When it comes to naming old European cities, two historic capitals generally spring to mind. If your education on European history comes from primary school lessons or indeed many a travel guidebook, you’d be forgiven for thinking there wasn’t much civilisation of note on the European continent before the great ages of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.
In the case of the former, there’s an element of truth to that, at least depending on which historians you believe. Athens is seriously old having been founded somewhere between 3000 and 5000 years BC. However Ancient Rome didn’t spring into life until at least a couple of millennia after the heyday of the great early civilisations in Greece and Egypt. Rome is recognised to have been founded on 21st April, 753 BC, making it younger than many European cities that remain significant inhabited entities to this very day.
5 European Cities that are older than Rome
Locals will tell you that Plovdiv is the oldest city in Europe with some records suggesting it dates back to a whopping 6000 years before the resurrection of Jesus and all that. If that’s true it would be several millennia older than Athens never mind Rome. However other estimates suggest if was founded a few thousand years later, still making it one of the oldest cities in Europe.
Plovdiv today is the second largest city in Bulgaria but it retains some of its historic charm with a pedestrianised old town that is easy to explore on foot. Within it you will find plenty of remnants to its varied past with churches and mosques as well as a Roman-era theatre and stadium, with the latter having been capable of holding 30,000 people almost 2000 years ago. Located on six hills, it’s a relatively rarely-visited gem but a great stop for anyone travelling between the Balkans and Istanbul.
The Portuguese capital is an altogether more popular tourist destination but it certainly has similarities to Plovdiv, mostly in its hilly lay-out and cobbly old districts. Facing the Atlantic Ocean, Lisbon has always been an important trading post as the closest major European city to the Americas. However it dates back long before the days of Columbus with experts claiming the city is around 3000 years old.
Efforts to restore the city to its former charms have been slightly lacklustre giving it a rustic feel that arguably adds to its intrigue and certainly gives it a different vibe to some of the other ancient or medieval European towns. Lisbon still oozes history though with its moody Fado bars, creaking trams and busy bairros full of stories of centuries gone-by.
The Cypriot capital Nicosia is another European city that is older than Rome, dating back to the Bronze Age and it has been continuously lived in for over 4000 years since. Control of the city and indeed the island of Cyprus has changed hands many times since then though. Nicosia went through Roman, Ottoman and Byzantine periods before falling into British rule in the late 19th Century. Today it stands as the only remaining divided capital in the world with Greek and Turkish sectors. Tensions remain although it is largely a peaceful place these days.
Besides the unique political situation, there isn’t a great deal to be fascinated by in Nicosia, certainly given it’s rich and diverse history. A small Old Town remains but much of its heritage has been destroyed by conflicts throughout the ages and visitors to Cyprus these days generally tend to skip the capital altogether in favour of its many coastal resorts or mountain retreats.
Read more – Discovering the best of Cyprus
While some may question whether Yerevan is even in Europe, the Armenian capital is doing its best to make the rest of the continent wake up to its remarkable history and heritage. At 2,800 years old, it just pre-dates Rome. You can get a feel for its age at the Erebuni Fortress while the Blue Mosque and the The National Art Gallery also offer an eye into life before its more difficult recent past under Soviet rule and then long-serving Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan.
However there is now a real sense that Armenia is reinventing itself and could be heading into a new golden age which makes it all the more enticing a place to visit. Under new leadership following the peaceful Velvet Revolution, Armenia is changing and if you want a slice of history without the hordes of tourists, head to Yerevan. Travelling to nearby Georgia, one of our top ten destinations for backpacking in 2023, is also an easy option if you’re looking for a longer trip.
Spaniards have been travelling to and spending their summer vacations in Cadiz, one best beach towns in Spain, for many a decade but it is slightly curiously overlooked by foreigners who tend to head to other regions. However in terms of a city beach, you will do well to find any better in Europe than the Playa De La Cortadura and its 4km of long golden sands and dunes. The city is also famous for its humorous carnival celebrations each Spring.
Its appeal doesn’t end there as Cadiz, which was founded by Phoenician sailors around 1000 BC, is widely regarded as the oldest continually inhabited city in Western Europe. The ancient central area is full of narrow alleys and sprawling plazas with a range of eating and drinking options, making Cadiz a must-visit for anyone in the South of Spain.
This article was published in October 2018.