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The world is big and beautiful. Gorgeous small towns aren’t particularly hard to find (though many do require quite a bit of effort to reach). Of all the lovely locales in every corner of the globe, some spots have a picturesque quality and presence that make them truly unmissable. It’s about that inimitable blend of scenic landscapes, striking architecture, and the way that culture permeates visually.
Many pint-sized destinations dazzle, but the little gems that take your breath away don’t come around as often. Popular picks like Portofino and Gordes draw tourists from around the globe, while others such as Shirakawa-go and Ilulissat fall into the unsung heroes category. Regardless of where these small towns sit on the notoriety scale, all are worth traveling even great distances to see with your own eyes.
Gordes tends to be swarming with tourists during the summer months. But can you really blame visitors for wanting to soak in the magic of one of the most beautiful villages in France, if not the world? Perched high on a cliff above the valley, it’s a must-see destination with cobbled lanes, churches, and a monastery punctuated by lavender fields that look like they’ve been plucked from the pages of a storybook.
The dreamy village of Shirakawa-go, located in Japan’s Ōno District, ranks among the snowiest places on the planet — an average of 400 inches of powder falls each year. All this frosting gives its UNESCO-listed thatched-roof gasshō-zukuri structures an extra layer of sparkle. After the winter wonderland vibes dissipate and the weather warms up, this traditional and tranquil hamlet turns on the woodland charm as the hillsides turn a deep, rich green and colorful, fragrant wildflowers bloom.
Approximaely 2,800 people call Giethoorn (a.k.a. the “Venice of the Netherlands”) home. This idyllic village in the northeastern Dutch province of Overijssel is lauded for its hand-dug canals, 176 bridges that connect the small island to the mainland, foot and bike paths, and thatched-roof houses dating back to the 18th century. Because such an infrastructure doesn’t support cars, residents (and the close to one million tourists who visit each year) get around by sailing, walking, and cycling.
Set along the road-trip-worthy Georgian Military Road, Stepantsminda, commonly referred to as Kazbegi, is a halcyon townlet in the Caucasus Mountains of northeastern Georgia. It’s fabled for its 14th-century Gergeti Trinity Church that’s set at an elevation of 7,119 feet above sea level and the mammoth snow-covered peak of Mount Kazbek. This valley village also swirls with ancient mythology, which only adds to its mystique.
There’s a reason — OK, many — that tourists flock to Oia on the northwestern tip of Santorini each summer, turning this sleeping little fishing village into a bonafide hot spot. Yes, the sheer number of holidaygoers draws criticism from locals and longtime visitors, but it’s hard to fault anyone for wanting to catch sight of the whitewashed Cyclades houses clinging to the cliffs, sparkling Aegean Sea, famous caldera, and sherbet-hued sunsets IRL.
An entirely different world from the nonstop chaos of major cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, Cherrapunji, also known as Sohra, shows off a far more serene side of India. This high-altitude small town in the East Khasi Hills of the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya is prized for its living root bridges, magnificent waterfalls, and lush forests. How does Cherrapunji stay so green all the time? It’s one of the wettest places on the planet, with an average annual rainfall of approximately 450 inches.
Venture two hours east of Medellín and you’ll come across a vibrant Andean resort town with beauty of both the natural and human-made variety. Camera-ready Guatapé is a masterpiece of brightly colored facades adorned with cheerful hand-painted frescoes. It also has a vast artificial lake that’s a pretty and popular spot for water sports. Piedra del Peñol looms large to the southwest. Travelers can climb hundreds of steps to the top for panoramic views.
Of the many beautiful small towns in the Green Mountain State, northern Vermont’s Stowe continues to wow with covered bridges, quintessential New England architecture, and stunning scenery that changes with each season. It’s a winter dreamworld with heaps of powder, frozen Bingham Falls, ski slopes, groomed cross-country skiing paths, and ice skating. In the warmer months, attention turns toward hiking trails and verdant mountain views in Smugglers’ Notch State Park.
Ban Rak Thai, Thailand
With a population under 1,000, Ban Rak Thai is the definition of a sleepy small town. Its far-flung location in northwestern Thailand keeps this stunning village under wraps and not overrun with throngs of tourists. That means not having to maneuver through crowds to peep the lush mountains, tea plantations, and homes accented with traditional Chinese lanterns. To see the tranquil beauty of Ban Rak Thai at its best, rise early to watch the mist rolling off the lake.
Travelers flood into the glamorous coastal enclave of Portofino during the summer to admire the pastel-hued houses, marvel at the megayachts in the harbor, and sip Negronis at the glitzy Piazzetta-side bars. The path leading to Castello Brown supplies arresting views of the town and sea. With a bit of luck, you might be able to snag a restaurant reservation at La Terrazza at Splendido, A Belmond Hotel to twirl spaghetti on a wisteria-draped terrace overlooking the glimmering bay.
Located in the Bernese Oberland, the village of Grindelwald mirrors an idealized version of the cosmopolitan Swiss ski resort you’d notice on a travel brochure or postcard with snow-capped peaks, groomed slopes for all skill levels, and glimmering glaciers. When the snowy season ends, its alpine charms take center stage in the form of hiking and nature trails. Adventure seekers come to tackle the soaring summits, specifically the north face of Eiger mountain.
Lake Placid, New York
Lake Placid is a peaceful and picturesque village in New York’s Adirondack Mountains that’s centered around an idyllic lake. Beyond the beauty of the water, it has rolling hills, dense forests, meadows, and a cute Main Street. An average 103 inches of powder annually transforms this glorious upstate getaway into a real-life snow globe that’s ripe for outdoor pursuits like cross-country skiing. When all that frosting melts, it’s time to hit the scenic trails for magnificent views. Don’t miss leaf peeping in the fall.
Travelers intent on breaking away from the crowds and witnessing wondrous scenery will love Bacalar, a Pueblo Mágico (or Magic Town) located near the Mexico-Belize border. The laid-back town sits on spectacular Lake Bacalar, nicknamed the Lagoon of Seven Colors for its seemingly endless shades of blue. Beyond the second-largest freshwater lake in Mexico, there are some interesting historic structures such as the 18th-century fort and San Joaquín Parish Church, as well as eco-oriented activities.
Moulay Idriss Zerhoun, Morocco
Chefchaouen is famous for its Instagrammable blue hues. But the more low-key, maze-like town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun in the Fès-Meknès region of northern Morocco definitely deserves attention. Extending over two hillsides at the bottom of Mount Zerhoun, this holy destination houses one of the country’s most significant sites, the mausoleum of ruler Idris I. It also has many stairs, alleyways, and terraces for a bird’s-eye view of everything.
Ilulissat resembles a movie set with the Ilulissat Icefjord, soaring icebergs in Disko Bay, and multicolored houses. As much as its cinematic beauty makes visitors do a double take and question whether it might be a product of Hollywood special effects, we assure you this coastal town in western Greenland is real. Visitors can also look forward to seeing the northern lights dancing in the winter and the midnight sun come summertime.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Few places exude the whimsy and splendor of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. This fairy-tale village along Germany’s fabled Romantic Road in the Franconia region of Bavaria offers frozen-in-time cobblestone lanes, intact ramparts, and medieval architecture — including half-timbered houses and a storybook castle — as well as leafy views from all sides. Day-trippers come with the enchanting territory, but even crowds don’t dim the shine.
If you were tasked with drawing a picture-perfect fishing port, it would probably end up looking a lot like Marsaxlokk. Situated in the southeastern part of Malta, this virtually untouched village treats travelers to a major dose of history and coastal charisma. Traditional Maltese luzzu boats float in the harbor, the seaside promenade is dotted with restaurants serving fresh catch of the day, and the pace of life feels wonderfully unhurried.
Some places just take your breath away after first laying eyes on them, and Frigiliana lands in that category. Somehow, against all odds, this beautiful hidden gem in the hills of southern Spain still falls under the radar and hasn’t been taken over by tourists. That’s good news for travelers keen on wandering around the warren of lovely narrow streets in the old town, hiking to the castle ruins, tasting tapas, and sipping local wine while watching the sunset in peace.
San Sebastian Bernal, Mexico
Backed by a towering volcanic rock monolith rising from the high desert and designated as a Pueblo Mágico, San Sebastián Bernal is a quaint village in the central highlands in the Mexican state of Querétaro. The cobblestone streets and colorful facades act as a mesmerizing counterpoint to the sacred boulder backdrop and vastness of the arid landscape that surrounds it in all directions. It’s a place where natural beauty, culture, and tradition coalesce in the most enchanting of ways.
The endlessly attractive alpine town of Banff is a favored ski destination and just one of the all-around prettiest places regardless of season. Besides hitting (or hiking) the slopes, travelers can admire the Rocky Mountain peaks from Banff Avenue while shopping for souvenirs, spot wildlife in Banff National Park, and soak in the hot springs. And Fairmont Banff Springs — adoringly referred to as Canada’s “Castle in the Rockies” — gives visitors a storybook setting to stay overnight.
Yes, Whitefish is a playground for outdoor recreation. But it’s the scenery that provides the backdrop for all the adventure activities that makes it so stunning. This small town in the Rocky Mountains of northwest Montana has snow-covered terrain for skiing, snowboarding, and cross-country skiing. When summer rolls in, the photogenic hiking and biking trails, gushing rivers, and Whitefish Lake steal the show. It’s also the gateway to the glacier-carved peaks and valleys of Glacier National Park.
Byron Bay, Australia
Far from under the radar — though, to be clear, that doesn’t make it any less resplendent — Byron Bay is a coastal enclave on the far northeastern coast of New South Whales that’s well-known for its surf culture, paradise-like beaches, and booming tourism industry. It’s famously home to the iconic Cape Byron Lighthouse, and humpback whales swim through the turquoise waters between June and November.
Stone Town of Zanzibar, Tanzania
A hub of distinct and interwoven cultures dating back centuries, the UNESCO-listed Stone Town of Zanzibar presents an impressively preserved example of a Swahili coastal trading port. Things remain much the same as they have for hundreds of years. That allows visitors to better appreciate the enduring charm of its labyrinthine streets, beautiful old houses, vibrant bazaars, the palace-turned-museum, mosque, cathedral, and Omani fort.