rom 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.

Ålesund, Norway


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.

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Arcos de la Frontera, Spain


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.

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Bosa, Sardinia


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 Castlehigh 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.

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Český Krumlov, Czech Republic


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.

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Esslingen, Germany


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.

Honfleur, France


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 Normandyseaport. Samuel de Champlain sailed from here to explore the New World, and theMusée de la Marine delves into the port’s long seafaring and shipbuilding history.

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Laguardia, Spain


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.

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Locronan, France


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.

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Lucca, Italy


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 soaringGuinigi Tower for a bird’s-eye view.

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Marvão, Portugal


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.

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Mürren and Wengen, Switzerland


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.

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Najac, France


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.


Stein am Rhein, Switzerland


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.

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Wismar, Germany


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 aUNESCO World Heritage Site for its well preserved Hansa architecture.

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