The world's top 10 best small towns

It's always the big cities that get the gongs. Every time one of those lists comes out – the world's most livable cities, or the world's most popular destinations – it's always the major metropolises that we're talking about.

But what about the small towns? Just because they don't have underground trains or famous galleries or houses of parliament, doesn't mean they're not worth visiting. Or even staying in for the rest of your life.

Admittedly, I'm more of a city guy when I travel, but here are my favourite smaller destinations from around the world.

San Sebastian, Spain

I should be on the tourism board for San Seb, I write about it that often. But it is a truly great little place, a town where there's not a lot to do but surf by day and gorge yourself on some of the world's best food and drink at night. The pintxos bars here are legendary, as are the galaxy of Michelin-starred restaurants. If you can't have fun in San Seb, you're doing something wrong.

Queenstown, New Zealand

It's got all of the adrenalin-charged clichés you can think of, the bungy-jumping, the skiing, the sky-diving, the whitewater rafting, the jet-boating and the river-boarding. But what you forget about Queenstown is the sheer beauty of the place, with snow-capped peaks rising from all sides of Lake Wakatipu. Oh, and it's got Fergburger, which should be all you need to know.

Interlaken, Switzerland

Like Queenstown, Interlaken is a beautiful little mountain town set amid lakes and rolling green hills. It's also the gateway to plenty of action, from skiing and snowboarding to hiking and sailing. Best thing about this Swiss village, however, is its laidback feel. It's tourist-friendly without being touristy, which is no mean feat.

Byron Bay, Australia

Byron's changed a lot over the last 10 years or so and it's probably not everyone's idea of a good time, but I still love the place. If you can find a better way to spend a summer afternoon than drinking a few schooners outside at the Beach Hotel, I'd like to hear it. Byron's become more of a backpacker party place than its local population would probably like, but any town that still rejects fast food joints on principle is OK by me.

Itacare, Brazil

This is almost like the Brazilian version of Byron Bay, a beautiful beach town up on the Bahia coast. Itacare has everything a Brazilian beach destination should: palm trees, coconuts to drink, white sand, surfers, sun-bathers, people kicking footballs around, friendly locals, and street stands that sell acaraje, the savoury bean cakes filled with fried prawns and chilli. You could get lost in a place like Itacare for a long while.

Bruges, Belgium

The movie In Bruges was hilarious, mostly because the two stars spent their whole time whinging about being stuck in Bruges. Stuck in Bruges? Sign me up. This beautiful little Belgian town has canals and stone bridges, old churches, town squares, world-class art galleries, waffles, and about a million different local beers to work your way through. Where's the problem?

Cartagena (Old Town), Colombia

The walled old town on the Caribbean coast has been the site of sea-going invasions, pirate pillages and just about everything in between over its 450 years of colonial history. It's now the home of the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and is a well-known filming location. It makes an ideal tourist destination, with just enough of an edge to keep things interesting.

Essaouira, Morocco

While Fez and Marrakech tend to hog most of the publicity from Morocco, the port town of Essaouira is easily their equal. From a stroll along the ramparts of the city walls to a tour of the old Jewish quarter, or a haggle for fish at the markets, or a plate of freshly grilled sardines at a restaurant, or even a stay for the annual world music festival, it's a destination worth checking out.

Half Moon Bay, USA

You could make a case for almost any of the little surfie towns that dot the California coast, from Santa Barbara to Santa Cruz to Monterrey. Half Moon Bay has a lot going for it, from its position close to San Francisco to its air of complete calm. You could go visit the seal colony if you wanted, or paddle a kayak around the bay, or play golf over by the cliffs, or surf the world-famous Mavericks break. Or you could just laze around at a micro-brewery.

San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

There's no surf in San Pedro. In fact there's not much of anything at all. This tiny town of clay-brick houses and one whitewashed church sits in the middle of the Atacama Desert, one of the highest and driest places on Earth. The place is amazing for the fact that it even exists.

What are your favourite small towns? Post a comment below and tell us where and why.

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The story The world's top 10 best small towns first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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