A town with lilac-hued storefronts and bubbling fountains. A seaside village with an old-fashioned boardwalk. A clifftop city with wide, tree-lined thoroughfares.

I love few things more than getting lost in a new corner of the world. And although I’ll always have a special place in my heart for major metropolises like Paris, Dublin, and San Francisco, I firmly believe that exploring the world’s small towns is even more enjoyable.

Plenty of factors add to the charm you’ll find in a small city. For one, the list of can’t-miss attractions is usually shorter than it would be elsewhere, which is a blessing in disguise. The sooner you run out of things that your guidebook or favorite Instagrammer says you have to do, the sooner you can venture out on your own. Somewhere in that town, there’s a surprise hiding where you’ll least expect to find it — standing by, waiting to be discovered and rediscovered throughout the years. That’s how I stumbled upon a secret garden in Bruges, Belgium, a hidden gem that made me feel like a bona fide explorer during my last, rainy hours in the cobblestoned city.

A secret garden in Bruges, one of Belgium's most charming small cities.
Bruges, Belgium
A cathedral in Bruges, one of Belgium's most beautiful small cities.
Bruges, Belgium

In a small town, it’s also easier to relax, to spend time the way that you would if you lived there. I can’t always imagine where I would belong or what I would do if home was a bustling, sprawling city, but I can readily picture myself living somewhere quiet and calm. That’s why I once painted a watercolor on a lakefront in Annecy, France, and then ate gelato as I wandered aimlessly through the old town. I dedicated my time to my hobbies and interests, all while enjoying a change of scenery.

Small-town residents generally welcome travelers more warmly than their big-city counterparts would. In sleepier places, the locals often strike up conversations, ask questions, make recommendations, get to know you. An older woman in Doolin, Ireland, told my brother and me to watch the coastline for a dolphin named Dusty, who was christened by the locals who brought her fish every morning. And my friend Rachel and I once had a deep conversation with a stranger photographing the sunset on a quiet beach outside Lorient, France.

A watercolor of Lake Annecy, in one of France's prettiest small cities.
Annecy, France
The canals of Annecy, one of France's prettiest small cities.
Annecy, France

Are there exceptions to these rules of thumb? Absolutely. But you’ll find that, more often than not, they ring true. And who knows, your experiences just might remind you to explore your own hometown and offer that extra bit of friendly advice to the visitors who stop by.

No matter why you visit, a trip to a small town is almost always better than you expect — for reasons that you can’t anticipate. The only way to really find out what makes small cities so beautiful is to start seeing them for yourself.