7 quaint European towns that look like an iconic Christmas movie
Traveling can really push you out of your comfort zone, especially when you least expect it. Finding a city where one feels at home, despite the distinct cultural differences, is a real comfort and solace for the soul. The streets can be winding, half-timbered houses, and the song of an unfamiliar language fills the air, but something stirs within you. You could stay a while and settle into local life. Pinch yourself. Have you been on the set of a Christmas movie? These 7 European cities are more than picturesque in appearance with the warmest atmospheres.
1. Colmar, France
Arriving in Colmar is like stepping straight into a fairytale setting. This is true at any time of the year. But during the Christmas season, under the glowing lights, amid intriguing market stalls and children singing Christmas carols from boats on the canal, it’s truer than ever.
Colmar, located in Alsace, celebrates Christmas with six markets filled with regional gastronomic delights and local artisan creations. Colmar is the capital of Alsace wine country, so celebrate with Alsatian Christmas cheer, including a glass of steaming Alsatian mulled wine. It is traditional to decorate Christmas trees in Alsace with gingerbread, so it’s no surprise that a variety of gingerbread treats are available. Known for its gastronomic traditions, you will find foie gras, Munster, and if you are a meat lover, the classic “sauerkraut” with a lot of meat and sauerkraut.
Stroll through the medieval center with its colorful and twisted half-timbered houses, and admire the snowflakes and angels decorating the shuttered facades. Does it get more picturesque than that? Maybe a little bit. With braids built on the canal topped with red balls and pine branches, Colmar is the pinnacle of the festive atmosphere.
Pro tip: Do not miss these two delicacies available only during the Christmas period: Bredele, Christmas cookies with multiple flavors, and Manelas of Saint Nicholas, a delicious butter brioche shaped like a little man!
2. Montepulciano, Italy
Montepulciano in Tuscany, Italy was just a name in a guidebook. After my visit, this remains my favorite medieval hilltop town in Tuscany. This beautiful walled Italian town just south of Siena is one of those special places that touched my heart. Could it be the magnificent views over the Val d’Orcia and Val di Chiana, the rolling and lush valleys that surround it? Could it be the elegant squares or the Renaissance buildings? Perhaps it is for the many wine cellars and tastings of the local Vino Nobile di Montepulciano that the town is known and for the pride with which it has been shared. Maybe 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 cold air, Montepulciano has a wonderful Christmas market in the main square, Piazza Grande. Explore the wooden chalets full of local Tuscan produce and don’t miss Santa’s Workshop in the Montepulciano Fortress.
Pro tip: How about scheduling your visit with the traditional annual barrel rolling competition (Bravio delle Botti) on the last Sunday in August? This historic challenge between the eight districts of Montepulciano has been going on since the 14th century. I can’t imagine the excitement surrounding the rising 196-pound wine barrels and the medieval costume parade.
3. Rudesheim Am Rhein, Germany
The village of Rudesheim am Rhein, known simply as Rudesheim, is more than charming. Located in the German wine region of Rheingau, a few minutes from Frankfurt, Rudesheim is also part of the Rhine Gorge classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Rudesheim descends a hill towards the Rhine, its steep cobbled streets lined with medieval half-timbered houses. In the heart of the old town, the narrow and picturesque alley of Drosselgasse is full of shops and restaurants. Accompanied by the chime of church bells or an accordion tune, savor the local bratwurst and schnitzel with a mug of beer or the local wine, Rheingauer Reisling. A trip to Rudesheim is not complete without tasting 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 for “ooh” and “ah”; the views over the surrounding vineyards, the city and the Rhine are magnificent.
A trip to Rudesheim requires a boat cruise on the Rhine to admire the impressive hilltop castles that are home to the legends of the region.
Rudesheim is known for its Christmas market, which attracts vendors and guests from all over the world. With the snow crunching under your feet, stroll through the 120 market stalls with a cup of steaming Gluhwein, mulled mulled wine. It’s the perfect place to buy that elusive Christmas present.
Pro tip: Hotel Zur Rose, a short walk from the old town, is a charming and welcoming hotel.
4. Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, France
Located in the gorges of the Aveyron and backing onto the steep cliffs of Roc d’Anglars is the charming medieval town of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val. With the church spire stretching skyward, a maze of cobblestone streets, and a bustling Sunday morning market, you might think you’ve stepped into a movie set. And that you have. Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val was the setting for the 2014 film The hundred foot journey with Hélène Mirren. The picturesque village depicted in the film is just as charming, if not more, in real life. In 2016, the French elected Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val as one of their three favorite villages. In a country full of quaint towns, that’s quite an honor.
Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val is full of interesting facades and historic buildings. Don’t miss France’s oldest civilian building, the Maison Romane, which dates back to 1120. Pop into the craft shops, then stop at a café in the main square, Place de la Halle, and soak up you of the relaxed local atmosphere.
Pro tip: Climb to the Roc d’Anglars for spectacular views over Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val and the Aveyron valley.
5. Shere, England
Nestled in the rolling hills of Surrey, just 35 miles from London, lies the beloved town of Shere. This small village with its thatched roof and half-timbered cottages is perfect. Stroll along the well-marked paths of the Surrey Hills and snuggle up in Shere for a soothing cup of tea and freshly made scones at Hillly’s Tea Shop. Stroll down the cobbled lane through the covered door of Saint James Church (1190) with its striking spire and down Rectory Lane to the bubbling river Tillingbourne. It’s no wonder the charming Shere has been used as a backdrop in countless films, my favorite being Vacations (2006). If you’re into traditional British pubs, stop by White Horse, a 15th century farmhouse where Cameron Diaz met Jude Law and the sparks of romance have taken off!
Pro tip: With Christmas lights twinkling in the lead-pane windows, snowflakes were falling. Don’t miss Carols in the Shere Square on Christmas Eve.
6. Sitges, Spain
Sitges, 40 kilometers from Barcelona, is nicknamed the “Saint-Tropez” of Spain. Located on the Catalan coast, swaying palm trees, charming narrow streets, 17 pristine beaches and elegant architecture make it unforgettable. This Christmas movie backdrop blends sandy beaches, glitter, bohemian long-standing artistic vibe and yesteryear charm to create a unique experience. Sitges, one of the most well-known LGBTQ + travel destinations, is filled with rainbow-colored flags. Stroll past the whitewashed buildings in the ancient heart full of artisan shops and lively bars and restaurants. Spanish tapas and sangria, do you like it? How about a glass of local Sitges Malvasia, a sweet dessert wine? Stroll along the pedestrian Passeig Maritim boulevard and marvel at the sparkling Mediterranean Sea and mild temperatures. Visit the Christmas market in the heart of Sitges or take a short train ride to Barcelona and stroll through the 300 Christmas market stalls, Fira de Santa Llucia, dating from 1786. Put on a pair of ice skates and turn around the ice rink in Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona or head to the small town of Vilanova il a Geltru and skate with the locals.
Pro tip: Don’t miss Mama’s Picanteria for a delicious combination of international flavors concocted by creative chefs on their travels around the world.
7. Bruges, Belgium
Only the canals winding through the medieval city of Bruges evoke a sense of romance and wonder, but the ‘piece de resistance’ is the Grote Markt (market square). Grote Markt has been the beating heart of Bruges since 958. Stand in front of the impressive colorful stepped facades and the 272-foot belfry tower with its sweet melody chime and be instantly transported a few centuries back. Float along the canals under ancient stone bridges, admiring medieval buildings and spiers at every turn. Bruges is the ultimate experience for curious souls. Look for the quiet squares, the oldest tavern from 1515, the boutiques of chocolatiers, strong Belgian beer and you will feel right at home. In December, the seasonal buzz is contagious. Shop windows twinkle with Christmas lights and unique handcrafted gifts while Grote Markt hosts a Christmas market including an ice skating rink. And just to add to the mood, place a blanket in your lap as you ride down the cobbled streets in a horse-drawn carriage.
Pro tip: Climb the 366 steps of the belfry tower for panoramic and magnificent views. Can you see the windmills and the North Sea? The stairs get quite narrow as you go up.