While architects like to think new designs and technologies make contemporary buildings superior to what came before, it’s hard to argue with the style and stamina of classic construction. Historic buildings and settlements, whether due to ornate craftsmanship or human-scale layout, seem so much more purpose-built and well-proportioned (advanced age and crumbling exteriors aside). Refined over centuries, traditional building techniques seem more in rhythm with the climate. Curbed rounded up 15 examples of stunning villages and settlements across the world, often set in the most picturesque parts of the landscape, all showcasing examples of living history that haven’t been set in amber.
Bukchon Hanok Village (Seoul, South Korea)
A hilly warren of alleys and traditional hanok homes located north of some of Seoul’s major landmarks (the name translates to “northern village”), this area isn’t merely frozen in time. While tourist sites abound, this 600-year-old neighborhood is filled with family homes, tea houses, and new stores, with an elevated area ahte offer great views of Seoul at night. For a more modern take on renovating old structure, the Insadong neighborhood contains a series of historic structures that have been transformed into hip restaurants and cafes.
Old Louisville (Louisville, Kentucky)
It’s not the oldest neighborhood on the list, but if you’re seeking Victorian charm and turn-of-the-century architecture, it’s a must-see. Encompassing 45 square blocks and more than 1,400 structures, Old Louisville is one of the country's largest preservation districts, filled with rows and rows of colorful Victorian homes designed to mirror mansions found in London. The site of the nation's first pedestrian walking courts, named Belgravia and St. James, these stately streets are even lined with flickering gas lamps, replicas of the originals installed more than a century ago.
Český Krumlov (Czech Republic)
Prague typically (and rightfully) grabs plenty of attention for stunning historic buildings, but any seeker of traditional architecture should spend some time out in the Czech countryside. This fairytale village, first constructed in the banks of the Vlatava River in 13th century, abounds with well-preserved medieval buildings and numerous riverside cafes. Skip the bustling summertime and camp out in the winter, when the entire village is blanketed in snow.
Ogimachi (Shirakawa-go, Japan)
Developed over hundreds of years to withstand the area’s heavy snowfalls, the steep thatched roofs found throughout this traditional village are called “gassho-zukuri,” which means “constructed like hands in prayer.” Situated near the Ryōhaku Mountains, this centuries-old settlement offers a natural retreat from the bright neon and busy streets of Japan’s bigger cities.
Kaiping Diaulou (Guangdong, China)
China offers countless historical settlements for the intrepid traveler, including these unique fusion structures found in Guangdong province that blend architectural styles and techniques. Initially built during the Ming Dynasty as fortifications and watchtowers to spot and defend against bandits, these multistory "diaolou" have been updated over the centuries, and recent additions incorporate western touches.
Bibury (Gloucestershire, England)
There’s plenty of competition for the quaintest spot in England, but this village and parish on the River Coln is certainly in the running. Filled with 17th century stone cottages, this rural settlement, which grew up in part around the wool industry, has been a tourist draw for centuries (Emperor Hirohito’s stopover has made it a top pick for Japanese visitors). Between the picturesque homes on Arlington Row, the stained glass of St. Mary’s Church, and the stately Swan Hotel, there’s no shortage of old world charm.
Eze (Provence, France)
A slower take on the Cote d’Azur, a sun-drenched region normally associated with Cannes and celebrity, this hilltop village has been inhabited for literally thousands of years (the main church contains an ancient Egyptian cross). Crisscrossed with cobblestone streets and lined with bright pink bougainvillea, this scenic perch above the sea practically begs for a relaxing stroll; try the Jardin Exotique d’Èze botanical garden.
Sidi Bou Said (Tunisia)
Known as an artists village, this suburb of Tunis set upon a steep cliff above the Mediterranean doesn’t disappoint those looking for inspiration. The collection of whitewashed villages and narrow streets offers a showcase of Moorish architecture.
Pariangan (West Sumatra, Indonesia)
Near the slopes of Mount Merapi, this preserved village captures the culture of the Minangkabau, one of the largest ethnic groups in the famously multicultural country. Traditional Rumah Gadang, or “spired roof houses,” supposedly modeled after the curve of a buffalo’s horn, provide a scenic backdrop, and popular tourist attractions, such as the Great Palace of Pagaruyung and Silinduang Bulan Palace, are nearby.
Reine (Moskenes, Norway)
Those thirsting for a remote vacation can do a lot worse than stay in a rorbuer, or converted fisherman’s cottage, on the waterfront of this Arctic Circle outpost. Surrounded by hiking trails and beaches, this island community of just over 300 people offers an alpine escape and perfect place to watch the aurora borealis.
Historic Old Quebec (Quebec City, Canada)
Founded by the explorer Champlain in the 17th century, this well-preserved district still contains all the touches of a French town in the New World, including ramparts, bastions, defensive gates, and a number of chapels. It’s one of the few fortified colonial towns in the Americas outside of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Lamu Town (Lamu Island, Kenya)
This 14th century Swahili settlement, a center for Islamic study, offers a peek into another era, a living village with coral-and-stone walls, shutters carved from mangrove trees, and a maze of streets and mosques overlooking the Indian Ocean. Decorated with elaborate carvings, the homes exude craft and care, and donkeys still transport goods throughout town. Be sure to make time for the white sand beaches in Shela, near ports ringed with dhows.
Hoi An (Quang Nam, Vietnam)
This 15th century settlement lives up to its name, which translates to “peaceful trading post.” A rich fusion of architecture styles, as befitting its merchant history and reputation as one of Asia’s most important ports, Hoi An boasts striking temples and tea warehouses.
Villa de Leyva (Boyacá, Colombia)
Anybody planning a trip to Colombia is going to hear about the gorgeous streets of Cartagena, and for good reason. But this more off-the-beaten-path destination, a day trip for those visiting Bogota, offers another amazing trip back in time. Set around one of the largest cobbled town squares on the continent, this elevated village offers a fleeting glance at 16th century colonial life.
Ghardaïa (Ghardaïa Province, Algeria)
One of five fortified villages, of ksours, in the northern Sahara, this ancient settlement above a limestone plateau boasts a series of white, pink, and red homes, set on terraces in a pattern that Simon de Beauvoir described as “a Cubist painting beautifully constructed.” Built to defend against nomadic tribes, this protected citadel is crowned with a mosque and minaret that long served as a watchtower over the desert landscape.