15 real-life fairy tale villages in Europe
Turn your fairy tale dreams into reality with a holiday at one of these 15 European fairy tale villages. From a dramatic cliff-top town in Spain to a lakeside hamlet in Austria, we’re sure you’ll find the perfect backdrop for an enchanting escape.
1. Knaresborough, England
Five hundred years ago, a frightened 15-year-old servant girl fled to the shelter of a reclusive, riverside cave. There, she gave birth to a most unusual baby, a child who could predict the future with unnerving accuracy.
Today, the legend of Ursula Shipton infuses the fairy tale village of Knaresborough. The picturesque cliffs and impressive Victorian viaduct over the River Nidd provide the perfect backdrop for this real-life fairy tale. Here you’ll discover medieval streets, castles ruins and mysterious caves beneath the town, adding to the magic and myth of this old English dwelling.
Insider tip:Enjoy a meal at The World’s End pub by the bridge. Mother Shipton predicted the world would end after the bridge fell for the third time. It’s fallen twice.
2. Collodi, Italy
Tucked against the forested Tuscan hills, Collodi appears to be a cascade of medieval homes perched on the side of a craggy incline. And like all respectable fairy tale villages, the town supports a magical cast of characters.
The Florentine author of Pinocchio chose “Carlo Collodi” as his pen name, and the town has fully embraced Carlo’s creation. At Pinocchio’s Park, you can snap photos of the great dogfish shark that, in the original tale, swallowed Gepetto and the boy puppet.
Insider tip: If you visit Pinocchio’s Park, add nearby Garzoni Garden to your itinerary for strolls through manicured rose beds.
3. Colmar, France
The model for Belle’s “small provincial town” in Beauty and the Beast, Colmar is an idyllic village, nestled amongst vineyards and mountains. Today, its unique Franco-German features create a fairy tale feel all of its own.
With its sumptuous wines and cuisines, romantic canals, cobblestone streets and unique dialect, Colmar feels more like a movie set than a real life place.
Insider tip:Consider coordinating your trip with one of the many wine festivals held in Colmar throughout the year.
4. Portofino, Italy
For a tiny Italian fishing village, Portofino garners plenty of attention. Maybe it’s the colourful, pastel buildings overlooking the sparkling sea. Perhaps it’s the playful dolphins frolicking in the distance. Whatever it is, visitors find themselves under the spell of this picture perfect village.
Head to Punta Pagana for swimming and sunbathing. For hiking, take the cable car to Montallegro.
Insider tip: If possible, arrive by boat. That way, you can admire the blue hills and green water from afar, and watch the scenery loom larger as you approach the shore.
5. Giethoorn, Holland
Fairy tales usually begin, “A long time ago, in a faraway land…” And that’s just how you’ll feel when you wander through sleepy Giethoorn, Holland. With no cars and no roads, you can leave modern life, ambling over charming footbridges and paddling down Venetian-style canals.
Rent a bicycle and explore the Dutch countryside with its thatched roofs and sweet flower gardens.
Insider tip: Rent a boat early in the day, so you have plenty of time for exploring the canals.
6. Brousse-Le-Château, France
On a rocky spur between the Tarn and Alrance River valleys, mythical medieval structures perch in Mother Nature’s embrace. Brousse-Le-Château is often referred to as one of the most beautiful villages in France, and it’s not hard to see why.
While in Brousse-Le-Château, stroll leisurely down the cobblestone side streets. Listen to the babbling water of the Alrance River as you walk over the old stone Gothic bridge. Picture life long ago as you visit the 15th-century fortified chapel and pass by the stone houses adorned with fresh flowers.
Insider tip: Visit the open-air market, which convenes every Tuesday morning in July and August.
7. Rocamadour, France
Three hours northwest of Brousse-Le-Château, Rocamadour perches proudly on dramatic cliffs overlooking the Alzhou River. According to legend, the village is named for Saint Amadour, the tax collector mentioned in the New Testament.
Visit the Sanctuaires, seven exquisite 12th to 14th-century chapels carved into the mountain and facing a central courtyard. Marvel at the 20,000-year-old cave art among the stalactites and stalagmites of Grotte des Merveilles.
Insider tip: Don’t leave Rocamadour without tasting its award-winning goats cheese.
8. Castellfollit de la Roca, Spain
The beautiful Spanish village of Castellfollit is situated alongside the Garrotxa Volcanic Area Nature Reserve, a protected area with stunning landscapes. Built on a narrow basalt crag, the medieval municipality consists of town squares, narrow lanes and shady corners.
The rivers Fluvià and Toronell amble by the village’s rock face. Adding to the dramatic landscape, the cliffs are flooded with light after sunset.
Insider tip: Catch a bus from Girona or Barcelona for a glorious day out in Castellfollit de la Roca.
9. Sintra, Portugal
Home to medieval castles, extravagant palaces and pastel shade mansions, Sintra shines. Fairy tale scenery turns up in every direction, from the rippling mountains to the palaces’ exotic gardens. Explore the stone-and-cork structures of the Convent of the Capuchos, and tour the Rococo Queluz Palace, known as the “Versailles of Portugal.”
In the heart of the town, the Sintra National Palace reminds visitors of the area’s roots, with its geometric mosaics and gorgeous hand-painted ceilings, featuring whimsical mermaids and caravels.
Insider tip: Buy a loop ticket for Bus 434 Sintra at the train station. You can hop on and off the bus as you see the sights.
10. Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Every night in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a couple dozen people congregate in the Old Town Square to hear the Night Watchman’s tales of the medieval fairy tale village. You can also walk around the city’s original stone walls where armed guards manned 70 watchtowers to protect Rothenburg ob der Tauber’s citizens from siege.
Today, the village’s colourful half-timber homes and flowered water wells attract visitors far and wide. Disney has used this destination as a model for both Pinocchio, and Beauty and the Beast.
Insider tip: Visit during the Christmas season to attend Reiterlesmarkt, the traditional market that has convened since the 1400s.
11. Bibury, England
The trout-filled river Coln dominates the village’s main street, setting a peaceful, pastoral atmosphere among the ancient stone dwellings.
Tour the Bilbury Trout Farm and the picturesque Arlington Row of weaver’s homes, which were built in the 14th-century to store wool. Take a short walk from the village centre to admire the gorgeous stained glass windows at the Saxon St. Mary’s Church.
Indulge in an afternoon tea of scones, clotted cream and jam in one of the charming tea shops.
Insider tip: Bibury is a relatively small town, so pack some comfy walking shoes and explore by foot.
12. Reine, Norway
Situated on the island of Moskenesøya on northern Norway’s Lofoten archipelago, Reine’s bright red cottages are dwarfed by soaring fjords and bewitching mountain peaks.
For panoramic views of the Lofoten Wall, trek the steep scramble up Reinebringen, or take the morning ferry to the hamlet of Kjerkfjorden and enjoy Horseid Beach, with its magnificent patch of white powdery sand.
Insider tip: Visit Reine between September and April for the best chance of witnessing the Northern Lights.
13. Bled, Slovenia
Bled Castle sits on a tiny island in the middle of a sparkling glacial lake, the surrounding village basking in golden light and deep shadows. Spend a sunny afternoon paddling a pletna (a wooden rowboat) across the lake and listening to the legend of the sunken church bell.
At the 12th-century castle, explore the printing works and visit the cellar, where you can learn how to bottle wine and apply wax seals.
Insider tip: Be sure to try Bled cream cake, locally called “kremšnita,” before you leave the village.
14. Gruyeres, Switzerland
World famous Gruyeres cheese hails from an exquisitely beautiful medieval hamlet in the heart of the Alps. Don’t miss the ornate 13th-century castle, or the cheese and chocolate factories.
Book a seat on the Chocolate Train, which chugs through the picturesque Swiss countryside between Gruyeres and Montreux. While enjoying the scenery, you can feast on local delicacies like croissants, cheese and chocolate fondue.
Insider tip: Visit in October when the lush forests are awash in vibrant oranges, reds and golds.
15. Hallstatt, Austria
In the picturesque village of Hallstatt, you’ll find richly decorated colourful cottages hugging the shores of a gorgeous lake. Hallstatt owes its prosperity to its prolific salt mines, which offer underground railway tours and salt slides for the more adventurous.
Learn about skull painting, a local art form, at St. Michael’s Chapel, which has a collection of 600 painted skulls. For the most heavenly views of Hallstatt, ride the funicular up to the skywalk.
Insider tip: Opt for travel by car or bus to Hallstatt, as the train takes considerably longer when travelling from Vienna, Salzburg or Munich.
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