Beautiful Walled Cities

Naarden, The Netherlands

When visitors look down on Naarden from the air, the fantastical walls seem like something out of a Peter Jackson movie. In fact, the star shape was a popular style of fortification in Europe during the 16th century; it originated in Italy and is sometimes called a "trace italienne." Naarden is only 10 miles east of Amsterdam, making it an easy and worthwhile day trip. Take a boat trip around the moat (an actual moat!), and visit the fortress museum inside the walls.

Dubrovnik, Croatia

At the crossroads — and sometimes in the cross hairs — of the Near East and Europe, Dubrovnik learned early to protect itself. Over the centuries, the city walls grew to 80 feet high and 20 feet thick in some places. The walls, forts, bastions and towers were all in keeping with its role as a major maritime power. (What was Dubrovnik’s original name?) Today, the walls are a reminder of all the rivals it has fought off since the seventh century — the Saracens, Turks and Venetians, among others. They also make great venues for the popular Dubrovnik Summer Festival, when people flock to the terrace of Revelin and Lovrijenac forts for theater and live music. Enter by the Pile Gate if you want to walk on the walls and get unique views of this Mediterranean port city.

Avila, Spain

Avila, 75 miles northwest of Madrid and 3,700 feet above sea level, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with good reason: The city is completely wrapped in well-preserved granite walls built in 1090. Surrounding the city are 88 towers and nine gates, and within the fortification are many religious sites, including the Cathedral de Avila and the Basilica de San Vicente. St. Teresa of Avila was born here in 1515 and is honored each October with a solemn festival, and every day with the egg-and-sugar confection known as yemas de Santa Teresa

Taroudant, Morocco

This fortified city in southern Morocco has long been an important point on the caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, and its nearby gold and silver mines meant it has enjoyed a flourishing culture since the 11th century. Backed by the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, the red mud walls seen today were built during the 16th century and still encircle the city. Visitors can experience Taroudant’s thriving trade and market culture, especially carpets, jewelry and handicrafts.

Carcassonne, France

Stunning Carcassonne stands sentinel over France’s Languedoc countryside, and its hilltop vantage point made it a strategically important city since Roman times. The city is wrapped by two miles of double walls and more than 50 towers. In fact, the old city is part of a huge castle called La Cite de Carcassonne. (Most of the population now lives outside the wall.) Centuries of neglect almost resulted in the walls being torn down, but an architect was commissioned to restore them. The same architect also restored another famous French landmark. As you stroll the medieval streets, be sure to stop for a traditional meal of cassoulet.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany

Want to "own" a piece of the wall in this charming town? For 1,000 euros, visitors can sponsor a piece of the fortifications that were damaged during World War II. Airstrikes killed many people and destroyed nine watchtowers and 2,000 feet of the wall, but thankfully it was spared from heavy artillery damage. Today, Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a popular stop along the Romantic Road in Bavaria. Sites other than the wall itself include the Rathaus, the Gothic town hall; the Christmas Museum; and the Criminal Museum.

York, England

If you hear locals in York talking about Monk Bar and Bootham Bar, they’re not referring to their favorite pubs, but the city’s defensive gatehouses. There are four, including Micklegate Bar, which is where royalty and other VIPs would enter the city; from this gate, visitors can climb up onto the walls for a look around. York sits at the confluence of two rivers, the Foss and Ouse, and has been a walled city since 71 A.D. A few pieces of the original Roman wall and structures remain, notably the Multangular Tower, visible in the Museum Gardens. Much of the interior is pedestrian only, which leaves visitors free to amble along the snickelways and explore narrow stone streets like the Shambles. See more York attractions.

Segovia, Spain

The stone walls of Segovia are impressive, but so are the sites within those walls. The Roman aqueduct shows off an amazing feat of engineering, and includes 170 arches made with 25,000 stone blocks held together without mortar. (See photos.) Not to be outdone are the Gothic cathedral, which soars over the city and dominates the skyline, and the royal palace, known as the Alcazar of Segovia. This masterpiece of a walled city is not far from Avila, and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. See more Segovia attractions.

Xi'an, China

Xi'an is on the eastern end of the famous Silk Road trade route and is one of the oldest cities in China, with more than 3,000 years of history. Its thick stone walls are more recent, dating to the Ming Dynasty, around 1370. They were originally more than seven miles in circumference and nearly 40 feet high, and some parts of the base were 60 feet wide. Two of the many attractions in Xi’an today are the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the fascinating Terracotta Army.

Rhodes, Greece

The Old Town of Rhodes is a maze of streets and alleys amid a wonderfully preserved medieval city. Surrounded by fortifications built during the Knights’ Period of the 1300s, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is divided into two parts by the wall: the northern part, which includes the spectacular Grand Master’s Palace, and the southern part where the laymen lived. Rhodes is also the site where one of the Seven Wonders of the World once stood, and today a popular attraction is the ancient Acropolis of Rhodes.

Bruges, Belgium

Only an hour’s drive from Brussels, the charming Flemish city of Bruges has a lot to offer visitors who explore inside its walls, which have been protecting the city in some form since Julius Caesar’s time. The city’s strategic coastal location was controlled over the centuries by Romans, Franks and Vikings, among others. Today the streets and cobblestoned alleys are lined with cafes and chocolate shops, colorful homes and canals. Don’t miss the Diamond Museum, Chocolate Museum or, if you’re a fan of potatoes, the French Fry Museum.

Lucca, Italy

Walls have surrounded this charming town, a stone’s throw from Florence, since the Roman times. They were rebuilt frequently over the centuries, but those that visitors see today were built during the Renaissance. You can walk on top of the walls all around the city: Lucca turned it into a pedestrian promenade. Take in the sights, including the two well-preserved gates of Santa Maria dei Borghi and San Gervasio, the clock tower, St. Martin’s Cathedral and the Roman amphitheater. A town with a rich history, Lucca is the birthplace of a famous composer and was once run by the sister of an emperor. See more attractions in Lucca.

Gimignano, Italy

Tuscany is famous for its scenic hill towns, but perhaps none is as impressive and imposing as San Gimignano. Encircled by thick walls punctuated by 14 surviving stone towers, San Gimignano has an instantly recognizable skyline. The town has had a checkered history of fortune, from saffron, and decline, from plague. Today it is rich in tourism: By some counts, more than 3 million tourists visit each year, many of them arriving in large buses that idle just outside the town walls. Despite all that, San Gimignano is definitely worth a visit. Be sure to sample the local specialty, pignolata, made with cream custard and pine nuts (learn how to make it). If you’re lucky enough to be there in June, catch the Ferie delle Messi, a re-enactment of medieval jousting.

Berlin, Germany

The Berlin Wall is certainly not the most beautiful wall on our list, but it’s the most significant in modern history. Erected starting on Aug. 13, 1961, to separate East and West Berlin, this notorious symbol of the Cold War was made of 95 miles of concrete and barbed wire, and stood almost 12 feet tall. More than 190 people died trying to cross from East to West before the wall was famously torn down by East Germans in 1989.Checkpoint Charlie was demolished in 1990 and rebuilt at the Allied Museum, as was a 140-foot section of the wall. See more Berlin attractions.

Quebec City, Quebec

The Old Town of Quebec City (Vieux-Quebec) gives North American travelers a rich taste of Europe in terms of its culture, language and cuisine. The city, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec, also looks decidedly European with its walls and gate towers, making it the only remaining fortified city north of Mexico. Visitors today can visit the Royal Palace, the Citadelle, Artillery Park and Battlefields Park to get a dose of local history, and should definitely seek out local food and wine, everything from Charlevoix lamb and St. Lawrence seafood to regional ice cider. See more attractions for Quebec City.