The notion of postcard-perfect European villages steeped in old-world charm has inspired centuries of travelers to fan out across the continent, seeking its secluded hamlets.
As a result, Europe’s scenic spots rarely remain hidden for long. It doesn’t take much to make a charming village feel uncomfortably popular. Consider the five fishing villages that make up Italy’s Cinque Terre, where an evening summertime stroll often feels like shuffling through a packed amusement park, complete with overpriced restaurants and souvenir shops.
But just an hour’s drive down the coast from those crowds is Tellaro, another beautiful seaside village that is less accessible and thus blissfully unspoiled. A similar sense of discovery is the major draw in overlooked regions that house pint-size gems like the Alsatian village of Colmar, France, where bakeries sell both croissants and kugelhopf.
The first requirement of a beautiful European village is a scenic location, whether among the Norwegian fjords or the sun-splashed Greek Isles. But the finest also have distinctive features like the plaza ringed with high-gabled pastel façades in Telč, Czech Republic, or the unforgettable Victorian castle rising above the thatched roofs of Cong, Ireland.
Reaching some of these European beauties requires extra effort, yet the rewards are dazzling. Your eyes will thank you.
The snaking clifftop roads and a minuscule harbor have protected Tellaro from the wave of tourism that has swallowed other Ligurian seaside towns like Vernazza and Portofino. A jumble of pastel buildings clings vertiginously to the sheer cliffs of Tellaro. The Golfo dei Poeti where it’s located is named for the poets and literary icons like Lord Byron and D. H. Lawrence who have sought inspiration in this Mediterranean haven.
The hilly Cotswold region is a designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” in southwestern England, and one of its loveliest villages is Bibury, where verdant meadows abut ancient stone cottages with steep pitched roofs. The River Coln, which bisects the village, teems with trout, but the most scenic area is Arlington Row, a lane of sepia-hued cottages built in the 17th century to house weavers from the nearby Arlington Mill.
The storybook town of Hallstatt in central Austria enjoys a gorgeous setting on the bank of the Hallstätter See, between the pristine lake and a lush mountain that rises dramatically from the water’s edge. A history of salt mining dating back thousands of years has translated into enduring prosperity for the town, which is most evident in the beautiful square ringed with ivy-covered buildings.
Santorini’s streets sag with admirers, but on Folegandros, a nearby island in the Cyclades, you’ll find similar architecture — streets paved in slate, whitewashed buildings decorated with colorful flowers, the occasional Greek Orthodox church with a bright blue dome — without the crowds. For a secluded swim, trek to Katergo, a sheltered stretch of beach where gentle, emerald-blue waves lap the pebbly shore.
French and German influences comingle in this well-preserved Alsatian village, where local bakeries sell both croissants and kugelhopf, and restaurants specialize in foie gras and sauerkraut (or choucroute). A range of architectural styles, from German Gothic to French Neo-Baroque, can be spotted in the old town, which was spared destruction during World War II — thanks in part to the historical beauty of its cobblestoned lanes, quiet canals, and half-timbered houses.
North of the Arctic Circle, Reine is a pretty fishing village in the Lofoten archipelago, an area of starkly beautiful Nordic wilderness, where sapphire bays punctuate fjords and mountains. Many of the bright red fishermen’s cabins (called rorbuer) have been converted into comfortable cottages for visitors that offer direct access to the Norwegian Sea. Settle in for a front-row view of the night sky and its mesmerizing entertainment, from summer’s midnight sun to winter’s northern lights.
Telč, Czech Republic
Residents of Telč, a small town in south Moravia, were once quite competitive about the beauty of their homes, as is evident today on the elongated main square, where every building is lovelier than the next. The Baroque- and Renaissance-style façades, featuring high gables painted in pale pastels, now support small shops and cafés. A grand Renaissance-era château and large fish-filled ponds surround the square.
A sliver of medieval Spain has been preserved within the fortified walls of this village, which is surrounded by the hills of the central Aragon region. Down Albarracín’s narrow alleys and winding lanes await ancient stone towers and ocher-hued castles and chapels. Towering above it all is a cathedral built in the region’s typical Mudéjar style with ornamental detailing rooted in Islamic art.
The buses and cruise ships that stop along Croatia’s sunny Dalmatian coast unleash tourists eager to experience the charms of Dubrovnik and the ancient island village of Hvar. Fewer visitors find their way to Pučišća on the island of Brač. The reward is a seaside village with outsize appeal: white-stone villas with terracotta roofs, narrow cobblestoned alleys, and a stone-paved square. Bask in its relative solitude and the many prime spots for swimming in the turquoise Adriatic Sea.
Encircled by streams, the picturesque village of Cong straddles the border between County Mayo and County Galway — a region of lakes and vibrantly green meadows dotted with grazing sheep. Cong is home to numerous stone bridges, the ruins of a medieval abbey, the occasional thatched-roof cottage, and Ashford Castle, a grand Victorian estate that has been converted into a romantic luxury hotel.
Gruyères is famous for its namesake cheese with a mild, nutty flavor that melts so well in fondue. But few are familiar with the town itself, a medieval hamlet in the upper valley of the Saane River in western Switzerland. A wide, stone-paved street leads up to the magnificent 13th-century Gruyères Castle, with its imposing fortifications and expansive views of the surrounding Alpine foothills.
This small Alpine town in northwestern Slovenia rings the shore of Lake Bled, where glacial blue waters surround a tiny island and its small Baroque church. After a 90-ish-minute stroll around the lake, hike to the medieval hilltop castle for panoramic views or recharge with a slice of the local specialty: kremšnita, a sugar-topped pastry filled with cream and custard that has been served for decades at the Hotel Park.
Within the crenelated walls of Óbidos on a hilltop near Portugal’s western coast, remnants of medieval Iberia live on. Since enchanting Queen Isabel in the 13th century (the town was a gift from her husband, King Dinis), Óbidos has continued to impress visitors who pass through its formidable fortifications. Inside the ramparts is a warren of whitewashed villas draped with bougainvillea trees, plus cobblestoned walkways and plenty of bars serving ginjinha, a local liquor made with sour cherries.
A winding mountain road leads to the remote Alpine village of Guarda in the Lower Engadine, a rugged region in eastern Switzerland that has none of the flash found in neighboring Upper Engadine (known for exclusive ski resorts like St. Moritz). Amid mountain peaks and verdant meadows, this enclave stands out for its quaint architecture, with many handsome houses adorned with traditional paintings, etched windows, and ancient inscriptions called sgraffiti. While wandering the quiet lanes, listen for locals speaking Romansh, a language that survives only in this isolated region.
On the southeastern coast of Malta, Marsaxlokk is an ancient fishing village whose harbor brims with old-fashioned fishing boats called luzzijiet (singular: luzzu). Painted with eyes on the bows, these colorful boats reel in much of the tuna, swordfish, and local lampuki (mahimahi) that’s served at harborside seafood restaurants and sold at the Sunday fish market. A short walk down the coast is St. Peter’s Pool, a hidden cove ringed with smooth limestone ledges from which locals dive into the crystal-clear sea.
Those seeking a reprieve from city life will find the serenity of simpler times in Giethoorn. Instead of roads, the car-free village has miles of canals, so the primary means of transport is by boat. Float down the narrow canals, past thatched-roof farmhouses and cottages encircled by blooming gardens, and beneath dozens of wooden bridges that connect each grassy plot of land. Or return in the winter, when ice skaters glide on the frozen canals.
Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia
In the center of a vast caldera, this well-preserved medieval town in southern Slovakia — an easy day-trip from Budapest — is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area, rich with silver ore, fueled the village’s prosperity, which today is still visible in the Romanesque and Renaissance castles, Gothic and Neoclassical churches, and elegant squares that make up the historic center. Although excavation operations ceased a century ago, the ancient silver and gold mines have been transformed into an open-air museum.
On the banks of the winding Moselle River, Cochem is a sleepy German village with traditional half-timbered houses ringing the central square and cute cottages lining the cobblestoned lanes. A stroll along the lovely riverside promenade affords views of the town’s castle atop a nearby hill. And the surrounding vineyards of the misty Moselle Valley — where terraced vines cling to impossibly steep slopes — offer ample opportunity to sample the region’s flowery white wines.
Far from the glitzy beach resorts that have many complaining about overdevelopment in Sardinia, Bosa remains an unspoiled gem on the island’s northwestern coast. The medieval town, on the banks of the Temo River, has an attractive riverfront lined with palm trees and palazzi painted in pastel hues. The historic center, crowned by a hilltop fortress from the 12th century, is all stone steps, shady piazzas, and houses with wrought-iron balconies.
Kazimierz Dolny, Poland
Artists have long flocked to this well-preserved hamlet near the Vistula River in central Poland. The untouched nature surrounding Kazimierz Dolny — including gorges and otherworldly tunnels created from intertwined tree roots — has provided inspiration for painters. But the town itself, with its stone-paved market square and Renaissance-era monuments, is also packed with art. For proof, tour the many galleries of Polish art tucked away on side streets.
Beautiful in a classically Swedish way, Rättvik is found between acres of forest and the clear water of Lake Siljan in Dalarna, the central region many consider to be the authentic heart of Sweden. Around town, historic wooden buildings are painted falu rödfärg — the deep red color born in the copper mine of nearby Falun. Local shops are filled with handmade crafts like decorative Dala horses, a symbol of Sweden that originated in the region. And during holidays and festivals, the streets fill with locals showing off their finest traditional dress.
On a slim stretch of land between steep cliffs and the Meuse River sits Dinant, a historic town in Belgium’s French-speaking Wallonia region. Beer connoisseurs may know of Dinant as the birthplace of Leffe, one of the best-known Belgian beers, which was named after Notre-Dame de Leffe, the local abbey where monks began brewing in the 13th century. It also offers marvelous bird’s-eye views from the cliff-top citadel that overlooks the compact town’s Gothic-style cathedral and pear-shaped bell tower.