What makes a truly good vacation spot? Sure, tasty food is a good place to start. Then, there’s hotel and lodging of course, followed closely by activities and things to do. Some of us, however, are drawn in by a city’s character. The people, the charm, and the energy are hard to describe unless you experience them for yourself. These eight European cities have more than enough to spare between castles, views, bucket-list-worthy spots, and friendly locals. Looking for your summer vacation spot? One of these locations might be your dream destination.
1. Vevey, Switzerland
Perched on the shore of Lake Geneva, Vevey blends just the right mix of beauty and quirkiness. With splendid views of the Alps, a blooming lakeside promenade, an antique carousel, and easy access to the vineyards of the Lavaux region, it’s the town that Charlie Chaplin chose to call home (don’t miss the enchanting Chaplin’s World museum).
2. Obidos, Portugal
Walled towns abound in sunny Portugal, and this one ranks among the finest. Colorfully trimmed white houses line a maze of cobblestone streets, and above it all looms the 13th-century Castelo de Obidos — now a pousada (hotel). Enter Obidos via the Porta da Vila, the main gate, which conceals a beautifully tiled chapel.
3. Caernarfon, Wales
Which came first — the castle or the town? In Caernarfon, located at the mouth of the Seiont River, the answer is both. Built beginning in 1283 by Edward I as a strategic military stronghold, this royal town’s commanding castle, an UNESCO World Heritage site, is famous for its massive scale and polygonal towers. Walking around the town’s medieval walls and through its narrow streets is like traveling back in time.
4. Portofino, Italy
Little has changed in centuries in this perfect fishing village, tucked into a sheltered bay on the Ligurian Sea. Here, sunlight bathes terracotta and gold facades, sailboats bob in a sparkling blue harbor, and parasol pines clothe the hillsides. Stroll a seaside pathway to Castello Brown and dine on pesto, focaccia, and mussels paired with glasses of local Vermentino wine.
5. Oia, Santorini, Greece
Easily the most photographed village in the Greek Isles, Oia (pronounced ee-ah) is legendary for its whitewashed Cycladic houses cascading down volcanic slopes, punctuated by cobalt church domes and centuries-old windmills. Stone pathways wind past handicraft shops, many featuring rooftop tavernas — the perfect perch for sipping rosé as the sun sets over the caldera.
6. Kinsale, Ireland
Red, pink, orange, green, blue, violet: It’s almost as if Kinsale’s residents bought a giant box of crayons and went to town. It’s so inspiring, in fact, that this vivid fishing village in County Cork may spur you to take up painting. Galleries, shops, and restaurants abound, and two fortresses — Charles Fort and James Fort — guard the harbor entrance, evoking Kinsale’s centuries of history.
7. Rudesheim, Germany
Known for the Drosselgasse — a 472-foot-long street of half-timbered 15th-century houses — Rudesheim is the place to enjoy spectacular vistas of the Rhine River and surrounding vineyards. Taste local rieslings, try Rudesheim coffee (made with flaming brandy), and be charmed by the self-playing instruments of Siegfried’s Mechanical Musical Cabinet.
8. Portree, Scotland
Sitting snugly against craggy cliffs, Portree is the largest settlement on the Isle of Skye. This colorful village dates back to the early 19th century and offers visitors several streets of small shops and restaurants. Time it right (late July to early September), and the journey to Portree will take you past fields of purple heather backdropped by some of Skye’s most hikeable hills.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Best Small Towns, in 2022.