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Whether you prefer winding cobbled streets of small villages or magnificent ones that cut through continental cities, some roads lead directly to the heart of a destination, revealing its history, culture, and style. Grand European boulevards like the Champs d’Elysee in Paris and Barcelona’s La Rambla may be chosen to host fashion shows, military marches, and sportscar commercials, but other lesser-known streets will take you to places where you’re more likely to encounter locals living, shopping, and socializing — with plenty of charming scenery along the way. Wander the routes that people have walked for decades (and sometimes millennia) with this list of Europe’s most charming streets.
Circus Lane (Edinburgh, Scotland)
Don’t come expecting elephants and trapeze artists: Edinburgh’s Circus Lane is named for its semicircular path, not for a noisy big top performance. Just a short block from the trendy bars and cafes of St Stephen Street, this leafy, cobblestone mews (a street lined with houses converted from stables) is quite the contrast to that busy stretch of commerce nearby. The residential street lined with one- and two-story townhouses is, instead, chock full of atmospheric Scottish magic with dark brooding stone fronts offset by window boxes of cheerful flowers and cozy lit-up windows. Even the recent arrival of Instagram-hunters seeking the perfect shot can’t tarnish the pleasant charms of this peaceful wee city lane.
Stradun (Dubrovnik, Croatia)
If your ideal for charm includes symmetry and graceful architecture, you’ll definitely feel the attraction of Stradun, the main thoroughfare in Dubrovnik’s historic old town quarter. Either side of this pedestrian-only street is faced by elegant late Renaissance buildings built of a golden stone. The roads that lead off Stradun are tiny, dim, and narrow in comparison. In the angled sunlight of early morning and late afternoon, the limestone pavement of the street shimmers almost as though wet, lending the wide roadway a somewhat enchanted air as it grandly marches down to the open plaza at the waterfront. (Not only are early morning and late evening the best times to catch the light on this lovely street, but they’re also best for avoiding the typical hordes of tourists.)
Rue de l'Abreuvoir (Paris, France)
Montmartre’s rural past was long behind it when the hilly neighborhood in Paris became known for artists, writers, and the can-can girls sketched by Toulouse-Lautrec. But you can still find remnants of the bucolic days when the steep streets were traveled by horses, like in the name of Rue de l'Abreuvoir, which translates to “Watering Trough Street.” The street’s sturdy paving stones, the brick wall that climbs up one side of the street, and the ivy-bearded houses along its other side have not changed much since French photographer Eugene Atget captured the scene in 1899. If, like many visitors to Paris, you’ve meandered the streets and stairways of Montmartre and fondly remember a distinctive pink corner coffeehouse, La Maison Rose, then you’ve already walked Rue de l'Abreuvoir. (You may also have spotted it in Netflix’s recent hit series, Emily in Paris.)
Brouwersgracht (Amsterdam, The Netherlands)
In the case of canal-crossed cities like Venice and Amsterdam, we will liberally interpret the term “charming street” to include waterways, too — as with the dreamy Brouwersgracht. Its name in Dutch refers to the canal’s history as a brewery district, though now those tall, skinny warehouse buildings have been transformed into houses. The ten bridges crossing the canal add to its appeal, as do the houseboats moored along its waters. Brouwersgracht is a great place to check out the striking variations of gables used in Amsterdam — the tops of the houses along Brouwersgracht are capped with everything from simple triangular gables to ornate bell-shaped ones, and ones that look like inverted funnels. Look closely and you’ll usually find a winch and pulley protruding from the gable, a practical addition used for hoisting heavy furniture and supplies to upper floors of these narrow houses.
The Shambles (York, England)
The Shambles, a narrow little street in York, England, is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 (Britain’s earliest public record) and, as you can guess from the photo, its half-timbered facades inspired the description of Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series. If a street can be described as adorable, the Shambles can, thanks to its mullioned bow-front windows, hand-painted hanging signs, and the curving course of its path. Since J.K. Rowling sold more books than William the Conqueror (and pretty much anyone else), more store names along the Shambles today refer to the wizarding world than to the Norman Conquest.
Rue Grande (Saint-Paul de Vence, France)
Maybe naming this street “Rue Grande” was an aspirational act — or maybe grande is relative to the tiny alleys that it intersects — but the main road that bisects the medieval quarter of Saint-Paul de Vence is anything but big. The town, a walled mountain village in Provence’s Alpes Maritimes, has been around since 400 B.C. It has withstood battles and plagues and — since it was rediscovered in the 1920s by French artists like Raoul Dufy and Paul Signac — been beset by hordes of marauding art lovers and tourists, seeking a painterly glimpse of village charm. Fortunately, Rue Grande has charm in spades. The stone pedestrian lane twists and turns past art galleries, perfume shops, ancient fountains, and walled courtyard cafes. (If you’re so enraptured by this beautiful town that you want to spend the night, walk three minutes past the northern end of Rue Grande and check into one of the finest hotels in Europe, La Colombe d’Or.)
Herrngasse (Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany)
It doesn’t take long to understand how Germany’s Romantic Road got its name: This classic drive zooms through picturesque Bavarian scenery, past monumental castles and cathedrals, and slows down to take in storybook towns like Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Rothenburg is almost ridiculously quaint, with half-timbered medieval buildings, watch towers with red conical roofs, ramparts, clock faces mounted on the city gates, and everything arranged perfectly above the Tauber River. You could wander any of the old city’s cobbled streets and find lots to see, but Herrngasse, which cuts a straight line from busy Market Square to the imperial castle gardens, certainly won’t fail to impress. The magnificent merchants’ houses along either side of the wide roadway are painted all manner of colors, from candy pink to dark orange to pistachio green, with window boxes spilling over with even more color. The timber-detailed upper floors rise up to peaked or stepped roof lines. Once the homes of the town elite, the buildings have been converted to hotels, shops, and restaurants.