Craving a history fix? We’ve got the lowdown on where to find Europe’s most beautiful old towns, and they’re all easily accessible via direct flights from the UK
A medieval city wedged into the crease of a forested valley, Brasov—now connected to the UK via direct flights courtesy of Wizz Air—is famous for its heady mix of Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance architecture, and its rich history. The city was founded in 1211 by the Teutonic Knights.
Top of your list should be a visit to the old town’s Piața Sfatului (town square), famous for its baroque buildings, and its Black Church. This is Romania’s largest church and it’s truly stood the test of time—it earned its name after its walls were blackened by a fearsome fire in the 1600s. The flames destroyed most of the city, but the church survived.
Stay at: The Radisson Blu Aurum Hotel, Brasov, in the heart of the city’s old town.
Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, has hogged the spotlight for far too long, in our opinion. Tartu has fewer crowds, one of Europe’s oldest universities (hence the Suudlevad Tudengid, or “kissing students” statues in front of its town hall) and is incredibly easy to explore on foot. The best bit? It’s one of several European Capitals of Culture in 2024.
"Estonia’s capital, Tallinn, has hogged the spotlight for far too long, in our opinion"
We recommend starting your exploration in the old town’s Raekoja Plats (town square). This is where you’ll find some of the best cafés, and it’s a great spot to refuel before a visit to St John’s Church—climb to the top of its tower for gorgeous views over the city. You don’t have to be a green-fingered guru to appreciate an exploration of the University of Tartu’s Botanical Garden, maintained by the university’s botanists and filled with spectacular sculptures.
Stay at: Hotel Dorpat. You’ll be just a short walk from the old town but a stone’s throw away from the beautiful Emajõgi River (bag a river view room if you can).
Rome can get crowded during the summer months, granted, but we’ve yet to come across a city with more ancient monuments shoehorned into its centre. And now you can even stay in one—more specifically the InterContinental Rome Ambasciatori Palace. It opened in May inside the Palace of the Ambasciatori, first used as a residence for visiting ambassadors in 1906.
With so many historic sites, a visit to Rome’s Centro Storico (old town) requires some prioritising, so we suggest starting with the Spanish Steps, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Roman Forum. Need some time out? Head to one of Rome’s numerous historic gardens. Our favourite is the Villa Borghese gardens, which dates back to the 1600s. Keep an eye out for the stunning replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
Stay at: The Hilton Garden Inn Rome Claridge in Parioli, one of Rome’s quieter neighbourhoods.
A fragrant seafront city famous for its seafood and soap (the latter has been produced here since the 1600s), Marseille is often overshadowed by coastal cities such as Cannes and Biarritz, but there’s something wonderful about Marseille’s lack of pretention.
Its old town (known as Le Panier) starts from the north of the port and features a web of narrow streets which criss-crosses the slopes of a hill. Another great place for a history lesson is the city’s Cosquer Méditerranée museum, where you’ll find a replica of the supersized cave—complete with prehistoric cave art—discovered nearby 33,000 years ago.
Le Vieux Port, on the waterfront, is a brilliant people-watching spot, but don’t forget to pay your respects at the Notre Dame de la Garde, a spectacular basilica overlooking the city.
Stay at: Book a room at the Holiday Inn Express Marseille—Saint Charles and you’ll be close to both the Vieux-Port and Marseille Saint Charles Station.
Vilnius, which celebrated its 700th birthday in 2023, has the largest old town in northern Europe. Known as Senamiestis in Lithuanian, this UNESCO-listed district is an explosion of Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Classical architecture.
The city’s most famous structures include Gediminas Castle, which is the symbol of Vilnius and a great spot to enjoy breathtaking views (head inside to check out the small museum), Vilnius Cathedral, with its ancient catacombs, and Vilnius University, which dates back to the sixteenth century and can be explored on guided tours.
"Vilnius, which celebrated its 700th birthday in 2023, has the largest old town in northern Europe"
For an insight into the darker periods of the city’s past, check out the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights—this is where the KGB once interrogated those who took a stand against Soviet rule.
Stay at: The Hilton Garden Inn Vilnius City Centre, on Gedimino Avenue. The old town, Lukiškiu Square and the Museum of Occupations and Freedom Fights are all just a short walk away.
Porto is another city with a UNESCO-listed old town—in this case the Ribeira, which you’ll find perched on the banks of the Douro river. Its most famous landmarks include the Dom Luís I bridge, built by Téophile Seyrig (a one-time colleague of Gustav Eiffel, who constructed Paris’s famous tower), and the Praça da Ribeira, a beautiful city square surrounded by some of Porto’s oldest buildings.
For the best views of the old town, clamber up the steep stairs cut into the steep hills which surround the city centre. Don’t forget to check out the city’s São Bento train station either—it’s famous for its detailed frescos made from thousands of painted tiles, known as azulejos.
Stay at: Torel 1884—a boutique hotel inside an eighteenth-century palace.
You can’t beat Valencia for a history fix. This beautiful Spanish city is over 2,000 years old and has one of Europe’s largest old towns. Its grandest buildings include the Church of San Nicolás (commonly referred to as Spain’s Sistine Chapel), the Basílica de la Vírgen de los Desamparados (Basilica of our Lady of the Forsaken) and the UNESCO-listed La Lonja (Silk Exchange).
You can fuel your explorations with huge plates of fideuà, a type of paella made with pasta instead of rice. Make sure you check out El Cabanyal, too—you’ll find this historic fishermen’s district on the waterfront, and it’s got some of the city’s best cafés.
Stay at: The Balandret Hotel, a boutique property with beautiful murals made from botijos (water jars) in the reception area.
Full disclosure—the vast majority of Warsaw’s old town had to be reconstructed after the Second World War, but it was done so with such attention to detail that the entire neighbourhood was subsequently given UNESCO status.
"Warsaw’s old town had to be reconstructed after the Second World War"
To gain an insight into its tumultuous past, visit the Museum of Warsaw, made up of 11 historical tenement buildings, and the Royal Castle, which served as the residence of Poland’s kings from the 16th century onwards. It’s jam-packed with priceless works of art, including masterpieces by Rembrandt and Canaletto.
Stay at: The Warsaw Marriott Hotel. It’s just a few metres from the old town, and you can head to the gorgeous spa to soothe any aches and pains after a day pounding the city’s cobbled streets.
Geneva’s old town, known as Vieille Ville, is enormous, although St Peter’s Cathedral, with its sky-scraping steeple, serves as a great point of reference.
You’ll find Geneva’s old town on the left bank of Lake Geneva (otherwise known as Lac Léman) and it’s packed with historic buildings. Our favourite? The Maison Tavel, which dates back to the 1300s and is regarded as one of Switzerland’s finest examples of medieval architecture. It’s now a six-storey museum, and a fantastic place to learn about Geneva’s history.
Fun fact, the old town has the world’s longest wooden bench. You’ll find the 120-metre-long Treille Promenade in La Promenade de la Treille, a beautiful square. Constructed in the 1700s, the bench is a great spot to soak up views of the Salève Mountain, which towers over the city.
Stay at: Hotel d'Alleves, which was built in the 1500s and is packed with original features.
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