Hilltop towns and villages are especially atmospheric. Whether you’re viewing them from the outside or you step through the enchanting streets, the experience is something you probably won’t soon forget. Some are so enchanting you’ll want to plan a trip around them, including these.
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One of Italy’s top hilltop towns, Ostuni is a must-see. As you drive down the winding roads through the Apulia countryside in Italy – your jaw is sure to drop when the “White City” comes into view. The hilltop town lies just five miles from the Adriatic providing a brilliant backdrop. In the distance, it looks like it must be a dream, or place that only exists in another time. The medieval walled city towers above the olive tree-dotted landscape that meets the sea – enter and you’ll discover a rather confusing web of streets, along with a maze of staircases, alleyways, and arches. The best thing to do is just wander through as you never know what you’ll discover. Brightened by color, the whitewashed homes all have green or blue wooden doors, many with geraniums and cacti along windowsills. Pop into one of the many gift shops or boutiques where you can find all sorts of local items and more, often for bargain prices.
The hilltop Motovun is a fairytale-like walled town on the Istrian Peninsula of Croatia that lies in the Mirna Valley. The region is often compared to Tuscany, but it’s not only famous for wine but truffles, which can be found in the forest that surrounds the base of the hill. In fact, the largest truffle in the world was found here. Enjoy all sorts of truffle dishes on the menu, and buy truffle items like truffle salt and truffle olive oil in the shops. Just sipping coffee or a glass of wine and gazing out at the magnificent view is a great way to spend your time here.
Croatia is filled with beautiful towns, and Groznjan is another one of its most stunning, a hilltop village renowned for its art and music, also on the Istria Peninsula. The Fonticus Gallery is well worth a visit, set within a late 16th-century building that once served as a court, prison and granary. Today it promotes recent works of mainly Croatian artists. You might want to visit Cafe Vero too, which offers especially picturesque views of the valley from its terrace, along with tasty ice cream.
San Gimignano, Italy
Located in Siena, San Gimignano is one of the most famous and well known Tuscan villages and perhaps the best-preserved medieval town in all of Italy. It’s like stepping into another time. A walled hilltop village, it’s sometimes referred to as the “Medieval Manhattan” due to its skyline of 14 stone towers that soar dramatically from the Tuscan countryside. At the height of its glory, there were some 72 towers as tall as 160 feet, each built by the town’s patriarch families in a competition as a display of their wealth. Today, 13 towers remain, providing impressive views of the city and surrounding valley.
Oia, Santorini, Greece
Oia is the village that you’ve probably seen countless times, representing the best of the Greek isles and Santorini with its whitewashed homes and blue-domed churches spilling down the caldera cliffs overlooking the glistening sapphire expanse of the Aegean Sea. It’s a postcard-perfect hilltop village if there ever was one, and it’s also the most popular spot to watch a spectacular sunset, with a crowd gathering here every evening just before dusk. During the day, stroll the maze of narrow streets popping into the occasional shop or art gallery, and enjoy a drink at one of the many tavernas.
Mont Saint-Michel, France
One of the most famous hilltop towns in Europe and a top-rated castle in France, Mont Saint-Michel is located on a rocky tidal island, which means it’s only an island at high tide. At all times, it’s connected by a causeway to the mainland. The awe-inspiring abbey was built by devoted monks in the early 8th century after the Bishop of Avranches was said to have been visited by the Archangel Michael. At its entrance, is the ancient Burgher’s Guardroom, now serving as a tourist office. Visitors walk through the Boulevard Gate and then the fortified King’s Gate, where the Grand Rue, or main street, is lined with shops, museums and houses that date from the 15th and 16th centuries. Walk along mudflats of the bay during low tide to get one of the best photos, even better at dusk.
Set atop a volcanic butte overlooking the scenic plains of Umbria, Orvieto’s 14th-century Gothic cathedral is renowned for its beautiful facade and Renaissance painter Luca Signorelli’s gorgeous frescoes in the Chapel of San Brizio. The cathedral is surrounded by a fine Etruscan museum, a world-class gelato shop and a visitor center. Underneath the village lies Etruscan-era tunnels and grottos that have been used as wine storage, World War II bomb shelters and as a means of escaping sieges over their 2,500-year history. Drinking wine in a ceramic cup while enjoying a view of the cathedral will allow you to truly soak up its essence.
Famous among wine lovers, this picturesque hilltop town’s biggest claim to fame is the wine that’s produced here, Vino Mobile di Montepulciano, which has been sipped since the Middle Ages. The town towers over the lush, rolling hills from a 2000-foot limestone ridge, and the walls of the city date to the 14th century, but recent archaeological findings show that Montepulciano existed way back in the 4th century BC. It would be easy to spend a fun afternoon just exploring the medieval streets and sipping some of the free wine while enjoying meat and cheese samples offered in the stores.
The most impressive hilltop town in Malta, Mdina was the capital of the Mediterranean island and the historic city still sits behind the ancient walls. St. Paul was said to have spent time hereafter he was shipwrecked off the coast, while multiple religious orders still have a powerful presence in the covenants and monasteries and convents. There’s lots to see and do here, including a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Mdina Dungeons, Mdina Glass, the catacombs, The Knights of Malta exhibit, and many grand palaces that today serve as private residences.
Monticchiello is an ancient hilltop village with only around 200 residents. One of the most overlooked gems in Tuscany, you’ll have to park below and walk the path to the entrance, which was one of the original passages through the stone defensive walls that still surround much of the town, while imposing towers are on either side. It’s believed to be more than a thousand years ago, but the oldest structures seen today are the walls and their associated towers, and the church, both of which date back 850 years – still rather impressive.
Monsaraz is a stunning vision that’s believed to be one of Portugal’s oldest settlements with the hilltop location occupied by a series of various conquerors over the years, from the Moors to the Visigoths. Today, it’s most popular for its 14th-century castle. You’ll want to take a photo from afar as well as from the village walls which provide a panorama of the surrounding olive groves and Alqueva Dam. Be sure to stick around until dusk as the locally produced wine is best enjoyed in one of the little cafes while watching a glorious sunset.
Located in the hills of Andalusia, Zahara is a tiny whitewashed Andalusian town with an evocative Moorish castle that boasts a spectacular view over a reservoir with turquoise waters. It was a strategic stronghold for the Moors for many years while the Spanish Reconquista forces considered it the gateway to Granada. While there isn’t much here, what you’ll see is guaranteed to take your breath away as one of the most picturesque of all the Pueblos Blancos (white villages). Less than two hours from Malaga, it’s one of the furthest inland villages on the famous Pueblos Blancos route with a visit providing the ultimate finale.
Arcos de la Frontera, Spain
Set along the northern, western and southern banks of the Guadalete river, which flows around three sides of the city under towering vertical cliffs, Arcos de la Frontera is a photographer’s dream, covering the hilltop and spilling down the back looking as if it’s something out of a fairytale. The Old City is an enchanting maze of streets, while the main church provides a reminder of the Reconquista, the long fight to take Spain back from the Muslim Moors. After Christian forces took Arcos once again, its mosque was demolished with a church was built on its ruins.
Les Baux-de-Provence Village, France
Les Baux is one of the best-known hilltop villages in France, nestled in the Alpilles range of hills, just under 10 miles from Arles. The château at the end of the main street is a ruin, though the grounds house a collection of medieval siege weapons that provide an interesting glimpse of the struggles it endured from the 11th century onwards. The higher you go, the more dramatic the views of the surrounding countryside become. Be sure to check out the history museum, the Musée d’Histoire des Baux-de-Provence which showcases some interesting objects found here.