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Europe's Best Walled Cities

Ah, the romance of defensive walls, dry moats, and dunce-cap towers!

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carcassonne walled city france picture

Carcassonne: Walled City in France Picture

James Martin

The Best Walled Cities in Europe

Ancient walls and their dunce-cap towers conjure up a romantic notion that is as compelling as it is completely baseless. I mean, we're talking defensive structures meant to keep the invading hordes of sniveling, stinky, garbage-launching barbarians at bay--hardly a romantic notion, you have to admit. Still, I'll admit to a rather intense attraction to walled cities myself. I'll go even further and say that medieval walled cities are quite nice to see and a real pleasure to walk on or around.

So, below I've selected the best preserved walled cities in Europe to visit--and even to have romantic notions about if you wish. They're arranged alphabetically, so don't read any "bestness" into the order.

Avila, Spain

Avila's 11th century walls are the most important and best preserved of the Spanish medieval walls, circling (trapezoidally) medieval Avila. Avila is perhaps best done as a day trip from Madrid, as Avila isn't a major destination in itself.

Avila - Walled City in Castile-Leon, Spain Travel Directory

If you're looking for a walled city in Spain, Girona might be a better destination, despite the fact that most of its walls have been systematically destroyed and then rebuilt in the 19th century. The wall walk, or passeig de la Muralla is open 8am-10pm daily. Another walk outside the town walls is the Passeig Arqueologic, which takes you outside the walls to view the old city on a cypress and flower lined path. Girona began as a Roman settlement, then became a medieval hub where Christians, Jews and Arabs converged, making it an architecturally interesting city, and one of the true little-visited gems of Spain.

Girona, walled city in Catalonia, Spain Travel Directory

Carcassonne, France

Nowhere outside Carcassonne will you find such a complete example of 6th, 7th, and 8th century walls in Europe. Carcassonne, a town of 46,500 people located 808 km south of Paris is on the edge of Cathar Country, a landscape littered with romantic castle ruins. Stay in Carcassonne or along the river below the old town, which will give you a romantic view of La Cite lit up at night.

Carcassonne Travel Information - Be sure to check out the page by Philippe Cuq and Bruno Berniere, who have put together an interesting site about the architecture of the walls over time and the defenses at the gates. Very interesting for walled town aficionados.

Lucca, Italy

Ah, Lucca. Lucca is surrounded entirely by 16th century walls. In the 19th century, trees were planted and now the ramparts can be walked or cycled. It's approximately three miles around the oval; you can walk it or rent a bike and pedal around.

Walled City of Lucca Italy Travel Information

Rhodes, Greece

The Medieval walled City of Rhodes (pop. 6000) is surrounded by medieval walls with seven gates, a moat and castle. The Knights of Saint John found safe haven inside the Rhodes walls in 1309 when they were booted from the Holy Land.

Walled City of Rhodes, Greece Travel Information

Rothenburg, Germany

Rothenburg, a walled city along Germany's Romantic Road, is one of Germany's favorite tourist attractions. You can walk along the top of the covered walls to get that gatekeeper's view. In the summer season there are concerts in the big square and when you're feeling that all the wonderful eye candy you're devouring from walking among those quaint, half-timbered houses is just a bit too much, you can amble over to the torture museum to see the darker side of medieval Rothenburg. Explore the city through our Rothenburg Pictures, and find out How to Get to Rothenburg. Then, if you're smitten, check out some favorite Rothenburg Hotels.

York, England (and Chester)

York has the longest and best-preserved town walls in England, the stone and materials used to construct them estimated as weighing 100,000 metric tons. The walls are 3.4 kilometers long and there are five main "bars" or gateways and 45 towers. There are also the famous York ginnels--fifty or so little thoroughfares within the city walls--medieval short-cuts you can use to explore the city as if you were running from (or towards) trouble in the big, mean streets.

Despite the fact that York seems to have more miles of wall than any other city in England (2.1126621 miles if you believe the 3.4 km figure you see repeatedly on the web) and the fact that the idea of "best-preserved" is open to a lot of interpretation when one speaks of construction of a wall 2000 years ago that's now in the middle of a city, Mary Ann Cameron, who runs Walking Tours of Chester, takes exception to the whole idea presented above.

"Must take issue with your statement that York has the longest and best preserved walls in England. Speaking as a Yorkshire lass, I'm quick to defend the lovely city but you're very wrong here. This accolade goes to Chester, the most complete set of walls in the UK. Apart from one picturesque corner, you can walk the whole of the 2 mile circuit unimpeded, any time of day or night - unless you want to pop in for a scone or a pint somewhere interesting, that is. They form part of the town's pedestrianisation system at the heart of the city centre. You can only access York's walls during the day and they don't go over roads, so there's lots of coming off and on."

I'll leave it to the reader to debate the issues of best-preserved and most complete. The curious among us (myself included) will want to visit Chester to see them. If you're in London, here's how to get from London to Chester by Train, Bus or Car. And just in case you haven't heard of Chester, it's one of the Top 20 Most Popular UK Cities for International Visitors.

Berlin, Germany

Ok, the walls aren't medieval, romantic, or even still standing. But they're important in the scheme of history we remember, so Berlin has to be included.

Berlin and the Berlin Wall Travel Information

Other Articles in the "Best of Europe" Series

Recommended Reading

If you like castles and medieval walled cities, you may wish to peruse the highly rated paperback: The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages Compare Prices

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