Paris, Rome, Barcelona… Europe’s cities are bucket list destinations, and rightly so. But the continent’s small towns are a dream, too, with all the beautiful architecture and much of the culture you’ll find in the big hitters, only with fewer crowds to share them with.
Here are some of the prettiest small towns across Europe, from humble fishing towns to hilltop medieval power bases.
They call it the Dutch answer to Venice, but Giethoorn lacks one crucial thing that the Italian city has in spades: overtourism. As in Venice, life revolves around the water, here – there are no cars in the center so the only way to get around is on foot or on the water.
Take a boat tour around the thatched houses sitting on peat-filled islands. Hungry? Stop at the Michelin-starred restaurant Hollands-Venetië.
Guimarães is crucial to Portugal’s history – it was named the country’s first capital in the 12th century, and its medieval core remains largely intact, full of convents, grand old palaces and a crumbling castle, perched on top of a bluff.
Like everywhere in Portugal, local bakeries make a mean pastel de nata, but here you should try the local speciality: torta di Guimarães – a pastry filled with squash and ground almonds.
Port towns can be grubby. Not lovely little Roscoff, though, in France’s Brittany region, which built its fortune on maritime trade, including exporting its famous pink onions to the UK.
Today, it’s a center of thalassotherapy, using seawater to treat medical conditions, as well as a beautiful Breton town. Tiny fishing boats bob in the small harbor – with a larger one, where ferries leave for Plymouth in the UK, further out.
Hovering on a hillside near the Tuscan-Umbrian border, Anghiari is a delight – a tiny walled town curling round itself as it clings to the landscape.
It’s a pedestrianized warren of alleyways and roller-coastering streets, packed full of grand palazzi which were built by the mysterious, mercenary “men of arms” who lived here in the Renaissance period.
Find out more about them at the Museo della Battaglia di Anghiari, which traces the history of a momentous medieval battle which took place on the plain outside town.
Gorgeous Nafplio straddles the Aegean Sea in the Peloponnese, with its Venetian-built castle thrusting into the water (in fact, there are three castles to visit here) and a pretty Old Town spooling out behind the old walls.
This was the first capital of modern Greece, so there are things to do in spades. There’s a lido, if you want to take a safe dip in the sea, and if history’s more your thing, the archeological museum contains items dating back to the Mycenean age.
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzigovina
Mostar’s Stari Most, or “Old Bridge,” built by the Ottomans in the 16th century, was long considered one of the finest examples of Balkan Islamic architecture.
Arcing high across the Neretva river, it’s one of the most famous sights in the Balkans, and traditionally locals dive from the bridge – today it’s a stop on the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.
The bridge was destroyed in November 1993 by Croat forces during the Balkan wars. A reconstructed bridge was built in 2004, and today, Mostar is a beloved destination in Bosnia and Herzigovina, and a popular day trip from Dubrovnik, over the border in Croatia.
Mazara del Vallo, Sicily
Sicily is a melting pot, and Mazara del Vallo typifies that. Founded by the Phoenicians nearly 3,000 years ago, it’s seen myriad cultures flow throungh the island – its Kasbah area is similar to a north African medina, there’s a strong Tunisia community, and you’ll be more likely to find couscous on the menu than pasta.
Its stand out attraction is the Satiro Danzante, or dancing satyr – an ancient bronze statue fished out of the sea in 1998.
Donkeys used to be the only way to get up and down the steep streets of Clovelly, a pretty fishing village in Devon, southwest England.
Today, they still haven’t managed to bring cars in – it sits at the bottom of a 400-foot cliff. Instead, goods are transported by man-powered sledges – and if tourists can’t face the walk back up to the car park, they can grab a ride in a Land Rover instead.
A cute historic center, timbered houses and stout towers – Dinkelsbühl has it all. It sits plum on Germany’s “Romantic Road” – a route known for its ravishing towns.
Wrapped by medieval walls with a vast Gothic church, St George’s Minster, it was the setting for Werner Herzog’s film “The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser.”
When an island sitting peacefully in the Adriatic Sea just isn’t enough, there’s Korčula, striking out from the island of the same name on a tiny peninsula.
Locals say adventurer Marco Polo was born here; Venetians dispute that. Either way, it’s a world-class town, with gleaming white streets and buildings hewn from local stone, water almost all the way round, and beautiful buildings left by the Venetians, who ruled here for centuries.
On the southwestern tip of Ireland, the land melts into the ocean in County Kerry. Kenmare dandles on the bay of the same name, where the Roughty River slides into the sea.
This is in the middle of some of Ireland’s best loved ares – it’s on the Wild Atlantic Way, between the Ring of Kerry and the Ring of Beara. Kenmare is known for its food, and for its views – with grand mountains rearing up behind the pristine bay.
Slovenia only has a sliver of coastline, located on the top of the wedge-shaped Istrian peninsula, hanging in the Adriatic Sea.
Though small, this stretch of coast, sandwiched between Italy and Croatia, is home to several beautiful towns, including Piran. Developed by the Venetians, who conquered it in 1283, it’s a beautiful mini Venice, with a stout belltower, frothy architecture, and fishing boats docked in the tiny harbor.
You want: a cute Norwegian town – remote, tiny, and waterside.You need: Reine, the joy of the Lofoten Islands, whose pretty red cabins sit at the base of craggy mountain peaks that make this a cross between the Dolomites and Ha Long Bay.
This is one of the most spectacular spots in the Lofoten archipelago – with a jawdropping viewpoint of the islands and the village, Reinebringen, just outside.
As far as Spain’s tourist-filled coastlines go, the Costa Brava, in Catalonia, is relatively quiet – but it doesn’t hold a candle to peaceful Regencos, just 10 minutes inland. Just south of the “Dali Triangle,” the area where the surrealist artist lived and worked, it’s a mountain-fringed area of quiet medieval villages.
Regencos, slightly larger, has remnants of its medieval walls, a pretty church, and traditional stone houses whirling out from the center.
First things first – this is a city. But wander the Old Town and you’ll find it still has that small-town feel, with pretty medieval buildings that give a feel of how nearby Krakow was before mass tourism arrived.
The Old Town square is a glorious mix of architectural styles, there’s a beautiful gothic church and a lot of Jewish heritage – though the community was more or less wiped out during the Second World War.
Top image: Nafplio, Greece. Credit: Adobe Stock