Sakrisøy, Norway
Welcome to Sakrisøy, the quintessential Norwegian fishing village. | Sakrisøy
Welcome to Sakrisøy, the quintessential Norwegian fishing village. | Sakrisøy

The Most Breathtakingly Beautiful Small Towns in the World

Go ahead and get lost.

These days, travel is back in full swing. After you’ve checked some of the major bucket list travel experiences off your list (Osaka Castle during cherry blossom season, Rio for Carnival), take a break from big city life and start tackling those harder-to-reach towns. It’s not that high-profile destinations aren’t worth the journey, but you’re after more of a challenge.

These tiny towns—which usually require multiple forms of transportation, and maybe even a hike, to reach—are so small, they’re barely a blip on the map. We’re not saying they’re so under-the-radar that you have no chance of actually finding them, but their size and general lack of tourists—often held in check by their remote locales—can make them tricky to visit. But once you get there, you’ll wonder why you didn’t make the trek out to these beauties sooner.

Here are the most charming, welcoming, and eye-poppingly gorgeous small towns around the globe. Go ahead and get packing.

Shirakawago village, Japan
A real-life land of gingerbread homes. | Photo courtesy of JNTO

Shirakawa-go, Japan

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, 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—whose pitched roofs are three-foot piles of woven reeds, angled to look like praying hands—are why the village was deemed a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. That magical scent you’re smelling is 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. —Matt Meltzer

Cesky Krumlov, Czech republic
Český Krumlov is the definition of small-town charm. | Photo courtesy of CzechTourism

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

Santa Maddalena, Italy
The Dolomites act like a shield protecting this tiny village, where the highlight is hiking. | Flickr/Bill Higham

Santa Maddalena, Italy

Population: 478
This little mountainous village in the Dolomites—flanked by jagged, snow-capped peaks and green rolling hills—is the stuff of alpine dreams. South Tyrol, the region the town calls home, was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is why signs here read in German, Italian, and the local language of Ladin. The food you’ll find in the handful of restaurants is a similar cultural mix, and this scenic inland town is also a skier’s paradise come winter. It’s not teeming with nightlife, and it doesn’t have many hotels. Stay a few days, go on a few of the hikes that are only a short ride away, and immerse yourself in the beautiful quiet. —MM

main street of a mountain town
This may be a famous ski spot, but there’s plenty to do when you’re not on the slopes. | 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 whether or not there’s 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 rest, top it all off by checking into a world-famous hillside hotel that looks like a castle. —Tiana Attride

Solčava panoramic road in Klemenšek, Slovenia
It’s hard to choose a favorite valley in Slovenia, but this one is definitely up there. | Flickr/Adam

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). The narrow valley is cradled between towering two-thousanders 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, so get ready to embrace the quiet and explore the well-worn trails twisting through the mountains. —Lane Nieset

St. Ives, Cornwall, United Kingdom
This beach town really has it all, including art galleries rivaling London. | Flickr/Michael Levine-Clar

St Ives, Cornwall, United Kingdom

Population: 10,756
This former fishing village has blossomed into a bite-sized capital of 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
The highlight of the capital of medieval Bosnia is its waterfalls. | 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 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
Queenstown gets all the glory, but Wanaka is an adventure sport capital in its own right. | Photo courtesy of Lake Wānaka Tourism

Wanaka, New Zealand

Population: 12,150
Flying into Queenstown airport over the 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

Beaches in Ko Phi Phi Island Thailand
Even the slews of tourists can’t take away from the island’s beauty. | Flickr/Francesco Pesciarelli

Ko Phi Phi, Thailand

Population: 2,500
Ko Phi Phi island isn’t making anyone’s list of underrated anything anymore. But the throngs of tourists don’t 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 primates make it a light-hearted way to take in the scenery. —MM

mountains in washington state
Scenic Leavenworth is the Pacific Northwest's Bavarian hub. | Visit Leavenworth WA

Leavenworth, Washington

Population: 2,323
Known for its alpine buildings and German-style everything, the Cascade Mountains’ own little Bavaria is a hit that just won’t quit year-round: All four seasons come with their own perks and array of heart-melting views. In the spring and summer, flowers line the colorful shops of downtown, while autumn brings with it a stunning fall foliage display—arguably, one of the best not just on the West Coast, but nationwide. And in winter—the season Leavenworth is best known for—visitors will find themselves enveloped in a winter wonderland as the town transforms itself into one enormous Christmas village. —TA

paraty, brazil
You’ll quickly get used to this horse–and-cart pace of life here. | Guaxinim/

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

Gergeti Trinity Church. Kazbegi, Georgia
Welcome to wine country, where every view is better than the next. | Flickr/Stefan Wisselink

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

hallstatt, austria
Europe’s oldest continuously inhabited village isn’t easy to reach, but it’s worth it. | Flickr/Hwan Hyeok Kim

Hallstatt, Austria

Population: 780
Getting to Hallstatt isn’t the easiest. The drive in 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 look keen to 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. —Keller Powell

Helicopter into this crayon-colored Andean resort town. | Barna Tanko/Moment/Getty Images

Guatapé, Colombia

Population: 5,389
A couple hours east of Medellín, finding your way to Guatapé on land means a bumpy, stomach-churning journey through mountainous terrain. Opt for the helicopter instead 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, whose 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

a fishing village in the shadow of an enormous mountain
If you’re lucky, you’ll get a glimpse of the Northern Lights. | Sakrisøy

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

Furnas, The Azores
The geothermal influence extends from geysers to cuisine. | Flickr/Francesco Pesciarelli

Furnas, The Azores

Population: 1,439
The world is finally wising up to the Azores, which 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

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
This is the more beautiful of Germany’s two Rothenburgs. | Rothenburg Tourism

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. Swoon-worthy, 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 give your fairytale a happy ending. —PJ

Eze, France
This medieval town is carved into the cliffside, meaning the views are pretty hard to beat. | Flickr/Huang Chao

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
You’ll quickly get on island time here. | 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 dreamy blue waters. 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 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. —MM

Surf’s always up in Rincón. | Cole Saladino/Thrillist

Rincón, Puerto Rico

Population: 13,849
Situated on the western coast of Puerto Rico, Rincón is known mostly as a vibrant surf town. You can ride the waves whether you’re a newbie or ready to go pro, or you can just enjoy watching people wipe out from the comfort of dry land as you sample a variety of rum cocktails (Tamboo Tavern is one of the top beach bars in the world). The island of Desecheo, a few miles off the coast, makes for a gorgeous day trip thanks to tons of good snorkeling, diving, and fishing spots. The real highlight, though, is the food trucks, which serve \everything from fresh seafood to hot dogs and plátanos. —Kastalia Medrano

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