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A view of Split from the sea on a bright summer day

Seven unexpected European cities for your history fix

From Bergen to Split, these often-unsung hubs have borne witness to some of most significant events in the continent’s history


Calling all history buffs: the cities with the richest histories aren’t always the capitals. Croatia, for example, is home to the world’s oldest Catholic church, but you’ll find it in Split, not Dubrovnik. And who knew that Glasgow lays claim to the world’s third oldest underground railway? Or that Thessaloniki was once the second largest city of the Byzantine Empire? Read on for more fascinating facts about these seven unexpected cradles of culture.

The old Hanseatic wharf and buildings of Bryggen, Bergen’s historic harbour district (Adobe Stock)

Bergen, Norway

Oslo might be Norway’s hottest ticket but if you’re gaga for all things mediaeval, pick up a car and head over to Bergen. It’s one of the region’s most historic ports, where grain, wine and cod were traded in high volumes. Its hub was the Unesco site of Bryggen, a row of ochre-hued, wharf-side wooden houses built by Hanseatic traders who, from the 14th century, ran a crucial (and most certainly putrid, thanks to the acres of unsalted cod drying in the open air) trading hub. Test your knowledge at the Bryggens Museum, built on the remnants of Bryggen’s first settlement (exhibits include a guddal tunic dating back a millennia). Today, many of Bryggen’s oldest structures are occupied not just by museums, but by artists inspired by the city’s past, such as Svala Design, where Johansen Hauge produces silverware inspired by archaeological finds from the Viking era.

Take off to Bergen

Boats on Rotterdam’s Oude Maas, a distributary of the Rhine river (Adobe Stock)

Rotterdam, the Netherlands

On 14 May 1940, Rotterdam was bombed so extensively that most of the city was destroyed, sparking its transformation into the glossy innovation centre it is today. A handful of buildings did survive, though, such as the very good-looking Beaux Arts Stadhuis Rotterdam, which also houses a very stately bust of Winston Churchill, who travelled to Rotterdam in 1946 and became an honorary member of the city’s council. Another survivor is the imposing Sint-Laurenskerk church, which is the city’s only remaining late Gothic mediaeval building, dating back to the 16th century. You’ll find other reminders of Rotterdam’s past in more unusual locations, including the ultra-modern Markthal, one of Europe’s largest food markets, although our favourite spot is Time Stairs, an exhibition of ancient artefacts found during its construction. For a peek into Rotterdam’s more recent history – and how it became one of the continent’s most culturally diverse cities – swing by the Wereldmuseum Rotterdam, where thousands of exhibits showcase its most storied citizens, including missionaries, sailors, soldiers and merchants.

Take off to Rotterdam

Glasgow City Chambers in George Square (Visit Glasgow)

Glasgow, Scotland  

Scotland’s largest city (and the UK’s first Unesco City of Music) is also one of the country’s coolest. Few people know, for example, that the University of Glasgow is the fourth oldest university in the English-speaking world. Founded in 1451, it can be explored on guided tours, where you’ll learn about the university’s connections with luminaries such as engineer James Watt and mathematician Lord Kelvin. The city is famous for its Victorian architecture, and its grandest buildings now house some of its finest museums, including the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, which opened in 1901 and has 22 art-stuffed galleries (don’t miss the weirdly fascinating one filled with taxidermy animals). Other gems include the Glasgow City Chambers, which is said to contain more marble than the Vatican, Glasgow Cathedral (the only mediaeval cathedral on the Scottish mainland to largely withstand the Protestant Reformation of 1560) and the Necropolis, a Victorian cemetery inspired by Paris’s famous Père Lachaise cemetery. It’s famous for its ornate graveside monuments, one of which was designed by legendary Glaswegian architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Take off to Glasgow

Church of Saint Paul the Apostle in Thessaloniki (Adobe Stock)

Thessaloniki, Greece

An ancient city with a waterfront dotted with medieval fortifications, Thessaloniki was founded around 315 BC by King Cassander of Macedonia, who named it after his wife, a sister of Alexander the Great. Later, Emperor Constantine rebuilt the city’s port and, during the Byzantine era, the city prospered as a trading hub. It’s filled with monuments built by those who made their fortunes during this time, with Byzantine-era baths, monasteries, churches and city walls, and 15 sites enjoying Unesco World Heritage status. Stop by the Museum of Byzantine Culture for a more intimate view of the period, where you’ll find a funerary tomb, ornate gold coins and garments dating back to the eighth century. Sadly, this prosperity came to a halting end in 1422, when the Ottomans seized the city. Thessaloniki assumed a new ruler, Sultan Mehmed II, who in 1455 built the domed Bezesteni, where Ottoman traders came to sell fabrics, gold and precious stones. Today it’s still a market – there’s little you can’t buy here, but those back home won’t be disappointed with a slab of loukoumi (Turkish delight) or a bar of skin-softening donkey milk soap. 

Take off to Thessaloniki

Oculus in the vestibule of Diocletian’s Palace (Alamy); Opening image: Split sits on eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea (Adobe Stock)

Split, Croatia

Croatia’s second largest city was founded by Roman Emperor Diocletian, a military titan who ruled the empire in the third century. With retirement approaching, he chose a spot near his birthplace Salona (now called Solin) and built a sprawling waterfront home, known today as Diocletian’s Palace. It’s made up of around 200 buildings including temples, a ceremonial court and a mausoleum. After his death, these developed into a mediaeval town known as Spalato (Split). Within the exquisitely preserved palace complex is the Cathedral of St Domnius, whose Romanesque bell tower and colonnade of 24 columns is a vision, with Egyptian sphinxes standing guard outside many of the buildings. Block out a few hours to wander the city’s narrow passageways, where family homes, restaurants and souvenir shops are now tucked into the former vaults and sections of the original city walls: reminders that Split started life as a palace.

Take off to Split

Elbphilharmonie concert hall in the HafenCity quarter of Hamburg (Adobe Stock)

Hamburg, Germany

Hamburg’s position between the North and Baltic seas was the reason it became another of Europe’s most important trading cities, with its first small port opening in 830. The best place to learn about its history is the Unesco-listed Speicherstadt area, where you’ll find the world’s largest complex of historic warehouses, famous for their Neogothic brick architecture, covering 260,000sqm. Head to the Deutsches Zollmuseum to learn how customs officers tackled smuggling, or the International Maritime Museum to browse thousands of ancient maps and model ships. Today, many of the neighbourhood’s businesses offer a nod to their esteemed location: Kaffeerösterei, an elegant canal-side coffee shop, inhabits a former coffee warehouse. Elsewhere, check out Hamburg’s Rathaus (city hall), built in 1897 and home to more rooms than Buckingham Palace. Head to its inner courtyard to admire the Hygieia Fountain, named after the Greek goddess of health, and built to honour victims of the cholera epidemic that swept through Hamburg in 1892.

Take off to Hamburg

The historic fish market hall of Feskekörka dates back to 1874 (Alamy)

Gothenburg, Sweden

Reminders of Gothenburg’s rich history are everywhere, especially in its postcard-perfect network of canals constructed during the 15th century by the Dutch, who were recruited for their expertise in building on marshlands. Earn your seafaring legs on a boat tour with Paddan, where you’ll learn how the waterways offered crucial protection from invaders, as well as the history of the rather conspicuous but stunning fish market Feskekörka, designed in the style of a Neogothic church. Back on dry land, Gamlestaden, is one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, dating back to 1473. Today, its ancient red-brick buildings are filled with independent boutiques and bars – a stellar choice is Wine Mechanics, Sweden’s first urban winery. A 15-minute cab journey away, Haga is another historic neighbourhood, known for its pleasingly uniform rows of 19th-century landshövdingehus (governor houses), built largely for the growing working class of the time. Stop for a fika (break) at Café Husaren, whose glossy sesame seed-topped cinnamon buns pair beautifully with a piping hot cappuccino.

Take off to Gothenburg