20 time-warp cities that bring the past to life

It was the British writer L P Hartley who mused that “the past is a foreign country” – in the opening line of his 1953 novel The Go-Between. There have been times this year when the past has felt like the only foreign country we can visit; not least in those initial weeks of lockdown, when we all travelled vicariously – via art, film, literature and music – as a way to “escape”.

Even now, as infection rates climb again, and quarantine windows ruin our holiday plans with minimal notice, the past resembles a reliable ­destination – a place that can be enjoyed minus the perils and problems that make the present so fraught. 

But then, the past is a place you can visit; not so much a closed book as an ongoing story whose chapters lie open in all corners of the globe – and especially in some of its biggest cities. Almost every century dating back to ancient Egypt can be espied somewhere on the planet – in the plazas and palaces, churches and citadels, monuments and mausoleums that recall the rulers and architects who built them.

The past is not only a foreign country – it is every foreign country where the streets still speak of how life evolved around them.

Of course, there are caveats to the list below. These are (mostly) not cities to be seen immediately, in the midst of a pandemic – but at some point in the (hopefully not-too-distant) post-virus future. Nor is it exhaustive – or it would include Baghdad, Damascus, Tehran and other capitals which hold difficulties for tourists beyond Covid-19’s omnipresence.

But if you wish to perambulate with the pharaohs, investigate the Incas, or admire the Aztecs – in centuries BC, or AD – here is a start. The past is only as past-tense as you want it to be.

26th Century BC – Cairo

Few cities are as pinned to a century as specifically as the Egyptian capital. It is not that the country’s era of ancient hegemony did not stretch to three millennia (3100-30 BC, by some definitions), but that its most venerated site is undeniably the Great Pyramid, which rose from its dust in 2560BC. That this 456ft giant is the only one of the original Seven Wonders of the World to stand largely intact merely amplifies its majesty.

Cairo, Egypt


Gaze at it with the sun behind, and it could still be the day the pharaoh Khufu was interred within.

Steppes Travel (01285 601784; steppestravel.com) sells an 11-day Highlights of Egypt break which also features a Nile cruise. From £3,500 a head, excluding flights.

13th Century BC – Amman

The Jordanian capital sits resplendent on the Middle Eastern map, so ancient that one of its first recognised incarnations – Rabbath Ammon, which existed in the 13th century BC – appears in the Old Testament. Many of its key sights are, inevitably, younger than this – its ruined citadel merges a Greco-Roman temple and an eighth-century (AD) Umayyad palace; its Roman amphitheatre harks back to 63 BC.

But Jordan’s largest city, on seven hills, looks and feels biblical, and caps this sense of age in its national museum (­jordanmuseum.jo) – where the Ain Ghazal Statues date to 7250 BC.

Cox & Kings (020 3582 7702; coxandkings.co.uk) serves up a six-day Taste of Jordan that admires Amman before it heads to Petra. From £1,795 a head, with flights.

5th Century BC – Athens

Like Amman, Athens sprawls across seven hills – and many more centuries. But its defining icon will always be the temple on the Acropolis. The Parthenon was piled high between 447 and 432 BC, dedicated to the city’s guardian-goddess Athena. She has largely kept her side of the deal in the intervening years – though the adjacent Acropolis Museum (theacropolismuseum.gr) doesn’t hide its ire at the ongoing absence of the Elgin Marbles.

Athens, Greece


Kirker Holidays (020 7593 1899; kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights at the five-star King George hotel from £816 per person – including flights, and museum admission.

1st Century BC/AD – Rome

In which century do you place the city that dominated Europe for half a millennium? Maybe in the first BC, when Rome formally gathered itself around an emperor (in 27 BC) – Augustus having earlier built the Forum’s most celebrated structure, the temple to his assassinated great-uncle Julius Caesar. Or, perhaps, in the next, where 80 AD witnessed the completion of the arena that shapes its image still – the Colosseum (coopculture.it). 

A four-night break at the four-star K Boutique Hotel, flying from Gatwick on April 14, 2021 starts at £334 per person via easyJet Holidays (0330 365 5005; easyjet.com/holidays). 

6th Century – Istanbul

Not that “Istanbul” was the name on the door at this point (and not until 1930). Instead, it was Constantinople that adorned the Bosporus estuary, spending almost a millennium as the capital of Byzantium – the cross-continental successor to the Roman Empire. But the sixth-century city had a key thing in common with its modern Turkish edition – Hagia Sophia, the grand-domed church built by Justinian in AD 537. Its magnificence still shines in 2020.

Istanbul, Turkey


Martin Randall Travel (020 87423355; martinrandall.com) has an Istanbul Revealed – Byzantine & Ottoman tour set for Oct 4-10 2021. From £2,890 per person with flights.

8th Century – Kyoto

For anyone whose big vision of Japan is Tokyo’s neon glow, Kyoto can be a shock. Low-slung in architecture, calm in demeanour, it still has more than a hint of the year AD 794, when the Emperor Kanmu moved his court to the Yamashiro Basin, calling the settlement “Heian-kyo” (“capital of tranquillity and peace”).

True, the Buddhist temples that give the city its hushed atmosphere came later – Kennin-ji (kenninji.jp) in 1202; Shokoku-ji (shokoku-ji.jp) in 1382 – but they cling to the promise inherent in Kyoto’s original name.

Inside Japan (0117 244 3380; insidejapantours.com) offers Pilgrim’s Paths – a slow-paced 15-day tour with three in Kyoto, from £3,560 a head (flights extra).

12th Century – Angkor

Do not let its ruined state – swarthy tree limbs wrapped around fractured buildings – fool you. Between the ninth and 15th centuries, Angkor was the capital of the Khmer Empire – the south-east Asian power that ruled over swathes of what is now Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, as well as Cambodia.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia


At its peak, it was probably the biggest city on the planet – a metropolis of up to a million people. That significance survives in Angkor Wat, the 12th-century Hindu-turned-Buddhist temple – which is still Earth’s largest religious monument.

Bamboo Travel (020 7720 9285; bambootravel.co.uk) offers a 22-day Grand Tour of Cambodia, which ventures to all corners of the country. From £4,850 a head, with flights.

13th Century – Cusco

The dominant perspective on Latin American cities observes them through the lens of Spanish invasion, but Cusco existed long before Pizarro barged into the Andes. The Incas – themselves conquerors – took a citadel founded by the Killke people, and made it their capital in around 1200.

This era lives on in the 17th-century Convento de Santo Domingo, whose original walls of tightly interlocked stones – once part of the Coricancha temple to the sun god Inti – uncovered over time by earthquakes, have withstood the seismic forces that the Spanish church, built around them, could not.

Last Frontiers (01296 653000; lastfrontiers.com) offers a 15-day Classic Peru itinerary that explores Cusco en route to Machu Picchu. From £4,060 per person, including flights.

14th Century – Mexico City

Mexico’s core metropolis was also up and running long before Cortés turned up. Or its predecessor Tenochtitlan was, slipping on to the map in about 1325. Much of what was then the largest city in the Americas was dismantled in the conquistador era, but its ghost still haunts the centre – not least in the Zocalo, the huge plaza that was also the heart of the Aztec capital. The canals of Xochimilco evoke Tenochtitlan’s founding on an island in Lake Texcoco.

Mexico City, Mexico


Journey Latin America’s (020 3811 7378; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) 15-day Aztecs, Mayas and Conquistadores tour begins in the city. From £2,698 per person, flights extra.

15th/16th Centuries – Florence

The Tuscan capital has long worn its legend as the “Birthplace of the Renaissance” with pride and elegance. Why would it not? Its remarkable Duomo flowered fully in 1436 as Filippo Brunelleschi completed its dome.

The era’s poster-boy, Leonardo, was born on its doorstep in 1452 – and illuminates its Uffizi gallery (uffizi.it) with pieces like The Annunciation (c 1475). The emblematic sculpture of the age – Michelangelo’s David (1501-04) – is the star of the Galleria dell’Accademia (accademia.org). A rebirth without end.

Original Travel (020 7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk) serves up a three-day luxury Art and Architecture mini-break in Florence from £1,210 per person – including flights.

15th-17th Centuries – Beijing

The Chinese capital was a fixture in the atlas long before it was the Chinese capital – its roots can be traced to the 11th century BC. But it sings most audibly of the 15th and 16th centuries thanks to the Forbidden City – the walled enclave built by the Yongle Emperor (from 1406 to 1420) as a manifestation of the power of the Ming dynasty.

Beijing, China


Visit the palace and you might believe that the imperial bloodline that ruled over China for almost three centuries between 1368 and 1644 still strolls the courtyards with you – through the Gate of Divine Might and on to the throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony.

Wendy Wu Tours (0808 223 0701; wendywutours.co.uk) offers Wonders of China, a 16-day group tour that spends three nights in Beijing. From £3,190 per person, with flights.

16th Century – Madrid

It is easy to assume that Madrid is as ingrained in European soil as London or Rome. But the Spanish kingpin was a late developer, only blooming as a major capital in 1561 when Philip II moved his court to what is pretty much the centrepoint of the Iberian Peninsula.

This change-up in status is obvious in the Plaza Mayor – the splendid main square, all cafés and colonnades – which was commissioned by the crown in 1580. The Palacio Real is a child of the 18th century, but sits on the site of Philip’s palace – which burned in 1734.

Four nights at the five-star Palacio de los Duques Gran Melia, from Heathrow on April 21 2021, start at £680 a head with British Airways Holidays (0344 493 0787; ba.com/holidays). 

16th Century – Havana 

Spain’s Atlantic forays saw the Cuban capital founded as early as 1519 – with Philip II giving it city status in 1592.

Havana, Cuba


While much of the architecture that so enchants visitors is tied to the 18th century (the baroque cathedral, with its happily mismatched towers, was completed in 1777), Madrid’s first moves on the island are still very visible. Both forts at the harbour mouth – El Morro (finished in 1589) and San Salvador de la Punta (built from 1590 onward) – are the fruit of 16th-century tension. Both drew heavy British fire in 1762.

Motmot Travel (01327 359622; motmottravel.com) has an 11-day Cuban Exclusive Highlights Holiday that spends three days in Havana. From £2,995 per person, including flights.

18th Century – Jaipur

Is there a purer example of Indian architectural verve than the Rajasthan capital? Jaipur was born in 1727, not as a colonial statement, but as a project executed by the maharaja Jai Singh II.

A clever man with a gift for design and maths, he – under the eye of architect Vidyadhar Bhattacharya – crafted a nest of streets, gardens and palaces that, even now, bears his imprint. The Nahargarh Fort, built as his residence in 1734, still surveys the city from its ridge. His grandson Pratap Singh added the more elaborate Hawa Mahal in 1799.

Jaipur is one of the highlights of the 14-day Rajasthan Rendezvous offered by India experts Transindus (07947 761237; transindus.co.uk). From £2,450 per person, including flights.

18th Century – St Petersburg

The 18th century was an era for carving a capital in your own likeness. Peter the Great famously did just that on the western edge of his vast kingdom in 1703. St Petersburg is now a lushly ­decorated history book, detailing the intrigues of Russia’s past 300 years in its cathedrals, cafés and canals.

St Petersburg, Russia


But the tale is told most succinctly in its foundation stone, the Peter and Paul Fortress, where the remains of the last tsar, Nicholas II (and his family) were finally laid to rest in 1998, 80 years after his assassination – alongside his city-building ancestor.

Regent Holidays (0117 538612; regent-holidays.co.uk) offers a six-day St Petersburg Short Break that explores the city at leisure. From £975 a head – with flights.

19th Century – Paris

Yes, of course, Paris is a fragment of ancient Europe, with Roman cobbles deep below its avenues. But it owes much of its present-day beauty to Baron Haussmann, the moderniser who remodelled it so definitively from 1853 to 1870. At the time, his blueprint was brutal – slashing at medieval clutter (the Arcis district, behind the Louvre, all but vanished).

The results were striking. The Rue de Rivoli was extended to the east, the Etoile redesigned; Place de la République was broadened, Parc Monceau finessed. Paris emerged a new city. 

You can take a long look at the French capital via the seven-day Paris in Depth trip sold by Audley Travel (01993 683675; audleytravel.com). From £3,550 per person, with flights.

19th Century – Addis Ababa

Ethiopia’s status as one of the successor-states to the Aksumite Empire lends itself to the misconception that every inch of it is ancient. But its focal point is a child, founded by emperor Menelik II in 1886. Despite its youth, Addis Ababa has the air of a hilltop citadel – partly because it sits at an altitude of 7,726ft, as Africa’s highest capital.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


The rest of its elevation comes from the dignity of its buildings, St George’s Cathedral (1896) cloudy with incense and ritual, Menelik’s old National Palace now framed by Unity Park. 

Jules Verne (020 3131 5251; vjv.com) has a 12-night Abyssinia and the Blue Nile group tour of Ethiopia scheduled for next May 7. From £3,145 per person, including flights.

19th Century – Rio de Janeiro

Like many Brazilian cities, Rio straddles the South American centuries. But for all its sun and sand, it finds perhaps its most important story – and its saddest – in the 19th.

Behind the Boulevard Olimpico, where port area Gamboa was revived for the 2016 Games, are the ruins of a darker dock – Valongo Wharf, where up to a million African slaves trudged ashore between 1811 and 1831. Nearby, the Instituto de Pesquisa e Memoria Pretos Novos preserves the memory – and, in some cases, bones – of those who died on the way.

TravelLocal (0117 325 7898; travellocal.com) sells a 10-day Best of Rio de Janeiro State tour, which explores the city beyond the obvious. From £2,110 a head, flights extra.

19th Century – Melbourne 

A baby born in 1835, Melbourne does not have millennia to play with. But its yesterdays infuse it – in Daylesford and Ballarat, the doughty towns to the north-west that were set up in the frenzy of the Victoria Gold Rush of 1851 and now resurrected as spa and art hubs; in that word “Victoria”, which hangs everywhere, from the name of the state to the market hall that opened in 1868 (qvm.com.au).

Melbourne, Australia


Of course, Melbourne Museum – and its exhibits on the Wurundjeri and Boon wurrung people – speaks of an older narrative (museumsvictoria.com.au).

Trailfinders (020 7084 6500; trailfinders.com) offers ­Victoria’s Wildlife & Wine – a 13-day exploration of Melbourne and the wider state including the Yarra ­Valley. From £1,335 per person; flights extra.

20th Century – New York

True, the fabled Dutch purchase of Manhattan island was in 1626. But no city is more representative of America’s irrepressible 20th century than New York – whether you find that symbolism in the world-record sky-scraping of the Chrysler (1930) and Empire State Buildings (1931; ­esbnyc.com), the financial peaks and troughs prompted by Wall Street, or the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein and Johns at the Museum of Modern Art (moma.org).   

Bon Voyage (0800 316 3012; bon-voyage.co.uk) allies New York to Washington DC and Boston in a nine-day Tale of Three Cities rail trip. From £2,295 per person, with flights.

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