From the Norwegian fjords to the Italian island of Sardinia, some cities have an almost indefinable charm that enchants tourists and invites them to linger. Along with attractions, these towns have a real character, a sense of place and a welcoming feel that is irresistible. Some of these charming towns you’ve heard of, but some are hidden secrets that few foreign travelers have discovered. While the cities themselves are the attraction, each of these attractions offers plenty of things to do for tourists.
1 Esslingen, Germany
One of southern Germany’s many half-timbered towns, Esslingen secured its position as an important trading center by building two bridges over the Neckar River, making it an obvious crossroads for medieval traders. More than 200 half-timbered houses from the 13th to 16th centuries are located in the old town of Esslingen, along the picturesque canals and around the market square. These form a magical backdrop for Germany’s most atmospheric Christmas market, when 200 merchants gather, dressed in medieval costumes, to sell authentic crafts from the Middle Ages: glassware, blown glass, wool, wrought iron, carvings and leatherwork are traded amid entertainment by minstrels and jugglers. But visit in any season to stroll through the narrow streets, admire historic churches and taste the many bakeries.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Esslingen
Read also: Tourist Attractions in Germany
2 Lucca, Italy
Although it’s home to some of Tuscany’s most fabulous medieval churches , as well as towers and priceless art treasures, Lucca’s biggest attraction for tourists is that it’s just plain fun to be here. Yes, the carved and inlaid marble of San Michele in Foro’s façade is breathtaking, as are the works of art in the cathedral, and it’s fun to climb the soaring Guinigi tower for a bird’s-eye view. But where else can you find a garden with trees on top of a medieval tower, or a quiet shady promenade on top of the walls that surround the city? Claim a café table in the oval piazza and contemplate the lemon-yellow buildings fashioned from the walls of a Roman arenathat was there. You enter the piazza through tunnels that once admitted spectators. If the whole city seems like a setting for a Puccini opera, it’s no wonder – Lucca was his hometown.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lucca
3 Marvao, Portugal
One of the many jagged hill towns that have long watched Portugal’s border with Spain, Marvão is the most dramatic and one of the best preserved. Perched atop a steep escarpment, the entire village is enclosed by walls and entered through a single gate. The castle, whose origins date back to Moorish occupation, sits at the pinnacle, overlooking a parish church and narrow streets lined with low, whitewashed houses. Walk the well-preserved fortress walls for far-reaching views and admire Marvão’s lonely position on the border. The history of the area goes back long before the castle – in the valley below are the excavated remains of a Roman town.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Marvão
4 Stein am Rhein, Switzerland
The combination of well-maintained half-timbered houses and the colorful frescoes painted on their facades makes Stein am Rhein’s main street almost look like a setting for Hansel and Gretel. But besides being one of the most beautiful villages in Europe, it is a real city and its medieval architecture is original. More timber-frame buildings line the Rhine, on whose banks the city stretches so picturesquely. For an overview – literally, as it sits high above the city – visit Hohenklingen Castle , built in 1225 and now a museum of local history. Another museum is located in the former Benedictine abbey, founded in the 11th century, but the whole town is pure eye candy.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Stein am Rhein
5 Alesund, Norway
When a devastating fire consumed the entire port city of Ålesund in 1904, the tragedy was atoned for by the combination of an economic depression and a new exciting artistic and architectural movement sweeping through Europe. So Ålesund employed the newest – and unemployed – architects fresh out of college. The result is Europe’s only fully Art Nouveau city, filled not with the outrageous heyday of late Art Nouveau, but graceful Nordic interpretations of the early movement. The setting on two islands at the end of a fjord full of mountains perfects the scene and adds an away-from-it-all brilliance. Locals stop by to point out some whimsical details you may have missed, and at the waterfront restaurants, chefs work wonders with the seafood from native waters. The excellent museum explores the history, art and architecture and gives a glimpse into an Art Nouveau house.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Alesund
6 Najac, France
Small and out of the way in southern France’s Midi-Pyrénées, Najac bounds a single street atop a long ridge leading up to a 13th-century chateau . Part of a chain of these royal bastions along the Aveyron valley, it once held Templars in its dungeon after the order was outlawed in 1307. Churches and chapels from the 13th and 14th centuries; a fortified gate; the arcaded 15th-century Place du Barry; and the lovely Fontaine des Consuls , a fountain from 1344, are the highlights. But you’ll want to walk the length of Narjac and check out the castle’s secret passages.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Najac
7 Winchester, England
The unspoilt cathedral city of Winchester rings with history. It was the capital of England from Anglo-Saxon times to the 13th century and the seat of Alfred the Great. You can see his tomb in 11th-century Winchester Cathedral , where William the Conqueror was crowned. The cathedral is filled with architectural and artistic highlights – late Gothic fan vaults, the magnificent 11th century wrought iron Pilgrim’s Gate, 12th and 13th century wall paintings and 16th century wall paintings in the Lady Chapel. There are ruins of the royal castle, the bishop’s palace and the gardens of an abbey founded by King Alfred’s queen, but take time to get a taste of the town for yourself, stopping in the tea rooms and shops and following the River Itchen past ancient buildings and quiet gardens.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Winchester
8 Volterra, Italy
It’s hard to choose between the medieval hill towns in Tuscany and most tourists plan to visit more than one. But Volterra isn’t visited as often as San Gimignano and some others, so it’s a better place to enjoy local life and see the various attractions without lines. Along with the atmospheric old stone streets and cute little piazzas, you’ll find the whole range of Tuscan attractions – significant Etruscan and Roman remains ; 12th and 13th century medieval tower houses ; Renaissance art; and a 19th-century palaceresplendent in carved alabaster, the local artisan specialty. It’s easy to see why it’s always listed as one of the best old towns in Europe.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Volterra
9 Honfleur, France
The bustle of boats in the fishing harbor and the random mix of stonework, half-timbered facade and pastel plaster on the house just add to the happy-go-lucky air of this Normandy seaport. Samuel de Champlain sailed from here to explore the New World, and the Musée de la Marine delves into the port’s long seafaring and shipbuilding history. The art museum displays 200 works by Impressionist Eugène Boudin and his contemporaries Monet, Courbet, Millet and others. Come in and admire the ceiling of the late Gothic Church of Sainte-Catherine , built by local shipbuilders, then linger for ice cream and enjoy the scene.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Honfleur
10 Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
Although it is really a city, Český Krumlov’s beautifully preserved Old Town is a village of its own, with ramparts within the walls and caught in the bend of the Vltava River. Almost hidden beneath the steep gabled roofs is a maze of narrow cobbled streets surrounding the 13th-century castle . Like the city itself, this medieval complex showcases styles from the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras. The entire center has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site . After visiting the castle, the Church of St. Vitus , and the Minorite Monastery , stroll through the ancient streets and view the city from the river on a boat trip.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Cesky Krumlov
11 Sintra, Portugal
A short train ride from Lisbon, Sintra is not a quaint little Portuguese village. Instead there is a fairytale charm, a feeling that you have stepped out of the real world and into a castle, palace or garden where elves could swim from a camellia blossom or nymphs in the fountains. Castles and palaces seem to be everywhere, one more beautiful than the next, and all set in lush tropical gardens that spill over the steep hillsides. Five are open for tour, ranging from a real medieval fortress and two royal palaces(a multicolored and turreted Victorian confection) to an extravagant Moorish silliness and a faux Knights Templar fantasy. You can’t help but be swept up in its almost make-believe and charmed by its glorious gardens.
12 Wismar, Germany
Once part of the powerful Hanseatic League of trading cities, this historic Baltic seaport has retained so much of its medieval center and harbor that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well-preserved Hansa architecture. A walk through the winding streets reveals half-timbered houses; characteristic stepped facades; the fascinating medieval Church of the Holy Ghost; and a pair of mammoth brick churches – the 36-meter nave of Saint Nicholas, built in 1381, is one of the largest of these Gothic giants found along the northern coast of Germany. Wismar’s harbor looks much like it did in Hansa’s days, and you can see it on a cruise on the single-hull sailing vessel Wissemara, a replica of a traditional Hansa Kogge. Weather permitting, have lunch with the locals in the harbour, where fishing boats sell fischbrötchen – crispy rolls filled with marinated herring, smoked prawns, lox or smoked salmon.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Wismar
13 Laguardia, Sleep
Laguardia rises above the Rioja, south of Bilbao, on top of a hill, its tightly packed stone buildings enclosed by massive stone walls. During its tumultuous medieval past, the rock below was carved into a maze of tunnels for shelter and escape routes when the city came under attack. Today, some of these tunnels house shops and cozy cafes beneath the medieval buildings that line the narrow streets. You can climb the route followed by medieval pilgrims on the Way of Saint James, from the Romanesque church of San Juan Bautista to the top of the village and the church of Santa María de los Reyes . Just look inside to see the painted stone carvings of the beautiful original portal,one of the most beautiful Gothic portals in Spain . Follow the walls around the church for views of the valley below and the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range beyond.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Laguardia
14 Bosa, Sardinia
Bosa rises from a row of pastel-hued houses along the palm-fringed riverbank, through a warren of medieval lanes and passageways to the 12th-century Malaspina Castle far above. The narrow main street is lined by noble palazzi, now housing shops, galleries and a museum. Climb your way through the warren of tiny streets, steps and tiny squares to get a sense of this remote town a millennia ago and marvel at the unusual 14th-century frescoes in the castle’s chapel. For breathtaking views, follow the coast north from Bosa to Alghero, a larger but equally enchanting city reminiscent of its Spanish past. This west coast of Sardinia is light years away from the glitz of the more famous Costa Smeralda.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bosa
15 Locronan, France
Located between two peninsulas in western Brittany Finistère, the medieval stone town of Locronan is close to some of the most beautiful Atlantic beaches . Medieval buildings mingle with 18th-century mansions, and the town is the scene of a traditional Breton pilgrimage festival known as the Grande Troménie pardon , held every six years. The nearby Chapelle Sainte-Anne-la-Palud is an important pilgrimage site, where the faithful venerate a statue of Saint Anne. The village of Locronan has shops and studios displaying the works of local artisans and the area is renowned for its excellent seafood, especially the mussels.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Locronan
Annaberg-Buchholz is Germany’s Christmas town more than any other. Located in the steep slopes of the Ore Mountains – the country’s center for woodcarving – Annaberg-Buchholz and the surrounding communities are responsible for the majority of wooden Christmas decorationsassociated with the holiday. From little pink wooden-cheeked angels to gruff nutcrackers to tabletop carousels spinning from the heat of a single candle, if you find them at a German Christmas market it’s a good bet they came from here. But Annaberg-Buchholz and his woodcarving are not just about Christmas. Its churches are alive with beautifully carved altars, pulpits, wainscoting, ceilings, and lifelike statues, and shop windows brim with the art of woodcarvers. Hidden in a deep valley below the compact town center is a medieval hammer mill, its giant wooden gears still powered by a meandering stream.
More places to find charming places in Europe
You will find charming towns all over Europe, from Iceland to Greece. But some places seem to have more than their fair share. The Black Forest, south of Stuttgart in Germany, is full of cozy half-timbered villages. The Tyrolean Alps and their foothills in Bavaria and Austria are home to idyllic mountain villages, some of which are home to Europe’s best ski resorts. Fishing villages hide in secluded coves near some of the top-rated beaches in Italy and Portugal. Tuscany is dotted with hilltop towns such as Montepulciano, many of which can be reached on day trips from Florence.