Dubrovnik's orange roofs underneath a blue sky

The 8 Best Old Towns in Europe

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How do you define an old town? For purposes of this post, I define an old town as a separate, distinct part of a modern city that is historical, beautiful, protected from further development, and often holding UNESCO World Heritage designation.

London and Paris don’t have old towns, for instance, while Venice and Valletta are nothing but old town. Many old towns in Europe were destroyed during the World Wars (and some, like Warsaw, were painstakingly reconstructed); other old towns, like Vilnius and Belgrade, have their old and new towns overlap so much that it’s hard to tell which part starts and ends where.

I’ve visited dozens upon dozens of old towns across every country in Europe except Cyprus. (Man, I really need to get to Cyprus next year so my statements land with more punch!) Nearly every country has a special old town.

Riga, Latvia, has a funky and colorful old town featuring Art Nouveau architecture.

Bergen, Norway, has an old town capped by a centuries-old wooden wharf, the Bryggen.

The colorful, flower-filled, half-timbered old town of Colmar, France, could stand in for Beauty and the Beast.

Granada, Spain, has a luscious and unusual old town with Moorish architecture, capped of course by the Alhambra.

But as beautiful as these old towns are, I wouldn’t rank them as the absolute best. There are eight old towns that I think stand heads and shoulders above the rest. Here they are, and I hope you enjoy my incredibly subjective list.

Kraków, Poland

When I think of exceptional old towns in Europe, Kraków comes to mind immediately. It’s got the most glorious architecture, it’s rich in history, and I swear the light hits the city more beautifully than almost anywhere else. Best of all: the entire old town is encircled by a park. It took me a while to get to Kraków, but once I did, I fell in love hard and fast.

My Favorite Things to Do in Kraków:

  • Check out the Jewish area of Kazimierz and see how artists have transformed it.
  • Walk around the park that encircles the Old Town over and over.
  • Eat all of the soups and try the cheesecake at Camelot.

Where to Stay in Krakow: Check out the best hotel deals in Krakow here.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Edinburgh is home to two distinctive towns: the Old Town and the New Town. The Old Town includes the Royal Mile and one of my favorite streets in the world: the hilly, colorful, shop-filled Victoria Street. And from almost everywhere in town, you can see Edinburgh Castle perched on a giant rock, glowering over the city. I first visited Edinburgh in 2011 and have returned seven times since. Scotland is the kind of destination I can’t stop visiting, but Edinburgh truly holds my heart!

My Favorite Things to Do in Edinburgh:

  • Come in August for Fringe, a.k.a. Edinburgh Festival. See all kinds of shows and performances back-to-back, all day!
  • Come for New Year’s and the Hogmanay celebration, complete with kilts and fireworks.
  • Take a walk across the Water of Leith on a rainy day.

Where to Stay in Edinburgh: Check out the best hotel deals in Edinburgh here.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn is the newest arrival on my list, having made my first visit in September. But within minutes of arriving I knew it was one of the best I had seen. Tallinn is a walled city and reminded me a lot of Prague. Pastel buildings, church steeples poking out everywhere, cobblestone streets. It’s everything you want in a European old town — and it has the bonus of being one of the cheapest options on this list.

My Favorite Things to Do in Tallinn:

  • Climb to the top of St. Olav’s Church for the best panoramic view of the city.
  • Go to The Living Room for a surprisingly high-end coffee experience.
  • Head to Ill Draakon to eat elk soup, pastries, and drink beer served by costumed servers for super-cheap.

Where to Stay in Tallinn: Check out the best hotel deals in Tallinn here.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

There’s nothing like driving along the ocean from the Montenegrin coast, suddenly seeing Dubrovnik’s old city appear before you, a terra-cotta circle on the edge of the blue Adriatic. George Bernard Shaw called it “The Pearl of the Adriatic” and the name stuck. Dubrovnik is phenomenally beautiful, but that beauty comes at a price: it can be very busy and devoid of locals, especially during cruise season. If you’re going, I wrote a guide on how to avoid the worst crowds and make the most out of your time in Dubrovnik.

My Favorite Things to Do in Dubrovnik:

  • Walk the walls of the city just before sunset, after it’s cooled down a bit.
  • Go on a Game of Thrones tour and see lots of sites from the show.
  • Take the cable car to the top of the mountain for amazing views.

Where to Stay in Dubrovnik: Check out the best hotel deals in Dubrovnik here.

Prague, Czechia

It’s been a long time since I’ve been to Prague — since my semester abroad in 2004. When I first arrived, I remember being struck by the “candy houses” of the old town and hearing that over history, Prague locals preferred to let invaders march in rather than fight them and have their city destroyed in the process. As a result, Prague today is nothing short of magical. It’s one of the most famous old towns in Europe and one of the prettiest.

My Favorite Things to Do in Prague:

  • Enjoy the fun, distinctive, and phenomenally cheap beer scene.
  • Take a day trip to the bone chapel at Kutna Hora.
  • Stroll across the Charles Bridge at sunset and enjoy the musicians. Don’t forget to tip them.

Where to Stay in Prague: Check out the best hotel deals in Prague here.

(My original photos from Prague are terrible. These ones are Creative Commons photos by Roman BoedMiguel Virkkunen Carvalho, Pedro Szekely, and Thomas Depenbusch.)

Stockholm, Sweden

When I visited Stockholm in 2012, I was struck by two things: how incredibly beautiful the old town (Gamla Stan) was and how incredibly expensive it was. Since then, I’ve visited places more expensive than Stockholm and I now realize that it’s not so bad, especially considering what you get in return. Stockholm’s Gamla Stan is so beautiful, I almost expected to see Cinderella around every corner.

My Favorite Things to Do in Stockholm:

  • Go on a tour of the colorful subway stations, which could practically be art installations.
  • Visit the Vasa Museum, a seventeenth century ship that wrecked, was rescued, and today is a maritime museum.
  • Eat your weight in Swedish meatballs and stop for fika (coffee and pastry break) whenever you can.

Where to Stay in Stockholm: Check out the best hotel deals in Stockholm here.

(My original photos from Stockholm are terrible. These ones are Creative Commons photos by Eugenijus Radlinskas, Trausti Evans, Pedro Szekely and Michael Caven.)

Florence, Italy

The city where I studied abroad in 2004 is home to, in my opinion, the best old town in Italy. They call it the Centro Storico. Right before I got on the group flight to Florence, one of my professors told me that roughly 50% of the world’s artistic treasures are in Italy and of those in Italy, roughly 50% are in Florence. I couldn’t verify that statistic anywhere, but I will say this: Florence is the kind of city where art seems to spring up from the pavement. It’s around every corner. Some statues that would be considered exceptional anywhere else are considered “bad art” in Florence simply by comparison (looking at you, Neptune). And that’s what makes the Centro Storico so special: rich warm colors, world-class museums, tons of churches, and all kinds of art.

My Favorite Things to Do in Florence:

  • Go up to Piazzale Michelangelo for the best sunset view over the city.
  • See more precious art than you’ve seen in your life at the Uffizi, and be sure to say hi to Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia.
  • Have dinner at Acqua al’2 — get the assagio di primi (pasta sampler) and the balsamic steak!

Where to Stay in Florence: Check out the best hotel deals in Florence here.

(My original photos from Florence are terrible. These ones are Creative Commons photos by samueleagrimi_, Lex Kravetski, Chris Wee, and Bob Hall.)

Kotor, Montenegro

With a population of 5,000, Kotor is more of a small town than a large city. That being said, it belongs on this list because its old town is one of the most distinctive of all of Europe. Old Kotor is a walled city perched on the Bay of Kotor; being inside feels like you’re in the middle of a fairy tale. And on the outside, it has perhaps the most spectacular natural setting, surrounded by gray-green mountains and still blue waters.

My Favorite Things to Do in Kotor:

  • Get up at sunrise and hike to the top of St. John’s Castle for one of the best views in Europe, then watch the colors change as the sun gets higher in the sky.
  • Take a day trip to Tara Canyon and go whitewater rafting.
  • Take millions of photos every day, especially at sunrise and sunset.

Where to Stay in Kotor: Check out the best hotel deals in Kotor here.

Final Note: If you’re planning a trip to Europe, don’t forget to use travel insurance. It could save your life or finances. Recently a friend of mine broke her foot in Florence and because she had travel insurance, they not only paid for her to fly home early, they flew her home business class so she could keep her foot elevated! That’s why you get insurance. I use and recommend World Nomads for trips to Europe.


READ NEXT: First Time in Europe: Where to Go?


Do you agree with this list? What’s your favorite old town in Europe?

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39 thoughts on “The 8 Best Old Towns in Europe”

  1. All excellent choices, Kate! I think my favorite is probably Edinburgh – I NEVER get tired of visiting that city. I also fell in love with Gamla Stan in Stockholm this year, and agree that the Old Town in Krakow is incredible! I’d probably add Bruges to my list, and Sighisoara, Romania (though the latter is pretty much ALL old town, so maybe it doesn’t count?).

  2. Great list. Prague is definitely magical, like a fairytale town to me. I might have added in Bratislava to my own list, I found it so unexpectedly charming and cute.

  3. These are great choices! I haven’t been to many of these, but old towns in Europe are my JAM! I really loved the town Ghent in Belgium. It has that old-world fairytale awesomeness to it that many of these towns have too!

  4. I haven’t been to nearly as much old towns as you but there are quite some on your list that are my loves, too: Krakow, Prague, Dubrovnik… I was also very much amazed by Split Old Town that is one of the oldest ones in Europe and Warsaw’s newly rebuilt Old Town!

  5. Fantastic list! I adore the old towns of Europe – Stockholm and Tallinn have a special place in my heart! I also really enjoyed Ghent, which felt like a fairy tale come to life.

  6. Of the 4 on this list I’ve visited (Krakow, Dubrovnik, Prague, Florence), I would agree with every one! Just spent a month in Florence and miss it already. Next up: hopefully Edinburgh?!

  7. I like this! It’s a good mix of more touristy towns and places a lot of people haven’t heard of, a couple I’ve added to my list! Some of the photos are really gorgeous as well.

  8. What a nice list Kate.

    I’ve been to all of them many times of course, except for Kotor in Montenegro! My fave towns would be Prague and Edinburgh. With a bias for Prague, as I used to live there a long time ago!

    p.s. I know that you specifically wrote that London and Paris don’t have Old Towns in the modern sense of the word, but I’d like to pitch in and say that the part of London that might (vaguely) qualify would be Mile End or Square Mile, or simply, The City!

    It’s in what we call – the City of London (which is the oldest part of London) – and part of the East End. London is historically divided into three – the City of London, Inner London and Outer London and Mile End alone has 2 UNESCO sights. They used to be communities in themselves and are: The Tower of London, and the areas around Westminster Palace and Abbey.

  9. Great list (and your photos are so good)!

    One of the first towns I visited in Europe was Florence, and it will forever hold my heart, perhaps because I rode on a moped with a handsome Italian to gaze out at the view. I’ve also been to Prague (though 20+ years ago, so I imagine a lot has changed) and Edinburgh (more recently — I loved it).

  10. Discovering or re-discovering Europe’s old towns is one of my favorite things to do during travel. I really liked your picks, especially since now, more thn ever, people are interested in finding out more about the old history of famous cities and towns. This is something that I have noticed with tourists visiting Romania as well!

  11. Great list Kate. Granada is a definite favorite for me – the Moorish part – and I also love Nice’s old town, Victoria on Gozo, and Dinard in France.

  12. Wow. What a great list! I loved Prague and can totally agree putting it on this list. Kotor looks great, I actually never heard of it, but now it catched my interest. Would be a nice weekend trip I guess. Krakow is on my bucket list for so long already, but I haven’t made it there yet. Thank you so much for sharing this list 🙂

  13. These look phenomenal! I would love to go to Florence, as I’ve only been to Rome in Italy. What other Italian cities do you recommend travelling to? I really enjoyed the food and architecture Rome had to offer. It might be worth to mention Bern, its a fabulous city.

  14. Dubrovnik, Prague and Kotor – really nice places! I definitely agree with you about these places. I am living in Prague centre, its amazing how you can feel the atmosphere of the old times hundreds years ago, when you are walking across the squares in the centre. Especially Old town square. Everybody should go there. It is realy nice when you are going along the river, visit Prague castle and Hradčany – amazing. Loooot of cute cafes and nice restaurants overthere. Maybe its the best to download some app to recommend you what places are the best. But what can i say – it is teh best to connect with some local. Than, you can feel the spirit of the city more than like a tourist, definitely. (I tried in Lisbon and its amazing, you would never visit places like this like normal tourist). So find and ask somebody anddefinitely visit Prague! Croatia is also amazing. It has one big advantage – Croatia has the sea! 🙂 Btw, czech people realy like Croatia, during the summer, there are as many czechs as locals, haha 🙂 Safe travelling, guys 🙂 R.

  15. When I just saw the title of your post, before I opened it, my first thought was “Tallinn HAS to be on that list.” I’m glad it was – I think it’s such an overlooked gem, that it’s easy to forget about it, but it really is glorious. Also absolutely agree with you on Florence – still one of my favorite “anywhere” destinations.

    I’ve spent some time thinking your comment on lack of old towns in London and Paris … will concede on the former, but to me Le Marais and the two islands feel very distinct, separate, and indeed old vs the rest of the city.

  16. There’s nothing like visiting an old town and really immersing yourself in it all.. For that reason I think Kotor is my favourite that I have seen.. Prague is magical especially if there is music playing and the sun is hitting the old buildings.. Tallinn has a wonderful atmosphere and beautiful square.. Dubrovnik is picturesque in every sense of the word but Kotor is all those things! And in a nice small package..! If you are visiting Dubrovnik then I suggest taking at least one day (and night) to visit kotor.. Its not very far and the if you don’t mind a hike then the view from the hillside is something to behold.. It really takes tour breath away! And also Kotor is super cheap! Enjoy fellow travellers!

  17. Corfu Town and Monemvasia are massively underrated as old town destinations. Plus they’re near the beach 🙂 Croatia has so many it’s bordering on ridiculous.

  18. Fantastic list! I have been to several and would like to visit the others on the list I’ve not been to.

    If you had to put these destinations in order from best to worst, what order would you put them in? I realise this is very subjective. If that is too hard to do, perhaps you could name your top 3-4 from your list?

    Ben

  19. If you fell in love in Kraków, you should visit also Torun and Gdansk. I’m from Poland, and in my opinion, thoose two cities’ old towns are even more beautiful than Krakow’s. Greetings. 🙂

  20. Nice list! Note from an architect/urban planner: generally speaking the word Old Town refers to the central urban area that used to be surrounded by city walls (or still is like Tallinn). We are mostly talking about the pre-19 century neighborhoods. That said, Belgrade, just like most Balkan cities has none, and Vilnius’ Old Town is clearly defined, inside the former city walls.

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