As an American living abroad, I’ve been lucky enough to see most of Europe’s iconic cities and landmarks over the past three years. Though simultaneously, I often feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this incredibly diverse and compact continent. The truth is the offbeat destinations in Europe have culture, character, and charm that you simply just can’t find in tourism meccas like Paris or London.
That’s why a few travel bloggers and I decided to compile our top recommendations for the best small towns, villages, and hidden gems across Europe.
1. Rauma, Finland
Rauma is a small town of only 40,000 people in Southwest Finland. Dating back to the 14th century, Rauma is one of the oldest cities in Finland. Historically, Rauma used to be a port of entry into Finland and is still the fifth largest port in the country. It’s the ideal destination for a summer day trip as it lies only 90 km from the city of Turku on the Finnish coast.
What makes Rauma so special is its old town. It is so well preserved and of such historical importance that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stepping foot into the Old Town almost feels like travelling back in time. The colourful wooden houses and uneven cobble-stone streets are simply charming. One of the most iconic spots of Old Rauma is without a doubt Kitukränn, the supposedly narrowest road in Finland (although it is still comfortably walkable).
After World War II Rauma’s industry grew significantly and was a hub for shipbuilding, paper and pulp industries, and the metal industry. However, one of its best-known products is high-quality lace. Lace was first produced in Rauma by unmarried women in the early 19th century as the only means to support themselves financially. It remains the perfect souvenir until today and you’ll find several shops selling it throughout Old Rauma. If you can, come during Lace Week which takes places every year in July. It ends in the Black Lace Night when shops stay open until late and people wear dresses made of Black Lace. It is certainly a unique experience!
2. Patreksfjordur, Iceland
With its 651 inhabitants Patreksfjordur is actually one of the biggest towns in the Westfjords region of Iceland. The Westfjords are so remote and off the beaten track that they have been called “Iceland’s Best Kept Secret”.
Patreksfjordur has a strong fishing industry, if you wander around the harbour in the morning you will often see fishing boats returning from their night expeditions, unloading huge caskets of fish.
The town itself is quaint and very pretty, however for people that are used to active or adventurous holidays it can get a bit boring after a while. One of the main perks of Patreksfjordur is its perfect location, centrally located to some of the most beautiful attractions of the Westfjords, such as the Red Sand Beach, Dynjandi Falls and the Latrabjarg cliffs.
A short drive away from Patreksfjordur you can get to Latrabjarg, the most Western point in Iceland and Europe. Here the land meets the sea with imposing cliffs 440m high. The cliffs are 14km long and home to many puffin and seagulls nests, the perfect place for a walk along the edge of the world!
From Patreksfjordur you can also visit Raudasandur, or the Red Sand Beach. Unlike most beaches in the south of Iceland, which are black due to volcanic activity, this 10km stretch of beach is entirely formed by red sand. Another famous attraction close to Patreksfjordur is Dynjandi Falls, a huge waterfall that is actually composed of 7 smaller waterfalls.
If you’re looking for a destination off the beaten path, Patreksfjordur is the place for you. We spent 4 days discovering this small Icelandic town and the natural beauties that surround it. Find out more about Patreksfjordur and the Westfjords of Iceland here.
3. Arundel, England
The south-east corner of England is the most heavily-populated part of the country. Dominated by the metropolis of London, the airports of Heathrow and Gatwick fill the air with traffic. Surely there can’t be an undiscovered, off-the-beaten-path spot anywhere near this?
Think again! Arundel in West Sussex has recently been named the most mindful town in Europe – beating locations such as Ischia, Ibiza, and Baden-Baden – and is located only a 40 minute train ride from the bustle of Gatwick Airport.
Not that you’ll find any hectic hassles here; the town is based in the beautiful Arun Valley, surrounded by hills with a scenic river flowing through it. Arundel is often overlooked when it comes to compiling itineraries around England, but to do so is to miss a picturesque town with a castle straight from a fairytale.
Built in 1068, the castle is the most impressive reminder of the town‘s history (it has been the home of the dukes of Norfolk for the past 400 years. No, I have no idea why the Duke of Norfolk lives in Sussex, either) , but the cathedral and buildings on the town‘s main street are equally gorgeous and stately. But the town‘s major strength is its natural scenery: being surrounded by the waters of the River Arun, Swanbourne Lake, and the castle’s long moat means that the town is startlingly green.
Trees and foliage are everywhere you look; a walk down to the lake in the summer bathes you in dappled sunlight, and the scent of warm leaves. Hikes around the South Downs National Park allow you to truly connect with nature, and get back in tune with yourself.
And did I mention that the town has an awesome second-hand bookshop? Worth the trip alone!
4. Kinsale, Ireland
While living and working in Ireland last year, I had the pleasure of taking many day trips throughout the Emerald Isle. I was strategically located in Cork county, also know as the “rebel county”, and one of my favorite places to visit was the quaint coastal town called Kinsale.
The vibrant fishing village resembles Alice and Wonderland come to life. The vibrant hues pink, blue, orange, and yellow brighten even the gloomiest rainy days in Ireland. The town is spotted with book stores, unique gift shops, and lots of Irish restaurants and pubs, which bring in quite a bit of tourists in the summer.
Due to it’s prime location right on the water, the town is also know for having some of the best seafood in Ireland. There’s a popular restaurant called “Fishy Fishy” that draws in foodies and locals alike. Thus, a trip to Kinsale is worth it for the seafood alone.
Kinsale also marks the start of the legendary “Wild Atlantic Way” roadtrip route along Ireland’s coast. This makes Kinsale a perfect starting or ending point for an Irish road trip. Otherwise, Kinsale is ideal for a quiet and authentic Irish vacation.
The town has many spas, hotels, and restaurants, while the area is surrounded with beaches and seaside bike trails. You can easily get to Kinsale by bus from Cork city or elsewhere in Ireland. Otherwise, you can fly into Cork City airport, which frequently has affordable flights from London, Amsterdam, and many other locations throughout Europe.
It’s only a matter of time before in-the-know travelers discover that Kinsale is the next Burano!
5. Bacharach, Germany
You can read Michelle’s Ultimate Guide to the Fairytale Town of Bacharach Germany, or connect with her on Instagram.
You can’t have a list of small towns in Europe and not include Bacharach, Germany. Located in the UNESCO World Heritage portion of the Rhine Valley, Bacharach is the quintessential German town. Upon arriving in Bacharach, you will immediately notice the narrow cobblestone streets lined with half-timbered houses. Take note of the surrounding hillside covered in vineyards all protected by the old town walls and Stahleck Castle (which is now a hostel).
Step into St. Peter’s Church to see the original furnishings dating back to the 12th century before smiling for a selfie in front of the oldest house in town, the Altes House. After, follow the path beside St. Peter’s Church up to the Wernerkapelle ruins before continuing on up to the great views awaiting you at Stahleck Castle. After that hike, treat yourself to a specialty of the town, Riesling ice cream!
Despite being a small town in Europe, Bacharach still offers plenty to keep you busy. Cruise the romantic Rhine River, taste some amazing German wine, and explore the many castles that dot this region.
You truly cannot ask for a more relaxing German town than Bacharach.
6. Bled, Slovenia
There are so many off the path small towns in Europe, but my all-time favorite is Bled in Slovenia. It’s about an hour from the capital, Ljubljana and one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever seen. It’s a small, cozy town with a couple restaurants, shops and markets.
The main attraction in Bled is the Lake. It’s absolutely beautiful with a small island in the center and a backdrop of the vast Julian Alps. The lake itself isn’t that big, and it’s quite enjoyable to take an hour and a half stroll around the parameter. It’s the best way to see all of the different scenic views (keep an eye out for a castle perched on a cliff!).
There is a 17th century Gothic Church on the top of the island that has a golden bell which according to legend will grant a wish if it’s rung three times. You can also get some ice cream on the island. To get to there you’ll need to either rent your own rowboat, or take the local boat. Beware, when you get to the island there are a lot of stairs (about 100). It can be tiring to walk to the top.
If you like castles, you can walk up the hill to Bled Castle. It is interesting to walk around and has a pretty good view of the lake. But, if you really want to get a good view of the lake, then take the 20 minute Ojstrica hike. It’s a hill on the south-west part of the lake that will give you a view of the entire lake – the type of view you’d see on a postcard. Just make sure you have proper shoes because it’s a dirt path.
7. San Gimignano, Italy
Photo and entry by Our Escape Clause.
San Gimignano is a city of towers: short and tall, skinny and wide,
medieval towers dominate the skyline of this Tuscan town, making it appear from a distance like some sort of fairytale version of a modern city.
As an important stop on medieval trading routes, beautiful San Gimignano was once made wealthy by the traders passing through–and what better way to show your wealth off for your neighbors than to continually build
bigger and bigger towers?
Though only 15 of the original 72 towers stand in San Gimignano today, it still boasts a unique Tuscan skyline, and is absolutely a town worth adding to your Tuscany itinerary.
Views of the Tuscan countryside from the town walls are breathtaking, SanGimignano’s main square boasts a gelato shop that was twice voted the bestgelato in Italy (Gelateria Dondoli–don’t leave without getting a scoop or two!), and the narrow cobblestone streets are perfect for an afternoon of wandering.
8. Barijardo, Italy
I would never have found the tiny village of Baijardo by myself had I not been teaching English at ACLE summer camps in Italy. ACLE own some of the old buildings in the village and tutors are allowed to stay up there during weeks off. At first I thought it would be too remote, but once I arrived (and lugged my suitcase up the steep steps) I looked up and the setting took my breath away.
Baijardo is an hour’s bus ride from San Remo, a seaside town in the northwest of Italy, not too far from Monaco and France. The village itself is beautiful and very traditional – during the summer there are festas in the town square – and the mountain views are spectacular.
At the top of the hill, where the ACLE accommodation is, there are ruins of an old church that collapsed during an earthquake in 1887. One August night, we watched La Dolce Vita projected onto a screen in the church – it was amazing.
The village is perfect for those who love to hike (or hitchhike – the locals are really lovely!) and the other nearby villages are very artsy; there’s a long history of creative expat communities living in the area.
If you’re looking for somewhere quiet, where you can really think and appreciate nature (and get a real taste of rustic Italian life away from the tourist-filled cities), I’d highly recommend little Baijardo.
9. Sveti Stefan, Montenegro
Usually Croatia gets all the attention on the Adriatic coast. But now Montenegro’s mountainous and coastal landscape is finally starting to get some of the well-deserved spotlight.
Montenegro is situated in the heart of the Balkan region, sharing borders with Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, and Albania. While day trips to Budva and Kotor are popular from Dubrovnik (where I live in Croatia), many miss the luxurious eco escape of the Sveti Stefan area.
Sveti Stefan is technically a private islet 5-star hotel, but the entire area surrounding it is filled with public beaches and some of Montenegro’s most pristine nature.It’s a popular destination for many Russian tourists, but surprisingly, many American and European tourists have never heard of the place.
The lush and green landscape paired with luxury restaurants, beaches, and restaurants can only be described as a combination of Bali meets Miami.
The area is filled with bright and airy coffee shops, Mediterranean style restaurants, and clean-cut walking trails and gardens. Even if you don’t get a chance to stay on the island itself, you can take tours of it to get a glimpse inside!
Sveti Stefan is only about a couple miles away from the bigger town of Budva, so it’s an easy stopping point while on a road trip. Otherwise, you can join skip the crowds of Hvaar and the Almafi Coast and head to Sveti Stefan for a luxury vacation instead!
10. Monsanto, Portugal
Photo and entry by Lara of Heart of Everywhere.
Portugal is not lacking charming places. Although when planning a trip to Portugal most of the tourists tend to visit Lisbon or head south to explore its incredible beaches. There´s another Portuguese region who truly deserves to be explored. And that region is Central Portugal.
Central Portugal is the heart of the country. In this region you can find charming cities with soul, secluded villages hidden in the mountains, beaches with some of the best waves to surf, World Heritage Sites to visit and delicious food to try. But in this region, you can also discover Historical Villages.
Technically, Monsanto isn´t a town, but a tiny village. Monsanto is one of the 12 Historical Villages of Portugal.
All these Historical Villages are strategically located near the border with Spain and were crucial to the defense of Medieval Portugal. All of them offer a step back in time to its visitors and deserve to be visited.
During your trip to Portugal, if you can´t visit all the Historical Villages, visit at least Monsanto. Why? Monsanto is perhaps the most picturesque. The granite houses fit in perfect harmony with all the stones that seem to have landed on them. Nowhere else in the world you will find tiny granite houses who seem to have a big rock on their shoulders.
A perfect day in Monsanto would include climbing to the castle, eating a delicious cherry pastry and getting lost in the village while wandering around the narrow streets in search for the cutest houses.
11. Grenoble, France
France is so much more than just Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, and Notre-Dame. In fact, some of its most beautiful sceneries are hidden down south.
Located at the foot of the French Alps, Grenoble acclaims itself to be the “Capital of the Alps”. Its history goes as far as 2,000 years ago and back then it was only a small Gallic village. In the 18th century, its economy boomed with the expansion of the glove industry and continued to do so into the early 20th century with hydropower development. In 1968, Grenoble even held the X Olympic Winter Games. Today, it is known to be a diverse and multicultural community with over 165,000 inhabitants.
As the city does sit in between two rivers, the Drac and Isère, Grenoble’s geological features are absolutely unparalleled. That said, no visit could be complete without a trip to Bastille. To get to this 19th-century hilltop military fort, simply take the cable car (“Les Bulles” or “Bubbles” because they are literally spherical bubbles) 476m above sea level and enjoy the incredible panoramic views Grenoble has to offer.
Apart from stunning landscapes, this Alps capital is also rich with art museums. Whether you’re an outdoor enthusiast or you enjoy spending time indoors, the city has something for you. Be sure to add Grenoble as a day-trip destination to your travel bucket list for France!
12. Zermatt, Switzerland
One of the most beautiful small town that I have visited in Switzerland was Zermatt. Zermatt is amongst those towns that celebrates the authenticity of the culture and redefines the purity in its rawest form.
Zermatt is a car-free area and hence cars must be parked at Tasche- which is the nearest railway station to Zermatt. From Tasche, it is a 20-minute train ride to this beautiful town. The tickets for the same can be checked at sbb.ch/en.
From an array of Swiss restaurants, cafes and bars that Zermatt has, one is ought to enjoy the best swiss service in best of its format. One must try fondue, raclette, rösti, a meter of shots on the ski board, swiss chocolates and swiss cakes. During spring and summers, the town is decorated in pure joy of festivities that includes dances, recreational activities, stalls of cheese, wine, chocolates and some good food.
Zermatt promises a superlative experience as it proudly boasts of the panoramic views of gigantic Matterhorn. Matterhorn bears the hallmark of an unparalleled charm and unsurpassed beauty. The top most excursion point is Gornergrat that can be reached via a cable car that starts from the town itself. The view of Matterhorn from there is spectacular. Winters are generally marked by ski trails and an unforgettable ski experience. There is also Matterhorn Museum that explains the journey of Zermatt from a mountain village to an Alpine holiday resort.
Any that other offbeat destination in Europeyou think should have made the list? Comment below!
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