Underrated spots with a story
A UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety, Lübeck, in northern Germany, is packed to the gills with historic architecture, from Brick Gothic-style churches to merchants’ mansions. The city, founded in the 12th century, is best known as the former capital of the Hanseatic League and was once one of Europe’s major powers. Museum Holsten Gate at the Old Town entrance tells the story of Lübeck’s rich history.
Straddling the Rhine River and offering a glorious blend of Swiss, German and French culture, this city satisfies history lovers with its well-preserved Old Town in Grossbasel (Greater Basel). Through Aldstadt’s winding streets, the star of the show is the red Rathaus on Marktplatz. The city is home to some 40 museums too, from Historisches Museum Basel, which dives into Basel’s past, to artistic treasure troves like the Kunsthalle.
First incorporated in 1851, Odgen was once a self-professed “lawless frontier town”. The city, some 35 miles north of Salt Lake City, is steeped in railroad history, since it once acted as the junction between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific rail lines. Characters of all kinds poured into Ogden as a result, affording the city a reputation as a wild and rebellious bolthole. Today Ogden’s riotous past is still imaginable through well-preserved historic buildings such as the Union Station and the 1920s Bigelow Hotel.
Worlds away from hectic metropolises such as Tokyo and Osaka, the city of Takayama is situated in Japan’s Gifu prefecture. Its principal draw is the Sanmachi Suji area (pictured), where many Edo-period buildings have been preserved. There are sake breweries and historic merchants’ houses, plus the Hida Folk Village with its 30 reconstructed farmhouses.
Nelson, British Columbia, Canada
Ely, Cambridgeshire, England
The little city of Ely is situated in the Cambridgeshire Fens and has roots dating back to AD 673, when Anglo Saxon princess Saint Etheldreda established a Christian community here. Though the early Anglo Saxon church hasn’t survived, Ely Cathedral, a grand Norman building constructed over 300 years, dominates the town today. The imposing cathedral isn’t the only historical attraction though. Oliver Cromwell’s House is also a popular spot.
Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Evidence of the 1990s Yugoslav Wars can still be found in this small city, with abandoned buildings and bullet-hole-ridden walls around Mostar’s historic core. But great efforts have been made to restore the city’s center to its former glory with highlights including the rebuilt Stari Most, the Ottoman-style “Old Bridge” that arches over the Neretva River. Also look out for the 17th-century Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque and the city’s historic Turkish houses. See more of the world’s most impressive bridges here.
Weymouth, Massachusetts, USA
Weymouth, the second-oldest settlement in Massachusetts, is located some 17 miles south of historic Boston. But Weymouth has its fair share of history too: the area was first settled by the British in 1622, becoming the Wessaguscus Plantation, though this early colony failed. A permanent settlement was eventually established and newly-named Weymouth was incorporated by 1635. Today notable landmarks include the 20th-century Town Hall, built to replicate the Old State House in Boston.
Another little city with Roman roots, Mérida, in western Spain, was founded as early as 25 BC, and was one of the largest and most important towns in the area. The city’s Roman ruins remain a key attraction including a wonderfully preserved theater, Roman-era bridge and aqueduct. Casa del Mitreo, a preserved Roman house filled with murals and mosaics, is another stunning spot. Take a look at Europe’s most adorable small towns and villages.
Lucerne, tipped as the gateway to Central Switzerland and perched beside the eponymous Lake Lucerne, has natural beauty and historic sites in equal doses. It’s thought that the city was chartered in the 12th century, and a good portion of Lucerne’s medieval architecture has been preserved. The Old Town is made up of historic guildhalls, covered wooden bridges and fortified walls. Meanwhile, the Lion Monument commemorates the soldiers that fell in the French Revolution and dates to the early 19th century.
Tucked away in Morocco’s Sous Valley is Taroudant, a mountain-fringed city that was the capital of Morocco at one point during the Saadi dynasty, which ruled from 1549 to 1659. This honey-colored town has hulking ramparts, labyrinthine souks and stunning open squares.
An Italian city home to the country’s second-oldest university, Padua lies around 25 miles west of Venice. Mentions of the city appear as early as 302 BC and today it still holds many vestiges of the past. The medieval center of town includes highlights such as the Renaissance Palazzo Bo (the seat of the city’s university) and the Cappella degli Scrovegni (a chapel with beautiful Giotto frescoes).
St Asaph, Wales
Staunton, Virginia, USA
Indie shops and family-run restaurants line the streets of Staunton, a compact city in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The city was settled back in 1732 and played a key role during the Civil War as a supply base. It also has significance as the birthplace of president Woodrow Wilson. Historic attractions here today include the Frontier Culture Museum of Virginia, which captures the history of the area from the 1600s to the 1800s.
Aveiro is a pint-sized city often dubbed the “Venice of Portugal” for its labyrinth of canals and traditional boats named moliceiros. The city boomed in the early 16th century, when it was a thriving seaport, and today a wealth of stunning Art Nouveau architecture (displayed in Museu de Arte Nova) and the nearby São Jacinto Nature Reserve remain.
The allure of the German city of Heidelberg begins with its location: it’s perched at the edge of the Neckar River surrounded by woodland. The Old Town is crammed full of Baroque architecture, but the star of the show is the crumbling Heidelberg Castle – the imposing structure dates to the medieval period, but was transformed into a Renaissance palace in the 16th century. The Kurpfälzisches Museum delves into the city’s history.
Kingston, Ontario, Canada
The city of Kingston has a relatively lengthy history. The site long existed as a meeting place for First Nations peoples, before it was settled by Europeans in the late 17th century, making it one of the earliest European settlements in Ontario. Downloadable audio walking tours give insight into Kingston’s history, while Fort Henry National Historic Site delves into the area’s military past. These are Canada’s most adorable small towns and villages.
Armagh, Northern Ireland
Packed full of incredible architecture, the city of Granada is one of quaint cobblestoned lanes, rainbow buildings and churches. It was established in 1523 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, making it one of the earliest cities in Central America. Evidence of the city’s history remains around every corner, like the beautiful Guadalupe Church.
Greenville, South Carolina, USA
Long before the city of Greenville existed, this site served as a hunting ground for the Cherokee peoples. Then, in 1770, the area was settled by Irish-born Richard Pearis and Greenville had been established by the end of the century. Today Greenville is a buzzy small city with a lively Main Street and a thriving arts scene. These are America’s most charming historic downtowns.
The city of Nantes has had a turbulent history: dating back to around 70 BC, the city has been controlled by the Romans and the Normans, among others over the years, and was sadly devastated in the Second World War. Today Nantes is held up as one of France’s most creative and progressive cities, but its history is not forgotten. The Place Royal fountain (pictured) has dominated the square since 1865 and the Memorial to the Abolition of Slavery is a poignant landmark.
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA
Not to be confused with the Bethlehem of the Middle East, this curious little city in eastern Pennsylvania dates to 1741, when it was founded by Moravian missionaries. The city played its part during the Civil War too, as injured American troops were treated in the old Colonial Hall here. Today it’s still home to the Moravian Book Shop, purportedly the oldest continuously-operating bookstore in the world, dating from 1745, and the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem, which pays homage to the city’s heritage (closed temporarily so check the website for updates).
Vigan, the Philippines
Protected as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, Vigan is one of the most wonderfully preserved cities in all of Asia. It was founded in the 16th century and its architecture has Spanish, Filipino and Chinese influences. A true taste of the city can be found in its historic core, the Mestizo district, home to artisans’ shops and sacred buildings such as the 17th-century St Paul Cathedral. Discover these amazing places that have been saved from destruction.
Most people are familiar with Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, but most haven’t heard of second-city Akureyri, in the country’s north. Mentions of the mountain-backed city begin as early as the 16th century and it relays its history through its handful of museums. The compact Akureyri Museum offers a glimpse into the city’s past through clippings, photos and artifacts. There’s plenty for nature-lovers too, with opportunities for birding, whale watching and boat tours.
Wells, Somerset, England
The smallest city in England (save from the City of London), Wells is a medieval bolthole in the southwestern county of Somerset. Its glittering centerpiece is its cathedral, whose construction was begun in the 12th century. The Bishop’s Palace, the historic home of the bishops of Bath and Wells, and the Vicars’ Close (pictured), a cobbled street lined with medieval buildings, are also a great way to soak up the past. Check out the UK’s prettiest towns and villages here.
George, South Africa
Mosaics dating to the 5th and 6th century fill this city in northeastern Italy. The most impressive displays can be found in the Christian Byzantine Basilica of San Vitale, consecrated in AD 548, and the 5th-century Mausoleo di Galla Placidia. Most importantly, this city was the capital of the Western Roman Empire throughout the 5th century – other early Christian monuments include the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo and the Neonian Baptistery. Check out the world’s most incredible Roman ruins you have to see to believe.
Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada
This pretty harbor city, established in 1785, was once the capital of Cape Breton Island. It has an industrial history, formerly home to steel mills and coal mines, while today the city’s rainbow-hued houses and surrounding countryside are the main attraction. The Cape Breton Miners’ Museum and the Sydney Museum offer a fascinating dose of natural history.
Chaniá, Crete, Greece
Chaniá is one of the most historically significant cities in Crete: this ancient site is thought to have been settled since Neolithic times, and it even served as the capital of Crete from 1841 to 1971. The city’s crowning jewel is its 14th-century Venetian harbor, complete with colorful buildings and a restored 16th-century lighthouse. Narrow alleys are lined with Venetian and Turkish-style buildings and the Chaniá Archaeological Museum holds a wealth of historical artifacts. Take a look at the world’s most beautiful ports and harbors here.
Perched on the banks of the River Tay, the city of Perth was once the capital of Scotland. It’s nicknamed the “Fair City” for good reason, wowing with its lofty spires and dreamy waterside location. It’s rooted in a long history too. The site of most significance is the nearby Scone Palace, a 12th-century pile that was once the crowning site for the Kings of Scots. These are the UK’s most stunning stately homes.
The city of Lampang in northern Thailand remains unspoiled, despite its beautiful sacred buildings and buzzing markets. Within the walled old town area is one of the most splendid buildings in the city, Wat Sri Chum (pictured). This temple, with its layered roof, gilded detailing and mosaics, dates to 1890 and is filled with fascinating Burmese artwork.
La Rochelle, France
Nicknamed the “White City”, La Rochelle was one of the most important seaports in France between the 1300s and 1600s. The Vieux Port (Old Port), dominated by a pair of hulking 14th-century towers, is one of the city’s focal points, while its historic heart is made up of arcaded streets and medieval buildings. The Musée Maritime details La Rochelle’s history as a port city.
San Luis Obispo, California, USA
Affectionately known as SLO, the charming city of San Luis Obispo was established in 1772 by Junípero Serra. It was built up around the whitewashed Spanish mission, one of 21 missions established in California in the 18th and 19th centuries. Visitors can usually take a tour of the Old Mission and the little museum here but they’re currently closed due to COVID-19. Now discover the most historic hotel in every US state.
Ouro Preto, Brazil
The lakeside city of Lausanne preserves the past with its medieval city center and its Gothic Cathédrale de Notre Dame, but it’s often overlooked in favor of Geneva, less than an hour away. There’s plenty to learn about this little city, though. The Place de la Palud is a market square home to the oldest fountain in town and a moving clock that chronicles the city’s history.
Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada
The seaside city of Charlottetown serves as the capital of Prince Edward Island and is a place of great historical significance. It was here that the historic Charlottetown Conference took place: the Fathers of Confederation met in 1864 for discussions that would ultimately result in the formation of Canada. The Province House National Historic Site, the best place to learn about the confederation, is currently closed for renovations, but you can visit the “Story of Confederation” exhibit at the Confederation Centre of the Arts instead.
While Puno is often seen as a springboard for exploring Lake Titicaca, the city has its own charms. Founded by the Spanish in 1668, Puno is still dotted with architecture from the era, from its Baroque cathedral to its smaller churches and homes. The city is also dubbed Peru’s “folkloric capital” and usually hosts colorful traditional festivals. These are the world’s most colorful places.
Truro, Cornwall, England
The only real city in the southwestern county of Cornwall, Truro is thought to have its roots in an Iron Age settlement. Its zenith was during the 1700s and 1800s, when tin mining boomed here, and well-heeled mine bosses developed lavish residences and entertainment complexes in the city. Today Truro’s key feature is its 19th-century cathedral, built in the Gothic Revival style, complete with castle-like towers and soaring spires. Discover Britain’s most historic towns and cities.
The tiny Italian city of Matera became a must-see historical destination when it was crowned European Capital of Culture for 2019. It’s comprised of clustered Sassi (historic cave dwellings), now home to Airbnbs and boutique hotels, and is thought to be one of the oldest continuously-settled cities in the world. Packed full of preserved pieces of history, highlights include the 13th-century stone cathedral and the Casa Grotta nei Sassi, a preserved cave home.
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