a great alternative if you’re looking to escape the crowds. Seemingly hanging off the edge of a cliff above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, Gimmelwald is defined by its cow troughs, barns, traditional chalets, and sweeping views of the mountains. For even better views, take the gondola up the Schilthorn to a revolving Piz Gloria restaurant, at an elevation of 10,000 feet, before hiking back down.

8. Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Photo: Nataliia Budianska/Shutterstock

Another World Heritage site, Český Krumlov’s outsized castle (the second largest in the Czech Republic) provides an amazing backdrop to this Baroque town. Right on the banks of the Vltava river, the town was built around a 13th-century castle. The former feudal town was founded in the Middle Ages and has since undergone Renaissance and Baroque transformations. Its medieval street layout remains intact, as do its historic buildings with their Renaissance and Baroque facades. The castle itself has retained a piece of every era, with a combination of Gothic, Late Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque aesthetic elements.

9. Monemvasia, Greece

small towns in Europe

Photo: Pit Stock/Shutterstock

Originally settled in the sixth century as a fortress refuge for Greeks fleeing invasion, Monemvasia has successfully repelled invaders — cultural and physical — ever since. Located on the southeastern side of the Peloponnese region, Monemvasia was carved into the back of a sea rock in the Middle Ages to conceal the town’s presence from hostile forces. A classic medieval castle town, the fact that it’s located on an island just adds an extra air of romance. The town whose name translates as “single passage” is connected to the mainland by a narrow pathway.

10. Riquewihr, France

Riquewihr, France

Photo: Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Riesling fans know Riquewihr for its famed wine appellation, and travelers love its town center, which has remained intact for hundreds of years. Located between the Vosges mountains and the Plain of Alsace, Riquewihr feels like an open-air museum that has preserved its character in pristine fashion over the centuries. You’ll find half-timbered houses from the 15th century, a defensive gate from the 13th century, and museums that illuminate the town’s cultural and historic heritage, like the Thieves Tower and 16th-century Winemaker’s House.

11. Ronda, Spain

Ronda, Spain

Photo: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock

Three incredibly dramatic stone bridges span the El Tajo canyon upon which the city is built. The birthplace of the modern Spanish bullfight, Ronda was once home to Ernest Hemingway, who indulged in his love for bullfighting while residing in the old quarter. Its New Bridge, completed in 1793, connects El Mercadillo (the Market) to La Ciudad (the old Moorish quarter). The town is also famous for its coño balconies, which hang over the edge of the Tajo gorge. These precarious-looking platforms are some of the best viewpoints for admiring the gorge — just don’t lean too far over the edge. Ronda also gives French wine a run for its money, known for its delicious red wines.

12. Corinaldo, Italy

Corinaldo, Italy

Photo: ermess/Shutterstock

Italy is no stranger to medieval small towns perched atop hills, but Corinaldo is among the best-preserved ones in the entire country. This village, in the province of Ancona, has defensive walls built in the 15th century and battlements that offer panoramic views of the countryside. Corinaldo is also an important religious destination as the birthplace and pilgrimage site of Maria Goretti, who was sanctified in 1902. Other attractions include the Cannon of Fico, the historic House of Sucretto, the 100-step Piaggia stairwell, and the famous Well of Poleta.

13. Óbidos, Portugal

Óbidos, Portugal

Photo: Raul Luna/Shutterstock

When Óbidos was gifted by Afonso II to his wife Urraca of Leon in the 1200s, the city became known as the home of Portugal’s queens, and it’s easy to see why. Several of the buildings and monuments were either founded or funded by a queen of Portugal, and the town itself is encircled by the walls of a medieval castle. A walk around the small town might convince you that you’re living in the shadow of the Portuguese monarchy.

The town’s historic homes are defined by whitewashed walls and yellow borders, and its narrow streets and hidden alleyways would take years to be thoroughly explored. The castle, founded by the Moors in the 700s, now serves as a heritage hotel, so you can book a room and live like royalty yourself.

14. Cochem, Germany

Cochem, Germany

Photo: Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Once a Celtic, then Roman, outpost on the Rhine, Cochem is located in the heart of Germany’s Riesling wine region. Half-timbered houses are topped with slate roofs, and strolling the winding streets you’ll notice quirky details like a merman carved into the side of the building. It’s all overlooked by the imperial Reichsburg Cochem castle. Built around the year 1000, the medieval castle sits atop a vineyards-covered hill and was renovated in the mid-1800s to reflect a more neo-gothic style.

Since you can’t visit the Riesling region without sampling the goods, check out Family Winery Rademacher for a wine tasting and cellar tour. You’ll learn about what it takes to create a delicious wine from the winemaker himself and taste six different wines over the course of two hours.

15. Potes, Spain

Potes, Spain

Photo: lunamarina/Shutterstock

In Spain’s mountainous north, Potes straddles steep river terrain and is home to several centuries-old stone bridges, including the famous San Cayetano and La Cárcel. Located in the middle of four valleys in the Picos de Europa, the village is surrounded by hills and mountains.

Its medieval town center is defined by a labyrinth of narrow alleyways and ancient streets, with houses of golden stone and a river crossed by several small stone bridges. Make sure you stop and appreciate the 13th century Torre del Infatado fortification in the main square, containing illuminated manuscripts of the Book of Revelation and the old Gothic church of San Vincente with its Baroque altarpiece.

16. Hallstatt, Austria

Photo: Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Located between the Hallstatter See and the slopes of the Achstein mountain, this town is the quintessential image of a storybook lakeside village.

The streets of Hallstatt look like they’re lined with gingerbread houses that will have you stopping to take pictures every few feet. For the best views, head up to the World Heritage Skywalk, 1,150 feet above the town, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the whole Dachstein Salzkammergut region. One of Hallstatt’s most eccentric spots is the Hallstatt Ossuary, or “Bone House,” which is home to over 2,100 skulls and other human bones. The town’s small size meant the cemetery was always running out of room, so exhumed bodies were moved to the ossuary to create burial space.

17. Bragança, Portugal

Bragança, Portugal

Photo: rubensantos/Shutterstock

Inhabited since the Paleolithic period, Bragança’s old town walls, Renaissance buildings, and town hall (the oldest in Portugal) have managed to survive through the ages. Bragança is located in the region of Trás-os-Montes, which means “behind the mountains.” The name is fitting as the town sits in the most remote areas of mainland Portugal.

Located atop a plateau near the Spanish border, the town is known for its walls and castle from the 12th century that still stand today. Stone houses line the streets, and the town is one of Portugal’s last remaining examples of Romanesque civic architecture. Surrounding the town is the Parque Natural de Montesinho, where wild animals like boars and wolves wander the woods.

18. Dingle Peninsula

Dingle Peninsula

Photo: 2checkingout/Shutterstock

If you’ve seen Leap Year, you might think Dingle is just the magical little town in Ireland where Amy Adams accidentally met the love of her life. Well, you’re not wrong, but Dingle is also a real place that feels every bit as whimsical in person. You’ll find wooden fishing boats lazily bobbing in the harbor, shepherds moving their flocks through rock-walled pastures, and plenty of cozy pubs.

The Dingle Peninsula stretches 30 miles into the Atlantic Ocean on Ireland’s southwest coast and is dominated by mountains from the Slieve Mish to the Conor Pass and Mount Brandon. The coastline is defined by steep cliffs running down to beaches. The fishing port of Dingle sits on an estuary on the southwestern coast of the peninsula and is known for its colorful buildings, ancient streets, and relaxed atmosphere.

19. Mittenwald, Germany

Mittenwald, Germany

Photo: Daria Sleta/Shutterstock

Mittenwald pretty much has everything you could possibly want in a classic German mountain village: cobbled streets and mountain vistas. A little river runs through the Alstadt (old town), and on the main street you’ll find painted facades called Lüftlmalerei decorating the houses — some of them dating back 250 years. The painted images tell the story of the town with pictures showing the profession of the homeowner, as well as scenes from festivals and religious iconography. In the main square you can’t miss St. Peter and Paul Church, built in 1315 and still serving churchgoers.

If you’re eager to get out on the mountains, head to the nearby Karwendel Alps, the most extensive range of the Northern Limestone Alps. Intrepid hikers will find paths leading up to the peaks, but if you’re just in it for the views you can take a cable car 7,300 feet up where you’ll find a telescope overlooking the Isartal river valley.

20. Sibiu, Romania

Sibiu, Romania

Photo: emperorcosar/Shutterstock

This Transylvanian city dates back to the 12th century. Its medieval center, open squares, stone walls, towers, and centuries-old churches are still intact, now meshing with a modern Bohemian-chic vibe that makes the city a cultural powerhouse.

The square of Piata Mare has been the center of Sibiu since the 15th century. Now it’s home to many of the city’s best restaurants and hosts cultural events, concerts, and festivals. From the Piata Mare, walk down the Strada Nicolae Balescu, the main pedestrian road connecting the square to the rest of the city. The thoroughfare is lined with pastel buildings and eye-catching flower displays, but the views really don’t get much better than from the top of the Council Tower. Dating back to the late 1500s, the tower sits between the Piata Mare and the Piata Mica, giving you panoramic views of the town and surrounding countryside.

21. Giethoorn, Netherlands

Giethoorn, Netherlands

Photo: Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

With several canals and wooden bridges, Giethoorn feels like a smaller, more relaxed version of Amsterdam. Very little has changed here since the town’s founding in 1230. The car-free village is full of lakes, reed beds, forests, farms, and paths perfect for walking and biking. If you prefer you can get around by boat, which is probably the most picturesque way to see the old farmhouses and really take in the village’s history. It’s called “Dutch Venice” for a reason. But unlike Venice, you won’t have to deal with the hordes of crowds — there are only 2,600 people living in the entire town.

22. Glorenza, Italy

Glorenza, Italy

Photo: Chris Rinckes/Shutterstock

Glorenza, or Glurns, is a German-speaking town in South Tyrol with fully intact medieval walls and towers and a fairytale setting in a green valley. Glorenza hit its stride between the 13th and 16th centuries when it saw major economic prosperity. Much of its architecture dates back to this period, including its many arcades and old patrician houses. Pay special attention to Castel Glorenza, a manor house with a courtyard and tower, and the Frölich House, with a facade painted with a Renaissance allegory. Outside the city walls you can see the Gothic church of Saint James al Maso Söles with origins dating back to 1220, making it the oldest church in Tyrol.

23. Zahara de la Sierra, Spain

Zahara de la Sierra, Spain

Photo: tokar/Shutterstock

Zahara de la Sierra spills down a hillside between olive orchards and vineyards and is one of the most stunning towns in the entire region. Immediately recognizable for its whitewashed houses, the town is built on the sides of a hill and is fittingly known as the “white village.”

Sitting at the foot of the Sierra del Jaral, surrounded by the waters of the Zahara-el Gastor reservoir, the town lies in the shadow of the remains of a Moorish castle. Make sure to check out the 17th century Santa Maria de la Mesa Church, the 16th century Torre del Reloj clocktower, and the ancient Roman Palominos Bridge. The town’s center was declared a Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO in 1977, and a Historical-Artistic Center in 1983, so no matter where you wander in Zahara de la Sierra, you really can’t go wrong.

24. Esch-sur-Sûre, Luxembourg

small towns in Europe

Photo: IURII BURIAK/Shutterstock

Built along a big bend in the River Sûre, Esch-sur-Sûre was officially founded during Charlemagne’s reign and is home to a stunning Gothic castle — the oldest in Luxembourg — built on the high ground above town in 920. The castle’s ruins, which you’re free to explore, give you an incredible view of the village, whose infrastructure has remained largely unchanged since the Middle Ages. After the castle was built the village grew around it, constructing smaller lookout towers and a defensive wall, the ruins of which still remain today. The castle’s ruins are preserved as a historic site and illuminated each night.

25. Echternach, Luxembourg

Echternach, Luxembourg, small towns Europe

Photo: trabantos/Shutterstock

Echternach sits right on the banks of the Sûre River, about as close as you can get to Germany without actually being on German soil. Just a three-minute walk across the bridge will bring you to Echternach’s sister town in Germany called Echternacherbrück. But there’s plenty in Echternach to keep you occupied, like exploring the old town square, visiting the seventh-century abbey, or relaxing on a cafe patio on the cobbled streets. Beyond the central marketplace, you can tour the ancient city wall and get lost in the labyrinthine streets.

Just outside town you’ll find the Mullerthal Trail leading through the “Little Switzerland” region of Luxembourg. The region is so named for its craggy terrain, unique rock formations, lush forests, and streams resembling the composition of Switzerland’s landscape. The Mullerthal Trail is an unforgettable hike complete with waterfalls, epic canyons, and castles, and Echternach is the perfect home base.

26. Burford, England

Burford, England, small towns Europe

Photo: abcbritain/Shutterstock

You don’t have to look far in England’s Cotswold Hills to find enchanting small towns, and Burford is one of the most picturesque. Referred to as the “gateway” to the Cotswolds, Burford has just 1,500 residents and is the perfect example of what you can expect from this bucolic English region. The town’s High Street slopes down to the River Windrush, where it reaches a three-arched medieval bridge. You won’t find any chain stores here, but there are plenty of antique shops, art galleries, old fashioned candy stores, and tearooms.

Venture outside Burford to the broader Cotswolds area, known for having some of the most beautiful countryside in England. They’re famous for their Jurassic limestone bedrock, rare grassland habitat, and sleepy countryside villages that transport you to a simpler time.

27. Monte Isola, Italy

Monte Isola, Italy, small towns Europe

Photo: BNFWork/Shutterstock

Several small fishing towns, ports, and olive-and-grape villages dot this tranquil island in Lake Iseo. Despite what you might think, the island doesn’t sit off Italy’s east or west coasts but is located in the middle of Lake Iseo in the north. The 1,800 people living on Monte Isola are spread over 11 villages and just five square miles, making it a truly unique destination in one of Europe’s most picturesque regions. What truly gives the island a whimsical quality, however, is that cars are banned. Inhabitants are only allowed to walk, cycle, or drive motorcycles. Given the island’s small size, it’s totally possible to explore the entire island via the footpaths. It’s particularly worth venturing to the top of the island to the Santuario della Madonna della Ceriola, where you’ll get the best views.

28. Quedlinburg, Germany

Quedlinburg, Germany, small towns in Europe

Photo: S-F/Shutterstock

Home to some of Germany’s oldest buildings, Quedlinburg was spared the destruction that befell so many of Germany’s cities during World War II. Cobbled streets run through this UNESCO World Heritage site, and with over 1,000 timber-framed homes, a stately castle, and a 13th-century church, Quedlinburg is considered one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Germany. One house, which dates back to 1310, even served as a residence until as recently as 1965 (now it’s a small museum).

Towering above the town is the Schloss Quedlinburg, a castle perched atop sandstone cliffs. Visitors here can explore the myriad of ornate rooms, see artifacts in the castle’s museum, and enjoy the best view in town. The Marktkirche St. Benedikti church is the other notable landmark in Quedlinburg, dating back to 1233. Its unique octagonal design sets it apart from other churches of the same era, and it serves as a home to various pieces of art, a late-gothic altar of St. Mary, and historic tombstones.

29. Portree, Scotland

Portree, Scotland, small towns Europe

Photo: Nataliya Hora/Shutterstock

The capital of Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Portree is one of Scotland’s more remote destinations, but you won’t be sorry for making the trip. Located on a bay on the east side of Skye, the fishing village of Portree is surrounded by rolling hills and some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. The town itself is defined by colorful houses overlooking the water. The best part about Portree, however, is that it serves as the perfect base for exploring the rest of the Isle of Skye.

From town, you’re just a short drive away from the epic Old Man of Storr hike past prehistoric-looking rock formations and the clear Fairy Pools famous for their mini-waterfalls. Since it’s Scotland, you probably shouldn’t expect blue skies — but the mist that usually hangs over the island only enhances the magical aesthetic.

30. Lindau, Germany

Lindau, Germany, small towns Europe

Photo: Sergey Dzyuba/Shutterstock

Germany isn’t typically known for its island destinations, and that’s why Lindau is such a unique exception. Storied Lindau occupies an island in Lake Constance near the Austrian and Swiss borders. While a bustling modern town is connected via roadway, the city center retains its medieval core. This is most immediately noticeable in the 13th century Markenagentur Lighthouse, standing at the northern edge of the port. In the town itself, you’ll be navigating winding cobblestone streets along the Maximilianstrasse — the main pedestrian promenade. The Old Town Hall, decorated with frescoes of cherubs, dates back to the 15th century, and the Romanesque Peterskirche church is over 1,000 years old, housing frescoes of the Passion of Christ.

For a true dose of fantasy, check out Mainau, a small island nearby with a greenhouse butterfly sanctuary. The old city streets are great, but strolling among the 120 colorful butterfly species on this island might be what you remember most from your visit to Lindau.

31. Molyvos, Greece

Molyvos, Greece

Photo: leoks/Shutterstock

On the island of Lesvos, the town of Molyvos looks more like a painting than a town. Declared a protected site by Greek authorities in 1965, it’s known for its homes of stone and wood, and its amphitheater-like construction. Traditional houses wrap around the coastal road leading up to a castle at the top, meaning walking around Molyvos takes a bit of legwork. As you might expect, though, it’s totally worth it.

Molyvos’s main road is covered by wisteria, giving the cobbled streets a striking purple hue when the flowers are in full bloom. Once you’ve finished admiring the traditional villas, check out the Byzantine churches of Agios Panteleimon and Taxiarchis. The town is also home to what many consider the world’s most beautiful street, which begins at the top of the village at the “Mythimna Market” sign. Walking uphill to the castle, you’ll be treated to views of the valley of Molyvos on one side and the shimmering coast on the other.

32. Santillana del Mar, Spain

Santillana del Mar, Spain small towns Europe

Photo: Takashi Images/Shutterstock

Santillana del Mar is one of Cantabria’s richest centers of art and history. Its medieval streets are lined with flowering balconies, and visitors quickly remark at how well-preserved the place is. That’s because strict rules were introduced in 1575 regarding town planning and development, which today include a stipulation that only residents can bring their vehicles into the heart of town. That keeps tourist traffic at bay, and allows the town to retain its medieval character. It’s also home to the Altamira cave, the “Sistine Chapel of cave art,” which contains some of the most famous prehistoric paintings in the world.

Santillana del Mar is affectionately known as the town of three lies. It’s neither holy (santi), flat (llana), or located by the sea (del mar). Visitors hardly seem to care, though, as the beauty before them is so magical.

33. Znojmo, Czech Republic

Znojmo, Czech Republic small towns Europe

Photo: Sergey Fedoskin/Shutterstock

Historically, the city of Znojmo is famous as the site of the Battle of Znaim in 1809, where Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Austrian army. The medieval, Renaissance, and baroque buildings in Znojmo’s old town are lovely, and the gothic church of St. Nicholas is certainly worth visiting, but the best of Znojmo is actually underground. The town sits atop a vast underground labyrinth of tunnels, escape routes, and interconnected cellars dating back to the 1300s.

One of the most extensive tunnel systems in Central Europe, the Znojmo tunnels extend for 16 miles. Consisting of medieval cellars linking to homes and palaces, the tunnels were constructed in the 19th century to protect the city’s residents during times of war and had featured traps like treacherous pits to defend against invaders. The system is so large that they have not yet been mapped completely. The tunnels are open for public exploration, and guided tours are offered regularly.

34. Eguisheim, France

small towns Europe

Photo: Boris Stroujko/Shutterstock

Half-timbered buildings and Alsace go together like wine and, well, Alsace. Eguisheim is a key stop on the Alsatian wine route and a must-see for the Riesling lovers out there. The town dates back to the Paleolithic age, with the discovery of a human skull in the area in 1865. The find was particularly important for proving the existence of prehistoric humans.

Fast-forwarding a bit in time, Eguisheim is full of old cottages overgrown with vines, cheese shops, and medieval fountains and courtyards. The streets are arranged in concentric circles around the 11th-century castle in the middle, so it’s pretty easy to find your way around. If you have a choice, try to visit in August so you can experience the wine growers festival, which is every bit as fun as it sounds. In case you still need convincing, Eguisheim was voted the Favorite French Village by the French themselves in 2013, and as we know, there’s a lot of competition for that distinction.

35. Balestrand, Norway

Balestrand, Norway

Photo: Marius Dobilas/Shutterstock

With a population of just 2,000, Balestrand is located on the Sognefjord in Norway between Oslo and Bergen. It’s world-renowned for its wooden villas, mountainous backdrop, and calming views of the fjord.

One of the town’s most unique structures is St. Olaf’s Church, which was built in 1897 but recalls the classic Stave Church design used throughout Scandinavia. After you’ve checked out the church, head to the beach. Balestrand has several public beaches where you can relax or even swim, including the Kvamsøy recreation area and the Lunde Arboretum, which also features a botanical garden. If you want to do more than sightsee — or combine sightseeing with exercise — take the Fossetien hiking trail, which takes you through 14 waterfalls and seven mountain lakes.

36. Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Photo: Mike Ilchenko/Shutterstock

Mostar’s blend of Ottoman architecture and Mediterranean feel makes it a unique destination in Europe. The city came under Ottoman control in 1568 and has been greatly influenced by Ottoman and Turkish culture. Wander the stone streets where artisans sell handcrafted items, and if you’re really looking for a souvenir, check out the Old Bazar Kujundziluk just east of the bridge. If you’ve ever been to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, this market will certainly look familiar.

The most recognizable landmark in Mostar is Stari Most, its iconic Old Bridge destroyed during the Croat-Bosniak war in 1994 and then rebuilt. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the bridge is a popular spot for locals to prove their courage — and put on a show — by diving into the water below.

37. Castle Combe, England

Castle Combe, England

Photo: Adam Springer/Shutterstock

Castle Combe in Wiltshire is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not actually a castle but a town of just under 350 people. No new houses have been built in Castle Combe since the 1600s, and its stone cottages have stood intact since at least the 17th century. Strict parking restrictions have also allowed this town to retain its historic character.

In the village itself, you can visit the medieval market cross monument near St. Andrew’s church and check out Doctor Doolittle’s house from the 1967 movie. If you’d rather see the town from above, walk up the footpath from Market Place that goes into the woods. The whole loop is just under six miles and will give you a great view of the village and surrounding landscape. When you get back into town, pop in for a drink at The Castle Inn or The White Hart, whose old courtyards, cozy fireplaces, and hearty English meals make them the perfect spots to recharge.

38. Arcos de la Frontera, Spain

Arcos de la Frontera, Spain

Photo: Jose Ignacio Soto/Shutterstock

Arcos de la Frontera — perhaps the most dramatic cliffside member of Spain’s pueblos blancos (white villages) — is relatively well preserved from its glory days on the front line of Spain’s 13th-century war to expel the Moors. The town is perched atop a limestone ridge and is known for its stone castle walls and — like the rest of the pueblos blancos — its whitewashed houses.

The streets are a maze of cobbled alleyways leading up to the sandstone Castillo de los Arcos. From here, you’ll get impeccable views of the town and the plains beyond. Despite the majesty of the castle, the true center of Arcoa de la Frontera’s old town is the Plaza del Cabildo, surrounded by an impressive semicircular arcade. In 1962, the town was declared a historic-artistic monument in recognition of its scenic location and unique architecture.

39. Évora, Portugal

small towns Europe

Photo: Fotoeventis/Shutterstock

An important trading and religious center in Portugal in the 16th century, now the city is known for the historic sites like Roman baths and the Templo Romano that sit within its 14th-century walls. Surrounded by the Alentejo, a region dotted with olive groves, medieval-walled towns, and traditional Portuguese villages, Evora is the perfect base to explore the beautiful countryside.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, Evora has been designated as a museum-city thanks to its roots in the ancient Roman period. The Agua de Prata Aqueduct, and the medieval cathedral, convents, palaces, churches, and squares, give the city a distinctly historic character, which mixes well with the vibrance of its current university atmosphere.

40. Chipping Campden, England

Chipping Campden, England

Photo: Dave Knibbs/Shutterstock

With buildings dating back to the 14th century, Chipping Campden is one of the best-preserved towns in the Cotswolds. Historian G.M. Trevelyan even described the town’s High Street as “the most beautiful village street now left in the island,” due to its gentle curve and elegant, unbroken trajectory. The town is also known for its gardens. The Hidcote Manor Garden truly looks like a scene from a Disney movie, and the Kiftsgate Court Gardens feature colorful flower beds, a water garden, and walking paths. The iconic Market Hall was built in 1627 to give shelter for traders and is still used by merchants today. You can also venture outside town on a brief walk to Broadway Tower, a regal tower sitting atop Cleeve Hill.

A version of this article about small towns in Europe was previously published on August 20, 2014, and was updated on October 9, 2020, with more information.

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.