Europe is dotted with beguiling walled cities that date back to medieval times. Some are found on hilltops overlooking scenic countryside, while others are perched in coastal locations, heavily fortified to fend off attackers who approached from the sea. While their original function as impregnable defensive sites is redundant, today the invasion instead comes from hordes of curious tourists, typically during the summer months. Visit in the off-season, however, and these cities are a delight to explore independently or with a guide as you listen to captivating tales of the past. Here are seven of Europe’s most charming medieval walled cities.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Bavaria’s poster child for medieval walled cities is a dreamy collection of colorful half-timbered buildings partially enclosed by a stone wall with six gates and more than 40 towers. These fortifications date from the 13th century, making Rothenburg ob der Tauber one of the best-preserved walled settlements in Germany. Walk the 2.5-mile Tower Trail and be sure to climb the Rödertor Tower for a bird’s-eye view over the medieval town and across the beautiful Tauber Valley. However, Rothenburg is no secret, so book an overnight stay to see it without crowds of day trippers, particularly if you plan to come in summer. The town is particularly glorious in autumn, when the leaves turn to shades of honey, russet, and mustard yellow, but fans of Germany’s famous Christmas markets should time their visit during the holidays.
Just over an hour’s drive north of Lisbon, you’ll find the charming town of Óbidos, home to a Moorish-era citadel which took shape between the 12th and 14th centuries. The castle served as a royal palace, and the building where the monarch would have slept has been painstakingly restored and adapted into a one-of-a-kind hotel. After you’ve walked the vertiginous path along the city’s walls for the panoramic views, turn your attention to what’s within them: a splendid collection of churches, alleyways, and attractive squares. Visit the Óbidos Municipal Museum to explore a collection of paintings by Josefa de Óbidos, a prolific and talented 17th-century Spanish-Portuguese artist who lived in Óbidos. If you can brave the crowds, consider timing your visit for July to coincide with the Óbidos Medieval Fair, featuring knight demonstrations, fortune tellers, and concerts.
Carcassonne’s walled old town — a UNESCO World Heritage Site in southern France’s Aude region — dates from the Middle Ages, but there has been a fortified settlement here since Roman times. Known locally as the cité médiévale, Carcassonne is considered Europe’s largest medieval city with its walls still intact — its 52 towers, many of them with fairytale turrets, punctuate more than two miles of crenelated stone fortifications. Within this ancient boundary, you’ll find charming winding cobblestone streets, but be sure to tour Château Comtal, a 12th-century hilltop castle and the Gothic Carcassonne Cathedral, which was built in the 13th century and boasts a spectacular rose window and an octagonal tower. The Basilica of Saints Nazarius and Celsus is even older, with parts dating from the ninth century.
Situated on the island of Gotland, Visby was once the center of the Hanseatic League, a coalition of merchant communities in the Baltic that prospered from the 13th to 15th centuries. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site contains more than 200 medieval buildings and is enclosed by solid ramparts stretching almost two miles long. The towers along its walls vie for attention with Sankta Maria Domkyrka, a 12th-century cathedral dominated by a trio of cupola-topped towers. Come in summer for Medeltidsveckan, a chance to celebrate the town’s medieval roots with street performers in medieval costume, a craft market, jousting, music, and plenty of food and drink. Or time your visit for fewer crowds in November, when you can also experience the Truffle Festival.
You’ll hear the Maltese city of Mdina variously referred to as Città Vecchia or Città Notabile, but whatever you call it, this magnificent hilltop walled town is a must-see for any visitor to this Mediterranean island nation. Few cars are allowed within its walls, giving it another nickname: the Silent City. Board one of the vintage buses that shuttle back and forth from Valletta’s busy bus station for the half-hour ride inland to Mdina. Once you arrive, you can cross the stone footbridge over what was once the moat to enter the old town. Inside, admire the imposing baroque St. Paul’s Cathedral or descend beneath the Vilhena Palace to explore its dungeons. However, it’s ideal not to have too much of a plan as you amble aimlessly along its quaint streets.
The medieval town of Murten (Morat to French speakers) can trace its history back more than 800 years. Its stone walls are some of the best-preserved in Switzerland, and from atop them, visitors can enjoy stellar vistas over Lake Murten and the surrounding hills. After admiring the view from this lofty vantage point, investigate what’s down below: a historic castle, squares with gorgeous fountains, and the town hall with its landmark clock tower. Just outside of the walls, head over to the Murten Museum, housed in a centuries-old water mill. In summer, visitors can also take a boat trip to see Murten from the lake.
Overlooking the glittering waters of the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik is the dazzling jewel on Croatia’s coast. Its walls were designed to be indestructible, a human-made rock face more than 80 feet high and up to 20 feet thick. These days, they don’t do so well in repelling advances, as cruise ships passengers and overnight visitors arrive en masse to experience one of Europe’s most spectacular walled cities, dating back to the seventh century. Walk atop the walls to get your bearings and gaze out over a sea of terracotta tiles before getting lost in Dubronik’s winding alleyways. At some point, you’ll find yourself in front of the ornate carved masks that adorn Onofrio’s Fountains, the graceful arches of the Sponza Palace, or the 15th-century Gothic-Renaissance Rector’s Palace, which hosts the city’s Cultural History Museum. A word of advice: Come in the off-season (November to February) if you want a bit of breathing space.