On world maps some gorgeous villages and towns are marked only by the teeniest pinprick, assuming they appear at all. None are a secret, exactly, but their very size—often held in check by their physical remoteness—can make them tricky to reach all the same. We’re confident, though, that when the world opens up its doors again, you’ll find ’em absolutely worth the pursuit. It is true that cities attract individuals with their tall skyscrapers, huge malls, and busy atmosphere, however the stunning scenery and simplicity found in small villages can be a cultural experience to be treasured for a lifetime. Some of most beautiful fairy tale villages are:
1. Hallstatt, Austria
- Elevation: 511 m
- Area: 59.8 km²
- Weather: 9 °C, Wind SE at 6 km/h, 57% Humidity
- Population: 859 (1 Apr 2009)
- District: Gmunden
Bright reds and yellows paint the Austrian town’s 16th-century architecture; in spring and summer, flower boxes drape windows in geraniums and ivy; and cobblestone streets connect charming cafés, ornate churches, and Alpine inns. Natural wonders await around every corner—from the neighboring Salzkammergut mountains to Lake Hallstatt to the village’s very own waterfall. The train station for Hallstatt is located across the lake, so we had to take a small ferry to reach the town. It’s a great way to arrive because the views you get from the lake are gorgeous! In 2011, tourism estimates were just over 100 per day. As of 2020, the city had a population of 780 and estimates of 10,000 to almost 30,000 tourists per day, primarily via bus tours that briefly bring tourists into the city for take pictures, then quickly move on. Hallstatt’s economy is dependent on tourism, but according to locals, day visitors drive out tourists who stay longer. Hallstatt became the first example of overtourism in Austria and led to controversies around limiting the number of tourists. The Austrian Public Broadcasting Organization made several documentaries on the situation. The city in 2020 focused on “quality” tourism. From autumn 2020, slots will be allocated to tourist buses to deal with the problem. Arrivals will be limited to 54 per day, about half the current number. Buses with an overnight reservation in the city will be given preference.
What to See:
- Skywalk Hallstatt: Currently open at weekends. Salzberg cable car to the Skywalk above Hallstatt. Thrills at a distance. 200 metres above Hallstatt.
- Large Skull Collection: Visit the ossuary of the Catholic Church of Hallstatt. Here, skulls and skeletal bones of the deceased are stored – the majority of the skulls are artfully painted and labeled.
- Archaeological Excavations: Archaeological finds from the Celtic and Roman times and the Middle Ages unearthed by chance in the cellar of the sport shop Janu in Hallstatt.
2. Colmar, France
- Elevation: 197 m
- Area: 66.57 km²
- Weather: 10 °C, Wind S at 3 km/h, 58% Humidity
- Population: 70,284 (2015)
Colmar was apparently the inspiration for the village in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast, and it’s not hard to see why. Walking through its streets is like seeing childhood fairy stories come to life. There’s a wooden turret which would be just perfect for Rapunzel to let her hair down from, tiny cottages that would make the ideal home for seven dwarfs and a candy-coloured bakery that Hansel and Gretel would love to get their teeth into. In real life, Colmar is a small town which is located in the Alsace region of northeast France. The Alsace is where France meets Germany, and ownership of the region has been passed back and forth between the two countries over the years. And the result is a unique mix of their two cultures – think of it as France with a twist. It was the last town in France to be liberated at the end of the war and has been French ever since.
What To See:
In Colmar it seems your house is an artwork as well as a place to live. There are also plenty of waterside cafés and tucked-away cellar restaurants. And if you’re visiting Colmar at Christmas, the streets are draped with lights and filled with market stalls selling local food, drink and gifts. The town does have a few museums to explore, including the Unterlinden Museum with its famous 16th-century Isenheim Alterpiece. There’s also a Toy Museum and the Bartholdi Museum, in the house where local artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi was born. Bartholdi is most famous for creating the Statue of Liberty – and you can find a 12-metre-high replica of the statue on the road between Strasbourg and Colmar, a few miles out of town. Also worth a visit is Gothic St Martin’s Church with its colourful tiled roof and 13th century stained glass. The Pfister House is one of Colmar’s most distinctive buildings with its wraparound wooden balcony and octagonal turret.
3. Reine, Norwey
- Area: 29 hac
- Elevation: 11 m
- Weather: 5 °C, Wind SW at 19 km/h, 84% Humidity
- Population: 314 (2018)
Reine has been a trading post since 1743. It was also a centre for the local fishing industry with a fleet of boats and facilities for fish processing and marketing. There was also a little light industry. In December 1941, part of Reine was burnt by the Germans in reprisal for a raid on the Lofoten Islands by British troops. The 0.28-square-kilometre (69-acre) village has a population of 314 which gives the village a population density of 1,121 inhabitants per square kilometre (2,900/sq mi)This tiny and picturesque fishing village is one of best places to stay as you explore the Lofoten Islands. Reine is a perfect base for discovering the numerous gems in the Lofoten nature. We’d recommend using a kayak to get up close and personal with the islands of Sakrisøy, Hamnøy and the Reinefjord. This is an activity to enjoy all year round, weather permitting.
Things to Do:
Mountain hiking: Many of the best hikes in Lofoten are close by Reine and if you had one hike to do, “Reinebringen” would be the best choice. This steep route leads to one the most beautiful viewpoints on all the Islands: an epic panorama of Reinefjorden and the Lofoten Wall. It is not as difficult to reach Reine as you might think. It is located 125 km west of the Svolvær Airport and 9 km east of Moskenes, the port of arrival for the ferry from Bodø.
How to Go: The quickest way for most people is to fly to Leknes and drive from there. However, both are small airports with limited direct flights and rental cars must be booked in advance. Evenes (Harstad-Narvik) Airport is another option, but one that requires a four-hour drive (at least) to reach Reine.
4. Shirakawa-gō, Japan
- Area: 356.6 km²
- Population: 1,630 (1 Jan 2019)
- Weather: 15 °C, Wind NE at 8 km/h, 59% Humidity
- District: Ōno
The Gassho-style houses found in the Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go is rare examples of their kind in Japan. Located in a river valley surrounded by the rugged high-mountain Chubu region of central Japan, these three villages were remote and isolated, and access to the area was difficult for a long period of time. Surrounded by rice paddies, you can hear the sounds of insects and birds if you listen. This scenery of the village of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture, an area of heavy snowfall, evokes nostalgia even among non-Japanese. In the central Ogi-machi Village area, 114 houses built in the gassho-zukuri style (named for their resemblance to hands joined in prayer) have survived. Together with villages located in adjacent Toyama Prefecture, the area was registered in 1995 as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage zone. The resident villagers continue to protect this precious landscape as a “spiritual hometown” of the Japanese. In response to the geographical and social background, a specific housing type evolved: rare examples of Gassho-style houses, a unique farmhouse style that makes use of highly rational structural systems evolved to adapt to the natural environment and site-specific social and economic circumstances in particular the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. The large houses have steeply-pitched thatched roofs and have been preserved in groups, many with their original outbuildings which permit the associated landscapes to remain intact.
How to Go
Shirakawa-go is best accessed by bus from Takayama. From Nagoya and Gifu take the JR Takayama Line to Takayama. Buses to Shirakawa-go leave from the Takayama Bus Center and take around 50 minutes.
What to See:
- Tajima House Museum : Silk farming was one of the main industries in pre-modern Shirakawa-go, and this museum explains the history and process. The Tajima House is actually dedicated to reviving the traditional silk farming industry.
Myozenji Temple Museum: Sadly no longer in use, the monk’s residence next to the main temple has been turned into a museum of the temple’s history since 1748. The temple itself is home to a large Buddha, and the bell tower and nearby yew tree are redolent of ancient Japan.
5. Bled, Slovenia
- Area: 188.5 km²
- Weather: 14 °C, Wind NE at 3 km/h, 43% Humidity
- Population: 8,171 (2014)
Bled is located at the southern foot of the Karawank mountain range, near the border with Austria, approximately 50 km northwest of the state capital, Ljubljana. Bled is known for the Glacial Lake Bled, which makes it a major tourist attraction. Perched on a rock overlooking the lake is the iconic Bled Castle. The city is also known in Slovenia for its vanilla and cream pastry. Naturopath Arnold Rikli (1823–1906) from Switzerland made a significant contribution to the development of Bled as a spa town in the second half of the 19th century. Due to its mild climate, Bled has been visited by aristocratic guests from all over the world. Today it is an important convention center and tourist resort, offering a wide range of sporting activities (golf, fishing and horse riding). It is a starting point for mountain hikes and treks, especially in the nearby Triglav National Park. A small island in the middle of the lake shelters the pilgrimage church of the Assumption of Mary; visitors frequently ring its bell, due to an old legend that claims it brings good luck.
Things to Do:
- Lake Bled: Bled is obviously most famous for its lake which draws visitors in year-round because of its beauty. There is a path around the entire lake which takes about an hour and 15 minutes to walk. Alternatively, it’s also popular to bike around.
- Osojnica viewpoint: You’re going to have to do a little work to get to the best viewpoint in Bled, but it’s well worth it. The hike takes about 45-60 minutes and brings you up 645 metres above the lake so expect a steep hike and wear sturdy shoes.
- Bled Castle: Bled Castle sits perched high on a cliff overlooking Lake Bled majestically. The castle is the oldest in Slovenia and is one of the most popular Bled attractions.