The 5 best colonial cities in the world

Following Christopher Columbus’ first journey, the European powers of the day rushed to attempt to profit from the vast and relatively undefended territories that had abruptly appeared on the maps. Portugal, Spain, Great Britain and France were among the first to command expeditions to increase their spheres of control, but were not the only ones. The Dutch and later the Germans, Italians and Belgians did their very best to join the race.

One of the side effects of this process was the creation of colonial cities in the territories to which these powers tried to expand. The export of European culture blended with local traditions was apparent in the new architecture and amazing art that appeared in these new melting pots. What follows are the 5 best colonial cities in the world, for which we’ve considered cities in which the original city planning and structures have been mostly preserved.

Salvador da bahia skyline

  1. Salvador da Bahia (Brazil)

Home of what is arguably the best Carnival celebration in the world, (or at the very least the craziest) Salvador was founded by the Portuguese in 1549 and quickly became a regional powerhouse due to its optimal port infrastructure.

Separated in two parts (the higher administrative town and the lower commercial town), the beautiful city center has been restored recently to its former glory. The bright colors on the buildings are a cheerful reminder of why this city is considered the happiest in Brazil.

Trumpet player in New Orleans

  1. New Orleans (United States)

The “Big Easy” as it is affectionately referred to, is probably the debauchery capital of the USA (tied with the permanently sleepless Las Vegas). Drinking a hurricane or hand grenade cocktail in a huge plastic cup on Bourbon Street is almost a rite of passage for college students everywhere, but don’t let this fact distract you of the great state of preservation of its historical French Quarter.

Founded by the French in 1718 honoring the Duke of Orleans, but mostly built by the Spanish years later, the city proudly displays its melting pot heritage in every antique shop, every live jazz café, and every ornate terrace. The birthplace of Cajun food, there is much more to this city than just throwing beads to bystanders.  

Santo Domingo horse carriage

  1. Santo Domingo (Dominican Republic)

The oldest European city in America, Santo Domingo commenced its rise to prominence in 1498 when it was founded by Bartholomew Columbus, younger brother of Christopher Columbus, and by the beginnings of the 16th century it was the dominant force of the Caribbean. Walking through the cobbled streets is like stepping back in time, since the historic city center has been essentially unchanged for over five centuries.  

A city of firsts, Santo Domingo was the first city in which the grid-like urban planning was used in the Americas, and the site of the first cathedral, university, customs house and hospital of the continent. A true pioneering city!

Cusco skyline

  1. Cusco (Peru)

You’ll definitely be out of breath fast while exploring this Andean gem, considering that the town was built at an altitude of 11,200 feet over sea level, so take it slow and enjoy the relaxed pace of life in this incredibly well preserved living monument.

An ancient city, it had belonged to several cultures before the Incas took it and made the city their capital, in the urban shape of a puma, with the magnificent temple of Sacsayhuaman and its serrated walls acting as the head of the animal. When the Spanish took the city in 1533, they commenced a frenzy of church building activity and urban planning, which has left a huge amount of religious structures, including four churches only in the main square!

Colonial Cartagena

  1. Cartagena (Colombia)

The city of Cartagena de Indias is a masterfully designed colonial town, which was the first main port of departure for the gold galleons bound for Spain. Founded in 1533, it has survived throughout the centuries many attacks by rival European powers and also by pirates, due to its outstanding fortifications and in particular the massive castle of San Felipe which guards the bay.

Today, this city maintains a colorful and incredibly well preserved historic town center, full of small quaint alleys, impressive churches, and great sea views from the 8 mile long fortifications. Nothing beats sipping on a fruity drink from the top of the walls, while watching the sunset on one side, and the most beautiful colonial town in the world on the other.      

It was excruciatingly hard to choose only five sites. So here are the honorable mentions: Ouro Preto (Brazil), Havana (Cuba), Quebec City (Canada), Boston (USA), Stonetown (Tanzania), Quito (Ecuador), Goa (India), Vigan (Philippines), Charleston (United States).

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