Planning a trip to Europe? Consider bypassing its more famous cities, with their hordes of tourists, and soak up the vibe in some of these small historic towns, villages and cities instead.
St Gallen, Switzerland
Named after Irish missionary monk Gallus, who founded a hermitage here around 612, Gallen was an important hub of culture in the Middle Ages. Its traffic-free old town is filled with colourfully-painted oriel windows and it has a university, Baroque cathedral and Abbey library with an exquisite Rococo hall which houses around 170,000 documents, some of which are more than a thousand years old.
St Gallen. Image: MySwitzerland.com
Parts of the Hollywood movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves were filmed in and around this UNESCO World Heritage-listed medieval hilltop town in southern France. The fortified town has a fairytale castle, more than 50 towers and a Gothic cathedral, with food markets held in Place Carnot every Saturday morning.
Built by the Moors (Spanish Muslims) on cliffs above the Huecar River, this dramatic well-preserved city has wonderful views over the surrounding countryside. It is also home to Spain’s first Gothic cathedral.
Set against a large rock mountain, this cute, colourful waterfront town was a favourite of Hollywood actress Ingrid Bergman, who stayed here for more than 20 summers with her children from 1958 to 1982. The small fishing village is also the setting for Camilla Läckberg’s murder mysteries and you can do tours to see sights from her books.
The well-preserved wooden buildings of this former mining town date back to the 1600s, leading to its UNESCO World Heritage listing. The small town is like a living museum, with narrow streets and delightful courtyards.
Perched along the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the white villages of Las Alpujarras were the last stronghold of the Moors. The most famous are the three that lie on the slopes of the Poqueira Valley. Trevelez is the highest village in Europe and known for its delicious jamon (ham).
Ohrid, Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
The iconic image of Church of St John (or Jovan), which overlooks one of the world’s oldest and deepest lakes, defines Ohrid. Wander the narrow cobblestone streets of the medieval old town, see where gladiators fought in the city’s well-preserved ancient theatre, visit the Game of Thrones-esque fortress and take boat cruises to cave churches, fishing villages and monasteries.
Austria’s second-largest city is known for its Renaissance and baroque architecture, hilltop castle, medieval clock tower and vibrant nightlife.
Only 28km from Croatia’s famous city Dubrovnik, which doubles as King’s Landing in Game of Thrones, Trebinje somehow avoided being destroyed during the war. It has old mills lining the river it was built beside, an Ottoman stone bridge and large 9th century fortress.
La Alberca, Spain
The first rural village in Spain to be given National Historic Heritage status, La Alberca is in the Castile and Leon region. Fall in love with its narrow winding streets, timber and stone houses with balconies overflowing with flowers and cobblestone main square.
Aix en Provence, France
Often referred to as the city of a thousand fountains, this university city in southern France’s Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region was the birthplace of post-Impressionist artist Paul Cézanne, who often painted the white limestone mountain that overlooks it and the surrounding countryside. Wander the narrow, twisting streets of the old town, dine al fresco at Ernest Hemingway’s one-time haunt Deux Garçons and take a day trip to the picturesque 1000-year-old Luberon villages, which are built into the hillside.
San Cristóbal de La Laguna, Spain
Founded in the late 15th century with a grid-like design, San Cristóbal de La Laguna in the Canary Islands served as a model for many cities built in South America when it was under Spanish rule, including Lima and Havana. Divided into the upper town and lower town, it is filled with colourful colonial buildings, squares, convents and palaces.
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Leiden, The Netherlands
Home to the oldest university in The Netherlands and the birthplace of the artist Rembrandt, the pretty city of Leiden is just 36km from Amsterdam. Cycle along the canals, hang out in parks and gardens and peruse its shops, galleries and museums.
Notable for its bright yellow, orange and red buildings with blue shutters that line the river, the ancient walled city of Girona is around 100km north-east of Barcelona. It’s easy to get lost among its medieval cathedrals, forts, historic Jewish Quarter, cafes, restaurants, museums and art galleries.
Located on Lake Geneva and surrounded by vineyards with views of Mont-Salève and Mont Blanc, Nyon can be recognized for its 13th century castle built on top of Roman ruins, dominated by five huge towers, which looks over the Old Town. Check out the excavated artefacts on display in the Roman Museum and remains of three Corinthian columns on top of a hill in the park beside the lake.
Herceg Novi, Montenegro
Founded as a fortress in 1382, Herceg Novi is a coastal town under Mount Orjen at the entrance to the Bay of Kotor. A longtime hub for painters, sculptors and writers, expect to find nuns selling olive oil in the traffic-free old town and a bell ringing every night to beckon the town’s priest. You can also do day trips to nearby villages.
With its Disneyland-like castle, Alcázar of Segovia, impressive Roman aqueduct and interesting Jewish quarter set against the Guadarrama mountains, this UNESCO World Heritage-listed city is a lovely place to spend a few days.