Who doesn’t like a European-style Old Town?
Narrow, cobbled streets lined with overpriced cafes and extortionately-priced bars; a picturesque square, once the scene of a barbaric, blood-soaked historical event but now home to a McDonalds/Subway/Pizza Hut and a seedy-looking strip club relieving British stag crews of their hard-earned money; and finally, a crumbling city wall, helpfully encircling the atmospheric quarter to prevent tourists unwittingly wandering into areas where locals actually live and work.
Jokes aside, many of Europe’s older cities boast one of these attractive areas and they can be fascinating places to wander around and soak up the tangible atmosphere.
But which ones should you go out of your way to see?
Here, ranked loosely on their aesthetic appeal, are the continent’s top five Old Towns that you should definitely try and visit if you get the opportunity.
5: Riga, Latvia
A good starting point when visiting any unknown city is to ascend the highest vantage point to get the lay of the land and Vecriga’s St Peter’s Church (don’t worry, there is a lift) is perfect for this.
After you’ve taken in the bird’s eye views over the Latvian capital, back on terra firm, get lost in the myriad of pretty back streets, crooked alleyways and attractive markets (particularly if it’s the festive season).
Finally, it’s time to recharge the batteries with a ‘refreshing’ glass of Black Balsams – a potent alcoholic drink which resembles crude oil and is made from a mysterious concoction of more than 24 ingredients – in one of the nearby bars. Go steady on this strange brew!
4: Tallinn, Estonia
As well as being home to what is surely the only Depeche Mode theme bar in the world, Tallinn’s Old Town is everything an Old Town connoisseur could hope for.
The ‘medieval pearl of Europe’ boasts curving cobblestone streets , grand houses, a city wall and a perfect old square which looks particular picturesque when drenched in the summer sun or the winter snow.
This museum of Hanseatic architecture – some of the buildings date back to the 11th century – offers an enthralling mix of culture and history and became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997.
3: Bratislava, Slovakia
It is easy to get lost in Bratislava’s large old town but with a historic coffee house, a charming square or even an eccentric museum – the Pharmalogical Museum is a great place to kill one minute -around every corner, this isn’t the end of the world.
If you do lose your way, the rectangular Bratislava castle, which oversees matters from its lofty position on a neighbouring hill, makes for a perfect ‘compass’ point and offers sweeping vistas too.
Don’t leave without sampling a serving of the delicious local soup which is served in a bowl made of bread. As well as providing some cost effective sustenance, you’ll also be saving the long-suffering pot washer’s energy.
2: Dubrovnik, Croatia
A medley of terracotta-coloured roofs, domed churches, steepling streets and photogenic yacht-filled harbours, as George Bernhard Shaw said, the Old Town of Dubrovnik is ‘a paradise on earth’.
While parts of these historic streets and buildings were damaged by armed conflict in the 1990s, you’d be hard pushed to tell as you stroll along the café-laden Stradun, which incidentally is a great place to people watch.
Perhaps the main highlight is the well preserved city walls which, for a few Euros, you can walk round and enjoy the multiple superb vantage points.
1: Bruges, Belgium
After receiving a major tourism boost from the film In Bruges, this Belgian city is busier than ever, but it’s definitely worth enduring the crowds in order to visit the fairytale-esque Old Town.
Pristine parks, quaint canals, photogenic chimney pots (honestly) and multiple, awe-inspiring towers which rise like alien spaceships from the heart of the town, combine to create a special atmosphere.
Once you are scenery sated, explore some of the abundant chocolate shops or grab an industrial-strength beer and soak up the medieval utopia’s atmosphere.