We know there are questions around travel amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. Read our note here.
For those who love history as much as travel, a trip to Europe never disappoints. By visiting the continent’s oldest places, travelers can uncover fascinating history within each and every brick. Exploring a walled city will transport you back to medieval times, and you’ll find Old World charm around every street corner. Here are 16 European cities with walls still standing today, so you can get a sense of what life in the kingdom was like.
The walled city of Granada is one of the most beautiful places in southern Spain to find evidence of the region’s Arabic influence. Home to the famed Alhambra palace and fortress complex, which sits strategically on a hill above the city, Granada’s architecture reflects its defensive position against Christian invaders between the eighth and 15th centuries. Although the city was eventually seized by Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, its Moorish architecture reigns supreme. In addition to the Nasrid Palaces in Alhambra, Albaicín, the old Arabic quarter, is one of the best places to admire the city’s ancient architecture.
Although it was founded by Celtic tribesmen in 1 BCE, the city of Saint-Malo wasn’t officially formed until centuries later, when a Welsh monk named Malo fled to the French region of Brittany after the fall of the Roman Empire. The city was then christened Saint-Malo, although it wouldn’t be fortified with its famous walls for several more centuries. The walls of the historic port were built for protection not only from the threat of pirates and Vikings, but also from the sea, which rises up to the city walls during high tide. Although much of the city was destroyed during the Nazi occupation of World War II, it was later rebuilt with modern amenities, while still retaining its medieval architecture and Old World charm.
It’s hard to visit Rothenburg and not be thoroughly delighted by the ancient city, which was one of the largest settlements in Germany during the Middle Ages. Today, the town is extremely well-preserved, from the wall that surrounds the city (complete with strongholds and stone parapets) to the half-timbered buildings that line the streets. With its colorful architecture and cheerful flower boxes, the city is also a large draw for tourists who want to stay in a town reminiscent of a fairytale. When you do visit, Rothenburg’s historical offerings, such as St. Jakob’s Church and the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum, are sure to keep you busy for a couple of days.
As the birthplace and burial site of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and ecology, Assisi is a city with religion at its core. Home to the stunning San Francesco Basilica, and several other architectural masterpieces, the entire city is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although Assisi’s original fortifications held the town’s residents for centuries, a population boom during the 13th century led to the construction of more city walls to contain the growth. As a result, Assisi is home to two walls, several gates, and multiple fortresses and stone towers — all built to protect the Umbrian residents from those who wished them harm.
With miles of intact walls, some dating back to Roman occupation, York is the best-preserved walled city in England. Originally established as a military settlement by the Romans in the first century, York had walls erected around the fort and surrounding village in order to keep out intruders. These fortifications formed the basic footprint of the walls that still stand today, most of which were built between the 12th and 14th centuries. The old city has four main access points, or “bars,” named for the bar that physically prevented entrance into York — similar to a modern-day toll booth. The city’s main entrance can be found at Micklegate Bar, which was also where kings and queens entered the walled city, touching the state sword as they passed through the gate.
With parts of Carcassonne dating back to the fifth century BCE, the fortified city and castle are considered to be some of the most impressive medieval remains in Europe. Divided between two towns, the Cité and Ville Basse, the city is fortified by two walls, dozens of towers, barbicans, wooden ramparts, and a drawbridge. The castle has also played an important role in European history, including during the Hundred Years’ War and the Medieval Inquisition. Despite its old age, there is life within the city walls, with plenty of shops and cafés open to wandering visitors.
The one-time capital of Spain is an easy day trip from the current capital of Madrid and a marvelous representation of Spain’s cultural history. Although the city of Toledo dates back to 193 BCE, when it was conquered by the Romans, much of its architecture reflects the region’s Moorish period, before it was overtaken by King Alfonso in 1085. As a result, the city represents an amalgamation of Christian, Arab, and Jewish cultures. Outside the city walls, visiting Puente de Alcántara is a must — the ancient Roman bridge was once the city entrance for pilgrims. Once you pass through the gates, Toledo’s history is on display, with narrow cobblestone streets, a medieval castle, and Plaza de Zocodover, the vibrant town square.
Dubrovnik may be one of the most famous walled cities in all of Europe. At 1.2 miles in length and 82 feet at its maximum height, the city’s formidable wall encircles the entirety of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Built during the Middle Ages to prevent attacks along the Adriatic Sea, this fortress has protected the Croatian capital for centuries. In the ninth century, the Siege of Ragusa lasted for 15 months, and the wall stood against the attack. Eleven centuries later, the walls proved useful once more when the Yugoslav People’s Army laid siege on the city from October 1991 until May 1992. Although Dubrovnik has suffered several bumps and bruises throughout the years, the city has long since recovered its charm and beauty, making it an iconic stop for tourists.
From the outside, Ávila looks like something out of an Arthurian legend — the medieval city is surrounded by stone walls, crenelated towers, turrets, and multiple gates. In fact, Ávila is so well-preserved that walking through the magnificent Puerta del Alcázar (Gate of the Fortress) almost feels like time travel. The reasoning behind these fortifications has much to do with the city’s location during the Middle Ages. When Christians began to occupy the region in the 11th century, elaborate walls were erected to keep the Moorish army at bay. Today, visitors can walk atop the walls and even climb some of the turrets, for sweeping views of the city below.
Inside the city wall, Tallinn is a vibrant capital city, with elaborate architecture, colorful doorways, and a bustling main square. But from the outside, the city wall makes Tallinn appear to be an impenetrable fortress from medieval times. With certain sections dating back to the 13th century, over a mile of the original wall remains today. Visitors can walk a short section that connects three adjacent towers (of 26 total), as well as climb 157 steps to the Patkuli platform, for an excellent view of Tallinn’s red roofs.
Although the Greek island of Rhodes has been inhabited since the Stone Age, its namesake city dates back only to medieval times. The two-mile-long wall that surrounds the town was built and occupied by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem between 1308 and 1523, in order to protect Rhodes from foreign invaders. Although the fortified city held against several sieges throughout the years, it eventually fell in 1522 to the Turks. Thanks in large part to its complicated history, the city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an example of Byzantine, Ottoman, and Crusade architecture. Wandering through Old Town is an incredible glimpse into centuries of history, with ornate mosques, an archaeological museum, and the Palace of the Grandmaster.
Situated atop a hill, the Portuguese city of Óbidos remains rather obscure from the outside. The city’s original stone walls were constructed during the Moors Era between the eighth and 11th centuries and then rebuilt after the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755. As soon as you pass through the Porta da Vila, the city’s main gateway, you’ll immediately discover there is more to the city than originally meets the eye. From the glazed tiles hidden within the main entrance to the colorful walls and live plants creeping alongside the historic buildings, Óbidos is a pleasant place to explore. The city’s labyrinth of cobblestone streets will also lead you to the Castelo de Óbidos, a medieval fortress that protected the region for centuries.
The 16th-century walls that surround the historic center of Lucca, Italy, could be considered a piece of Renaissance art. That’s because Leonardo da Vinci himself was the architect behind the system of walls that encircle part of the city. Thanks to their design credibility, Lucca’s walls are still considered to be the city’s crowning achievement. Although the walls were initially built for protection, they were also designed to beautify the city — trees were planted atop the walls to create a promenade that was intended for nobility. Over time, the walls were converted into public walkways, where the Lucchese can often be found enjoying the warm Tuscan sunshine.
The walls surrounding Segovia stretch for nearly two miles, encircling the ancient Spanish city and World Heritage Site. Constructed in the ninth and 10th centuries by Christian and Muslim workers, the walls were partially built from the gravestones of a nearby Roman necropolis (cemetery). Segovia’s most famous feature is also from the Roman Empire — an ancient aqueduct built in the first century. Known as the Aqueduct of Segovia, the elaborate structure stretches for over 10 miles, all the way from the Frío River to the city of Segovia. Even more impressive, it carried the city’s water supply for thousands of years, up until the 20th century. Since no mortar was used during construction, the aqueduct is an impressive feat of engineering, even by today’s standards.
An easy day trip from the city of Bern is the Swiss municipality of Murten. Murten's medieval walls are incredibly well-preserved, making them perfect for exploration. Surrounding the city’s oldest neighborhood, the walls were built over a long period of time, with the lowest section dating back to the 12th century. By 1476, the walls were complete — playing an integral role in protecting the city when it was under siege from the Duke of Burgundy. Murten’s fortifications held for nearly two weeks before the Bernese army arrived to help. Intrepid travelers can explore the walls by climbing the ramparts, which offer impressive views of nearby Lake Murten.
As the most substantial and well-preserved walled city in Scandinavia, Visby also has a fascinating history. Located on the island of Gotland, the area was settled by Vikings before becoming a strategic trading point on the Baltic Sea. As a result, strong fortifications were built in an effort to safeguard the city’s commercial activities. Unfortunately, the walls didn’t provide enough defense for Visby’s citizens in 1361, when the town surrendered to Danish forces during the Battle of Visby. Today, 26 towers remain along the fortification, including Kruttornet, the harbor’s defense tower. Erected in the 12th century, Kruttornet is the oldest intact non-religious building in Scandinavia, and remains open to visitors today.