You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate some of the oldest cities in the world. From Siem Reap and Luxor to Athens and Jerusalem, the world’s oldest cities offer much more than ancient architecture that transports you to the past. They also provide a peek into more modern cultural treasures, like fabulous museums and great culinary experiences. And fortunately for you, our history tours of the world’s oldest cities include excursions that highlight both old and new.
What is the oldest city in the world?
There’s no straightforward answer, though many say that it’s the city of Jericho in the Middle East. Athens, too, has been continuously inhabited for about 5,000 years. Regardless of which city comes out on top, what they all share is a robust history that you need to see to believe—like buildings and cultures that have withstood the test of time. Here, we’ve rounded up eight of the world’s oldest cities you can visit on a Go Ahead tour, where history comes alive in unforgettable ways.
If you’re looking for the oldest city in Europe, the Greek capital is a good place to start. It’s said that the city has been continuously inhabited for 5,000 years, and because of its ancient legacy, there’s a lot to see and do in Athens. But you’ll immediately feel its rich history while strolling around neighborhoods like the millennia-old Plaka, where you can look up at the Acropolis. And while the Acropolis and the almost 2,500-year-old Parthenon represent some of Athens’ most ancient sights, there are plenty more that are only slightly younger.
On our nine-day A Week in Ancient Greece: Athens, Delphi & Olympia tour, you’ll find out if Athens could be the world’s oldest city. Your itinerary will include a tour of both the Acropolis and the Arch of Hadrian, which was built in 131 A.D., as well as the sixth-century Temple of Zeus. If you’re craving more history, sign up for the additional excursion to Cape Sounion just outside the city. This includes a visit to the beautifully preserved Temple of Poseidon, where you can marvel at Doric-style columns that date back to 440 B.C. For history lovers, no trip to Athens is complete without a visit to this ancient attraction.
We can’t talk about history tours and the world’s oldest cities without mentioning a trip to Egypt, especially if you’re eager to answer that age-old question: What is the world’s oldest city? Cairo’s ancient heritage is well-known, but we’ll be heading farther south to the golden city of Luxor—which was originally known as Thebes when it was first inhabited in 3,200 B.C. This magnificent riverside city is often dubbed the world’s greatest open-air museum because of the collection of ancient artifacts and structures that you’ll find within and around its borders. In fact, some of Egypt’s best ancient ruins are in Luxor!
The city itself is home to the four-millennia-old Karnak Temple Complex and the Luxor Temple Complex, which was founded in 1,400 BC as the place where many of ancient Egypt’s pharaohs were crowned. Some parts of the Luxor Temple Complex were built by iconic pharaohs such as Tutankhamun and Ramesses II. Across the Nile River, you’ll find even more historic sights, including the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens.
On our best-selling 12-day Egypt & Nile River Cruise, you’ll get to do all of the above once you make your way to Luxor. In addition to temples and tombs, you’ll also get to visit a papyrus shop and peruse the galleries of Luxor Museum, which counts a statue recovered from King Tut’s tomb among its glorious inventory.
Given the English capital’s modern allure, it’s easy to forget that London’s a city full of history—extending back nearly 2,000 years. Remnants of that are a bit more difficult to find given the modern expansion of the city. But on our weeklong London: The City Experience tour, plenty of free time will allow you to seek out its historic attractions, such as the remaining chunks of the London Wall, which was originally built by the Romans in the 2nd century.
The rest of this trip to London will feature guided tours of the city’s most iconic landmarks, from Trafalgar Square and St. Paul’s Cathedral to Big Ben, the London Eye, and Buckingham Palace, where you may be able to watch the Changing of the Guard. If you want to venture away from the city, the itinerary includes fantastic optional excursions to Windsor Castle—the world’s largest and longest-inhabited castle—and Stonehenge, which experts believe was first built in 3,000 BC. They’re all part of a classic experience in the British capital, which is why they made it into our list of top travel tips for London.
Nicknamed the Eternal City, Rome is considered one of the oldest cities in the world, and definitely a candidate for oldest city in Europe. Everywhere you go on the city’s seven hills, you’ll find proof of this enduring history. As the legend goes, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 B.C., by twin brothers Romulus and Remus. During its peak, the Roman Empire occupied 2.3 million square miles spread across Africa, Europe, and Asia—housing up to 90 million people. And the city of Rome was at the center of it all.
Today, a trip to Rome is as much a history tour as it is a cultural exploration. So much of Western history’s most prized architectural wonders are located in what today is the capital of Italy. The Colosseum alone, which opened in 80 A.D., could occupy a massive portion of your Rome Itinerary, and is one of the many iconic landmarks in our Beginner’s Travel Guide to Rome.
On our 12-day Venice, Florence & Rome tour, you’ll be treated to guided tours of some of Rome’s most compelling historical relics, including the Arch of Constantine and the Circus Maximus—the stadium for ancient chariot races. The added excursions are equally seductive if history is what you’re after. One of them will take you deep underneath the city to explore millennia-old catacombs where early Christians, including popes, are now buried.
Dig deep into world history on these tours
You can’t talk about Rome without talking about the great city of Istanbul, which was first founded by ancient Greeks in 667 B.C. as Byzantium. In 324 A.D., it became the capital of the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine, who renamed it Constantinople—but it wasn’t until 1930 that it was officially named Istanbul. Today, it’s the largest city in modern-day Turkey, and with that kind of history, it’s easy to see why we would add it to our global lineup of oldest cities you need to visit now. There are so many can’t-miss moments to cross off your bucket list in Turkey, and exploring Istanbul is one of them.
A history tour of this city will take you across the Bosporus Strait, and across a continental line: Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents, half in Asia and half in Europe. On our 15-day Grand Tour of Turkey, the Istanbul portions bookend the itinerary, meaning your trip to Turkey will start and end in this intoxicating city. Your Tour Director will lead you through the stunning interiors of the Hagia Sophia, which was first built in 537 A.D. It was originally designated as a church before becoming the grand mosque that it is today. You’ll also visit the sixth-century Basilica Cistern and the Hippodrome, once the heart of ancient Constantinople. And no trip to Istanbul would be complete without soaking in the energizing atmosphere of the Grand Bazaar. Nearly 600 years old, this enormous market is made up of 61 covered streets that accommodate approximately 4,000 vendors.
What is the world’s oldest city? Well, historians believe that human settlement in Jerusalem started as far back as 3,500 B.C., making Israel’s capital a possible answer to that question. Given its religious significance, Jerusalem is an important travel destination for Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. The Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif, is of major significance to all three Abrahamic religions and is home to the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century Islamic shrine that stands as one of the oldest examples of Islamic architecture in the world. Not far from the Temple Mount is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was first consecrated in 335 A.D. and is believed to hold Jesus’ tomb. And, of course, there’s the Western Wall, a Jewish prayer site that is part of the fortification of the Temple Mount from 19 B.C.
When it comes to history tours, Jerusalem doesn’t disappoint. On our 14-day Israel, Jordan & Egypt: Petra to the Pyramids tour, you’ll have three days to find out if Jerusalem is the answer to the question: What is the oldest city in the world? You’ll also get to explore incredibly sacred places and historical treasures, including the Israel Museum (home to the Dead Sea Scrolls), Mount Zion (site of King David’s Tomb), and the Upper Room (where Jesus held the Last Supper).
7. Siem Reap
If you love to travel for history, you need to add the gorgeous country of Cambodia to your list of destinations to visit soon. In the country’s northern pocket, there stands Siem Reap, home to the largest religious monument in the world: Angkor Wat. Originally built as a Hindu temple in the 12th century, Angkor Wat was the capital of the Khmer Empire. As Buddhism spread in the region, it eventually became a Buddhist temple, too. Covering over 400 acres and comprising over 1,000 buildings, there is no bigger religious complex to travel to.
Plus, catching a glimpse of the sunrise at Angkor Wat is a major bucket list experience. Our 15-day Vietnam & Angkor Wat tour includes a sunrise visit, as well as other historic attractions like Angkor Thom, the final capital of the Khmer Empire. You’ll also get to explore the mysterious grounds of Ta Prohm, which was built in 1,186 A.D. For some travelers, this is the best temple complex in Siem Reap due to the eerie ways in which nature has begun to take over the site. Many of the temples of Ta Prohm are now covered with tree roots and branches—as if these ancient buildings are being swallowed by the jungle.
Like many of the world’s oldest cities mentioned here, Delhi is shrouded in mystery. It has played a prominent role in India’s history—and while it’s been ruled by different South Asian empires over the years, legend has it that the city may be as old as the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata. It tells the story of warring cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, whose capital city, built in 1,400 B.C., may be where Delhi stands today.
A history tour of Delhi today won’t feature attractions that are quite that old, but there’s still plenty of old-world heritage to track down. You’ll want to marvel at the red sandstone facade of the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India, which was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan between 1,650–56 A.D. There’s also Humayun’s Tomb, the 16th-century mausoleum of Mughal Emperor Humayun. Located in a 67-acre, UNESCO-designated complex, this tomb is especially important, as it eventually defined the Mughal architectural style.
On our 11-day India: Delhi, Agra & Jaipur tour, you’ll get to visit both and see much more of Delhi during more modern-day cultural excursions. Those include an atmospheric rickshaw ride through the winding streets of the Old Town and a visit to a langar, a community kitchen that serves free meals 24 hours a day.