When people are asked to come up with a collection of words that define Europe, “historical,” “romantic” and “fairytale” are often among the first descriptors that crop up. The last one is certainly no coincidence, as Europe was the setting for fairytales from famous yarn-spinners like the Brothers Grimm and is the modern inspiration for many of the make-believe lands in films, televisions shows and animated movies that generations around the world have grown up with.
Another word that is typically associated with European travel? “Expensive.” But that may be well on its way to becoming a relic from the past. With the dollar currently at its strongest standing in years against European currency, now is the perfect time to set off on a quest in the faraway land of fairytale Europe.
The following five fairytale Europe places all do a good job of making you feel like you have been thrust straight on to the silver screen, the well-worn pages of an old book of tales or on to an animator’s sketch pad.
Ceský Krumlov, Czech Republic
Prague attracts the bulk of the tourists in the Czech Republic, and while there’s no doubt that when walking across its Charles Bridge, you might mistake your stroll for the flipping pages of a storybook, the true fairytale is being told a few hours south in Ceský Krumlov. Ceský Krumlov and its cobblestoned old town are nestled in a beautiful bend of the Vltava River, and the town’s towering castle is the second largest in the entire Czech Republic. The serene waters of the Vlatva River serenade the riverside cafes, medieval pubs and local brewery (they got to know me very well), raining a happily-ever-after atmosphere down on the town. The colorful Ceský Krumlov Castle Tower completes the charming image by keeping watch over things day and night, and looks like the precise kind of place a princess would sneak down from.
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Found in the foothills of Slovenia’s sunny side of the Alps, Lake Bled is a seemingly ordinary lake save for one stunning feature: an idyllic island floating in the middle home to a romantic church. It isn’t just any island — ancient Slavs worshiped the goddess of love there, and nowadays the church is a popular pilgrimage for newlyweds. Tradition holds that the groom carries his bride up the 99 steps to the church and consequently over the proverbial threshold. If a lovey-dovey lake full of swans and an island isn’t enchanting enough for you, you’ll be glad to know that Lake Bled is looked down upon by a majestic medieval castle. Bled Castle clings to the nearby cliffs surveying the entire scene from above and is home to some of the best views in all of Slovenia. The lake lies directly next to the town of Bled, which is only an hour train ride from Slovenia’s bustling capital of Ljubljana.
The colorful framed buildings on Bergen’s wharf and its surrounding fjords served as the inspiration for the animated film “Frozen,” and after visiting this misty and mysterious town that sits on Norway’s west coast, you’ll have a hard time “letting it go” (get it?). The fjords surrounding Bergen are steeped in Norse legend, and the dramatic inlets are hands-down the star attraction of this snowy slice of Europe. Seeing Bergen and the nearby fjords from the sea will truly make you feel as if you have stepped on to the screen.
An empire built upon hundreds of lagoon islands must defend itself from a daily onslaught of selfie stick wielding invaders while simultaneously finding a way to save its land from sinking to the sea floor. Is this the premise of the latest fantasy adventure movie? Nope, it’s just daily life in Venice. While you’ve been bombarded for years by images of Venice on commercials, pizza boxes, and labels of pasta sauce, there is just no substitute for laying eyes on it in person. Venice may be crowded, but don’t let that discourage you, as there’s a good reason everyone wants to see this city once before they die. Fairytale Europe images abound in Venice, but nothing quite compares to a trip down the Grand Canal on a vaporetto (or water taxi), where you will be flanked by palatial mansions and iconic gondolas.
Toledo has inspired artists to fill their canvases with beauty for centuries. These renderings are usually created from the surrounding hills across from town, as Toledo is truly a sight to behold from the outside. Once inside the city walls, wandering the cobbled streets of this marvelous maze of a city in the evening is enchanting, and don’t fret if you get lost because it’s part of the fun. Toledo has historically been home to expert silver sword artisans who have most recently provided the swords for blockbuster films like “Lord of the Rings.” This UNESCO World Heritage Site, only 40 miles south of Madrid, is an ideal place to step out of one character and into another.
Go forth my friends and live happily ever after.
An earlier version of this post appeared on U.S. News & World Report.