Europe is rich in history spanning from ancient civilization right up until the present day. But nothing can quite compare to the Middle Ages. We’ll take a look at six of the best medieval cities in Europe.
1. York, England
England is home to some great historical cities. Canterbury and even large portions of London stand out as well preserved examples of a bygone era. But nothing comes close to York. As one of the former major political centres in the north of the country, York has been at the apex of some of the most pivotal events in English history. It’s been ruled by Vikings, decimated by the Normans, was the site of the Council of the North, and much more. Really the only thing that didn’t happen was William Wallace sacking the place (sorry Braveheart).
York may no longer be the centre of Northern life, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer. The York Minster still stands as the largest Gothic Cathedral in northern Europe while the old city walls remain, providing a magnificent walk for any interested party. No trip is complete without a stop at The Shambles – a preserved medieval street that still retains the overhanging building ascetic popular in the late Middle Ages.
2. Bruges, Belgium
Sometimes referred to as ‘Venice of the North’, this Belgian city has been enchanting visitors from all over the world for years. The winding canals and waterways make for an intoxicating cityscape, and they are thankfully less crowded than its Italian counterparts. While Bruges went into a decline after the medieval period, much of the city centre remains preserved. With the newfound designation of ‘European Capital of Culture’, the city has become a popular, yet still unique stop on any European adventure.
If you’ve seen the film In Bruges, you likely know what to expect. The massive tower stands tall in the middle of the market square (or markt) and is the most immediately apparent landmark. Beyond that, the whole city has an otherworldly fairy tale ascetic that is enchanting to everyone except Colin Farrell.
3. Siena, Italy
Tuscany is full of great food, even better wine, and, of course, a healthy dose of enchanting medieval cities. While smaller locations such as San Gimignano are worth a visit, it’s Siena that deserves the most plaudits. From the imposing Piazza del Campo (Campo Square) in the centre of the city to the small side streets and alleyways – it truly feels like you took a wrong turn in the 15th century somewhere.
If you manage to visit on July 2 or August 16, be prepared for a mad house. These days feature the semi-annual Palio di Siena – a medieval horse race run around the Piazza. Don’t expect overly large hats and a playing of My Old Kentucky Home however. The race is notoriously rough, with the riders riding bareback, dressed in traditional colours, and often left behind in the commotion – it’s fairly common to see horses finish the race without a rider (still counts, right?).
4. Toledo, Spain
About an hour south of Madrid lies a historian’s dream – the city of Toledo. Toledo existed before the Romans arrived, but it was as part of the Empire when it truly began to grow. The first things you’re likely to notice are the cathedral and Alcázar, which dominate the skyline (as they have done for centuries).
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the city is the mix of cultures and customs that have influenced it. Christians, Jews, and Muslims have all left their mark on the city’s history and makeup. During La Convivencia (the Coexistence, or the time under Moorish rule until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492), all three actually managed to live relatively peacefully together. On an unrelated note, Toledo has a long history of bladed weapons, with many of these great works on display throughout the city.
5. Prague, Czech Republic
We could go on and on about how much there is to do in Prague. As one of the most visited cities in Europe, it attracts a wide variety of sightseers, students, and other thrill seekers. However, it’s the historical centre of the city that we’re interested in, where you can wander amongst centuries of history stretching from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, and beyond.
While the city was occupied by Germany and bombed by the Americans during World War II, it managed to largely remain intact. As such, there are more historical structures to be found here than almost any other major European city. It truly is one of the most eclectic locations (from the wealth of activities to the architectural styles) on our list, and you can’t visit without spending at least a day in the historic Old Town.
6. Colmar, France
We’ve thrown the term ‘fairy-tale’ around a bit already, but if it should be applied anywhere, that place is Colmar. This town is eye-catching to say the least – featuring rustic, multicoloured buildings, which appear to have been painted on a whim. It’s one of the places that you can’t quite believe exists when wandering along its canals, narrow streets, and picturesque squares.
Found within the Alsace Region, Colmar has another crown jewel in its already bedazzled cap – wine (which explains the paint choices). Can you think of a better way to get in the medieval spirit than by sampling some of the country’s most famous wine varieties and wandering the streets that look like they’re right out of a Disney movie? Thought not.
What about you?
What do you think the best medieval cities in Europe are? Do you include some of the above? What about Hallstatt, Regensburg, King’s Landing (sorry, Dubrovnik), Tallinn, or somewhere else? Let us know in the comments!
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