The 7 Oldest Capital Cities in Europe

Map view of Europe on a geographical globe (vignette).
© Victor Maschek/Shutterstock.com

Written by Sanaphay Rattanavong

Published: September 16, 2023

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Take a time-travelling trek across Europe’s seven oldest capitals, each a living palimpsest of ancient glory and modern vigor. From Athens’ time-worn ruins to Lisbon’s bustling streets, and from Nicosia’s divided communities to Rome’s eternal allure, these cities are vibrant testaments to Europe’s layered history. Despite their ancientness, these capitals are dynamic hubs of political clout, economic power, and cultural innovation. Their ancient foundations fuel present dynamism and future ambitions. Here, we unearth the narratives of these age-old capitals, bridging their storied pasts with their promising futures.

Europe’s Seven Oldest Capital Cities

The following capitals are old cities that are places of continuous habitation and functioning, as well as growth. Because of their age, they all predate the modern nation-state. Thus we must understand the word “capital” within their own contexts. They may be focal points for culture, such as Athens, or administrative centers like Rome.

Skyline of Athens with Monastiraki square and Acropolis hill during sunset. Athens, Greece

Spread across Athens is the legacy of millennia of building styles.

©Nick N A/Shutterstock.com

1. Athens, Greece: The Cradle, Cornerstone, and Climate Vanguard

As the birthplace of democracy and Western philosophy, Athens is the cradle of Western civilization. With an unbroken legacy that spans an awe-inspiring 5,000 years, Athens holds the title as Europe’s oldest continuously functioning capital. The city has been a formative influence on global political systems and education. The Acropolis and Parthenon are iconic landmarks and living testaments to Athens’ profound impact on modern architecture and democratic governance. Beyond its claim to cradle of democracy, Athens continues to shape our modern understanding of citizen participation and ethical thinking.

But this enduring city is not immune to contemporary challenges. Athens faces an existential threat from climate change. Temperatures in recent years have risen to above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) during the summer months. In response, the city’s mayor is expanding green spaces as a buffer against rising heat, marking Athens not only as a historic cornerstone but also as a vanguard in the battle against climate change.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon’s Vasco da Gama Bridge (pictured in background to the right) is 12 km (7.6 miles) long. It was designed by the same American company that designed the Golden Gate Bridge, if you were wondering about the family resemblance.

©iStock.com/SeanPavonePhoto

2. Lisbon, Portugal: A Medley of Influences and a Hotspot for Extreme Weather

Don’t let Lisbon’s laid-back charm deceive you. Beneath its easygoing demeanor lies a city steeped in rich history, its origins traced all the way back to 1,200 BCE. Lisbon is a vibrant mosaic of cultural influences, from Romans to Moors. Further, its architectural marvels like Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and Belém Tower are concrete manifestations of its diverse past. Beyond its cobblestones and cathedrals, Lisbon played a pivotal role in the Age of Exploration. Like other important ports, it served as the launching pad that shaped global trade and cultural exchange.

Yet, the city is now facing unprecedented challenges. Temperatures in Portugal soared to record highs of around 47 degrees Celsius (116 degrees Fahrenheit!) in mid-July 2022. As such, Lisbon is confronting a new narrative. Like in much of the world, it’s one that includes escalating droughts, wildfires, and other extreme weather events. These climate changes are rewriting the city’s daily reality. Further, they serve as a stark reminder of the urgent need for climate action. This juxtaposition between ancient influence and modern struggles makes Lisbon a compelling study of how deep-rooted history and emerging challenges often coexist.

Cyprus, Europe

Nicosia, also known as Lefkosia, is a culturally divided capital city, split between Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities.

©iStock.com/DedMityay

3. Nicosia, Cyprus: The Diverse-Time Capsule Undergoing a Thermal Makeover

Steeped in history, Nicosia is a complex interweaving of Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman legacies. As Europe’s third oldest capital, the city is an exemplar of the resilience. It’s also a model of the possibilities inherent in blended cultures and histories. Attractions like the Shacolas Tower Museum & Observatory and the Cyprus Classic Motorcycle Museum, though wonderful in their own right, are but the surface layers of a much deeper and intricate heritage.

However, Nicosia is not just a time capsule; it’s also a real-time gauge for our warming planet. The city has experienced an increase in average temperatures from 18.9 degrees Celsius (66.02 degrees Fahrenheit) at the beginning of the twentieth century to 19.7 degrees Celsius (67.46 degrees Fahrenheit) at its end. Associated with this increase is a decrease in rainfall at a rate of 1 mm per year. This happened over the same period. Additionally, Nicosia faces challenges related to water resources due to changes in temperature and salinity. These climatic changes serve as a call for meaningful action, highlighting the urgent need for sustainable practices.

View of Rome from Castel Sant'Angelo

Little known is that Rome was not only the heart of the Roman Empire, but also home to the first shopping mall, built around 110 CE.

©S.Borisov/Shutterstock.com

4. Rome, Italy: An Eternal Tale Meets a Warming Reality

Founded in 753 BCE, Rome is regarded as an enduring chronicle of Western civilization. Its monumental landmarks like the Colosseum and St. Peter’s Square are architectural masterpieces. Further, they are living pages in the story of an empire’s ascent and decline. Rome’s contributions to global culture are immeasurable. This is evidenced from its influence in law and engineering. Additionally, it’s the birthplace of Roman Catholicism (the adjectival “Roman” gives it away). The Latin language, emanating from Rome, served as the intellectual and religious lingua franca for centuries.

Yet even this eternal city finds itself on the front lines of the escalating climate crisis. Experts predict Rome will see temperature rise of up to 5 degrees Celsius (or 41 degrees Fahrenheit) by century’s end. This is assuming that greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated. Such a drastic change is poised to exacerbate heatwaves and droughts, challenging Rome’s age-old resilience. It’s a jarring juxtaposition. Rome, a city that has shaped our past, is now having its own future reshaped by the modern menace of climate change.

Old cozy street in Madrid, Spain. Architecture and landmark of Madrid, postcard of Madrid

It’s always sunny in Madrid, at least compared to other major European cities. This may have to do with its altitude, the highest of any capital city in Europe.

©Catarina Belova/Shutterstock.com

5. Madrid, Spain: The Rhythmic Soul Adapting to a Climate of Change

Lively Madrid dates to the 9th century. Now and then, it serves as a vibrant epicenter of Spain’s art and culture. Renowned landmarks such as Retiro Park and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum give it its touristic bona fides. While its art scene, enriched by iconic works by Goya and Velázquez, has left a lasting imprint across the world.

Yet, Madrid is also dancing to a new, unsettling rhythm, as it adjusts to a shifting climate. Spain’s average temperature has risen by 1.7 degrees Celsius (35.06 degrees Fahrenheit) since preindustrial times. This has led to increasingly frequent and severe episodes of drought. These climatic changes are not just an environmental concern. They pose tangible threats to Madrid’s rich history and its flourishing arts and culture. As Spain’s rhythmic soul, Madrid finds itself in the complex interplay of preserving its historical identity while adapting to an evolving, and often unforgiving, climate.

Sofia in Orange

Much of the capital city of Sofia is practically built atop Roman ruins, as the Roman Empire occupied the city for a time.

©sfabisuk/iStock via Getty Images

6. Sofia, Bulgaria: The Forgotten Gem in a Warming Crossroads

Located in the Balkans and stretching back to 7,000 BCE, Sofia is a fascinating confluence of Eastern and Western cultures. It’s less clear when it became a capital city. But it’s clear that transcending the sum of its landmarks, such as the National Museum of the Earth and Man and the St. Aleksandr Nevski Cathedral, Sofia’s woven core lies in its role as a crossroads of civilizations. This often-overlooked capital offers an intricate tangle of cultural influences that is still a harmonious blend of diverse heritages.

However, like many cities, Sofia contends with a modern challenge. The country’s climate, divided between a continental north and a Mediterranean south, is undergoing shifts. Over the past century, the Mediterranean region of Bulgaria has experienced gradual warming. Further, the intensity and length of heat waves have increased markedly. Indeed, experts predict the country will be hardest hit in all of Europe by the impacts of climate change. Whatever you want to call it, climate change is not just an abstract concept. Rather, it’s a tangible reality altering Sofia’s long-standing historical and cultural narrative.

Belgrade Downtown Sunset Panorama Viewed From Sava River Perspective

Sitting at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Belgrade has been known by many names: Sngidun, Beograd, Alba Graeca, and many more.

©Mubera Boskov/iStock via Getty Images

7. Belgrade, Serbia: The Ancient Newcomer Adapting to New Challenges

Since its birth in the sixth millennium BCE, Belgrade has evolved into a captivating city of Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman influences. The city, which has been razed 44 times and fought over in 115 wars, has always epitomized resilience. Landmarks such as the Nikola Tesla Museum and the Jevremovac Botanical Garden reflect not only its rich history but also its aspirations for a bright future.

Yet, today, Belgrade faces a contemporary threat that even its tried-and-tested resilience has not encountered before: climate change. The country is already grappling with the dual extremes of severe heat that follow periods of flooding, affecting everything from agriculture to daily life. These climatic challenges offer a new frontier for Belgrade’s ability to adapt and endure. Perhaps it will be its climate leadership that helps it reemerge as a significant geopolitical player in a rapidly warming Balkan region.

Conclusion

As we journey through these time-honored capitals, their stories echo in ancient ruins and modern skyscrapers, in cultural landmarks and technological advances. Yet, even as they continue to thrive, evolve, and inspire, these cities face an unprecedented challenge: climate change. From rising temperatures and intensifying heatwaves to shifting water resources and growing droughts, each city is navigating its own set of climatic uncertainties. As with cities across the globe, they are not mere relics of the past. These stalwart capitals embody the dynamic intersection of history and future, of ancient legacy and modern crisis.

Their enduring cores serve as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale. They remind us that deep-rooted history can provide a foundation for future growth and adaptation. But they also warn that no legacy, no matter how venerable, is immune to the disruptive forces of our changing planet. As stewards of both their rich pasts and their uncertain futures, these cities challenge us to consider how we will also write our chapter in the ongoing narrative of human civilization. If we are not humbled now, when will we be?

To visit these ancient cities, to time-travel among their structures and traditions, is to witness history in the making. It’s a history of which we are all part and one that requires our active engagement to ensure a sustainable world for future generations. These ancient capitals remind us of how far we’ve come—and of how far we’ve yet to go.

Please note that these dates are based on historical records and archaeological findings, and there may be some discrepancies depending on how the age of a city is defined.


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About the Author

Embracing the interplay between the arts, nature, and technology, Sanaphay Rattanavong sculpts narratives through both data and human/animal-focused lenses at A-Z Animals, primarily in the realms of weather, culture, cleantech, and climate resilience. His specializations also include creativity and animal intelligence. And cats. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College and has labored for more than 10 years in the trenches of journalistic, blog, magazine, and fiction writing. An outdoor enthusiast who also enjoys the finer things in culture, Sanaphay resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with stints in Toronto, Ontario.

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