An Old Town, or a historical district, is a preserved urban neighborhood of significant age, built before the emergence of rail travel, large-scale urban planning and high-rise construction in the mid-19th century. The oldest towns have existed since before the beginning of the common era. Several Old Towns are recognized on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
An Old Town is inhabited, in contrast to an archaeological site.
The Old Towns that exist today, are not necessarily the first settlements built at the location; many of them have been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Some Old Towns, such as Düsseldorf, have been restored to its former appearance in recent times.
Foreign-language terms for Old Towns:
- Arabic: Medina (المدينة - not to be confused with the Saudi Arabian city of the same name).
- Czech: Staré město
- French: Ville vieille, Vieux-(...)
- German: Altstadt
- Italian: Centro Storico
- Portuguese: Cidade Velha
- Serbo-Croatian: Stari Grad
Since the very purpose of Old Towns was to collect buildings with walking distance, Old Towns usually have narrow streets and even narrower alleys, where pedestrians move easier than automobiles.
Pre-modern cities typically had less than 100,000 inhabitants (with a few exceptions, such as Rome, Istanbul and Beijing) and were densely populated, so they are usually less than a kilometer across. Due to grade separation, staircases and cobblestone, travellers with disabilities might have difficulties to get through some points. Wheeled suitcases, strollers and bicycles can also be hard to get through.
Entering an Old Town by automobile can be physically impossible, illegal, or at least very difficult.
Architecture in Old Towns can be totally unique. Old Towns are usually dominated by city walls or other fortifications, together with palaces and religious buildings (churches, mosques etc.). Non-government profane buildings can be prominent in merchant cities, such as Venice.
Several Old Towns are served by horse-carriage rides, in old-style carriages. These are often costly, far from genuine, and should primarily be considered if a guided tour is included.
Several Old Towns have traditional festivals, connecting to their past heritage. Whether carried on since old times (such as Sechseläuten in Zürich), or made up by posterity (such as the Medieval Week in Visby), they can provide an experience beyond the usual, as well as overcrowded venues.
Old Towns usually contain different kinds of shopping: traditional arts and crafts, as well as mass-produced souvenirs and mundane shopping.
As Old Towns are frequented by travellers, meals can be overpriced. Due to lack of modern utilities, hygiene might be deficient.
The accommodation inside the Old Towns is usually limited in size and comfort, compared to the Grand Old Hotels of the late-19th century. As rooms are rarely standardized, you should have a look at the room, or at least have a description, before you make the deal.
As Old Towns can be packed with travellers, be aware of common scams. Street lighting might be deficient in Old Towns.
Famous Old Towns
This list includes inhabited urban districts of decent size and population, open to the public, that have remained largely intact since around 1850, or have been faithfully restored to that state.
A few South European cities date back to the Roman Empire, while most were founded during the Middle Ages (AD 500-1500). Some of them bear scars from warfare. Several Old Towns (not least in Germany and Italy) were once independent city-states. Today, just a few of them fly their own flag (Monaco, San Marino etc.).
- Albania: Berat, Gjirokastër
- Andorra: Andorra la Vella
- Austria: Salzburg, Vienna/Innere Stadt
- Azerbaijan: Baku
- Belgium: Antwerp, Bruges, Ghent, Courtray, Leuven, Mechelen
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar
- Bulgaria: Sofia
- Croatia: Dubrovnik, Split
- Czech Republic: Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Telc
- Denmark: Copenhagen/Indre By, Copenhagen/Christianshavn, Odense, Aarhus
- Estonia: Pärnu, Tallinn
- Finland: Rauma, Porvoo
- France: Avignon, Bordeaux, Carcassonne, Mulhouse, Nice, Strasbourg
- Georgia: Tbilisi
- Germany: Bamberg, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Erfurt, Göttingen, Goslar, Heidelberg, Lübeck, Munich/City Center, Quedlinburg, Stralsund, Trier, Wismar
- Greece: Athens/Plaka, Corfu, Rhodes
- Hungary: Budapest/Castle Hill
- Italy: Bari, Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Lucca, Naples, Perugia, Pisa, Rome/Old Rome, Rome/Trastevere, San Gimignano, Siena, Syracuse, Urbino, Venice
- Monaco: Monaco-Ville
- Latvia: Riga
- Liechtenstein: Vaduz
- Lithuania: Vilnius
- Luxemburg: Luxembourg
- Netherlands: Amsterdam/Old Centre, Amsterdam/Canal Ring, The Hague, Nijmegen
- Norway: Bergen
- Poland: Gdansk, Krakow, Warsaw, Poznan, Torun
- Portugal: Évora, Guimarães, Porto
- Romania: Sighisoara
- Russia: Novgorod, Saint Petersburg, Vyborg, Yaroslavl
- Serbia: Belgrade, Novi Sad
- San Marino
- Spain: Toledo, Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, Barcelona/Ciutat Vella
- Sweden: Stockholm/Gamla Stan, Lund, Visby, Uppsala, Sigtuna, Karlskrona, Söderköping, Ystad
- Switzerland: Berne, Geneva, Zürich
- Ukraine: Lviv
- United Kingdom: Hastings, Southampton, Edinburgh/Old Town, York
The Middle East contains many of the world's oldest cities, some of them inhabited for several thousand years.
- Cyprus: Nicosia, Famagusta, Limassol
- Lebanon: Tyre
- Syria: Aleppo, Bosra, Damascus
- Iran: Shiraz
- Iraq: Baghdad
- Israel/Palestine: Akko, Jerusalem/Old City, Jaffa, Jericho, Tiberias
- Jordan: Amman
- Turkey: Edirne, Istanbul/Sultanahmet-Old City, Konya
- Yemen: Sana'a
- Bangladesh: Dhaka/Old Dhaka
- China: Kashgar, Macao, Pingyao, Lijiang, Shanghai/Old City
- Japan: Kyoto, Kamakura
- Malaysia: Ipoh, Petaling Jaya
- Pakistan: Karachi
- South Korea: Jongno and Jung
- Uzbekistan: Bukhara, Samarkand, Shakhrizabz
- Vietnam: Hoi An
- Cape Verde: Cidade Velha
- Egypt: Cairo/Old Cairo, Alexandria
- Ethiopia: Axum (Aksum), Harar
- Kenya: Lamu, Mombasa
- Libya: Tripoli
- Mali: Djenné, Timbuktu
- Morocco: Fez, Marrakech
- Tunisia: Tunis
The Americas have some colonial Old Towns from the time between the European arrival in 1492, and the independence movement of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Most of these are in the Caribbean, or in the coastal areas of Latin America.
- Argentina: La Boca
- Barbados: Bridgetown
- Bolivia: Potosí, Sucre
- Brazil: Mariana, Ouro Preto, Olinda, Paraty, Salvador, São Cristóvão, Tiradentes
- Canada: Montreal/Old Montreal, Quebec City
- Chile: Valparaíso
- Colombia: Bogotá, Santa Cruz de Mompox
- Cuba: Havana
- Curaçao: Willemstad
- Dominican Republic: Santo Domingo
- Ecuador: Quito
- Guatemala: Antigua Guatemala
- Mexico: Mexico City/Centro, Xochimilco, Morelia, Oaxaca, Monte Albán, Puebla, Zacatecas, Campeche
- Peru: Arequipa, Cuzco, Lima
- Puerto Rico: San Juan/Old San Juan
- United States: Boston/Downtown, New Orleans/French Quarter, Philadelphia/Old City, San Diego/Old Town-Mission Valley, Washington, D.C./Georgetown
- Uruguay: Montevideo
- Venezuela: Coro