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While much of Old World Europe has disappeared due to war, modernization, or both, there are still a number of fairytale-like towns that offer lots of Old World European charms like cobblestone lanes, picturesque architecture, and more. Spend your days gazing at the historic buildings, shopping for unique treasures, and dining at adorable outdoor cafes. From a storybook town in Germany to picture-perfect landscapes in Norway and colorful castles in Portugal, these are the top fairytale towns in Europe you should add to your growing bucket list.
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Germany is full of fairytale landscapes, but the medieval town of Rothenburg is one of the best, found along the legendary Romantic Road. Travel guru Rick Steves once called it a “fairy-tale dream town,” and as soon as you set eyes on it you’ll understand why. The still-intact walled city seems to exist in a time capsule. Even though about 40 percent of it was destroyed during World War II, it was quickly rebuilt by the locals to its former style. If it looks familiar, it may be because it was the location for scenes in the 1968 classic “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and it’s also served as the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Pinocchio. Take a stroll through the surrounding fortress, gaze up at the brightly colored, well-preserved historic buildings, shop for magnificent cuckoo clocks and hand-carved trinkets, and you might just think you’ve truly stepped into a storybook.
The hilly Cotswold region is a designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty” in southwestern England, and one of its most picturesque villages is Bibury. Its fairytale good looks make it one of Europe’s most beautiful towns, with much of it still standing as it did centuries ago. The trout-filled River Coln still dominates the main street and lush meadows abut ancient stone cottages with steeply pitched roofs. The most scenic area in Bibury is Arlington Row, with its lane of sepia-hued cottages built in the 17th century to house weavers working at Arlington Mill.
Situated north of the Arctic Circle in the Lofoten archipelago, the tiny fishing village of Reine is surrounded by sapphire bays, soaring fjords and dramatic mountain peaks. Home to just over 300 residents, this extraordinary town may be a very off-the-beaten-path destination, but it’s also one of the most unforgettable. Many of the bright red fishermen’s cabins that dot the coastline have been converted into comfortable cottages for visitors that offer direct access to the Norwegian Sea. In the evening, you can look forward to enjoying a front-row view of the night sky and its mesmerizing entertainment, from summer’s midnight sun to winter’s own brilliant display – the northern lights.
French and German influences fuse in this well-preserved storybook village that dates back to the 13th century. Often called “Little Venice,” due to its tourist boat-filled waterways that wind through the medieval streets, this popular storybook town in France was thankfully spared destruction during the Second World War, which happened, at least in part, because of its historical beauty of tranquil canals, cobblestone lanes, quiet canals, and half-timbered houses. In fact, some say, the soldiers thought they were just too beautiful to touch. Colmar is also considered the capital of Alsatian wine and is famous for its exquisite aromas that waft through the air, coming from bakeries that serve kugelhopf along with fabulous croissants.
Bled is a small Alpine town in northwestern Slovenia that rings the shores of Lake Bled and is considered to be one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. With its glacial blue waters surrounded by alpine mountains, it makes this another spot that looks as if it came from the pages of a fairytale story. Church of the Mother of God sits on a tiny isle at the center of the lake and calls both amateur and professional photographers alike from across the globe to capture it at sunrise, when the first rays of sunshine break through the morning sky, or at dusk, taking advantage of the golden light and shadows cast by the setting sun for particularly moody images. One of the best ways to spend the day here is to take a stroll along the lake and then hike to the medieval hilltop castle for panoramic views. Afterward, re-energize with a slice of the local specialty at Hotel Park. Kremšnita, a sugar-topped pastry filled with cream and custard, has been served for decades here and never fails to impress.
The Amalfi Coast is famous for its striking beauty, but Positano may be its most breathtaking and romantic town of all. This glamorous seaside hamlet blends pastel-colored buildings that spill down the mountain with winding streets, postcard-perfect beaches and intensely blue waters, not to mention jaw-dropping sunsets. It’s one of those destinations that so beautiful it almost doesn’t seem real, with its skyline that still looks like it did a century ago, thanks to the strict building codes that have kept out modern construction. While there is little else to do but browse the local markets and shops, eat, spend time on the beach and take in the views – what more do you really need?
In 1809, Lord Byron penned a letter to his friend Francis Hodgson after visiting Sintra. He wrote, “I must just observe that the village of Cintra (sic) in Estremadura is the most beautiful in the world.” This fairytale town in Portugal sits at the edge of Europe and has charmed countless visitors for centuries. The Romans made it a place of cult moon worshiping, naming it “Cynthia” after the goddess of the moon. Since 1840, Pena Palace has thrust it in the spotlight as one of Europe’s most fantastic palaces. Surrounded by mystical Pena Park, filled with a variety of trees and exotic plants from the former colonies of the Portuguese empire, ponds, fountains, and black swans, it’s truly a must-see.
Gruyeres is famous for its namesake cheese, known for its mild, nutty flavor which melts so well in fondue. But few know much about the town itself. Exquisitely beautiful, this medieval hamlet sits in the upper valley of the Saane River in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Much of its original architecture has been retained through the centuries, including several heritage-listed castles. A wide, stone-paved street leads up to the magnificent 13th-century Gruyères Castle, with its imposing fortifications and expansive views of the surrounding Alpine foothills and snow-capped peaks.
The storybook town of Hallstatt is often ranked among Europe’s, and even the world’s, most beautiful places. Much of its beauty can be thanked to the lake it sits along, Lake Hallstatt. In the summer, visitors can take a boat tour, or rent a pedal boat and explore the lake’s nooks and crannies. Or, those who prefer to stay on land can hike or bike the path that circles its banks. The village itself is a popular destination, with its richly decorated, colorful homes and slender silhouette of an evangelical church. The historic city is home to less than 1,000, but it’s been inhabited for thousands of years thanks to its bountiful deposits of natural salt. Salt mining here dates back thousands of years and has translated into enduring prosperity for Hallstatt, which is most evident in its gorgeous square ringed with ivy-covered buildings.
Sometimes referred to as the “Venice of the North,” due to its nearly 200 bridges that cross over peaceful canals, where the loudest sound you’re likely to hear is of ducks quaking, this dreamy village is made even more tranquil as motorized vehicles are banned. Those seeking a respite from city life will find the serenity of simpler times. Instead of roads, the car-free village uses the miles and miles of canals, so the primary means of transport is by boat. Look forward to floating down the narrow waterways, passing thatched-roof farmhouses and cottages encircled by blooming gardens. Pop into one of the many canal-side eateries and explore the three canal-side museums along the way. You can rent a boat and paddle, or walk the footpaths that run beside the canals.