10 Coolest Small Towns in Europe
Paris, London, Rome…the big cities require no introductions. But have you heard of the foodie haven of Tremolat, France or the pristine Alpine hamlet of Binn, Switzerland? In our travels, we've discovered that some of Europe's most divine towns are also some of its smallest.
While Provence is justifiably famous for its rosé and rustic gîtes (holiday rental homes), that celebrity comes at a high price. Nearly a straight shot across the country, close to Bordeaux, the cluster of market towns known as Périgord Noir offers weekly cottage rentals at nearly half the cost—and the small-town experience is no less picturesque. One of the quaintest towns in the area, Trémolat sits on a horseshoe-shaped bend in the Dordogne River and is dominated by a fortresslike Romanesque church that dates back to the 11th century. But the highlight of the town is farm-to-table restaurant Les Truffières. Yanick Le Goff oversees a classic ferme auberge—a working farm that serves the food it grows (011-33/5-53-27-30-44, six-course family-style meal with wine $34, reservations required). Plates like barbecued duck, garlic-and-goose-fat soup, and house made foie gras are paired with local wines like a lavender-tinged aperitif or a rosé. The surrounding area is best known for its dark oak forests, hillside vineyards, medieval châteaux, Stonehenge-like megaliths, and, of course, the prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux with haunting images of bison, horses, and traced human hands estimated to be an astounding 17,000 years old.
How to Get There: From Paris Montparnasse station, Tremolat is a five hour and twenty minute ride with one transfer at Bordeaux St. Jean (raileurope.com, from $78).
The city walls of the seaside resort town of Tenby might have kept attackers out during the Middle Ages, but today they can't quite contain the pastel Georgian buildings spilling right out onto the sand. The view from the harbor is rightfully renowned, but you can get an even better taste of Tenby's medieval past by taking a ramble down one of its narrow, winding alleys—like the quirkily named Lower Frog Street, a canyon of color. (No amphibian greens, though—Tenby's hues skew lighter.) The town is always popular with holidaymakers, but it's getting an extra boost this year with the recent opening of the Wales Coast Path, an 870-mile meander along the country's edge that includes Tenby on its route. Trekkers can enjoy shades as sweet as the seaside treats sold by candymaker Lollies.
How to Get There: Trains from London to Tenby on the National Rail service take roughly five hours, with one change in Swansea (nationalrail.co.uk, one way from $24).
With its cobblestoned streets and tiled buildings, Ericeira looks like a quintessential Portuguese fishing village. But north and south of the village center, scalloped cliffs give way to white-sand beaches and—much to surfers' delight—consistent right-hand reef breaks. Thanks to its seaside location, Ericeira is also well-known for its seafood. Though the town's name is said to come from the Portuguese word for sea urchins, the regional specialty here is lobster, which are bred in nurseries along the rocky coast.
How to Get There: Ericeira is a mere 37-minute drive northwest of Lisbon.
From their base in the capital city of Reykjavik, most visitors to Iceland will follow the usual tourist circuit of the Blue Lagoon, Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall, and thermodynamic geysers. The Westman Islands, a wild volcanic archipelago off Iceland's southern coast, feel a world away. The 15 islands are named not for the Norse settlers that conquered these parts but for the Irish they enslaved; the Norse referred to the Irish as Vestmenn, or Westmen. The inhabitants on Heimaey—the only inhabited island in the bunch—and the main port town of Vestmannaeyjar are still mostly a mix of Norse and Celtic descendants. The principal industry is commercial fishing, and the wharf is lined with unassuming seafood restaurants. The just-caught fish—cold-water species like cod and halibut—are usually prepared in a traditional European style, sautéed in brown butter. Adventurous travelers can explore the islands by hitching rides with local fishermen. If a professional operation is more your speed, go with Viking Tours (boattours.is, 90-minute island circle tour $40). The 90-minute ride circles Heimaey, yielding picture-perfect vistas of rugged sheer cliffs, with killer whales splashing offshore, plus a healthy population of puffins. Venture inside Klettshellur, a sea cave formed by crashing waves; a crew member will likely play a tune or two on a saxophone to demonstrate the dramatic acoustics.
How to Get There: The most direct route between Reykjavik and Vestmannaeyjar is a 20-minute flight on Eagle Air (ernir.is, one-way from $169). A cheaper option, the Herjólfur ferry, departs from Landeyjahöfn, a new harbor on Iceland's southern coast that opened in 2010 (eimskip.is, 30-minute ferry ride from $10)—the harbor can be reached by bus from the capital.