For most of the past five years, I’ve been exploring Europe non-stop. I’ve lived in the Swiss Alps and spent winters in Paris. I’ve based myself in Italian hill country and along the coast of Sicily. I’ve gone off the beaten track in Slovenia and Belgium. And I’ve fallen in love with this continent over and over again.
While I do love Paris for its beautiful architecture and outstanding cuisine and enjoy Rome for its history, culture…and gelato…my favourite places in Europe are smaller ones—little cities, charming university towns, even tiny villages.
And, of course, in all this travelling and exploring, I’ve stumbled across a few gems that have drawn me back again and again. Places I recommend to friends and family. Places that I want to recommend to you. So, here they are, my five favourite charming small towns in Europe…
1. Thun, Switzerland
Built around a castle on a hill and overlooking the calm blue expanse of Lake Thun and the Alps in the distance, Thun is a little-known gem of a place. While tourists flock to lakeside Lucerne, get yourself off the beaten track and head to Thun instead. Take a trip through the castle which has been turned into a local museum and features views from its towers all the way down over the town and to the lake beyond.
After the castle, wander down into town for shopping along cobblestone streets, sample the local chocolate or beer…or both… and settle in in the riverbank and watch the locals surf the waves created by the river’s small dams.
2. Assisi, Italy
Positioned on a hill overlooking the olive groves and vineyards of Umbria’s hill country, Assisi’s beautiful pink-white stone buildings and streetscapes are like nothing I’ve ever seen before.
Climb to the fortress on the hill for lofty views or hike down the hill to the nunnery-turned-welcome-center for forest solitude. Don’t miss the Cacio Pepe grocery store or Osteria Piazzetta dell’Erba—a restaurant tucked away from the main town bustle and serving up food that will leave you wanting more.
3. Bruges, Belgium
This fairytale town, built with its traditional Flemish architecture around a series of canals and featuring swans and horse-drawn carriages, has captured many hearts over the years. I love it for its cobblestone streets and perfectly kept houses, its quiet evenings (when all the tourists have departed after their day trips) and its sugary waffles.
4. Freiburg, Germany
Nestled against the Black Forest, Freiburg is a university town full of old churches and cobblestone ways, large fresh markets and spicy red sausages sold for just a few euros at stands dotted about.
For hikers, it’s a great base for exploring the Black Forest. For those less inclined to tread the shaded, conifer-lined trails, the town itself is a charmer.
5. Colmar, France
Combining the architecture, food, culture and charm of Germany and France, this small town just over the border is known for its flower-lined canals and distinctive timbered houses.
Wander the cobblestone streets, stop in the large park to splash around with kids in the interactive fountains in the summertime or just enjoy an excellent French meal at one of the many good restaurants in town.