News 5 of the world’s oldest cities to visit

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5 of the world’s oldest cities to visit

Travel may be difficult, or even off limits, for now - but that doesn't mean we can't make plans for the future. We hope that articles like this one will help you plan your next experience whenever that may be.

There are plenty of amazing places to see in the world. For many travellers, it’s the historical sites that hold the most intrigue. If you’re interested in seeing some of the world’s oldest cities, we’ve got you covered when it comes to inspiration.

The world of travel has changed drastically over the past year and England goes into a second lockdown today (5 November). Though it’s not possible to visit these ancient cities right now, they’ve stood the test of time and will be waiting for you once it’s time to travel safely again.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Southeast Asia is a haven for some of the world’s oldest cities and temples. Top choices include Sukhothai in Thailand, Yogyakarta in Indonesia and Bagan in Myanmar, but few rival the magnificence of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex.

The Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia

The history of Angkor Wat

Found just outside Siem Reap, Angkor Wat is just one of 72 temples in the complex. Most tours start at the eponymous building – so iconic it remains on the Cambodian flag to this day. You then have three main choices: to go on either the small circuit, the grand circuit or to the remote historic sites.

Work began on the complex in the early 12th century with a Hindu temple, but by the end of the century, the country and the temples transitioned to Buddhist practices and beliefs.

Today, the Angkor Wat complex is the largest religious monument in the world. While some travellers feel ‘templed out’ after a day, many opt for multi-day tours of the complex to soak in as much of the architecture and culture as possible.

Parts of the ancient city you won’t want to miss

While most tours incorporate Angkor Wat temple by default, with good reason, there are plenty of other unique temples you won’t want to miss.

Top among many lists is Ta Prohm, a late 12th-century building that has been taken over by nature. Much of the temple is in good order, except trees have taken root and in many parts have taken over. It’s a mesmerising mix of nature and human endeavour, which is also present at the smaller Ta Som temple.

Other worthy stops include the intricately carved Banteay Srei, the huge faces of Bayon and the stone lions of Pre Rup. If you want to see some of the region’s more offbeat temples, hire a local driver and ask them to take you to their hidden favourites.

Palenque, Mexico

As wells as the likes of Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza, Mexico is home to the Palenque architectural zone. Half temple, half jungle, Palenque is a sight to behold.

The history of Palenque

The age of Palenque is uncertain, but it’s believed that it was founded around 200 BCE and abandoned around 800 CE. For the next thousand years or so, it was uninhabited and taken over by rainforest. The Spanish had a brief look in the 1740s, and an American archaeologist visited in the 1830s. It wasn’t until 1950 when the discovery of an ancient crypt got people excited about the area.

As it stands, there are more than 200 architectural structures – including homes, pyramids and a palace – but it’s believed that 90% of the ancient city is yet to be uncovered.

Parts of the ancient city you won’t want to miss

The Temple of Inscriptions is famous in archaeology circles because of the breakthrough in understanding ancient texts that came from the discovery.

Elsewhere, the palace, Temple of Skulls and the pyramids in the Group of Crosses may be more rewarding for everyday travellers.

Timbuktu, Mali

Timbuktu is a name we all know, but few of us could point to it on a map. If you want to see something a bit different, the ancient city in Mali, is well worth a visit.

World's oldest cities: Timbuktu

The history of Timbuktu

Unlike Angkor Wat and Palenque, Timbuktu is one of the world’s oldest cities that is still inhabited – in fact, it’s still home to tens of thousands of people. At its peak around the 14th century, Timbuktu enjoyed a couple of centuries of worldwide fame as a centre of trading and learning.

From the 15th century, it began to lose its power as its enviable position on the Niger River – which gave it access to much of west and north Africa –was less important as Portuguese ships began trading with coastal cities. As its influence diminished, Timbuktu was regularly attacked by neighbouring countries, although many of its key buildings remain standing.

Parts of the ancient city you won’t want to miss

Many of the mosques and learning centres built of pounded earth in the 14th century still exist, such as the Djingareyber, Sankore and Sidi Yahia mosques and, most famously, the ancient university.

Petra, Jordan

Petra, found in Jordan’s Arabian Desert, is a breathtaking ancient city famed for monumental structures carved directly onto the rockface. Nicknamed the ‘Rose City’ because of its pastel hue, this is a must-visit destination for anyone with a penchant for historic cities and photography.

World's oldest cities: Petra

The history of Petra

The area around Petra has been home to humans for thousands of years. It’s estimated that early inhabitants lived in the region from around 7000 BCE. The Petra that we know and love was built closer to the common era, however. Archaeological estimates date the beginnings of the site to 400-200 BCE.

Petra flourished as a major hub on a popular trade route. It enjoyed a few centuries of independence and wealth before the Romans invaded in 106 CE. From there, the historical city declined, hastened by a major earthquake in 363 before it virtually disappeared from maps. It was rediscovered in 1812 and has since been considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Parts of the ancient city you won’t want to miss

The poster child of Petra is the Treasury, believed to be a tomb for an ancient king. This is one of the best-preserved and grandest buildings in the city.

However, the Siq valley and street of facades show the natural wonder and everyday living of the historic city. Other buildings, like the Royal Tombs, show that the Treasury wasn’t a one-off.

Because of the rich colour of the stone and sand in Petra, seeing one of the world’s oldest cities at sunrise or sunset gives a whole new perspective on the area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, often dubbed one of the wonders of the modern world, is on many travellers’ bucket lists, and for good reason. Sitting 8,000 metres above sea level, this ancient city has views that few other places in the world can match.

World's oldest cities

The history of Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu existed as an inhabited city for just a century. It was built around 1450 as an estate for an emperor but was abandoned during the Spanish invasion. Nowadays, the only inhabitants are hardy llamas that pop in to photobomb tourist pictures.

The Spanish invaders, however, didn’t pay much heed to this ancient city, which means Machu Picchu wasn’t plundered and destroyed like many other settlements. It wasn’t until 1911 that Machu Picchu became known in international circles.

Today, the most common way to get to Machu Picchu is through a multi-day trek, although other options like bus or train are available for travellers who aren’t up for the hike.

Parts of the ancient city you won’t want to miss

Although there are remains of everyday living such as the agricultural terraces, the highlights of Machu Picchu are commonly agreed to be these three: Inihuatana, the Temple of the Three Windows and the Temple of the Sun.

Some of these ancient cities have previously gone decades without a tourist paying a visit of appreciation. We have faith that they’ll be just as stunning as always when it’s time for travellers to venture out again. Borders may close and lockdowns may limit our plans, but travel dreams are always open.

Discover where you can go

Making plans to get back out there after lockdown? Find out whose borders are open with our interactive global map, and sign up to receive email updates when your top destinations reopen.

Common questions travellers have about the world’s oldest cities

What is considered the world’s oldest city?

The longest continually inhabited city in the world is thought to be Jericho in Palestine. It is estimated to have been founded 9,000 to 11,000 years ago.

What are Europe’s oldest cities?

Plovdiv, in Bulgaria, is by far the oldest city in Europe, having been founded in around 6000 BCE. Next are the Greek cities Athens (founded 3000 BCE) and Chania (1700 BCE), followed by Lisbon in Portugal (founded in 1200 BCE).

What is the oldest mandmade structure in the world?

The oldest known manmade structure in the world are the Brewarrina Aboriginal Fish Traps (Baiame’s Ngunnhu) in New South Wales. These are estimated to be more than 40,000 years old.

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