The 10 Most Beautiful Medieval Cities In Europe
Life in the ancient world was much different than life today. As humans began to develop agriculture, towns began to pop up around the countryside. Soon, we developed skills for building with stone masonry. It was at this point the first medieval cities began to show themselves around Europe. These massive defensive walled cities were intended to keep the enemy out, and the villagers in. Those who dare to travel outside the city walls were left to face the perils of a lawless countryside on their own.
Medieval builders were so skilled, that even now, hundreds of years later the city walls still stand. A testament to the dedication and heart of a robust civilization. So let’s take a trip from Spain to Poland and even Croatia and get a glimpse of ten of the most beautifully preserved medieval cities in Europe.
1. Torun, Poland
The medieval old town of Torun rests quietly on the banks of the Vistula River. With its first settlement dating back to 1100 BC, it is one of the oldest cities in all of Poland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the birthplace of famed astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus! Somehow the city escaped any substantial destruction during WWII making the amazing old town of Torun stand out among walled cities.
2. Dubrovnik, Croatia
Game of Thrones fans eat your heart out! This is Dubrovnik, Croatia. The amazing walls of this city overlook the royal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea. There has been a city on these rocks since at leat the 7th century! There is much debate regarding the actual origins of this breathtaking city by the sea, though most of us know that this fantastic place is the seat of The Seven Kingdoms. The one and only Kings Landing.
3. Mdina, Malta
It would be impossible to discuss medieval walled cities without talking about Mdina, Malta. This amazing fortified city has a population of fewer than 300 people! Most interestingly, the gate opens every morning around 8 am. Before that, the city is closed off to the rest of the world. It is primarily a car-free zone, yet you are certain to come across the same kind of horse-drawn carriages that Cersei Lannister road into Kings Landing in season one. Also known as the silent city, this is a definite must-see medieval town!
4. Valletta, Malta
Since we are already traveling around the Mediterranean, let’s stay in Malta for a moment and consider the amazing fortified city of Valletta. Nowhere in the world have I ever seen anything quite like this. There has been a city on these rocky outcrops since the 16th century. If you want to get an idea of how imposing the walls are, you will need to view Valletta from the sea. Get into the Grand Harbour and catch a day cruise, the massive defensive walls are a site to behold. They continue to do their job well, keeping the sea and any potential enemies at bay.
5. Obidos, Portugal
Derived from the Latin word for the citadel, the town’s name “Obidos” says it all! This ancient Roman settlement nestled in these Portuguese foothills is an imposing site to see. After the fall of Rome, the Visigoths took power in this region. And sometimes after the year 700, the Moors took control establishing a fortification on the mountain top. The castle and the walls remain standing today, overlooking the Atlantic ocean. Two weeks out of the year the town is host to a medieval re-enactment festival. Actors and people from around Portugal come and bring to life the memory of medieval Portuguese life.
6. Carcassonne, France
People have lived on the site of Carcassonne since the Neolithic period. The Romans did not miss the strategic significance and occupied the hilltop until the fall of the Roman Empire. In the 5th century, the Visigoths founded the city as we know it today. Interestingly, Carcassonne was the first fortress to use hoardings in times of siege. My first thought was how filming an episode of TLC’s Hoarders would look in a medieval castle! In actuality, hoardings in this sense are something entirely different. A hoarding is a temporary wooden construction placed on the outside of a fortress during a siege. Certainly not to be mistaken with your grandmother’s collection of hoarded old newspapers.
7. Avila, Spain
We’ve traveled around a few medieval cities on the coast, so now from Portugal, we go further inland to Spain. Avila, also known as The Town of Stones and Saints, claims to have the highest number of Gothic churches in all of Spain. Though this may be disputable, it certainly has some of the most well-preserved city walls in all of Europe. Interestingly, this fortress does not look out upon the sea. Instead, it rests along the banks of the Adaja River. People have lived on this site as far back as the 1st century. It is also yet another of the medieval cities that was taken over by the Visigoths on their adventures through Europe.
8. Mont St Michael, France
There is medieval beauty, and then there is Mont St. Michael in France. This astounding island commune in Normandy is so awe inspiring there are almost no words to describe it. Today, only 44 people live in this fairytale site. Unfortunately, it is not possible to know the exact moment that the first person chose to inhabit this island. Legend has it; an old Irish Hermit settled on the rocky island. He eventually gathered a following from the surrounding local communities which became Mont St Michaels. That is a pretty impressive achievement for any hermit!
9. Città di San Marino, Italy
This small medieval city in Italy is well known, mostly because it is one of Europe’s few microstates. It is also, the sole remaining Italian microstate. As the world’s 5th smallest state, it also claims to be the world’s only surviving republic. San Marino dates back to well before the middle ages. The original origin of San Marino is questionable, but according to tradition, in the year 301 AD by a stonemason named Marinus, the Dalmatian settled here. True or not, the town still boasts some excellent examples of medieval stonemasonry.
10. San Gimignano, Italy
The well known Town of Five Towers, also known as San Gimignano, is one of the best medieval cities because of its beautifully preserved medieval architecture. Located on the top of a hill in the middle of Tuscany the towers and walls present an unforgettable site. What started out as a small village in the 3rd century BC has grown into this amazing walled fortress in Italy. Full of notable examples of Romanesque and Gothic architecture it is indeed a feast for the eyes. No matter which of the eight city entrances you take to get inside the city, you will not be disappointed by the views. If you’re looking for Italian frescos and Gothic art, go to San Gimignano. And while you’re there have a gelato on the piazza. You’ll thank yourself later.