Discovering world history is one of the great pleasures of international travel. In fact, if you’re a history buff, it’s the chief pleasure. In an effort to help you parse through the world’s best cities for historical exploration, on your Goway vacation, we’ve put together the following list of great cities for history buffs in Asia and Europe. Keep an eye out for entries on Africa and the Middle East, and South America and the South Pacific to follow in upcoming weeks.
As we always like to remind you when approaching these sorts of lists, this is by-no-means exhaustive and there are dozens of other cities that could’ve earned a mention. As well, keep in mind that you won’t find regions or areas on here that aren’t distinct cities. So don’t be surprised when you don’t see the islands of the Cyclades included below.
These cities offer chances to discover monumental events of the past and engage with millennia of human achievement. If you’re a history buff, you’ll delight in all the historical sites you can see and explore. Without further ado, here are the top six cities for history buffs on a Goway vacation in Asia and Europe.
Athens is perhaps the most obvious choice for a list of the world’s great historical cities, but it’d be foolish to leave it off in an effort to make a novel statement. If you’re aiming to explore the history of western civilization on a trip around Europe and Asia, your journey should begin in Athens, on a Greece vacation.
Athens is hailed as the birthplace of democracy and western philosophical thought. People have continuously lived in the city for at least 5,000 years. In the past, it was the leading city of Ancient Greece, while today it serves as the national capital. Chief among Athens’ historical monuments is the Acropolis, an ancient hilltop citadel that contains many ruins and temples. The iconic Parthenon is the Acropolis’ main draw, but you’ll also find the smaller Temple of Athena Nike here. If you find that history is best learned in a museum, you’ll find plenty of museums in Athens. The Acropolis Museum houses most of the treasures of the Acropolis, including the Parthenon’s 160m-long frieze, which depicts a Panathenaic procession. You should also visit the National Archaeological Museum, which houses the best treasures of Ancient Greece from across the world.
The historical highlights of Athens are not limited to the Acropolis. In the middle of the city, you’ll find the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the largest temple in Greece. If you head south of the city near the sea, you’ll find the Temple of Poseidon. Also of note are the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a Roman amphitheatre from the second century, and the Panathenaic Stadium, which is the original home of the Olympics. If you enjoy exploring ancient history, a trip to Athens will suit you well.
If 20th-century history is your beat, you’ll find no city more rewarding to visit than Berlin. Germany has been at the centre of so much of the modern world’s most momentous historical events. To explore Berlin’s tumultuous 20th century, start at the remains of the Berlin Wall, which used to divide East and West Berlin during the Cold War. The East Side Gallery transforms a stretch of this former symbol of oppression into a lively gallery of street art. You can also stop by Checkpoint Charlie, which used to be the access point for diplomats and officials passing between the two halves of Germany. The Haus Am Checkpoint Charlie will fill you in on the history of the checkpoint.
For a darker look into the recent German past, head to the Topography of Terror, a museum that combines indoor and outdoor exhibits to trace the history of the Nazis. The original building was the headquarters of the German secret police, the Gestapo. Afterwards, head to the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe to pay respects to the Nazi’s victims and soberly reflect on the darkest chapter of the 20th century.
Berlin’s historical sites are not limited to the 20th century, even if it has those in abundance. You can head to the Reichstag, which was once home to the leaders of the German Empire, and today houses the parliament. You can climb to the glass dome on top of the building and learn about the building’s importance to German political history, including the mysterious fire of 1933 that destroyed much of the building. You should also make time for Schloss Charlottenburg, the city’s largest palace, which was built by the Duke (later King) of Prussia, Frederich III, at the end of the 17th century. And don’t forget to visit the Brandenburg Gate, the massive neoclassical gateway that acts as the icon of the city.
Whether you want to delve into the history of World War II, the Cold War, or the early modern period, you’ll find a lot to occupy you in Berlin.
Kyoto is arguably Japan’s prettiest city. It was also its imperial capital before the capital shifted to Edo (Tokyo). A historical exploration of Kyoto unveils hundreds of years of dynastic rule and religious history.
Kyoto is home to hundreds of temples and you could devote an entire Japanese vacation simply to exploring them. The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji, is the city’s greatest treasure and a good spot to learn about the imperial families of the past. However, you’ll also want to visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine, with its thousands of orange toriis lining the hill of a mountainside, to learn about important Buddhist traditions. As well, Nanzen-ji offers insight into Zen Buddhism, an important aspect of Japanese history and culture, and Kiyomizu-dera represents an important stop on a Buddhist pilgrimage route. It’s also arguably the most important temple in the city.
The Kyoto Imperial Palace was home to the royal family prior to the move to Edo. The massive temple grounds and elaborate wooden palaces are a spectacle to behold. You can also round out your exploration of imperial japan with a visit to Nijo Castle and Fushimi Castle. Both castles offer historical insight into Japanese military fortifications and significant battles of the past, such as the Siege of Fushimi.
While Kyoto may not have been home to any world-changing events (unless you want to argue the modern Kyoto Protocol was one), it has such a depth of Japanese historical and religious sites that it’s impossible to ignore.
The Eternal City has no shortage of fascinating historical sites. Home to the ancient Roman Empire, Rome was considered the centre of the western world for the better part of a millennium. Any exploration into the Roman Empire on an Italy vacation should start with the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, known the world over as the best-preserved vestiges of the ancient empire. You can visualize the gladiatorial combats that took place within the Colosseum and then learn about the senators and merchants that controlled the day-to-day life of the empire in the Forum.
Head to the Pantheon to see one of the great temples of the ancient world, before exploring the Roman Catacombs to learn about the history of Rome’s burial practices, as well as the underground church of the early Christians. For more modern history, head to the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, where great poets and artists such as John Keats spent significant portions of their lives.
Although it’s technically its own country, Vatican City also sits within Rome and is one of its essential historical sites. St. Peter’s Basilica remains the seat of the Pope and the largest church in the world. The Vatican Museum is home to countless historical and artistic artefacts, from the paintings of Raphael to great statues of ancient Greece and Rome. The Sistine Chapel is also home to Michelangelo’s unparalleled frescoes.
In terms of artistic and political history, Rome cannot be matched.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Perhaps this is the one major cheat on the list, as the city proper of Siem Reap is not one of Asia’s best historical sites. But Siem Reap in Cambodia is the gateway to the temples of Angkor Wat, which lie so close to the city’s borders that we thought we’d simply count the two as one.
There’s no denying that the Temples of Angkor are some of the world’s supreme achievements and absolute must-sees for any history buff. Within the Temples of Angkor, you’ll find Angkor Thom, a Buddhist masterwork from the 12th century that is remarkable for its massive Elephant Terrace, full of stone carvings of gods and kings. You’ll also find Banteay Srei, a Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva that is remarkable for its reddish-pink sandstone, and Ta Prohm, which has largely been unexcavated, representing what happens when the natural world reclaims the great masterworks of humankind.
Of course, the chief treasure of Angkor is Angkor Wat, a Hindu temple from the 12th century that has the distinction of being one of the world’s largest temples. The temple was the crowning achievement of the Khmer Empire, which ruled the region during the Middle Ages. Its massive courtyards, intricate stone carvings, and lotus bud roofs are worth exploring and savouring for hours on end. If you’re a globetrotter because you love experiencing the great works of history, you’ll be in awe at Angkor Wat, especially if you are lucky enough to witness the first rays of the sun peak over the eastern wall at dawn.
Xi’an is China’s treasure trove. Beijing may have the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China to the north, but Xi’an is where you can deep dive into the country’s imperial history and get a first-hand look at China from over 2,000 years ago. In essence, to explore Xi’an is to explore China.
Xi’an is best known as the site of the Terracotta Warriors, the incredible statues made to guard the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang. While the tomb itself has yet to be unearthed, the Terracotta Warriors themselves are some of the world’s great treasures and immensely detailed recreations of soldiers from the 3rd century B.C. Beyond the Terracotta Warriors, Xi’an is also home to the Ancient City Walls, built over 600 years ago, which tower over the city. The seven-story, 64m Giant Wild Goose Pagoda is another of the city’s great monuments, an achievement of the Tang Dynasty that ruled China almost 1,300 years ago.
Xi’an was also the beginning of the Silk Road in China, making it an important trade point in addition to the site of the ruling houses of the Zhou, Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties. As such, Xi’an has a robust Islamic culture. The Muslim Quarter is the best place to see this unique part of Chinese culture, as well as experience the best flavours in the city that are rooted in centuries of tradition.
These six cities in Asia and Europe offer innumerable insights into history and events that changed the world. If you’re a history buff, they best be added to your bucket list. Watch out for our entries on the other continents to follow in the near future.