Much of old-world Europe has been swept away. Thanks to countless wars, the irresistible draw of modernization, and overwrought tourism infrastructure, the Europe of your dreams is harder to find than ever. However, there are still towns where you can experience that ‘old-world European charm’ almost like it was when Wordsworth and the Romantics first popularized vagabonding the Continent.
These are places with well-preserved architecture dating back hundreds and even thousands of years. These are places where the negative impact of tourism isn’t allowed to run roughshod over local aesthetics. These are places where you can find that cobblestone-postcard view. And if you don’t find it here, you aren’t going to find it anywhere.
“CF” checks all the hill-town boxes: Etruscan and Roman ruins, medieval stone fortress, gelaterias, cobblestone streets, and zero souvenir shops. Locals’ favorite, the rustic Ristorante Da Muzzicone, is one of Tuscany’s finest.
Photo: Giovanni Maw
Famed for producing the cheese of the same name, Gruyeres is a medieval gateway to the Swiss Alps where the only traffic jam you’ll encounter is the one created by cows on their way to alpine pastures.
The five fishing and grape-growing towns that comprise the Cinque Terre on Italy's Riviera—Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore—have taken extraordinary measures to impede the encroaching modern world, including opting out of a highway connection, strictly regulating building, and even blocking (before eventually allowing) high-speed internet.
Photo: Fougerouse Arnaud
This UNESCO World Heritage Site in France’s Bordeaux region features Roman ruins and steep cobblestone streets, and has been in the wine business since about the second century BCE.
Thanks to a silted-up port, Bruges—Venice of the North—is a perfectly preserved medieval UNESCO World Heritage Site. With tons of amazing beer and chocolate.
Photo: Wolfgang Staudt
Riesling fans know Riquewihr for its famed appellation, and travelers love its town center, which hasn’t really changed much since the 1500s.
Originally settled in the sixth century as a fortress refuge for Greeks fleeing invasion, Monemvasia has successfully repelled invaders—cultural and physical—ever since.
Another World Heritage Site, Cesky Krumlov’s outsized castle (the second largest in the Czech Republic) provides an amazing backdrop to this Baroque town.
Photo: Russell McNeil
Step off the tram and into another century in Switzerland’s best-preserved alpine village. By having the whole community declared an avalanche zone, locals have staved off modern development.
Photo: James Clear
Colmar is a popular stop in the Alsace region, and for good reason. Its renowned old town couldn’t be more perfect—and then there's the wine...
Three incredibly dramatic stone bridges span the 100-meter-deep El Tajo canyon upon which the city is built. Ronda's played host to many cultural heavyweights, including Ernest Hemingway, who indulged his love for bullfighting while residing in the old quarter.
Photo: Antonio Casas
Medieval walls, ramparts, towers, and alleys more or less the way they were when built in the 14th century make for a perfect escape from touristed Italy.
Photo: Alessandro Casagrande
Sure the main street is touristy, but it doesn’t take much to leave the crowds behind in this white-washed little hill town whose history reads like a European timeline—Romans to Visigoths to Moors...
Photo: Melissa Toledo
Another Celtic, then Roman, outpost on the Rhine, you’ll never believe how much of the old town was destroyed in World War II because key buildings somehow survived and now sit beside very clever reproductions.
Photo: Ineke Huizing
In Spain's mountainous north, Potes straddles steep, river-choked terrain and is home to several centuries-old stone bridges, including the famous San Cayetano and La Cárcel that span the Quiviesa River.
This Transylvanian city of almost 150,000, with a Bohemian-chic vibe, is a cultural powerhouse recently ranked by Forbes as Europe’s “eighth-most idyllic place to live.”
Photo: Christian Hügel
If the beautiful train ride to get here doesn’t do it for you, drink up the magnificent Bavarian architecture in a town Goethe called “a picture book come alive.”
Photo: Neil Howard
You’ll find wooden fishing boats lazily bobbing in the harbor, sheep herders moving their flocks through rock-walled pastures, and plenty of dark, cozy pubs in this postcard “Gaeltacht” (a national park for traditional Irish culture) on the island's southwest coast.
Photo: Giuseppe Milo
Inhabited since the Paleolithic, Bragança has seen much military strife, but its old town walls, Renaissance buildings, and town hall—Portugal’s oldest—survive in remarkable condition.
A town so old and esteemed it has a whole Iron Age era dedicated to it (the Hallstatt Era, 700 - 500 BC), Hallstatt can be reached by train or boat. Take the boat.
Photo: - peperoni -
Another Venice-that’s-not-Venice, this canal and bike-path town with over 180 bridges has changed very little since its founding in 1230.
Photo: Zoltan A
Glorenza, or Glurns, is a German-speaking town in South Tyrol (the bit the Austrians lost to Italy after WWI) with fully intact medieval walls and towers and a fairytale setting in a lush, green valley.
One of Spain's pueblos blancos, Zahara de la Sierra spills down a hillside between olive orchards and vineyards.
Built along a big bend in the River Sauer, Esch-sur-Sûre was officially founded sometime during Charlemagne’s reign and is home to a stunning Gothic castle perched on the high ground above town.
Come for the vaunted Jura wine, stay for the medieval streets, houses, chateaus, and towers, as well as the lovely grottoes and waterfalls just outside town.
Photo: Sébastien Riat
Storied Lindau occupies an island in Bodensee near the Austrian and Swiss borders. While a bustling modern town is connected via roadway, the city center retains its medieval core and charm.
Photo: Andreas Flohr
Located in the northern French Alps, Annecy’s medieval old town is laced with canals in an idyllic lakeside setting.
Photo: Kosala Bandara
Containing some of Germany’s oldest buildings, Quedlinburg was spared the destruction that befell so many of Germany’s cities during World War II.
Photo: Ingrid Eulenfan
Several small fishing towns, ports, and olive-and-grape villages dot this tranquil, traffic-free island in Lake Iseo.
You needn’t look far in England’s Cotswold Hills to find enchanting stone villages, and Burford is among the finest.
From its archaic period alliance with Lesbos, to the Peloponnesian War to the Ottoman Empire, Molyvos, or Mithymna, has endured countless invasions, wars, and occupations. You'd never know it to visit.
Photo: Drriss & Marrionn
The Town of Three Lies (it's neither a Saint, santo, nor flat, llana, nor by the sea, mar) is The Truth when it comes to historic buildings, which are some of the best preserved in Spain.
Photo: Jose Javier Martin Espartosa
Apart from the lovely Gothic church of St. Nicholas, the best of Znojmo is below ground. The town sits atop a vast underground labyrinth of tunnels, escape routes, and interconnected cellars dating from the 1300s.
Photo: Groundhopping Merseburg
Half-timbered buildings and Alsace go together like wine and, well, Alsace. One of several fairytale Alsace towns on this list, Eguisheim traces its history back to the Paleolithic.
Photo: Tambako The Jaguar
This impossibly romantic town in Brittany on France’s northwestern coast is a beacon for artists and craftspeople of all stripes.
Another Cotswold stunner, this town is so idyllic it spawned the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Photo: Matthew Kirkland
Within its 14th-century walls, Évora is pockmarked with intriguing historic sights like Roman baths, the Templo Romano, and the town hub, Praça do Giraldo.
Photo: César Marques
Arcos de la Frontera—perhaps the most dramatic cliffside member of Spain’s pueblos blancos—is relatively well preserved from its glory days on the front line of Spain’s 13th-century war to expel the Moors.
Castle Combe still has a working medieval clock and very little to do but sit back and drink it all in—this is quintessential English countryside. The stuff from novels.
As Bavarian as Bavaria gets, Meissen dates back to the 10th century and is renowned for its porcelain production.
Photo: Mundus Gregorius
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