Last Updated on March 20, 2024

According to Skyscanner, in 2024, 85% of US travelers plan to make the same number of international trips, if not more, than they did in 2023, with the majority opting to prioritize holidays that allow them to unwind and connect with nature.

In light of this, Icelandair has conducted a study to pinpoint the most beautiful rural destinations just outside the most popular cities in Europe, offering relief from the hustle and bustle when visiting your favorite urban hubs.

Yes, we all love our favorite European big cities like Rome, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Barcelona, but it’s nice to escape the crowds and head to some special places that offer more of a sense of freedom and some fascinating surprises.

1. Cambridge, England

I remember the first time my husband and I visited Cambridge on a train trip from London. It was a memorable visit we’ll never forget.

Just over an hour outside of London via public transport, Cambridge takes the top spot as Europe’s most beautiful rural location with over five million Instagram hashtags. From the impressive campus of Cambridge University to the serene River Cam, there’s plenty to see – and to take pictures of. With over 200 outdoor activities, including 138 hiking routes, you can also enjoy lots of time in the great outdoors to unwind and connect with nature.

 2. Oxford, England

An esteemed city situated in Oxfordshire; Oxford ranks second with well over four million Instagram hashtags. Renowned for its historical significance, the town serves as the quintessential rural retreat for individuals visiting London, seeking respite in the tranquil countryside with just a 52-minute train ride from London. This idyllic destination is perfect for those who love good food and beautiful scenery.

 3. Sitges, Spain

Sitges, Spain.
Sitges, Spain. Photo courtesy of Vist Sitges

Set against the Parc Natural del Garraf, this coastal town stands as the third most picturesque rural location in Europe with over 1.6 million Instagram hashtags. Nestled between the rugged beauty of the natural park and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea, Sitges is captivating.

A mere 35-minute commute from central Barcelona, it’s easy to spend a morning or afternoon here, or you can stay the night and enjoy the lively bar scene too.

4. Rye, England

Just over an hour from London via public transport, this charming town captivates visitors with its cobbled streets, medieval architecture and rich historical heritage. From the iconic crenelated Ypres Tower to the picturesque Mermaid Street, Rye offers a visual feast for history enthusiasts and avid photographers.

The idyllic landscapes, including the Romney Marsh and the nearby English Channel, add to the town’s allure, providing ample opportunities for beautiful snapshots.

 5. Tivoli, Italy

This Italian town an hour-and-a-half from Rome is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful rural spots in Europe thanks to its appealing old town and UNESCO-listed sites like Villa Adriana and Villa d’Este. With 26 hiking trails and 15 cycle routes, there are plenty of ways to explore its stunning, hilly landscape.

6. Montserrat, Spain

This Spanish city is known for its stunning natural terrain, characterized by rugged cliffs, lush forests and unique rock formations sculpted by erosion over millions of years, a Benedictine monastery and the Black Madonna. The best part is that Montserrat is less than an hour’s train ride from Barcelona.

7. Wicklow, Ireland

Wicklow, just 27 miles from Dublin, is renowned for its diverse and picturesque landscapes, which include mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and coastal cliffs, and boasts a wealth of historical and cultural sites, including ancient ruins, castles, and monastic settlements.

8. Whitstable, England

The charming seaside town of Whitstable is located on the north coast of Kent in Southeast, England. It’s renowned for its picturesque coastline, historic charm and thriving oyster industry.

By train, Whitstable is only an hour and 15 minutes from London making it an ideal day trip to explore its quaint shops, galleries, boutiques and the Victorian Whitstable Castle and Gardens.

9. Tossa de Mar, Spain

Tossa de Mar, Spain.
Tossa de Mar, Spain. Photo courtesy of Mike Mirano

Tossa de Mar is renowned for its stunning natural beauty, characterized by craggy cliffs, crystal-clear waters and picturesque beaches.

Located in the Catalonia region of northeastern Spain on the Costa Brava, Tossa del Mar  is only 62 miles from Barcelona.

10. Český Krumlov, Czech Republic

Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic.
Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia and provided by Icelandair

Situated in the South Bohemian region of the Czech Republic, Český Krumlov is known for its well-preserved medieval architecture, stunning castle and charming riverside setting.

Český Krumlov’s old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, known for its narrow cobblestone streets, colorful Renaissance buildings and medieval charm. Dominating the town’s skyline, Český Krumlov Castle is one of the largest castle complexes in Central Europe dating back to the 13th century and featuring a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.

11. Howth, Ireland

Howth is a picturesque fishing village and suburb of Dublin, situated on the Howth Peninsula. The bustling fishing harbor is the heart of the town. Visitors can watch the fishermen unloading their catch, sample fresh seafood at one of the many seafood restaurants and cafes or take a boat trip to explore the coastline. Howth Castle is a historic landmark just outside the village center dating back over 800 years.

12. Orvieto, Italy

One of my favorite Italian towns, Orvieto is located in the Umbria region of central Italy, a one-and-a-half-hour train ride from Rome. Orvieto’s historic center is a labyrinth of narrow cobblestone streets, medieval buildings and hidden piazzas. The town’s Etruscan heritage is highlighted in its archeological sites and museums. And of course, its stunning rolling hill countryside is dotted with vineyards producing the world-renowned Orvieto Classico white wine.

13. Lewes, England

Located 50 miles south of London, Lewes is a lovely town steeped in history boasting a wealth of historic landmarks including Lewes Castle. The medieval fortress built in 1066 features castle ruins and stunning panoramic views of the town and countryside from its vantage point atop Castle Hill.

14. Montseny, Spain

Another small town in Catalonia, about 50 kilometers from Barcelona, Montseny offers stunning natural beauty with a host of outdoor activities for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. Popular activities include hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and rock climbing. Visitors will also find picturesque villages, cobblestone streets, medieval castles and traditional Catalan farmhouses known as masías.

15. Hertford, England

A market town dating back to the 9th century, Hertford lies about 32 kilometers north of London. The historic town features a mix of medieval and Georgian architecture, one of its most prominent landmarks being Hertford Castle, originally constructed in the 11th century. Though much of it is in ruins, parts of it have been restored and are open to the public.

16. Kildare, Ireland

Situated in the eastern part of Ireland and 50 kilometers from Dublin, Kildare is known for its horse racing heritage along with a rich history, and notable landmarks such as St. Brigid’s Cathedral, which dates back to the 13th century and is dedicated to Saint Brigid. Visitors will love its traditional Irish pubs, quaint shops and authentic restaurants.

17. Vik, Iceland

Vík í Mýrdal, commonly referred to as Vik, is a small village located in southern Iceland 187 kilometers from the capital city of Reykjavik.

Vik is known for its black sand beach, Reynisfjara along with its dramatic sea stacks, towering cliffs, powerful waves and strong currents.

18. Giverny, France

On a European river cruise, I had the opportunity to visit Giverny, located in the Normandy region of northern France 80 kilometers west of Paris and absolutely loved it.

The town’s centerpiece is Monet’s house and gardens, which are open to the public. Monet lived in Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926. He carefully designed and cultivated his gardens which include a Japanese water garden, complete with a pond and a Japanese bridge. Giverny is also known for its picturesque village with quaint streets, historic buildings and charming cafes.

19. Volendam, Netherlands

Another of my favorite small-town European rural retreats, Volendam is a picturesque village situated along the shores of the IJsselmeer Lake. It’s only 12 miles from Amsterdam and one of the best ways to get to Volendam during the warmer months is by taking a ferry from Amsterdam providing amazing scenic views.

The town is renowned for its traditional Dutch architecture, vibrant harbor and cultural heritage. Traditional costumes are still worn some of the locals and you don’t want to miss the town’s cheese factory or clog workshops.

20. Begur, Spain

Located in the Costa Brava region of Catalonia about 130 kilometers from Barcelona, Begur boasts a stunning coastline, historic architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, ancient stone buildings, picturesque town squares and delightful Catalan cuisine.

Perched on a hill overlooking the town, Begur Castle (Castell de Begur) is a medieval fortress dating back to the 11th century. While much of the castle is now in ruins, it offers panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and coastline.

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