Discover Europe's Secret Villages

These surprising hamlets are shrouded in mystery, steeped in history, and blissfully off the beaten path.

When I was four, we lived in a 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 neighbor girl Janneke told me, and hungry trolls hid out in the pastures, waiting for a taste of my well-fed American flesh. 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 fueled, in turn, my love of travel. Trying to find Hindeloopen’s magic again, I kept looking. I would swap names of favorite off-the-grid, under-the-radar hamlets with other intrepid travelers, 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. 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 cast Rothenburg as the model for his villagescape in Pinocchio.

Why Rothenburg? Blame it on abject poverty. The burg was a prosperous Renaissance center 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. 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 my next Brigadoon 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.

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.

After that I became a dedicated village hunter. 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’d see that remote brand of beauty again and again, proof that isolation can turn villages into cultural preserves.

This piece was originally published in the August/September issue of Traveler.