20 OF THE LAST STORYBOOK TOWNS LEFT IN EUROPE
Much of old-world Europe has been swept away. Thanks to countless wars, the irresistible draw of modernization, and overwrought tourism infrastructure, the Europe of your dreams is harder to find than ever. However, there are still towns where you can experience that ‘old-world European charm’ almost like it was when Wordsworth and the Romantics first popularized vagabonding the Continent.
These are places with well-preserved architecture dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. These are places where the negative impact of tourism isn’t allowed to run roughshod over local aesthetics. These are places where you can find that cobblestone-postcard view. And if you don’t find it here, you aren’t going to find it anywhere.
1 Castiglion Fiorentino, Italy
“CF” checks all the hill-town boxes: Etruscan and Roman ruins, medieval stone fortress, gelaterias, cobblestone streets, and zero souvenir shops. Locals’ favorite, the rustic Ristorante Da Muzzicone, is one of Tuscany’s finest.
Photo: Giovanni Maw
2 Gruyeres, Switzerland
Famed for producing the cheese of the same name, Gruyeres is a medieval gateway to the Swiss Alps where the only traffic jam you’ll encounter is the one created by cows on their way to alpine pastures.
3 Cinque Terre, Italy
The five fishing and grape-growing towns that comprise the Cinque Terre on Italy’s Riviera—Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore—have taken extraordinary measures to impede the encroaching modern world, including opting out of a highway connection, strictly regulating building, and even blocking (before eventually allowing) high-speed internet.
Photo: Fougerouse Arnaud
4 Saint-Emilion, France
This UNESCO World Heritage Site in France’s Bordeaux region features Roman ruins and steep cobblestone streets, and has been in the wine business since about the second century BCE.
5 Bruges, Belgium
Thanks to a silted-up port, Bruges—Venice of the North—is a perfectly preserved medieval UNESCO World Heritage Site. With tons of amazing beer and chocolate.
Photo: Wolfgang Staudt
6 Riquewihr, France
Riesling fans know Riquewihr for its famed appellation, and travelers love its town center, which hasn’t really changed much since the 1500s.
7 Monemvasia, Greece
Originally settled in the sixth century as a fortress refuge for Greeks fleeing invasion, Monemvasia has successfully repelled invaders—cultural and physical—ever since.
8 Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
Another World Heritage Site, Cesky Krumlov’s outsized castle (the second largest in the Czech Republic) provides an amazing backdrop to this Baroque town.
Photo: Russell McNeil
9 Gimmelwald, Switzerland
Step off the tram and into another century in Switzerland’s best-preserved alpine village. By having the whole community declared an avalanche zone, locals have staved off modern development.
Photo: James Clear
10 Colmar, France
Colmar is a popular stop in the Alsace region, and for good reason. Its renowned old town couldn’t be more perfect—and then there’s the wine…
11 Ronda, Spain
Three incredibly dramatic stone bridges span the 100-meter-deep El Tajo canyon upon which the city is built. Ronda’s played host to many cultural heavyweights, including Ernest Hemingway, who indulged his love for bullfighting while residing in the old quarter.
Photo: Antonio Casas
12 Corinaldo, Italy
Medieval walls, ramparts, towers, and alleys more or less the way they were when built in the 14th century make for a perfect escape from touristed Italy.
Photo: Alessandro Casagrande
13 Óbidos, Portugal
Sure the main street is touristy, but it doesn’t take much to leave the crowds behind in this white-washed little hill town whose history reads like a European timeline—Romans to Visigoths to Moors…
Photo: Melissa Toledo
14 Cochem, Germany
Another Celtic, then Roman, outpost on the Rhine, you’ll never believe how much of the old town was destroyed in World War II because key buildings somehow survived and now sit beside very clever reproductions.
Photo: Ineke Huizing
15 Potes, Spain
In Spain’s mountainous north, Potes straddles steep, river-choked terrain and is home to several centuries-old stone bridges, including the famous San Cayetano and La Cárcel that span the Quiviesa River.
16 Sibiu, Romania
This Transylvanian city of almost 150,000, with a Bohemian-chic vibe, is a cultural powerhouse recently ranked by Forbes as Europe’s “eighth-most idyllic place to live.”
Photo: Christian Hügel
17 Mittenwald, Germany
If the beautiful train ride to get here doesn’t do it for you, drink up the magnificent Bavarian architecture in a town Goethe called “a picture book come alive.”
Photo: Neil Howard
18 Dingle Peninsula, Ireland
You’ll find wooden fishing boats lazily bobbing in the harbor, sheep herders moving their flocks through rock-walled pastures, and plenty of dark, cozy pubs in this postcard “Gaeltacht” (a national park for traditional Irish culture) on the island’s southwest coast.
Photo: Giuseppe Milo
19 Bragança, Portugal
Inhabited since the Paleolithic, Bragança has seen much military strife, but its old town walls, Renaissance buildings, and town hall—Portugal’s oldest—survive in remarkable condition.
20 Hallstatt, Austria
A town so old and esteemed it has a whole Iron Age era dedicated to it (the Hallstatt Era, 700 – 500 BC), Hallstatt can be reached by train or boat. Take the boat.
Photo: – peperoni –