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October 23, 2017

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Five of the most charming European towns you’ve probably never heard of

Belgium: Bruges

Well, okay: you probably have heard the name Bruges before. But this 13th-century gem in Flanders somehow gets short shrift from tourists lured by medieval beauties in France, and that’s a shame. The UNESCO World Heritage core in the Old Town is not just a well-preserved slice of history, it’s also incredibly charming. The narrow streets are lined with stepped gabled Gothic buildings and criss-crossed by canals. Swans glide along the lake, as do canal boat tours, and horse-drawn carriages clomp through the old town. For those less keen on history, the city is the perfect setting to enjoy two local specialties: beer and chocolate. The De Halve Maan Brewery offers tours with tastings, but aficionados who know that there are as many subtleties to beer as there are to wine, should head to the 18th-century beer hall at De Garre for its staggering selection. Chocolate lovers can explore the town hopping from one exquisite shop to the next. It’s probably a good idea to sample the wares at several different boutiques — like Dominique Persoone, Dumon and Van Tilborgh — you know, in the interests of fairness. brugge.be.

Czech Republic: Český Krumlov

It may not be the setting of an actual fairy tale, but it should be. Český Krumlov is one of Bohemia's most postcard-worthy towns, and rife with its own myths and legends. Elegant Renaissance-era buildings line cobblestone streets that wind around the bends of the Vltava River. The views from its medieval castle sweep over orange-tile roofs and crayon-coloured houses towards the cupola on St. Jošt Church. The streets are a flaneur’s paradise: cafés, pubs, restaurants, shops and galleries beckon during a meandering stroll. Modern art lovers will want to stop in at the Egon Schiele Art Centrum, which documents the life and work of the Expressionist painter. Český Krumlov is also a party town of sorts, lining up music festivals — from chamber music to jazz — throughout the summer. A word of warning, though, if you’re travelling in high season: you may not have heard of it before, but many, many Europeans have. ckrumlov.cz.

Greece: Symi

The Greek Isles have seduced travellers since the days of Odysseus, and it’s not hard to see why. Sparkling white towns towering over the cerulean waters of the Mediterranean, an unhurried pace of life plus divine food have put places like Corfu, Santorini and Paros on countless dream-vacation lists. Though that kind of appeal means crowds, often followed by a blight of waterfront hotels and condos. But not in Symi. Called the "Jewel of the Dodecanese" and easily reached by boat from Rhodes, this is the island that wealthy Europeans choose in order to escape the package-tour crowds (though you’ll find plenty of small hotels and B&Bs for under $100, too). Strict archaeological restrictions mean there’s been no development to mar the view of pastel-coloured houses which climb the steep hill above the port city of Yialos. The island’s prosperous history of shipbuilding and trading has left its hills dotted with ornately decorated churches and grand Neoclassical mansions, and there are plenty of guided walks in the mountainous interior to take in the vistas. symivisitor.com.

Portugal: Óbidos

Like the famed Pueblos Blancos of Andalucia, Spain, the narrow whitewashed streets of Óbidos are a remnant of the town’s Moorish past. The beauty of this medieval fortified city, an hour outside of Lisbon, is how the white houses with their tiled roofs, blue trim and flower boxes contrast with the ring of tawny stone walls that surround the Old Town. Óbidos’ romantic appeal has been obvious since the 13th century, when Portugal’s King Dinis gave the town as a wedding gift to his wife, Queen Isabel — a royal tradition that carried on for 500 years. After wandering its narrow stone-lined streets, explore the castelo, a turreted castle (where you can also bed down for the night) overlooking vineyards and windmill-dotted hills. Or head to the Renaissance-era Santa Maria Church, known for its traditional blue-and-white azulejo tiles. During the summer, this quiet town comes alive, hosting a boisterous medieval festival as well opera and music series. obidos.pt.

Wales: Beddgelert

The small town of Beddgelert is moody and charming in the way that only a cluster of rough greystone houses next to an ivy-covered bridge can be. Nestled in the heart of Snowdonia National Park, the second largest in England and Wales, it’s an ideal base as much for serious mountaineers as for those looking for a ramble in the wilds. The park now offers a hop-on-and-off Sherpa bus service that makes getting to trailheads and back to town easy, even without a car. An hour and 40 minutes from Liverpool, it’s the perfect mix of small-town British and ou the town has gift shops, pubs and cafés to explore. In spring, houses are festooned with flowers, an activity taken so seriously by this house-proud bunch that they are regular prize-winners in the ‘Britain in Bloom’ competition. beddgelerttourism.com.

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