In towns and cities across Europe, the continent’s storied medieval history is etched into the facades of its buildings and monuments. Here are the best places to encounter this charming spirit.
Not a single corner of the globe was untouched by the impact of Europe’s medieval centuries. From the Romans to the Renaissance there were major leaps forward in farming, art, religion and many other branches of intellectual thought. The Europe that emerged from these Middle Ages was a far more refined, advanced place, setting the stage for the Industrial Revolution and modernity beyond. Today, many of those medieval old towns still endure, offering a charming and tangible glimpse of a past that we can normally only imagine.
To make compiling this list slightly simpler (after all there are thousands of towns and cities across Europe whose histories reach back to medieval times), we set a few rules. Each place needed a current population of between 10,000 and 500,000. And each place needed to have a significant collection of well-preserved medieval relics, such as places of worship, buildings, monuments, streets and town walls. Finally, this list is dedicated to places where that medieval flair can still be readily felt by visitors.
Ávila’s walls (Photo: courtesy of Excmo. Ayuntamiento de Ávila)
You’ll often find that the cities whose medieval centres are still largely intact today result from being well guarded through the centuries. As such, castles and fortifications form a common thread through much of this list. But few have city walls quite so distinctive as those of Ávila, in central Spain’s Castile and León region, west of Madrid. The 88 circular towers and walls span over 2.5km (1.6 miles), enclosing an old town full of 12th– to 16th-century monasteries, convents and basilicas, such as Ávila Cathedral, which was started in 1091, giving it a blend of Romanesque and Gothic features.
While many major European cities have histories stretching back to Roman times and beyond, Bamberg was a child of the medieval era. The first records of the city, which is located in Northern Bavaria, come from the year 902. It grew rapidly to become a key hub of the Holy Roman Empire in Central Europe. Broad influences from around the continent can still be seen in the green spires of Bamberg Cathedral, or the octagonal onion domes of the Schloss Seehof; a nod to the city’s Slavic links. The Old Town Hall, with its yellow half-timbered façade overhanging the river, is a highlight of the beautifully preserved Old Town.
Bern and the Alps beyond
Also born in the medieval era was the Swiss capital city, Bern, a relative baby at only 830 yeas old. Slotting neatly into a narrow horseshoe bend of the Aare River, the Old City of Bern is almost entirely preserved from medieval times, making it a joy to explore for fans of all things antiquity-related. Perhaps unsurprisingly, UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status (another common thread throughout this list), with the Zytglogge, a clock with moving parts, and the 15th-century Berner Münster, a Gothic cathedral, among the highlights. A walk along the Kramgasse is a great way to soak in Bern’s medieval charm.
Most of Italy is richly steeped in history and we could compile an entire list of 20 medieval cities without ever leaving the country. Those that are selected here are among some of the finest cities to visit in the world. Bologna is quite simply a marvel. The historic porticoes, medieval churches and stunning palaces, such as Palazzo d’Accursio, housing the Town Hall and an art gallery, stand around Piazzas that have seen city life thrive for centuries. Once there were dozens of tall defensive towers in Bologna, and remnants of some remain, including the 319-foot Asinelli Tower, one of the Two Towers dating back to around 1119.
Begijnhofbrug in Bruges (Photo: Jan Darthet courtesy of Visit Bruges)
Another impeccably preserved medieval old town in Europe is the eminently charming Bruges, which is perhaps best characterised by its medieval stepped gables, belfries and towers overlooking a series of canals that snake through the town, such as the Rozenhoedkaai. The city’s growth during the 13th century was especially fast thanks to the growing cloth industry, with Bruges being known for its high-quality lace making. This wealth led to the creation of monuments which endure today, including the Belfry of Bruges, a stout tower presiding over the market square.
Carcassonne (Photo: Vincent photographies courtesy of Tourisme de Carcassonne)
Medieval walls and a UNESCO World Heritage listing are not the only reasons why Carcassonne was impossible to ignore when compiling this list. The Cité de Carcassonne, as the fortress part of the city is known, was begun by the Romans, who saw the hill as a perfect site for a defensive structure. As time has passed and the city has grown beyond the walls, remarkably, much of the land on three sides of this old citadel has remained as it has for centuries: filled with neat rows of vineyards. Wandering the maze of cobbled streets within is a treat.
Český Krumlov, Czech Republic
In the Czech Republic’s South Bohemia, Český Krumlov is another place where the original town was built in a tight bend of a river. In this case, the Vltava River forms a neat oxbow around a small parcel of land, which would have made it well protected from attack. Český Krumlov Castle, founded around 1250, sits outside this protective ring, atop a rocky outcrop on the opposite river bank. The Upper Castle, with its imposing walls, and the multi-storey Cloak Bridge alone are worth the trip.
Český Krumlov (Photo: Jiří Dužár courtesy of Český Krumlov Region)
For a blend of German and French culture and architecture, many people head to Strasbourg, but Colmar, 70km (43 miles) south, is arguably one of France’s most charming medieval towns. Higgledy-piggledy rows of colourful, half-timbered buildings line cobbled streets, with the oldest medieval homes exhibiting Gothic design motifs, while Baroque and Renaissance styles, such as those of Maison Pfister, are also common. For wine lovers, Alsatian wine production is centred around Colmar, making a wine tour an excellent ancillary activity during your visit. Dry Rieslings and other (what might be considered) German-style whites are the specialty of this region.
Pretty waterways of Colmar (Photo: Emmanuel Fromm courtesy of Tourisme Colmar)
The walls of Dubrovnik deserve their own article, such is their magnificence, creating an impregnable barrier to the Adriatic Sea and any invading forces spirited across it. Built mostly during medieval times, from the 12th century onwards, Dubrovnik was a jewel in the Republic of Venice’s crown until the city became a free state from the 14th century until 1815. More recently, Dubrovnik became the centre of a Game of Thrones tourism craze as the Old Town offered the perfect setting for scenes depicting the fictitious King’s Landing. Other main sights include the Rector’s Palace and the 13th-century Fort Lovrijenac.
Dubrovnik by the Adriatic Sea (Photo: Igor Brautovic courtesy of Dubrovnik Tourist Board)
Granada is one of the more unique inclusions on this list. While many cities across the continent were developing what could be called a European aesthetic, Granada’s influences were decidedly Islamic, up until 1492, when the Moors were finally ousted from their stunning fortified palace, the Alhambra. The charming complex, containing the Alhambra, Alcazaba Fortress and the Generalife, an 11th-century summer palace and gardens, is a study of geometric perfection. Meanwhile, in the winding streets of the Sacromonte, you’ll discover the source of much Spanish culture, such as flamenco.
Mountains overlook Granada’s Alhambra (Photo: Pepe Serrano via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)
If you want to understand Portugal, come to Guimarães, which is considered by many to be the birthplace of the nation. It was certainly the birthplace of Afonso Henriques, who became Portugal’s first king, after the Battle of São Mamede in 1128, which took place near the city. Today Guimarães, which sits northeast of Porto, still retains many medieval structures, such as the Romanesque Castle of Guimarães and the Palace Duques de Bragança, with its impressive tapestries in lofty stone halls. Those making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela further north often stopped in the Praça de São Tiago, a pretty plaza with lots of outdoor dining options.
After they were done conquering the British Isles, the Normans took on Ireland and it was under their oversight that Kilkenny became an important merchant hub. While a lot of the character of those days has been replaced by more modern buildings, there’s enough charm in the main sights to go around, starting with the 12th-century Kilkenny Castle and its gardens overlooking the River Nore. A discovery trail through Kilkenny links the castle to the other main medieval sights, such as St Canice’s Cathedral, a section of which dates back to the 9th century.
Boating on the Malerwinkel in Lübeck (Photo: courtesy of LTM)
One of Europe’s main defensive unions during the medieval years was the Hanseatic League, which bound many major Baltic cities in Northern Europe together. The heart of this union was Lübeck, which lies 61km (38 miles) northeast of Hamburg. The city had easy water access to the Baltic Sea and the Old Town is essentially an island, protected by canals and rivers on all sides. Green church steeples, the thick round Gothic towers of the Holsten Gate, and the 13th-century Town Hall and marketplace are highlights. There are also house museums dedicated to Thomas Mann and Günter Grass, both former residents of Lübeck.
Gate of Amboise in Rhodes Old Town (Photo: dronepicr via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)
An Ancient Wonder of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes, may never even have existed, but the medieval city of Rhodes is a beautiful sight that you can witness for yourself. The city was forged amid the intense heat of the Crusades, and with the island located so close to the Turkish mainland, the founding Knights of Rhodes needed strong walls and plenty of places of Christian worship. The Palace of the Grand Master is a beautiful castle and the charming medieval walled town is big enough to explore for hours, where you’ll also discover mosques, which were built after the city fell to the Ottomans in 1522.
Many accolades have been awarded to Romania’s Sibiu, located in the south of the Transylvania region, in recognition of its architecture, history and cuisine. Among them are the European Capital of Culture in 2007, and European Region of Gastronomy in 2019. The city centre is dotted with old fortifications from the 12th and 13th centuries, including the Council Tower, now offering a great city view. During the latter stages of the medieval era, a quirk of design adopted to help ventilate the attics of houses created what look like eyes in the roofs. These eyebrow dormers are what lend Sibiu its nickname: the city with eyes.
Torre del Mangia in Siena (Photo: Giuseppe Milo via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)
Beautiful Tuscany was the cradle of the Renaissance, something that would not have been possible without medieval cities with well-developed culture and education in the area first. Among them, Siena retains a charming, small-town atmosphere that is filled with glimpses of that former life, particularly in the Piazza del Campo with its iconic red-brick town hall and 87-metre-high Torre del Mangia, a square, castellated tower overlooking the city. One of the world’s oldest banks, Monte dei Paschi, originated in Siena in the 15th century, when the town was a key banking centre.
There’s nowhere quite like Estonia’s capital city, Tallinn, another city which thrived from the prosperous trading agreement of the Hanseatic League. Medieval city walls, with round, terracotta-roofed guard towers and Germanic green church spires share space with the onion domes of the Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a reminder that Estonia shifted from Central European to Russian control in more recent centuries. Despite these changing fortunes, Tallinn never really lost its charm, thanks to the Baltic Sea link, connecting it to Finland and beyond. Therefore, the city’s Old Town is among the best and most extensively preserved medieval spaces on this list.
East and West merge in Tallinn (Photo: Rob Oo via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)
Toledo is another of Spain’s Castilla-La Mancha-region cities, as with Ávila, that has managed to retain much of its charming medieval atmosphere. Sustained by the Tagus River in an otherwise arid stretch of the country, Toledo is often said to be one of Spain’s most important cultural centres. It was formerly capital of the Visigoth Kingdom, and seat of Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, Charles V, under whose reign the Spanish colonised the Americas and the Catholic Church faced the Protestant revolt. As such the Alcazar, the cathedral and Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes are not only top sights in Toledo, but in all of Spain.
As the Middle Ages hurtled towards a significant paradigm shift – known as the Renaissance – that saw Europe, and thereby the whole world, transition into the Modern Age, there were key figures who made the leap possible. One was astronomer and mathematician Nicolas Copernicus, who figured out that the Earth orbited the Sun, not the other way around. His home is one of many charming sights in the medieval Old Town of Toruń which, as is perhaps unsurprising on this list, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, particularly due to its Gothic city walls and churches.
A walk along York Wall (Photo: Stevie Campbell courtesy of Visit York)
Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, you name it, York has seen it. The city was, for many centuries, one of the most important settlements in Britain. This capital city in the north lead to fortifications such as the Roman Walls, and York Castle, which was built in the 11th century to prevent the Vikings retaking the city. Around the same time, York Minster was begun, becoming one of the largest cathedrals in Northern Europe. But perhaps the heart of York’s medieval charm can be found beneath the overhanging, half-timbered buildings tightly packed along The Shambles, a former meat market turned quaint shopping street.