Originally built to protect residents from enemies, walled cities today are more often viewed as tourist destinations than defensive fortresses. But for hundreds and even thousands of years, walls—as well as the rivers, coastlines, and hillsides people incorporated into their fortifications—were an integral part of city life.
Defensive walls thrived in ancient Mesopotamia and both the Greeks and ancient Chinese used various types of fortifications as protection. From the 12th century onward in Europe, the increasing urbanization of settlements required larger and more secure walls, resulting in the proliferation of hundreds of walled cities across the continent.
By the 19th century, however, many walls around the world were demolished in an effort to modernize cities. And in the 20th century, walls were used less for protection and more often to prevent the movement of people from place to place.
Today’s surviving walled cities often feature a historic city center, sometimes surrounded by a more modern city that oozes out past the ramparts. In honor of these architecture time capsules, we’ve rounded up 11 of the prettiest walled cities in the world.
Located in the Sous Valley in southern Morocco, Taroudant is a town entirely enclosed by ramparts. Sometimes called ‘Little Marrakesh,’ the city’s famous red-mud walls hide a lively souq and market scene with views of the snowy High Atlas mountains beyond.
No longer a sleepy, under-the-radar sea town, Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that managed to survive a major earthquake in 1667 and the armed conflict of the 1990s. Take a walk along the well-preserved city walls and enjoy the gorgeous ocean views.
As one of the most picturesque towns in Portugal and an easy day trip from Lisbon, Obidos charms with a cobbled historic center surrounded by 11th-century walls.
Ping Yao, China:
Founded in the 14th century, the walled city of Ping Yao is a well-preserved example of a traditional Han Chinese city. Inside, streets, lanes, shops, and temples pay homage to Ping Yao’s former status as a financial hub for the whole of China.
Another UNESCO Heritage Site, no discussion of walled cities would be complete without Carcassonne, a medieval fortified town that also boasts an excellent Gothic cathedral. The city is remarkably well preserved thanks to the restoration campaign of Viollet-le-Duc, one of the founders of the modern science of conservation.
Itchan Kala, Uzbekistan:
According to UNESCO, the 32-foot high brick walls of Itchan Kala in Uzbekistan protect the inner town of the old Khiva oasis, the last resting-place of caravans before crossing the desert to Iran.
San Gimignano, Italy:
Located in Tuscany’s province of Siena, San Gimignano is a walled medieval city perched atop a hill. In addition to its stone fortifications, the city has 14 tower houses built between the 11th and 13th centuries as power symbols of wealthy merchant families.
Sometimes referred to as the ‘Manhattan of the Desert’ for its tiny alleys and soaring towers, this 1,700-year-old city used sun-dried mud brick walls to create a walled fortress. According to UNESCO, Shibam is one of the oldest and best examples of urban planning based on vertical construction.
Often regarded as the finest walled city in Europe, Avila boasts 87 towers and a sentry path along its ramparts. It’s also unique in having an intact exterior wall; most walled cities suffer from breaks or damage.
The 11th-century walled fort of Jaisalmer looks a bit like a sandcastle, nicknamed the “Golden City” after its characteristic sandy hue. Over 5,000 people still live and work inside its walls, making this remote destination worth the trek.
Veliky Novgorod, Russia:
With its first fortifications constructed around 1044 and the current fortress built in the 15th century, Veliky Novgorod is one of the oldest and best preserved walled cities in Eastern Europe.