Ask most Americans to name a top European travel destinations, and you’ll get countless big-city responses like London or Paris or Rome. These are the places that everyone dreams of visiting—the big tourist draws—and rightfully so. They have so much to offer that entire books have been dedicated to their spectacular sights and attractions. But if all your European travel dreams only focus on its big cities, you’re missing out on so much. There are countless not-to-be missed experiences throughout Europe—not just in these grand locations. Europe has hundreds of amazing small cities and towns to consider, but here are ten that should be added to everyone’s bucket list that prove bigger isn’t always necessarily better!
1. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
This little walled city in Bavaria, located along the Romantic Road, was Germany’s second largest city in the Middle Ages. It’s still remarkably well preserved, and although it has become a bit of a tourist magnet, if you stay overnight you can get the real feel of this city when all of the day-tripping tourists have gone home. Walking the city’s streets in the early morning, it’s so peaceful that you can almost imagine you are in another time altogether. Not to be missed: Wandering along the city’s medieval walls for a bird’s eye view; the Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Shop—touristy or not, half of my Christmas Tree came from that shop, and it’s just plain fun to explore; and the witty Night Watchman Tour which meets at Market Square in front of the Town Hall each evening at 8pm (no reservations necessary).
2. Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
In the southern part of the Czech Republic, sits one of the cutest little castles atop one of the cutest little cities you will ever come across—Cesky Krumlov. Founded in the later 1200’s, the city straddles the Vltava River which snakes like an S through its center. Its cobblestone streets, interesting architecture, and hilltop castle just beg to be explored. Prague may be the Czech Republic’s biggest draw but this tops my list. It’s another location that merits an overnight simply so that it can be enjoyed after the day-crowds have all gone home. Stroll the empty streets, gaze up at the floodlit castle, and find the perfect location to cap the evening off with a drink. Not to be missed: The inside of Krumlov Castle (you must purchase tickets in the morning to ensure you get a spot), tubing on the river in summer, and horseback riding with Slupenec Riding Club just outside town for a taste of the beautiful Czech countryside.
3. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
Plitvice Lakes may be a bit off the typical tourists’ beaten path—and it’s more of a national park than a town—but it’s definitely worth the detour regardless of its classification. Located about 2 hours south of Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, and three hours north of the port city of Split, this national park has it all: lodging, hiking, waterfalls, and crystal clear lakes that seem to glow aqua blue. You won’t find many Americans here, but you will find plenty of in-the-know Europeans enjoying the scenery this gorgeous park provides. Sixteen interconnected, terraced lakes create the park’s spectacular waterfalls. Easily accessible hiking trails pass the most stunning water formations, a boat connects the lower lake to the upper to save some walking, and the park has a great bus system included in your ticket, as well. What more could you ask for? Not to be missed: Getting out on the trails early to avoid day-trippers (staying overnight at one of the lodges is your best bet), hiking the Lower and Upper Lake Trails with a boat ride in the middle, and the views over the canyons of the Lower Lake.
4. Antibes, France
Located between Cannes and Nice on the French Riviera, Antibes is often overlooked for its more ‘glamorous’ neighbors. However, with glamor comes crowds, high prices, and tourists galore. For a break from at least a little bit of the Riviera crush, this is the perfect destination. Antibes has sandy beaches—hard to find on the rocky Riviera, one of the world’s best Picasso Museums, and a bustling outdoor market. This makes for a perfect home base to explore the Riviera! Not to be missed: a walk along the Cap d’Antibes to take in the seaside views, a visit to the Chateau Grimaldi to see the Picasso collection, and shopping in the city’s open-air crafts market (summer 3pm-12am except Mondays; weekends only in the off-season).
5. Killarney, Ireland
Killarney offers the quintessential small-town Ireland experience. Located in County Kerry in southwest Ireland, it may not exactly be ‘untouristy,’ but unlike Dublin or Cork, it gives you a feel for the Irish countryside. It is also the perfect starting point for a drive along the Ring of Kerry—a scenic route through the countryside and along the coast of the Iveragh Peninsula that makes for a popular day trip. Not to be missed: horseback riding through the countryside with the Killarney Riding Stables, a drive along the Ring of Kerry if you’re willing to attempt the cliffs—bus trips are offered for the less adventurous, and a visit to Killarney National Park (especially the Muckross House and Traditional Farm and the 15th c. remains of Ross Castle).
6. Sorrento, Italy
Popular as the starting point of the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento is far from undiscovered, but it still has a certain charm about it—and its centralized location makes it the perfect home base to explore this region of Italy. The town has inviting squares, plenty of shopping, a little beach, and many great restaurants. At night, the place seems to come alive as everyone heads out for their evening passegiata (‘little walk’) around the central square with a gelato. Lemons are especially important to the region’s economy, and you’ll find countless lemon products to choose from on the shelves of the local stores. Be sure to try limoncello on your visit–every shop in the city seems to be offering free samples of this lemony liquor. Not to be missed: The 30 min train ride to Pompeii to see the remarkably well preserved ruins; the 30 min boat ride out to Capri to experience the view from Monte Solaro and the glowing waters of the Blue Grotto; and the windey 30 min coastal bus or car ride down to pastel Positano and from there to Amalfi and Ravello—three of the must-see Amalfi Coast towns.
7. Sintra, Portugal
The little town of Sintra is only a 40 minute train ride from Lisbon’s Rossio Station, but it couldn’t feel more like a world away. Home to the Pena National Palace, the Sintra National Palace, the Castle of the Moors, and several grand estates (including the Quinta da Regaleira and Monserrate Palace), you would never expect that this tiny town has so much to offer that it can barely be covered in a day trip. It is the antithesis of Lisbon with a slow-moving feel, wide-open countryside, and plenty of peace and quiet (except during the tourist rush of midday—arrive early). The hilltop vantage points of Pena Palace and the Castle of the Moors provide views stretching to the sea and countless scenic hiking options. Not to be missed: An up-close look at the façade of the colorful Pena National Palace, a hike across a section of the medieval walls of the Castle of the Moors—the closest you will come to feeling like you’re on the Great Wall of China this side of the orient, a tour of the interior rooms of the Sintra National Palace, and a stroll through the grounds of one—or several—of Sintra’s grand estates (the fanciful Quinta da Regaleria is a favorite).
8. Bled, Slovenia
Situated in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, the small town of Bled sits on Lake Bled. This feels more like a vacation spot you would come across in Switzerland than in a part of the former Yugoslavia. The sheer natural beauty of this place is reason enough to add it to your travel itinerary. With crystal clear waters, a cliff-topped castle with views for miles, and some of the best cream cakes in the entire world, this is one destination you should go out of your way to visit. Whether hiking up to the castle to take in the scenery, riding a bike around the lake’s 3.5 mile path, or being rowed on one of the lake’s pletna boats out to the island, you will feel as if you’ve walked straight into a postcard. Not to be missed: A swim in the award-winningly clear waters, a visit to the castle ramparts for the views, a summer toboggan ride down the ski slopes, and the famous Bled cream cakes (try the ones at Slascicarna Smon—you won’t be sorry).
9. Cinque Terre, Italy
Situated on the country’s north-west coast, the pastel Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’) is made up of five distinct villages: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterrosso al Mare. Cars are not permitted inside of the towns’ limits, making it a pedestrian’s dream. Take a little detour off of a ‘city-centric’ Italian Itinerary and spend a night or two (or three) here. These colorful, terraced villages feature harbors, vineyards, beaches, plenty of seafood, and stunning views. The villages—connected by trains, boats, and walking trails—beg to be explored with any combination of the three. Not to be missed: A stroll on the Via dell’Amore (the scenic path connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola), a boat ride down the coast to see the villages from the water, a hike to the famous viewpoint over Vernazza, and relaxing on the beaches of Monterrosso al Mare.
10. Oia, Santorini
Santorini, or Thira as it is known in Greece, has most definitely been discovered. It is considered one of the top romantic destinations in all of Europe. However, it has earned that reputation for a reason, and it definitely deserves a spot on this list. The island is so picturesque it looks fake. Shaped like a crescent moon, it owes its cliff-side villages and scenic caldera to volcanic activity. A catastrophic eruption 3600 years ago more or less created the landscape we see today. Whatever the reason for the island’s appearance though, it is just plain breathtaking. The island’s main towns, Fira and Oia, are both worth a visit. However, while I love both—and recommend visiting both—Oia feels just a little more ‘authentic’ to me and provides a few more of those picture-perfect camera moments you conjure up in your mind when you think of Santorini. Staying a few nights on the island allows plenty of time to explore, and if you can just avoid the central towns at midday, you can truly enjoy them once the cruise ship passengers have all headed back to their boats. Try staying in a cave house for an extra dose of authenticity. Not to be missed: Renting a quad—or a moped if you’re truly daring—to better explore the island; wine tasting at one of its many vineyards (Santo has one of the most spectacular views and Boutari provides one of the best educations); and last but not least, taking in a sunset over the Santorini caldera—the perfect cap to a perfect day on the island.