Dear independent traveler, since you decided to hit the road this year, we would like to contribute with some suggestions. Here are 14 special small European towns and villages to visit in 2016!
Some of these travel destinations were part of our experiences on the road, other are taken from our future “travel trajectories”. We see traveling as a homage to the past also, which is why some of the places below bear great history lessons and will take you on paths of reflection.
We hope this list will fill you up with pleasant surprises during your round-the-world exploration. Enjoy this year and travel madly!
#1. ANNECY, France
Annecy is an idyllic town in the French Alps, in southern France, near the border with Switzerland. Founded in the Middle Ages, the old town is a magnificent combination of architectural styles, as castles and cathedrals get lost between the old pastel-painted houses.
The city is named the Venice of Savoie due to the small canals and streams that surround a 14th century Chateau (which hosts a local history museum) located in the heart of the town. Lake Annecy with its turquoise colors that reflects the surrounding mountains with their snowed peaks is located nearby.
Annecy is a great place for those who want a large dosage of adventure in a single day. The Alps are just outside the town, so hiking is always an option. You can swim and sail on the lake, or go biking around it. There are also hangliding courses for those who want to try something new.
There are many buses from Geneva’s intercity bus station to Annecy and the cost for a round-trip ticket is 32 CHF (around 30 euros); the trip lasts about an hour. Lyon and Grenoble, two important French cities that have international flights, are also located close by. Here you will find all the information you need.
#2. TOLEDO, Spain
Toledo is a remarkable medieval city located on a mountaintop in central Spain, 70 km south of Madrid. Called “the City of the Three Cultures”, Toledo was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its architectural heritage, the majestic result of a historical co-existence of Christians, Muslims and Jews.
Built as a fortress-city in the Middle Ages, the mighty Toledo contains many historical monuments, including the Alcázar Cathedral (the primate church of Spain), the Alcantara Bridge built by the Romans, mosques and small churches, palaces, museums (such as the El Greco Museum) and medieval gates.
Try to see Toledo in colder months, in the morning or during summer nights, because the temperatures in high summer season are usually unbearable.
#3. CARCASSONNE, France
Carcassonne is a perfectly conserved medieval citadel situated in southern France, in the Languedoc region. It is known for the Cité de Carcassonne with its 53 watchtowers and double-walled fortifications that assemble one of the biggest town-fortresses in the world.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a rare sample of the medieval times, Carcassonne has great profits from tourism, as more than three million visitors come here every year to enjoy a day in the fortress.
Undoubtedly, Carcassonne is a perfect representation of the adventurous episodes we had in mind during school history lessons, as well as an inspiration for many movies and storybooks. Visit the amazing Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus built in a Romanesque-Gothic style, notable for its Gothic transept and vivid rose windows.
The best time to visit Carcassonne is during Spring or Autumn, if possible during the evening and night when the old city brings forward its medieval spirit the most. The local tourist office organizes daily guided walking tours of the old city in English, French and Spanish, as well as captivating after-dark tours. The prices are 6€ per adult and 5€ per child.
#4. MARVÃO, Portugal
Marvão is a beautiful mountaintop village within a medieval castle, located in Alentejo Region, Portugal, just 15 km away from the Spanish border. Perched on a granite hill in Serra de Sao Mamede, the castle offers a 360-degree panorama of the surroundings and features numerous characteristics of a crusader-era castle.
The original fortress was used as a power base when a 9th century Muladi duke (educated within the Islamic culture) established an independent small state. This happened during the Emirate of Cordoba, when the Moors were ruling in the lower part of the Iberic Peninsula.
The village itself is an attraction, with its medieval atmosphere kept within narrow streets, traditional whitewashed houses and defensive walls. A 13th century church with a museum of archaeological finds and local artifacts is also located here.
On the way to the entrance of the castle, there is a beautiful small garden where you can enjoy the sunset. If you are a classical music enthusiast, Marvão International Music Festival greets guests every year. The 4th edition is scheduled this summer from 22nd to 31st July 2016.
For adventurers, there are lots of things to discover in the mountains of São Mamede, a natural park with Neolithic and Roman remains, wildlife, and Europe’s largest colony of bats. Marvão can be reached from Castelo de Vide (10 km away) by bus service, personal car or taxi.
#5. SIGHIŞOARA, Romania
Sighișoara is a medieval citadel hidden in Transylvania, Romania. Built by the Saxons during the 12th century, Sighișoara still stands as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. It is often compared with the historic areas of Prague or Vienna through its old cobbled alleys, steep stairways, secluded squares, impressive towers and turrets. The main point of interest in the walled city is the Clock Tower, a 64 meters high tower built in the 13th century that was turned into museum of history.
Other places to visit are the Church on the Hill with its 500-year-old frescoes, the 13th century Venetian House and the Church of the Dominican Monastery, known for its Transylvanian renaissance carved altarpiece, baroque pulpit, Oriental carpets and 17th century pipe organ.
If you arrive in Sighișoara in late July, prepare for the week-long Medieval Festival of the Arts, a colorful and stirred event that brings together people from all the parts of the world in a historical odyssey.
#6. MOSTAR, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Mostar is considered one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country. Developed in the 15th and 16th centuries as an Ottoman frontier town, it still keeps the influences of the old Turkish houses.
Mostar is famous for its unique Ottoman-style bridge called Stari Most (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which unites the two sides of the historic center over Neretva River. The Old Bridge was reconstructed in 2004 with some of the original pieces recovered from the river, many years after its destruction during the war.
You can easily get to Mostar from Western Europe via Croatia. There are trains and buses connected with Zagreb (3,5 hours) or Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia (2,5 hours). However, the most recommended and cheapest way to get there is by train; the ride offers stunning landscape, passing through viaducts, tunnels and rugged terrain.
#7. ROTHENBURG OB DER TAUBER, Germany
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is one of the top destinations in the region of Bavaria, Germany. Part of the Romantic Road through southern Germany, situated between Frankfurt and Munich, Rothenburg is a well-preserved medieval old town.
Inside the undamaged 14th century town wall lies the medieval center (Altstadt) with its Bavarian houses. You have to visit the 13th century Town Hall Tower placed in the Market Square (Marktplatz), the center of urban life. See also the Church of St. Jacob (Klostergasse 15), north of the Market Square, with its masterpieces sculptured in the 15th century.
If you want to explore the old center with a guide and take great photography, there are daily walking tours in English (cost €6), starting from Market Square.
#8. MORCOTE, Switzerland
Morcote is a picturesque village built on a steep hill on the shore of Lake Lugano, a glacier lake in Switzerland. The village is known for its small alleys with old Patrician homes, remarkable architectural monuments and the lakefront position.
During its approximately one thousand years history, Morcote was a very important settlement in the region because, due to its location on the border between southern Switzerland and northern Italy. In the 19th century, tourism started to grow into a major industry in Morcote, and the locals started to be interested in wine production and handicrafts.
Visit is the church of Santa Maria del Sasso (13th century), completely rebuilt in 1462 in the style of the Renaissance, the church tower from the Middle Ages with its several valuable frescoes from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the sacramental chapel that contains an illusionistic architecture painting from the 18th century.
The city of Lugano is only 10 km away from Morcote, so it is easy to get here by car, bus or with a rented boat. There are also many boat operators that have daily trips on the lake, and Morcote is always one of the stops.
#9. SINTRA, Portugal
Sintra is a fascinating town with a mystical past, one of the most famous and visited places in Portugal. Once you descend the train that connects Sintra with Lisbon, you will step into an exotic and peaceful natural environment.
Due to its pure air and coller climate, Sintra has attracted many personalities and aristocrats from Portugal along the last two centuries. Their fascination for Sintra can now be admired in many 19th-century Romantic architectural monuments, decorative gardens, unique palaces or impressive residences.
Being designated as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sintra is a treasure of the Portugal culture. It is also known for its natural beauty, as it is situated in the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park full of exotic trees and rare species of birds. There are many monuments to visit: Sintra’s National Palace, the medieval Castelo dos Mouros, the Pena National Palace, Quinta da Regaleira (a 20th century Gothic palace with many masonic symbols on the facade), the grand Palacio de Monserrate and the austere Convento dos Capuchos.
Sintra is considered a perfect day trip for travelers that are coming from Lisbon, only 50 km away. To visit Sintra you can take the train from Rossio train station in the center of Lisbon, a trip that will last around 45 minutes and cost you 5 euros per round-trip ticket.
#10. Korčula, Croatia
Korčula is a historic fortified town located on the east coast of the island of Korčula, in the Adriatic Sea, Croatia. Constructed on a small peninsula, it is protected by impressive walls and the streets are built in a special pattern that allows free circulation of air. In Korčula, all the streets are narrow, except for the Street of Thoughts that runs alongside the southeastern wall.
There are many sites to visit in Korčula, including the central Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral of St Mark, the 15th-century Franciscan monastery with a beautiful Venetian Gothic cloister, the civic council chambers, the palace of the former Venetian governors or the palaces of the local merchant nobles.
For travelers looking for new music festivals, Korčula hosts an annual international event called The Korkyra Baroque Festival, held in September.
#11. BARDEJOV, Slovakia
Bardejov is a small town known for its eclectic architecture and multiculturalism. It was founded on the hills of the Beskyd Mountains, near the Topľa River in the North-Eastern Slovakia.
In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, Bardejov was considered one of the most important centers of trade in the Central Europe due to the large number of craftsmen and guilds, as well as its strategic position between the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea.
The historic town center is encircled by the fortification system which was, at the time of its construction, one of the most advanced in Central Europe. Today, the old town exhibits perfectly conserved cultural monuments, majestic town walls and a Jewish Suburbia.
Bardejov is dominated by the extraordinary Church of St. Aegidius, a three nave basilica with Gothic winged altars and 15th century paintings. The market square is another landmark, surrounded by intact Gothic and Renaissance burghers’ houses. Probably the most interesting building to visit is the town hall with its lower part built in the Gothic style and the upper part finished in the Renaissance style.
Bardejov is about an hour away by bus or local train from Presov, the main city in the region. It is more a day trip destination, so you better include it in your journey along Slovakia.
#12. BROEK IN WATERLAND, The Netherlands
Broek in Waterland is a charming little town built on canals in the province of North Holland, in the Netherlands, 8 km northeast of Amsterdam. During the centuries it was one of the main vacation villages for sea captains, seafarers and merchants from Amsterdam.
A simple walk along its small streets and canals will reveal the typical old-Dutch atmosphere and small wooden houses painted in soft colors. Being a well-preserved piece of history, the village was classified as a Protected Cityscape. Around 80 traditional houses from Broek in Waterland are on the list of National Monuments.
If you want to visit Broek in Waterland, the best way is to rent a bike in Amsterdam and cycle till you get to the village. The ride will last about 45 minutes from Amsterdam city center. The village can be explored in a hour by foot or you can relax on a boat along the canals and discover the countryside.
#13. STEIN AM RHEIN, Switzerland
Stein am Rhein is a story town that lies on the riverbanks of the Rhine River in the canton of Schaffhausen, in Switzerland. It has an amazing medieval center that kept its original street plan and architecture along the centuries.
Stein am Rhein has a number of unique old buildings that are listed as Swiss heritage sites of national significance. As part of the touristic strategy, the local hall decided to pedestrianize the entire medieval part of town. So a walk through the small streets will be a real delight for those who like to discover the charm of the medieval buildings, some painted with beautiful frescoes.
You should see the former monastery church of St. Georg, the former Benedictine monastery church of St. Georgen and the Castle Church, Burg Hohenklingen (older late-Roman castle) that guards the town and the city walls.
The best way to get to Stein am Rhein is by taking the train S-Bahn S7 from Zurich. There are also bike paths on both sides of the Rhine that connect the town with numerous cities such as Schaffhausen, Radolfzell or Konstanzon. If you would like to get to know the natural environment around, hop on one of the seasonal boat trips between Lake Constance and Schaffhausen that stop in Stein am Rhine.
#14. REINE, Norway
Reine, the pearl of the Lofoten Archipelago in Northern Norway, is considered by many travel blogers as one of the most beautiful travel destinations in the world. It is placed on the island of Moskenesøya in the Barents Sea and the access is made by a suspended highway. It consists of red and white fishermen huts surrounded by the dramatic granite peaks of the Reinefjorden.
Despite its remote location, above the Arctic Pole, thousands of people visit Reine annually. It is a haven for photographers, mountain lovers and for those who are curious to see the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis).
Once arrived there, challenge your body and soul with a tough hike to Reinebringen, a panoramic viewpoint that will reveal the incredible scenery of the islands. If your main goal is to see the Aurora Borealis, the best time to visit Reine in Lofoten is between September and April.