10 Coolest Small Towns in Europe
Paris, London, Rome…the big cities require no introductions. But have you heard of the foodie haven of Tremolat, France or the pristine Alpine hamlet of Binn, Switzerland? In our travels, we've discovered that some of Europe's most divine towns are also some of its smallest.
Located on the River Coln in hilly west-central England, Bibury was described by 19th-century artist-writer William Morris as "the most beautiful village in England"—which is saying something in a country known for its watercolor views. Honey-colored 17th-century stone cottages, the Saxon Church of St. Mary, and a still-working 1902 trout farm are some of the ancient village's must-sees. The most photographed spot is Arlington Row, a collection of 14th-century stone buildings that were converted into weavers' cottages in the 1600s.
How to Get There: The closest train station to Bibury is 12 miles away, in Kemble. Multiple trains make the 80-minute journey from London's Paddington Station (nationalrail.co.uk, round trip from $57). Cirencester, seven miles away, is linked to London by daily buses (nationalexpress.com, round trip from $30). There is no public transport directly to Bibury, but taxis are available and local hotels will often arrange transport for guests.
On the banks of the Danube, in the shadow of a castle from the Middle Ages, Dürnstein is one of those impossibly quaint towns where everything, from the red-tiled roofs to the baroque clock tower to the winding cobblestoned alleys, seems lifted straight from the Brothers Grimm. Just an hour downriver from Vienna, Dürnstein is an under-explored retreat and a gateway to the surrounding Wachau valley, a grape region prized for crisp, dry Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners. To experience the area like a local, take a seat inside a Heuriger, a cozy tavern that sells only indigenous wines, namely those from the most recent harvest. Authentic establishments hang fir branches above their doorways to welcome the thirsty, while Schrammelmusik (traditional fiddle-and-accordion folk music) plays from within. Although the Wachau is known for its grapes, it is the Marille (apricot) that sets the region apart. In early April, the valley erupts in pale-pink blossoms, and the fruit begins showing up in strudels, pork dishes, and Marillenknödel (apricot dumplings rolled in butter-toasted bread crumbs). Wieser Wachau Shop & Café, with locations throughout the valley, sells apricot soap, schnapps, and marmalade (wieser-wachau.at).
How to Get There: The town is best reached by car and is only about an hour drive from Vienna on the A1 autobahn. For a more picturesque route, opt for a day trip river cruise on the DDSG Blue Danube MS Admiral Tegetthoff (ddsg-blue-danube.at/eng, round-trip $39).
Life moves slowly in the village of Binn—and that's by design. Years ago, the residents of this tiny Alpine town (pop. 150, two and a half hours from Bern) decided to stave off development by preserving the surrounding valley as a park. Today, instead of the posh ski resorts and multilane highways in much of southwestern Switzerland, Binn remains a time capsule of village life. Gravel lanes wind between neat pine chalets. Flower boxes filled with geraniums hang from every window. The town's 16th-century bridge is traversed by hikers and goats instead of cars. Up the Binna River, visitors will find even smaller hamlets and picture-perfect meadows, where they can spread out a picnic of local wine and raclette cheese and listen to the cowbells ring down from the high pastures. About a mile from Binn along mountain trails, the riverside Restaurant Imfeld is a timber chalet at 4,983 feet with a terrace overlooking the Alps. Hikers can stop in for fresh trout and Valais air-dried beef—prepared by rubbing salt, herbs, and spices into raw beef and leaving it to dry in a wooden barn for at least six weeks (011-41/27-971-4596, entrées from $9).
How to Get There: Because of Binn's remote location, it's not exactly an easy trip to get to the town from major cities. On PostBus Switzerland, you can get from Zurich to Binn in a little over three hours with two bus transfers—not a terrible trek to reach total untouched seclusion (postbus.ch, one way from $56).
While Provence is justifiably famous for its rosé and rustic gîtes (holiday rental homes), that celebrity comes at a high price. Nearly a straight shot across the country, close to Bordeaux, the cluster of market towns known as Périgord Noir offers weekly cottage rentals at nearly half the cost—and the small-town experience is no less picturesque. One of the quaintest towns in the area, Trémolat sits on a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Dordogne River and is dominated by a fortresslike Romanesque church that dates back to the 11th century. But the highlight of the town is farm-to-table restaurant Les Truffières. Yanick Le Goff oversees a classic ferme auberge—a working farm that serves the food it grows (011-33/5-53-27-30-44, six-course family-style meal with wine $34, reservations required). Plates like barbecued duck, garlic-and-goose-fat soup, and house made foie gras are paired with local wines like a lavender-tinged aperitif or a rosé. The surrounding area is best known for its dark oak forests, hillside vineyards, medieval châteaux, Stonehenge-like megaliths, and, of course, the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux with haunting images of bison, horses, and traced human hands estimated to be an astounding 17,000 years old.
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