Winter is a time to snuggle up with a travel book and dream about places far away. And since dreaming is free, it’s sometimes nice to imagine ourselves travelling to places that are magical — places that make us feel like we’re in a fairy tale. We’ve seen them in the movies, but then, that’s mostly paint and digital trickery. Do these places really exist?
In fact, they do — at least, as far as I’m concerned. In my travels around the world, I’ve seen a few places that really left me with the feeling that I’d stepped in to a story book. And I know there are a few more out there that I haven’t visited yet. So if you hope to someday make those winter wishes come true — and who among us doesn’t? — here’s a short list of fairy tale cities you can really go to.
A few nights ago I rewatched the movie In Bruges. It’s a dark comedy about two gangsters, but even so, watching them walk through the beautiful medieval city reminded me of how magical Bruges can be. The old buildings, with their peaked roofs and intricate brickwork, the lovely squares, the ancient churches, the canals … it’s like a scene from Hansel and Gretel. Bruges was lit up for Christmas when I was there, and when night fell, it was a picture suitable for framing — in fact, the photo above now hangs on my dining room wall. And if you tire of Bruges, there’s Ghent, just down the road, and another little piece of the Middle Ages.
The Loire Valley, France
If you’ve ever seen a Disney movie where the knight in armour rides out of the castle, with flags waving from the turrets, you may have wondered if those places really exist. They do, in a place called the Loire Valley. About two hours from Paris, along the Loire and Cher Rivers, are the castles and grand palaces of the French aristocracy, built in the 1500s. There are about 80 of them in the region, and they rise up like fairy tale castles as you drive through the green fields and vineyards of the Loire. Some are famous, like Chåteau Chambord and Chåteau d”Amboise, where King François I lived. And some are both famous and beautiful, like the iconic Chåteau de Chenonceau, pictured here. In any season, this is a fairy tale trip.
Quebec City, Canada
It’s the feeling of the past that makes a fairy tale setting, and there’s no place in North America that has that feeling more than Quebec City. Canada’s oldest city is a little piece of the 1700s, filled with centuries-old buildings and commanded by its own castle, the imposing Chateau Frontenac hotel. The streets are lined with quaint shops and restaurants that serve traditional Quebec dishes, and the whole scene has a French flair that adds a dose of romance. Walking these streets by night is an enchanting experience in summer, but under a blanket of snow, it must be magical.
If there’s a place that truly fits as one of the world’s fairy tale cities, it’s Copenhagen. The Danish capital is infused with the spirit of Hans Christian Andersen, and it’s hard to go anywhere in the old city without feeling his presence. Even the manhole covers have his portrait on them. And the city itself is the stuff of fairy tales. Mythical creatures rise from the fountain in front of city hall. There’s a real-life castle right downtown, and a royal palace. And you can’t leave town without spending a day at Tivoli Gardens, the original “world’s happiest place”. And of course, down the waterfront is the world-famous statue of the Little Mermaid — the fairy tale is complete.
It’s called the prettiest town in France, and walking the streets of medieval Colmar, you can believe it. In the heart of Alsace, near the equally lovely city of Strasbourg, Alsace is another little piece of the past, wonderfully preserved. Beautiful old buildings line the streets, little bakeries sell delicious-looking pastries fresh from the oven, and wonderful old guild signs hang above the doorways, with fanciful figures announcing the owner’s trade. There’s even a little version of Venice, with a canal snaking between the ancient shop houses. If there was ever a place to take your Christmas card photo, this is it.
There you have it: five fairy tale cities or regions where you can have an enchanted visit, transported to the land of knights and fair ladies. They’re all easy to get to, by plane, train or river ship. And once you’re there, all you need is a little imagination.