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Wawel Castle in the old town in Krakow, Poland, home to Europe’s largest medieval marketplace and houses that date back to the 10th century. Photo: Tim Pile

From Krakow to Dubrovnik, 9 of Europe’s best old towns to visit – think castles, cobbles, churches and ancient city walls

  • Walk along stone ramparts and narrow, cobbled alleys, climb ancient stone steps for stunning views – or take a cable car – and ride a horse-drawn carriage
  • The medieval marvels of Dubrovnik, Vilnius, Carcassonne and York, and lesser known draws such as Kotor in Montenegro and Mdina in Malta, will beguile you

An “old town” is the original part of a city, district or neigh­bourhood. Those in Europe are nearly always more attractive than the surrounding suburbs and are often Unesco designated, which ensures protection from inappropriate development.

Tourists can’t get enough of these historical centres, although that isn’t always a good thing.

Here are nine of the continent’s most delightful old towns.

Dubrovnik survived centuries of invasions – not to mention the eight-month siege of 1991/92 during the Croatian War of Independence – before capitulating to the onslaught of inter­national tourism. The medieval walled city is a soothing fusion of Gothic, Renaissance and baroque monuments and fans of epic fantasy series Game of Thrones will recognise a number of filming locations.
Tourists photograph ceremonial drummers and guards in Dubrovnik. Photo: Tim Pile

Begin with a stroll down the Stradun – the marble main street is Dubrovnik’s most beautiful. To see the Pearl of the Adriatic in its best light, however, wait until evening, then take the cable car up Srd Hill as the setting sun paints the buildings butterscotch.

A walk along the six-metre-thick city walls should also be left until later in the day, when the crowds are back on their cruise ships and the air is cooler. The 2km route feels somewhat voyeuristic, as it’s possible to peer into the courtyards of houses where people are eating, hanging out laundry and relaxing with their children.

The city walls of Carcassonne, the largest walled citadel in Europe. Photo: Tim Pile
Carcassonne, in the south of France, is the largest walled citadel in Europe. The Cité, as the fortified historical centre is called, boasts 3km of chunky “thou shalt not pass” ramparts and no fewer than 52 defensive towers that kept invaders at bay for centuries (these days, souvenir sellers do all they can to keep the marauding tourists in).

Begun by the Romans, the fortress is home to about 50 permanent residents, some of whom run hotels, guest houses and gift shops. The sturdy structure is surrounded, as it has been for centuries, by vineyards. Well, this is France after all.

A fort that evolved into a town in the second century, York, in northern England, has undergone a number of name changes over time. It began as Eburacon, Celtic for “place where the yew trees grow”, which became Eboracum (“place of the boar”) in Roman times. The Anglo-Saxons knew it as Evorwic whereas the Vikings went with Jorvik, from which “York” is derived.

York Minster is the largest Gothic cathedral in northern Europe. Photo: Getty Images

Today, visitors arrive in droves to admire York Minster – the 13th century Gothic cathedral is one of the largest of its kind in northern Europe. Then there’s the Shambles, Europe’s oldest shopping street. The medieval cobbled thoroughfare comprised of wonky half-timbered buildings is so narrow in parts that it’s possible to touch both sides of the street with your arms outstretched.

Clifford’s Tower, the largest remaining part of York Castle, was built in the 11th century to prevent the Vikings from retaking the city. Finally, as darkness descends, join a ghost and vampire walk – York is said to be the most haunted city in Britain.

Talking of nocturnal neck nibblers, Sighisoara, in the Transylvania region of Romania, is the birthplace of a 15th century nobleman with a fearsome reputation. Vlad Dracula, aka “Vlad the Impaler”, had a penchant for skewering his enemies on spikes and leaving the corpses to rot.
Sighisoara in Transylvania, Romania’s “Dracula” country. Photo: Tim Pile

The serial-killing count also displayed a fondness for eye-gouging and hammering nails into the heads of his unfortunate foes, and boiling them alive. His bloodthirsty antics were the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel, Dracula.

Settled by Saxon craftsmen in the 13th century, Sighisoara Old Town channels the Brothers Grimm, with Hansel and Gretel houses, winding cobbled streets and fairy-tale churches. Locals have been busy with the emulsion and buildings are painted in colours so lurid you half expect the Teletubbies to emerge from a doorway.

Reaching the Polish city of Krakow’s old town involves negotiating dreary, expectation-lowering suburbs comprised of unattractive high-rise blocks, indus­trial estates and vast car parks. But all that is forgotten when you get to Rynek Główny, Europe’s largest medieval marketplace and Kraków’s beating heart.
Sunset in Rynek Glowny, Krakow, Poland. Photo: Tim Pile

Horses pulling carriages filled with tourists clip clop along the cobbles while snarling, honking, polluting motorised traffic is banished from the showpiece square. The city escaped the destruction suffered by other parts of Poland during World War II and is renowned for its castles, churches that look almost edible and pastel-coloured gingerbread houses, some dating back to the 10th century.

The photogenic Czech settlement of Cesky Krumlov is a cross between a film set and a screen saver. Children kayak along the upper Vltava River as it meanders around the enchanting medieval town and hotel rooms fill up faster than you can say “Unesco World Heritage Site”.

The best views mean huffing and puffing up 162 steps to the top of the Renaissance-style tower at Cesky Krumlov Castle. Visitors in June see the town revert to its historical roots – the Five-Petalled Rose Festival features jousting knights, a Middle Ages-themed outdoor market, medieval music and dancing, fencing and theatre performances.

Chinese tourists dress up in traditional garb in Cesky Krumlov’s old town. Photo: Tim Pile
An alley in Kotor, Montenegro. Photo: Tim Pile

Back in the Adriatic, the old town of Kotor, in Montenegro, nestles next to a dead ringer for a Norwegian fjord. Narrow 12th century lanes reveal hidden plazas filled with local people paying local prices, while tourists gather at the main square and pay through the nose for their refreshments.

The beefy walls of “Little Dubrovnik” are constructed of honey-coloured stone bricks so enormous you wonder how many men it took to lift just one. The historic centre has the feel of a museum but one that is very much alive. You’ll stumble upon children playing in courtyards, delivery men hurrying along the shiny cobbles and women hanging out sun-faded laundry that flaps like semaphore flags.

The annual Kotor carnival takes place in wet and windy February but the pragmatic townsfolk don their costumes for a repeat performance in August. The weather is warmer and many more tourists get to enjoy the spectacle – and boost municipal coffers.
The old town in Vilnius, Lithuania – the biggest in Eastern Europe. Photo: Tim Pile
The old town of Vilnius is Eastern Europe’s largest and offers enough to keep visitors to the Lithuanian capital busy for days. Start at Cathedral Square – the eye-catching 18th century structure was built on the site of a pagan temple dedicated to the worship of Perkunas, god of thunder and fire.

Next, climb the snaking path that leads up Gediminas Hill. The red-brick tower at the summit is all that remains of an ancient system of fortifications dating back to the founding of Vilnius. The lofty location provides sweeping aerial views of the city for those without drones.

Opposite the Presidential Palace (try and attend the Sunday flag-raising ceremony), is Vilnius University’s campus, where 13 places of learning are complemented by 13 photogenic courtyards.

Oblique shafts of sunlight illuminate a narrow lane in the old town of Mdina in Malta. Photo: Tim Pile
The fortified city of Mdina, meaning “walled town” in Arabic, is home to many of Malta’s noble families, who have passed their properties down through the generations for centuries. The hilltop settlement is known as the Silent City, a name coined when the capital was moved out of Mdina, followed by most of its inhabitants.

The name still applies, particularly in the evening, when tourists have returned to their beach resorts. Shafts of sunlight soak the ramparts in golden light and the peaceful streets and labyrinthine lanes of the ancient citadel echo to the footsteps of well-heeled locals.