By Lydia Swinscoe For Mailonline and Ted Thornhill, Mailonline Travel Editor
08:06 04 Jan 2024, updated 09:29 04 Jan 2024
Thanks to social media, and the streams of travel images we’re fed daily, true ‘hidden-gem’ and ‘off-radar’ locations are more challenging to come by than they once were.
The world has become more accessible.
But those hankering after an adventure that’s a little bit out of the ordinary can still find it – if they know where to look.
One worthwhile source to tap is the United Nations World Travel Organisation (UNWTO) and its Best Tourism Villages of 2023 list, which recognises 54 off-the-beaten-path villages that are not only beautiful, but perfect for authentic adventures.
The bucket-list-worthy villages range from a tiny urban oasis in the Egyptian desert to a surfing mecca in Portugal. Here are our favourite 15 from the ranking, with the full 54 listed at the bottom.
The ski resort of Schladming in Austria’s picturesque Niedere Tauern mountains, notes UNWTO, ‘boasts two captivating Romanesque and Gothic churches, an 18th-century town square, and a rich history of hosting prestigious skiing competitions, including the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships in 1982 and 2013’.
UNWTO adds that at its heart, ‘lies a commitment to tourism as the driving force of the region, prioritising harmony with nature, sustainable practices, and the preservation of economic, ecological, and social values’.
St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria
‘Nestled amidst the breathtaking Tyrolean Alps, St. Anton am Arlberg stands as a beacon of world-renowned tourism with a storied history spanning over a century,’ declares UNWTO.
‘From its inception, the village has not only embraced its alpine surroundings but has successfully integrated a harmonious blend of tradition and modernity.’
Cantavieja, Aragon region, Spain
‘Cantavieja is a town full of history, customs, and monuments worth visiting,’ says UNWTO. ‘The town was declared an Asset of Interest Cultural in the category of Historic-Artistic Site in 1981. Later, in 2014 it joined the association of “Most Beautiful Villages in Spain”.’
UNWTO adds: ‘In the heart of the urban area lies the main arcaded square, one of the most beautiful in Aragon, the Church of the Assumption showcasing the Baroque style from the 18th century, the Church of San Miguel, from the 15th-century Gothic era and the manor houses or La Nevera, also recently declared of Cultural Interest.’
Huangling village, explains UNWTO, is nestled in the ‘picturesque’ landscape of Jiangxi Province, China – and is ‘a shining example of heritage conservation, shared prosperity, and cross-cultural exchange’.
UNWTO adds: ‘With a deep commitment to preserving its cultural treasures, Huangling village stands out as a beacon of innovation in the realm of tourism.
‘The village maintains and protects 43 ancient buildings and nurtures 32 inheritors of intangible cultural heritage, guaranteeing the continuity of traditions. Vibrant festival activities, including cultural festivals and dance celebrations, further commemorate heritage.’
While literature lovers may be familiar with Lerici as the place where the English romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned, the commune town, which sits on the Italian Riviera, might be less well-known to others.
UNWTO chose the quaint seaside town due to its ‘pristine beaches and colourful homes without the overcrowding of other popular tourist locations such as Cinque Terre’.
Lerici is also home to the Santa Teresa Smart Bay – Italy’s first underwater laboratory for scientific research and monitoring. UNWTO says: ‘The pilot project enables scientists and marine biologists to monitor ocean acidification levels to protect the bay’s delicate ecosystem.’
‘For travellers looking for slow mornings, lazy meandering and colourful scenery, Biei in Japan is sure to delight,’ says UNWTO.
‘Located in Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands, it remains a well-kept secret, renowned for its picturesque poppy, lavender and sunflower fields. These flower fields are the lifeblood of the local economy and inspire visitor attractions and tourism offerings.’
Caleta Tortel, Chile
Caleta Tortel is a historic timber port nestled between the northern and southern ice fields of Chile’s Patagonia region, explains UNWTO.
It adds that ‘it’s known for its charming guaitecas cypress wood boardwalks and structures’ and urges visitors to ‘explore the local culture through conservation activities ranging from traditional guaitecas cypress raft construction to immersive beekeeping experiences guided by friendly locals’.
Travellers can also enjoy, we’re told, ‘culinary adventures with dishes made from fresh, locally-sourced and seasonal produce’.
Located on Portugal’s western coast, 50km from Lisbon, UNWTO says the 12th-century village of Ericeira has ‘a rich cultural and natural heritage’ – and some of Europe’s best surfing conditions.
It continues: ‘Since achieving World Surfing Reserve recognition in 2011, Ericeira has experienced a revitalisation, attracting a growing number of wave enthusiasts. This surge in visitors prompted the development of accommodation spaces, transforming the village into an appealing destination.’
Fishing, however, remains ‘a vital part of Ericeira’s identity’, with the historic centre and its blue-and-white houses ‘reflecting its centuries-old fishing heritage’.
Behold Morcote, a chocolate-box haven that has earned the title of ‘Most Beautiful Village of Switzerland’.
UNWTO adds that the village ‘is blessed with abundant natural resources, including the scenic Lake Ceresio and Monte San Giorgio, a mountain renowned for its fossil record’. Furthermore, ‘lush forests, woodlands, and mountain trails offer a haven for nature enthusiasts’.
Saint Ursanne, Switzerland
St-Ursanne, on the banks of the Doubs River, is a gem, by all accounts.
UNWTO notes that ‘the old centre is marked by the collegiate church and its cloister dating from the 12th and 13th centuries’, adding: ‘The town has a rich heritage of buildings dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries with three historic gates as the only way into the town.
‘In the heart of a lush natural setting, it is the ideal starting point for numerous sporting activities such as hiking, mountain biking and canoeing.’
Manteigas, nestled in the heart of Portugal’s Serra da Estrela mountains, is ‘a unique mountain village with a rich history deeply rooted in wool, shepherds’ culture, and a captivating mountain charisma’.
Here tourists can ‘immerse themselves in a stunning natural environment while indulging in delectable local cuisine and experiencing a unique cultural tapestry’.
Sortelha, says UNWTO, ’emerges as a serene haven untouched by the rapid pace of modern life’.
The organisation adds: ‘Its charm lies in the harmonious blend of rugged vegetation, medieval architecture, and a rich history that traces back to prehistoric times.’
Siwa Oasis, Egypt
Declared a national protectorate in 2022, Siwa village is ‘a treasure trove of cultural, biological, and environmental significance’ with a ‘commitment to preserving cultural resources adding to its unique and authentic charm’, says UNWTO.
According to UNWTO: ‘Siwa’s economic foundation spans agriculture, tourism, and food and beverage industries.’
The organisation adds: ‘Siwa has cautiously promoted tourism to safeguard its unique resources while reaping positive economic outcomes.’
Penglipuran, Bali, Indonesia
UNWTO picked the cultural gem of Penglipuran due to the village’s ‘preservation of traditional Balinese architecture and customs’.
It said: ‘Penglipuran’s well-preserved traditional architecture, unique layout, and emphasis on community values showcase its commitment to cultural heritage and sustainability.
‘Visitors can immerse themselves in this rich tapestry, appreciating the village’s identity and dedication to preserving a delicate balance between culture and the environment.’
Jalpa de Cánovas, Mexico
UNWTO included Jalpa de Cánovas in its roundup on account of how the village ‘preserves its architectural heritage’.
This ‘magical village is a culinary haven for traditional Guanajuato cuisine, renowned for dishes like caldo de zorra and walnut mole’.
Jalpa de Cánovas also holds the designation of origin for tequila, ‘standing as a cultural gem in Mexico’s heartland’.