Thanks to its multiple mountain ranges, Europe is littered with cozy mountain towns, each more adorable than the last. These towns attract skiers and snowboarders throughout the winter season, but in fact, they’re at their prettiest when they shed their blanket of snow. Come in the summer to hike through forests and flower-filled Alpine meadows or challenge yourself with more adventurous pursuits like climbing, canyoning, and paragliding. These charming towns make the ideal base: treat yourself to bucolic views by day and refuel in characterful bars and restaurants in the evening. Here are a few favorites that should make it on the itinerary for your next European summer vacation.
The Bavarian town of Mittenwald lies at the heart of the Karwendel Alps. Take a stroll along its delightful main street to appreciate the tradition of Lüftlmalerei (mural art) as you admire the colorful frescoes that decorate its historic buildings. The beautiful 14th-century church of St Peter and Paul is a must-see; its bell tower dominates the Altstadt. While you’re in town, head over to the Geigenbaumuseum to learn why Mittenwald‘s nickname is the “village of a thousand violins.” The Klotz family opened a workshop here in the 17th century, counting Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart among their customers, and the town has been associated with violin-making ever since.
Located at the foot of the Hahnenkamm mountain, Kitzbühel hosts Austria’s most famous and challenging downhill ski race in the winter months. In summer, visitors flock here to hike the Streif, which follows the same route. Stroll through rolling green meadows and enjoy breathtaking views the Wilder Kaiser mountains, the Kitzbüheler Horn, and the Schwarzsee. Throughout the summer, the historic main street is littered with pavement cafés where the reward for all those steps comes in the form of cake, strudel, and ice cream sundaes. Kitzbühel is also a great place to catch street entertainment. Expect musicians, balloon artists, clowns, and even fire-breathers putting on a show most nights.
Surrounded by mountains at the head of a fjord, this northerly town is one of the quaintest in Iceland. It once boasted a thriving fishing industry, luring people from across the country to catch and process herring here. But one day, the herring simply went elsewhere and with them, much of the now-redundant workforce. These days, the brightly colored buildings where they once lived and labored have been transformed into a multi-faceted museum. The Sigló hotel dominates the waterfront, which Netflix viewers might recognize as a filming location from the series "Trapped." Grab a pint from a local bar, view the boats docked at the marina, or leave the town behind and explore the hiking trails of the Tröllaskagi mountains, some of the highest on the island.
Potes is one of the cutest towns in Spain’s Picos de Europa region. This Cantabrian gem is the ideal base from which to explore the surrounding peaks and gorges. Potes itself is charming, a cluster of historic buildings at the confluence of the River Deva and its tributary the Quiviesa. Check out the 15th-century towers, Torre del Infantado and Torre de Orejón de la Lama, as well as the church of San Vicente. Stroll across the San Cayetano and La Cárcel bridges for even more picturesque views. Foodies will also be in for a treat, thanks to the abundance of farm-to-table produce. Monday is market day, so set aside some time to try local cheese, Liébana stew, and a shot of the local liqueur, orujo.
Overlooked by the iconic Matterhorn, Zermatt is one of Switzerland’s most beautiful mountain resorts. Walking tours unlock the secrets of its old town, but you’ll need to head underground to learn about its transformation from farming to mountain tourism at the excellent Zermatlantis Matterhorn Museum. Traffic is restricted in the centre to preserve its character, which is boosted each day with the arrival of around fifty Valais Blackneck goats that process up Bahnhofstrasse. Horse and carriage rides are a popular alternative to walking around on foot, while cogwheel railways and cable cars make light work of nearby mountain ascents.
Riddled with waterways, Annecy is sometimes dubbed the “Venice of the Alps.” Here, though, the canals are accompanied by stunning mountain views. The Alps rise majestically behind the glittering waters of Lac Annecy, which lies at the heart of the beautiful Haute Savoie region of France. Stroll through the Jardins de L’Europe for the best panoramic views. Annecy’s Vieille Ville is enchanting to explore on foot, its cobbled streets lined with pastel-colored buildings. Be sure to call in at Le Palais de I'Île and the Musée-Château d'Annecy, once castles but now museums dedicated to art and history. You’ll also want to step inside the 16th-century Cathédrale Saint-Pierre to admire its vaulted ceilings and organ.
Alleghe is a standout mountain town in the Italian Dolomites. Perched on the edge of the lake with which it shares a name, its surroundings are dominated by the northwest face of Monte Civetta, which climbers revere as the “wall of walls.” In summer, the balcony window boxes of the town’s traditional wooden chalets overflow with flowers. Under a blue sky, it’s a glorious place to unwind. If you can bear to drag yourself away, get a different perspective by renting a pedalo on the lake. Alternatively, tackle the family-friendly ropes and suspension bridges among the treetops at Civetta Adventure Park. You’ll find it in the woods of Piani di Pezzè, reached by gondola from Alleghe.