Dating from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century to the start of the Renaissance around the 15th century, the medieval period was an era of social upheaval, Christian expansion and architectural ingenuity.
It gave rise to glorious Gothic structures and fairytale villages, complete with half-timbered houses and quaint cobbled streets. Some of these sites and structures still stand today, preserved centuries after they first emerged.
From Bamberg in Germany to the iconic English town of Rye, here are 8 unmissable medieval towns to visit in Europe.
1. Rye, England
Rye is a historic port town in East Sussex, England, that was an important member of the Cinque Port Confederation during the medieval period. Trading in fish, wine, wool and other luxury goods, Rye was involved in fishing and shipbuilding as a royal dockyard and naval base for galleys.
Today, Rye is a thriving picturesque coastal town where you can find antique shops, lovely eateries (including some great fish and chips) and a rich medieval history. Visit The Mermaid Inn on the cobbled Mermaid Street, along from Henry James’ Lamb House, which was built in 1156 and still operates as a pub and bed and breakfast. The inn was connected to The Old Bell Inn by an underground smugglers’ tunnel.
2. Gamla Stan, Sweden
Gamla Stan, literally Old Town, is the historical quarter of Sweden’s capital city, Stockholm. Built from the 13th century, Gamla Stan was made up of a network of cobbled streets, North-Germanic architecture and beautiful open plazas, most notable of which is Stortorget. Stortorget was a square surrounded by merchants’ housing, although it later became the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath, a massacre of noblemen in 1520 ordered by the Danish King Christian II.
Today, the small yet bustling Gamla Stan is the site of centuries of history and is home to Stockholm’s Saint Eric’s Cathedral and the iconic Stockholm Stock Exchange Building in Stortorget. Another stunning religious site in Gamla Stan is the beautiful medieval church of Riddarholmen, one of Stockholm’s oldest buildings and the burial place of Swedish monarchs.
3. Urbino, Italy
Urbino is a beautiful walled city in the Marche region of Italy. First a Roman settlement, Urbino flourished during the 15th century, particularly during the time of Duke Federico II da Montefeltro, playing host to intellectuals and artists from around the country. It became one of the chief creative hubs in Italy during the Renaissance.
Today, much of Urbino is charmingly frozen in its cultural heyday, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in its history. Visit the Palazzo Ducale, a turreted fairytale-esque structure built in the 15th century, now home to a national art museum. Also visit its cathedral or ‘Duomo’ and the 14th-century Albornoz Fortress.
4. Vranduk, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Vranduk in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a picturesque historic town made up of a citadel with a main tower and protective wall which surrounds the interior of the settlement. The medieval Vranduk Castle, or Vranduk Fortress as it is sometimes known, once served as the residence of King Stjepan Tomas, who ruled Bosnia in the mid-15th century AD. It was declared a national monument of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2005.
Today, Vranduk is a popular visitor attraction. The castle contains a museum where you can try traditional Bosnian meals and learn about the site’s history and culture. There are several other interesting attractions in the town including the Ottoman-period Fatih Sultan Mosque.
5. Visby, Sweden
Visby in Gotland, Sweden, is a unique example of a northern European medieval walled trading town with a well-preserved townscape and collection of historic buildings. As a strategic point along Baltic trade routes, Visby has attracted commercial interest since the Viking Age and, from the 12th century onwards, German, Russian and Danish tradesmen flocked to the town.
Visby’s city walls still dominate the town today and the area within the defensive walls has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995. Dating back to the 13th century, the 3.6km wall with its fifty towers still surrounds Visby. Other historic and impressive buildings include Visby Cathedral, which dates to the 12th century, and was prominent as Visby grew in power.
6. Colmar, France
The first historic reference of the French town of Colmar is in an early 9th-century chronicle. It was later granted the status of ‘imperial town’ in the 13th century by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. A walled settlement for many years, Colmar was occupied by Sweden in the 17th century and by Germany in the late 19th-early 20th centuries and during World War Two.
Today, Colmar is impeccably preserved, featuring ancient churches, half-timbered houses and glorious fountains. Visit the Musée d’Unterlinden, which is home to various famed works of art. Also, the former home of Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, who designed the Statue of Liberty in New York, is home to a museum.
7. Wells, England
Wells owes its medieval city status to its beautiful 13th-century cathedral. Named for the 3 wells dedicated to Saint Andrew, the city grew from a Roman settlement into the Anglo-Saxon period when King Ine of Wessex founded a church there in 704. Wells has since been notable for its cloth-making and role in both the English Civil War and Monmouth Rebellion.
Today, the town’s medieval architecture has led Wells to be a popular filming location. Wells Cathedral is breathtaking and features inverted Gothic arches and an incredible octagonal Chapter House. Inside you will find the baptismal font of Bishop Aldhelm, which predates the cathedral by over 400 years. Visit the Wells Clock – the second oldest clock in Britain – before wandering the picturesque medieval streets.
8. Bamberg, Germany
The town of Bamberg in Germany first emerged in the 9th century, and takes its name from the nearby Babenberch castle, home to the Babenberg family. From the 12th century, Bamberg became a key settlement of the Holy Roman Empire, experiencing great prosperity as a result. Bamberg was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.
Today, Bamberg is world-renowned for its beauty and heritage. Don’t miss the famed Obere Brücke, a pedestrianised bridge precariously topped with the Old Town Hall. Also take a trip to the 13th-century Bamberg Cathedral and the Historical Museum, housed in a 16th-century Bishop’s palace.