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Best Small Towns

VoyageTrek's best small towns of 2015 may span the globe, but each destination offers visitors authentic charm set against stunning landscapes.

#1 Cusco Peru

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cusco, Peru once served as the capital of the Incan Empire. Today, it is the gateway to the Sacred Valley and, beyond that, the famous site of Machu Picchu. Cusco is a mountain town in the Andes that has preserved many of the ancient buildings and stone streets built in pre-Columbian times. The Plaza de Armas is a must-see, combining traditional Incan architecture with Colonial influence to produce beautiful structures like the plaza’s fountain and the Church of San Cristobal.

Hike up to the Statue of Christ, which looks over the city similar to Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. Near the statue, visit Sacsayhuama, a hilltop archeological site is now used to celebrate Inti Raymi, an Incan festival centering on the winter solstice, as well as for athletic activities like running and t’ai chi. A little further out, the ruins of Tambomachay, thought to once be a spa are for the elite, still have numerous pools and fountains. Visit one of Cusco’s specialty museums to see how the Incans viewed and developed astronomy, cacao and textiles.

#2 Siena Italy

In the heart of Tuscany, the town of Siena offers visitors plenty of medieval charm and rich cultural history. Well-known medieval structures like the Siena Cathedral, an architectural masterpiece that mixes European Romanesque and Gothic styles, and the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s town hall complete with a combination bell and clock tower, visitors will feel as if they’ve stepped back in time.

The town square, the Piazza del Campo is designed as a semi-circle divided into nine sections of red brick to represent The Nine, who governed Siena during medieval times. The Piazza del Campo is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of the bi-annual Palio, a horse race around the square that serves as a long-standing cultural traditional. Siena’s history extends to numerous museums around the city as well, including the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, the Santa Maria della Scala Museum and the natural history museum, the Museo di Storia Naturale.

#3 Bruges Belgium

The oval-shaped city of Bruges, whose name stems from the Old Dutch word for “bridge”, is filled with serene canals, medieval architecture and cobblestone streets. There are many historical sites that have retained their medieval architecture throughout the centuries, the most iconic of which is the belfry. Located in the Markt, Bruges’ town square, visitors can climb the tower to experience the ringing of the bells firsthand.

Aside from art museums, Bruges is home to several specialty museums detailing the European history of Belgian favorites, like chocolates and fries, as well as folklore and archaeological artifacts. Bruges is also home to a variety of cultural festivals throughout the year, as well as cinemas and theatres. For an overall view of the city, take a trip down the canals on a boat. As you float under the ancient bridges and past aged buildings, you will quickly get a feel for the mix of romanticism and history the city offers.

#4 Positano Italy

Set atop marvelous cliffs that slope down to the sea, white, peach and pink houses dot the hillsides of Positano. The picturesque town is located along Italy’s famous Amalfi Coast, but you won’t find many roads to explore once you arrive. Wander up endless flights of stairs and alleyways past tiny boutiques and restaurants as you traverse the vertical village. Once famous for its fashion, Positano is now known for specialty artisan shops that create custom-made sandals while you wait—perfect for a long day of walking.

One of the town’s famous sites is the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, a church filled with colorful majolica tiles that decorate its impressive dome and a Byzantine statue of a black Madonna. Up in the highest hills, the neighborhood of Nocelle is home to the Path of the Gods, a hiking trail that provides stunning panoramic views. Nature lovers will enjoy the beaches, where they can soak up the Italian sun or kayak and snorkel along the tall cliffs.

#5 Chiang Mai Thailand

Nestled among the lush, fertile mountains and jungles of northern Thailand is Chiang Mai, a kaleidoscope of rich cultural heritage, mouthwatering street foods and myriad ancient walls, moats and temples. Chiang Mai's sensational markets are not to be missed, especially the humming Sunday Night Market where varieties of Thai crafts and artisan goods are for purchase.

The market is also an excellent place to sample Thailand's street food. To escape the city hustle, you can easily stumble upon a shady lane or one of Chiang Mai's over 300 tucked-away temples, which are lavishly decorated with Singha lions, illustrative murals and three-tiered, ornate umbrellas. Climb up to Wat Doi Suthep for a spectacular sunrise and explore the temple's woodcarvings from the Lanna period.

#6 Niagara-on-the-Lake Canada

Niagara-on-the-Lake resides at the junction of Lake Ontario and the Niagara River. With bric-a-brac cottages, well-preserved heritage buildings and tantalizing wineries, 19th-century Niagara-on-the-Lake prides itself as a sophisticated, artistic destination. The village's Heritage Downtown offers world-renowned spas, charming coffee and theater houses, and a decadent farmers market.

The old town is ideal for walking, or visitors can partake in a horse and carriage ride along shady, lakeside boulevards. You can relax in extravagant B&Bs, savor Quebecois cuisine paired with local wine, or explore a museum packed with history, such as the Niagara Apothecary Museum or the Pumphouse Arts Center. Simply walking the shores of Lake Ontario and admiring its iridescent waters will renew the spirit of any traveler.

#7 Salzburg Austria

Set amidst the Alps, Salzburg is every bit the fairytale town it seems. Its iconic castle, Festung Hohensalzburg, is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. Inside, visit the Golden Hall to see where royal banquets were once held and, now, fortress concerts are held, featuring works by Mozart, who was born in Salzburg.

Entrance to the castle will also get you into the Marionette Museum and the Fortress Museum. Historical walking tours take you through the city center of Altstadt, detailing aspects of the Baroque architecture of local churches, cathedrals and palaces as well as wandering elaborate gardens and hidden streets. The film “The Sound of Music” was filmed in Salzburg so there are also tours and shows dedicated to the famed von Trapp family.

#8 Carmel California, USA

Carmel-by-the-Sea, simply called Carmel, perches on the Monterey Peninsula in a haven of sweeping shoreline and golden beaches. The town radiates with gemstone intensity. Downtown Carmel is graced with storybook, English-style architecture and flower-bedecked trellises. There are plenty of cafés, gourmet markets and exclusive shops.

Carmel's intimate parks and leafy boulevards flanked by cottages are the perfect setting for an evening stroll. You can roam Carmel's waterfront district and indulge in pristine beaches, petite coves and cypress-covered outcroppings at Point Lobos. In town, gourmets can sample tastings from around the world at The Cheese Shop and experience the essence of terroir on a wine walk.

#9 Cinque Terre Italy

Cinque Terre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that lies along coastline of the Italian Riviera, is quickly becoming one of Italy’s most visited spots. The sweeping ocean views from the tops of seaside cliffs make fantastic spots for photography, especially as the setting sun casts its glow over the colorful houses that line the hillside above the sea. Cars aren’t allowed in the five villages of Cinque Terre— Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore—so the train and ferry rides from town to town will ensure a relaxing trip full of beautiful scenery.

All of the towns offer chances to swim, walk along the beach or hike along the steep oceanside cliffs, but Vernazza is also home to the ruins of Doria Castle, a 13th-century church and a promenade that crosses the water by the harbor. Monterosso is more of an upscale resort town than the others, but each of the five towns has a selection of fine restaurants and wines.

#10 Lucca Italy

Another tiny town packed with history, Lucca stands alone in one unique way: large portions of its Renaissance city walls still stand. Built long ago for protection, they have since been converted into a promenade for people to enjoy. Paths along the top of the more than two miles of city walls lead visitors to tree-lined picnic spots, through passageways and over gates.

The high vantage point gives you views of Lucca’s gardens, architecture and stone streets. For an even higher view of the city, visit the 15th-century Guinigi Tower for views of rooftops and the mountains in the distance. Down below, ornate basilicas and palaces are interspersed with cafes, winding roads and plazas. The city’s oval-shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was an amphitheater in Roman times, but has a more modern interior now, lined with coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques.

#11 Dubrovnik Croatia

Resting above the blue expanse of the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik’s charmingly Old Town is surrounded by historic walls built in the 14th century. Much like the walls in Lucca, Italy, the Croatian walls are well-preserved symbols of the town’s rich past. Travelers can stick to major sites or head off the beaten path. The ancient streets in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Dubrovnik’s Old Town are fun to wander, especially because they are pedestrian-only, but the view is even better from above.

The town’s cable car system on Mount Srd allow for panoramic vistas of Dubrovnik’s rooftops, the water beyond and several nearby islands. Boats can escort visitors to islands like Mljet and the Island of Lokrum for adventurous or relaxing day trips. Beaches, the monastery and fortresses atop the wall are other great options for exploration in this picturesque Croatian town—and you just might see some of the spots used to film the popular HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

#12 Hoi An Vietnam

Hoi An delights visitors with its irresistible appeal and countryside dotted with rice paddies and rickety wooden bridges. With its 15th-century Chinese, Japanese and European architecture and array of ornate pagodas and monuments, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is simply steeped in old world charm. Hoi An's atmosphere is intoxicating, especially in the evening hours when honey-hued lanterns cast a dreamy glow on its narrow, cobbled paths. Wooden-fronted Chinese merchant homes, many festooned with traditional dragons, have been refurbished into a mix of shops, teahouses and boutiques.

Along the Thu Bon River, craggy fishermen tend to their nets in brilliant sapphire and chartreuse fishing boats. You can wander the canals and bridges while imagining a time when Hoi An was an important port along the spice trading route. Not much has changed as the city still retains its historic, sleepy allure.

#13 Jackson Wyoming, USA

Dip into the American Wild West at Jackson, a riveting small town resplendent with cowboys, mountain skiing and an abundant wildlife population. The city landscape personifies the phrase “big sky country,” and its blissful meadows, glacial-carved lakes and snow-peaked mountain vistas enhance its charm. Nestled along the winding Snake River, as well as the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks, Jackson is completely surrounded by a mountain fortification.

This cache of natural wonders presents limitless opportunities for enjoying the outdoors and alpine forests. Mountain resorts featuring spas and thermal baths abound in Jackson. The city also offers an eclectic mix of art, photo and souvenir shops near the town square, a city icon famed for its elk antler arch. To get a more engaging encounter with the magnificent elk, you can visit the National Elk Refuge outside of Jackson Hole.

#14 Rothenburg Germany

Sitting atop a plateau in southern Germany overlooking the Tauber River, Rothenburg’s medieval walls are filled with wide streets lined with awe-inspiring buildings and their red pointed rooftops. You can wander the city walls, but unlike in Lucca and Dubrovnik, Rothenburg had to rebuild much of them following World War II. They also offer unique experiences like night watchman tours.

Rothenburg is also home to numerous specialty museums like the Medieval Crime Museum, the Christmas Museum and the Imperial City Museum. Another jewel of this Bavarian city is Plönlein, a town square that is a great example of German architecture complete with a fountain and half-timber houses. Just wandering through the town can be magical. At night, yellow streetlamps light the way, adding a romantic atmosphere perfect for a walk along the old cobblestone streets.

#15 Banff Canada

Banff, a resort town in the province of Alberta, rests among idyllic pastures, dazzling cobalt lakes and the rugged alpine peaks of Mt. Rundle and Mt. Cascade. Serving as a gateway to the Canadian Rockies, Banff holds endless wonders, and its inviting, small-town atmosphere is represented by the mountain community’s lust for adventure and genuine helpfulness.

Animal lovers will embrace Banff’s surrounding parklands that host a surfeit of wildlife, such as elk, grizzly bears, wolves and caribou. You can spend a day on the shores of Lake Louise, a lovely oasis steeped in soothing breezes or explore downtown Banff with its variety of boutiques, coffeehouses and château-style hotels. Visitors can also enjoy the muscle-quenching hot springs and broad vistas atop the 2,300-foot-high Sulphur Mountain Gondola.

#16 Queenstown New Zealand

This nugget of natural splendor sits near Lake Wakatipu and flaunts a dramatic backdrop of snow-capped mountains, goldenrod-infused meadows and crystal lakes. Queenstown’s fresh mountain breezes and visually stunning surroundings blend together to create a contagious, energetic vibe. The animated city is bequeathed with the title of “Adventure Capital of the World,” and you can partake in any number of heart-pounding outdoor activities such as skydiving and bungee jumping.

With an assortment of lively restaurants, pubs and ethnic eateries, Queenstown’s nightlife is always bustling, and visitors will be entranced by its small-town sophistication. To fully absorb Queenstown’s essence and the inimitable grandeur of Mother Nature, you can stroll along the moonlit lake.

#17 Sedona Arizona, USA

Sedona speaks to the hearts of many with its picturesque red-rock canyons and cliffs, well-preserved Indian ruins and lovely shopping atmosphere. Its geological fantasyland of crimson monoliths and pine forests offers a playground for hikers, bikers and horseback riders. The Uptown scene of Sedona features a quaint stretch of art galleries and shops that showcase the town’s Southwestern heritage.

Just outside of the city, you can visit the Tlaquepaque Arts and Crafts Village or explore the Sinagua culture at the multi-story cliff dwellings of Montezuma Castle.Due to its high elevation, Sedona is also a prime location for some serious stargazing. Grab your blanket and settle back for a peaceful tête-à-tête with the night sky.

#18 Bath England

Although it is located in England, Bath is infused with sites that showcase Roman culture and architecture. A major highlight of this British city are the Roman baths. Although visitors can no longer go in the water, the hot springs still keep it filled, and there is a museum on-site. To experience the baths for yourself, visit the Thermae Bath Spa, a modern building where visitors can relax in natural thermal waters.

Float along the Kennet and Avon Canal in the Bath Narrowboats or ride a bicycle on the path above the river. Don’t forget to check out the Palladian-style Pulteney Bridge, Bath Abbey, the local fudge factory and the classic British Georgian-style architecture (especially at Royal Crescent and the Circus). Though Europe has many beautiful cities, Bath mixes British and Roman cultural to present something unique and interesting.

#19 Santa Fe, New Mexico New Mexico, USA

Nestled on a plateau at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, honey-hued Santa Fe is known for its adobe landmarks, rich Native American and Hispanic culture, and mañana pace of life. Beautiful Spanish churches decorate winding lanes, whimsical teahouses nestle in secret nooks, and strains from soulful guitars float through pueblo labyrinths.

The leafy central Plaza provides an excellent respite where weathered cowboys and neighborhood dogs nap under shady pines. Santa Fe's diverse cultural offerings are represented in its colorful folk festivals, chic galleries and fascinating museums, including the largest collection of Georgia O'Keeffe’s works. The nearby Canyon Road boasts world-renowned art studios as well as a bountiful lineup of Southwestern cafés and restaurants.

#20 Ubud Indonesia

Perched on Bali's mountain slopes sits mythical Ubud, the cultural center for Balinese crafts and dance, where deep-rooted spirituality is omnipresent. Ubud's unparalleled beauty and diverse range of western, Indonesian and Balinese culture and cuisines will delight and inspire.

It is easy to lose track of time in this tranquil oasis, where flowers drip from every street corner. You can travel by foot or bike to explore the Island of the Gods and its thriving rainforests, terraced rice paddies and undulating hills, peppered with Hindu shrines and temples. There are several interesting museums and cultural centers to explore, such as the Royal Palace or Puri Lukisan, the town's oldest art museum.

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