10 of the Oldest Cities in Europe

December 13, 2023

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View of Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Each year, more than 580 million tourists visit Europe for its food, culture, and important historical sites. Some of the continent’s most ancient landmarks include the Colosseum in Rome and the Acropolis in Athens.

But what are Europe’s oldest cities? In this article, we’ll reveal all.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

An aerial view of the Philippopolis Amphitheatre in Plovdiv
Bird’s-eye view of Philippopolis Amphitheatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Year founded: 6,000 BCE
Location: Southern Bulgaria
Current population: 347,646

Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv, is believed to be Europe’s oldest city and one of the oldest cities in the world. 

Plovdiv was founded on the hills of Nebet Tepe by the ancient Thracians during the Iron Age before being expanded significantly multiple times by King Evmolp, Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II, and Philip the Arab.

Over its 8,000-year history, it has been conquered by many tribes and empires, including the

  • Bulgarians
  • Byzantines
  • Celts
  • Huns
  • Macedonians
  • Ottoman Turks
  • Persians
  • Romans
  • Slavs
  • Thracians

Each of these civilizations left a lasting stamp on Plovdiv, and today, some of the city’s most famous landmarks include an Ancient Roman amphitheater, an Ancient Roman aqueduct, Ottoman baths, and Thracian Temples. As well as these ancient relics, excavations showing that people have been inhabiting the town since at least 6,000 BCE are further proof that Plovdiv is the oldest city in Europe.

Larissa, Greece

First Ancient Theater of Larissa, Greece
First Ancient Theatre of Larissa, Greece
Year founded: 6,000 BCE
Location: Thessaly region, Greece
Current population: 173,360

This is not the only time you will see Greece on this top ten list — which is hardly surprising, considering its ancient history.

Larissa is Greece’s fourth-largest city and another of Europe’s many ancient cities, with artifacts uncovered here that date back to the Neolithic period in 6,000 BCE.

In ancient Greek, the name Larissa means “stronghold”, and during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the city was the head of the Thessalian League (a confederacy of city-states and tribes). Its influential status continues today as the capital of the Thessaly region.

Proof of its ancient roots can be found in the Diachronic Museum of Larissa, which exhibits archaeological finds from the Paleolithic period, as well as the First Ancient Theater of Larissa, built by the Macedonian King Philip V around 300 BCE, and the Second Ancient Theater, dating from the Roman period.

Argos, Greece

Larisa Castle on top of a high rocky hill in Argos, Greece
Larisa Castle on top of a high rocky hill in Argos, Greece
Year founded: 5,000 BCE
Location: Northeastern Peloponnese, Greece
Current population: 19,996

Argos is another of the oldest continuously inhabited cities — not only in Europe but also in the world.

Named after the son of the Greek god Zeus, Argos was built on two hills: Larissa and Aspis. At the foot of Aspida Hill, archaeologists found the first remnants of civilization in the form of a late Neolithic village, indicating that the city has been inhabited since at least 5,000 BCE.

It is thought that the city has survived for so long because it has remained neutral throughout history, never taking sides in major wars like the Greco-Persian Wars.

In the late Bronze Age, Argos became a major Mycenaean stronghold and remained a city of importance throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Today, Argos is still one of Greece’s most important cities, containing many ancient monuments, including the old town hall, remains of ancient Mycenaean tombs and theaters, and one of Europe’s oldest castles, Larisa Castle.

Athens, Greece

Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece
Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, Greece
Year founded: 5,000 BCE
Location: Attica region, central Greece
Current population: 3,154,463

Greece’s capital, Athens, is the oldest capital city in Europe. While its first settlements date back to 5,000 BCE, archaeologists have discovered evidence of human presence as early as 11,000 BCE.

Founded by King Theseus and named after the Greek Goddess Athena, Athens’ first settlement was built on the Acropolis rock, where the Parthenon, Propylaea, and Erechtheion monuments can still be found today. By 1,400 BCE, the city was a major Mycenaean center, and despite being destroyed during the Dorian and Persian invasions, it has survived as an important hub of civilization.

Athens is considered the birthplace of Western civilization. Democracy originated in this ancient city, and it still forms the foundation of political systems today. Athens is also the ancient home of philosophy, thanks to influential thinkers and writers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in the fourth and fifth centuries BCE.

It’s thanks to its vast history and dozens of ancient landmarks, which include ruins from the Greek, Roman, Ottoman, and Byzantine eras, that Athens is one of the most popular travel and holiday destinations in Europe.

Nitra, Slovakia

Nitra Castle in Nitra, Slovakia
Nitra Castle in Nitra, Slovakia
Year founded: 5,000 BCE
Location: Western Slovakia
Current population: 81,351

The ancient city of Nitra has been continuously inhabited since about 5,000 BCE, though there is archaeological evidence to suggest that people have been living in and around the city for 25,000 to 30,000 years. 

The discoveries in the area are of such historical importance that several archaeological groups and cultures were named after them, for example:

  • Nitra culture
  • Brodzany-Nitra group 
  • Lužianky group of Lengyel culture

The first defensive settlement was built by the people of Madarovce culture on Castle Hill around 1,600 BCE, with the hillforts on Zobor Hill, Lupka Hill, and Dražovce Hill built during the Iron Age (700-500 BCE).

Like Rome, Nitra is situated in a valley surrounded by hills. As well as the Castle, Zobor, Lupka, and Dražovce hills, these include Gallows Hill (Borina), Calvary, Na Vŕšok, and Martin’s Hill.

Genoa, Italy

Pastel-colored buildings on the water in Genoa, Italy
Pastel-colored buildings on the water in Genoa, Italy
Year founded: 5,000 BCE
Location: Northern Italy, Liguria region
Current population: 674,391

Considering everything we know about the Ancient Romans, you would be forgiven for thinking that Rome is Italy’s oldest continuously inhabited city. In actual fact, it is Genoa, and surprisingly, Rome doesn’t feature on this list at all. 

Genoa was named by the ancient Ligures, who were its first inhabitants. The Ligures had contact with the Greek, Punic, and Etruscan peoples, which is demonstrated by the well-preserved artifacts in the Archaeological Museum of Genoa.

In 218 BCE, Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio used the city as a foothold to fight Hannibal’s attempted invasion. Just a few years later, in 205 BCE, the city was destroyed by the Carthaginians but was rebuilt, receiving municipal rights after the Carthaginian Wars ended in 146 BC.

Genoa remains a major port city and an important hub for trade and culture.

Thebes, Greece

Statue of Hercules fighting a lion
Statue of Hercules fighting a lion
Year founded: 3,000 BCE
Location: Boeotia, central Greece
Current population: 25,064

This ancient city, founded on the top of a low ridge, was one of the ancient Myceneans’ first settlements. In ancient times, Thebes was Athens’ biggest rival in terms of influence and in the early fourth century, it was the most powerful and important city in Greece.

But while it may have once rivaled ancient Athens, today, Thebes is no longer a major city, as it is much smaller and quieter than the capital.

As well as having a long and rich history, the city is also the setting for several Greek myths, including:

  • Cadmus
  • Oedipus
  • Dionysus
  • Heracles (Hercules)

Unfortunately, many of Thebes’ ancient buildings no longer exist, but it is still worth visiting for museums and landmarks like the Archaeological Museum of Thebes, the Archaeological Area of the Mycenaean Palace of Thebes ‘Kadmeio’ and the Temple of Ismenius Apollo.

Chania, Greece

Old Venetian port of Chania, Greece
Old Venetian port of Chania, Greece
Year founded: 1,600 BCE
Location: Northwestern Crete
Current population: 54,562

Chania is the fifth Greek city to feature on this list of the oldest cities in Europe. This ancient city was the site of a Minoan settlement called Kydonia (or Cydonia), and many architectural remains from this time period still exist in Chania today.

Throughout its history, Chania has been ruled by several peoples, including the

  • Arabs
  • Byzantines
  • Greeks
  • Ottomans
  • Venetians

Some of Chania’s most notable historical tourist attractions are the Archaeological Museum of Chania, Firkas Fortress and Tombs of Venizelos.

Larnaca, Cyprus

Boats in Larnaca Marina, Cyprus
Boats in Larnaca Marina, Cyprus
Year founded: 1,200 BCE
Location: Southeastern Cyprus
Current population: 72,000

Originally known as the city-kingdom of Kition, the port city of Larnaca was established by Archaean (Greek) settlers after the Trojan War. 

The city was rebuilt and expanded around 1,100 BCE, and literary evidence suggests that Phoenicians were present in 900 BCE. Over the city’s long history, it has also been ruled by the Byzantines and was part of the Assyrian and Egyptian empires, with Persia ruling Cyprus from 545 BCE.

Larnaca isn’t known for its ancient landmarks, though you can find some ancient ruins at the Kition Archaeological Site just outside the city center.

Lisbon, Portugal

Orange and white buildings by the sea in Lisbon, Portugal
Orange and white buildings by the sea in Lisbon, Portugal
Year founded: 1,200 BCE
Location: West coast of Portugal
Current population: 3,000,536

Europe’s tenth oldest city is Lisbon, which is 400 years older than Rome. It was first colonized by the Phoenicians around 1,200 BCE, who built the settlement known by historians as Ulissipo. 

In the years that followed, Lisbon was conquered by the Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, and Germanic tribes and was part of both the Suebi and Moorish kingdoms.

During the Middle Ages, Portugal’s capital became a large port city, and it remains one of the most significant ports in Europe.

Lisbon is now one of Europe’s most-visited cities, thanks to tourist attractions like its ancient ruins, which can be found all over the city at sites like the Rua dos Correeiros Archaeological Nucleus, Largo do Carmo, the LX Love Cage, and the archaeological site of the Castle of St. George.

Summary

Some of Europe’s most ancient landmarks include the Acropolis in Athens and the Colosseum in Rome. However, you might be surprised to learn that despite everything we’ve been taught about the Roman Empire, Rome doesn’t even feature in the top ten oldest cities in Europe.

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