We’ll always have Paris. And Amsterdam, Berlin and Rome. But the heart of Europe is often found in its small towns, not only in its bustling capitals. From Mediterranean islands to Bohemian castle complexes, and from the heart of Transylvania to the hills of England’s Cotswolds, these ten gems prove that small can be beautiful.
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
The UNESCO-listed old town in South Bohemia has well-preserved architecture, elegant gardens and one of the largest medieval castle complexes in Central Europe. The castle, which dates from the 13th century, has a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements and a bell tower with panoramic views of the city. Stay: The 16th-century Hotel Růže is one of the town’s best-maintained historic estates.
This formerly sleeping fishing village in western Portugal is one of just two World Surfing Reserves in Europe, thanks to its dozens of beaches with good conditions and champion instructors. But even for those who prefer to keep their feet dry, it has a lot to offer, including charming architecture, a variety of great restaurants and a growing community of international creatives. Stay: Aethos Ericeira sits on a cliff just outside the city and has terrific ocean views and a significant wellness program.
This town in the Viterbo region of northern Lazio has many of the charms of Tuscany but fewer of the crowds. It has a well-preserved old city and impressive churches, palaces and squares, and nearby Lake Bolsena is the largest volcanic lake in Europe, good for swimming and a steady supply of freshwater fish. Stay: VesConte is an impeccably restored aristocratic home-turned-luxury boutique hotel that’s been in the same family for 500 years.
Hall in Tirol, Austria
As the name suggests Hall in Tirol is a town in the Tyrolean Alps near Innsbruck with a nicely restored medieval center (making it the largest old town in Tyrol), a grand castle and the mint where the world’s first thaler (of which dollar is the Anglicized form) was pressed. Its cultural calendar includes typical celebrations like a Christmas market and Easter festival, and also less-typical ones like the Radish Festival festive cattle drives. Stay: The four-star Classic Hotel Heiligkreuz has been run by the same family for three generations.
Improbable and dramatic, the Andalusian town of Ronda is perched on either side of a deep gorge. The “new town” dates partly from the 15th century, while the old town goes back to Moorish rule. Puente Nuevo, the stone bridge that connects the two sides is a feat of engineering, and the 18th-century bullring-turned-museum offers a glimpse into one of Spain’s traditions. Stay: The historic Parador de Ronda sits on the edge of the gorge and has splendid views.
Stará Ľubovňa, Slovakia
With a history dating from 1292, the riverside town of Stará Ľubovňa attracts tourists with its mixture of history, culture and nature—the area is good for hiking and other countryside recreation. Cultural programming includes the Castle Days held at the imposing Ľubovňa Castle, a midsummer fires festival and the Saint Hubert Festival, which is held in an open-air museum and includes deer calling presentation and blessings of the animals. Stay: Pension Kolkáreň mixes a mountain lodge vibe with a central location.
The riverside Rhineland town of Cochem charms with its colorful, waterfront buildings and impressive, 11th-century Reichburg Cochem, a medieval castle that has excellent views over the vineyards of the Moselle Valley. (There’s also excellent local wine.) It’s particularly lovely in autumn, when the trees on the hillside turn into a patchwork of colors. Stay: Moselromantik Hotel Panorama is just what the name suggests, an elegant, romantic hotel beside the river with lovely views.
One of the most beautiful villages in Britain, Bibury oozes Cotswolds charm. It’s a place of old stone houses and lush green hedges and lawns. The 17th-century weavers’ cottages of Arlington Row are some of the most photographed homes in the country, and the town is full of atmospheric, old-school pubs such as the Catherine Wheel, which dates from the 15th century. Stay: The Swan Hotel offers a quintessential English countryside retreat in the center of the village, with 18 bedrooms in the main house and four private cottages in the gardens.
A former European Capital of Culture, the Transylvanian town of Sibiu is known for its Germanic architecture in the old town, a legacy of the 12th-century Saxon settlers. The medieval walls, towers and squares of the UNESCO-listed historic center are well preserved. A main attraction is the cast-iron Bridge of Lies, so called because of the legends that surround it—including the one that says it was often crossed by lovers who made grand promises to one another and were then tossed off when those promises proved untrue. Stay: Maison Elysée is a lovely boutique hotel reminiscent of the Baroque era, set in a historic building close to the town center.
It doesn’t get much further north than Reine, a municipality on the island of Moskenesøya in the Lofoten archipelago above the Arctic Circle. The island is an ideal place for seeing the northern lights or soaking up the midnight sun. It’s also something else that’s increasingly rare these days, an actual fishing village, albeit one that’s set in picturesque fjords that have been featured in magazines and advertising all over the world. Stay: The lovely Reine Rorbuer bills itself as a “get away from it all” place where guests won’t necessarily be alone but they will be with like-minded silence seekers.
On the southern tip of the French island of Corsica. Bonifacio is known for its lively marina and medieval clifftop citadel. The 13th-century Bastion de l’Etendard houses a museum with exhibitions about the town’s history, and nearby, the uninhabited Lavezzi Islands are a nature reserve with granite boulders and sandy beaches. Stay: Hotel Version Maquis Citadelle has stylish rooms, an infinity pool, and outstanding views.