From the Norwegian fjords to the French Alps, and the Italian Dolomites to the German Harz Mountains, Europe is blessed with a number of spectacular and accessible mountain ranges. Many of the mountains, especially in the Alps, are known throughout the world as excellent ski destinations, while some are known for their exceptional hiking and mountaineering trails, and others are known for the historical and cultural gems that lie within them.
All of them, however, are known for having quaint, beguiling towns with an unequivocal European charm. In this article, we take you from foothills to mountaintops in search of these quaint and beguiling towns, to show you the best Europe has to offer.
Annecy, French Alps
Annecy is most widely known as a fantastic destination for authentic alpine skiing, which is undoubtedly true, but this mountain town is so, so much more than that. It is a rustic medieval French dream huddled within a scenic plateau in the French Alps next to a sparkling emerald lake where you can go yachting, paddleboarding, scuba diving and sunbathing. A canal runs from the lake and through the age-old pastel houses lined with flower boxes through the old town, dubbing it the ‘Venice of the Alps’. Here, you can find quaint fresh produce markets, historical churches and plenty of boulangeries.
Built upon a string of islands on the outskirts of Norway’s magical fjords, Ålesund is sure to impress. The art nouveau town (the only one in Norway) is surrounded by sea with staggering mountains towering behind it, making it the ideal base from which to explore the country’s unique fjordlands. To properly appreciate the town, you can kayak around it or walk up the mountainside to Fjellstua, which offers wonderful vistas. However, the best thing about Ålesund is its accessibility to some of Norway’s most spectacular fjords, Geirangerfjord and Trollstigen, which are both just a couple of hours’ drive away.
Quedlinburg is a quintessential medieval German town at the foot of the legendary Harz Mountains in the heart of the country. With over 1,300 half-timbered houses still lining its streets, Quedlinburg is one of Germany’s best preserved towns thanks to its unique history. For around 800 years, it was known to be a semi-autonomous state founded by the widowed wife of a king who created a convent for educating noblemen’s daughters. Today, you can visit the convents’ castle complex, wander the fairytale streets, and take a traditional steam train through the Harz mountains, which is said to be Germany’s most scenic rail route.
With its gleaming white-wash houses, horseshoe arches, ceramic mosaics and terracotta tiles, it’s no surprise that Frigiliana has won awards for its beauty. The town sits at the edge of the Sierras de Tejida, Almijara y Alhama Nature Park, a mountainous national park for adventure-seekers and landscape-lovers alike. Yet, it’s also just a 15 minute drive from Andalusia’s stunning coast, known throughout Europe as the Costa del Sol for its idyllic beaches and year-round sun. Head to Castillo de Lizar at the top of the town for views of its steep, narrow, winding streets and views reaching over the hills to the sea.
If Europe held a beauty pageant for mountain towns, Salzburg would most definitely win. Surrounded by the snowcapped Austrian Alps, sliced by a meandering river, filled with historical architecture, and topped with the emblematic 11th century hilltop Hohensalzburg Castle, there is nowhere more beautiful than this picture-perfect town. Over the centuries, many monarchs and noblemen made Salzburg home, building some of Europe’s most impressive palaces, cathedrals and churches throughout the town. including The Salzburg Residenz, Hellbrunn Palace, and the stunning Mirabell Palace. Of course, Salzburg also offers many mountain trails with excellent views of the Eastern Alps for the outdoor enthusiasts.
Built upon a lake and surrounded by mountains, Bled is a treasure trove of natural wonders. You can see the Postojna Caves covered in menacing stalagmites, the flora-rich Vintgar Gorge, and even the vast Pokljuka Plateau in Triglav National Park, which waits impatiently for nature-lovers. The town is watched over by Bled Castle, a medieval fortress teetering on the edge of a 130 metre-high precipice over Lake Bled with unbelievable views of the Alps. However, its splendour is rivaled by the Church of the Assumption, which sits in solitude on an island in the middle of the lake, with 99 steps leading out of the water up to its entrance.
Montreux is a small, unassuming Swiss town sitting on the quieter side of Lake Geneva with mountains surrounding it on all sides. Yet, there is something magical about it that has inspired many writers and musicians over the centuries, like Lord Byron. For decades, Montreux has also held an acclaimed jazz festival, drawing the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, BB King and more. In the warmer months, Montreux is a great base for hiking Switzerland’s picturesque Sound of Music-like mountains, and in the winter, you can enjoy Montreux Noël, a festive alpine Christmas market.
Sintra has been a sanctuary for royalty and nobility for hundreds of years, having been built into the fragrant piney hills of Serra de Sintra along the covetable Portuguese Riviera, just outside the capital, Lisbon. The town is surrounded by Europe’s most impressive concentration of opulent castles, palaces and villas dating back to Moorish times, which are all open to the public. The Palácio Nacional da Pena, a multicoloured Romanticist hilltop castle overlooking the town is most recognisable, but the gleaming white Palácio Nacional de Sintra decorated with classic Portuguese tiles and the eccentric Palácio Nacional de Sintra are equally worth visiting.
Kotor is an enchanting UNESCO World Heritage Site hidden in an inlet along the scenic Adriatic Coast. Walking through the historic arched gates of the old town, which sit at the foothills of Lovćen Mountain overlooking the emerald Bay of Kotor, you’ll feel like you’re on a movie set with medieval terracotta tiled limestone houses and churches lining the crooked cobblestone streets. You can take advantage of the town’s mountain trails, embark on a 1350-step journey to the ruins of the Castle of San Giovanni for breathtaking views of the bay, or simply mingle with the locals at one of many cute cafes.
As a former Winter Olympics host, Garmisch-Partenkirchen is known throughout Europe as one of the continents’ top winter sport destinations.Yet this conjoined town offers much more than just sensational skiing; it’s a year-round destination for all types of outdoor enthusiast. There’s many beautiful hiking trails around the town, which lead you to exceptional glaciers, caves, gorges and waterfalls, and most importantly, Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, which offers never ending mountain-top views. And the town itself is just as worth exploring; the Partenkirchen side of town is a Bavarian architectural masterpiece complete with yodellers, while Garmisch is the modern side, filled with trendy bars and restaurants.
Buried in the mountains of South Tyrol in Northern Italy, Bolzano is the gateway to the mighty Dolomites. The town’s proximity to the German border gives it an intriguing unique Italian-Germanic influence, with a predominantly Austro-Hungarian history, Bavarian architecture and a cuisine consisting of everything from pasta to wienerschnitzels. You can soak up the sensational mountain scenery from a cafe in Bolzano’s popular Piazza Walther, or from the mountainside itself if you take a funicular up to Soprabolzano. There’s also many walking and biking trails around the town, as well as hiking trails throughout the surrounding mountains if you want a more challenging yet rewarding adventure.
About the Author: Emily Draper
Originally from the UK, Emily Draper has lived in Chile, with an Amazonian tribe in Peru, in a Wisconsin trailer park, and on a boat in the Mediterranean Sea. Considering herself, and the rest of us, as global citizens, Emily’s mission as a writer and journalist is to expand global consciousness of the fundamental importance of travel, culture, and diversity.