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Trip Ideas

15 Secret European Villages You Have to Visit

We'll always have Paris...and Rome and Barcelona. But sometimes it's worth sidestepping Europe's hotspots to seek out the continent's less discovered destinations. JS contributors Emma Sloley and Chelsea Stuart set their sights on a host of under-the-radar villages and magical cities, from Montenegro to the Arctic Circle.

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Lugano, Switzerland

Try to conjure a mental image of Switzerland, and it's likely you'll summon snowy alpine slopes, scenic meadow-lined lakes, and loads of Swiss chocolate and cheese. If we were the betting type, we'd be willing to wager that palm trees and year-round temperate weather weren't part of your picture, but in southern Switzerland, in the Italian-speaking region of Ticino, Lugano gives off a distinct Swiss-meets-Mediterranean vibe quite unlike its northern comrades. The town hugs glacial Lake Lugano with a boutique- and cafe-lined promenade and a flurry of subtropical flowers. Beyond that, it's worth checking out the Italianate Lombardy architecture and cobblestoned streets of Old Town, but make sure to leave yourself ample time to hit the trails or ride the funicular up to Monte San Salvatore's and Monte Brè's summits for epic views of the sunny scenery.

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Piran, Slovenia

Those who've been to Slovenia might know of itty-bitty Piran, but often, Slovenia itself flies under the radar of travelers contemplating European destinations. Along the country's southwestern coast, at the tip of the Istrian Peninsula, Piran pokes out into the Adriatic with meandering pebble-lined beaches. Move past the shore, and the town itself is a dense collection of Venetian Gothic architecture (see: marbled Tartini Square), narrow streets, and art galleries showing off local and international artists. One mandatory Piran experience? A leisurely lunch at a seaside cafe accompanied by the town's signature drink – the Hugo. The refreshing concoction is reminiscent of a mojito and made with prosecco, sparking water, elderflower syrup, mint leaves, and a slice of lime.

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Poznań, Poland

Give Poznań a once over today, and we’re willing to bet you’d never know that the old renaissance town was all but destroyed during World War II. While the city is often seen just as a quick stop between Berlin and Warsaw, we'll always argue that it's a destination in its own right, thanks, in part, to its colorful Old Market Square. In the center of the plaza, you’ll find the Mannerist-style Ratusz, or Town Hall. Stop by at noon and you’ll catch the hall’s clock – with two billy goats that head-butt one another on the hour – in action. When it’s time for a rest, head to Blow Up Hall 5050, an ultra-avant-garde sleep with interactive art installations and a black, white, chrome and deep purple palette that’s housed in a converted brewery just outside the center of town, not far from Lake Malta.

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Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

The Stari Most, or Old Bridge, over the river Neretva is Mostar’s most recognizable architectural asset – just ask Pinterest, if you don’t believe us. The 16th-century medieval structure was built by the Ottomans and is a prime example of Balkan-style Islamic design. For the best view of Herzegovina’s cultural capital – and the most delicious meal – dine on the terrace at Restoran Lagero, where local wines and beers flow, and the owner is known to toast with a shot of Grappa or Rakia (fruit brandys) on the house. If you’re in need of souvenirs, head for Kujundžiluk. The cobblestone alley is lined with small inns, ancient mosques and the Old Bazaar with stalls peddling tchotchkes, jewelry and locally-woven rugs.

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Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Telling you that Rothenburg ob der Tauber served as the inspiration for Disney’s Pinocchio should be more than enough to paint a picture of the perfectly-preserved Bavarian town. But if not, we’ll add on that the walled city’s Gothic renaissance buildings, with their half-timbered designs, were literally pulled straight from the Middle Ages – 1170, to be exact. Climb the Rathausturm – the Town Hall Tower – for panoramic views of the Tauber Valley before hitting a museum. Depending on the type of traveler you are (and whether you gravitate towards the cute or the creepy), the German Christmas Museum and the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum are two of our favorites. At night, bed down at Hotel Gotisches Haus, a converted 13th-century bread house and wine cellar which has entertained emperors and crown princes.

RELATED: Europe's Best Christmas Markets

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Korčula, Croatia

Picture Dubrovnik in miniature—minus the tourist hordes—and you've got a pretty good bead on this idyllic island off the Dalmatian Coast. Steeped in myth and legend, Korčula was a Greek Colony in the 4th century BC before coming under Roman rule, and it's also said to have been the birthplace of Marco Polo. Modern-day explorers are mostly interested in discovering the sybaritic charms of the medieval old town, with its steep cobbled streets, restaurant-lined waterfront boulevard and unspoiled Adriatic beaches. The interior also supports a thriving, centuries-old winery scene: visitors can sip local varieties like Pošip and Rukatac around the village of Lumbarda, while on the eastern tip of the island vineyards are planted with Grk, a zesty white wine grown only here. Check into the Lešić Dimitri, a tiny but ultra-chic hotel in the old town: the attic suite, decorated in a style reminiscent of the Arabian Nights and with 360 degree views of the town, is a knockout.

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Valladolid, Spain

While its status as the capital of Castilla y León places Valladolid more in the small city category, it still retains the convivial, laid-back air of a village. The town is overflowing with grand Gothic buildings, lively plazas and art spaces galore, from national museums to a late 16th building once home to Miguel de Cervantes, whose masterpiece Don Quixote was published around the time he resided here. Don't miss the chance to sample some of the Ribera del Duero region's incredible wines. The Abadia Retuerta winery not only offers wine tastings, but lets you stay the night: the hotel, LeDomaine set in a spectacular 12th century monastery, has an indulgent spa and a Michelin starred-restaurant.

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Folegandros, Greece

If you're seeking all the classic Greek Island tropes—whitewashed stone houses; cobbled streets; cascading bougainvillea—but with a less frenetic pace than more-celebrated isles like Mykonos or Santorini, this Cycladic gem is for you. There are dazzling Aegean seascapes, charming old wooden windmills and just three villages, with the main hub being Folegandros Chora. Wander up the hill to the church, check out a Venetian fortress from the 11th century, or just sit beneath the shade of a tree in the square, order an ouzo and tuck into heavenly home-cooked Mediterranean dishes. Lay your head at the stylish boutique stay Anemi, a haven of clean-lined design with a gorgeous infinity pool and a restaurant that puts a modern spin on traditional Greek classics.

RELATED: A Chef's Tour of the Greek Islands

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Ærøskobing, Denmark

The word "fairytale" is often used to describe the island of Ærø, and the reason is apparent the moment you disembark from the ferry: this dot in the Baltic Sea, located around 3 hours from Copenhagen, has villages of narrow cobbled streets lined with red-tiled half-timbered houses dating from the 1600s that wouldn't be out of place in a Grimm Brothers tale. Rent some bicycles—a key form of transport here—and peddle to the island's excellent craft brewery, Rise Bryggeri, check out the picture-perfect harbor, then bunk down at Vestergade 44, a quirky-fabulous B&B whose owner serves delicious afternoon tea to guests in the tranquil garden.

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San Cassiano, Italy

Swap Italy's mobbed capitals—Florence, Rome, Venice—for the summer tranquility of the Dolomites, in particular San Cassiano, a hidden gem in the Alta Badia region. Surrounded by epic mountain scenery, this town manages to retain the feel of a humble, rustic Tyrolean village while also sporting two Michelin starred restaurants. Family-run Rosa Alpina provides a perfect base for exploring the area: in summer, entire multi-generational families take to the hills, hiking through the Armentarola and Störes meadows and into the Fanes-Senes-Braies natural park, home to impressive Mount Lagazuoi. Work out any exercise-related kinks back at the hotel's excellent spa, which sports a Finnish sauna and a swimming pool with mountain views.

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Budva, Montenegro

A walled, terracotta-roofed medieval city set on a peninsula jutting into the Adriatic Sea with sandy beaches on three sides—what's not to love? Rich in both natural beauty and history, Budva has an atmospheric stari grad, or old town, crammed with churches, courtyards, galleries and cafes. Just south of the town is the breathtaking Sveti Stefan, an award-winning Aman resort set on a tiny island linked to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Dine on organic produce, Adriatic rock oysters and local cheeses at one of the resort's many romantic dining venues.

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Marvão, Portugal

This whitewashed fort town set among the granite peaks of the Serra de São Mamede in the northern Alentejo is every Instagrammers dream come true. The crown jewel, set at the top of a 3000 foot peak, is a 13th century Moorish castle whose crumbling stone walls command sweeping views over the mountains to the nearby Spanish border. The village itself has all the cobblestone street, terracotta tile-roofed charm any Europhile could ask for, without any of the crowds or bustle of more-trafficked beauty spots. Embrace the solitude at Pousada Santa Maria a guesthouse set in a 13th century with panoramic views.

RELATED: An Insider's Guide to Lisbon

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Hallstatt, Austria

You might need to pinch yourself when you first catch sight of this alpine village in the Salzkammergut Lake Region: it truly looks like something out of a fairytale. We're talking dramatic wooded mountains sloping down to a crystalline lake, baroque churches and pristinely-preserved 16th century houses. Take a hike on the Echerntal trail, for views that have inspired writers and painters over the centuries, then settle into a cozy room at the Agathawirt Hotel, a country inn dating to 1517 known as a great base for hikers and bikers.

RELATED: 10 Affordable European Getaways

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Reine, Norway

If the ends of the earth features heavily on your travel wishlist, this village, set above the Arctic Circle on the island of Moskenesøya in Norway's Lofoten archipelago, might just be your version of heaven. In summer, soak in the outrageously beautiful scenery—fjords, mountains, lush meadows, adorable red-and-white cottages—under the midnight sun, while in winter prepare to bundle up and be dazzled by the Northern lights. Get into the Scandinavian spirit by booking one of the Reine Fishing Huts, rustic-cool wooden cabins set over the water: you can either cook for yourself or dine on literally just-caught fish at the Gammelbua restaurant.

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Gordes, France

We're not the only ones who find this Provencal village irresistible—it's officially one of the "Plus Beaux Villages" of France—but somehow it's remained blissfully under-the-radar beyond a certain in-the-know set. Situated on the southern edge of the Plateau de Vaucluse, the town consists of a 12th century castle and beige stone houses cascading down a hill, surrounded by lavender fields and forests. Live large at Bastide de Gordes, an ultra-luxe hideaway with a Sisley spa and an award-winning restaurant whose terrace overlooks the valley and Luberon mountains.

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