One of the best things about Europe is that you can travel throughout the continent for any number of different reasons. You can hop on the Eurail to try to see as many destinations as possible, you can seek out the best beaches or the best seaside towns, you can hop between capitals or do a festival tour, and the list goes on. One common thread through just about every type of European tourism, however, is history. It almost doesn’t matter where you go on the continent, you’ll probably be in an area with a rich past and landmarks to show for it, and this is part of what makes Europe so interesting to so many people. But what if you set out on a trip specifically to interact with all of this history as closely as possible?
Such a trip could take you through cities big and small, famous and remote, looking at and learning about some of the oldest and most historically fascinating attractions in this part of the world. These, we thought, would be some of the best cities to start your itinerary with.
There may not be another city in Europe that comes to mind as readily as Athens when thinking from an historical perspective. The de facto capital of ancient Greece (even if ancient Greece was more or less divided into small city-states and kingdoms), Athens is arguably the first great city of Western civilization, and many of the monuments from its classical heyday remain at least partially intact. In particular, the chance to scale the acropolis and see the Parthenon in person is incredible, and gives you a humbling sense of the past. This is one of the oldest cities in Europe, and certainly the most impressive of any with its age.
Athens isn’t a particularly surprising selection on a list like this, but you’re less likely to have heard of Plovdiv. This is actually also one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe according to a fun list on the topic, having originally been a Thracian settlement known as Philippopolis in Greek times. Now a beautiful cultural hot spot in Bulgaria, and the country’s second biggest city, its history includes occupation and command by the Romans and Ottomans. Though Plovdiv doesn’t have a defining monument like the Parthenon, it is itself a testament to Europe’s deep, turbulent, and fascinating past.
The UK is actually full of towns that date back to ancient settlements by all kinds of different cultures from the old world. But Bath might be the most interesting of the bunch, not for any connection to Saxon wanderers, Norman conquerors or Viking marauders, but because it’s effectively an ancient Roman city. Even now you can tour Roman baths in the city, and it’s become something of a spa town as if upholding its reputation from 2,000 years ago!
Aside from Athens, Rome is probably the first city that comes to mind. Known as the “eternal city,” it checks all the same marks as Athens in terms of preserving ancient structures in what is now a thriving modern city. And rest assured it’s no accident that places like the forum and the Colosseum are still standing. A recent article shed light on how hard Rome works to preserve its history, referencing a lottery with funds aimed at keeping the Colosseum in good shape, as well as another 25 million euros donated by fashion mogul Diego Della Valle. However they do it, Rome has remained an incredible snapshot of the ancient world.
Not all of Europe’s interesting history has to date back thousands of years. In some cases, mere hundreds will do! And in this sense, Budapest is about as incredible as it gets, along with other cities like St. Petersburg, Russia and Prague, Czech Republic. Budapest has played a vital role in geopolitics throughout its history, particularly through Ottoman rule in the 16th century and the Hapsburg era over the next couple of centuries.
Tours isn’t itself a particular destination for those with a touch of historical wanderlust, but it happens to be near one of the most interesting castles in all of Europe. And a list like this wouldn’t be complete without mentioning a castle, given that so many of them are spread out around the continent! Specifically, Chateau de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley just a short distance from Tours is a wonder to behold. Built across the River Cher and dating back to the 11th century, it remains intact, having survived numerous wars and various expansions and changes in ownership. While it can be busy to visit, it’s worth your time. You won’t find many castles this old that are still this beautiful.