I have always believed that if you want to truly capture the essence of a country in the present, you need to see the oldest parts of it and understand how what was became what is. Because it is one of the oldest ‘civilized’ countries in the world I have always dreamed of traveling to Europe. Thanks to their ancient penchant for exploration they have influenced almost every single modern culture in existence today.
So last year I used every technique to get the cheapest airfare tickets and lodging, which was possible among others thanks to Hotels.com, so I could finally make my dream of a European honeymoon come true! What better way to start a new chapter of my life than by visiting the cities where so many chapters began centuries before.
So after a whole lot of research, my now husband and I chose a series of ‘old towns’ to visit. But of them all, these three were our favorites and the ones that we think everyone should visit!
Krakow’s Old Town, Poland
Known as Stare Miasto in Polish, the old town of Krakow was one of the very first places to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status and after visiting this 13th Century merchants town I can understand why they chose it!
Filled with awe inspiring architectural monuments, countless cultural treasures, renowned cellar bars and charming cafes, this historic Old Town is the pride of Poland and fortunately escaped many of the ravages of World War Two.
At the heart of Krakow’s historic Old Town lies the Main Square or Rynek Główny, which also happens to be the largest medieval market square in Central Europe and now hosts holiday markets, festivals and open air concerts.
Dominating the Main Square is the Cloth Hall (Sukiennice), which is home to merchants selling every touristy knick knack your heart could desire, and beneath it lies a high tech multimedia museum that showcases the history of the entire city.
Then when you’re done, head to the Planty – a shaded public green area that replaced the medieval defensive fortifications and moats arround the city. Walking the whole circuit takes over an hour, but there are plenty of benches where you can soak up the atmosphere while people watching!
Bruges Historic City Centre, Belgium
Often called the ‘Venice of the North’ thanks to all the winding canals and romantic bridges crisscrossing the town, Bruges is one of the most charming small cities in Europe and we could easily have spent months walking the cobblestone streets and admiring the Gothic architecture.
We finally worked out that the Historic City Centre is the areas surrounding the Markt, the bustling main square in the heart of the city and the Burg, another square just a short walk away! The entire area is quite small though, so you could easily explore it in a single day if you wanted to.
The most distinctive landmark of Bruges is the Halle with the 83 meter high Bruges Belfry soaring above it and is located on the south side of the Markt. If you are feeling energetic you can climb the 366 steps to the top of the tower for the most incredible view of Bruges you could imagine!
We continued to Burg Square to see the murals decorating the Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis, and the famous chimneypiece in the Schepenzaal. Next we headed to the Dijver Canal where we visited the Groeninge Museum and saw the stunning Michelangelo sculpture in the Church of Our Lady.
By this time we were worn out and decided to take a boat ride on the canal while munching waffles and sipping delicious hot chocolate, for the rest of our time in Bruges we searched out every chocolatier we could find, or tried out the local beer in one of the many cafes or bars.
Lucerne Old Town, Switzerland
Located on the right bank of the River Reuss and a purely pedestrian area, Lucerne’s Old Town or Altstadt is one of the prettiest that Switzerland has to offer, which is saying something as Switzerland is one of the prettiest countries in the world.
Filled with many of the old burghers’ houses, brightly colored timber framed buildings and delightful squares with charming fountains, Altstadt is like a fairy tale brought to life! Made up of three main squares (Kornmarkt, Weinmarkt and Kapellplatz), it is no wonder this little town is so popular.
The first thing you should see is the most photographed scene in all of Switzerland – the Chapel Bridge and adjoining water tower constructed in the 13th Century. Not just a covered bridge, more than 100 17th Century pictures hanging from the roof rafters make it an art gallery as well!
Then you can head over to Lucerne’s second covered bridge, which features 45 paintings of the Dance of Death and is known as the largest existing example of the ‘Totentanz’. It may be a little macabre, but it is a delightful walk all the same.
Another thing worth seeing is one or all of the four towers open to the public which form part of the cities original fortifications and offer breath taking views of the city and Lake Lucerne. If you’re going to climb just one, go to Zyt where you can see the mechanism of Lucerne’s oldest working clock!
Although not part of Altstadt itself, the famous Lion Monument is a must see. A memorial to mercenary soldiers who died protecting King Louis XVI during the French Revolution, Mark Twain called the massive figure of a dying lion ‘the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world’.
We visited a few more old towns during our three week honeymoon, but of them all these are the three that we enjoyed the most. Partly because we could explore the history of each town in living color, and partly because we were able to immerse ourselves in the culture of the entire country just by visiting one small medieval part of it!
All three of these old towns were beautiful in their own right, but the landmarks we visited, museums we explored and the romantic atmospheres we enjoyed made our honeymoon that much sweeter. And thanks to the hundreds, if not thousands of photos we took, the memories of our time in each will stay with us for the rest of our lives.
Historic Centre of Kraków – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Igor Mitoraj’s sculpture “Eros Bendato” – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Canal in Bruges – Wikimedia Public Domain
The Reuss at Lucerne – Wikimedia Creative Commons
Guest Author Bio
I am a born and bred South African, and I love absolutely everything about my home country. The climate, the people, the natural beauty, ‘African time’ (frustrating for many!), the eclectic mix of first world advances beside third world staples. I taught myself to read at a ridiculous age, and I’ve spent my whole life since then voraciously reading everything I could lay my hands on. The only item on my bucket list is to visit in the real world, all the places I’ve imagined and encountered during my literary travels. It’s already a long list, and only getting longer but I am slowly crossing each one off!
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