Rural areas include most of the EU and nearly half of its population. The specific character of rural areas is determined by their social and cultural identity. Every rural area is unique in terms of its geographical location, its natural resources, history, ethnic composition of the population, religion and traditions, urban network, economic potential. European rural areas are diverse with multiple functions. The paper discusses the basic patterns of development of European rural areas. It outlines the current trends in socio-economic development and the changes that have occurred over the past few decades. Some of the main specific characteristics have been outlined.