An Old Town, or a historical district, is a preserved urban neighborhood, 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.
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 their 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: Città Vecchia or Centro Storico
- Japanese: Machinami (街並み/町並み)
- Portuguese: Cidade Velha or Centro Histórico
- Serbo-Croatian: Stari Grad
- Spanish: Ciudad Vieja or Centro Historico
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, Tenochtitlan and Beijing) and were densely populated, so they are usually less than 1 km 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. Even if the road is wide enough for a motorcar, some old towns (particularly Quebec City) are built on steep slopes as a cliff-top or hillside location made the city historically easier to defend against a ground or sea attack. Parking a car outside but near an old town can also be difficult and/or expensive.
Some old towns have gotten some connections to public transport, though in many cases they are rather radial lines bypassing the (narrow) historic core and even long distance transport infrastructure such as train stations have often been constructed outside the old town. Where stations where constructed inside the city walls, it was often the determining factor in (at least partially) tearing them down to make room for the rails. The Napoleonic wars as well as the railway boom shortly thereafter is one of the main reasons so many European old towns have no walls any more.
Architecture in Old Towns can be totally unique. Many Old Towns are 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. However, good restaurants can also be found.
The accommodation inside the Old Towns can be 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 as well as pickpockets. Street lighting might be deficient in Old Towns. As some old towns still have cobblestones, walk carefully when they are wet or you are wearing high heels or pumps (better yet, wear footwear that provides you with good traction).
Famous Old Towns
This incomplete 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, especially World War II, when some cities lost as much as 90% of their pre-war buildings. Due to the wars as well as overzealous city planners from the 19th to the first half of the 20th century, some towns that have long lost their former importance actually have better preserved old towns than more notable cities. Several Old Towns (not least in Germany and Italy) were once independent or de facto 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, Plovdiv, Varna
- Croatia: Dubrovnik, Trogir, Pula, Split
- Czech Republic: Prague, Cesky Krumlov, Telc
- Denmark: Aarhus, Copenhagen/Indre By, Copenhagen/Christianshavn, Helsingor, Odense, Roskilde
- Estonia: Pärnu, Tallinn
- Finland: Rauma, Porvoo
- France: Autun, Avignon, Bordeaux, Carcassonne, Mulhouse, Nice, Strasbourg, Tours, Vézelay
- Georgia: Tbilisi
- Germany: **Bamberg castle and churches galore seat of a formerly powerful archbishop popular with Americans as it is close to a former US barracks,
- Cologne with the famous cathedral ("Kölner Dom"),
- Düsseldorf Cologne's old rival, rebuilt after the war
- Dresden The "Florence of the Elbe" much of it destroyed in the second world war (but rebuilt much like it was before) **Erfurt,
- Lübeck formerly the heart of the Hanse severely destroyed in the second world war now mostly restored to her former beauty,
- Munich/City Center,
- Quedlinburg old imperial town of the Ottonian dynasty of the 10th and 11th century AD,
- Rothenburg ob der Tauber virtually untouched by war since the thirty years war in the 17th century one of the few cities to still have an intact city wall,
- Stralsund old hanseatic city,
- Trier oldest city in Germany, famous for its Roman Porta Nigra (Latin for black gate),
- Wismar another former member of the Hanse
- Greece: Athens/Plaka, Corfu, Rhodes
- Hungary: Budapest/Castle Hill
- Italy: Arezzo, Bari, Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Gubbio, Lucca, Matera, Naples, Perugia, Pienza, Pisa, Rome/Old Rome, Rome/Trastevere, San Gimignano, Siena, Syracuse, Trieste, Urbino, Venice, Volterra
- Monaco: Monaco-Ville
- Montenegro: Budva, Herceg Novi, Kotor
- Latvia: Riga
- Liechtenstein: Vaduz
- Lithuania: Vilnius
- Luxemburg: Luxembourg
- Netherlands: Amsterdam/Old Centre, Amsterdam/Canal Ring, Delft, The Hague, Nijmegen, Utrecht
- Norway: Bergen, Trondheim
- Poland: Gdansk, Gniezno, Krakow, Warsaw, Poznan, Torun
- Portugal: Braga, Coimbra, Évora, Guimarães, Lisbon, Porto
- Romania: Iași, Sibiu, Sighisoara
- Russia: Derbent, Kostroma, Novgorod, Pskov, Rostov Veliky, Staraya Russa, Suzdal, Vladimir, Vyborg, Yaroslavl
- Serbia: Belgrade, Niš, Novi Sad
- San Marino
- Spain: Barcelona/Ciutat Vella, Burgos, León, Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, Segovia, Tarragona, Toledo
- Sweden: Stockholm/Gamla Stan, Lund, Visby, Uppsala, Sigtuna, Gävle, Karlskrona, Söderköping, Ystad
- Switzerland: Basel, Berne, Geneva, Lugano, Saint Gallen, Thun, Zürich
- Ukraine: Chernivtsi, Lviv, Odessa
- United Kingdom: Hastings, Southampton, Edinburgh/Old Town, York
- Vatican City
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: Isfahan, Mashhad, Qom, Shiraz
- Iraq: Baghdad
- Israel/Palestine: Akko, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jerusalem/Old City, Jaffa, Jericho, Tiberias
- Jordan: Amman
- Saudi Arabia: Jeddah
- Turkey: Adana, Amasya, Antalya, Antakya, Bursa, Edirne, Istanbul/Sultanahmet-Old City, Kayseri, Konya, Sinop, Sivas, Tarsus, Trabzon
- Yemen: Sana'a
- Bangladesh: Dhaka/Old Dhaka
- China: Dali, Kashgar, Macao, Pingyao, Lijiang, Shanghai/Old City, Suzhou
- India : Allahabad, Ayodhya, Delhi#Old_Delhi, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Mathura, Mumbai, Old Goa, Rajgir, Sanchi, Udaipur, Ujjain, Varanasi
- Japan: Hagi, Kakunodate, Kameyama, Kawagoe, Kurashiki, Kurayoshi, Shiojiri, Shirakawa-go, Takayama, Uchiko
- Malaysia: Malacca, Penang
- Myanmar: Yangon
- Pakistan: Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar
- Philippines: Vigan
- 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
- Tanzania: Stone Town
- 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. Some colonial cities were actually built in or close to indigenous settlements but hardly any traces of the pre-1492 cities remain today.
- Argentina: La Boca
- Barbados: Bridgetown
- Bolivia: Potosí, Sucre
- Brazil: Mariana, Ouro Preto, Olinda, Paraty, Salvador, São Cristóvão, São Luís, Tiradentes
- Canada: Montreal/Old Montreal, Quebec City
- Chile: Valparaíso
- Colombia: Bogotá/La Candelaria, 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
- Nicaragua: Leon and its old arch-rival Granada
- 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