When you look at long-term travel itineraries like ours, a common trend is apparent on the continent of Europe. Most routes typically hit the biggest and most popular cities. What is missing in many routes is not an amazing plan, because they are all routes worthy of a world class itinerary, but rather the small cities and villages that Europe is famous for. In the attempts to fit as much in during a 90 day Schengen visa (which we’ll be writing about shortly), the big cities are always the ones that make the first cut. What time remains is reserved for the adventure, which in our experience is where the most fun actually occurs. But in a region that consists of dozens of countries and more small towns that could fill a Schengen visa one hundred times over, where do you begin? (Photo “Ljubljana” by manteca)
The following are some of Europe’s top small villages and towns that may be worth checking out on your next long-term trip. You can be sure we crafted our itinerary around many of these lesser visited spots and will be checking them out over the next year!
Mountain Towns in Austria and Switzerland
Many popular routes in the Alps and Tyrol regions of Switzerland and Austria include the major cities you’ve seen time and time again – Zurich, Geneva, Lucerne, Innsbruck to name a few. But where those big cities and larger towns come in, a number of smaller villages nearby are overlooked.
While we are visiting Zurich and Geneva on our trip, partly due to the interest of seeing a larger Swiss city, our attention was focused on the small mountain towns where we could easily get out and hike, try adventure sports, and most importantly – get away from everyone.
The first destination on our list of small towns is the village of Lauterbrunnen, one I visited in 2008 that also sparked my love of small towns. The village is the definitive small Swiss village and comes complete with rolling grass lands, mountains surrounding the valley, a waterfall, easy access to other villages for hiking and day trips, and access to two mountain climbs via cog railways and cable cars. The best part? The limited number of accommodations severely reduces the number of overnight visitors possible to the region. Throw in the village of Zermatt to the South, known for the famous Matterhorn, and you have a great Swiss itinerary.
On the Austrian side we looked at the destinations a bit differently, and are focusing on where we can find the best adventure sports. Our attention was brought to the Ziller valley, about an hour East of Innsbruck. With villages like Zell am Ziller and Mayrhofen, amongst others, littered throughout the valley, we had our work cutout for us on choosing where to stay. In the end we chose Mayrhofen, the furthest village you can get to by rail. Popular as a ski resort in the winter, the options are endless for hikes and outdoor activities at every turn. Sure, you can get that in Innsbruck, but you’ll also be getting the crowds. Take a journey an hour further and true serenity will be your reward.
In what is perhaps one of the biggest cities in the world, London is one of the best destinations in the UK to get out and explore the local villages nearby. But in a stroke of irony due to its size, London‘s proximity to the small villages Europe is famous for is surprising; many are located within a few minutes from the center of the city! (Photo “London” by vineetagar)
Neighborhoods on the outskirts of London often have this small city feel, and many of the hotels in the city can help arrange wonderful day trips to smaller towns like Windsor and Salisbury. The hotel brand Grange have a hotel in Earls Court and some hotels in Bloomsbury that help get this small village feel right away, while offering options to truly get out to the countryside and explore.
It was such an odd experience for me when exploring the gigantic city of London to be able to walk around various neighborhoods and feel like I was in a smaller village. Even more surprising was the fact that a day trip took me on a nearly complete loop around London proper and visited several small cities that would make other European towns jealous. For such a city that is known for its size, London couldn’t felt any smaller. But coming from the US, a country known for its urban sprawl and rapid expansion, this bit of shock may not come as a surprise.
Eastern Europe Getaways
One of the charms about Eastern Europe that has attracted us is the fact that even the largest of cities still has that small city feel like the Western European villages. Big cities like Bucharest and Budapets get tons of visitors each year, yet are substantially reduced from their Rome and Paris counterparts. Smaller countries receive even less visitors, making capital cities like Ljubljana, Slovenia feel like an escape. (Photo “Kotor Bay” by ssaajjkkoo)
But when we go to Eastern Europe, we want to get beyond that even still. Places where you have to zoom in all the way to find the destination on the map. Ones that, while they do receive visitors, feel like a completely new place altogether. The coastal towns on Eastern Europe are a great place to do this. Starting in Split and Dubrovnik in Croatia, we’ll be visiting progressively smaller and smaller destinations along the coasts of Montenegro (Kotor, Budva, and Bar come to mind) and Albania (Lezhe and Duress). What is there to do in these cities? It is simple: relax, enjoy the regions history and scenery, and eat a lot of great food with very little Western tourists.
Sounds like the perfect part of the world for us.
So on your next trip to Europe, resist the urge to only visit the biggest and most popular cities! Go against the norm and branch out to the small towns and villages that truly give Europe the character you’re looking for. It is hard to make the mental shift required to cut out bigger destinations, but in the end a new perspective on travel will be your reward.
If you’re like us, you’ll never want to go back.
Book a Train in Europe
Thinking of making a trip around Europe by train? Check out prices of Rail Europe passes or individual train tickets to save a lot of money on your journey!