Photograph by Mark A. Johnson, Alamy Stock Photo
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The Forgotten World Highway runs from Stratford to Taumarunui on New Zealand’s North Island.

Photograph by Mark A. Johnson, Alamy Stock Photo

In Praise of Small-Town Travel

Cities are great, but smaller-scale destinations give travelers a chance to dig deeper and make more meaningful connections with locals.

On my first extended stay in Bangkok a few years ago, I exulted in the city’s frenetic pace. I zipped around on the back of motorcycle taxis, fought for elbow room at teeming streetside restaurants, and navigated the crowds at the Chatuchak Weekend Market with a smile on my face.

But after a few days, I hopped on a bus and headed 50 miles east to Tha Kha, a village known for its floating market. Why? My soul was in need of the kind of respite only a small community can bring.

As thrilling as big cities can be, there’s a different sort of thrill to be found in their more modest counterparts. Towns and villages offer slower rhythms that travelers can adjust to and become part of in a matter of hours or days—something that could take weeks or months in a major metropolis. 

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But perhaps the greatest reward of visiting a smaller-scale destination, of which I was especially reminded that day in the Thai countryside, is the stronger chance you have of connecting with the people who call that place home. 

Just before leaving Tha Kha, I said hello to a woman named Hun. This simple interaction led to her telling me about the market’s history—that it’s over a century old, that some 400 people still live along its canals—and, ultimately, inviting me back to her house, where I swam in the river with her family. In that moment, I felt connected to Thailand on a level I would never have experienced back in Bangkok.

It may be, as they say, the Century of the City, but small, vibrant communities can be found the world over, from Andean villages in South America to dusty desert outposts in North Africa.

Here are six bewitching towns and villages—one on each continent, save Antarctica—that stand out as eminently worth visiting:

Australasia: Stratford, New Zealand

When my working holiday visa was set to expire in New Zealand, I decided to cap off my time in the country by taking a month-long road trip around the North Island.

While natural attractions such as volcanoes and caves of glowworms were certainly highlights along the route, what I found myself most looking forward to each day were the small, full-of-personality towns I passed through.

There was the farming community of Bulls, where local establishments took punny glee in exploiting the town's theme. (The fire station? Extinguish-A-Bull. The candy shop? Irresist-A-Bull.) In Foxton, I happened upon a working Dutch windmill (albeit a replica). And my favorite town of all, Stratford, paid homage to the Bard and his birthplace by naming 67 of its streets after Shakespearean characters.

North America: Vashon Island, Washington (USA)

Vashon Island's rural charm makes visitors feel as though they’ve traveled back in time, though in reality, they're a mere 20-minute ferry ride from mainland Seattle

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I was lucky enough to have spent a summer on Vashon—when the blackberries ripen in the sun and the local Strawberry Festival draws thousands—with the roughly 10,000 people who call the island home. With its serene harbors, acres of fir trees, and views of snow-capped Mount Rainier, this Puget Sound oasis offers a welcome change of pace from Washington's biggest city.

Africa: Boutaghrar, Morocco

When my overnight train from Tangier pulled into Marrakech a couple of years back, I told its swarming souks and medinas that they would have to wait—I had a village to visit first. A six-hour bus ride later I arrived in the Valley of Roses, so named for the beautiful rose bushes that form natural hedges between its wheat fields.

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A guesthouse in Boutaghrar, a village in the nearby Dadès Valley, served as my home base. Each day, I set out to explore the region and found a peace and openness that remained with me long after I returned to frenetic Marrakech.

Asia: Nusa Penida, Bali (Indonesia)

From Ubud’s terraced rice paddies to the beaches of Jimbaran and SeminyakBali has much to offer—but often at the price of crowds. When my patience began to wear thin there a few years ago, I took a boat to the nearby island of Nusa Penida, one of a trio of islands set ten miles off Bali's southeastern coast in the Badung Strait.

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Just as Vashon offers a welcome counterbalance to Seattle, so too did Nusa Penida send me back in time to a less developed, more rugged Bali. My pace slowed down and meaningful rhythms formed as I visited the local market each morning to start my day and bonded with new friends at a bird sanctuary.

Europe: Uherský Brod, Czech Republic

With its castles, cobblestones, and fairy-tale ambience, Prague will always be one of my favorite places in Europe. On my last trip there, my mother and I decided to take a train five hours southeast of the capital city to a small, historic town called Uherský Brod.

While our mission was to chase our family’s Czech roots in the Zlín region of central Moravia, we also delighted in the chance to experience the traditions of life there today.  

South America: Tunibamba, Ecuador

While planning my first trip to Ecuador, I thought about heading straight to capital city Quito, or to the popular colonial towns of Cuenca and Ibarra. Instead, I devoted the majority of my time in the country to being a part of life in an Andean village through a rural homestay in the Kichwa community of Tunibamba.

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From helping out with daily chores to joining the weekly minga—when the whole village gathers to tend its communal fields—I left feeling richly connected to these people, and to the ancient landscapes they continue to nurture.