Secret European Towns You Need to Visit Before They're Ruined by Tourists

The pretty Swiss town of Appenzell is perfect for a low-key getaway – without the tourist crowds
The pretty Swiss town of Appenzell is perfect for a low-key getaway – without the tourist crowds | © Arunabh Bhattacharjee / Alamy
Nana Van De Poel

While places like Bruges and Venice are exemplary of just how picturesque European towns can be, the experience of these famed destinations does risk getting spoiled by swarms of selfie stick-wielding tourists. Luckily, the Old Continent still hides some of its most storybook-like towns in more remote places – from a dreamy Italian beach town once favoured by Hollywood’s elite, to a Danish archipelago where the shaggy sheep population outnumbers the humans two to one.

Arnarstapi and Hellnar, Iceland

Though once a thriving trading post, Arnarstapi – on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland – has shrunk into a small fishing hamlet. Hikers in the know head to the remote village at the foot of Mt Stapafell for its glorious natural surroundings, which include impressive columnar basalt ravines. A much-lauded coastal walk between Arnarstapi and another hamlet with bright cottages, Hellnar, leads past a gleaming glacier and dried-up lava streams in the strangest shapes.

Craving an adventure? This is the ultimate road trip to take around Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

You’ll have the Icelandic landscape to yourself when you hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar in Iceland

Sperlonga, Italy

Italy is positively brimming with uncovered gems – and Sperlonga, nestled along the oh-so-very blue Tyrrhenian Sea, is one of them. No more than a 90-minute drive from hectic Rome, this town was once the Italian getaway du jour for Hollywood stars in the 1950s and 1960s. Loved by the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Arthur Miller, it’s even more of a surprise that its white shuttered houses and meandering walkways aren’t overflowing with selfie stick-armed sightseers today. Instead, a serene composure hangs over the place, as its summers stretch on for a lazy six months and relaxed Romans descend its narrow stairs to the pristine beaches below.

Heading to Rome from Sperlonga? Discover these recommended tours to take in the city.

Follow in the footsteps of Hollywood stars and spend your summer in Sperlonga

Folegandros, Greece

Always overshadowed by its sister, Santorini, Folegandros is no less of an Aegean treasure. While more difficult to reach by an infrequent ferry line, the four-hour aquatic journey to the island of just 765 inhabitants is worth it: the view of the typical whitewashed houses in the main town (chora), perched atop a 200m (656ft) cliff, has the power to take away any previous annoyance about the journey. Next, taste a dish of freshly caught octopus in a cosy tavern, or find yourself solo on the island’s divine white-pebbled beach.

Planning a trip to Folegandros? These are the top things to see and do on the island.

Folegandros may be more difficult to get to than other popular Greek islands, but it’s certainly worth it

Clonakilty, Ireland

Seaside town Clonakilty, at times adorably shortened to Clon by its tight-knit local community, boasts bright houses, wide sandy beaches and a great smattering of Irish hospitality. The latter is felt in the live music pubs, on the quaint main street with its brightly coloured houses and in every serving of the famous Clonakilty black pudding – a local recipe that originated in the 1880s and has become known as the best in the land.

Clonakilty is among the most beautiful towns in West Cork. Care to discover the rest?

Walk next to the waves along the sandy Inchydoney Beach when you visit Clonakilty

Kladská, Czech Republic

A wooden walkway across the water is all the proof of human life that exists at many of the scenic lakes surrounding the elevated cabin community Kladská. Head this way for the natural wonders enveloping this smattering of wooden lodges; walking trails have been mapped out for hikers to enjoy the evergreen forests of the Czech Republic, its peat bogs and its shimmering bodies of water to the fullest. The tiny village was founded as a hunting outpost by the Prince of Schönburg-Waldenburg, and the coldest periods find the lodges topped by several feet of snow – making it a perfect idyllic location.

Nature lovers are bound to adore these beautiful spots in the Czech Republic.

Escape into the depths of the forest when you visit Kladská in the Czech Republic

Marvão, Portugal

As Portugal’s “eagles nest”, the hilltop village of Marvão grants spectacular sights of both the country’s Serra da Estrela mountains and of Spain, whose border is only 15km (9.3mi) further east. Sleepy Marvão’s biggest asset is its 13th-century granite castle. Time your climb up there so you can take in the town’s quaint tiled roofs and the quiet Alentejo countryside around sunset.

Planning a visit to Alentejo? These are the best things to see and do here.

You’ll want to visit the castle in Marvão at sunset for the best views

Koguva, Estonia

Frozen in time on the western Muhu Island in Estonia is Koguva. Its cane-roofed houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, wooden carts and ancient windmills that make up this forlorn village form a remarkable ensemble. The entire town stands as a witness of an era long gone, and there’s only about 20 inhabitants to keep up the hamlet’s ancient rural ways.

If you’re only staying here for a few hours, find out how to spend an afternoon in Muhu. And if you’re exploring the country further, check out these stunning historic hotels to book in Estonia.

Stop by the museum in Koguva for a history lesson when you visit Muhu Island in Estonia

Lastovo, Croatia

Croatia’s shimmering turquoise waters and picturesque coastal towns have charmed sun-craving travellers from all around the globe. Fortunately for the crowd-shy, there are still some secret nooks left in this Mediterranean gem – tiny Lastovo for example, the second most remote island off the Croatian shore. An orange-hued delight housing no more than 800 people, you’ll find few tourists in Lastovo town. Best or worst of all – depending on your personal level of social media addiction – there’s no wifi. Instead, indulge in tasty local wines, one-on-one spear-fishing lessons and hikes across an untamed island that’s been declared a Nature Park in its entirety.

Care to discover the quiet side of Dubrovnik, too? Consult our wellness guide; think long hikes and energy clinics.

Switch off on a true digital detox when you visit Lastovo – there’s no wifi here

The Faroe Islands

Tourism has increased since an inventive local woman strapped 360-degree cameras to her sheep to finally create Google Street View for the remote archipelago – a project also lovingly called Sheep View. But the Faroe Islands remain a beacon for those seeking peace, quiet and natural splendour. Although it’s a tiny country within the kingdom of Denmark and not a town, you’d have to work hard to spot another tourist on these 18 islands floating between Iceland and Norway. With breathtaking hikes across dizzying cliffs and lush green pastures with almost no other human in sight, you would almost believe these self-governed islands were ruled by their large population of sheep rather than people – who find themselves outnumbered two to one.

For more Faroe Islands inspiration, use our guide and explore James Bond’s most remote destination.

Small villages like Gjogv in the Faroe Islands see very few tourists

Viscri, Romania

Not even present on some maps, Viscri lies deep in the Romanian heartland. Nowhere are ancient Saxon traditions and customs more alive than in this early medieval hamlet with its unpaved roads, blacksmiths and horse-drawn carts. The star of the show is the fortified gothic church – the oldest in all of Transylvania – with a folklore museum nestled in one of its towers. The entire village has been listed as a Unesco World Heritage site, and some of the villagers have transformed their homestead into welcoming guesthouses, where a home-cooked meal is part of the nostalgia-rich package.

Transylvania is so much more than its famous vampire. Discover 11 places to visit here that aren’t Dracula’s Castle.

Step back in time when you visit Viscri in the Romanian countryside

Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor in Montenegro, a hard-to-reach destination amidst rugged limestone peaks, is an Adriatic pearl. This maze-like harbour town is overflowing with character, medieval stairs and fortifications that are spliced into the mountains that surround it – and the many lazily snoozing cats are honoured in their very own museum.

Montenegro brims with charming spots. These are the most beautiful places to visit while here.

Get lost in the charming streets and alleyways in the Old Town in Kotor

Lavenham, England

In Lavenham, in scenic Suffolk, lopsided half-timbered houses lean against each other for balance. The crooked homes add a dash of whimsy to the medieval English town. What was once the epicentre of the country’s wool trade in Tudor times is now a sleepy abode with age-old pubs and cosy boutique hotels, making it an excellent home base for exploring the British countryside. Holding onto the settlement’s woolly past, a couple of artisan clothing shops also make Lavenham the place to stock up on hand-knitted garments for when sweater weather arrives.

We’ve got your accommodation sorted, with our pick of the best luxury hotels in Suffolk.

Check out the charming and historic timbered houses in Lavenham on a trip to Suffolk

Fontainebleau, France

If you’re up for some French Renaissance opulence, but the sheer human mass trampling through Versailles every day is too intimidating, a more breathable alternative can be found south of Paris. Dominating the elegant town of Fontainebleau is the Château de Fontainebleau, a breathtaking 1,900-room castle older than the Palace of Versailles by five centuries. Renovated and remodelled in the 16th century, the tapestries, ceiling frescoes and general lush settings are the same, only far less crowded. The village is nestled against the Fôret de Fontainebleau, a favoured hunting ground of the French aristocracy, and a stroll around the peacock-filled gardens means a serious breath of fresh air outside of the metropolis.

If you do visit Versailles, avoid some of the crowds by staying overnight – these are the best hotels in Versailles for every traveller.

Ditch Versailles and head to the Château de Fontainebleau to immerse yourself in French opulence

Appenzell, Switzerland

Looking out the window of the bright red Appenzeller Bahnen train, chugging its way through the Swiss countryside, you’d almost expect Maria from The Sound of Music to wander by and break into song. Your destination, Appenzell, continues the sense of a peaceful alpine existence that is untouched by modern life. Car-free, with pretty winding lanes, quintessentially Swiss chalets and cows walking along the street, this town is all about tradition. Think a “cattle descent” in autumn with locals in traditional get-ups, haunting yodels – learn more with this cultural guide to yodeling – and an annual referendum for which inhabitants gather in the main square and vote on political issues by a show of hands.

Along with Appenzell, you have to discover the rest of these charming villages in Switzerland.

The breathtaking mountain scenery and laid-back country lifestyle in Appenzell is perfect for escaping the tourist crowds

Cuenca, Spain

Though fairly isolated in the mountainous terrain of east-central Spain, it’s still remarkable that the name Cuenca doesn’t ring many bells. Mention its hanging houses (casas colgadas), and a few more visual memories might be jogged; Cuenca is most well-known for its smattering of multi-tiered, balconied houses, teetering precipitously over the plunging Huécar abyss. It’s a sensational sight, and the old town captivates visitors even more with overall terracotta charm and a surprisingly lively cultural scene.

Here’s why you need to visit the amazing hanging houses of Cuenca at least once.

The Hanging Houses in Cuenca are an architectural marvel

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