Outside of the cosmopolitan capitals and large metropolises, Europe keeps its little secrets. Small towns, some of them touristy, but never half as much as the big cities, are the places where you can escape to find a bit of peace, to feel nice, comfy and welcome. That’s also where both nature and tradition has been best-taken care of, giving you an opportunity to discover the authentic side of Europe. If that’s what you seek, the list below will provide you with some ideas for your future trips.
1. Toruń, Poland
Toruń, despite its charm, is constantly being overlooked by tourists. While everybody heads to bigger Polish cities, this delightful town is up there, in the northern Poland, lost between bustling Warsaw and coastal Gdańsk. And there’s Kraków. Try to enter a room, any room, with several people inside of it, and ask a question: “Have you ever been to Poland?” The answer will most likely be one of the following: a) Yes, I’ve been to Kraków! Three times!; b) No, I haven’t, but my best friend spent summer in Cracow last year; c) No, but my granny’s grandpa’s aunt was Polish, she’s from Cracow, I’d love to go there one day.
Say the word “Toruń” and the only reaction you’ll get will be the pupils of your companions’ eyes changing into question marks, like in cartoons. Unless there’s this one person, who’s been there. And if this person’s been there, then he/she surely remembers. Forgetting a visit to Toruń is hard. This relatively small, but lively student town is filled with stunning Gothic architecture. The castle, churches and numerous museums encourage sight-seeing, while the statue of Nicolaus Copernicus proudly stands in the center of the main pedestrian street and serves as a meeting point for all the locals. Foodies should know there are several great pierogarnias (restaurants serving the Polish delight called pierogi, dumplings) and shops selling pierniki (traditional gingerbread from Toruń) located in the Old Town.
2. Annecy, France
Once you enter this enchanting medieval town, a part of your heart will stay there forever. As melodramatic as it sounds, it’s true; no heart can resist being always surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of Alps, sparkling canals, lovely houses, and the ubiquitous, colorful geranium. Nowhere else a sweet French brioche tastes like there. Even if you don’t choose the best boulangerie (a bakery), the brioche will still be delightful, because everything eaten in such scenery is just heavenly. There are some pavement cafés where you can have a beer or, be more like a local, a glass of wine. In summer, when the weather’s warm, the turquoise Lac d’Annecy, one of Europe’s purest lakes, invites for a swim.
Like all proper medieval towns, Annecy also has a castle situated on a hill and overlooking the surroundings. If you feel like to buy something pretty, there are lots of chic boutiques and local artisan shops selling things that will make you look as good as the background in the pictures from Annecy. For the travelers who aren’t so fond of capitals, this unbelievably picturesque town can be more of an attraction than the famous Paris (yes, that’s a dangerous statement, but solidly supported by facts).
3. Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria
Located amongst the rolling hills of northern Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo is ridiculously picturesque. Strolling around the town usually, contains more breaks than actual walking. Why? Because all the time something beautiful drags your attention so much you’ve got to stop and take a closer look at it. Pay attention to the occasional gaps between tightly squeezed buildings in the center, almost each one of them offers a fantastic view of the valleys and hills surrounding the town and the ribboning Yantra River. Pay attention to the buildings too, as most of them are incredibly lovely, both those located in the center and on the hillsides.
The old town has a collection of renaissance houses and interesting museums. The well-preserved Tsarevets Fortress dating back to 12th century is its highlight. Historical monuments and views are great, but what makes Veliko Tarnovo so special, is most of all the atmosphere. The town’s often visited by backpackers and Bulgarians from other parts of the country coming here for a weekend away, yet it’s not overwhelmingly touristy. The number of visitors is just perfect to make it more enjoyable, without spoiling its coziness. Even though not big, Veliko Tarnovo houses one of the largest universities in Bulgaria. Students take care of the night-life, so you will surely not get bored in the evenings.
4. Nida, Lithuania
Situated on the Curonian Spit, between the Curonian Lagoon and the Baltic Sea, Nida used to be a fishing village and, in some ways, it still feels like one. There’s a harbor, quite large as for a town of this size, with lots of fishing boats and yachts. Fairytale-like wooden houses add their charm to the general prettiness of the landscape. Nida’s a part of the Kuršių Nerija National Park, so the natural beauty is abundant. One of the greatest nearby treasures are the dunes. Parnidis Dune, situated to the south of the town, offers gorgeous views of the pristine dunes that stretch far into Russia. A short walk through the pine forest will take you to lovely white-sand beaches. Renting a bike is an excellent idea, there’s a track that goes by the Curonian Lagoon and passes through lots of charming sceneries.
Nida is a mellow resort town, and as soon as you arrive, you’ll be affected by this tranquility. Even if it gets a bit noisier when bigger groups of tourists arrive, it’s still peaceful. The gentle breeze, fresh air, the smell of the sea and untouched nature have been an inspiration for many famous artists, including the German writer Thomas Mann (he liked it so much he even had a summer house in Nida). The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir (they spent several days on the dunes) as well as numerous Lithuanian painters.
5. Siena, Italy
Ah, Italy, so full of wonders, a gorgeous village here, a historic city there, then a piece of stunning beach and tons of heavenly gelato. One could spend a lifetime traveling across this country and still not get to see all of its greatest gems. But if you go to Italy and you like small towns, make sure to include Siena on your list. Situated in the picturesque Tuscany, where everything looks like a potential postcard, Siena is one of the region’s best parts. The brown, yellow and golden colors of Gothic buildings make it feel warm and cozy, but impressively beautiful at the same time.
Piazza Del Campo, a unique plaza in the town’s center, is a bustling spot, always full of people strolling around, chatting with friends, drinking wine or simply sitting in the marvelous surrounding and enjoying it quietly. Many visitors, even if they only came for a short visit and briefly looked around, remember Siena for a long time. A day-trip is enough to fall in love.
6. Delft, the Netherlands
If you’re into fine arts, it has undoubtedly puzzled you where the Dutch painters took their inspiration from. Don’t wonder anymore, just go to Delft and you’ll understand. This little town was a birthplace of Johannes Vermeer, a famous and genius artist. His atmospheric painting View of Delft presents an original vision of the city. The actual place isn’t less atmospheric though, the traditional architecture and canal-lined streets make out of Delft a truly scenic little town.
There’s something extraordinary about Delft, and even if you can’t say what it is exactly, you just feel it’s somehow enchanted. Perhaps it’s because of the canals, or the art, or the old buildings. Whatever is the source of Delft’s uniqueness, it works out perfectly. It’s small and compact, so you can easily walk from one sight to another. Don’t forget to visit the Vermeer Centrum and one of the antique shops where you can take a look at the traditional Delft pottery.
7. Kotor, Montenegro
At the very edge of Kotor Bay, wedged amongst magnificent mountains, there’s the astonishing and marvelous town of Kotor. The whole Montenegro is a magical place, even the country’s name sounds poetic, but a visit to Kotor is by many travelers considered to be the most important part of Montenegrian journeys. Kotor’s main attraction is the Old Town, where traditions and history are still alive and in an incredible shape. Churches, museums, cathedrals and palaces, squares, markets and narrow streets are simply awe-inspiring. When walking around the town, look up, and to the east, you’ll see the Upper Town Walls sitting on the cliffs above Kotor. They look especially stunning at night, beautifully lit and reflecting in the water.
If you decide to climb up the 1350 steps leading to the walls, you’ll be rewarded with fantastic views of the town and the whole bay. In the recent years, Montenegro became a popular tourist destination and so did Kotor, but comparing to other places on the coast, it’s still relatively subtle. One word that describes Kotor most accurately is romantic but romantic in the authentic, charming way, not the kitschy or overly dramatic.