I love the energy of big cities where there are endless bars, restaurants and new things to see. But I also love exploring smaller towns away from the hustle and bustle of the big city. My dream trip to Europe would be to hop from one small town to the next while getting a taste of the small town experience (i.e., local bakeries, family run restaurants, small farms and wineries, and undiscovered beaches). These are some of my favourite small towns in Europe.
Picturesque pastel coloured canals and away from the crowds made Burano the perfect getaway from Venice. We started our day by taking the vaporetto ferry from the Fondamente Nove stop on the north side of Venice to the island of Murano, which is famous for its hand-blown glass. We watched a glass-blowing demonstration before window-shopping our way through the town. We stopped at a local restaurant for a pasta and caprese salad lunch and jumped on another vaporetto ferry to Burano.
While Murano is famous for its hand-blown glass, as evidenced by the numerous tourist shops selling the delicate creations, Burano is known for its lace. The women of Burano have been stitching lace since the 16th century. Although we didn’t specifically go to Burano for the lace, we enjoyed wandering along the canals and taking pictures of the multi-coloured houses and boats. The tradition of painting houses in bright colours originated so the fishermen could easily find their homes in the thick fog. Burano had a much more relaxed vibe and felt less touristy than Venice or Murano, which is why it was one of the highlights of my trip to Venice.
How to get there: A vaporetto express ferry runs from Venice at either the San Zaccaria stop (near St. Mark’s Square) or from the Fondamente Nova stop (north side of Venice).
Hvar is a small island just off the coast of Croatia near the city of Split. It is a dream Mediterannean destination with a beautiful old town (Hvar town), crystal clear water as well as energetic nightlife. It is also a jumping off point for excursions to the Pakleni islands. Climb high above Hvar town to the Spanish Fortress for an incredible view of the town and harbour. Or relax in the old town at a local konoba, stop for an olive oil tasting or embibe at a wine bar to try the delicious Croatian wine. You also can’t miss taking a swim in the azure waters. There are plenty of spots to jump in from the path along the shore.
How to get there: Daily passenger ferries arrive in Hvar town from Split (1 hour). Car ferries also arrive on the island of Hvar via Stari Grad.
If you are visiting Dubrovnik, Croatia, I would recommend at least a day trip to the picturesque fortified city of Kotor. Kotor is located on the Bay of Kotor and surrounded by dark limestone cliffs. It is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site as the old town of Kotor is one of the most well preserved medieval towns. It was primarily built in the 12th to 14th century and it is the perfect small town to get lost in as you wander the maze of narrow stone alleys and streets of the old town.
The stone walls rise high up the mountain behind the old town. You can climb the 1350 steps up the walls to the Church of our Lady of Remedy and the Castle of San Giovanni to get a bird’s eye view of the fortified city and the Bay of Kotor. As we only had a short time to explore the city of Kotor, we didn’t have time to climb the walls but if I ever return to Kotor this will be top of my list.
On a small island in the Bay of Kotor is Our Lady of the Rock (Gospa od Skrpjela), a Roman Catholic church built in 1630. The story goes that some fishermen from the nearby town of Perast found an icon of the Madonna and Child on a rock in the middle of the bay. They took the icon home but the next morning it had disappeared. They found the icon again in the same spot on the rock and they took it home a second time. Again it disappeared before reappearing on the same sea rock. The fisherman vowed to build a church on the site and an artificial island was created by local fishermen who laid a rock on the site each time they returned from a successful voyage.
How to get there: The closest airport is in Tivat but easier international connections may be made through Podgorica Airport (capital of Montenegro) or Dubrovnik Airport in Croatia. Kotor can be reached by car or bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia. Tour companies also offer day trips by bus from Dubrovnik.
This fairytale town is full of castles, whimsical palaces and villas dotted amongst the hills of the Sintra Mountains. Only an hour train ride from Lisbon, Sintra is a resort town that was frequented by Portuguese nobility who flocked to the mountains to escape the summer temperatures in Lisbon. It makes the perfect day trip from Lisbon; however, spending a few days in this peaceful town will be a time you won’t regret.
We started off our visit at the Quinta da Regaleira, a grand house and gardens that was like an amusement park for adults. We spent several hours exploring the secret tunnels, caves and fountains built by the wealthy Portuguese businessman Carvalho Monteiro. Probably the most famous landmark in Sintra is the Pena Palace, which can only be described as a fairytale castle. For a small town, there was so much to see and we weren’t able to see it all in the short time we were there. We spent two nights in Sintra and although the weather didn’t cooperate while we were there, Sintra was probably our favourite stop on our Portugal trip.
How to get there: About 1 hour on the Linha de Sintra from Lisbon’s Rossio Station to Sintra Station.
Vernazza is one of the five fishing villages that make up the Cinque Terre. As soon as I laid eyes on the colourful houses leading down to the harbour, I knew that this town was my favourite in the Cinque Terre. We stayed in the first village of Riomaggiore but we did a little exploring of each of the five villages as we hiked the blue trail north from Riomaggiore to Monterosso.
When we did the hike in summer of 2012, the portion of the trail between Manarola and Corniglia had been washed out by mudslides so we took a detour to the town of Volastra where we stopped for a wine tasting and quick tour of the vineyards. The downhill trek from Volastra to Corniglia was spurred on with the promise of gelato. Vernazza is the fourth of the Cinque Terre villages and we stopped here to take a dip in the ocean with the locals to rest our weary muscles before making our way along the final stretch of the trail to Monterosso. We arrived in Monterosso for dinner just as the sun set. The trail is a combination of steep climbs and descents where you are constantly rewarded with an amazing view of vineyards and the colourful small towns perched on the cliffs above the Ligurian sea.
How to get there: The easiest way to get to Vernazza and any of the Cinque Terre villages is by train from La Spezia and take the local train north. Alternatively, a local train can be taken south from Genoa. Driving to the Cinque Terre villages is generally not recommended.
These small towns are on my bucket list for my next European adventure:
- Cesky Krumlov, Czech Republic
- Hallstatt, Austria
- Civita di Bagnoregio, Italy
- Eze, France
- Castle Combe, UK