Where to find an epic adventure in the best small villages in Europe

For American travelers, the lifting of the COVID test requirement to re-enter the United States this summer is welcome news. Free from the worries of being detained or a costly quarantine overseas, travelers are thinking big when planning their first international trip in years.

The European “big three” – London, Paris and Rome – are more attractive than ever. But the best way to avoid the rush of private travel visitors is to go beyond the cities into the often overlooked countryside and villages.

It doesn’t mean you’re missing something. Small towns can be the best way to glimpse a country’s soul, beauty and sense of adventure. These six European villages capture the thrill of diving into the great outdoors, from climbing a mountain to swimming in the ocean.

Vernazza, Italy

Best for: Breathtaking coastal views from land and sea.

With terraced vineyards, decades-old olive groves and views of the Mediterranean Sea, Italy’s Ligurian coast is a hiker’s paradise. However, some sections of the trail network linking the five villages of Cinque Terre National Park remain closed until 2024, following devastating landslides exacerbated by climate change.

(This tantalizing trek takes you to the heart of Italy.)

The 11th century village of Vernazza survived such a landslide in 2011 and an earthquake in 2012. Today Vernazza once again encapsulates the magical appeal of the Cinque Terre, with its medieval castle ruins , its tower-like pastel houses and secluded bay that recalls its origins as a defensive port against marauding Saracen pirates.

The section of the famous Blue Trail here remains open and popular during the summer months. But for a little more leeway, head to the water. Exploring by kayak reveals a side of Vernazza more familiar to the handful of anglers who still bring the day’s catch to local restaurants.

You can rent kayaks or sign up for guided outings to hidden coves, secret caves and sheltered beaches inaccessible on foot. Look for local outfitters, who usually set up shop on the town’s charming beach.

Deia, Majorca, Spain

Best for: Mountain biking through a natural wonderland.

Built on a rocky outcrop between the towering Serra de Tramuntana mountain range and the sparkling Mediterranean, Deià has long drawn creatives to Spain’s Balearic Islands.

Today, the natural beauty of the village not only inspires writers and painters, but also adventurers. From this peaceful hamlet, cyclists can cycle on a network of paths through this mountainous region. Bike-friendly accommodations dot the routes, offering storage and tapas to refuel for particularly strenuous outings.

(The best way to see this historic city of the sultans is on foot.)

In town, cyclists and hikers can tackle the steep climb to the cemetery where British poet Robert Graves (a longtime resident) is buried. After sweating, descend to Cala Deià. Considered the best pebble beach in Mallorca, the crystal clear waters of Cala Deià are ideal for giving aching muscles a break with a relaxing snorkel.

Murren, Switzerland

Best for: pump the blood Alpine adventures.

In Mürren, the party starts before you arrive. This picturesque Swiss village is located on a mountain plateau in the Bernese Oberland so high that travelers must arrive by cable car.

Like many mountain resorts these days, Mürren offers year-round activities. Besides downhill skiing in winter, brave climbers can cross a via ferrata (Italian for “railroad”) from June to October, with or without a guide.

Just over a mile long, this wire-protected climbing course features tightrope sections, a suspension bridge and even a zipline that soars more than 1,300 feet above a valley in Lauterbrunnen.

(For mesmerizing views, climb North America’s highest via ferrata.)

Those looking to stay on dry land can find solace in an extensive network of biking and hiking trails. A small army of mountain guides can help you determine the best route for your level of experience.

Sloten, Netherlands

Best for: Navigate scenic waterways through history.

Located in the northern province of Friesland, Sloten is an onion-shaped one-canal town known for its classic Dutch beauty, with a reconstructed 1847 windmill once used to grind corn.

(Dutch tulip growers hope for post-pandemic boom.)

Rows of postcard-worthy gabled houses reflect the village’s wealth in the 17th century, when it was an important toll stop to the Hanseatic towns to the north. A marina built in the 1970s exploits this maritime heritage. Boat trips from here remind you of Sloten’s past, but you can spread the sails on a charter to chart your own route, or try stand-up paddleboarding in the harbour.

If you prefer to stay dry, you can explore the surrounding Frisian plain in the quintessential Dutch way, by bike. Holland’s extensive network of cycle paths radiates out in all directions. A stop in the village of Makkum to the north showcases local ceramics that rival those of Delft.

Chipping Campden, England, UK

Best for: Hike to a fun-loving village in the English countryside.

Chipping Campden, England, is arguably the most beautiful village in the Cotswolds. Golden limestone buildings dating from the 14th to 17th centuries line the long High Street, an enduring result of the once thriving Cotswold woolen industry. At dusk, the town seems to glow, its honey-colored houses appearing lit from within.

Named after the Old English word for market, Chipping Campden is not just a photographer’s dream. He also knows a thing or two about fun and games. As summer arrives, city dwellers join in the annual Olympics, a 410-year-old tradition that playfully draws inspiration from the Olympics themselves. Instead of fencing, competitors compete in arm wrestling. Instead of rhythmic gymnastics, Morris dancers wave scarves and dance a jig. The climax is a shin kicking tournament, a wincing take on wrestling that, thankfully, has never been taken elsewhere.

(These masked singers revive a centuries-old Irish tradition.)

Beyond the games, this hamlet is the starting point of the Cotswold Way, a designated national footpath that winds 102 miles south to Bath. Along the way, hikers pass Roman baths, a Neolithic burial chamber, romantic hilltop castles and cozy cottages.

Cyclists can cycle the Costwold Way, but there are other trails that don’t require as much time. The best is a 32-mile trip (about three hours) that winds through scenic Stow-on-the-Wold before returning to Chipping Campden, leaving plenty of time for a pre-dinner pint.

Braemar, Scotland, UK

Best for: Hike through the Highlands to historic castles and wild swim in sparkling rivers.

Nestled in the heart of the Highlands, 60 miles from Aberdeen, Braemar is probably best known for Balmoral Castle, the Scottish home of Queen Elizabeth II, and the annual Braemar Highland Games. What is perhaps less well known is that Braemar is an adventure mecca located in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park.

Surrounded by rivers and Caledonian pine forests, Braemar is ideally located to take in the lush beauty of the Scottish Highlands. There’s no shortage of hiking and biking trails, wildlife viewing, and wild swimming opportunities. A popular two-hour hike climbs the confluence of two main rivers, the Dee and its tributary, Clunie Water, before winding through birch forests.

Other trails lead to historical sites, such as Braemar Castle. Built in 1628, it was the target of Jacobite uprisings throughout the 1600s and 1700s. Centuries of wear and tear took their toll on the fortress. A £1.6million restoration project has locals eyeing a 2023 reopening.

(This country has the most castles in Europe. It’s not where you think.)

Until then, hikers can weave their way to other royal strongholds, from the remaining ruins of Kindrochit Castle to Balmoral, where the three-hour Balmoral Cairns walk connects some 11 stone structures marking significant moments in the lives of members of the British royal family.

Raphael Kadushin is a Wisconsin-based food and travel journalist.

National Geographic Travel editor Anne Kim-Dannibale contributed research and writing to this story.

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