World's oldest cities: Top 10 ancient places - and their new don't miss attractions

Many places vie for the title of world's oldest city but how exactly do you define a city, and how old is old? Every now and then archaeologists dig up iron implements or stone statues that set their estimates back another few thousand years. The story of our first human settlements is a hazy outline in the mists of time.

What's certain, though, is that a visit to the world's oldest places can be a moving experience. The scale of the architectural ambition is often as astonishing as the quality of the mosaics, statuary and pottery. You can feel the depth of history not just in foundations and ruins but in living cultures. In our modern society  which often idolises the young and new, you might discover a profound admiration for the ancient.

If you think old places never change, you'd be wrong. True, many an archaeological site appears to be unchanging, but excavations open up new tombs and palace ruins, and new understandings constantly emerge to challenge the assumptions of previous generations.

Many destinations are also rolling out new museums, tours, technological innovations and upgraded infrastructure and hotels that make them ever more accessible or improve our insights. Here are 10 ancient places doing just that, providing plenty of contemporary flair without ever distracting from the wonder of the truly old.

THE PLACE

Cairo, Egypt

F17RK9 Bird over sphinx and pyramid in egyptian desert satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Cairo, Egypt
Credit: Alamy

Great Sphinx of Giza, Egypt. Photo: Alamy

YEAR FOUNDED

Memphis was founded by the pharaoh Menes, though his dates are uncertain. It was ancient Egypt's capital under nine dynasties and reached its peak around 2300BC. The modern city was founded in 969 as the Fatimid capital.

OLD TAKE

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The pyramids at Giza and Museum of Egyptian Antiquities (antiquities.gov.eg) are the big focus, but Cairo also has a significant Islamic heritage that includes bazaars, mosques and an Ottoman citadel.

NEW TAKE

GEM Grand Egyptian Museum rendering - set to open in 2019
(image heneghan peng architects) satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Cairo, Egypt
Image supplied

A rendering of the Grand Egyptian Museum. Photo: Heneghan Peng Architects

The Grand Egyptian Museum (gem.gov.eg), two kilometres from the Pyramids, is set to partially open in early 2019 and will display 100,000 ancient Egyptian artefacts, including treasures from Tutankhamen's tomb. It will become one of the world's largest museums. The hotel scene in Cairo is also getting a refresh; this December sees the opening of the St Regis Cairo. See marriott.com

DON'T MISS

The government has just opened new tombs at Saqqara outside Cairo to the public, including the 4300-year-old Tomb of Mehu, which has elaborately painted walls depicting hunting and dancing scenes.

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THE PLACE

Varanasi, India

Historic Varanasi city with ancient architecture and tourist boats along the Ganges river bank. Varanasi is a popular tourist destination of India.
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Credit: Shutterstock

Varanasi: Ancient architecture along the Ganges river bank. Photo: Shutterstock

YEAR FOUNDED

According to Hindu mythology, Varanasi was founded by Shiva. Archaeological evidence shows people have been living here on the Ganges River since 1800BC.

OLD TAKE

This is Hinduism's holiest place and an important pilgrim destination. The river is lined with temples and ghats where cremations are held. Ashes are scattered in the Ganges. The old town's narrow, disorienting lanes are crowded with stores and artisan workshops.

NEW TAKE

Brijrama Palace Hotel
 satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Image supplied

Brijrama Palace Hotel. Photo: Supplied

The 2016 opening of the Brijrama Palace (brijrama.com) set a new benchmark for luxury hotels in Varanasi. In the next couple of years international brands such as Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn are coming to town. Last year saw the launch of hot-air ballooning, and this year new luxury cruise boat Alaknanda started taking tourists along the ghats. Dhamekha Stupa has a new sound-and-light show.

DON'T MISS

Sarnath, 10 kilometres north of the city, is where Buddha preached his first sermon in 528AD. There are the ruins of several temples and monasteries and an archaeological museum.

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varanasi.gov.in

THE PLACE

Athens, Greece

The Acropolis of Athens, Greece, with the Parthenon Temple on top of the hill during a summer sunset
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Credit: Shutterstock

The Acropolis of Athens, Greece, with the Parthenon Temple on top of the hill. Photo: Shutterstock

YEAR FOUNDED

Athens has a recorded history spanning 3400 years, but humans have lived in the area for at least 10,000 years. It was at its classical height between 508 and 322BC as a centre for the arts and philosophy that still influence the world.

OLD TAKE

The Acropolis and its museum (theacropolismuseum.gr), ancient Agora marketplace, National Archaeological Museum (namuseum.gr) and old quarter Plaka are highlights.

NEW TAKE

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Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (snfcc.org) Athens, Greece
Supplied via website (Credit: SNF)

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens. Photo: SNF

Athens is undergoing a revival despite Greece's economic woes. The opening of the National Museum of Contemporary Art (emst.gr) and Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre (snfcc.org) in 2016 positioned it as a city of contemporary as well as classical culture. Athens has a plethora of new downtown restaurants and wine bars, new hotels and a great new Meet the Locals program (myathens.thisisathens.org).

DON'T MISS

Athens comes alive in summer with  open-air cinemas in prominent locations, including ancient ruins and public parks. Among the best are Cine Aegli (aeglizappiou.gr), Cine Psiri (facebook.com/CinePsirri) and Cine Vox (facebook.com/vox.athens).

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thisisathens.org

THE PLACE

Cholula, Mexico

J28W4H Afternoon aerial view of the famous Pyramid of Cholula, Mexico satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Mexico
Credit: Alamy

An aerial view of the famous Pyramid of Cholula, Mexico. Photo: Alamy

YEAR FOUNDED

Cholula, founded in the second-century BC, is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas. It flourished between 600 and 900 as a centre of worship for the god Quetzalcoatl. Archaeological excavations, begun in the 1930s, are ongoing.

OLD TAKE

Only the base of the Great Pyramid remains in the Archaeological Zone (inah.gob.mx), but it's four times larger than Giza's famous pyramid, and a startling sight. It's topped by a beautiful Spanish-colonial church with view towards Popocatepetl volcano.

NEW TAKE

Container City (containercity.com.mx) is the latest trendy hangout, consisting of shopping containers now inhabited by restaurants, bars and upmarket shops. Both Cholula and adjacent Puebla City have upgraded their tourist infrastructure – including a new train linking the two – and have many new boutique hotels such as the LHW-branded Hotel Cartesiano. See hotelcartesiano.com

DON'T MISS

The International Museum of the Baroque, opened in 2016, inhabits a stunning building that resembles folded paper. It has thought-provoking paintings, sculptures and multimedia installations. See mib.puebla.gob.mx

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See visitmexico.com

THE PLACE

Samarkand and Bukhara, Uzbekistan

YEAR FOUNDED

Samarkand was settled in the eighth-century BC but has signs of human activity dating back 40,000 years. Bukhara was founded in 500BC on traces of former cultures. Both were centres of Islamic learning and important Silk Road trading towns.

OLD TAKE

In Samarkand, the stunning Koranic schools of Registan, Gur-e-Amir Mausoleum (the tomb of Emperor Timur or Tamerlane) and the huge Bibi-Khanym Mosque are highlights of central Asia. Bukhara boasts an ancient fortress, mosques and the ornamental 1127 Kalon Minaret.

NEW TAKE

Uzbekistan is actively courting international tourists. It has already renovated ancient monuments in Bukhara and wants to double visitor numbers in Samarkand by 2021 by investing in better air and rail links, new hotels and a downtown tourist zone. The modern city of wide avenues and parks is a sleek contrast to the old town.

DON'T MISS

Samarkand's Shah-i-Zinda is a superb avenue of eight centuries of mausoleums covered in sumptuous Islamic tilework in shades of blue, recently renovated and now World Heritage listed.

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THE PLACE

Plovdiv, Bulgaria

PLOVDIV, BULGARIA - SEPTEMBER 1, 2017: Hisar Kapia - Ancient gate in Plovdiv old town, Bulgaria
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Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Credit: Shutterstock

Hisar Kapia – an ancient gate in Plovdiv old town, Bulgaria. Photo: Shutterstock

YEAR FOUNDED

People have been living here since the sixth-millennium BC, making Plovdiv one of Europe's oldest cities. It stood at a vital Roman crossroads in classical times, when it was known as Philippopolis.

OLD TAKE

Plovdiv has a delightful old town topped by the atmospheric ruined fortress Nebet Tepe. A Roman-era stadium (still used for opera and rock concerts) and Ottoman-era Dzhumaya Mosque stand amid glorious National Revival architecture. Nearby Bachkovo Monastery (bachkovskimanastir.com) has magnificent murals.

NEW TAKE

PLOVDIV, BULGARIA - SEPTEMBER 19, 2015 - Kapana street festival in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Teenagers preform break-dancing in front of the crowd on the street. satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Plovdiv, Bulgaria
Credit: Shutterstock

Teenagers perform break-dancing at the Kapana street festival in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Photo: Shutterstock

Plovdiv has been ramping up its cultural and events tourism credentials in the lead-up to stepping out as 2019 European Capital of Culture (plovdiv2019.eu). Next year will see the city come alive with art installations, culinary events, contemporary arts and dance programs, and a host of music and arts festivals.

DON'T MISS

Kick back in the recently revived and renovated bohemian quarter Kapana, with its tangle of artisans' workshops, bars, craft-beer outlets and hipster cafes. Most of its streets have been pedestrianised, and there is a perennially buzzing atmosphere.

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visitplovdiv.com

THE PLACE

Beirut, Lebanon

A view of the archaeological ruins of the ancient roman baths discovered in downtown Beirut, in Lebanon, surrounded by modern buildings.
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Beirut, Lebanon
Credit: Shutterstock

Archaeological ruins of the ancient Roman baths in downtown Beirut. Photo: Shutterstock

YEAR FOUNDED

Beirut was settled 5000 years ago and got its first mention in historical records in the 15th-century BC. Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, crusader and Ottoman remains have all been uncovered.

OLD TAKE

Recently superbly restored Roman baths, the crusader-era Church of St John the Baptist (now a mosque) and 1767 St George Orthodox Cathedral are among historic buildings. The National Museum of Beirut houses superb archaeological artefacts. Make excursions to even more ancient seaside Byblos and hilltop Baalbek (baalbak.org), one of the world's best preserved Roman temples.

NEW TAKE

Grand Factory nightclub (thegrandfactory.com) Beirut.
 satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Beirut, Lebanon
Image from Facebook page: @thegrandfactorybeirut

Grand Factory nightclub in Beirut. Photo: Facebook/@thegrandfactorybeirut

This cosmopolitan, glitzy and surprisingly glamorous city has cutting-edge arts and fashion scenes and an appetite for dining and nightclubbing in spruced-up districts such as Gemmayze, Badaro and bohemian Mar Mikhael. Grand Factory nightclub (thegrandfactory.com), on the rooftop of a former factory, epitomises Beirut's party spirit.

DON'T MISS

Sursock Museum (sursock.museum), which showcases mostly Lebanese contemporary art in a lavishly restored Venetian-Ottoman private villa. Its 2015 reopening helped kick-start Beirut's now thriving arts scene.

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destinationlebanon.gov.lb

THE PLACE

Chengdu, China

Chengdu, China at traditional Qintai Road district.
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Credit: Shutterstock

Qintai Road, Chengdu, China. Photo: Shutterstock

YEAR FOUNDED

Chengdu has been inhabited for 4000 years but acquired its name in the early fourth-century BC when it became the capital of the state of Shu. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) it was one of China's most prosperous cities.

OLD TAKE

Still active sixth-century Wenshu Monastery features dozens of courtyards and 400 Buddha statues. Du Fu's Thatched Cottage (cddfct.com) celebrates a ninth-century poet and is set in lovely parks. Wuhou Temple (wuhouci.net.cn) dates from 221AD.

NEW TAKE

Architectural landscape on the edge of Jinjiang River in Chengdu
 satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Credit: Shutterstock

Architectural landscape on the edge of Jinjiang River in Chengdu. Photo: Shutterstock

A dozen cities in China are older, but Chengdu is the most innovative, known for its laid-back lifestyle, newly revived teahouse culture and fiery cuisine. It has great air connections and the rapidly expanding new Chengdu Metro (chengdurail.com) makes getting around easier. The downtown, promenade-flanked Jin River is the centrepiece of the city's green and clean efforts.

DON'T MISS

Panda Research Base (panda.org.cn), devoted to both endangered giant and red pandas, especially if you're here in late summer, when new-borns emerge into the open air.

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gochengdu.cn

THE PLACE

Istanbul, Turkey

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - October 6, 2015: View of the Suleymaniye Mosque and fishing boats in Eminonu, Istanbul, Turkey
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Credit: Shutterstock

A view of the Suleymaniye Mosque and fishing boats in Eminonu, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Shutterstock

YEAR FOUNDED

Established as Byzantium in 667BC, re-established as Constantinople in 330AD and a Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman capital for 16 centuries, Istanbul is one of the world's most storied cities.

OLD TAKE

Power base of the Ottoman sultans Topkapi Palace (topkapisarayi.gov.tr), the huge Sultan Ahmed or Blue Mosque (sultanahmetcami.org) and Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia (ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr) are the three great sights. There are many other glorious monuments, bazaars and museums.

NEW TAKE

Balat district Istanbul Turkey July 2018, colorful homes and houses at the town
 satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Credit: Shutterstock

A cafe in the Balat district, Istanbul. Photo: Shutterstock

Istanbul is imminently opening the first phase of its gargantuan new airport. Interesting new boutique hotels include Galata Istanbul Hotel (accorhotels.com) and Nish Palace Istanbul (hyatt.com). Emerging neighbourhoods include historic but hipster Balat with its colourful painted houses, creative hub Tomtom, and restaurant and cafe hangout Bomonti.

DON'T MISS

Kadıkoy-Moda on the Asian side of Istanbul is now the city's latest dining and nightlife hot spot, with a reputation for independent arts and music anchored by nightclub Arkaoda (arkaoda.com). Enjoy seafood restaurants overlooking the Sea of Marmara, and browse the bars along Kadife Sokak street.

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howtoistanbul.com

THE PLACE

Bethlehem and Jericho, Palestine

Palestin. The city of Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity of Jesus Christ
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Credit: Shutterstock

The Church of the Nativity of Jesus Christ in the city of Bethlehem.  Photo: Shutterstock

YEAR FOUNDED

Twenty successive layers of settlement in Jericho date back to 9000BC, giving it a good claim to be the world's oldest city. The earliest reference to Bethlehem appears in 1400BC, but tombs date back to 2200BC.

OLD TAKE

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is reputedly built over the site where Jesus was born. Nearby Jericho is dense with historic sites. Outside town, Tell es-Sultan has settlement remains dating back 10,000 years, and Hisham's Palace features superb eighth-century mosaics.

NEW TAKE

PEB0HG A piano in the Walled Off Hotel (owned by Bansky) near the wall of separation in Bethlehem. From a series of travel photos taken in Jerusalem and near satoct27cover - Ancient Cities - Brian Johnston
Credit: Alamy

A piano in the Walled Off Hotel (owned by Bansky) near the wall of separation in Bethlehem. Photo: Alamy

Since 2005,  infamous street artist Banksy has daubed the wall that divides Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and last year he opened the art-filled Walled Off Hotel (walledoffhotel.com). Tours take you to the wall's graffiti and to visit non-profit organisation Al Rowwad (alrowwad.org) in Aida refugee camp, which provides insight into the Palestinian refugee issue.

DON'T MISS

Clinging to a cliff face on the Roman road to Jericho is sixth-century St George's Monastery, which has a still-active Eastern Orthodox community.

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visitpalestine.ps

FIVE MORE ANCIENT PLACES EVERYONE SHOULD VISIT

LUXOR

The city known to ancient Egyptians as Waset and Greeks as Thebes dates from 3200BC. Highlights are the temples of Karnak and Luxor and the desert necropolis across the Nile River, most famous for Tutankhamun's tomb. Archaeologists recently opened two new tombs containing a mummy, funerary masks, statues and wall frescoes. See egypt.travel

QUITO

Archaeological finds here have been dated to 8000BC. The very good Museo Etnografico takes a look at indigenous history. The capital of Ecuador is now most notable for having one of the Americas' best-preserved historic town centres, crammed with 17th-century churches, mansions and plazas. See ecuador.travel

LUOYANG

In 2070BC the first of nine ancient capitals was established here on the Yellow River, considered the cradle of Chinese civilisation. It's also where Buddhism got its start in China. White Horse Temple, established in AD68, is China's oldest Buddhist temple, and the 100,000 Buddhist statues of Longmen Caves are astounding. See visithenan.org

FLORES

One of the Americas' oldest continuously inhabited settlements has been around since 900BC, and was later the capital (then known as Nojpeten) of the Itza kingdom. The region is dotted with ziggurat temples and palaces. The Guatemalan city sits on a lake island and has pretty Spanish-colonial architecture. See visitguatemala.com

ALLAHABAD

Known for most of its history as Prayag and dating back to 1800BC, this north Indian city is dotted with ancient tombs. Interesting Anand Bhavan is the home of the Nehru political family. Huge Kumbh Mela Hindu religious gatherings are held here every few years at the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges rivers. See allahabad.gov.in

THE WORLD'S OLDEST OBJECTS

Most of the world's most ancient objects are conserved away from public view in museum collections, but you can take a look at these venerable items.

MASK

A simple Neolithic stone mask with big round eyes and a rather smiley mouth, held at the small Musee Bible et Terre Sainte in Paris, is likely 7000 years old. The museum has 500 other ancient objects from the Holy Land. See bibleterresainte.wordpress.com

WINDOW

Augsburg Cathedral in Germany claims the world's oldest stained-glass windows, which likely date from the cathedral's consecration in 1065. The Prophet Windows depict biblical figures such as Daniel, Jonah and Moses. See augsburg-tourismus.de

BOOK

You can debate exactly what constitutes a book, but the Natural History Museum in Sofia in Bulgaria has the best claim. The Etruscan Gold Book dates to 660BC and features six sheets of gold leaf with writing and pictures, held together by a ring. See nmnhs.com

SHOE

For the world's oldest shoe on display, head to the History Museum of Armenia in Yerevan. It's size seven, made of tanned leather and laced with cord, and extraordinarily well preserved considering it's 5500 years old – and has been worn.  See historymuseum.am

PHOTOGRAPH

The oldest photo was snapped from a window in Burgundy and shows a very grainy wall and distant fields. It was taken in 1826 by French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce, and is on display at the University of Texas in Austin. See hrc.utexas.edu

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