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From the Alps to Alaska, here are 10 mountain towns that shamelessly seduce with good looks, affordable deals, and year-round appeal. Read on for ways to see some of the best views and hit the town without ever strapping on a pair of skis or pedaling a mountain bike.
This picturesque Swiss Alps city is like a model-train set come to life. Medieval-style homes and shops with flower boxes line cobblestoned streets. The wooden 14th-century Chapel Bridge (Kapllbrücke) spans the Reuss River flowing through the town's crystal-clear Lake Lucerne. And in the backdrop, little red cog railway cars climb the steep Mt. Pilatus.
Do: Take the cog railway up to Mt. Pilatus for lunch or for a hike at what feels like the top of the world. There are also high ropes courses, zip-lines, tubing slides, and summer toboggan runs here. Return by train and boat or by gondola and bus to the historic Old Town, a pedestrian-only shopping area where you can stroll narrow, winding streets to the Hermès shop. Splurge at Max Chocolatier, or save by hitting the impressive chocolate aisle at a local grocery store.
Like many cities in the Pacific Ring of Fire, Riobamba lives in the shadow of a sleeping giant. Clouds wisp at the tip of the inactive Chimborazo volcano, Ecuador's highest point, while native llama, alpaca, and vicuña graze in the protected habitat below. You'll see why some call Riobamba the Sultan of the Andes when you explore the colonial city center's cathedrals and museums.
Do: Shop for handicrafts at the Saturday market on the streets northeast of Parque de la Concepción. Try the market's snow cones (raspados) made from blocks of ice transported from the glacier by mules, a local tradition. Another favorite is the zigzagging Chiva Express train ride up a 45-degree pitch called Devil's Nose. Latin Trails will take you to the train or on an ice-harvest adventure.
Next to the state's largest ski resort, just outside Anchorage, Girdwood was originally called "Glacier City" for the colossal icy peaks that surround it. Calving glaciers thunder into the Prince William Sound, and humpback whales play in nearby Kenai Fjords National Park. Set amid this idyllic valley's rugged beauty is one of Alaska's most productive and still active placer gold mines, Crow Creek Mine, where you can pan for gold.
Do: Find adventure and great photo ops year-round on a guided glacier hike or ice-climbing trek. A trip to the top on Alyeska Resort's aerial tram nets you a splurge-worthy dinner destination: Seven Glaciers Restaurant. The town's best cinnamon rolls are at The Bake Shop near the base of the ski hill.
Not far from the Austrian border, Bled in the Julien Alps has all the elements of a classic fairy tale: a clifftop castle, frosted peaks, an emerald lake, a church steeple, a wishing bell, and a signature sweet treat. This alpine town even sits at the edge of a dark forest (Triglav National Park) with a waterfall and mountains known for legends of the Zlatorog, the golden-horned chamois that is said to live here.
Do: Hike up to the 1,000-year-old Bled Castle, where you can bottle wine in the cellar, indulge in the herbal gallery's aroma, or stay for a meal with a view. Visit Bled Island in Bled Lake by rowing a boat or hitching a ride on a local gondola-like pletna, then ring the famous church bell. Don't miss the town's signature cream cake (kremna rezina) at Slascicarna Smon.
Whistler, British Columbia, Canada
Coverage of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic Games introduced the world to this ski town's stunning beauty and cosmopolitan allure. At the base of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, icy blue streams gurgle through the pedestrian village. Boutique shops, lively pubs, and restaurant patios open onto great people-watching thoroughfares, where you can take in high fashion and sexy foreign accents in one delicious shot.
Do: Ride the Peak 2 Peak Gondola from Whistler to Blackcomb, or soak in the outdoor hydrotherapy baths at Scandinave Spa. In winter you can try the Sliding Centre's skeleton and bobsleigh runs—reaching speeds of up to 135 kilometers per hour—or race the luge track from spring through fall. At the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre cafe, sample traditional bannock fry bread and salmon chowder. Hit Zog's Dogs food cart for cinnamon BeaverTails or bratwurst and poutine (a mix of fries, cheese curds, and gravy).
Yankee Image, Inc.
Stowe is the quintessential New England village. In a fertile valley between the Green Mountains' peaks, this quaint town of 4,500 is a throwback to all things wholesome. The historical Main Street area is home to a general store, a malt shop, and even a mercantile with fresh handmade fudge. Head to the surrounding countryside for a grazing tour of Vermont's farm treats.
Do: You can stop in for free samples year-round at Laughing Moon Chocolates on Main Street or at Cold Hollow Cider Mill and Ben & Jerry's in the Waterbury area. Harrison's Restaurant & Bar, a popular watering hole in a historical Main Street basement, is like the Cheers of Stowe. Browse Stowe Craft & Design for handmade items, including great furniture for mountain retreats.
Wanaka, South Island, New Zealand
Lake Wanaka Tourism
This South Island lake town, away from the crowds of its popular Queenstown neighbor, sits in a glacier-carved basin near the edge of Mt. Aspiring National Park's Southern Alps. Mountains rise out of Lake Wanaka, vineyards drape the hillsides, and tiny islands harbor uninhabited sanctuaries for the flightless buff weka bird. It's no wonder the laid-back Kiwi vibe has such a stronghold here.
Do: Relax with a local beer and a slice of pizza at Kai Whaka Pai, which has the best view in town. Eco Wanaka boat tours take you to Moa Wahu Island to see the native weka. At Cinema Paradiso you can watch movies in comfy old couches and eat warm homemade cookies during the intermission. Experience the scenery from an open-air Vintage Tigermoth flight with goggles and a leather helmet or on a canyoning trip in a wetsuit, helmet, and booties.
Taos, New Mexico
This Southwestern town, in a high desert valley, is a study in contrasts. Rich blue skies meet an arid countryside dotted with adobe dwellings and the Taos Pueblo village. The Sangre de Cristo Range towers majestically above the desert floor. And the Rio Grande's whitewater cuts a deep gorge in red sandstone below. Is it any wonder Georgia O'Keeffe, D.H. Lawrence, and countless others have been inspired here?
Do: Find kitschy kachina dolls, baskets, pottery, and other treasures at Robert Cafazzo's Two Graces Gallery, Curios and Bookstore in Ranchos de Taos. Sip a local specialty—the Buddha Margarita—during Taos Inn's Adobe Bar happy hour from 4:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. For dinner, don't miss El Meze, a restaurant that puts a Spanish/Moorish twist on traditional local cuisine.
Gyalthang, Yunnan Province, China
Gyalthang, Yunnan Province, China
Set among Himalayan snowcaps, this ancient rural town near the Tibetan border is a hidden highland utopia. Here in Gyalthang (Jiantang Town), renamed after the fictional land of Shangri-La in 2001, locals live simple, long lives far from the influence of the outside world. Shaggy yaks drag plows through rich soil, and the sound of chanting floats out of Tibetan monasteries. Just outside town, pastures open up to alpine lakes, gorges, and swift rivers fed by mountain snow.
Do: Shop for colorful scarves, blankets, and local handicrafts in Old Town, or stop at Bhuskar's Kitchen for authentic Tibetan and Indian/Nepalese food. View seekers can climb the local Shika Mountain or take a cable-car ride to the top. Songtsam Retreat leads excursions to Pudacuo National Park, home to 100 endangered species.
Gold seekers founded this Victorian mining town in 1859, and many of the original buildings that housed hotels, dance halls, and saloons still stand. The new occupants—quirky boutiques, restaurants, outfitters, and microbreweries—capture Breckenridge's pioneering spirit and down-to-earth character. It's an unpretentious Rocky Mountain high 90 miles west of Denver.
Do: Meet local sled dogs in their off-season and hop on a dogcart for a backcountry tour. Check out the whimsical, handmade clothing at Magical Scraps. Try Breckenridge Brewery, the Breckenridge Distillery, or the Blue River Bistro for drinks. For dinner, indulge in locally sourced cuisine in a historical Victorian house at Hearthstone Restaurant. Lucha's breakfast burritos are legendary.