St. Paul de Vence. Trogir. Syracuse or Meteora. Do these sound familiar?
For the vast majority of people across the globe, the short answer is no.
Maybe these words bring to mind the college town of Syracuse, New York. Maybe you thought of Saint Paul from the Bible. But no, these are just a few of the best small towns in Europe. Places like these are still generally unknown by most people — unless they have extensive knowledge in ancient civilizations, history, world geography, or travel. Despite the deep historical and cultural roots of these towns, they remain relatively unknown
It’s hard to blame people, though. Most of us don’t have the time to memorize hundreds of small towns across the world — stunning and historical or otherwise. There’s only so much time in the day, and obscure locales aren’t usually a priority. Even once famous medieval cities in our own backyard lay in relative obscurity.
Being passionate about travel photography, I’m naturally drawn to those locations, but seek to find many more. It’s become somewhat of a fascination of mine. Some of these places might be familiar to those lifelong fans of Indiana Jones, National Geographic adventurers, Rick Steves, and Carmen Santiago. And those who study history, archeology, and geography might be aware of a few more. But once you dive into this rabbit hole, you start uncovering endless marvels. The world is full of small wonders waiting to be rediscovered.
There’s a whole universe out there of beautiful small towns, easily reached by car, train or boat. It may not sound as exotic as finding the lost city of Atlantis or El Dorado — though there’s a hint of that — but my experience going to these places tells me their time has come. It’s time people go beyond Paris, New York, Tokyo, or Rome.
Yes, of course, all of those cities are legendary for a reason, and you should visit them if you can. But the hidden mysteries of more discrete locales are just as, if not more, important for the world traveler.
These rural attractions give you the feeling of an explorer — hard to do in a time when our phones keep us in constant connection with the chatter of a global conversation. And you’ll find that the souvenirs, stories, and images you’ll return with will spur on the curiosity of friends and family. They’ll probe you with questions, questions you’ll keep asking yourself in quiet hours. How did I miss this for so long? What else am I missing? When am I going back?
Before I began journeying to these locations, I never fathomed how rich some small towns could be — overflowing with historical significance, cultural sophistication, and a wealth of insights. All of these you can learn from spending a day or two. Beyond that, these places have clear benefits over large cities and tourist laden mega-wonders. And many of them are where you’d least expect.
There are small towns that connect you to prehistoric Europe, historical villages filled with artifacts, and secret places in Britain rich with Roman and Pagan legacies.
I can’t wait to get back out there and see what else I can find. And I think, in the near future, many others will join me. In fact, they’re starting to already.
The Argument for Visiting the Unknown Cities of the World
The benefits of visiting these hidden gems in Europe and around the world are extensive. The best old towns
in Europe and around the world have such unique experiences, and they’re often simply more enjoyable than
big cities and well-worn global tourism mainstays.
When you visit these towns, you’ll find something much different from the typical tourist traps. Restaurants, stores, and guided tours exude much more hospitality and personality. Most rural places have a reputation as being friendlier for a reason, and you’ll be more of an individual than one of a million other visitors.
History to Rivals Larger Cities
While no small town can match the quantity of historical value that a city like Rome boasts, the best unknown places in Italy can compete meter for meter. Many of these towns have fewer layers of development and more intimate experiences available. While the quantity of sites may be lower, the quality is just as high if not higher.
That lack of development also lends these places a more authentic feeling. There are medieval towns in Europe that have experienced shocking preservation efforts, and with fewer tourists to service, there is less shlock and more genuine local culture.
The locals are not exhausted by incoming families, and the natural tension between tourists and townies is absent. Chalk it up to the small-town values or something else, but it’s a great experience to strike up a friendship with people whose town you are visiting as an outsider.
Reduce Environmental Footprint
The extreme urbanization that our earth has witnessed over the past two centuries has also given rise to lifestyles that are impacting the climate and putting a strain on resources. Many small towns give you the ability to eat locally grown food and enjoy the heritage of the area without adding to environmental problems.
Help Small, Local Economies
The value of tourism for these places is high, in many cases it’s the only way for new money to enter the local economy. And yet, because there are so few tourists coming through, these communities face great losses of opportunity.
Small town tourist attractions add to the local economies, providing good paying jobs and career prospects for the youth. And as rural industry continues to disappear around the world, tourism will become only more important.
Relax and Enjoy in Peace
When you plan a trip, are you excited to spend time in traffic? Can you not wait to battle crowds to get to your bus or train stop? Do you have dreams of long lines? Probably not. Luckily, small town attractions are typically much less crowded and quieter than their big city counterparts.
Hidden coastal villages allow you to find a spot on the beach more or less to yourself. Small towns in England give you access to quiet strolls through the countryside. These are examples of the peace waiting for you when you look outside the typical tourist destinations.
Smaller historical towns tend to be even less crowded in the off season, nearly empty in some cases. There are a few historical towns and villages that are busy in the middle of summer (Matera, Eze, Ronda), and others in the winter (mostly those with Christmas markets, the likes of Colmar, for example). But you can still escape the crowds for a good portion of the morning or later in the afternoon. Meanwhile, a place like Venice or Paris has buses of visitors showing up at 8:30 sharp year-round, and that’s on top of locals commuting to work and school every day.
A lot can be said about the high prices in big cities like London, New York, Dubai and Tokyo. These cities rank among the priciest places to visit, a fact reflected in the admission fees to their various attractions.
If you’re driving around London or Manhattan and need parking, it’s going to cost you a small fortune ($50-$60 overnight). And the hourly rates can be astronomic. A dinner for a family of four at a mid-tier restaurant can land you in the $100-$120 range before tax and tip — and that’s without the Bordeaux.
Ancient small towns can also be easier to navigate. There’s a smaller population leading to less traffic, and many municipalities are encouraging people to walk or cycle around. And since the scale is so much smaller, you can get the hang of a town’s layout in a few days, not a few months.
It is clear that COVID-19 is changing how we travel. Temporary travel bans aside, many are seeing a big future for smaller and less well known destinations. The lack of crowds means less exposure, something we are all trying to avoid.
Why People Skip the Small Village Scene
Almost all of the above benefits are well known. Or, at least, if you bring them up, people nod their heads knowingly. Nevertheless, they still skip the small towns. If we take the reasons why they do this seriously, we can start to understand the dynamics at play.
Across the board, almost any small town will have less to do than a metropolis. But don’t worry, there are still plenty of things to do in a small town as long as you keep your mind open.
A rural city is just that — rural. There are fewer places for young people to go dancing, and the options for a good opera house are nil.
Naturally, due to the smaller population and geographic size, small towns can’t sustain the same level of hotels and other traveler accommodations you might find in bigger cities.
Harder to Access
Few small towns in Europe are near big airports or major train stations, and they can even require traveling by ferry or other odd conveyances. And even when there is transportation, with fewer visitors comes limited hours to seek group transit or train.
Low Multilingual Fluency
Access to multilingual hospitality industry workers is lower, too. That can make it difficult if you don’t speak the local language.
Earlier Closing Times
Shops, museums, restaurants and other facilities may close sooner than you are used to. Those of us accustomed to cities that never shut down will find our late-night food runs met with closed doors.
Especially Difficult During Events
It can also be much harder to find parking or accommodations during big events (public holidays or other celebrations). These cultural experiences are often one of the best reasons to go in the first place.
While all of these downsides can be expected to some degree, they come down to a state of mind. The hidden places to visit in Europe and around the world will present challenges that you might not be used to, but they are challenges you can acclimate to and overcome. They mostly revolve around expectations. If you take sober account of these facts, you can adjust expectations and open yourself up to enjoy these wonderful locales.
There’s this stereotype about retired people. They have unlimited amounts of time that they spend on day trips in the Italian and Spanish countryside, looking to find the most uncommon village perched on a cliff. Like all stereotypes, this holds little water in reality, but it’s odd that this is seen as a negative. Such travelers actually take the time to look off the beaten path for the hidden gems and historical marvels that offer a personal touch to each visitor.
The truth is, for many millennia, humans have scattered across small cities along the coastline and in the interior. This is where a great deal of our human legacy can be found, not in today’s urban sprawls. The fact that you can go on a road trip for ten days in the French countryside and discover a new place every day, with its own history, architecture, people and foods, is simply magical. It may feel a little bit like being inside a time travel machine, where you get to experience what living in the past might have been like.
Being naturally optimistic, I sense that the tide is changing. The previous perception has started to wear itself out. Slivers of this can be seen through the content publications choose to feature or the destinations tour operators will present, for example Segovia and Toledo from Madrid.
There’s simply no denying that once you peel the layers of travel, small towns present themselves as a great opportunity for each of us to embrace what’s ripe for the taking. It gives us the chance to feel like a limitless adventurer, unleashing the Jack Kerouac that’s hidden inside us, ready to navigate the mysterious waters of the lush Southeast Asian jungles.
Yes, it might be a bit poetic, but to think that in the 21st century many attractive small towns have yet to be embraced by the general public is exciting. It’s an inspiring insight, keeping us hungry for more into our old age.