Ancient walled cities, with their intricate masonry, storied pasts and architectural wonders, are portals to a time long gone. Exploring these medieval ramparts is like embarking on a journey through time, where echoes of ancient civilisations resonate within the majestic walls. These extraordinary bastions, standing as silent sentinels, bear witness to the triumphs and trials of bygone eras. Ancient walled cities are like an indelible mark on our historical tapestry, and we’ve created a list of a few spectacular ones that history boffs, avid photographers and general lovers of travel will adore…
Nestled in the picturesque countryside in the Occitanie region in southern France, lies Carcassonne, a fortified city complete with cone-topped turrets and foreboding fortifications. Its rampart walls, adorned with towers reaching for the heavens breathe life into ancient tales of chivalry and valiant knights, and medieval battles echo triumphantly. With nearly two miles of defensive ramparts, the ancient walled city of Carcassonne is one of the largest surviving in Europe and an outstanding example of what architecture was like in medieval France. Grab your camera and head out on a guided walking tour of the ancient walls, being sure to peek into every nook and cranny so you don’t miss any historical detail or Insta-worthy shot.
Xi’an, capital of the Shaanxi Province, is one of China’s oldest cities and connected the south Asian superpower to the Western world during the Tang Dynasty. The pagoda-peaked walls that run for almost nine miles are home to the famed Terracotta Army, a collection of life-sized stony figures that were crafted to guard the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China. The walls themselves are not to be missed, and cycling or walking along them offers simply stunning views out over the ancient walled city’s bustling streets and modern skyline – a fascinating fusion of old and new.
Dubrovnik, known as Croatia’s ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ may feel like a small town now, but 500 years ago, it was a major hub of maritime power. Despite its size, it shimmers with the brilliance of a walled city steeped in history, with mighty fortifications which embrace the city's cobblestone streets and guard a treasure trove of stories etched in stone. Traverse its labyrinth of weathered yet indomitable walls and let panoramic vistas transport you to eras of maritime empires and legendary seafarers. Meander between pretty gift shops and bars serving goblets of Aperol to thirsty tourists and explore the winding roads that make up Croatia’s beautiful ancient walled city.
Laying claim to the longest and oldest ancient walled city system in the UK, York boasts medieval allure. The ancient Roman walls, augmented by the Normans' touch, stand tall, whispering tales of legions and conquerors. Wander along this elevated promenade and gaze over York's timeless beauty, where antiquity merges with modern life, as iPhones and audio guides lead visitors through well-walked arches and past age-old defences. When the city’s two miles of fortifications have been explored, venture to York Minster – the largest gothic cathedral in northern Europe, before winding your way through the Harry Potter-esque shambles and Snickelways.
Bearing many a scar from battles gone by, the vibrant city of Cartagena in Colombia (known as ‘Las Murallas’) is a symbol of colonial charm and imposing resilience. Explore its labyrinthine tunnels and stand tall within the watch towers that once served as sentinels against marauding pirates and imperial ambitions. The whispers of battles fought and victories won still linger in the air, immersing you in the fortitude of a bygone era. Stroll along streets adorned with a riot of colours, where colonial facades don intricate balconies that overflow with bougainvillea and cascading blooms, and take in the fusion of Spanish, Moorish and Caribbean influences. In the heart of the ancient walled city, the Plaza de los Coches beckons with its lively energy as the rhythmic clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages mingles with the laughter of street vendors, offering a tantalising glimpse into the rich tapestry of Cartagena's vibrant street life.
Thought to be the oldest city in Morocco, Fez’s ancient walled city is oozing with old-world charm, medieval architecture and UNESCO-recognised heritage. Walking through its stoney gates, you’ll find yourself surrounded by the ethereal glow of the Moroccan sun as well as the shimmering ochre hues of the walls, as their fortified silhouette stretches before you. In its centre lies the medina, an intricate labyrinth of narrow alleyways and bustling souqs, where the voices of artisans and traders ring out, shouting about their crafts that have been passed from generation to generation. Head out with an expert guide (it's impossible not to get lost without one) who will take you to the best stalls and workshops, offer interesting titbits and teach you to haggle.
Written by Immy Kelly
Header Image © Ana Kutija