I have always been attracted to walled cities and towns. It’s because I know that usually, there is a wealth of history and attractions hidden behind those walls. Walled cities generally occupy strategic points that can be better defended and would be safe havens for the area’s citizens in times of strife. There are also a sign of power and influence so you know that there are definitely treasures for the visitors beyond the stone edifices. Here are some of my favorite walled cities around the world.
1 Carcassonne, France
Carcasonne in Languedoc, the south of France is incredibly beautiful. Identified as a strategic site and fortified by the Romans, it was founded as a settlement in the 5th century by the Visigoths. It is one of the most well preserved walled cities in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Everything you imagine from an ancient fortified town is here, including a fully-restored castle that has a drawbridge, towers and battlements. There’s a bridge across the River Aude which is a delightful walk offering terrific views. There is tons to see and do in the massive citadel atop the hill and the Ville Bas (lower town), and the surrounding scenic countryside has plenty of little traditional villages and towns vineyards to visit too.
2 Timbuktu, Mali
One of the most imposing walled cities is the mysterious Timbuktu. Beguiling and beautiful, Timbuktu was established as a trading post in the 13th century, but it was during the 16th century when most of the huge fortified walls, which are made mostly of mud brick and very distinctive, were built. Many people even today, believe that it is a fabled city thanks to the saying “from here to Timbuktu”, but it does indeed exist and fabulously so. The city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but sadly, after being overtaken by rebels in July 2012, a number of its shrines and ancient treasures have been destroyed. The US and UK governments are currently advising against travel to Mali.
3 Dubrovnik, Croatia
With the name of The Pearl of the Adriatic and a setting on a coastline burgeoned with gorgeous towns and villages, you just know that Dubrovnik is going to be something special. The walls and fortifications almost seem to tumble into the sea but they have stood strong and steadfast since the 12th century. Built on the maritime trade, rich and powerful enough to rival Venice when it was a dominate city state, many sights of the city are ancient and historically significant – including the old pharmacy. Today, Dubrovnik is a gorgeous holiday destination with top class resorts and hotels.
4 Xi-an, China
If the name seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because not only is Xi-An one of the oldest walled cities, but it is also home to the Terracotta Army, one of the most incredible archaeological finds ever. Xi-An has a history that spans 3,100 years which is pretty darned impressive, even for a country with such an outstandingly lengthy legacy as China. Xi-An ruled as a capital for more than a millennium and provided home for 73 emperors. It served as the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and its wealth paid for the construction of the massive walls and reconstruction of the city in the 14th century (during the time of the Ming Dynasty). The walls are some of the biggest in the world and it is said, its width can accommodate 5 people riding bikes side by side.
5 Toledo, Spain
Many of Spain’s major towns and cities were fortified at some time because of the invasion of the moors. Many of them only have remnants remaining but Toledo still has a fine example of medieval wall building. Toledo was a Roman fortress, a Visigoth capital, and a capital of the mighty Spanish Empire before the court moved to Madrid in the mid-1500s and surprisingly, it is often overlooked by tourists wanting to visit Spain’s great cities. Famed for its steel and sword making, the city is surrounded on three sides by the River Tajo and its medieval walls on the other. The city exhibits vestiges that hold sway to the three major religions that gave it its character – Islam, Judaism and Christianity. No visitor will be disappointed by the sights and sounds of Toledo.
6 Khiva, Uzbekistan
Now there’s a name that hasn’t cropped up in our travel articles before, and maybe it’s about time it did. Uzbekistan is one of the former Soviet Republics and Khiva is one of its major sights. It is not the whole town of Khiva that is one of the world’s walled cities but an enclave of it. Itchan Kala is the inner town and was the first site in Uzbekistan to be designated World Heritage by UNESCO. With remarkable resilience, the sun-dried walls still stand, having been rebuilt several times. The rectangular fortress with its four gates dominates and protects a wealth of ancient monuments. Although the origins are back in the 10th century, the best preserved houses within the walls date from the 18 and 1900s.
7 York, England
I couldn’t leave out my homeland could I? Many towns and cities in England have some vestiges of their walls and ramparts remaining, but none are as impressive as York. The walls of the former Roman stronghold in the north are among the most impressive in Europe, and the ones that stand today mostly date from the 12th-14th centuries. Portions of the walls were breached and destroyed many times over the city’s long history - you may recall the scene from Braveheart, and the Vikings did more than their fair share of wall bashing too! The walls run for more than 2.5 miles and are punctuated by no less than 34 watchtowers as well as 4 very impressive gates. With the beautiful York Minster dominating the skyline, York is one of the most attractive cities in England for visitors.
Are you as fascinated with walled towns and cities as I am? Have you visited any of these or maybe some others? I’d love to hear of your visits.