For every Paris, Rome, and London, there are hundreds of small towns in Europe that capture the spirit of their particular nation. From an itty-bitty Icelandic outpost surrounded by jaw-dropping scenery to an ancient seaside settlement on the Black Sea, here are 17 small towns in Europe to add to your travel list. By Anne Olivia Bauso
Zell am See, Austria
Zell am See is quite simply one of Europe’s most lovely small towns. Sitting prettily between turquoise Lake Zell and mighty Schmittenhöhe mountain, the Austrian town is famous for its leisure activities: skiing and snowboarding in the winter; swimming, biking, and hiking in the summer; and riding the vintage Pinzgauer Lokalbahn train through majestic Alpine scenery in any season. For that last one, the narrow-gauge train puts you within easy reach of the Krimml Waterfalls.
Gangi is Sicilian small-town magic, with a hilltop castle, medieval and baroque churches, and golden-brown-from-the-sun houses. Looming high over it all is massive Mount Etna. For a macabre detour from all the warm Mediterranean charm, go down to the underground tomb of Chiesa Madre Gangi, where mummified priests line the crypt walls.
Another picturesque small town in Europe, Bled looks like a mythical scene dreamed up by a Grimm brother. Its most prominent feature is an ethereal 17th-century church perched on a tear-shaped island in Lake Bled, which you can get to by boat. The town of Bled and its surroundings offer outdoor activities year-round, from hiking mountain trails to rowing on the lake to summer tobogganing down Straza Hill, with amazing views of the water below.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Even in the land (southern Germany) of ridiculous medieval charm, Rothenburg ob der Tauber stands out. It pulls out all the romantic Bavarian stops, with turrets, stone archways, clock towers, taverns, and timber-framed buildings. (Go figure, it was the inspiration for the village in Pinocchio and a filming location for Harry Potter.) After ambling through the knot of cobbled alleyways, walk the one-and-a-half-mile stone rampart to see the picture-perfect town and its bucolic surroundings.
Stationed on the far reaches of eastern Iceland, the tiny village of Seydisfjordur is practically hidden at the very end of a dramatic fjord. Each week, its harbour greets a ferry connecting Iceland to Denmark and the Faroe Islands. (It’s a great option for visitors from Europe with the hearty sea legs of a Scandinavian raider.)
Though its population clocks in at under 700, the town boasts a healthy art scene and more than its fair share of guesthouses, breweries, and restaurants (including what’s regularly declared the best sushi restaurant in Iceland). A trail on the edge of town leads to Tvísöngur, a concrete sound sculpture with majestic scenery all around.
Nestled into Spain‘s Costa Brava near the French border, Cadaqués is a network of whitewashed buildings and stone alleys that ramble down to a boat-dotted harbour. Admire the postcard town from one of the many hiking trails, sunbathe on the small and sunny beaches, and hire a barca for a day of exploring the nearby cobalt bays that feel like a secret.
This ancient town on a slender peninsula is a maze of cobblestone streets and pretty red-roofed houses overlooking the turquoise sea. Add in excellent sandy beaches, a picturesque fishing port lined with boats, delicious Balkan and Mediterranean cuisine, and a great cultural scene (the late-summer Apollonia Arts Festival is a showcase of Bulgarian and global performers), and you’ve got a seaside town that’s perfectly suited for laid-back exploration.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz retains its Basque Country fishing-village feel, with half-timbered buildings in the lovely old quarter, boats bobbing in the sheltered port, and quaint architecture and golden sand framing the scenic beach walk. The beach town swells with visitors in the summer, though surfers flock here any time of year for the classic surf break, Plage de Lafitenia, and big waves surf spot, Belharra.
Surrounded by forests, lakes, hills, and valleys, this tiny town is renowned for its scenic natural beauty. Otepää has long been a destination for those looking to hike, swim, and camp in the summer. Come winter, the town balloons with skiers, snowboarders, and other snow-loving sports enthusiasts — perhaps even Olympic medalists deep in training. It’s worth the 15-or-so-minute drive to Sangaste, a red-brick Gothic Revival manor modelled after Windsor Castle.
For a European small town with Caribbean or South Pacific beach vibes, head to Otranto. This Puglian port town on the sun-soaked outer heel of Italy’s boot has miles of glorious beaches with sparkling, shallow water stretching way, way out. Between afternoons of swimming, snorkelling, and sunbathing, wander the historic centre (dipping inside the town’s medieval cathedral to see floor mosaics dating back to the 12th century) and take a day trip to gorgeous Lecce, the “Florence of the South.”
Approaching Zermatt on the train, it’s impossible not to be awed by the sheer beauty of the Matterhorn rising above its fellow Alps. At its foot lies the town — part glitzy ski resort, part snowy setting for a fairy tale. Zermatt’s 200 miles of ski runs are the major appeal, yes, but there’s plenty to do off the slopes: exploring the car-free town centre, warm-weather hiking, and gliding up to the highest mountain station in Europe (Trockener Steg) via cable car. In the summer and fall, brave Gorner Gorge’s wooden paths clinging to the cliff over an ancient glacial river.
The phrase “fit for a queen” is spot on for Óbidos. For centuries, this beautiful small town in Europe was presented as a wedding gift to Portuguese queens. The walled hill town still exudes the same charisma that caught Queen Isabel’s eye in the 13th century (thus prompting her husband to just gift it to her). Everywhere you go, steep stone lanes wind between whitewashed houses dripping in sun-loving bougainvillaea and topped with terra-cotta tiles. Standing guard over it all is the miraculously well-preserved Castelo de Óbidos.
Brightly painted buildings, twisting streets, and a baroque hilltop church clustered together on a small peninsula make the ancient fishing port of Rovinj a highlight of Croatia‘s Istrian coast. Sample just-hauled-in-from-the-Adriatic sardines, famous local truffles, and wine from indigenous Istrian grapes. (It’s worth the 10-minute drive to family-run Stancija Collis to taste delicious Malvasia, as well as olive oil and goat cheese.) The national park spread over the Brijuni islands is an excellent day trip, with boat connections from the nearby village of Fažana.
Lovely Castelsardo, with its meandering streets, knockout beaches, and Bronze Age ruins, makes a picture-perfect seaside base for exploring the northern coast of Sardinia. The medieval hilltop town has plentiful accommodation options and charming seafood spots and wine bars serving local swordfish and crisp Sardinian whites, plus good roads leading to iconic Capo Caccia, Spiaggia Rena Bianca, and Costa Smeralda in under two hours.
The sweet town of Ambleside is a gateway to England’s famous Lake District (a World Heritage site). A village green, cosy pubs, and non-chain shops give a sense of local culture while the 17th-century Bridge House, built over the small river, offers a glimpse into the town’s past. Ascending Loughrigg Fell is a popular way to see gorgeous Lake Windermere from above, while ambitious nature walkers can circle the lake on the 45-mile Windermere Way. Grizedale Forest provides more opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding, and even zip-lining through the treetops—keep an eye out for the outdoor art sculptures set throughout the woods.
Pyrgi’s claim to fame is the incredible xysta — black-and-white geometric designs — covering its buildings, arches, balconies, and bell towers. Set on gorgeous Chios, Pyrgi is one of the Aegean island’s two dozen mastikahoria: villages involved in the cultivation of mastic, historically used to make liqueurs, drinks, foods, and chewing gum. But the intricate decorative motifs are unique to Pyrgi and an influence from Genoese control over the island in the Middle Ages — they’re essentially medieval Italian graffiti.
Telč, Czech Republic
The Czech Republic has many tiny towns that look like they’ve sprung from a folk tale. One that is not to be missed is Telč, a UNESCO World Heritage town near the border of Moravia and Bohemia. Telč’s exquisite historic centre seems like the fanciful creation of a Hollywood set designer. Anchored by a Renaissance castle, the triangular main square stuns with candy-coloured stone houses connected by a nonstop line of delicate arches.