Like cities frozen in time, old towns bring us back to another era, when life was slower and mystery waited around every cobbled corner. Europe offers some of the world’s best-preserved towns and neighborhoods, letting us stroll through history, taste tradition, and feel the past.
Here are 7 of Europe’s most picturesque old towns that will have you forgetting what year it is until you see a church you just have to put on Instagram.
1. Bruges, Belgium
Few places bring a medieval fantasy to life as well as the old town of Bruges. Seemingly every market square is overseen by a lofty cathedral while the town’s cobbled lanes are interrupted by a sleepy network of canals. By day, it’s a hive of activity as day-trippers flock to the city to feel its medieval glow. But Bruges tells its best secrets after dark. Be sure to lean on stone bridges and watch white swans float down the canals and lose track of what century you’re in as you meander along moonlit lanes, stumbling on glowing garden pubs that serve Belgium’s finest beers.
2. Edinburgh, Scotland
No city does eerie, ghost-like ambiance as well as Edinburgh, Scotland’s brassy and culture-rich capital. The buildings breathe history here, telling stories of siege, progress, and revolution. Cute boutiques usher you in from Scotland’s famous drizzle, which only adds to the city’s charm. Edinburgh Castle lets you step back in time for an afternoon while the city’s nightlife is a chorus of good times in cozy pubs and age-old restaurants.
3. Ronda, Spain
Perched atop the soaring El Tajo Gorge, Ronda overlooks miles of green pastures and vineyards. The town crosses the canyon it’s built on with the gorgeous Puente Nuevo bridge, which rises quite spectacularly from the valley floor. It’s the highlight of the city, especially at night when it’s romantically lit for the town to admire. It’s also where witches were reportedly tossed into the gorge during the Spanish Inquisition. Fortunately, they stopped that practice a few centuries ago. Now it’s safe for evening strolls and morning jogs with epic views.
4. Tallinn, Estonia
It’s easy to see why Tallinn’s old town is protected as a UNESCO heritage site. Sitting on the Gulf of Finland, the old town is packed with the kind of atmospheric streets and ancient architecture that make it one of Europe’s best-kept secrets. Snorkel your way around an underwater prison (yes, you read that right), or gorge yourself on food truck fare before climbing the tower of St. Olav’s church for sweeping views of the city. With some of the best scenery and lowest prices in Europe, Tallinn is worth seeing before the word gets outs.
5. Riga, Latvia
Across the river from the city’s sleek glass office towers, Riga’s old town pops with pastel blues and pinks almost too perfect for real life. Seeing it from a distance, the dreamily painted buildings look like toy houses with neat white windows peeking out from candy-colored facades. But there really are people here, and this town of exquisite art-nouveau architecture and delicious food is waiting for you to discover it.
6. Dubrovnik, Croatia
Nestled on the coast of the glittering Adriatic Sea, the walled city of Dubrovnik holds its charm no matter how many times you visit. The city’s terracotta rooftop, sun-soaked stone houses, and shimmering blue sea can be admired from atop Srđ mountain, which you can easily reach by cable car. By sunset, tour the walls that once protected a cultured city and early democracy that grew rich off maritime trade. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, plan for an extended stay as King’s Landing is filmed here.
7. Krakow, Poland
Stumble upon Krakow’s old town and you might never want to leave. Perfectly sculpted archways call to you from across stone streets, while towering cathedrals keep a proud watch over the largest market square in Europe. Legend goes that Krakow was founded after a local cobbler saved the people from a bad-tempered dragon, and the feeling of legends still echoes through these narrow alleys. Conveniently, the old town is also where most of the good pubs are.