Life can change shape in a minute. When I was four, we lived in an American Midwestern suburb of flat ranch houses and straight lines. The only whiff of magic languished at the local, storybook-themed miniature golf course, where a stray ball had shot out one of Mother Hubbard’s eyes.
But when I was four and a half, we moved to the Netherlands, to the small Frisian village of Hindeloopen, and we dropped into another world. Suddenly the houses came capped with softly curving gables, like something out of an old fable. Mermaids flapped their tails in the canals, the neighbour girl Janneke told me, and hungry trolls hid out in the pastures, waiting for a taste of my well-fed American flesh. “They’re biting today,” Janneke, an alarmist, would say every morning. And happy to be scared, I’d race to school, scrambling through the lowlands pastures, past the flame-tipped tulips and grazing lambs.
This was the start of my abiding love of villages, which fuelled, in turn, my love of travel. Trying to find Hindeloopen’s magic again, I kept looking. I would swap names of favourite off-the-grid, under-the-radar hamlets with other intrepid travellers, and we each nursed our own lists of pastoral pit stops. My list, as I zigzagged through Europe as an adult, kept growing and started to read like polyglot poetry. There was Fornalutx and Firle, Apeiranthos and Dozza.
But the first village that landed on my list, after Hindeloopen, was an obvious one: the Bavarian hamlet of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a cobbled huddle of half-timbered houses, deeply pitched red tile roofs, blooming flower boxes, and jutting towers. I wasn’t the first to notice that it resembled a medieval stage set. Pretty much everyone else had too, from the 19th-century painters who had anointed the village the epitome of German Romanticism to the 21st-century Instagrammers posing by the old fountains. Even Walt Disney called the village a muse, casting Rothenburg as the model for his villagescape in Pinocchio.
Why Rothenburg? Blame it on abject poverty. The burg was a prosperous Renaissance centre before the double punch of the Thirty Years’ War and the bubonic plague gutted the place and reduced it to a has-been. That’s a common enough village backstory. As richer towns are propelled forward into the future, restlessly shedding skin and evolving, the impoverished backwaters—too destitute to attract new development or growth—stay stuck in the past. And in that sense the village can evoke something profound.
I saw this when I wandered through Rothenburg at dusk after the tourist hordes left, past the pastel-washed townhouses, the night watchman, and the central square where a farmers market still thrived. An untouched silhouette, Rothenburg wasn’t just a time-warped throwback. It was also the reflection of a much larger, soulful Bavarian culture that may have vanished everywhere else, but remained stubbornly intact here, existing on its own terms.
I stumbled upon the next wonder accidentally, the way most people probably do, as I toured the Cotswolds in a battered Volkswagen Beetle. In fact, what made the English hamlet of Swinbrook an immediate hit for me was the sense that it was so hard to find and so easy to miss, like any true discovery.
Sitting deep in the green folds of grazing pastures, past craggy necklaces of dry stone walls, Swinbrook was the English village pared down to its basics. There was a pub, a church, a set of stone cottages, and not much else. But there didn’t need to be. The circa 1880 Swan Inn, telegenic enough to serve later as a backdrop in Downton Abbey, was a beamed-ceiling classic.
And just up the road stood the parish church of St. Mary, surrounded by clumps of daffodils. Inside the building, dating from 1200 and somehow surviving a WWII bomb that fell nearby, a monument memorialised successive generations of 16th- and 17th-century Fettiplace heirs, local aristocrats with a wry sense of English humour. Forget sanctity. Popping out of the sanctuary’s wall, six stone Fettiplaces lay languidly on their sides, stacked in two tiers. A chiselled pouf of curls topped some of their heads, and each stared straight out at me, looking like they were waiting for afternoon tea. If a tomb could be called delightful bordering on slapstick, this was it. The lesson was clear: Scratch even the smallest limestone Cotswolds village and a deeper story tumbles out, an entire layer of English history, art, and eccentricity.
After that I became a dedicated village hunter. Starting at the top of the world, always drawn to the icy elegance of Scandinavia, I discovered Sandhamn, Sweden, the only real settlement anchoring the Baltic island of Sandön, which sits far out at sea on the periphery of the Stockholm archipelago. I took a ferry from Stockholm past a spray of islets and landed in the evening. It was a Swedish June, though, and the sun still held high in the sky. The villagers were busy preparing for the following day, when they would raise a midsummer maypole and dance through the night, drunk on schnapps. And Sandhamn was already celebrating. People wandered along the seaside wearing wreaths of wildflowers, paying tribute to the suddenly stubborn sun, refusing to sink after the long, frigid blast of winter.
I’d see that remote brand of beauty again and again, proof that isolation can turn villages into cultural preserves. In the Swiss village of Guarda, surrounded by a fringe of mountains, sgraffito paintings were still etched into the facades of the chalets. And in Aups, in deep country Provence, the long-running truffle market flourished. Let bigger towns move on to trendified cuisine. The signature dishes here revived old regional recipes, honouring the local larder, that other places had forgotten.
Ultimately, though, all these hamlets on my growing list were only a substitute for my original Dutch village, and when I finally had time for a return visit recently, I was primed for disappointment. Maybe I had inflated the village’s air of magic?
But my fears were quickly calmed when I arrived back on a grey February afternoon. Hindeloopen looked just the way I’d remembered. No suburb had sprouted; no strip malls or brutalist flats had emerged. The humpbacked bridges—all 16 of them—still curved over the canals.
Yet something changed for me. My guide in Hindeloopen, leading me through familiar streets, had grown up on tales of the trolls himself, and described them just the way Janneke had. They were puny and bearded, a fixture of Dutch folklore. But Janneke had it all wrong. They weren’t evil sprites waiting to bite. Anything but. These elves, benign and sometimes flat-out helpful, were artists at heart, like the Hindeloopen sea captains famous for their tradition of painted furniture. According to one popular tale, the trolls helped cobble together shoes for the poor. In the end, I realized too late, I never had to race through the fields at all. I had already, in some ways, come home.
It’s easiest to take a cable car to get to this dreamlike mountaintop clutch of medieval landmarks often lost in the bank of clouds known locally as the kiss of Venus. Originating as a pagan place of worship, the village stays true to its Sicilian artisan traditions, with goods such as handpainted ceramics and handwoven rugs sold in its network of workshops.
Gateway City: Palermo or Trapani
Stay: Hotel Elimo (hotelelimo.it)
Eat: Ristorante Monte San Giuliano
In the foothills of the Alps, Aups is known as one of Provence’s truffle capitals. Every Thursday, from the end of November through February, the town hosts a black truffle market, which stocks everything from the “black diamond” itself to truffle honey, cheeses, pâtés, and oil. Afterward, head to one of the local brasseries that feature a single-minded truffle menu.
Gateway City: Marseilles or Nice
Stay: Bastide du Calalou (bastide-du-calalou.com)
Eat: La Truffe
This walled village sits on its own rocky spur, just barely connected to the southern tip of the Peloponnese Peninsula by a narrow causeway. A jumble of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Venetian architecture, the hamlet is fringed by rocky Mediterranean beaches, though real athletes will want to make the climb to the ruined fortress that tops the island like a jagged tiara.
Gateway City: Sparta or Athens
Stay and Eat: Kinsterna Hotel (kinsternahotel.gr)
Built around a horseshoe harbour, this largely 17th-century gem in the eastern province of Overijssel comes surrounded by lakes, ponds, and canals, and is fittingly known for its water sports. The local punter boats can be rented if you want to tour the boggy waterworld, and hiking routes lead through the area’s Weerribben-Wieden National Park.
Gateway City: Amsterdam
Stay: Auberge aan het Hof (aubergeaanhethof.nl)
Eat: Kaatje bij de Sluis
Considered the birth-place of wine growing in Alsace, Eguisheim is an essential stop on the region’s wine route.
Among the 30-odd local producers is the Domaine Emile Beyer, in business since the 16th century, which hosts wine tastings in its ancient cellars.
Gateway City: Strasbourg
Stay: Hostellerie du Château (sovanahotel.it)
Eat: Le Pavillon Gourmand
A one-street southern Tuscan village, Sovana reads like a leap through art history. The central Piazza del Pretorio is lined with medieval houses. The Church of Santa Maria features an elaborate eighth-century stone canopy and a 15th-century fresco of the Virgin Mary, and the Romanesque Sovana Cathedral is stippled with elaborately carved marble pilasters.
Gateway City: Siena
Stay: Sovana Hotel and Resort (sovanahotel.it)
Eat: Ristorante Taverna Etrusca
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, bucolic Telč, in South Moravia, is an artwork all its own. An architectural primer of gabled, candy-coloured baroque and Renaissance houses frames its sprawling, cobbled central square. The town’s Renaissance chateau adds to the artistry, its ceilings painted with a pantheon of classical gods.
Gateway City: Prague
Stay: Chornitzer House (chornitzeruvdum.cz)
Eat: Zach Restaurant
This riverside Franconian settlement is known for its snaking main street framed by half-timbered houses, as well as its brewpubs. The family-owned Faust brewery can help arrange a tour of local breweries.
Gateway City: Frankfurt
Stay: Schmuckkästchen Hotel (hotel-schmuckkaestchen.de)
Eat: Gasthaus zum Riesen
Revered for its production of faience, a tin-glazed earthenware that once decorated the royal tables of Versailles, this photogenic hamlet (pictured) hangs off a limestone cliff in eastern Provence. Faience workshops produce plates, tureens, and vases painted with delicate, feathery birds, flowers, and grotesques; among the most active are the ateliers Bondil, Lallier, and Soleil.
Gateway City: Nice
Stay and Eat: La Bastide de Moustiers (bastide-moustiers.com)
A medieval hilltop photo-op in the Emilia-Romagna region, Dozza devised a savvy way to draw visitors in the 1960s. Its Biennial of the Painted Wall, held every two years in September, presents world-class artists who splash the village with frescoes—leaving behind an open-air gallery of everything from elegant still lifes to Banksy-worthy agitprop.
Gateway City: Bologna
Stay: Villa Resta, and other villa and cottage rentals (villaresta.it)
Eat: Ristorante La Scuderia
This mountainside community on the Cycladic island of Naxos, settled partially by Cretans and paved in marble, is still home to a group of women producing traditional textiles on handlooms. Their vividly striped tablecloths, rugs, and runners are showcased at the local Woven Products Cooperative.
Gateway City: Naxos Town (aka Chora)
Stay: Villa Delona, in the village of Engaraí (villadelona.com)
Eat: Taverna Amorginos
All sherbet-coloured cottages, this lakeside hamlet could pass for Pippi Longstocking’s hometown and offers the bonus of the Renaissance Gripsholm Castle, which houses the Swedish national portrait collection.
Gateway City: Stockholm
Stay and Eat: Gripsholms Värdshus (gripsholms-vardshus.se)
Flush with chalets, the showpiece Alpine village of Guarda features 16 clearly marked hiking paths through the surrounding Engadine Valley, for everyone from beginners to serious trekkers. Hikers can also arrange tours with the local tourism office.
Gateway City: St. Moritz
Stay: Boutique-Hotel Romantica Val Tuoi (romanticavaltuoi.ch)
Eat: Ustaria Crusch Alba
This harbourside town on the island of Funen was home to a thriving artist colony in the early 20th century, and the Funen Painters’ Nordic impressionistic canvases brighten the local Johannes Larsen Museum.
Gateway City: Copenhagen
Stay: Tornøes Hotel (tornoeshotel.dk)
Eat: Restaurant Rudolf Mathis
The walled, whitewashed Portuguese village of Monsaraz overlooks the Alentejo plains and is home to the Alentejana Mizette Factory, an artisanal workshop that has helped revive the regional craft of hand-loomed, brightly striped blankets and rugs.
Gateway City: Lisbon
Stay and Eat: São Lourenço Do Barrocal (barrocal.pt)
Claiming to be the snowiest resort in the Alps, this collection of pitch-roofed chalets attracts a growing insider crowd of snowboarders and skiers.
Gateway City: Salzburg, Zurich, or St. Moritz
Stay: Hotel Lechtaler Hof (en.lechtalerhof.at)
Eat: Älpler Stuba
This fishing village in East Cork lures sea lovers with its lighthouse and cliffside whale-watching. But it also tempts hungry diners, since Ballymaloe House, considered one of the pioneering meccas of updated Irish cuisine (think pan-fried Ballycotton brill with blood orange and saffron butter) sits outside of town.
Gateway City: Cork
Stay and Eat: Ballymaloe House (ballymaloe.ie)
Perfumed by lemon and orange groves, the stony village of Fornalutx, on the Balearic island of Mallorca, is a surprisingly sporty hub. A long rocky beach lies nearby, and the village is within easy striking distance of the island’s renowned biking route, which snakes through the Serra de Tramuntana mountains.
Gateway City: Palma
Stay: Hotel Sa Tanqueta (sa-tanqueta.com)
Eat: Ca N’Antuna
This old farming community in East Sussex became the unlikely epicentre of the Bloomsbury Group, which included novelist Virginia Woolf. Visitors can still explore Charleston, their country house, overflowing with exuberant murals, textiles, and paintings.
Gateway City: London
Stay and Eat: The Ram Inn (raminn.co.uk)