Americans like me often forget that there are cities older than most countries. Though their names and the territories to which they belong might have changed, people settled in the same areas—and stayed there for millennia—for specific reasons. Sometimes, they were on significant trade routes. Sometimes they were religious sites. And sometimes, they were the only fertile areas for miles around. Regardless, these are some of the oldest cities that are still inhabited today, featuring when and by whom they were founded, what they were like in ancient times, and what it’s like to visit them today.
Contemporary travelers say that Istanbul isn’t just one city, but many, and they couldn’t be more correct. Not only is the city marked by the personalities of its many mahalles (neighborhoods), but people who live there now dwell among ancient monuments, artifacts, and markers of history.
Sultanahmet Square, or the Hippodrome of Constantinople, is a city square displaying an awe-inspiring 3,500-year-old obelisk, with plenty of vibrant bazaars nearby. The square has been around since the city was known as Constantinople. Then, it was decorated with statues of emperors and gods, and it hosted chariot races, savage gladiator fights, and political debate.
Though it’s been called many things, the city now known as Istanbul has always been at the intersection of Europe and Asia, and for that reason, it’s been alive since the 7th century BCE, when the Greeks of Thrace and the Ottomans of Anatolia both staked their claim. The Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul down its center, symbolically drawing the line between its Asian and European heritage. Yalis (mansions) from the Ottoman era still stud the Asian banks underneath Kiz Kulesi, the ancient watchtower that’s stood for nearly 2,500 years.
One of the main tourist draws to Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia, or the Blue Mosque. Other historical landmarks of Orthodox Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities also stud the city.
Today, the city’s neighborhoods each have distinct personalities. From the café society in Kadikoy so present in the literature of the famous author Orhan Pamuk, to the festivals of art and culture in Beyoglu, to the historical monuments that still mark the Golden Horn, Istanbul has plenty of history for those interested. It also displays bazaars full of spices, hot air balloon tours over geographical phenomena, and even a banging night life.
The city of Beijing is older than the country of China. In fact, over 3,000 years ago, Beijing was the capital of the ancient states of Ji and Yan—two of the four city-states that the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang worked to unite in 220 BCE.
Some of Beijing’s most popular tourism sites date back thousands of years as well. Among the most famous is the Great Wall of China. Though parts of the Wall existed before the First Emperor, under his reign, the portions of the Wall were connected. The Wall was extended and reconstructed over centuries. The sections of the Wall built before the Ming Dynasty are nearly all gone, but due to their attention and achievements in art and construction, those built during the Ming’s time are still standing, and the Wall's many watchtowers are among Beijing’s most exciting historical sites.
Another of its most beloved historical sites is that of the Lama Temple, Yonghegong, famous for its Mongolian-Tibetan architecture. The pagoda itself is a symbol of Yuandadu, the first capital that Kubla Khan set up in his further unification of China. Let’s not forget the Forbidden City’s palace complex, either! It was the imperial palace of the Ming dynasty, where they spent the winter, before its current role as an art and history museum.
Beijing is full of more recent history, too: you can watch the daily flag-lowering ceremony at Tiananmen Square, or visit Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum. Rickshaws are still a popular way to travel in the city, and you can still try the ancient art of calligraphy or play with a Chinese yo-yo while you sample the nation’s rice wine.
Luxor is the site of the Ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. Located in Upper Egypt (that means the southern part, since the Nile runs south to north), it's the location of the baddest pharaoh’s temple ever: the woman king, Hatshepsut, built her temple there. The infamous Valley of the Kings is located in the Necropolis of Luxor, too, and the locals have always known how to capitalize on those tourist opportunities.
To be sure, tourism has long been the main economic support of Luxor, though farming also exists all up and down the Nile River. There are no more annual floods, thanks to the building of several dams in nearby Sudan, but fertile soil still exists all along the riverbanks. Overnight train travel and riverboat cruises are the two best ways to get to Luxor, and once you arrive, a horse carriage will carry you through the town, into the street bazaars and past spice markets. The restaurants serve impeccably spiced delicacies like stuffed pigeon, and hookah bars abound.
One of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the Mahabharta, is set in Indraprastha, which was said to have been located in what is today Delhi. Although nothing remains of Indraprastha, and recent archaeological studies have not supported that Indraprastha and Delhi are the same city, Delhi nevertheless remains hugely important in the history of India. That's in no small part due to the fact that it’s been a hub of commerce, transport, politics, and culture since the first century BCE.
Iconic architecture is a staple of Delhi, and the Lotus Temple of the Baháʼí faith is a must see; although it's a relatively new feature of the city, having been built in the 1980s. The neighborhood of Old Delhi dates to the 1600s, and the Red Fort is a hot tourist destination, since it’s a symbol of the nation of India and a relic of the Mughal era. Speaking of Mughal iconic architecture, the incredible Taj Mahal, an Islamic mausoleum for Shah Jahan’s favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, is also a short distance from the heart of Delhi, in Agra.
Those looking for a more contemporary experience in Delhi can take a rickshaw tour among its phenomenal restaurants and street food vendors, visit the flower market of Ghazipur, catch a show at Kamani Auditorium, or watch a street play competition.
Beirut has been touted as the “Paris of the East” ever since Frank Sinatra deigned to visit, but its history goes back further than its western “counterpart.” The site has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In the Bronze Age, Beirut was inhabited by the Canaanites or “Phoenicians,” a word introduced by the Greeks, who named them for the purple dye they sold. Later, Lebanon underwent Assyrian rule, then Babylonian, Macedonian, Roman, and Arab. The communities of Lebanon have adapted to new rulers for millennia. When one visits now, the same walk can lead a pedestrian past a ruined Byzantine fort on the Korniche coast, an upscale boutique shopping mall, and a vacant building still riddled with bullet holes from Lebanon’s Civil War in the 1970s.
The people of Beirut are always eager to showcase their city, and any trip to Lebanon will be a culinary tour, whether or not it’s intended. Mediterranean mezze like hummus, baba ghanoush, and pita grace every table, and because the country identifies as predominately Christian (although many religions claim the nation as home), wine is easy to find in exceptional quality. And don’t miss the sweets shops. From knaffe to baklawa, you’ll want to take everything home with you.
I won’t attempt to chronicle all of Jerusalem’s history here—that would be an impossible feat—but suffice it to say that, similar to Beirut, many empires have loomed over this area. After the genocides of World War II, the UN attempted to partition Palestine. That plan failed and many Palestinians were displaced with the creation of the state of Israel. Today, both Palestine and Israel claim Jerusalem as their capital, and neither claim is widely recognized internationally.
Contemporary tourists to Jerusalem fall into many categories, but most tourists visit Jerusalem to see its sacred sites of the Abrahamic religions. Jewish Birth Right participants travel to see both the Holy Land and the haven created for Jews, the holy Wailing Wall, the Kotel Tunnels, and numerous Jewish historical museums. Christians visit to walk the steps of Jesus through the Garden of Gesthemane and City of David. Muslims attend the Al-Aqsa Mosque and its Dome of the Rock, the world's oldest surviving work of Islamic architecture and the place where the Night Journey of Mohammed began.
Among secular things to do in Jerusalem are marveling at the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens or Bird Observatory, shopping at the high-end Mamilla outdoor mall, or visiting some of its chic clubs and traditional restaurants.
Hailed as the birthplace of democracy, a hotbed for ancient philosophers, and the site of the very first marathon, Athens is the place to go if you want to learn about the beginning of Western civilization. The most famous historical site in Athens is the Acropolis, meaning “high city,” a cluster of ancient ruins of historical significance. It once served as the residence of the king, the storehouse, and a treasury into the Bronze Age.
The Acropolis later also served as the location of the Festival of Athena, goddess of wisdom, and it contains the ruins of the Parthenon. The Parthenon was a temple to the goddess Athena during the fifth century BCE, and its columns still depict scenes of Greek warriors—Amazons in particular. It’s an architectural marvel built entirely from hand-formed white marble.
The beaches in Athens are also not to be missed, including Catamaran cruises out to neighboring islands and tastings of ouzo, wine, and Mediterranean seafood galore.
The tale of the founding of Rome is one of its most famous myths: Romulus and Remus were abandoned by their royal parents because of the prophecy that they would one day overthrow their uncle. True to form, trying to avoid the outcome put it into effect. The myth says that the twins were raised first by a she-wolf, and then by a shepherd. When they reached adulthood, they overthrew their tyrannical uncle and established the city of Rome.
Ancient historians were certain that Rome was founded on April 21, 814 BCE, and they marked it with Palila, the festival to celebrate the goddess of shepherds. The infamous Roman Empire persisted until the fourth century CE, and it’s responsible for spreading Christianity and Western influence throughout the world. Located inside Rome, Vatican City draws Catholics from all over the world. Non-Christians too come to marvel at the Renaissance paintings and sculptures in its museum… and maybe to scan the parapets for the Pope, just in case.
Rome is and pretty much always has been a hub for culture, not to mention fashion. Designers from throughout Italy showcase their wares in the “fashion triangle” near the Spanish Steps, within walking distance of the Trevi Fountain. Pick up a gelato, Aperol Spritz, or carafe of table wine between destinations. You’ll need it for that jam-packed subway ride!
There are many other ancient cities throughout the world ready for you to visit—where are you heading first?