Last Updated on 20th January 2021 by Sophie Nadeau
Between charming coastal settlements, historic suburbs, and fairytale towns nestled in snow-capped peaks, there’s no shortage of towns in Europe that are worth visiting, or at the very least, adding to your travel bucket list! Here’s the best of secret small towns in Europe that will steal your heart…
Located just a little way away from the French capital of Paris, the pretty settlement of Senlis is home to attractions such as narrow cobbled lanes and enough French eateries to keep you going for days. Within the heart of this historic town, there are also three museums, a Royal Castle dating back to the time when Louis VII was King of France and a rather impressive cathedral.
Read more: A guide to the best things to do in Senlis
Delft, The Netherlands
Home to iconic Delftware blue pottery (if you’ve ever seen ceramic from the Netherlands, then no doubt you’ll recognise it upon sight), the pretty university town of Delft is located midway between The Hague and Rotterdam and is just fifteen minutes away from each.
Though technically classed as a city, as a result of its beautiful cathedral, Delft has a small town vibe about it, meaning that it still made the list! The historic home of Vermeer, this canal-ringed settlement is perfect for a long weekend getaway. As a bonus, the entirety of Delft can be explored via bicycle!
Read more: Visiting the oldest bar in Delft
Located around half an hour to an hour away from the port city of Gdansk (depending on which train you take), Malbork is located at a strategic point along the River Nogat. This Polish town is easily one of the best small towns in Europe for the simple fact that it’s home to the largest castle in the world, measured by land mass. At the very least, you’ll want to dedicate a half-day to exploring the fortress as a day trip from Gdansk.
Read more: Visiting the largest castle in the world
Though much less of a secret now than just a few years ago, Vernazza is one of the ‘five lands’ of Cinque Terre. Home to delicious Italian cuisine such as focaccia and pesto, the sun is nearly almost always shining down on this picturesque Italian town.
Situated along the Ligurian coastline, once in Vernazza there’s a castle to explore, countless cobbled lanes punctuated by equally interesting architecture, and a small harbour. The small port of Vernazza is actually the only safe landing point on this part of the coastline. If you want to visit the other towns, then the easiest way to get from settlement to settlement is via train or on your own two feet.
Read more: How to spend two weeks in Italy
Lying sleepily by the sea, Fowey (pronounced ‘Foy’) can be found on Cornwall’s Southern Coast within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. So picturesque is this part of Cornwall, that it was selected by acclaimed writer, Daphne du Maurier, to be her home base.
Today, highlights of Fowey include an impressive fortified church and countless ice cream shops. For those with an interest in history, the remains of a Henry VIII fort can be found at nearby Readymoney Beach, while the Southwest Coastal Path offers some of the best hiking trails that the UK has to offer.
Read more: A guide to the best things to do in Fowey
La Ciotat, France
Provence is one of those French destinations that needs no introduction. Home to sun all year long, the landscape is characterised by its impressive mountains, endless vineyards, and azure blue coastline. If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of cities such as Marseille and Aix-en-Provence, then you would do well to head to the sleepy town of La Ciotat.
Once there, La Ciotat offers little by way of attractions. Instead, the charm of this offbeat European town lies in wandering its historic centre, soaking up some sun on the single golden sandy beach, or learning about the history of the town. After all, it was here in this Provençal settlement that the famous game of Petanque was invented…
A must-see for bibliophiles, Hay-on-Wye has books in the shops, books on the streets, and even an honesty bookshop in the castle ruins. Situated on the border between England and Wales, this pretty European market town even holds a book festival each year during the summer.
Read more: How to see the book town of Wales
Pano Lefkara, Cyprus
Listed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list thanks to its “Lefkaritika” lace (which is actually a type of needlework embroidery on linen), it’s alleged that even Leonardo da Vinci visited in the 15th-century where he brought back a tablecloth of the stuff for the Duomo di Milano.
Today, the beautiful town is characterised by its many cobbled lanes, Neo-Classical Architecture, and many floral covered houses. Pano Lefkara is named for the limestone mountains which surround it and the settlement can easily be visited as a day trip from Limassol.
Read more: The lace making town of Lefkara
While everyone visiting Luxembourg makes a point of staying in the country’s capital, which also happens to be called Luxembourg, few venture out into the countryside. However, that definitely shouldn’t deter you from making a trip to the oldest town in Luxembourg, i.e. Echternach.
On the border with Germany and close to the remains of a Roman villa, the town was founded at the end of the 7th-century by English Monk, St Willibrord. Today, the small town comprises of several museums, plenty of beautiful buildings and is easy to reach within an hour of Luxembourg City.
Read more: A guide to the oldest town in Luxembourg
Located on glittering Lake Geneva, Lausanne is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Switzerland. Best seen in the winter when the snow-covered peaks of the French Alps can be enjoyed from the historic town centre’s main vantage points, you won’t regret visiting this pretty Swiss settlement!
Read more: A day trip from Evian les Bains to Lausanne
Home to European gems such as a Duomo designed by the hand of Da Vinci and a monastery which is now classed as a UNESCO world heritage site, Pavia is one of the best-kept secrets of Northern Italy. Head to the old town, and you’ll soon discover a maze of small streets, pizzerias, one of the oldest universities in Italy, and countless little churches.
Read more: A free and self-guided walking tour of Pavia
The charming island of Milos is in the middle of the Aegean Sea, part of the Cycladic Islands. Though not quite so much of a secret as just a few years ago, the island certainly gets far fewer tourists than neighbouring islands such as Mykonos or Santorini.
Once on the island, which is alleged by many to be the birthplace of Aphrodite (thanks, in part, to the discovery of the ‘Venus di Milo’ in the 19th-century), there’s plenty of things to do, and even more attractions to see. Among Milos attractions is the island’s capital, Plaka. Located high on the hillside, th small lanes and tavernas of this town are just charming!
Read more: The best towns and villages in Milos
Gouda, The Netherlands
If you think that the name ‘Gouda’ sounds just like the cheese, then that’s because they’re one and the same. The traditional Dutch hard cheese originates in the city and has brought great prosper to Gouda (pronounced ‘How-dah’) over the years.
Today, highlights of the town include the historic cheese weighing station, many small canals, and the Sint-Janskerk, which has some of the best Gothic stained glass windows to be found anywhere in the Netherlands. Elsewhere in the city, there’s a historic windmill (which vends its own flour) and a beautiful Gothic town hall.
Read more: 10 fantastic day trips from The Hague
Often dubbed the ‘Queen of the Cotswolds’ thanks to its impeccable architecture, prosperity during the wool trade of the Middle Ages, and many thriving businesses, this quaint town can be found just a few miles away from Cheltenham and a visit here can easily be combined with a visit to Winchcombe.
Of particular note in Painswick is the churchyard. After all, it is here, surrounding the centuries-old church, where ninety-nine yew trees can be found. Local legend suggests that if a final and hundreth yew is planted, then it will wither up and die. Whatever the case, these shaped bushes are truly unique in this part of the world!
The Swiss town of Ascona can be found on the shores of Lake Maggiore, close to the border with Italy. Though there is little by way of tourist attractions, the charm of this beautiful settlement instead lies in its wealth of Alpine views and Italianate architecture. After all, Ascona is easily one of the best small towns in Europe!
While the town is best to visit during high season (you’re pretty much guaranteed great weather should you opt to visit in the summer), a winter visit is never a bad idea! Home to several churches, it’s also easy to make the visit to nearby Locarno where you’ll find all the shops and stores you’d expect to find in a moderately sized European town.
Read more: A guide to the best things to do in Ascona
Located along the West Coast of Sweden, to the North of Gothenburg, the pretty town of Marstrand can be found divided equally between two islands, Koön and Marstrandsön. The pretty fishing town also happens to be the last stop on the public transport system from Gothenburg, making it an easy day trip (or weekend escape) from Sweden’s second largest city.
If you’re looking for one of the best-kept secrets of Western Europe then you need to look no further than Northern Portugal, a magical landscape of deep valleys, endless vineyards, and breathtaking towns. Such is the case with Amarante, a secret European town set alongside the River Tâmega.
Best-known as being home to plenty of Portuguese sweets, once in Amarante some of the best things to do in the town include crossing the 18th-century Ponte de São Gonçalo and admiring the 16th-century Igreja de São Gonçalo.
Nearby, the mountains are home to a myriad of prehistoric and late bronze age sites encompassing tombs, Cairns, and tumuli. Best of all, Amarante can easily be visited as a day trip from the second largest city in Portugal, that of Porto. Of all the small towns in Europe on this list, Amarante is easily one of my favourites!
Of all the secret small towns in Europe, the tiny settlement of Leuven definitely qualifies as one of the best-hidden gems. Situated in Flanders, the small city can be found somewhere between Brussels and Hasselt. Home to delights such as a UNESCO listed beguinage and a handful of churches, this university city is well worth exploring over the course of one or two days.
One of the most charming and easy to take day trips from Edinburgh is the little town of Roslin. Located just a short bus ride away from the Scottish capital city, Roslin has little by way of attractions (with the exception of one touristic landmark). Instead the charm of the place lies in its secluded and sleepy nature, as well as the wonderful woodland which surrounds much of the town.
However, I would be remiss if I were not to mention Rosslyn Chapel at this point. Beautiful and magnificent, this ancient place of worship dates back to the 14th-century and was in use until it was largely ruined by Oliver Cromwell’s troops during the 17th-century.
Once lying in ruins and referred to as the ‘green’ chapel on account of it being covered in moss, the little place of worship is ornately decorated and has inspired writers, artists and poets alike for centuries. In Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’, the Chapel is home to the secret of the Holy Grail. Audrey Tautou and Tom Hanks actually spent time at the chapel for filming in the mid-2000s.