I am not the same, having seen the moon shine on the other side of the worldMary Anne Radmacher
Massive cities like New York, London, Prague, Paris, and Rome are all wonderful places to visit and I highly recommend them. They aren’t the places that immediately jump to mind when people ask for recommendations for where to travel next. For as long as I can remember I love visiting the big tourist cities first and then spending the rest of my time in the smaller, nearby towns. It feels more authentic to me, it’s less crowded, and there’s just something about small towns around the world that suck me in and make me never want to leave.
I was thinking about travel (shocking) the other day because we’re planning a trip to Mexico and I noticed that the smaller towns are what always stand out as something special to me, with a few rare exceptions. That’s the inspiration for this week’s post, so I hope you enjoy and get motivated to travel to some of my all-time favorite small towns around the world. I can’t wait to visit more and share them all with you!
When Will was interviewing for jobs his recruiter had a few options, most in places we’d never heard of. Lancaster was one of those places. Initially, it seemed like it was a hub for the Amish and we were skeptical. Will accepted the job and we moved. After 9 months we started looking to buy a house we loved this town so much. It immediately felt like home and while there are Amish, there’s so much more. Most people still haven’t heard of it, but they’re genuinely missing out.
Let me start with my favorite part: the food. Lancaster was a sanctuary city and as a result there are TONS of restaurants featuring cuisine from all over the world. All of it is insanely delicious. There’s food from Trinidad, Peru, France, Nepal, India, Vietnam, Jamaica, France, and then there’s the PA Dutch food that stems from the original immigrants here and that’s barely scratching the surface.
There are dinner theaters, MainStage shows, concerts, local outdoor Shakespeare performances, art galleries, live music, craft shows, and markets that have everything from food to crafts. Then there’s downtown Lancaster. The government here made a concerted effort to keep chain restaurants and shops out of the downtown area and relegated to the tourist areas. That means that you’ll find (almost) nothing but locally owned businesses to explore and support. I’d also like to point out that the city is walkable and I’ve explored SO much of it with my dogs. Plus we love being able to bring our dogs to a lot of the businesses and restaurants.
Ville Franche, France
My aunt and uncle moved to Nice, France a few years ago and we’ve been lucky enough to stay with them several times. I fell in love with Nice and could see myself living there, but there’s a town just a few miles away by train that is a little slice of French paradise. Ville Franche is located right in between Nice and Monaco, but keeps its super small town vibe and I felt so relaxed and immediately at home there. I only had a few hours to explore, but I’m itching to go back.
My favorite area was the small area lined with restaurants near the beach. There was not only a lack of tourists, but the views! Oh my goodness the views! Will and I stopped for drinks and an appetizer at one of the many cafes/bars that lined the street. It was so nice to watch the world go by in one direction, see small fishing boats coming in for the day in another, and then look up to see the fort and other historical monuments and buildings in another direction.
Yes, it’s a major tourist destination, but it never felt like that when I was there except inside one of the popular restaurants. Even then, I didn’t mind and loved every second I spent here. Stratford was a short drive from Leicester where I was living at the time. When you get to the town after a gorgeous drive through the English countryside, you are greeted by giant statues of Shakespearean origin. Hamlet, Lady Macbeth, Falstaff, and even Shakespeare himself are all there among others.
You can explore the town by foot (walking tours are available) or you can rent a bike and explore a little further afield. Seven buildings are still standing from Shakespeare’s time including his birthplace, schoolhouse, and Anne Hathaway’s cottage. My favorite part was the theatre. There’s just something magical about seeing a Shakespearean play while visiting the playwright’s hometown. If you love theatre, this absolutely needs to be on your list. Once you see a show I highly recommend sitting outside at one of the restaurants overlooking the river to watch the sunset. It will put an exclamation point on the end of a day well spent in a super cute small town.
A few years ago I went to California for the first time with a friend. I loved exploring Los Angeles, but I loved our half day trip to Malibu. I’m a huge nature lover, so seeing the west coast’s jagged rocks and the beach was a relaxing break from the craziness of L.A. We walked along the beach and explored around the rocks for a few hours and I couldn’t stop taking pictures.
We made our way to the pier which had a restaurant on the end of it so we literally got to eat lunch in the Pacific Ocean. The views were amazing, the food was great, and the atmosphere was super chill. I’m not sure why, but Malibu really inspired me and has stuck with me. Outside of the beach and the restaurants there wasn’t a ton to do, but that was the point. One of things we didn’t get to do was go on a driving tour to see all of the famous or celebrity-owned houses, but you can see quite a few from the beach. If you want a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of L.A, Malibu should 100% be on your list.
Watkins Glen, NY
If you’ve been following me for any amount of time, you’ll know I love Watkins Glen and I have a lot of blog posts to prove it. We’re even going again this September! I had never heard of this tiny town until a coworker of mine mentioned it. We booked a trip and stayed at a bed & breakfast with the most amazing host. We always stay there now because we can’t imagine going anywhere else. Half the trip with spend at the house because there’s space to walk around, play with the dogs, and we LOVE to cozy relaxing feel of the downstairs, especially by the fire.
If you don’t like wine, you will probably be a little bored as there are dozens of wineries in the area. I didn’t like wine until I tried a few here and now I have a few I like! Even if you’re not big on drinking the views from the wineries of Seneca Lake are worth the trip. There are also tons of state parks, hiking trails, and waterfalls to explore, making it the perfect place for nature lovers as well! Watkins Glen is a great base for taking smaller day trips to nearby towns like Ithaca. Don’t forget to make your way down to the lake where you can get food at restaurants on the water, go kayaking, or explore the marina.
Xlendi will always have a piece of my heart. Located on the second largest island (Gozo) that comprises Malta, Xlendi is a tiny town along the coast. I spent 3 weeks there for an anthropological field school and I explored every inch of the island I had time for, but Xlendi was my home base. Almost everywhere you go in the town you can see the shockingly blue waters of the Mediterranean. You can jump off the cliffs or walk right in on the small pebble beach. There are even a few caves you can swim to!
Small restaurants line the road and walking paths around the small bay and the food is fantastic. Fresh caught fish is always on the menu and it’s not possible to have any meal without a spectacular view. Sunsets are absolutely something you want to see here. You can walk almost anywhere on the island and there are very few cars which makes it feel even homier. There are 3,000 year old ruins, churches with amazing architecture, and historical monuments on nearly every corner. Scuba diving is an absolute must and you can even visit the locations of several movie sets.
While it’s the 7th most populous city in Peru, Cusco never felt massive to me. It extends a few miles, but they are mostly neighborhoods. We stuck to the central plaza and compared to many cities I’ve been to it had an amazing small town feel to it even with it being slightly busier with tourists. It was also the perfect town to use as a jumping off point for the smaller, lesser known towns we wanted to visit.
I loved exploring the plaza where there were tons of shops, monuments, and restaurants. While most of these catered to the tourists, we ventured further into the outskirts and found some amazing local places to try. The chocolate museum and chocolate making experience were so much fun to experience and we learned so much about Peru in general while we were there. Nearby are the ruins of Sacsayhuaman and other smaller Incan ruins that are incredible and it still blows my mind that these aren’t major attractions.
While it is touristy, it is my favorite small tourist town I’ve been to. It allowed us to see and experience events and places we’d never known existed before this trip and I’ll never forget my experiences there.
Rio Grande, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico was our last trip before the pandemic hit and I don’t think it could’ve been more perfect. We opted to stay 30 minutes outside of San Juan in Rio Grande to avoid tourists and have a more relaxing vibe. Oh. My. Goodness. It was like this town was meant to be for me. We stayed at an apartment with access to a semi private beach where I could’ve stayed forever if someone let me. I walked as far as I could on those beaches each day and saw both sunrises and sunsets there that are still the best I’ve ever witnessed.
I can’t sit on a beach all day. I’m just too hyper of a person. Lucky for me the El Yunque Rainforest with tons of hiking trails was literally across the street. We got up a little early and drove over and up the mountain to the trail we wanted to see. Since we were there early we had the entire trail to ourselves until we were walking back down. It was insanely gorgeous. In addition to the rainforest hiking, we also got to kayak at night to a bioluminescent bay.
The food, of course, was next level. We made sure to eat at local restaurants and I couldn’t stop stuffing my face with delicious, fresh food. Old San Juan was great to explore, but crowded. It was fun to walk around the see the brightly colored buildings and the forts. Honestly, Rio Grande is one of the places I could see myself returning to over and over again. There’s so much to do within a short drive and the beaches were some of the best I’ve ever seen. Absolutely loved it there.
What Small Towns Do You Love?
Let me know in the comments below. I always love hearing where other people have discovered, so I can add them to my list to explore!