14 Jul,2016 By jagabond
I’ve always been fascinated with small towns. I even had an idea years back of writing a coffee-table book about small towns in the US, documenting things like local legends, quirks the town is known for, stories from the neighborhood pub, and even the personal drama of the townspeople. Oftentimes visiting a big city is so overwhelming, that I like the idea of getting to know the character of a place in a much shorter time. Similar to the US, Europe also has its share of small towns, and I’ve listed some unforgettable ones below. What makes a town ‘small’? I used the criterion of less than 15,000 residents.
1. Husavik, Iceland
Situated in the northeast region of Iceland, Husavik might just be the whale-watching capital of Europe. Tourism has exploded there in recent years, with their impressive self-proclaimed 99% chance of seeing a whale on one of their boat tours. Based on personal experience this number may be accurate, as it literally seemed like we were surrounded by an extended family of whales during our hour at sea. The town itself has its own charm, with the highly rated whale museum, restaurants with terraces overlooking the harbor, and a quaint looking church that has become a symbol of the city. You can also find some cute puffins hanging around the water, and in less than an hour drive you can visit numerous waterfalls as well as Lake Myvatn.
How to get there – Public transportation is difficult in Iceland, so rent a car and make Husavik one of your stops on the Ring Road tour.
2. Mondsee, Austria
‘Sound of Music’ fans may recognize St. Michael’s Church in Mondsee as where Julie Andrews married Captain Von Trapp. The rest of the town is as colorful as the church, and surprisingly the movie tourism hasn’t corrupted and changed the locals…in other words there are no junk shops selling shirts that say ‘Do-Re-Mi’. The drive here from Salzburg is stunning, with beautiful views of the Austrian Alps for most of the 45-minute bus ride. There is also beautiful nature nearby, and the town is situated on the shores of the lovely ‘moon lake’.
How to get there – I would coordinate this visit with the Sound of Music tour, and I recommend this company.
3. Dinant, Belgium
This is the largest of the small towns on this list, with a whopping 13,000 permanent inhabitants. Dinant is home to the towering Citadel, a church with an onion-like dome that has beautiful views of the town from the top. It also has a quirkiness in that the creator of the saxophone, Adolf Sax, was born here. There’s a free, smallish museum for him on the main street, and a statue of him sitting on a park bench. Keeping with this theme, the De Gaulle Bridge is lined with large, vibrantly colored saxophones. Don’t miss having a beer at Cafe Leffe, which overlooks the Meuse river.
How to get there – The direct train from Brussels takes around 90 minutes.
4. Ribeauville, France
Situated in Alsace, this region is known for its mixture of French and German cultures. Ribeauville is a pretty little village with the characteristic brightly colored houses. These wild colors are mandated by the region’s government, and you need a permit if you want to repaint your house. If there was ever a place to just hang outside at a cafe with a glass of wine, watching the world go by, this town is it. If you visit in December, you’ll get to see the famous Alsatian Christmas market here and in other nearby towns like Colmar and Riquewihr.
How to get there – There are regular buses from Colmar.
5. Santillana Del Mar, Spain
Maybe Santillana Del Mar translates to ‘medieval’ in Spanish, as it is akin to living within a Tolkien novel. Walking the quiet, cobblestone streets at night can be romantic even if you’re alone, and the food here was easily the best I had while in Northern Spain. Somehow the townspeople have managed to keep the antique authenticity within the city, even as it’s morphed into a massive tourist attraction. I recommend visiting off-season, where many of the restaurants are closed but you’ll avoid the picture-taking mobs.
How to get there – The easiest way is from Bilbao, so take a break from the Guggenheim and make the 90 minute drive.
6. Vernazza, Italy
This is one of the five towns of the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. Another one of the towns, Monterosso, I previously listed as one of my European hidden gems. So why then pick Vernazza here? Maybe it’s the famous view of the town as you hike to it, or maybe it’s the compact, multi-colored buildings, or maybe it’s the beautiful coast with a giant rock for either hanging out or diving…but I think Vernazza is simply more charming. There’s a certain magic here, and if the spell ever wears off you can always hike to the adjacent towns – Monterosso and Corniglia – for some variety.
How to get there – Take a direct train from Pisa to La Spezia, and from there you can hop a smaller train that takes you into the Cinque Terre.
7. Cassis, France
The best thing about visiting Marseille is easy access to this wonderful seaside village. Cassis is known for the calanques, which are gorgeous white cliffs – nine in total – that you can book a boat tour to visit. The town itself is beautiful and perfect for day trippers – you can walk the entire main area in less than an hour – and there are some amazing restaurants right on the boardwalk by the harbor. For lovers of the outdoors, you also have the option of hiking the calanques which offer incredible panoramic views.
How to get there – Take a 45-minute bus from Marseille. The train isn’t recommended as the station in Cassis is far from town.