These Breathtakingly Beautiful Small Towns Will Make You Want to Go Off the Beaten Path

Go ahead and get lost.

Everybody loves a good small town. There’s just nothing like packing up the car and cruising to a funky mountain spot, happening upon a hidden coastal oasis, or accidentally discovering a hidden artistic community when you cruise off highway. Small towns are rich in history and beauty, while the very best are also overflowing with friendly locals, great vibes, and fantastic food.

That allure extends outside the US, too, although the magnetism of the world's best-known destinations and busiest cities often distract travelers from the smaller, more intimate experiences that are a mere drive, train ride, or ferry away. Which is a shame, because to be a guest in a small town is to truly embrace that “travel like a local” mentality we so often claim to crave. But more to the point, they’re often stone-cold stunning.

To help guide you off the beaten path, we’ve rounded up some of the greatest small towns to visit around the world (don’t worry, you’ll find plenty of American small towns to visit here.) Some are tiny specks on the globe. Others are UNESCO sites that draw visitors from around the world. And among this collection of well-trodden and remote locales, you'll find some of the most charming, welcoming, and eye-poppingly gorgeous places on the planet.

Japanese Village, Shirakawa-go, is verdant and green, with thatched roofs
David DUCOIN/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images


Population: 1,630
During wintertime, the isolated Shirakawa-go looks like the platonic ideal of an alpine Christmas village set along a cold, clear river and isolated atop a mountain. Get closer, and you’ll see what, at first glance, looks like gingerbread houses are actually thatched-roof, Gassho-zukuri buildings. These structures—adorned with pitched roofs made from 3-foot piles of woven reeds and angled to look like praying hands—are why the village was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. And that magical scent you’re smelling? It’s from the stoves that heat these paper-walled structures to create a winter fantasyland. In the summer, the village turns from white to deep green, and the colorful wildflowers that line the streets give the place the scent of potpourri and the feel of a Miyazaki movie. —Matt Meltzer

Český Krumlov, small town, at night
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Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Population: 13,557
Český Krumlov is but a speck on the map: a vermilion-roofed hamlet cradled in a carpet of green, nestled in an S-shaped loop of the Vltava River in Southern Bohemia. And it's been a paragon of idyllic small-town life for centuries. Admire the wealth of Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque architecture, the best examples of which are found in its impressive castle. Take in its old-world charm, which comes in a package of tangled streets, cobblestone alleys, and buildings coated with peeling paint in shades of pale yellow, green, and pink. —Michelle Rae Uy

main street of a mountain town
Photo courtesy of Fairmont Resort Hotels

Banff, Canada

Population: 8,905
Known primarily for its ski resorts, the Rocky Mountain hideaway that is Banff feels magical regardless of the amount of powder on the ground. Along with being the access point to the national park of the same name—which, in and of itself, is one of the most beautiful places in Canada—Banff is a masterclass in pairing a stacked itinerary with near-perfect mountain views. Hit the slopes, traverse the national park, spot bears and elk sliding across alpine lakes, or soak in hot springs—and when you’re ready to hit the hay, top it all off by checking into a world-famous hillside hotel that looks like a castle. As a bonus, getting to this Alberta town is shockingly inexpensive and requires only a quick flight from many US cities, making a quick weekend escape more than doable. —Tiana Attride

Solčava, Slovenia, beautiful valley, between mountains
rechitansorin/iStock/Getty Images

Solčava, Slovenia

Population: ~500
In this alpine village, located about an hour and a half from the capital city of Ljubljana, everyone is somehow part of the same big family. And it’s not hard to believe, considering the population is estimated at around 500 (some believe it to be closer to 200.) This narrow valley is cradled between towering mountain peaks and sports a few sporadic homes, family-run hotels, and guest houses. Food is hyper-local here, with cured meats and homemade cheeses coming from neighboring farms, and there’s even a gin crafted with botanicals from the surrounding countryside. As you can probably guess, there’s no town center or local pub here, so get ready to embrace the quiet and explore the well-worn trails twisting through the mountains. —Lane Nieset

st ives, cornwall, uk, seaside resort, from afar, with blue water
Andrew Michael/iStock/Getty Images

St Ives, United Kingdom

Population: 10,756
This former fishing village on the southwestern tip of Cornwall has blossomed into a bite-sized capital of English culture with an acclaimed arts festival each September and a Tate gallery all its own. But those are just the headline acts. Four golden-sand beaches line the headland, with Atlantic breakers on one side and sheltered turquoise waters on the other. The harbor-side “downalong” neighborhood is an enchanting labyrinth of higgledy-piggledy cottages, boutique craft stores, and tons of artist studios. St Ives, you see, has something that no architect can dream up, that no urban planner can commission: a natural light of such majesty, people cross oceans for it. It’s what’s been drawing creative types to the town for almost a century, from blockbuster names like Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth to amateur enthusiasts wielding their first set of watercolors. —Jonathan Melmoth

Jajce waterfalls, Bosnia
Flickr/Darij Zadnikar

Jajce, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Population: 30,758
Bosnia has no shortage of ancient mountain towns, but none are better preserved than the stari grad of Jajce. It was the capital of medieval Bosnia, and you can still see the ancient hilltop castle and explore the warren of curving cobbled streets splayed out below. But Jajce’s greatest asset is a natural wonder: the 72-foot Pliva waterfall, which spills over a sheer drop at the confluence of the Pliva and Vrbas rivers. Jajce is also bound by water on three sides, making it a prime base for some of Bosnia’s best whitewater rafting. —Conor O’Rourke

Lake wanaka new zealand
Photo courtesy of Lake Wānaka Tourism

Wanaka, New Zealand

Population: ~9,000
If you're flying into Queenstown airport over New Zealand’s towering Southern Alps, always try to snag the window seat. The airport that serves Queenstown and Wanaka is set dead center in this desert range, which in the winter is more spectacular than its northern namesakes. Overshadowed by adventure-sporty Queenstown, tiny Wanaka is the real gem of this region. The quiet streets of downtown are set next to a majestic mountain lake, where families picnic and tourists swim in the shadow of the grand peaks that shine almost pink against the blue sky. For the grandest view of the city, climb up the world’s tallest waterfall via ferrata at Wildwire Wanaka’s Lord of the Rungs. Here, you’ll traverse metal rungs nearly 1,300 feet up the side of a cliff, with a cascading waterfall just in front. —MM

ko phi phi thailand, aerial shot, with boat heading to the water
Peerapas Mahamongkolsawas/Moment/Getty Images

Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Population: ~3000
Ko Phi Phi island isn’t making anyone’s list of underrated anything anymore: The island has been attracting travelers since long before you forgot about Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach. But not even the most obnoxious tourists can detract from its stunning beauty. Sure, the light tan sand, turquoise waters, and towering emerald-colored limestone cliffs don’t feel like a secluded slice of paradise as much as they once did, but that makes them no less awe-inspiring. The crowds will flock to the speedboats and meander to Monkey Beach, where bold primates saunter up and ask for food. The beach there is the same tableau of blues and greens that’s the trademark of the Thai shoreline, and the friendly fauna make it a light-hearted way to take in the scenery. —MM

paraty, brazil

Paraty, Brazil

Population: 44,175
If Instagram designed a town, it would probably look a lot like Paraty, where fragrant bougainvillea spills photogenically from red-tiled roofs, and the snap-ready streets are lined with some seriously hardcore door porn. But Paraty is much more than just photogenic. It’s a snoozy bayside town halfway between Rio and Sao Paulo on Brazil’s Atlantic coast. Here, life moves at the pace of a horse-and-cart tottering across the cobbles (no cars allowed in the historic Old Town), and the gleaming colonial architecture is framed by palm trees swaying in the breeze. The boats bobbing in the harbor come in every shade of pretty, and they’re not just there to look good. Pick your favorite and set sail for a deserted island beach nearby. —JM

Feng Wei Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Stepantsminda, Georgia

Population: 1,326
Architecture and natural beauty rarely enjoy such harmony. All eyes in this valley village face the hilltop, 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church and its neighboring belltower, both of which feature glacier-capped, 16,560-foot Mount Kazbek as their backdrop. Natural beauty aside, Stepantsminda is the perfect base camp for exploring Kazbegi National Park’s hot springs, waterfalls, and lakes (both acidic and carbonated). You’re mere miles from the Russian border, which is not as merry a conversation topic here as, say, white versus red—this winery-laden country contains more than 500 grape varietals. —Bruce Northam

halstatt austria, cliffside village, with mountains in the background
Walter Geiersperger/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

Hallstatt, Austria

Population: 860
Getting to the quintessentially Austrian town of Hallstatt isn’t exactly easy. The drive through the vertiginous Salzkammergut region is dotted with distractingly lovely Austrian spa towns like Bad Ischl that will tempt you off course, and the tiny turn-off is comically missable. Upon your eventual arrival, reward yourself with a pint of Stiegl, which won’t dizzy you half as much as the spectacular scenery rising on all sides. Hallstatt is thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited village in Europe. In this improbably narrow alpine town, pastel Baroque buildings and timber homes are wedged so steeply along the foot of the Dachstein Mountains, they as if they might topple over each other. You’ll envy the boats for their 360-degree view of the Austrian Alps as they lazily chug across the town’s watery reflection in Lake Hallstatt. —Keller Powell

colorful stairs, in the village of guatape, colombia
©Studio One-One/Moment/Getty Images

Guatapé, Colombia

Population: 5,400
Finding your way to Guatapé on land means a bumpy, stomach-churning journey through mountainous terrain a couple hours east of Medellín. Opt for the helicopter instead (you’ve earned it!) and be rewarded with a view of a sprawling artificial lake alive with water-skiers, with islands floating up like submerged turtles (one of them draws tourists to the bombed-out former vacation home of Pablo Escobar). From above, you’re also safe from the intimidation of the towering La Piedra monolith—the 649 steps to the top have broken many a freewheeling flâneur. But you’ll want to eventually land to experience the crown jewel, the joyful Pueblo de Zócalos, where houses are adorned with colorful hand-painted frescoes of people, shapes, and animals. Here, life is unhurried, nights are quiet, and the coffee is particularly strong. —Vanita Salisbury

reine, norway, fishing village, sunny, aerial view
Dennis Fischer Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Sakrisøy and Reine, Norway

Population: Under 1,000
This pair of tiny fishing villages sit far, far north (like, within the Arctic Circle) on Norway’s Lofoten Archipelago. Admittedly, they’re a bit of a pain to reach: The long (but beautiful!) journey there will require some combination of one or two flights, a bus, and/or a ferry. If you can make it that far, though, you’ll be rewarded with some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth. Look out across the mountains and fishermen’s huts from the Reinebringen Hike, kayak through the fjords, or chase the Northern Lights. You might also let this be your jumping-off point for a road trip along the Lofoten Islands’ scenic E10 highway. —TA

man standing near geysers, in furnas, azores, part of portugal

Furnas, The Azores

Population: 1,439
The world is finally waking up to the Azores, which, like mainland Portugal, are rapidly getting more popular. It’s places like Furnas, nicknamed “The Hydropolis of the World,” that make the archipelago so appealing (it’s built atop an active volcanic crater, scattered with geysers, fumaroles, and hot springs.) The geothermal influence extends to the cuisine: The local specialty is cozido, a traditional meat stew cooked in the boiling waters that spew from the geysers. Expect frequent wafts of stinky sulfur gas bubbling up from underground—this is a good thing, especially when you bathe in the therapeutic springs at Terra Nostra Botanical Garden. Your stresses will melt away, leaving behind only an unmistakable sulphuric-orange tinge on your swimsuit. —Paul Jebara

bluejayphoto/iStock/Getty Images

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Population: 11,238
The towns and castles along Germany’s Romantic Road are quintessentially, well, romantic. But reach Rothenburg ob der Tauber (there are a few Rothenburgs, but you want this one), and you’ll fall hardest for the country’s best-preserved medieval-walled town. Half-timbered pastel buildings, medieval stonework, and surprisingly non-kitschy shopping are part of this fairytale town’s signature Bavarian recipe. Take a quick dip into the dark side with a visit to the Medieval Crime and Justice Museum, which serves an exquisitely disturbing view of torture in the Middle Ages. On a lighter note, the centuries-old vineyards in the surrounding hills of Franconia guarantee fantastic local wines—and will give your fairytale a happy ending. —PJ

overlooking, eze, france, seaside, through cacti garden
Smithlandia Media/Moment/Getty Images

Eze, France

Population: 2,343
On the coast between Nice and Monaco, carved into a 1,400-foot mountaintop, is where you’ll find this endearing medieval village. The winding cobblestone streets are filled with historical statues from the 1700s and quaint sandstone boutiques festooned with radiant flowers. Your trip isn’t complete without a visit to the botanical garden (Jardin Exotique d’Eze) that overlooks the tiny town. Filled with cacti and surrounded by dramatic 360-degree views of the enchanting Côte d’Azur, the garden brings to life that captivating feel unique to the French Riviera. —Shylie Rimmer

Port Douglas, Australia
Visit Port Douglas & Daintree

Port Douglas, Australia

Population: 3,504
Humid, breezy Port Douglas could easily double as the Caribbean, where mountains shine five shades of green and cascade into the dreamy blue waters of the Coral Sea. This town might be on the mainland, but it still operates on island time (set to a chorus of English you’re not completely familiar with). Intermingling with wealthy vacationers, you’ll find committed backpackers and dive bums shouldered up at the IronBar Saloon, preparing to hike the Daintree Rainforest or dive the Great Barrier Reef. And once you’re ready to move along, the hour-long drive to Cairns along the Captain Cook Highway is a stunning, tropical version of the Pacific Coast Highway with way bigger roadside attractions. —MM

street running, past a cafe, visby, sweden
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Visby, Sweden

Population: ~22,000
Located about 60 miles off the central eastern coast—itself dotted with idyllic little towns and villages—Gotland is the crown jewel of Sweden's famous archipelago. Its biggest “city,” Visby, is the Sweden you’re thinking of when you close your eyes and dream of Scandinavia (give or take a member of ABBA). Plunked in the Baltic Sea, the walled city is considered the best-preserved medieval city in Scandinavia, and to walk its stone streets and lush green spaces is to immerse yourself in a history that spans from the Stone Age through medieval times and straight to modernity, where cold beer from Gotland Brewery and immaculate pastries and seafood provide the fuel to explore. Once you’re done falling in love with the city, venture further to experience Sweden’s biggest island for a peek at its Viking heritage and otherworldly sea stacks. – Andy Kryza

view of el tajo gorge, ronda, spain
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Ronda, Spain

Population: 34,000
Located about 65 scenic miles from Málaga, this Andalusian stunner has been giving visitors wobbly knees since it was settled in the sixth century… right on the edge of a huge cliff. Your first big gasp comes crossing the towering Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), an 18th-century architectural wonder rising 400 feet above El Tajo gorge. Here you’ll find ancient Roman and Moorish architecture and laid-back vibes without the crowds—making it all the better to enjoy sites like the 13th-century Arab baths. Make time for a quick trip to nearby Setenil de las Bodegas, another gorgeous small town that serves famously succulent pork dishes in the shade of the cliffside into which the entire town was carved. –AK

sunset over, pietrapertosa, italy, mountain village
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Pietrapertosa, Italy

Population: ~ 1,600
Italy is full of idyllic small towns. Hell, even the Cinque Terre is home to fewer than 4,000 residents. But for something completely different, head to the deep-south region of Basilicata. There, Pietrapertosa sits between the huge pointed crags of the Lucanian Dolomites, and much of the 8th-century town’s uniquely pointy buildings are carved directly into the mountain, creating a natural wind shield for the inhabitants. There’s also an ancient Arab district from medieval times with dark sandstone cottages, and each summer a festival features Arabic food and dancing. For a bird’s eye view, hit Angel Flight, where you’re strapped into a metal harness attached to a steel cable running from Pietrapertosa’s highest peak to that of the nearby village of Castelmezzano. – Silvia Marchetti

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