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16 Most Charming Towns in Europe

From the Norwegian fjords to Italy's island of Sardinia, certain towns have an almost indefinable charm that enchants tourists and beckons them to linger. Along with attractions to visit, these towns have real character, a sense of place, and a welcoming feel that is irresistible. Some of these towns you'll have heard of, but some are hidden secrets that few foreign travelers have discovered.

1 Esslingen, Germany

Esslingen, Germany
Esslingen, Germany
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One of southwest Germany's many half-timbered towns, Esslingen secured its position as a major trading center by building two bridges over the Neckar River, making it an obvious crossing point for medieval traders. More than 200 timber-framed buildings from the 13th to 16th centuries lie in Esslingen's Old Town, lining its scenic canals and surrounding the market square. These form a magical backdrop for Germany's most atmospheric Christmas market, when 200 tradesmen gather, dressed in medieval costumes, to sell authentic crafts from the Middle Ages: pewterware, blown glass, wool, wrought iron, wood carving, and leather work are traded amid entertainment by period minstrels and jugglers. But visit in any season to stroll its narrow streets, admire historic churches, and sample its many bake shops.

2 Lucca, Italy

Lucca, Italy
Lucca, Italy
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Despite some of Tuscany's most fabulous medieval churches, its towers, and the priceless art treasures, Lucca's biggest attraction to tourists is that it's just fun to be there. Yes, the carved and inlaid marble of San Michele in Foro's façade is breathtaking, as are the works of art in the cathedral, and it's fun to climb the soaring Guinigi Tower for a bird's-eye view. But where else will you find a garden with trees at the top of a Medieval tower, or a peaceful shaded promenade atop the walls that surround the town? Claim a café table inside the oval piazza and ponder the lemon-yellow buildings that were constructed out of the walls of a Roman arena that stood there. You enter the piazza through tunnels that once admitted spectators. If the whole town seems like a set for a Puccini opera, it's no wonder - this was his home town.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Lucca

3 Marvão, Portugal

Marvão, Portugal
Marvão, Portugal
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One of the several castellated hill towns that have long kept a watchful eye over Portugal's border with Spain, Marvão is the most dramatic and one of the best preserved. The entire village, which sits atop a steep escarpment, is enclosed by walls and entered through a single gate. The castle, whose origins date back to the Moorish occupation, sits at the pinnacle, overlooking a parish church and narrow streets of low, whitewashed houses. Walk the well-preserved ramparts for far-reaching views and to appreciate Marvão's lonely position at the frontier. The area's history goes back long before the castle - in the valley below are the excavated remains of a Roman town.

4 Stein am Rhein, Switzerland

Stein am Rhein, Switzerland
Stein am Rhein, Switzerland
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The combination of well-kept half-timbered buildings and the colorful frescoes painted on their facades makes the main street of Stein am Rhein look almost like a stage set for Hansel and Gretel. But it's a real town, and the medieval architecture is original. More timber-frame buildings rim the Rhine, on whose banks the town stretches so picturesquely. For an overview - literally, as it sits high above the town - visit Hohenklingen Castle, built in 1225 and now a museum of local history. Another museum is in the former Benedictine abbey, founded in the 11th century, but the entire town is pure eye candy.

5 Ålesund, Norway

Ålesund, Norway
Ålesund, Norway
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When a devastating fire consumed the entire port town of Ålesund in 1904, the tragedy was redeemed by the combination of an economic depression and a new exciting artistic and architectural movement that was sweeping across Europe. So Ålesund offered work to the newest - and unemployed - architects fresh from their studies. The result is Europe's only entirely Art Nouveau town, filled not with the excessive flourishes of late Art Nouveau, but graceful Nordic interpretations of the early movement. The setting on two islands at the end of a mountain-ringed fjord perfects the scene, and adds an away-from-it-all geniality. Locals stop to point out some whimsical detail you might have missed, and in the waterside restaurants, chefs work wonders with the seafood from native waters. The excellent museum explores the history, art, and architecture, and gives a look inside an Art Nouveau house.

6 Najac, France

Najac, France
Najac, France
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Small and out of the way in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France, Najac lines a single street atop a long ridge of rocks that ends at a 13th-century château. Part of a chain of these royal bastions along the Aveyron valley, this one once held Knights Templars in its dungeon after the order was outlawed in 1307. Churches and chapels from the 13th and 14th centuries; a fortified gate; the arcaded 15th-century Place du Barry; and the beautiful Fontaine des Consuls, a fountain dating to 1344, are the highlights. But you will want to walk the entire length of Narjac and tour the secret passages of the castle.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Najac

7 Winchester, England

Winchester, England
Winchester, England
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The unspoiled cathedral town of Winchester rings with history. It was the capital of England from Anglo-Saxon times until the 13th century and the seat of Alfred the Great. You can see his tomb in the 11th-century Winchester Cathedral, where William the Conqueror was crowned. The cathedral is filled with architectural and artistic highlights - late-Gothic fan vaulting, the magnificent 11th-century wrought iron Pilgrim's Gate, 12th- and 13th-century wall paintings, and 16th-century murals in the Lady Chapel. There are ruins of the royal castle, the bishop's palace, and the gardens of an abbey founded by King Alfred's queen, but take time to savor the town itself, stopping in the tearooms and shops and following the River Itchen past ancient buildings and quiet gardens.

8 Volterra, Italy

Volterra, Italy
Volterra, Italy
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It's hard to choose between Tuscany's medieval hilltop towns, and most tourists plan to visit more than one. But Volterra is not visited as often as San Gimignano and some of the others, so it's a better place to savor local life and see its several attractions without lines. Along with the atmospheric old stone streets and companionable little squares, you'll find the whole range of Tuscan sights - significant Etruscan and Roman remains; 12th- and 13th-century medieval tower houses; Renaissance art; and a 19th-century palace resplendent in carved alabaster, the local artisan specialty.

9 Honfleur, France

Honfleur, France
Honfleur, France
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The bustle of boats in its fishing harbor and the random mix of stone, half-timbered, and pastel stucco house fronts just add to the happy-go-lucky air of this Normandy seaport. Samuel de Champlain sailed from here to explore the New World, and the Musée de la Marine delves into the port's long seafaring and shipbuilding history. The art museum shows 200 works by Impressionist Eugène Boudin and his contemporaries Monet, Courbet, Millet, and others. Stop in to admire the ceiling of the Late Gothic Church of Sainte-Catherine, built by local shipwrights, then linger for ice cream and enjoy the scene.

10 Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
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Although it's really a city, Český Krumlov's beautifully preserved Old Town is a village of its own, cosseted inside its walls and caught in the curve of the Vltava River. Almost hidden beneath the steeply gabled roofs is a maze of narrow stone-paved streets surrounding the 13th-century castle. Like the town itself, this medieval complex shows styles from the Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque eras. The entire center has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After visiting the castle, the Church of St. Vitus, and the Minorite Monastery, stroll through the old streets, and view the town from the river, on a boat ride.

11 Arcos de la Frontera, Spain

Arcos de la Frontera, Spain
Arcos de la Frontera, Spain
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Clustered on a craggy pinnacle descending in steep forest on one side and in a sheer cliff on the other, Arcos de la Frontera is the first of Andalucía's famed Pueblos Blancos, or white towns, south of Seville. Whitewashed houses crowd together along narrow streets that wind upward to the imposing Church of San Pedro. At the very top, the castle was built by the Moors in the 11th century and enlarged after Arcos was taken by the Christian kings in 1250. The parador offers lodging in a beautifully restored noble home overlooking the river, far below.

12 Wismar, Germany

Wismar, Germany
Wismar, Germany
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This historic Baltic seaport, once part of the powerful Hanseatic League of trading cities, retains so much of its medieval center and harbor that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its well preserved Hansa architecture. A stroll through its winding streets reveals half-timbered houses; characteristic stair-step gabled facades; the fascinating medieval Church of the Holy Ghost; and a pair of mammoth brick churches - the 36-meter-tall nave of St. Nicholas, built in 1381, is among the tallest of these Gothic giants found along Germany's north coast. Wismar's harbor looks much as it did in Hansa times, and you can see it from a cruise on the single-masted sailing ship Wissemara, a replica of a traditional Hansa kogge. In good weather, join locals for lunch at the port, where fishing boats sell fischbrötchen - crusty rolls filled with marinated herring, smoked shrimp, lox, or smoked salmon.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Wismar

13 Laguardia, Spain

Laguardia, Spain
Laguardia, Spain
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Rising above the Rioja, south of Bilbao, Laguardia sits at the top of a hill, its tightly packed stone buildings enclosed by massive stone walls. During its tumultuous medieval past, the rock beneath it was carved into a maze of tunnels for shelter and escape routes when the town was under attack. Today some of these house shops and cozy cafes beneath the Medieval buildings that line the narrow stone streets. You can climb the route followed by Medieval pilgrims on the Way of St James, from the Romanesque church of San Juan Bautista up to the crest of the village and the church of Santa María de los Reyes. Look just inside to see the painted stone carvings of the magnificent original portal, one of the finest Gothic portals in Spain. Follow the walls around the church for views of the valley below and the Sierra de Cantabria mountain range behind it.

14 Bosa, Sardinia

Bosa, Sardinia
Bosa, Sardinia
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Bosa rises from a line of pastel houses along the palm-lined riverbank, through a tangle of medieval lanes and passageways to the 12th-century Malaspina Castle high above. The narrow main street is lined by noble palazzi, now housing shops, galleries, and a museum. Do climb through the warren of little streets, stairs, and tiny squares for a feel of this remote town a millennia ago, and marvel at the unusual 14th-century frescos in the castle's chapel. For breathtaking views, follow the coast north from Bosa to Alghero, a larger but equally captivating town that hints at its Spanish past. This western coast of Sardinia is light years away from the glitz of the better-known Costa Smeralda.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Bosa

15 Locronan, France

Locronan, France
Locronan, France
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The medieval stone town of Locronan sits between two peninsulas in Brittany's west Finistère, close to some of the most beautiful Atlantic beaches. Medieval buildings mix with 18th-century manor houses, and the town is the scene of a traditional Breton pilgrimage festival known as the Grande Troménie pardon, held every six years. The nearby Chapelle Sainte-Anne-la-Palud is an important pilgrimage site, where the faithful venerate a statue of Saint Anne. The village of Locronan has shops and studios showing the works of local artisans, and the area is known for its excellent seafood, especially the mussels.

16 Mürren and Wengen, Switzerland

Mürren and Wengen, Switzerland
Mürren and Wengen, Switzerland
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Two tiny Alpine villages on protected terraces high above the Lauterbrunnen valley, in Switzerland's Bernese Oberland region, Mürren and Wengen maintain their rural charm in splendid isolation without road access. Mürren grew from a tiny Alpine settlement into a year-round resort when the British discovered its charms in the 19th century. Both villages are post-card visions of the Swiss Alps, with winding narrow streets of wooden chalets backed by snow-covered peaks. There are magnificent views of the Jungfrau from Mürren, and Wengen is the starting point for the train to Jungfraujoch. You can reach Mürren from Stechelberg by a cableway or take a funicular from Lauterbrunnen to Grütschalp and then continue by narrow-gauge railroad. Wengen is accessed by train directly from Lauterbrunnen.

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