So, you’re searching for the best local experiences. You’re hoping to stumble across one of the many tiny towns in Europe. Are you also looking for towns with a population under 5,000? If yes to any of the above, we’ve got your ultimate list just in time for your next adventure. It’s time to find out where the best small towns in Europe are for authentic, local experiences.
See Also: Europe
1. Cassis, France
Cassis is a picture-perfect village, nestled along the coastline of France in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region, just beyond glitzy St Tropez. Cassis is surrounded by vineyards, romantic cobbled streets and outdoor adventure activities.
Here you’ll find the perfect mix of French countryside charm, stunning deep blue Calanques (natural coves for kayaking, swimming and hiking too) and seaside French cuisine with plenty of local markets to stroll around.
- Must do: Stroll the cobbled streets and pick up a baguette for picnic lunch. Then, hire a kayak to paddle your way to the jaw-dropping Calanques for a dip. Round out the day with a stroll along the coastline to gawp at the Chateau Cassis that sits atop the port village, before enjoying the sunset with a fresh glass of local Rose in hand.
- Must eat: Fresh seafood from the waterfront restaurants, with mussel pots being particularly popular. Of course, this being France, wine and cheese are mandatory to enjoy!
- Why you should go: This small port village captures the essence of the French Cote D’azur, without the eye-watering prices of St Tropez and Cannes. Cassis is fun for culture lovers who like their villages historic and food regional, while outdoor adventurers will appreciate the many hiking trails and adventure activities easily available on the water.
I love that Cassis brings together the very best of Provence, all bundled up in a stunning pastel-coloured package. If you could only visit one town in the region, Cassis would be a pretty safe bet. Its hilltop château and ancient vineyards rival those of the Luberon, the Mediterranean Sea looks magical against the chalky white coastline, and the bustling quai is an ideal place to pause for pastis and a spot of people watching. It’s also the perfect starting point for a hike or tour in the phenomenal Calanques National Park. If you’re tempted to visit Cassis, plan your visit on a Wednesday or Friday to stock up on fresh and artisanal flavours at the bi-weekly Provençal farmers market. – Nadine, Le Long Weekend
2. Spitz (Wachau), Austria
A small wine village just outside the Austrian capital of Vienna, Spitz has the rolling vineyard terraces and architecture that transports you to another time and place.
Here you can explore the hiking trails between villages, dotted along the picturesque Danube, or take a historical tour of the centuries-old wine taverns, known as Heuringers.
Though the views are equal to that of the Tuscan hills, here you’ll be able to taste fresh crisp Gruner Vertliner or G’mischter Satz local white wine for as little as €1.60 a glass. With cruises running between Vienna to Spitz and the nearby Krems monastery, you have plenty of options to unwind or explore as it suits you.
- Must do: Walk amongst the vineyards and take photographs with the stunning backdrop of the Spitz village or Danube river behind you. Take a wine tasting stroll through the village to the multiple cellars to find your favourite and chat with the local winemakers about their blends.
- Must eat: Each wine tavern and vineyard will serve cold cut meats and cheeses to accompany your wine, normally made from local farmers produce. If you’re feeling bold, you can even try the traditional Austrian ‘schmalz’ spread – pure pig fat spread upon bread to brace you for the wine tasting.
- Why you should go: The entire Wachau region of Austria is renown for its wine and there are countless villages dotted along the Danube, but Spitz has just the right combination of views, quaint town and multiple wineries to explore.
3. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
A quintessential fairytale village nestled in the Czech Republic, Cesky Krumlov will delight you with its cobbled streets, architecture and a medieval castle.
- Must do: Explore the castle grounds and gardens that have been built up over the centuries, displaying multiple architectural styles. Then clamber up to the lookout points to peer across the green hills surrounding the village. If you’re feeling adventurous you can try hiking the surrounds or kayaking in the nearby Vltava river.
- Must eat: You cannot visit the Czech Republic and not eat a Trdelnik – the irresistible oversize, doughnut-like cinnamon cake on a stick. Picture a dough, rolled onto a stick baked over an open flame then sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and different sweet or savoury flavours as you like. It is best enjoyed in winter, but a well-earned treat in summer too!
- Why you should go: Central European villages don’t get much cuter than Cesky Krumlov! It has exactly the right balance of stunning surrounds, historic architecture and castles, and enough nightlife, cafes and accommodation options to cater to every kind of traveller. For a step back in time, there are very few villages that match Cesky Krumlov!
4. Kotor, Montenegro
Surrounded by wild rugged hills and the aquamarine blues of the ‘ria’ (fjord-like waterways) of Montenegro, Kotor is a fortified medieval town filled with wonky side streets and piazzas built to get happily lost in. The fortified walls snake up the city boundaries to lookout points with unforgettable panoramic views of the Bay of Kotor
- Must do: Hire a small boat or day trip along the Bay of Kotor itself to see the city from the waterside and enjoy the view of the walled old town from afar.
- Must eat: When by the waterside, you have to try the local seafood dishes. Order a seafood platter of catch of the day from one of the bayside eateries to enjoy with a crisp glass of wine as the sunsets.
- Why you should go: Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage-listed city and has been a cultural and commercial centre for centuries. Falling under Byzantine, Venetian and Habsburg rule, making it a fascinating melting pot of art, history and cultural artefacts.
5. Sintra, Portugal
Just outside of Portugal’s capital Lisbon, lies Sintra, a fantasy jumble of multicoloured palaces and villas atop the hills of the Sintra National Park.
The multiple former Royal palaces and intriguing architectural styles, with endless views across the Atlantic Ocean – you’re at the westernmost tip of Europe here – will have you gasping and losing hours to the fascinating exploration of the area.
- Must do: Allow at least a day to discover the stunning Palácio da Pena Palace and gardens. The entire village of Sintra is littered with architectural styles from Moorish and Manueline but the standout is the Romanticism of this early 19th-century palace, filled to the brim with antiques, colourful photo spots and delightful gardens to get lost in. A trip to Sintra isn’t complete without seeing this wonder!
- Must eat: Being so close to the Atlantic, Sintra is a haven for fresh seafood, in particular, the famed goose barnacles or ‘percebas’ that are renowned in Portugal. If seafood isn’t your thing then you can always treat yourself to the famous sweet bakery treat ‘Travesseiros de Sintra’a ‘pillow’ of puff pastry filled with almond cream and the flakiest, a heavenly dessert that has to be experienced to be described. Best enjoyed while sipping espresso in a small cafe overlooking the Gothic town hall on the cities cobbled courtyards.
- Why you should go: Sintra is a whimsical destination filled with Insta-worthy palaces, enchanting cool forests and an alluring seaside mysticism that transports you away from the everyday hustle and bustle of nearby Lisbon. With its cobbled alleyways leading to hole-in-the-wall bakeries and restaurants, combined with lush hiking trails into the mountain forests and the abundance of palaces by the seaside, there’s something for everyone in this village retreat.
Sintra is the closest many of us will ever come to walking through a fairytale. It’s not just the sunflower-colored Pena Palace (although Pena is striking). It’s not just the dense, foggy forests surrounding Pena Palace that look straight out of Snow White (although they will take your breath away). There’s something about waking up to a maze of twists, turns and cobblestone side streets set beneath the shadow of a Dr. Seuss-like castle that makes your Sintra visit a once-in-a-lifetime, “pinch me” adventure.
Our Portugal trip as a whole was unfortunately just six days, so we had to limit our time in Sintra to one full day and night. For anyone planning a future visit to Sintra, I’d recommend at least two days to experience all the city has to offer – Pena Palace, the Moorish Castle, Quinta de Regaleira and the quintessential al fresco dining. We also planned to visit via car, but after seeing how tiny the city is (and how even tinier the parking spaces are), I’d highly recommend ditching the rental car and taking the train from Lisbon. And, a trip to any small town isn’t complete without a stop at the truly local “hot spots,” which we discovered in Sintra included Bar Fonte da Pipa, a cozy, music-themed bar that gets bumpin’ come Saturday night. – Stephanie Vermillion, The Wanderlost Way
What I loved most about Sintra was the hospitality from the people that lived there. We were welcomed by so many people and made to feel like family, it was incredible! People in Sintra are proud of their town and happy to show everyone their beautiful town. For a first-time traveler to Sintra, I would suggest you show up early! Second, although the bus is an affordable and great option, it takes up a lot of time in your day waiting for an available bus. Tuk Tuks are 5 euros in a one-way direction anywhere in Sintra so consider that as an option to save time. Finally and most importantly, purchase all your tickets to the palace in advance! This will save you a ton of time since the lines for the tickets are extremely long. If you forgot to print out the ticket, they can scan the copy on your phone! – NieNie, Adventures with NieNie
6. Zadar, Croatia
Often overlooked in favour of the more famous portside cities like Dubrovnik and Split, Zadar is filled with Roman and Venetian ruins as its one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in all of Europe. Surrounded by sparkling blue Adriatic seas and offering a more lived-in charm than other Croatian cities, Zadar should be on your must-visit list to see everyday Croatian seaside life.
- Must do: Grab a picnic dinner or gelato and watch the sunset from the steps of the famous ‘sea organ’ by the waterside. This incredibly moving and clever art installation by Nikola Bašić is built from a series of marble steps that lead into the water, with each step having pipes of different lengths installed beneath it. When the waves lap the stairs at different times and speeds it creates a beautifully soothing and eerie orchestra from the windpipes below the marble stairs. Best enjoyed at sunset, be sure to arrive early in the summer months as it’s incredibly popular!
- Must eat: When by the waterside you best enjoy the Dalmatian cuisine – grilled fish, black ink risotto or fresh octopus grilled and baked in a variety of delicious ways.
- Why you should go: Most cruise ships skip Zadar, so it’s slightly less touristy than the Game of Thrones-famous Dubrovnik, plus you can see artefacts and architecture scattered across the city – from Roman archways to Venetian city gates and a variety of churches, Zadar is full of surprises!
7. Orvieto, Italy
A small spit of a town perched upon a hilltop in the Umbrian region of Italy, Orvieto is an alluring medieval Italian village stuffed with gothic architectural delights and views across the cypress hills and vineyards of the surrounding Italian countryside.
Easily accessible from both Florence and Rome, Orvieto should be on your must-visit list for the jaw-dropping Cathedral and panoramic photo opportunities from the cities highest point, the Torre del Moro.
- Must do: Take the old-fashioned funicular from the base of the hill to the peak where the old town resides, then amble the stone alleyways and winding streets of this village seemingly stuck in time. Though its popular tourist stops en route to Rome, you can still find hidden corners. Try and find an entrance to one of the 440 underground caves or marvel at the liquorice striped bright colours of the Duomo di Orvieto.
- Must eat: Stop by the Oste del Re trattoria and order a boar meat sandwich. The speciality of this region, you can enjoy the crispy fresh bread while chatting with the friendly family who own the store. For a longer languid meal, you can settle in for regional meat and cheese board or their delicious truffle pasta – all sourced from local suppliers and served with a smile. The locally produced ‘Classico’ wine is the perfect accompaniment.
- Why you should visit: Orvieto manages to maintain its small-town feel, despite the popularity of the village as a day trip destination. The food, wine and historic architecture should convince you, but the rolling Umbrian hills and Etruscan heritage will seal the deal. Come here to peer across the terraces and marvel at the enduring tradition of Etruscans and Italians who have called this village home for centuries.
Comment below and tell us: where will your next adventure take you?