Where to see Europe’s best hilltop towns

CNN  — 

Picturesque hilltops aren’t always wild and empty.

Some are adorned by ancient castles or churches, with pretty towns teetering on the edge. These vertiginous villages exude a special aura and offer far-reaching vistas over the landscape below.

For a glimpse of the high life, here are 14 of the most beautiful hilltop towns in Europe:

1. St Michael’s Mount, England

This conical tidal island sits opposite the pretty village of Marazion in the middle of Mount’s Bay in Cornwall. Perhaps the most famous sight in southwestern England, the outcrop is home to a medieval castle and church, dating from the 12th century, as well as a smattering of homes overlooking the water.

The island can be reached via a causeway at low tide. Swimmers sometimes brave the half-mile journey, too.

2. Mont Saint-Michel, France

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A medieval abbey trapped by tides... and time
01:10 - Source: Great Big Story

Perhaps the most famous hilltop village in France if not all of Europe, Mont Saint-Michel in Brittany has been home to a monastery since the 8th century. Today about 40 people call it home.

The lower walls and simple fishermen’s houses rise steeply to a spectacular abbey, upon which Cornwall’s St Michael’s Mount was based. In fact, the two belonged to the same monastic order in the 11th century.

At low tide, pilgrims can walk across the sand and scale the ramparts.

3. Oia, Santorini, Greece

The countless cruise ships and daily tourist flights can make the tiny island of Santorini feel cramped.

Yet brave the crowds and head to Oia, on the northern tip of the most famous caldera in Greece, and you’ll find a picture-postcard village of white houses, windmills and blue-domed churches. Few Greek islands can match the sunset from here, best viewed from a rooftop bar with an ice-cold Mythos beer in hand.

4. Heptonstall, Yorkshire, England

Perched above the town of Hebden Bridge, Heptonstall’s cobbled streets retain a spooky, mystical feel. Accusations of witchcraft were rampant here in the 1600s, with this part of Yorkshire known for its history of paganism.

The ruins of a 12th century church loom over the valley, while the graveyard of its 19th century replacement is the burial place of poet Sylvia Plath. Her former husband, the poet Ted Hughes, was born in nearby Mytholmroyd.

5. Bardi, Italy

Bardi is dominated by the ninth-century Castello dei Landi which peers over the Ceno Valley in northern Italy.

At a distance, Bardi, just a short drive from Parma, seems impossible to reach. The ramparts of the ninth-century Castello dei Landi are built on sheer rock, but the winding road switches back and forth before emerging onto a small square, home to the pretty church of San Giovanni Battista.

With a handful of coffee spots and pizza joints, there’s ample time to indulge in the local cuisine as well as all that culture.

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6. Beaumes-de-Venise, France

Sipping on a glass of locally made Cotes du Rhone with views over the vineyards, it’s hard not fall in love with Beaumes-de-Venise, named after the caves found in the surrounding hills.

The drive up from the wine trail which runs through this part of Provence offers stunning views of the craggy Dentelles de Montmirail, the foothills of Mont Ventoux. The narrow streets wind up to the ruins of a 12th century chateau. Perfect for walking off lunch.

7. Bad Gastein, Austria

Bad Gastein, Austria: Cold winters, warm waters.

Deep in the Austrian Alps, Bad Gastein has a long history as a spa town. The thermal spring waters draw thousands of visitors a year, but its position high in the mountains and its spot right on top of the Gastein waterfall mean it’s a mecca for climbers, skiers and adventurers, too.

Its Belle Époque hotels help make it one of Austria’s most charming villages.

8. Arcos de la Frontera, Spain

Andalucia’s pueblos blancos (white villages) are some of the most stunning, precariously built villages in Europe. And Arcos is the most famous.

With a Moorish castle dating back to the 11th century, a string of awe-inspiring churches and basilicas and, of course, those classic, whitewashed houses, this is a village that demands to be photographed and marveled at from every angle.

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9. Grindelwald, Switzerland

In the shadow of the Eiger, Grindelwald is arguably Switzerland’s most beautiful village. Its classic wooden chalets sit among some of the highest mountains in the Alps, making it the ultimate destination for skiers in winter.

Hikers and climbers pour in over the summer months looking to conquer the peaks or simply walk the 300 kilometers of surrounding trails, with classic views back down the valley and over the rooftops.

10. Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy

Civita di Bagnoregio is slowly disappearing. The plateau on which this arresting little village stands is crumbling away. Many of its classic stone buildings have been lost down the centuries since it was first settled 2,500 years ago.

Today, tourism keeps this beautiful hilltop village alive, its tiny population truly living on the edge. The gorgeous San Donito church can be seen for miles around above the Tiber River valley.

11. Groznjan, Croatia

Croatia’s Istria peninsula is blessed with a number of hilltop villages. But none are as captivating as Groznjan.

Dubbed “the town of artists” because of the large number of musicians, painters and thinkers who moved here in the 1950s, there are galleries galore to explore. Views over the Mirna Valley, plus its baroque churches, make it worth lingering in Groznjan for a few days.

12. Mdina, Malta

Mdina, Malta: City of conquests.

Malta does a fine line in hilltop towns, but none are as special as Mdina. The one-time capital of this Mediterranean island, the city still sits behind its ancient walls.

St. Paul is said to have spent time here after being shipwrecked off the coast, while various religious orders maintain a strong presence in Mdina’s monasteries and convents. Palaces built by conquerors from as far as Normandy and Spain dominate the skyline.

13. Taormina, Sicily, Italy

A stop on the classic 19th century Grand Tour, Taormina still draws in the tourists.

It can get hectic, but it’s easy to see why: dazzling vistas of the big blue; the vast Teatro Antico, Sicily’s second largest Greek theater; views to the smoldering Mount Etna; and the boutique-filled Corso Umberto I. All go to make Taormina one of Italy’s most special hilltop towns, a true gem on an island full of treasures.

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14. Monsaraz, Portugal

Believed to be one of the oldest settlements in Portugal, Monsaraz’s hilltop location has been occupied by a string of different conquerors down the years, from the Moors to the Visigoths.

Today, its 14th century castle pulls in the crowds, the village’s walls offering huge views of the surrounding olive groves and nearby Alqueva Dam. The locally produced wine is best sipped in a small café while watching the sunset.