Insider Guides: Our favourite historic towns

Old towns

We love to familiarise ourselves with the history of the towns and villages we visit on our holidays. The stories told by the local people, architecture, and museums provides a fascinating insight into the region’s culture. Exploring the history of an area can reveal unexpected, hidden landmarks or make you see familiar sights in a completely new light.

Here are some of the cities, towns and villages we enjoy visiting, and where the local history continues to thrill and surprise us:

Hidden Lakeside Gems

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Annecy, France

Lake Garda, Italy's most popular and largest lake, is steeped in history and some of its most historical towns are dotted along the western and south western shores. Above the lakefront in Gardone you will find the village's charming historic centre, home to the magnificent Vittoriale gardens. The gardens were built by the notorious and decadent Gabriele D'Annunzio, a poet and soldier famed for his daring military efforts and scandalous, egocentric behaviour. Funded by Mussolini and the Italian state, the garden celebrates historic Italian war victories.

Explore Gardone >

Further along the shore is Salo, a historic lakeside town whose history dates back to Roman and Venetian times. Many of the buildings in the centre of Salo have historic significance, including the Palazzo of the Magnifica Patria. Orginially built in 1524, an earthquake in 1901 meant this and other local landmarks had to be extensively restored. Also rebuilt at this time was the promenade – said to be the longest on Lake Garda. In spite of all the rebuilding, Salo rewards serious sightseeing, and afterwards we recommend heading to the Conca d'Oro beach to relax and take in the stunning lake views.

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Lucerne on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland has an iconic old town full of cobbled streets, plazas, fountains and pretty half-timbered buildings, as well as the oldest covered bridge in Europe, Chapel Bridge. Lucerne’s traffic-free old town is easily explored on foot and walking around the town is an enjoyable way to soak up the local history and atmosphere. The first official records of the town date back to 750 AD when it became the site of a Benedictine monastery. Situated in the heart of Switzerland between lakes and mountains, Lucerne became a popular trading post leading to its prosperity and cosmopolitan culture – easily explored today in the town’s many museums.

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The pretty Palais de L’Isle sits at the heart of medieval Annecy, on Lake Annecy. This quirky building, occupying a narrow island, has had various uses throughout the past and now houses an exhibition charting the history of the town. Known as the ‘Little Venice of the Alps’, the charming centre is criss-crossed with canals that lead into the lake, with its glacial, turquoise waters. The fabulous setting and the town’s attractive collection of churches, museums and markets make Annecy one of the most alluring historic towns to visit in France, well worth a visit if you are staying on the lake.

Explore Lake Annecy >

Dramatic Mountain Stories

Merano Main Pic Hires

Merano, Italy

The medieval town of Kitzbühel wears its history on its sleeve and the picture perfect buildings, and cobbled streets are famed throughout the world for their charming appearance. As a prosperous mining town, Kitzbühel exercised a strong degree of influence in the region. However, this success also meant that the town’s sovereignty was disputed for much of its history. The town has belonged to both the state of Bavaria and Tyrol throughout its past, becoming permanently Austrian in 1815.

Explore Kitzbühel >

Italian and Austrian cultures combine beautifully to form the wonderful and historic spa town of Merano. This South Tyrolean gem has only been a part of Italy since 1919 and has many close, cultural ties with neighbouring central European countries. During the 19th century the town attracted many important cultural figures from across the Austro-Hungarian Empire thanks to its favourable climate and stunning local scenery. Amongst the artists and writers who visited are Franz Kafka, Franz Liszt, Stefan Zweig, and Ezra Pound who stayed at Castle Brunnenburg for a time. The beautiful streets of the historic centre are a fascinating place to wander and also offers some fantastic shopping opportunities.

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Zermatt conjures up images of the Matterhorn and of being surrounded by some of Europe’s highest mountains. But in addition to having some of the most amazing natural scenery in the world, this picturesque, traffic-free village also has a fascinating history. A remote farming village for most of its existence, the village leapt into the imagination of adventurous mountain explorers the world over when, in 1865, word spread of the heroic first ascent of the Matterhorn. This achievement was not without tragedy. Lead by a young, British explorer, Edward Whymer, the exhibition took a dramatic turn during the descent when one of the ropes snapped – sending four of the seven climbers plummeting to their deaths. The Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt provides a fascinating insight into this and other local stories.

Explore Zermatt >

Cultural Capitals

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Vienna, Austria

The cobbled, Baroque centre of Salzburg was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. A former city state influenced by both Italian and German cultures, this beautiful city with its many domes and spires has been used as a backdrop for countless TV series and films including ‘The Sound of Music’, starring Julie Andrews. The birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg celebrates its unrivalled connection to classical music with an annual classical music festival, held every summer.

Explore Salzburg >

Vienna is a delightful mix of historic architectural styles. Art nouveau houses are found alongside Baroque, imperial palaces and medieval churches in the wonderful Austrian capital. This romantic city overflows with cultural and architectural sights including medieval lanes and cobblestones near St Stephen's cathedral, as well as world class art galleries and opera houses. We recommend visiting Prater park to the east of the city. The huge ferris wheel on the edge of the park was made famous by its appearance in the final scenes of classic film ‘The Third Man’, starring Orson Welles.

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Nestling between the Adriatic and the Alps is colourful Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital city. Its medieval old town is easily explored, whether on foot or by bike. The city has a strong student population, however the local University (Slovenia’s first) was not founded until 1919. Demand for a national university was high among the local populace but the foreign ruling power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire refused the requests for such an institution to be established until the end of the First World War.

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Medieval Marvels

Piran

Piran, Slovenia

Piran is the jewel in the crown of Slovenia's short coastline. Founded in pre-Roman times, its remarkably well preserved old town blends Gothic, Baroque, and Medieval styles. A circular wall, which at its oldest part dates to the 13th century, surrounds a maze of narrow, winding streets. The church of St George located in the centre of the old town in the elegant Tartini Square was inspired by St Mark's in Venice.

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The hilltop town of San Gimignano, surrounded by beautiful Tuscan vineyards and olive groves, takes on the appearance of a medieval Manhattan when gazed upon from a distance. The distinctive medieval towers were built by the ruling families of the time to demonstrate their wealth and influence. At its peak San Gimignano had up-to 72 ‘tower-houses’. Today only 14 towers remain, preserved as a UNESCO world heritage site. San Gimignano is easily visited on a day’s excursion from Lake Trasimeno in Tuscany.

Explore Lake Trasimeno >

An Inghams Lakes and Mountains holiday is a fantastic opportunity to delve into the past. Wherever you visit, by exploring the history of the area you can be certain to uncover fascinating stories and learn about incredible people. So next time you go on holiday, take the opportunity to travel through time as well. You never know what you may discover on your journey.

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