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A History Lesson on Europe's Oldest Cities

Athens is Europe's oldest capital
Athens is Europe's oldest capital | © Sergey Borisov / Alamy Stock Photo
Naturally, experts don’t always agree on which cities are Europe’s oldest – so, since there’s no one alive to vouch for civilisations and infrastructures from 8,000-odd years ago, we’ve gone along with the most popular consensus among leading historians. While the list is – unsurprisingly – Greece-heavy, Bulgaria and Portugal can also lay claim to some of the continent’s oldest metropolises.

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

Those prone to throwing around the term ancient, take note – the city of Plovdiv, which is built around seven hills in the region of Thrace, has been going since Neolithic times (around 6,000 BCE). It was first inhabited by Thracians (Indo-European tribes) and subsequently by various invaders, including the Celts, Greeks and Persians. Today, it’s recognised as the cultural capital of Bulgaria and is the country’s second-largest city (counting the greater metropolitan area), while much of its storied past can be revisited in its cobblestoned Old Town and well-preserved ancient ruins.

Plovdiv has been consistently inhabited for 8,000 years © Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

Athens, Greece

It’s widely agreed that Greece’s capital – and largest city – Athens has been a functioning settlement for 5,000 years, making it Europe’s oldest capital city. In the first millennium BCE, Athens – named after the goddess of wisdom and warfare, Athena – took on the role of Ancient Greece’s leading city, where it birthed the concept of democracy. As one of the largest economic centres in southeastern Europe, today it continues its reign as one of Greece’s most significant cities, complete with UNESCO World Heritage sites and ancient monuments like the Parthenon.

Athens is where the concept of democracy was born © Mark Delete / Alamy Stock Photo

Argos, Greece

We weren’t kidding when we said Greece dominates in the realm of ancient cities. Although its population of just 22,000 is dwarfed by that of Athens’ three million, Argos has been consistently inhabited since around 5,000 BCE, with agriculture providing the city’s main driving force. Also named after a significant figure in Greek mythology – Argus, son of god and goddess Zeus and Niobe – this city in the Peloponnese Region carries enormous cultural weight, borne out by the ancient Mycenaean tombs and theatres which draw tourists year after year. Meanwhile, the Greek cities of Patra, Trikala and Thebes sprang up between 3,000 to 3,500 BCE, while Chalis and Mytilene followed at around 1,300 to 1,100 BCE.

The ancient theatre in Argos is testament to its former cultural significance © robertharding / Alamy Stock Photo

Chania, Crete

Over on the island of Crete, it’s said that modern-day Chania (which started out as the city-state of Kydonia) has been going strong since 4,000 BCE. Archeologists have been able to confirm the authenticity of ruins dating back to the Minoan period (around 2,100 BCE), with further traces of life in the old-town neighbourhood of Kastelli dating back to the Neolithic period. Like many ancient Greek settlements, the Minoan city of Kydonia took its name from Greek mythology – legend states that the city was founded by King Cydon, a son of either the god Hermes or Apollo.

Chania dates back to the Minoan and Neolithic periods © Joana Kruse / Alamy Stock Photo

Lisbon, Portugal

Archeological excavations suggest that the site of modern-day Lisbon was settled as early as 1,200 BCE, making the Portuguese city the second oldest European capital. Back in the day, it had a different name, courtesy of Roman statesman Julius Caesar: Municipium Cives Romanorum Felicitas Julia Olisipo. A mouthful, but simple enough: municipium meant city, while Felicitas Julia was the moniker Julius settled on, adding to its existing name of Olisipo. The area has since evolved, as things tend to do over some 3,700 years – but you can still see remnants of the city’s ancient history at its National Archaeology Museum.

Lisbon is Europe’s second oldest capital © Nicole Ciscato / Alamy Stock Photo