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When heading to Europe, most travellers tend to flock to the larger, more tourist laden cities, such as Rome, Paris, London and Amsterdam.
Now, while these cities surely give travellers hundreds of reasons to visit (fun fact…I’ve only been to Amsterdam out of those listed above), there is something about getting off the beaten path and visiting smaller towns and villages that are filled with charming streets, surrounded by epic nature, filled with friendly locals that barely speak English, if any at all, that really make an ordinary travel experience turn into a unique one to remember for years after.
Now don’t get me wrong, some of the small villages I have mentioned in this post are quite popular with tourists lately (Hallstatt, I’m looking at you), but by getting up early, or travelling during off season, you can definitely enjoy these hot spots all to yourself, even for a bit.
Whether you’re looking to visit gorgeous lakeside villages in Austria, or be amazed by the stunning architecture and history of small towns in Poland, by getting out of the large popular cities, you’ll be quite amazed at what you’ll find just a short train ride, or bus trip away.
So if you’re looking for some small town inspiration the next time you book a flight to Europe, here is a list of some of my personal favourite small towns and villages I’ve visited in Europe.
Let’s start this list off with the not so sleepy little village of Flåm. It’s no wonder that Flåm welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. With jaw dropping scenery surrounding the tiny village, it is definitely one of Norway’s hidden little gems. Flåm is located at the inner end of a branch of the world’s deepest and second longest fjord, the 204km long and 1308 metre deep Sognefjord. There are many different ways to access Flåm. You can take a ferry, a cruise ship, or a car, but NOTHING beats taking the world famous Flåmsbana (Flåm) Railway. Size doesn’t matter when it comes to lists of activities to do in Flåm. This place is a mecca for the outdoorsy types. With options such as fjord safaris, speedboat tours, renting a bike and pedaling to nearby Aurland (about 10km away), renting a kayak to glide across the water, or simply taking it all in with a leisurely walk along the pathway lining the village, you’ll never run out of things to do.
The tiny and remote seafront village of Vík is one of the most picturesque places along the Ring Road. As you drive along Highway 1 (Ring Road) en route to Vík, you’ll be greeted by the infamous black sand coastline, massive green hills, thundering waterfalls that cascade over mountain ridges and oodles of Icelandic horses along the roadside fences just waiting for you to stop and pet their disheveled hair. Although Vík is a small village, with a population just coasting over 500 people, there are plenty of beautiful places to see and a ton of adventurous things to do in and around the area. Hop in your trusty rental vehicle and head to Dyrhólaey Arch, visit the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara and the beautiful black lava sea stacks of Reynisdrangar and don’t forget to visit the famous church, Víkurkirkja, built in 1934. This small white church perched on a hill high above the eastern side of Vík that is surrounded by Mount Reynisfjall. Head up the hill for picturesque views of the ocean and village from above that can’t be beat.
Situated in the western part of The Netherlands and about an hour train ride away from Amsterdam, sits the charming canal ringed Dutch city of Delft. Delft is also famed for its beautiful handcrafted blue and white painted ceramic Delftware, which almost everyone’s grandmother is familiar with and also home to Dutch master painter, Johannes Vermeer. In its Old Town square, you’ll find a stunning Town Hall and Nieuwe Kerk dominating opposite sides with shops and restaurants surrounding the massive square. Everything flows at a slower pace in Delft (except the Dutchies whizzing by on their bikes, of course), which is why I decided to spend a day exploring its small canals and quiet streets. There weren’t many tourists around at all and the locals were as friendly as could be and always sported a smile while speaking to me. Delft was definitely a place I wanted to visit during my 10 day jaunt through The Netherlands and I’m glad I made it there. My only regret? Not staying for two days. I loved it so much!
Read more: 24 Hours In Delft, Netherlands
Home to The Netherlands’ oldest University, which dates back to 1575, Leiden is a quaint little city nestled in the Southern region of Holland and was the birthplace of the famous artist, Rembrandt. Leiden boasts many small and beautiful canals and bridges to stroll along and is approximately 30 minutes away by train from Amsterdam, which makes it a great place for a day trip, or you could stay a full day and night as I did and explore the city at a slower pace and enjoy the lack of crowds as you wander the streets. Don’t just think that Amsterdam is the only city with an impressive canal system. Leiden is full of canals with picturesque bridges and calm waterways. In the summer months, rent a kayak, a canoe, or take a canal boat tour to see the city from a different perspective.
Read more: How To Spend 24 Hours In Leiden, Netherlands
Haarlem is often overshadowed by its “bigger and cooler” sister, Amsterdam, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t add it to your Netherlands itinerary. A short and scenic train ride northwest of Amsterdam will take you from the hustle and bustle of the city, through the lush countryside and to the medieval city of Haarlem in just over 15 minutes, so taking a day trip is a must. Haarlem is a historically concentrated city, which dates back all the way to 1245 and was a thriving and prosperous cloth-making city in the 15th century. The cobblestone lined streets and pathways have barely changed since then and walking though the quiet streets is like walking through the pages of a history book. One of the main reasons for my day trip to Haarlem was to visit the beautiful craft brewery, Jopenkerk. This quirky brewery is located in a converted church right in the centre of Haarlem and boasts the most stunning bar area I’ve seen. The bar has a bright cherry red Jopen logo and opens up to a massive grand ceiling above. Opened in 2010, Jopenkerk is part brewery, part restaurant and definitely a must see. The beers are all brewed in-house and vary from light and fruity, to dark and chocolatey. Haarlem is full of cobblestone lanes, historical buildings, hidden courtyards, adorable stores and delicious restaurants. Wandering aimlessly throughout these pretty streets will instantly put you in an uplifting mood as you pass beautiful and colourful flower stalls and classic cars that look perfectly placed within the city. Haarlem is easily navigated by foot, so take your time, pop into some shops, revel in the laid back atmospheric streets and enjoy what this city has to offer.
Nestled in the province of Southwest Holland with a population of 70,000 people, sits the charming little town of Gouda. You may know Gouda as a cheese found in your local supermarket where you are from and rightfully so, as it is one of the most popular cheeses on the market. While staying in The Netherlands, I wanted to explore this lesser known gem of a town that shares its name with its famous delicious cheese. Gouda is a town that exudes more charm and history than I had originally anticipated, so I was more than happy wandering the silent and historic streets that date back before the 16th century. With small canals running throughout the town and a beautiful town square surrounded with shops and restaurants, Gouda made for a perfectly quiet and quaint day trip on a sleepy Monday morning. If you ever find yourself travelling through The Netherlands, I really suggest popping into Gouda for a few hours to relish in that “small town” charm.
Read more: A Day Trip To Gouda – A Quick City Guide
Gmunden is a small lakeside town that sits at the northern edge of the 12 kilometre long Traunsee (Traun Lake) in the Salzkammergut area of Upper Austria. It is mostly known to Austrians as a summer health resort town and for its wide variety of brine and salt spa treatments that are available in that specific area of the country. Gmunden has existed in some form since the 1100’s and its surroundings are a feast for the eyes. Dwarfed by tall mountains, an abundance of lakeside restaurants, a lake that is crystal clear and a picturesque town square; what more could you ask for? With approximate population of around 13,000 people, Gmunden is the perfect town to get your relaxation on. During the peak of the day, you will find day trippers walking around the town square, sitting on restaurant patios if the weather is nice and people out on the water in boats, kayaks, or in the summer months, stand up paddle boarding. When night falls, only locals are to be found and the town turns quiet and serene. Although small in size, Gmunden offers a ton of outdoor activities for the avid hiker, kayak enthusiast and mountain biker. If you aren’t into outdoorsy stuff, the town has a slew of cafés to perch yourself in and have a snack and an espresso as well. Regardless of what type of traveller you are, Gmunden has lots to offer and I’m sure you won’t be bored.
Read more: A Complete Guide To Gmunden, Austria
Located in the heart of Upper Austria, sits the quaint little city of Steyr. Not only is this place absolutely beautiful, but it is actually one of Austria’s more industrialized cities, specializing in the manufacturing of arms, which made the small city boom in the 19th-century, steel, iron-ore mining and vehicle supplies. As fascinating as the industrialization of Steyr is, most people visit this city for its charming streets, beautifully painted buildings, inviting cafés and to see the majestic rivers Steyr and Enns flow right through the city. Although Steyr is noted as the 12th largest Austrian town and 3rd largest in Upper Austria, it certainly didn’t feel that way. The streets were quiet most of the time, I had attractions literally all to myself at some points and I felt like I was among locals only for my entire stay in Steyr. I felt as though I had discovered a little hidden gem of a city all for myself and away from the tourist crowds. It was amazing! Make sure to visit the massive Schloss Lamberg, the Bummerlhaus mansion, the gigantic Stadtpfarrkirche Steyr, wander the Stadtplatz, which is Steyr’s town square and is home to many charming restaurants, beautiful Austrian architecture, brightly coloured buildings and lined with many street-side cafés to relax with a beer or espresso.
Read more: A City Guide To Steyr, Austria
Zell am See, Austria
Surrounded by towering mountain peaks of Schmittenhöhe and Kitzsteinhorn, Zell am See is the perfect place to chill out, enjoy nature and relax, or get your adrenaline pumping while careening down a mountain run on your snowboard. Regardless of the time of year you visit, or the type of holiday you’re looking to have, Zell am See is the small village that offers a huge amount of activities to keep you and your family occupied during your stay. Located just shy of two hours from the city of Salzburg by train, Zell am See is the perfect place to be one with nature, avoid excessive crowds and cars and just revel in the beauty of your surroundings. Zell am See is nothing short of breathtaking and was my version of heaven. Hop on the MS Schmittenhöhe for a leisurely boat cruise around Zell am See. The MS Schmittenhöhe is a three tiered boat complete with dining area on the main level with a full bar and panoramic windows and the middle and top have an outdoor deck boasting incredible and unobstructed views of the surrounding area. There’s no better way to enjoy the water than being on the water and what makes being on the MS Schmittenhöhe even better? They serve food and drinks while you sit back, enjoy the scenery and drift around Lake Zell for approximately one hour. Green rolling hills, majestic mountains and tiny villages line the lake making for one of the most scenic boat rides in Austria.
Read more: A Quick Guide To Zell am See, Austria
Nestled in the heart of the Salzkammergut Lake Region within Austria, sits the most idyllic and stunning little village of Hallstatt. Hallstatt is a place I’ve wanted to visit since the moment I laid my eyes on a photo of its beautiful 16th century cabin-like homes and the jaw-dropping beauty of the Alpine scenery. Now, Hallstatt is one of, if not THE most photographed village in all of Austria, mainly thanks to social media, which is good for Hallstatt’s economy, but the 800 locals that call Hallstatt home aren’t really too keen about the throngs of tourists that flood the village each and everyday of the year. Approximately one million visitors a year make their way to Hallstatt every year. Crazy! Hallstatt is popular for a good reason…it’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s surrounded by the clear clean water of the Hallstättersee and the imposing Dachstein mountains, making it one of the most fairy tale looking locations that I’ve ever seen. From Salzburg, I headed to Hallstatt for a day trip and I do stress that you must get there early because busloads of tourists start to arrive at 9am, so be prepared for more people mid-morning to mid-afternoon. Although Hallstatt is quite small (you can walk the length of the village in less than 30 minutes), Hallstatt has a lot of history and beauty to offer its visitors. I was in Hallstatt for approximately six hours and saw so much of what the village has to offer. In my opinion though, I’d suggest staying one night, so you can wander the village early and late into the evening without the slew of tourists that flood into the village during the day. Make sure to head up the funicular to the “Top of Hallstatt” for spectacular views overlooking the UNESCO World Heritage region of the Dachstein Mountain Range in the Salzkammergut Region. The views of Hallstatt below make you realize how high you actually are. Jutting out from the side of the mountain, the “World Heritage” Skywalk hangs above Hallstatt at a staggering height of 360 metres. If you’re scared of heights, don’t look down, but looking down is half the fun and you’ll be able to see just how small the village of Hallstatt actually is compared to the size of the lake.
Arucas, Gran Canaria, Spain
Located in the northern part of Gran Canaria, Arucas is the third largest town on Gran Canaria and is home to the largest Neo-Gothic cathedral on the island as well. San Juan Bautista Cathedral is absolutely covered in gorgeous details, inside and out. Its construction took many years and started in 1909 and was officially completed by 1977. New to European standards when it comes to cathedrals, but it still has an ancient Gothic look to its architecture that would have you guessing it was hundreds of years old. Arucas’ old town is straight out of a Spanish postcard. Colourful buildings, wrought iron balconies, inviting cafés, blooming hibiscus flowers and steep cobblestone streets, which grant you with picture perfect views from the top of the town below and the massive iconic cathedral within the centre of it all. If you also have some time when in Arucas, make sure to visit the Rum factory, Arehucas, which is a very popular stop for local rum.
Read more: A Day Trip To Arucas On Gran Canaria
Teror, Gran Canaria, Spain
Situated in the lush green mountains of northern Gran Canaria, 14 kilometres southwest of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, lies the beautiful Canarian village of Teror. Surrounded by deep valleys, mountains and vegetation, Teror may arguably be the most picturesque village on the entire island. The Plaza del Teror is the heart and soul of the village with intricately carved wooden balconies lining the quiet streets and colourful flower baskets hanging above. The Basilica de la Virgen del Pino sits in the lively square with bustling restaurants and an absolutely unique looking tree smack dab in the centre of town, which is not to be missed. Teror was one of the prettiest and charming places I visited during my trip.
Read more: A Day Trip To Teror On Gran Canaria
Vegueta, Las Palmas, Gran Canaria, Spain
The romantic old quarter of Las Palmas and the old capital city, was my favourite place to visit. Chalk full of charming old world Canarian architecture and Spanish music playing from the tiny restaurants, Vegueta is the quintessential Canarian experience. Getting to Vegueta is easy. From Las Canteras beach in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, take the local number 17 yellow Guaguas, which will run you about €1,40 each way and takes about 35 minutes. While you’re there, make sure to explore the narrow cobblestone streets and visit sites such as Santa Ana Cathedral and take the elevator to the top for spectacular views of Las Palmas, Casa de Colón (Columbus’ house), relax with a beer and tapas in Plaza de Santa Ana while people watching the afternoon away and take a stroll to Plaza del Espíritu Santo, which is located next to the Ermita del Espiritu Santo (Hermitage of The Holy Spirit). Walking the streets of Vegueta will transport you back in time and surround you with beautiful Spanish balconies, colourful buildings, the smell of brewing coffee and sounds of the church bells and chirping birds filling the streets as you wander around.
Ponta Delgada, Azores, Portugal
Ponta Delgada, which is the capital city of the Azores and located on São Miguel Island, is one of nine islands situated in the Portuguese archipelago. Aimlessly wandering around what were the most narrow cobblestone streets I’ve ever walked on, strolling through Ponta Delgada was my favourite way to explore what the city had to offer. Colourful buildings, incredible stonework designs in the streets and pops of vibrant tiles made the streets a piece of art in themselves and a treat to photograph. The architecture of Ponta Delgada’s buildings of significance, was unlike any I’ve seen before. Stark white and outlined with black basalt made the architecture stand out from the other buildings surrounding them. After a day of exploring, head into one of the many old Azorean cafés scattered throughout the city centre. Treat yourself to an ice cold beer outside of Igreja Matriz de São Sebastião at Café Central and people watch, or head to Louvre Michaelense (a coffee lover’s dream and my personal favourite) located at R. António José D’Almeida 8 and grab a delicious Portuguese milk tart and cappuccino while cozying up in the dark wooden interior. It’s the perfect way to end a long day of walking and to relax.
Read more: How To Spend A Layover In Ponta Delgada
Mdina, the old capital of Malta, is an impressive fortress city with a grand Baroque style gate leading into the city walls. Also known as The Silent City, Mdina is virtually car-free, except for the residents that live there full time. As you make your way through the tiny streets, no bigger than alleyways, you’ll hear the echoing of horse hooves making their way through the city with a karozzin, which is a traditional horse drawn carriage, that dates back to the 19th century. Wandering around Mdina feels as if you’re getting lost in a maze. Around every corner, there would be something more beautiful than the last thing you saw, whether it was a brightly painted door adorned with a shiny brass door handle and knocker, or a gorgeous ivy covered villa. Mdina’s inviting little streets are filled with tiny restaurants, cafés just waiting to be discovered. Make sure to head over to St. Paul’s square to marvel at the Baroque styled architectural masterpiece that is St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was designed by world famous architect, Lorenzo Gafa.
Read more: Wandering Around Mdina – Malta’s Silent City
Mdina’s neighbouring city of Ir-Rabat is not to be missed. Mdina was once part of the same settlement as its neighbouring city of Ir-Rabat until the Arabs decided to wall Mdina off and make it into a fortress city. Now, Ir-Rabat is considered a town of its own now with a small population just shy of 13,000 people. Ir-Rabat is a great place to avoid crowds and simply enjoy walking along the quiet streets while looking for quirky religious details along the side of the buildings to photograph. Ir-Rabat has a distinct feeling of tranquility and authenticity within its streets and as you make your way through the beautiful neighbourhood, you’ll hear the voices of people chatting, but not much else. It’s the perfect place to visit while you wait for you bus back near Mdina’s walls.
Read more: 9 Reasons Why You Need To Visit Malta
The Maltese sure have some confusing and hard to pronounce names for their villages and Marsaxlokk is no exception. The village of Marsaxlokk has a population just coasting above 3,500 people and is a traditional fishing village tucked into the southeastern part of Malta. It is most famous for its big Sunday fish market and colourful luzzu boats that bob around in the water, as local fishermen tend to their nets and daily catch. Even though I visited Marsaxlokk on a Wednesday, the city was alive and full of busy locals. The first thing that will catch your eye as the harbour comes into view is the bright azure coloured water that is full of brilliantly coloured luzzu boats. This small, tight-knit village operates in a very traditional manner still to this day and isn’t entirely taken over by many tourists, which makes visiting Marsaxlokk even more magical, since you get to see how the locals live their day to day lives. Marsaxlokk can easily be reached from Valletta via local bus route 85.
Poronin is the perfect place to visit if you enjoy less crowds and a ton of gorgeous scenery complete with mountain views. Nestled between the towns of Nowy Targ and Zakopane, sits the small mountain village of Poronin in southern Poland. With an approximate population around 4,000 people, Poronin is mainly used as a base for those that are looking to explore the Tatra Mountains, but at a fraction of the price that it would cost within a touristy place like Zakopane. Poronin may not be well not within the tourism sector, but I found this quaint mountain village to be serene, inviting and picturesque, which made it the perfect escape for a few days of solid relaxation. It is the place to go if you really want to immerse yourself within Polish culture. English wasn’t really spoken in any of the restaurants, stores, or bakeries, but most of the locals were warm, friendly and patient with me trying to communicate with them and some tried very hard to speak some English back to me.
Nowy Targ, Poland
Located in the south of Poland surrounded by stunning nature at the foot of the Gorce Mountains (part of the Carpathian Mountain range), lies the small picturesque town of Nowy Targ. With a population of approximately 34,000 people, Nowy Targ is the perfect place to visit if you are craving some serenity, getting out into nature and enjoying some small town vibes. Despite Nowy Targ’s small population, every winter and summer, the number of Polish tourists soar as people make their way to the Podhale Region, especially Nowy Targ, due to its close proximity to the Carpathian Mountain range, specifically the Tatra Mountains, which is the highest in the range. Tourists love to stay in Nowy Targ as a base for their skiing and hiking holidays and for good reason; it’s beautiful. Make your way to the Bor na Czerwonem Nature Reserve and immerse yourself amongst the tall pine trees and keep your eyes peeled for some owls, small birds, deer and other wildlife. There aren’t any harmful animals to worry about, so you can take your walk without any issues.
Situated in the very south of Poland in the Podhale region at the foot of the Tatra Mountains in Lesser Poland Voivodeship, lies the beautiful resort town of Zakopane. This beautiful mountain paradise lies near Poland’s border with Slovakia in a valley between the magnificent Tatra Mountains and Gubałówka Hill. Mostly visited by Polish and other European tourists, Zakopane is still rather unheard of when it comes to travellers coming from North America. Zakopane is to Poland what Banff is to Canada; a magnificent wonderland for winter activities such as skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and snowboarding. In the summer and fall, tourists flock to the green Tatra Mountains to bask in the beauty of dozens of hiking trails, ride ATVs and dirt bikes, enjoy the beautiful scenery and relax in the fresh mountain air. Don’t forget to take a day trip to Morskie Oko!
Żywiec is a gorgeous little town in the south of Poland in the Silesian Voivodeship on the Soła and Koszarawa rivers with a population just a little over 31,000 people. Its quiet streets, friendly locals and charming small town feel are the definite draw cards for this delightful Polish town. Żywiec is one of those places that you visit if you want to get away from the crowds, populated cities and traffic. It is also home to Żywiec Lake, or Jezioro Żywieckie. I was pleasantly surprised by just how much nature Żywiec had. I spent most of my day there walking along the lake, talking with locals about my travels and sitting down with a coffee while watching the train travel down the tracks across the lake and blowing its horn in the distance. If you’re looking for a place to visit that is unknown amongst the tourist crowds, then Żywiec is the place for you!
Have you ever visited any of the small towns, or villages That I’ve mentioned above? If you have, which ones have you been to? What are some of your favourite small towns? Let me know in the comments below. xo