Best Historical City Breaks in Europe

At ItinerWord, our team of expert travel copywriters have all sorts of interests when it comes to their own hard-earned holidays. In fact, one of the many great things about being a travel copywriting specialist is getting exposure to so many great destinations, one-off experiences and the latest travel trends on a day-to-day basis, making it even easier to plan your own tour. Something we all agree on is that there’s nowhere quite like Europe when it comes to diversity between countries, incredible cultures, cuisine, and of course the endlessly absorbing historical sites too. So, while it’s impossible to look at every ancient city and site across the entire continent, here’s a handful of our favourite cities in Europe for a history break of architectural delights, museums, and so much more.

Top Ancient Sites in Rome

Must-see Sites in Rome

It will come as no surprise that Rome kicks off our list, as this city is known the world over for its incredible plazas, temples, monuments and museums as the birthplace of the mighty Roman Empire. This is not to forget the Vatican, St Peter’s Basilica and walled city where you can witness a papal address, plus a host of hidden jewels, humble homes, atmospheric streets, converted store houses, aqueducts and even an ancient sewer system that offers just as much intrigue and insight into what life was like for a real life Roman.

For history buffs, a tour of Rome can last for days on end, such is the wealth of cultural treasures to be found throughout and around this iconic city. However, with the right planning you can also fit an awful lot in if only visiting for a long weekend, or less.

The most famous ancient sites in Rome are all well-worthy of your time and each as unmissable as the next, so be sure to build in a visit to the Colosseum; Roman Forum; Trevi Fountain; Pantheon; Sistine Chapel; Spanish Steps; Castel Sant’Angelo; Piazzas of del Popolo and Navona; the Altar of the Fatherland; Circus Maximus and St Peter’s Square during any Rome vacation. In truth the list of top ancient sites in Rome goes on and on, so a good way to see the best of them is by first ticking off a few must-see stops, then grabbing a good guidebook and following your nose to the highlights of Rome that you personally want to see. If you do this in advance and read up on them too, your trip to the Eternal City will be even more enthralling.

Rome’s Hidden Gems

It may be hard to believe, but there are still certain areas of Rome where you can avoid the crowds and admire the city’s ancient wonders in relative peace. The big hitting sites do deserve the attention they get, but if you’re looking to enjoy a little bit of lesser-visited Rome and soak it all up for yourself, it’s easily done – particularly if visiting in autumn or winter when fewer people travel. Off-the-beaten-track Rome can include the wonderful Villa Medici and its gardens; Santo Stefano Rotondo; Galleria Sciarra; the Baths of Caracalla; Borromini’s Perspective; Via Piccolomini; the Church of Sant Andrea della Valle; Piazza della Scala; Casina delle Civette in Villa Torlonia park and Domus Aurea, the Golden House of Nero himself. Again this is just a taste of what to expect during your own city break in Rome as the list simply goes on and everyone will have their individual hotspots, so a minute of research over a bowl of delectable pasta and glass of red goes a very long way here.

History Tour of Edinburgh

Today, Edinburgh is every bit the modern-day hub, a centre for Scottish commerce and home to the country’s devolved parliament at Holyrood too. However, you don’t need to look far for a city that still very much revolves around its 12th century castle and surrounding authentic streets, showcasing its imposing heritage from the Middle Ages. Architecturally speaking, this also makes for a marvellous mix with Edinburgh’s gothic churches and grand streets of solid Edwardian and Victorian buildings, creating an unmistakeable cityscape that’s a pleasure to walk around even during harsh wintry afternoons.

Visiting Edinburgh Castle is a must then. And as impressive as the fortress and its views are, walking around the nearby streets to explore a warren of medieval alleyways and polished cobblestone roads, the Underground Vaults and iconic pubs that date back hundreds of years is just as appealing. Other historical highlights of Edinburgh include the ornate, gothic Scott Monument (dedicated to author Sir Walter Scott); 14th century St Giles’ Cathedral; Greyfriars Kirkyard; Usher Hall; the Palace of Holyrood; Rosslyn Chapel from the 15th century; Edinburgh Old Town and the Scottish National Gallery. And, if looking for a day trip away from the city, the medieval monastery of Inchcolm Island is an interesting and easy choice for a windswept afternoon.

Awesome Ancient Athens

The birthplace of democracy; home to some of the ancient world’s best-known philosophers and thinkers including Aristotle, Plato and Homer; a place that has been continuously inhabited for over 7,000 years: no history tour of Europe is complete without a trip to Athens! Greece is of course awash with countless ancient sites, temples, ruins and monuments across its mainland, coast and many islands, though there’s a special place in the hearts of historians and tourists alike when it comes to Athens itself.

As with many of Europe’s best cities for ancient sites, much of Athens can be admired with a straightforward walking tour – guided or otherwise – as a great way to drink in the splendour of the city’s many historical treasures, while also observing modern-day life going on effortlessly around them. Indeed there are few more evocative capital cities than Athens, where afternoons can be spent tucking into fresh Greek salads and glasses of chilled wine while in sight of an ancient Acropolis and temple ruins thousands of years old, in the charming Plaka neighbourhood, for example.

The Acropolis of Athens, which also includes the Parthenon and several other temples, is one of the most recognisable ancient monuments in the world, yet far more exists both within the capital’s various museums – The Museum of Ancient Agora, Museum of Cycladic Art and Athens National Archaeological Museum among them – and around the city streets too. The 5th century Temples of Olympian Zeus, Erechtheum and of Hephaestus are a great place to start. Though that really is just the start, as Kerameikos Cemetery; the Metropolis Church; 2nd century Odeon of Herodes Atticus; the Panathenaic Stadium; Syntagma Square; the Lyceum Temple; Theatre of Dionysus, and Areopagus – an ancient hilltop court – also showcase the various sides of life in Athens 4,000 years ago.

Exploring old Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik, a 7th century coastal town and UNESCO World Heritage Site in itself, is as picture-perfect as they come both from the hills above that look down on the city and from street level, a Croatian scene brimming with terracotta tiled townhouses, pretty plazas and defensive gates or towers all around. Walk the ancient City Walls of Dubrovnik and you’ll be taken to some of the city’s best spots, as well as the fortifications which kept the city safe during several turbulent centuries of conflict between the Greeks, Romans, Venetians and Ottomans, which saw the city change hands many times.

Quite rightly, there’s a real outdoorsy culture in modern-day Dubrovnik, which means that all of the city’s perfectly preserved architecture, its wide cobbled roads and bell towers can be enjoyed over lunch, or during drinks under the glow of soft lighting each evening in the Stradun, and elsewhere. Then when it comes to visiting the best ancient sites and buildings of Dubrovnik on a formal tour, begin at the 16th century City Gates before finding your way to the Cathedral and Treasury; Revelin Fort; the Square of the Loggia; Rector’s Palace; the Fortress of Lovrijenac; Tvrđava Minčeta; the 13th century Franciscan Church and Monastery; Sponza Palace; Pile Gate and Onofrio’s Fountain. Though that said, simply immersing yourself within Dubrovnik’s walled enclave of marble and limestone is always an unforgettable travel experience.

Salamanca, Spain

Spain is awash with truly unique ancient sites, thanks to its captivating history that’s seen Roman, Moorish, Muslim, Christian and Jewish influences in its culture, cuisine and cities for many thousands of years. The 13th century, UNESCO-stamped town of Salamanca is a fantastic example of all of this. Salamanca centres around Plaza Mayor, a stunning square of ornate 18th century architecture that simply must be seen to be believed, while Salamanca Cathedral and the 15th century University are also absolute must-see highlights while here. Then, in addition to the converted cafes, art museums and statues, other top historic sites in Salamanca include the striking Casa de las Conches; Convento de San Esteban and Convento de las Dueñas; the Roman bridge of Salamanca and baroque church of La Clerecía; Plaza de Anaya; Palacio de la Salina and Cueva de Salamanca, all of which add to this full-size, living and breathing history museum in Spain.

The Best of the Rest

Of course with such myriad histories criss-crossing their way around the continent – during several thousand years of evolution, empire, revolution and war – there are completely unique history tours, city breaks and one-off sites spread all over Europe which are just as exciting to visit. From the quaintest French vineyard town to world-famous Roman ruins, museums and mansions, Europe is just full of fascinating finds and beautiful buildings alike, with London; Prague; Paris; Bergen; Bruges; Počitelj; Hallstatt, Split; Bibury; Salzburg; Ghent; Milan; Venice; Florence, and plenty more beautiful city breaks being among them.

All images courtesy of Pixabay