Top Ten Small European Cities and Towns

My early July post about the Top Ten Large European Cities, received larger-than-normal readership, and several engaging comments as well. I followed that with a second post, later the same month, detailing the Top Ten Mid-Sized European Cities. I thought I would conclude the series with today’s entry, focusing on smaller cities and towns (and a few villages as well, courtesy of #6 on the list).

There are many worthy contenders, particularly in England, Germany, and Italy. I tried to include a broader geographic sampling of countries, and to include more than just “day trip, tour bus” towns (although there are a few of those in here, such as #5 and #10). Many of these small cities and towns offer enough to merit several days of casual exploration, and they all contribute to some of my favorite European travel memories. A post for another day, perhaps?

Thanks for following this series. Here are my Top Ten Small European Cities and Towns:

1) Kalmar, Sweden: Despite the extremes of Scandinavia’s weather (short, glorious summers and long, dark winters), the region is home to some of my favorite cities in towns in the world. I have written, more than once, about my love affair with Stockholm, to name just one city from the region. Almost as enchanting and an hour’s flight (or two train rides) to the south, Kalmar, population 36,000, was once one of the most important cities in northern Europe. Today, its moated slott (castle), fought over by Denmark for centuries, exists solely as a tourist attraction, and it sits on one of the loveliest promontories in Scandinavia. Kalmar also boasts clean water (take a dip, I dare you!), two distinct old quarters, pink, crown-shaped Kalmar Cathedral, biking and kayaking lanes, the Öland Bridge, a modern shipyard, a vibrant university, and pristine natural light. If you like Kalmar, check out Malmö, Sweden.

2) Zermatt, Switzerland: Welcome to the most expensive town in Europe.  Zermatt, which is nestled in the foothills of the Matterhorn and where seemingly every building looks like a chalet, is accessible only by train. As such, everything, from the rich Swiss chocolate to the in-short-supply hostel dorm beds, costs an arm and a leg. The only thing that won’t break the bank is the hiking. Sure, for a price, ski lifts and gondolas transport will hikers to high-alpine trails several hundred meters above town. That being said, you can reach these same trails by foot from the town center; you just have to get an early start. My Matterhorn summit attempt in 2010 was aborted due to hail and rain, but I still count the experience, which included warming up with soup at one of the mountain hüttes that dot the surrounding Swiss and Italian Alps, as one of the best days of my traveling life…$400 rail pass notwithstanding. If you like Zermatt, check out Interlaken, Switzerland.

3) Dover, England: London, one of the greatest all-around cities in the world, ranked at #3 on my Top Ten Large European Cities. The city’s array of rewarding day trips certainly factored into my ranking. In choosing just one, I had to decide between Bath, with its Abbey and shop-lined bridge, Salisbury, with its easy access to Stonehenge, and Canterbury, with its medieval lanes, to name just three. Enchanting though all three towns are, I finally decided on Dover, which sits between famous white cliffs on the English Channel, as the small city that makes the biggest punch. In addition to those chalk cliffs, Dover features an absorbing museum of Bronze Age ruins, a lively market square (watch out for low-flying seagulls), sandy beaches, a boardwalk that you’ll have practically all to yourself, and, best of all, cliff-side Dover Castle, jam-packed with several centuries of history, including lots of WWII memorabilia. If you like Dover, check out Windsor, England.

4) Rethymno, Greece: In all my travels, I have never been lazier than when I was in Rethymno. This port city of 40,000, on Crete’s north coast, was founded during the heyday of the Minoan civilization, some 2,000 years BCE, and conquered many centuries later by the Venetians, who laid the first stones for what would eventually become the city’s massive citadel (today, half-ruined and home to dozens of cats). Sure, I visited the citadel and woke up before dawn one day to make the long journey to Samaria for the epic gorge hike there, but most days were spent sleeping late, drinking raki (Turkish liquor), stumbling through atmospheric narrow streets in search of souvlaki, and eventually making it to the city’s glorious Aegean Sea beach. I also met some of the most chill backpackers from all my travels, and still keep in FB contact with a few of them today. If you like Rethymno, check out Chania, Greece.

5) Füssen, Germany: In tiny Füssen, literally a stone’s throw from Austrian border, it’s all about location, location, location. Two hours by regional train from Munich and nestled in foothills of the Bavarian Alps, visiting Füssen and its nearby attractions, which include the much-photographed Neuschwanstein Castle, as well as the rococo Wieskirche, is like stepping into the pages of a German picture postcard. The winding streets cross mountain-fed streams, pass half-timbered town buildings, and connect cobblestone plazas, while sheep graze on hillsides and rugged mountains provide a dramatic backdrop. The aforementioned Neuschwanstein, built for opera-loving “Mad” King Ludwig II alongside a gorge that separates that castle from the more lived-in Schloss Hohenschwangau, is a fanciful – and completely impractical – Wagnerian opera come to life. If you like Füssen, check out Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.

6) Cinque Terre, Italy: Cinque Terre, which means “five towns” in Italian, is just that: five towns (villages, really) connected by train and by a spectacular hiking trail that hugs the Mediterranean cliffs and passes through vineyards and rural Ligurian countryside. Nearby Tuscany, home to pastoral fields, fine wines, and priceless Renaissance art, often seems to be bursting at the seams with tourists, and Cinque Terre is no exception. Indeed, the local government has discussed implementing a permit system for visitors to manage foot traffic. Still, Cinque Terre is worth seeking out, and as you find your own pace you’ll gradually put distance between yourself and other hikers. Access is via train to La Spezia; the five villages, from south to north, are Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso al Mare. You can hike it in a day, like I did, or spread it out over several; Vernazza is my personal favorite, while Monterosso has the best beaches. If you like Cinque Terre, check out Piran, Slovenia.

7) Sintra, Portugal: It was almost one year ago when I featured Sintra as my September, 2016 Photo Locale of the Month. The former mountain retreat for Portuguese royalty, now one of the country’s tourism mainstays, is an enchanting hill town of castles, palaces, and old growth forests. Located just 30 minutes from Lisbon by frequent suburban train, Sintra may be the most fairy tale-looking town in Europe. The candy-colored Pena Palace has acres of grounds to explore, the fanciful Palacio Nacional is romantically illuminated by nightly floodlights, the grottoes of the Quinta de Regaleira seem to come from a C.S. Lewis fantasy, and the turrets of the hilltop Moorish Castle seem like something from “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” – aside from the forested temperate slopes upon which the castle was built. All of that says nothing about Sintra’s landscaped public gardens, lively main square, or boutique hostels. Go. If you like Sintra, check out Rhodes, Greece.

8) Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina: During the Balkans conflict of the early 1990s, Mostar, three hours inland from the Adriatic Sea, may have been the most shat-upon city in the entirety of the former Yugoslavia. Bullet fragments still dot the walls of many buildings, and the 16th-century, Ottoman-built Stari Most bridge, one of Europe’s most picturesque spans, was blown up by the Croat army. Post-conflict, however, life returned to normal at a rapid pace, and the bridge was rebuilt in its original style. Today, the Stari Most bridge is the top tourist attraction in the majority-Muslim country, and the streets on both sides of the icy Neretva River maintain an atmospheric, old world feel. Pensions and clothing shops stand side-by-side with mosques and ćevapčići restaurants, and the Old Quarter of Mostar remains safe and walkable into the wee hours of the morning. Look closer, though, and you’ll see scars from the past. Mostar has a disproportionate number of widows, orphans, and amputees, many of whom live in buildings still damaged by bullet strafings. Haunting and beautiful in equal measures, Mostar merits a visit. If you like Mostar, check out Medjugorje, Bosnia & Herzegovina.

9) Killarney, Ireland: I had wanted to visit Ireland ever since I watched the quirky 1998 comedy “Waking Ned Devine,” in which the residents of a small Irish town whose lottery-winning local suffers a fatal heart attack conspire to keep the winnings for themselves. Alas, I may have stayed too close to the well-trod tourist trail when I visited Ireland two years later, for I never found such an idyllic hamlet. Southwest Ireland, though, has promise, particularly the area around Killarney, an over-sized town just inland from the quaint Dingle Peninsula and the over-touristed Ring of Kerry, and an easy bike ride from the spectacular Killarney National Park, home to Muckross Abbey and House, Torc Falls, and Ross Castle, not to mention the dozens of kilometers of hiking trails that traverse the hilly grounds. The town itself? Picture colorful houses, charming Main Street curio shops, inviting B&Bs, hilly sheep paddocks, and tour buses aplenty. Come for a day or a week, but be sure to dine at of my favorite restaurants in the British Isles, The Laurels. If you like Killarney, check out Cork, Ireland.

10) San Gimignano, Italy: As I mentioned in the introduction, England, Germany, and Italy are three countries that have a particular surplus of beckoning small cities and towns that vie for a place on this list. After ruling out Stratford-upon-Avon (England) and Garmisch-Partenkirchen (Germany), I finally decided on San Gimignano, a medieval hill town in Tuscany that is famous for its towers, torture museums, cobblestone streets, and gelaterias. Holy tour group invasion, Batman! Tuscany is a top bucket list destination for retirees the world over, and the region’s proximity to Florence makes Siena, Lucca, and other regional towns ideal day trip destinations. But it is “San G” that takes the cake.  Here, tourists outnumber locals, and cobblers, blacksmiths, and other tradesmen have had to reinvent themselves as souvenir shopkeepers in order to survive. Climb the town’s highest tower. Sip wine on one of the cities terraces. Photograph stone archways, courtyard fountains, and hilly backdrops. And, if time allows, linger after dark, when the gargantuan tour buses leave and San G becomes the peaceful country retreat that you always imagined it to be. If you like San Gimignano, check out Kotor, Montenegro.

I didn’t double-check my math to see if all of the above cities and towns fall into the “less than 50,000 people” category, but if they miss that mark by a few hundred or even a few thousand, they *feel* small enough to merit inclusion. Additionally, several of them offer as much to visitors as the larger, capital cities in those same countries (Mostar vs. Sarajevo, for example). Such is my story, and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

How about you, Loyal Reader? What are your favorite small European cities and towns?

Author: gringopotpourri

Gringo - aka Scott - was born outside of Chicago and has lived most of his life in or around big cities. He spent two years of his adult life in Mexico City (talk about big cities!) and fell in love with Mexican food and culture all while weathering the challenges of life in a city with over 20 million people. Life's unpredictable journey has since brought him to Tennessee, where he is close to family and to the natural beauty of the Great Smoky Mountains. Scott also enjoys movies, hiking, top ten lists, and travel in general.

8 thoughts on “Top Ten Small European Cities and Towns”

  1. I’ve only been to Mostar from your list. I really liked Kotor, Montenegro and Alkmaar, the Netherlands as well. Longyearbyen is a small town too. It’s in Svalbard archipelago in Norway, I was there recently and loved it. I’ve also been to Chania, although I spent most of the time exploring beaches in the surroundings. I’ve been hearing a lot of good things about Sintra, maybe one day! 🙂 Great list!

  2. I nominate Segovia, Spain. It’s a beautiful and historic town with a 2000 year old Roman aqueduct, the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain, and a fairy tale castle whose inhabitants included Queen Isabella. In addition there are narrow streets lined with late medieval architecture and Romanesque churches going back more 800 years. It is a couple hours from Madrid, and most visitors do it as a day trip. However, there are good hotels and restaurants, and the town deserves an overnight stay. Unlike Toledo, Spain, it has managed to avoid being overrun with tourists. In fact, if you get off the main route connecting the aqueduct, cathedral and castle, you are unlikely to even see a tourist. My favorite town in Spain!

    1. I have not been to Segovia, but whenever I finally make it to Madrid, I have it, Avila, and Toledo on my list of possible day trips. And it sounds like Segovia may merit an overnight stay.

      I *did* really like Cordoba, but I thought it might have been too big for this list. Have you been there, William?

      1. Yes, I was in Cordoba, but for much too short a time. I was with students on a tour, and we passed through just long enough to see the Mezquita and to have lunch.
        Although it is certainly worth seeing, Avila was my least favorite of the three day trips you mentioned. The medieval walls are impressive, but the old town had a cold, rather dead feel to it. Escorial and Aranjuez with their royal palaces make good day trips from Madrid also.

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