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The Best of Europe: Top Cities for History

The Best of Europe: Top Cities for History
Jennifer Walker
By: Jennifer Walker
Reading time: 14 min

History lives around every corner in Europe. Whether you’re wandering the streets of Rome, where ruins intertwine with renaissance buildings or past recent scars on the façades in Sarajevo, it’s impossible to avoid history. If you have a passion for the past or you simply long to saunter down the streets where history was made, pay a visit to the top cities for history in Europe.


Europe is diverse, so coming up with a list of the best of Europe is no easy task. Especially when each city offers something for everyone, in this article we’ll focus on historic cities from all corners of Europe, from Paris to Tbilisi, from Istanbul to Berlin, find the perfect break for history lovers, to inspire you to pack those bags and set off on an adventure.


Athens: The Cradle of Western Civilization

Top Cities for History - Athens


Home to the first democracy in the world, the former stomping grounds of great philosophers and legendary figures, it’s easy to fall in love with Athens and its iconic ruins. Athens tops the list of the top cities for history in Europe, especially as it mixes up the ancient with modern. Today, Athens is a city that bustles with an edge, where relics from its past blend flawlessly into the city’s vibrant café culture. Strolling along from Acropolis down to the Ancient Agora, the National History Museum and the Sacred Way, you’ll find archaeology round each corner. If you want to walk in the steps of Plato, Socrates or follow figures from mythology, then Athens is the perfect city for you.


The good thing about Athens is even when you need a break from clambering Greek ruins, there is enough to keep you busy. Explore the flea markets of Monastiraki or sip a coffee in The Plaka under the shadow of the Acropolis. Athens is a city that lives and breathes, and while you can find echoes of its history around each corner, it’s a place that’s alive and thriving, and more than just home to ruins.


So explore the sites, get lost among the streets of bohemian Exarchia after a visit to the National History Museum, and if you can’t seem to get enough history, then take a day trip to the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion or visit one of the enigmatic cities from Greek myth and legend, like Delphi or Corinth.  


Rome: The Heart of an Empire

Top Cities for History - Rome


All roads lead to Rome and for centuries it marked the beating heart of an Empire that ran from the Scottish Border to the Middle East and North Africa. Rome is a city where history has built up upon a tapestry that blends its ancient Roman ruins with renaissance and Baroque grandeur. Any history lover can get lost in the complex enigma that is Rome. Whether you choose to spend a day at the Colosseum and the Palatine, walk the Appian Way or chase iconic art at the Vatican City Museums.


Rome is a city that needs more than a few days. It’s one of the top cities for history and culture and makes the ideal destination for your perfect city break. Whether you want to immerse yourself in the history of its decadent caesars, make an artistic pilgrimage to the masterpieces by Michelangelo and Bernini or even sites from classic moments of cinema, like the Trevi Fountain immortalized by Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (although we don’t recommend bathing in the fountain like Anita Eckberg ), Rome is one of the most historic places to visit in the world and you’ll be guaranteed to find that it has something that will interest anyone!


And once you’re done sightseeing, then enjoy an Italian meal in the winding, ivy-clad streets of Trastevere or take a relaxing stroll along the Tiber River, or spend the golden hour on the Spanish Steps before Rome’s nightlife gets buzzing.


Istanbul: Bridging Europe and Asia

Top Cities for History - Istanbul


Istanbul was Constantinople, and before that it was Byzantium. Spanning two continents with one foot in Europe and another in Asia, this ancient city once bookended the famous Silk Road that ran all the way from China and across Central Asia. For centuries Istanbul was a cosmopolitan hub and a multicultural melting pot that can still be felt along its narrow streets winding up the hillside around Sultanahmet and the diverse neighborhoods encircling the Golden Horn and beyond across the Bosphorus.


Like Rome, Istanbul contains various layers of history. For Roman relics, head underground to the labyrinth of columns in the Basilica Cistern, for Byzantine glory the Hagia Sofia is a must, and for Ottoman grandeur, explore the city’s stunning mosques, like the Sultanahmet Mosque or the Blue Mosque. Museum lovers may want to wander the archaeological museum or lose themselves in the gardens and the tiled rooms of the Topkapi Palace and Harem. But if you prefer history away from the iconic sites, then Balat and Fener are interesting neighborhoods to explore. Fener is the old Greek quarter, where you can still find the Greek Patriarchy and Greek School, whereas Fener is a vibrant district that was once home to the city’s Jewish population. Today, you can still make out Hebrew inscriptions close to the micro-galleries and trendy cafés in this up-and-coming neighborhood.


Istanbul is such a feast for the senses, it’s easy to become seduced by this fascinating city that straddles east and west.


Berlin: A Divided Europe

Top Cities for History - Berlin


Berlin may not have the historical pedigree that Athens, Rome, and Istanbul carry, but it’s a city that has made its mark in recent history. Berlin has shaped some of the great minds in the 20th century, it’s been a place where some of the most important and defining moments have taken place.


From Hitler to the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, to Einstein, Marx and Prussian splendor, Berlin is a city where even its walls have stories to tell. If museums are your beat, Berlin has them in abundance. But the best thing about Berlin is to simply immerse yourself in its vibrant contemporary life, whether it’s bar hopping in Kreutzberg or exploring its notorious club life in converted industrial spaces, such as the legendary Berghain and more.


Berlin has something for everyone and it’s also a city where you can feel history at each turn. Check out Checkpoint Charlie, pay your respects at the Holocaust Memorial, feel the difference between former East and West Berlin. Feel the poignant reality of the past in one of Europe’s most exciting historical cities.


Plovdiv: One of the Oldest Inhabited Cities in Europe

Top Cities for History - Plovdiv


While you may not have heard of Plovdiv, Bulgaria’s second city certainly makes the cut as being one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Europe. Once an ancient Thracian city, today’s Plovdiv blends Roman ruins with a Balkan feel with a few Ottoman influences here and there. At the heart of the old city, the Roman Theater is perhaps the most spectacular, with views over towards the Rhodope Mountains peeking behind the columns in the distance. New ruins can be found scattered around the town, and you may walk past the downtown shopping area with the odd column or piece of archaeology appearing somewhere in the backdrop.


The city meanders over the hills - said to be seven, similar to Rome - with painted wooden houses, the most famous housing the Ethnographic Museum. Beyond the town itself, Plovdiv is worth visiting for an excursion into the nearby Rhodope Mountains, said to be the birthplace of the mythical figure of Orpheus. From Orthodox monasteries to medieval fortresses and Thracian cities, there is a lot to keep any history interested and entertained on a city break to this quiet and charming Bulgarian city, which is also one of the most historic places to visit in the world.


Sarajevo: Memories of a Siege

Top Cities for History - Sarajevo


In the 1990s, Sarajevo became a name associated with war and destruction. Twenty years later, the vibrant capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina has become one of the most exciting city break destinations in Europe. Going back before the 20th century, Sarajevo was a city of various cultural influences, mostly from the Ottomans to the Habsburgs, where today its downtown part of the city feels like a miniature Istanbul to one side with mosques, madrassas and caravanserais, and to the other like Vienna with grand Habsburg era buildings and wide boulevards.


Sarajevo is also a city that has seen some key events from the 20th century, such as the spot that ignited World War I with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and more recent scars from the Siege of Sarajevo that took place during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. Today, some parts of the city look like the war happened only yesterday, where white stones form countless cemeteries on the surrounding hillsides the encircle the city. The Tunnel of Life, a tunnel that ran under the United Nations controlled airport that provided a vital lifeline to the besieged city is now a poignant museum that can be visited, and other recent sites include the 1980s Winter Olympics site and the poignant interactive exhibition commemorating the Srebrenica massacre. Combining recent and ancient history, Sarajevo is one of the top cities for history in Europe. 


St. Petersburg: Home of the Tsars

Top Cities for History - St. Petersburg


Once the city of the Tsar, there is something about St Petersburg’s wide boulevards and elegant palaces. While Moscow is the Russian capital today, history lovers should make a beeline to this former imperial capital instead for your dose of art, culture, and history. Relics from Imperial Russia lie across this city on the Baltic Sea, where some date back to the city’s founder Peter the Great, whereas others were built at the height of the Romanov’s golden age. Elegant canals wind in and out of the city, being crossed by over 300 bridges, lined with neoclassical and baroque mansions and grand plazas. But the true crown jewel is the mint-green Hermitage Museum, once Catherine the Great’s Winter Palace, which today is home to one of the best art collections in the world.


Museum and history lovers should also check out the Russian Museum in the Mikhailovsky Palace, home to the biggest collection of Russian art. Other sites in the historic center include the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood, with its candy-colored five domes, and if you’re interested in a spot of culture, the take in a show at the Mariinsky Theater.


Paris: City of Light

Top Cities for History - Paris


A city like Paris needs no introduction. Apart from its romantic landmarks, grand boulevards, and Seine-side strolls, it’s also a city that houses many secrets corners that will excite any history lover. With relics echoing to Paris’s medieval heritage, such as the Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral to regal palaces from the Enlightenment, such as Versailles, it’s a city with a range curious sites.


Go underground into the catacombs or pay a visit to some of Paris’s most famous historical residents at the Pére Lachaise Cemetery. And if you love museums, you can’t beat the Louvre or the Musée D’Orsay, among others in Paris’s spectacular selection. Paris may not have any archaeology, but there is plenty of history to go around - especially when it comes to the golden age of 19th and 20th-century art and literature. You can still sip coffee in cafés on the Left Bank where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to hang out or explore the winding streets of Montmartre to the Moulin Rouge, immortalized in Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings.


Whether you visit Paris in the spring or any other time of year, there is no shortage of stories, histories, and legends in Paris. And, while exploring the City of Light, who knows what surprises you may find lying around the corner.


Prague: A Living Time Capsule

Top Cities for History - Prague


You’ll find most European cities come with their own history, but few are as well preserved as Prague. This Central European city can trace its origins back a millennium, so lose yourself under its fairytale turrets among its maze of cobbled streets and hidden plazas, and take a walk across the 14th century Charles Bridge for views over the Vltava. Prague is a treasure chest of curiosities from its old-timey cafés and absinthe bars to historic chapels and hidden gardens. It’s so easy to just explore the city on foot, it’s ideal for the traveler who likes to wander aimlessly. While Prague may not have any epic museums like St. Petersburg, Berlin or Paris, it makes up for it with its local culture and charm, but there are plenty of art galleries to check out. The Gothic altarpieces you’ll find in the Convent of St. Agnes will appeal to any medievalist, and if it’s art nouveau you’re after, then pay a visit to Veletržní Palác. Or even better, just look up and catch the details on Prague’s stunning buildings. Once you find you’ve had your fair share of culture, then sit down and enjoy a glass of famous Czech beer.


Prague is a city that blends history with modern and quirky design and modern art. So if you need a break from all that history, you can come back into the 21st century with no problem.


Tbilisi: Heart of the Caucasus

Top Cities for History - Tbilisi


Istanbul is not the only city that lies on a boundary between East and West, over in the South Caucasus, Georgia is often dubbed as Europe’s most eastern frontier, and it its capital Tbilisi, you’ll find a curious melting pot of history and culture that is utterly unique. The Georgian old town threads along winding streets past dilapidated houses with wrought iron balconies and stained glass windows. You’ll find the ruins of most northern Zoroastrian fire temple here, along with medieval churches and a collection of sulfur baths with Azeri mosaic work and ottoman-style domes.


Away from the old town, art nouveau villas built during the Russian Empire mix with Soviet buildings and modern architecture, like the giant glass bridge spanning the Mtkvari River. Tbilisi is a city of eclectic styles and a melting pot of cultures drawing from its surrounding neighbors, such as Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkey and even as far as Iran. And if you want to explore history away from the city, then Stalin’s hometown of Gori is only an hour away from the Georgian capital, as well as the ancient capital of Mtskheta or the cave city of Uplistsikhe.


And if you want a break from history, then sample some wonderful Georgian food, like khachapuri, a decadent cheese bread or khinkali, dumplings filled with spicy meat all washed down with Georgian wine. Georgia is supposed to be the first country to have produced wine, so even that glass of red comes with a historical backstory.


With more and more low-cost flights flying to Georgia, if you’re looking for a historic city break with a difference, then you can’t beat the Land of the Golden Fleece over in the South Caucasus region. One thing is for sure, you’ll come home with many stories to tell!  


Whether you’re looking to explore the top cities for history or simply want to explore more of Europe, find out more about how to create the perfect city break for your next jaunt to Europe.


Jennifer Walker

Created by: Jennifer Walker

Jennifer is a Budapest-based writer with bylines in Condé Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet, The Guardian, The Independent, among others. You can read her work and get in touch at jenniferdeborahwalker.com

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