10 of the best: European city breaks for history lovers

By | Category: Travel destinations, Travel tips & opinions

Medieval castles, ancient ruins, wartime bunkers and beyond, Europe’s rich history has endowed many of its cities with a wealth of unmissable historic sites. In fact, for the city break seeker, the range of choice on offer is simply staggering, from iconic capitals to those lesser known locations. History travel website, Historvius, picks ten of the best destinations for European city breaks bursting with history, perfect for everyone from the casual sightseer to diehard history buffs

Nimes, France

With its myriad of iconic sites, it is little surprise that Paris is usually a star attraction in any top ten list of historic cities. Yet, for those looking for something a bit different – and with generally warmer climes – the southern city of Nimes should not be overlooked. Not only is it home to a myriad of beautifully preserved Roman remains, including an amphitheatre that outshines the Colosseum, but its convenient location amidst the ancient and medieval treasures of Orange, Arles and Avignon make it the ideal base from which to explore the south. What’s more, this little known historic haven offers a much quieter sightseeing experience than other cities.

Rome, Italy

As the capital of one of the greatest ancient civilisations in history, Rome is simply bursting with historic wonders, making it a tempting city break for any traveller. Indeed, whether it’s the rugged grandeur of The Colosseum, the bygone beauty of the Roman Forum or the drama of the Pantheon, many of its sites rank amongst the best known in the world. Nevertheless, as a city that continues to invest in archaeological discovery, Rome holds some surprises for even the seasoned history fan. Even in the midst of the tourist quarter, places such as the ancient Mamertine Prison hide in plain sight, while outside the main city, the ruins of Ostia Antica and the meandering sites along the Via Appia Antica offer an alternative to the more popular tourist trail.

Lisbon, Portugal

A tantalising mix of bustling streets, vibrant culture and the accolade of being one of Europe’s sunniest capitals, Lisbon is also brimming with historic places. Whether it’s the Lisbon National Pantheon where many of Portugal’s late and great are buried, the medieval citadel of St George’s Castle or the dramatic beauty of World Heritage sites such as Belem Tower and Jeronimos Monastery, this is a place with plenty of history on show.

Berlin, Germany

For those interested in modern history, few places offer such an array of authentic and fascinating sites as Berlin. The dark corridors of the Berlin Stasi Prison, the famed Checkpoint Charlie, the moving visage of The Holocaust Memorial and the remains of the Berlin Wall are just some of the historic giants that reside in this cosmopolitan metropolis, offering tourists and historians alike the opportunity to really explore this period in time. However, this capital’s history and evidence of it does not stop at the 20th century. Whether it’s the Romanesque charm of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the 18th century magnificence of Brandenburg Gate or the vast collections of the city’s museums, there’s a world of history to explore.

Merida, Spain

Merida may not be the first place that comes to mind for that well-deserved break, but this is one Spanish city with a whole host of surprises, particularly for anyone with a penchant for dramatic ruins. Once a regional capital of the Roman Empire known as Augusta Emerita, modern day Merida is peppered with proof of its illustrious past. For example, the impressive Merida Amphitheatre sits proudly beside the partly reconstructed, picturesque Merida Roman Theatre, while Guadiana Bridge and The Los Milagros Aqueduct  represent apt reminders of the robust nature of Roman engineering.

Edinburgh, Scotland

Iconic, imposing and with a story traced back to ancient times, the historic icon that is Edinburgh Castle overlooks this magnificent city, providing a fitting place to start exploring its fascinating past. Yet, whilst its importance as a site cannot be overstated, this world famous celebrity of the sightseeing world provides a mere glimpse into the other attractions on offer. Both within the city and around it, historic treasures abound such as the royal residence of Holyroodhouse Palace, the enigmatic Rosslyn Chapel and the medieval charm of Craigmillar Castle, to name but a few.

Budapest, Hungary

History lovers on the lookout for a city with an eclectic mix of sites should certainly consider Budapest. For, while the Hungarian capital doesn’t obviously advertise its historic heritage, it does have quite a selection of fascinating places. There’s the fairy tale beauty of the 19th century Fisherman’s Bastion, the medieval Matthias Church with its royal connections and, of course, Buda Castle with its many museums, whilst sites such as the Roman ruins of Aquincum and the tragic modern history museum of the House of Terror shed light on lesser known aspects of the city’s past.

St. Petersburg, Russia

For ecclesiastical grandeur mixed with centuries of history, St. Petersburg is quite a city to see. From the colourful onion-domes of the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood to the 19th century splendour of Kazan Cathedral, inspired by the Basilica of St Paul of Rome, the churches and cathedrals of this city represent a diversity of architecture, influences and social mores depending on the era. Two leaders who left their marks here were Peter the Great – responsible for illustrious attractions such as Alexander Nevsky Lavra and The Peter and Paul Fortress – and Lenin, whose onetime headquarters, The Smolny Institute, now house a museum dedicated to the man. St. Petersburg is also home to The Hermitage, one of the world’s most celebrated museums with an impressive array of exhibits from throughout history and around the globe.

Prague, Czech Republic

A stunning cityscape, rich culture and a captivating past are just some of the attributes which make Prague such a tourist hotspot. The best known of its attractions is probably Prague Castle, the vast World Heritage listed medieval complex with its myriad of sites, galleries and museums. Medieval is in fact definitely the main theme which meanders through Prague’s pretty streets, with treasures such as the famous Charles Bridge and the Old Town Hall with its celebrated astronomical clock vying for sightseer attention. Beyond this fascinating era, places such as the Communism Museum focus on other facets of this city’s history.

Stockholm, Sweden

It may not boast megastars such as The Eiffel Tower or The Tower of London, but Stockholm should not be underestimated for its historic pull. In particular, its old town, Gamla Stan, houses a labyrinth of medieval marvels to discover, all connected by cobbled streets and imbued with North-Germanic influences. Here you can see the burial site of Swedish royalty, the 13th century Riddarholm Church, as well as the tragic plaza of Stortorget, site of a 16th century massacre. There is also a range of museums, including the Vasa Museum, which holds what is said to be the world’s sole surviving 17th century warship. Add to this selection, the intrinsic beauty of its many islands and local charm and Stockholm really holds its own as a city break location.

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