Most Breathtakingly Beautiful Small Towns In the World
As far as foxy cities go, the big ones are easy to reach -- they have their own airports, after all. You want to see the vaulting domes and spires of Istanbul’s cathedrals? Punch in the airport code IST in Google Flights and you’re on your way, champ. Want to gawk at Osaka Castle during cherry blossom season? There’s your $800 nonstop from California to KIX, from whence you can snap the same selfie as 50,000 other people. Congrats!
Perhaps more rewarding for the discerning adventurer are those smaller nooks of ravishing beauty, many reachable only by car or boat or trail. On world maps these gorgeous villages and towns are marked only by the teeniest pinprick, assuming they appear at all. None are secret, exactly, but their very size -- often held in check by their physical remoteness -- can make them tricky to reach all the same. We’re confident, though, that you’ll find ’em absolutely worth the pursuit.
Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic
A vermilion-roofed enclave cradled in a carpet of green sits nestled in an S-shaped loop of the Vltava River in Southern Bohemia, Ceský Krumlov is but a speck on the map, and has indeed managed to seal its place in history as one of the world’s most idyllic small towns.
Admire the wealth of Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque architecture, the best examples of which are found in its impressive castle.
Take in its old-world charm, which comes in a package of tangled streets and cobblestone alleys; buildings coated with peeling paints of pale yellows, greens, and pinks. -- Michelle Rae Uy
Santa Maddalena, Italy
This little mountainous village in the Dolomites -- flanked by a jagged, snow-capped mountains and green rolling hills -- is the stuff of alpine dreams. South Tyrol, the region the town calls home, refers to the southern part of Austria and gives the historical context for why signs here read in German, Italian, and the local language of Ladin.
The food you’ll find in the handful of restaurants is a similar cultural mix, and this scenic inland town is also skier’s paradise come winter.
It’s not teeming with nightlife. It doesn’t have many hotels. Stay a few days, go on a few of the hikes that are only a short ride away, and immerse yourself in the beautiful quiet. -- Matt Meltzer
St Ives, Cornwall, United Kingdom
This former fishing village has blossomed into a bite-sized capital of culture, with an acclaimed arts festival each September and a Tate gallery all its own. But those are just the headline acts.
Four golden sand beaches line the headland, with Atlantic breakers on one side and sheltered turquoise waters on the other. The harbor-side “downalong” neighborhood is an enchanting labyrinth of higgledy-piggledy cottages, boutique craft stores, and artist studios -- lots of artist studios.
St Ives, you see, has something that no architect can dream up, that no urban planner can commission: a natural light of such majesty that people cross oceans for it. It’s what’s been drawing creative types to the town for almost a century, from blockbuster names like Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth, to amateur enthusiasts wielding their first set of watercolors. -- Jonathan Melmoth
Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia has no shortage of ancient mountain towns, but none are better preserved than the stari grad of Jajce. It was the capital of medieval Bosnia, and you can still see the ancient hilltop castle, and explore the warren of curving cobbled streets splayed out below.
But Jajce’s greatest asset is a natural wonder -- the 72-foot Pliva waterfall, which spills over a sheer drop at the confluence of the Pliva and Vrbas rivers.
Jajce is bound by water on three sides, making it a prime base for some of Bosnia’s best whitewater rafting. -- Conor O’Rourke
Though less than an hour away from the frenzies of Cancun, this small resort area in Quintana Roo flourishes like a different world entirely: unhurried, barefoot, and somehow isolated despite seemingly on the tip of every traveler's tongue when the topic of must-visit Mexican towns comes up.
You’ll see hammocks on balconies, bicycles on the road, vernacular houses, and shops tapping into artisanal local brands. It’s hard to talk about this tiny town without doing so in breathless tones.
It’s harder still deciding which part of it to rave about to your friends -- the warm Caribbean water and quiet stretch of fine sand, the eco-friendly boutique hotels that trace its coast, or those ridiculously delicious tacos and margaritas you feasted on in your cabana at lunch. Nowhere in Mexico is sexier for nomadic millennials. Even its sunrises seem perfectly curated for morning yoga on the beach. -- Michelle Rae Uy
During wintertime, the isolated Shirakawa-go looks like the platonic ideal of an alpine Christmas village -- set along a cold, clear river, isolated atop a mountain. Get closer, and you’ll see what at first glance looks like gingerbread houses are actually thatched-roof gassho-zukuri buildings.
These structures -- whose pitched roofs are three-foot piles of woven reeds, angled to look like praying hands -- are why the village was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. That magical scent you’re smelling is from the stoves that heat these paper-walled structures to create a winter fantasy land.
In the summer, the village turns from white to deep green, and the colorful wildflowers that line the streets give the place the scent of a potpourri dish. The best views of the town are from the former Shiroyama Tenbodai castle site, a short hike up a hill on the edge of town. -- Matt Meltzer
Wanaka, New Zealand
Flying into Queenstown airport over the Southern Alps, always try to snag the window seat. The airport that serves Queenstown and Wanaka is set dead center in this desert range, which in the winter are more spectacular than their northern namesakes.
Overshadowed by adventure-sporty Queenstown, tiny Wanaka is the real gem of this region. The quiet streets of downtown are set next to a majestic mountain lake, where families picnic and tourists swim in the shadow of the grand peaks that shine almost pink against the blue sky.
For the grandest view of the city, climb up the world’s tallest waterfall via ferrata at Wildwire Wanaka’s Lord of the Rungs. Here, you’ll traverse metal rungs nearly 1,300 feet up the side of a cliff, with a cascading waterfall just in front of you. -- Matt Meltzer
Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
Ko Phi Phi island isn’t making anyone’s list of underrated anything anymore. But the throngs of tourists that pack this Thai village don’t detract from its stunning beauty.
Ko Phi Phi
Sure, the light tan sand, turquoise waters, and towering emerald-colored limestone cliffs don’t feel like a secluded slice of paradise as much as they once did, but that makes them no less awe-inspiring.
Ko Phi Phi
The crowds will flock to the speedboats or Bob’s Booze Cruise, and meander to Monkey Beach where bold primates saunter up and ask for food. The beach there is the same tableau of blues and greens that’s the trademark of Thai shoreline, and the friendly primates make it a light-hearted way to take in the scenery. -- Matt Meltzer
If the brains behind Instagram designed a town, it would probably look a lot like Paraty, where fragrant bougainvillea spills photogenically from red-tiled roofs and the snap-ready streets are lined with some seriously hardcore door porn. But that would be weird, and thankfully Paraty is much more than just photogenic.
It’s a snoozy bayside town halfway between Rio and Sao Paulo on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. Here, life moves at the pace of a horse-and-cart tottering across the cobbles (no cars allowed in the historic Old Town), and the gleaming colonial architecture is framed by palm trees swaying in the breeze.
The boats bobbing in the harbor come in every shade of pretty, and they’re not just there to look good. Pick your favorite and set sail for a desert island beach nearby. -- Jonathan Melmoth
Architecture and natural beauty rarely enjoy such harmony. All eyes in this valley village face the hilltop 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church and its neighboring belltower -- both of which enjoy glacier-capped, 16,560-foot Mount Kazbek as their backdrop.
Natural beauty aside, Stepantsminda is the perfect base camp for exploring Kazbegi National Park’s hot springs, waterfalls, and lakes both acidic and carbonated.
You’re mere miles from the Russian border, which is not as merry a conversation topic here as, say, white versus red -- this winery-laden country contains more than 500 grape varietals. -- Bruce Northam
Cefalù, Sicily, Italy
The frenzied cities of Sicily can certainly be invigorating, but if you really want to get to know the Mediterranean’s largest island, you need to visit the small towns -- starting with the tiny Cefalù.
Just an hour’s drive from Palermo, it’s a red-roofed town that clings to a rocky spit jutting out into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The gargantuan 12th-century Norman cathedral should look disproportionate in comparison, but it’s dwarfed by the even huge-er granite Rock of Cefalù looming in the sky behind.
Nearby, ancient Greek ruins and the volcanic Aeolian islands are tempting day trips. -- Conor O’Rourke
Getting to Hallstatt isn’t the easiest. The drive in is dotted with distractingly lovely Austrian spa towns like Bad Ischl that will tempt you off course, and the tiny turn-off is comically missable. Upon your eventual arrival, reward yourself with a pint of Stiegl -- which won’t dizzy you half as much as the spectacular scenery rising on all sides.
Hallstatt is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited village in Europe. In this improbably narrow Alpine town, pastel Baroque buildings and timber homes are wedged so steeply along the foot of the Dachstein Mountains they look keen to topple over each other.
You’ll envy the boats their 360-degree view of the Austrian Alps as they lazily chug across the town’s watery reflection. -- Keller Powell
The geothermal influence extends into the cuisine: The local specialty is cozido, a traditional meat stew cooked in the boiling waters that spew from the geysers.
Expect frequent wafts of stinky sulfur gas bubbling up from underground -- this is a good thing, especially when you bathe in the therapeutic springs at Terra Nostra Botanical Garden. Your stresses will melt away, leaving behind only an unmistakable sulphuric-orange tinge on your swimsuit. -- Paul Jebara
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
The towns and castles along Germany’s Romantic Road are quintessentially, well, romantic. But reach Rothenburg ob der Tauber (there are a few Rothenburgs; you want this one), and you’ll fall hardest for the country’s best-preserved, medieval-walled town.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Swoon-worthy, half-timbered pastel buildings, medieval stonework, and surprisingly non-kitschy shopping are part of this fairytale town’s signature Bavarian recipe. Take a quick dip into the dark side with a visit to the Medieval Crime Museum, which serves an exquisitely disturbing view of torture in the Middle Ages.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
On a lighter note, the centuries-old vineyards in the surrounding hills of Franconia guarantee fantastic local wines, to give your fairytale a happy ending. -- Paul Jebara
The smallest of the towns in the “Golden Ring” around Moscow shines the brightest for visitors. Never has an onion looked more appealing than the star-peppered one atop the 13th-century Nativity Cathedral, just one of Suzdal’s many spellbinding sights.
Ogle ancient frescoes in the Monastery of Saint Euthymius; stroll across a dandelion-dotted meadow to the ornately carved, all-wood Transfiguration Church (just be very careful with those candles). Suzdal is a hoof-clopping, breeze-rustling kind of town, and the only hum you’ll hear comes from the local bees -- and don’t leave without trying the sweet honey mead.
How, you might wonder, has Suzdal preserved this bucolic bliss? Thank the blundering local council: In the 1800s, they lost a bid to route the Trans-Siberian railway through the town. Thus Suzdal escaped industrialization, modernization, and most of the 20th century’s nasty bits. -- Jonathan Melmoth
On the coast between Nice and Monaco, carved into a 1,400-foot mountaintop, is where you’ll find this endearing medieval village. The winding cobblestone streets are filled with historical statues from the 1700s and quaint sandstone boutiques festooned with radiant flowers.
Your trip isn’t complete without a visit to the botanical garden (Jardin Exotique d’Eze) that overlooks the tiny town. Filled with cacti and surrounded by dramatic 360-degree views of the enchanting Cote d’Azur, the garden brings to life that captivating feel unique to the French Riviera.
Locals will tell you to grab a sunset drink at Chateau Eza for the best view of the Mediterranean. -- Shylie Rimmer
Port Douglas, Australia
Humid, breezy Port Douglas could easily double as the Caribbean, where mountains shine five shades of green and cascade into dreamy blue waters.
This town might be on the mainland, but it still operates on island time (set to a chorus of English you’re not completely familiar with). Intermingling with wealthy vacationers you’ll find backpackers and dive bums shouldered up at the Ironbar Saloon, preparing to hike the Daintree Rainforest or dive the Great Barrier Reef.
And once you’re ready to move along, the hour-long drive to Cairns along the Captain Cook Highway is a stunning, tropical version of the Pacific Coast Highway. -- Matt Meltzer
Simiane-la-Rotonde is a photographer’s dream. Due to its rich architectural heritage, this tiny hilltop village in Provence is one of France’s “Cités de Caractère” -- and boasts incredible views of lavender fields unfolding beneath the medieval castle.
The glass industry helped it prosper in the 17th century; walking through the cobbled streets today, it doesn’t feel like much has changed since. x
The glass industry helped it prosper in the 17th century; walking through the cobbled streets today, it doesn’t feel like much has changed since. Enjoy a peaceful stroll down through the narrow, winding, flower-filled streets, drop into a 500-year-old market hall, and seek out one of the few stores for a little souvenir -- the village is famous for essential oils. -- Emilie Thyebaut
But Rincon -- situated on the main island’s western coast; stop at Cueva Ventana if you’re making the two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Juan -- is most famous as a vibrant surf town. You can ride the waves yourself whether you’re a newbie or the most grizzled surfing veteran, or you can just enjoy watching people wipe out from the comfort of dry land as you sample a variety of rum cocktails (Tamboo Tavern is one of the top beach bars in the world).
The island of Desecheo a few miles off the coast makes for a gorgeous day trip, and good snorkling, diving, and fishing spots abound. The coup de grace would be the food trucks, serving up everything from fresh seafood to hot dogs to platanos. -- Kastalia Medrano