Traveling can really push you outside your comfort zone, especially when you are least expecting it. Finding a town where one feels at home, despite the distinct cultural differences, is a true reassurance and comfort to the soul. The streets may be crooked, the houses half-timbered, and the singsong of an unfamiliar language fills the air, but something stirs inside you. You could stay a while and settle into local life. Pinch yourself. Have you stepped onto the set of a Christmas movie? These seven European towns are beyond quaint in appearance with the coziest of ambiances.
Arriving in Colmar is like walking straight into a fairytale setting. This is true any time of the year. But during the Christmas season, under glowing lights and amidst intriguing market stalls and children singing carols from boats on the canal, it is truer than ever.
Colmar, situated in the Alsace region of France, celebrates Christmas with six markets full of regional gourmet delights and local artisanal creations. Colmar is the capital of Alsace Wine Country. Celebrate Christmas cheer from Alsace, including a glass of steaming Alsatian-mulled wine. It is tradition to decorate the Christmas trees in Alsace with gingerbread, so it is no surprise that a variety of gingerbread treats are available. Known for its gastronomic traditions, you’ll find foie gras, Munster cheese, and if you are a meat lover, the classic “choucroute” with plenty of meat and sauerkraut.
Stroll the medieval center with its colorful and crooked half-timbered homes, and admire snowflakes and angels decorating shuttered facades. Does it get more picturesque than this? Maybe a little. With tresses built across the canal topped with red baubles and pine boughs, Colmar is the ultimate in festive atmospheres.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss these two treats only available during the Christmas season: Bredele, Christmas biscuits that come in many flavors; and Manelas de Saint Nicolas, a yummy, buttery brioche in the shape of a little person!
To me, Montepulciano in Tuscany, Italy, was just a name in a guidebook. After my visit, it remains my favorite hilltop medieval town in Tuscany. This beautiful, walled Italian town just south of Siena, is one of those special places that touched my heart. Could it have been the gorgeous views over the Val d’Orcia and Val di Chiana or the rolling, lush valleys that surround it? Could it have been the elegant squares or the Renaissance buildings? Perhaps it was the numerous wine cellars and tastings of the local Vino Nobile di Montepulciano that the town is known for and the pride with which it was shared. Perhaps it was the local Pecorino cheese drizzled with spectacular homemade honey. Maybe, it was more of a feeling; something from another century, straight out of a movie.
With a chill in the air, Montepulciano has a marvelous Christmas market right in the main piazza — Piazza Grande. Explore the wooden chalets bursting with local Tuscan goods and don’t miss Santa’s workshop set up in the Montepulciano Fortress.
Pro Tip: How about timing your visit with the traditional annual barrel rolling competition (Bravio delle Botti) on the last Sunday in August? This historical challenge between the eight districts of Montepulciano has been going on since the 14th century. I can’t imagine the excitement surrounding pushing 196-pound wine barrels uphill and the medieval costume parade.
3. Rudesheim Am Rhein
The village of Rudesheim am Rhein, known simply as Rudesheim, is beyond charming. Situated in Germany’s Rheingau wine region, just a short trip from Frankfurt, Rudesheim is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Rhine Gorge.
Rudesheim cascades down a hill towards the Rhine River, its steep cobbled streets lined with medieval half-timbered houses. In the heart of the Old Town, the narrow and picturesque Drosselgasse lane is filled with shops and restaurants. Accompanied by chiming church bells or an accordion tune, savor the local bratwurst and schnitzel along with a stein of beer or the local wine, Rheingau Riesling. A trip to Rudesheim is not complete without sampling the local specialty coffee drink, Rudesheimer Kaffee. Locally-distilled Asbach Uralt Brandy and whipped cream make this coffee cocktail unforgettable.
In any season, take a ride on the Rudesheim Seilbahn, a cable car that takes you to the Niederwalddenkmal, a monument that commemorates the Unification of Germany. Be prepared to “ooh” and “ah.” The views over the surrounding vineyards, the town, and the Rhine River are magnificent.
The Rüdesheim Christmas Market of Nations attracts vendors and guests from all over the world. With snow crunching underfoot, stroll through the 120 market stalls with a cup of steaming Gluhwein, or hot-mulled wine. It’s also the perfect place to purchase that elusive Christmas gift.
Pro Tip: Hotel Zur Rose, just a few minutes from the Old Town, is a lovely, welcoming hotel.
Situated in the gorge of the Aveyron River, and backed by the steep cliffs of Roc d’Anglars, is the charming medieval town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. With the church spire stretching towards the heavens, a maze of cobbled streets, and a lively Sunday morning market, you may think you have walked onto a movie set. And that you have. Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val was the setting for the 2014 movie The One Hundred-Foot Journey with Helen Mirren. The picturesque village depicted in the movie is just as delightful, or possibly more so, in real life. In 2016, the French voted Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val one of their top three favorite villages. In a country full of quaint towns, this is quite the honor.
Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val is full of interesting facades and historic buildings. Don’t miss the oldest civil building in France, Maison Romane, which hails from 1120. Pop into the artisan shops and then stop by a café in the main square, Place de la Halle, and soak up the relaxed local vibe.
Pro Tip: Drive up to Roc d’Anglars for spectacular views over Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and the Aveyron Valley.
Nestled in the rolling Surrey Hills, just 35 miles from London, is the darling town of Shere. This small village with its thatched roof and timber-frame cottages is picture-perfect. Take a walk along the well-marked trails of the Surrey Hills and nestle back in Shere for a soothing cup of tea and freshly-baked scones at Hilly’s Tea Shop. Wander up the cobbled lane through the roofed gateway to Saint James’ Church (1190) with its striking spire and down Rectory Lane to the bubbling River Tillingbourne. It’s no wonder that charming Shere has been used as a location in countless movies, my favorite being The Holiday (2006). If you love traditional British pubs, stop by The White Horse, a former 15th-century farmhouse, where Cameron Diaz met up with Jude Law and the sparks of romance took off!
Pro Tip: With Christmas lights twinkling in the lead-paned windows and snowflakes falling, don’t miss Carols in the Square on Christmas Eve.
Sitges, a short 25-mile trip from Barcelona, is nicknamed the “Saint-Tropez” of Spain. Located on the Catalan Coast, the swaying palms, narrow charming streets, 17 pristine beaches, and elegant architecture make it unforgettable. This Christmas movie setting mingles sandy beaches, glitz, bohemian flare from its long-standing artistic vibe, and old-world charm to create a unique experience. Sitges, one of the best-known LGBTQ+ travel destinations, is filled with rainbow-colored flags.
Wander past white-washed buildings in the ancient core boasting artisanal shops and lively bars and restaurants. Spanish tapas and sangria anyone? How about a glass of local Malvasia de Sitges, a sweet dessert wine? Stroll along the pedestrian boulevard, Passeig Maritim, and marvel at the glittering Mediterranean Sea and the mild temperatures. Visit the Winter Market right in Sitges or take a short train ride to Barcelona and wander the 300 stalls of the Christmas market, Fira de Santa Llúcia, dating back to 1786. Don a pair of ice skates and twirl around the rink in Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona, or head to the small town of Vilanova i la Geltrú and skate with the locals.
Pro Tip: Don’t miss MAMA’S picanteria for a delicious combination of international flavors concocted by creative chefs from their worldly travels.
Just the canals meandering through the medieval city of Bruges evoke a sense of romance and wonder, but the “piece de resistance” is Grote Markt (Market Square). Grote Markt has been the beating heart of Bruges since 958. Stand before the impressive colorful-stepped facades and the 272-foot belfry tower with its carillon chiming a gentle tune and be immediately transported a few centuries back. Float along the canals under ancient stone bridges, admiring medieval buildings and spires at every turn. Bruges is the ultimate experience for curious souls. Search out the quiet squares, the oldest tavern from 1515, boutique chocolate-makers, and some strong Belgian beer. You’ll be left feeling right at home.
In December, Bruges’s Winter Glow festival makes the seasonal buzz infectious. Shop windows glitter with Christmas lights and unique artisanal gifts while Grote Markt hosts a Christmas market including an ice-skating rink. And just to add to the ambiance, tuck a blanket over your knees as you clip-clop down the cobbled streets in a horse-drawn carriage.
Pro Tip: Climb up the 366 stairs of the belfry tower for panoramic and magnificent views. Can you see the windmills and the North Sea? The staircase gets quite narrow the higher you climb, though.