A cliffside village overlooks the ocean

Where to find epic adventure in Europe’s best small villages

From Scotland to Switzerland and beyond, here’s where to hike through history, climb a mountain, and glide through crystal-clear waters.

Olive trees frame a view of Vernazza, one of five coastal villages connected by a cliff-hugging trail in Italy’s Cinque Terre National Park.
Photograph by JC Milhet, Hans Lucas / Redux

For American travelers, this summer’s lifting of the COVID test requirement to reenter the United States is welcome news. Free from worries of being detained or of a pricey quarantine abroad, travelers are thinking big when planning their first international trip in years. 

Europe’s “big three”—London, Paris, and Rome—look as seductive as ever. But the best way to avoid the crush of travel-deprived visitors is to go beyond the cities to the countrysides and villages that are often overlooked. 

That doesn’t mean you’re missing out on anything. Small towns can be the best way to glimpse a country’s soul, beauty—and sense of adventure. These six European villages capture the thrill of diving into the great outdoors, from climbing a mountain to taking a dip in the ocean.

Vernazza, Italy

Best for: Breathtaking coastal views from land and sea.

With terraced vineyards, decades-old olive groves, and Mediterranean Sea views, Italy’s Ligurian coast is a hiker’s paradise. However, some sections of the trail system connecting the five villages of Cinque Terre National Park remain closed until 2024—a result of devastating landslides exacerbated by climate change.

(This tantalizing trek takes you into the heart of Italy.)

The 11th-century village of Vernazza survived such a landslide in 2011 and an earthquake in 2012. Today, Vernazza encapsulates Cinque Terre’s magical allure once more, with its medieval castle ruins, tower-like pastel houses, and secluded bay that harks back to its origins as a defensive port against marauding Saracen pirates.

The section of the famed Blue Trail here remains open and popular in the summer months. But for a bit more elbow room, head for the water. Exploring by kayak reveals a side of Vernazza more familiar to the handful of fishermen who still bring in the day’s catch for local restaurants.

You can rent kayaks or sign up for guided outings to hidden coves, secret caves, and sheltered beaches not reachable on foot. Look for local outfitters, who typically set up on the town’s charming beach.

Deià, Majorca, Spain

Best for: Mountain biking through a natural wonderland.

Built on a rocky outcrop between the towering Serra de Tramuntana mountain range and the sparkling Mediterranean, Deià has long drawn creative people to Spain’s Balearic Islands.

Today the village’s natural beauty inspires not just writers and painters, but adventure-seekers, too. From this peaceful hamlet, cyclists can pedal a web of trails across this mountainous region. Bike-friendly accommodations dot routes, offering storage and tapas to fuel up for particularly strenuous outings.

(The best way to see this historic city of sultans is on foot.)

In town, bikers—and hikers—can tackle the steep climb to the cemetery where the British poet Robert Graves (a longtime resident) is buried. After working up a sweat, coast down to Cala Deià. Considered the best pebble beach in Majorca, Cala Deià’s crystal-clear waters are ideal for giving sore muscles a break with a relaxing snorkel.

Mürren, Switzerland

Best for: Blood-pumping Alpine adventures. 

In Mürren, the fun starts before you arrive. This picturesque Swiss village sits on a Bernese Oberland mountain shelf so high that travelers must arrive by cable car.

Like many mountain resort towns these days, Mürren offers year-round activities. Besides downhill skiing in the winter, brave climbers can traverse a via ferrata (Italian for “iron way”) from June to October, with or without a guide.

A little more than a mile long, this protected climbing route of metal rungs features tightrope sections, a suspension bridge, and even a zipline soaring over 1,300 feet above a valley in Lauterbrunnen.

(For riveting views, climb North America’s highest via ferrata.)

Those seeking to remain on terra firma can find comfort in an extensive network of biking and hiking trails. A small army of mountain guides can help determine the best route for your experience level.

Sloten, Netherlands

Best for: Sailing scenic waterways through history. 

Situated in the northern province of Friesland, onion-shaped Sloten is a one-canal town known for its classic Dutch beauty, complete with a reconstructed 1847 windmill once used for grinding corn.

(Dutch tulip farmers are hoping for a post-pandemic boom.)

Rows of picture-perfect gabled houses reflect the village’s 17th-century wealth when it was an important toll stop to northern Hanseatic cities. A marina built in the 1970s taps this shipping legacy. Boat tours from here motor by reminders of Sloten’s past, but you can unfurl the sails on a rental to chart your own route, or try standup paddle boarding in the harbor.

If you’d rather stay dry, you can explore the surrounding Frisian lowland the quintessential Dutch way—by bike. Holland’s extensive system of biking paths radiates in every direction. A stop in the village of Makkum, to the north, features local ceramics that rival Delft’s.  

Chipping Campden, England, U.K.

Best for: Hiking a fun-loving village in the English countryside. 

England’s Chipping Campden is arguably the Cotswolds’ loveliest village. Golden limestone buildings dating from the 14th to 17th centuries line the long high street, a lasting result of the Cotswolds once prosperous wool industry. At dusk, the town seems to glow, its honey-colored houses appearing lit from within.

Named for the Old English word for market, Chipping Campden isn’t just a photographer’s dream. It also knows a thing or two about fun and games. As summer arrives, townsfolk join in on the annual Olympick Games, a 410-year tradition that takes its light-hearted cue from the actual Olympics. Instead of fencing, competitors face off in tug of war. Instead of rhythm gymnastics, Morris dancers wave scarves and dance a jig. The highlight is a shin-kicking tournament, a wince-inducing take on wrestling that thankfully never caught on anywhere else.

(These masked singers are reviving a centuries-old Irish tradition.)

Beyond the games, this hamlet is the starting point for the Cotswold Way, a designated National Trail that winds 102 miles south to Bath. Along the way, hikers pass Roman thermal baths, a Neolithic burial chamber, romantic hilltop castles, and cozy cottages.

Bikers can cycle the Costwold Way, but there are other trails that don’t require as much of a time commitment. The best is a 32-mile trip (roughly three hours) that winds through quaint Stow-on-the-Wold before looping back to Chipping Campden, leaving plenty of time for a pint before dinner.

Braemar, Scotland, U.K.

Best for: Highland hiking to storied castles and wild swimming in sparkling rivers. 

Tucked deep in the Highlands, 60 miles from Aberdeen, Braemar is probably best known for Balmoral Castle, Queen Elizabeth II’s Scottish home, and the annual Braemar Highland Games. Perhaps less well known is that Braemar is an adventure hotspot located in the heart of Cairngorms National Park.

Hugged by rivers and Caledonia pinewood forests, Braemar is ideally situated for taking in the lush beauty of the Scottish Highlands. There’s no shortage of hiking and biking trails, wildlife watching, and wild swimming opportunities. One popular two-hour hike climbs to the confluence of two main rivers, the Dee and its tributary, Clunie Water, before winding through birch forests.

Other trails lead to historic sites, such as Braemar Castle. Built in 1628, it was the target of Jacobite uprisings throughout the 1600s and 1700s. Centuries of wear and tear have taken their toll on the fortress. A 1.6 million-pound restoration project has locals eyeing a 2023 reopening.

(This country has the most castles in Europe. It’s not where you think.)

Until then, hikers can map their way to other royal strongholds, from the remaining ruins of Kindrochit Castle to Balmoral, where the three-hour Balmoral Cairns walk connects some 11 stone structures marking significant moments in the lives of British royal family members.

Raphael Kadushin is a Wisconsin-based food and travel journalist.
National Geographic Travel senior editor Anne Kim-Dannibale contributed research and writing to this story.

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