8 of the Oldest Cities in America

For history lovers, nothing beats the old-time charm and architectural wonder of America’s oldest towns

The United States officially gained independence in 1776; but, of course, Indigenous populations and colonial settlers were here long before then. That means some cities in the country were founded well before 1776 giving them a long, rich history that predates the country by more than a century. Here are eight of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the United States that you can still visit today.

Historic Newport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Newport, Rhode Island

Aside from being one of the country’s oldest cities, Newport is special because its settlement was led by a woman. Boston resident Anne Hutchinson was driven out of the city because of her Antinomianism religious views and a group of followers accompanied her to resettle on Aquidneck Island—after permission was received by the local Indigenous people—in 1636. The Indigenous population had a thriving community there with sophisticated fishing practices and land management strategies.

The Breakers, Newport © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hutchinson and her followers settled on the north of the island in an area called Pocasett. By 1639, half of Hutchinson’s group left with William Coddington and Nicholas Easton who took their followers to the southern end of the island to found present-day Newport, now known for its Gilded Age mansions, shopping, and seaside views.

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Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Williamsburg, Virginia

In 1633, the Virginia Assembly ordered the founding of a town called Middle Plantation in the center of the Virginia Peninsula. Unlike other towns at the time, the settlement was not located along the James River. Nonetheless, the town had a hand in a number of historic events like Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676 when Nathaniel Bacon challenged Virginia’s governor. Bacon and his followers had burned down many of the buildings in Jamestown and those displaced settlers relocated to Middle Plantation.

Colonial Williamsburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The College of William and Mary (the country’s second-oldest college) opened in 1693 and shortly thereafter, Middle Plantation was renamed Williamsburg, after King William. The country’s first mental health hospital was established in Williamsburg in 1773 and in 1781 George Washington assembled his troops there to siege Yorktown and win the Revolutionary War.

Today, visitors can stop in and explore Colonial Williamsburg, the world’s largest outdoor living history museum, educating guests on what it was like living in colonial America.

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Boston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boston, Massachusetts

Boston was officially founded in 1630 but by the time Puritan colonists arrived on the Shawmut Peninsula where the city started it was already occupied by a recluse named Reverend William Blackstone. Blackstone had left England seven years earlier hunting down his own sense of peace and quiet and found it on the peninsula.

Boston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blackstone welcomed the Puritan colonists and showed them where the natural spring was—and then they took over his land. They then granted him back 50 acres of his own property. Four years later, he sold it back to them and left.

Meanwhile, the colonists had built a church, cemetery, tavern, and inn. In 1635, they opened Boston Latin School, the first American public school. Boston took center stage in the fight against British rule with the infamous Boston Tea Party protest of 1773.

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Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Santa Fe—the oldest state capital still in existence—was officially founded in 1607 but it has actually been in existence since around 1050 when it was home to the Pueblo Native Americans. The Spanish arrived in 1607 and the Pueblo peoples gathered together and attempted to overthrow them toward the end of the 1600s. Their attempts were unsuccessful and the Spanish took control of the city.

Plaza of Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Fe remained a Spanish city until 1821 when Mexico declared its independence. Santa Fe was briefly a part of the Texas Republic in 1836 and was eventually conquered from Mexico during the Mexican-American War in 1848 after which it officially became a part of the United States.

Santa Fe residents seemingly embrace all aspects of their long and contentious history and tourists can learn more about it by visiting their fascinating history museums, and art galleries.

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Historic Jamestowne © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jamestown, Virginia

The second-oldest European-established city in the U.S. is Jamestown, Virginia, founded on April 26, 1607. The first permanent English colony in North America had many ups, downs, and false starts before it became the city it is today. It was originally called James Fort, named after James I of England but the settlement was abandoned just three years later after the colonists faced starving conditions and conflict with the Indigenous population.

Historic Jamestowne © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fourteen years later; however, in 1624, Virginia became an official British colony and more order was brought to the city which had slowly been reinhabited. Its name was changed to Jamestown and the city became the capital of the British colonies. By the mid-19th century, the city was declining and concerned citizens began campaigns to preserve this original U.S. city in the early 1900s. These efforts were successful and the city celebrated its 400th year of existence in 2007.

Today, you can visit the Jamestown Settlement and see what life was like back in the city’s first years.

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The Strand, Galveston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston, Texas

The first inhabitants in Galveston history were the Karankawa Indians in the 16th century. Galveston Island’s first noted visitor was Cabeza de Vaca, the Spanish explorer who landed in 1528. Its first European settler was French privateer Jean Lafitte. The city was chartered in 1839.

Moody Mansion © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Galveston encompasses more history and stories than cities 20 times its size. At 32 miles long and two-and-a-half miles wide, the island is surrounded with incredible history and unique beauty. Having one of the largest and well-preserved concentrations of Victorian architecture in the country, visitors can tour its popular historic mansions.

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Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile, Alabama

The French established a permanent presence in the Mobile Bay Area in 1702 and by 1706 there were at least four permanently established sites in the area including the current site of the City of Mobile. Mobile is the oldest permanent settlement in the original Colony of French Louisiana and was its first capitol. The first five governors of Louisiana resided in Mobile and governed an area twice the size of the thirteen English colonies extending from Canada to the Gulf and from the Appalachians to the Rockies.

Mobile © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mobile has a rich past spanning centuries. French, Spanish, British, Creole, Catholic, Greek, and African legacies have influenced everything from architecture to cuisine. No matter where you turn, history is right around the corner. Visit the History Museum of Mobile, explore the battlegrounds of Forts Morgan, Gaines, and Condé or simply walk the streets of historic downtown.

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The Alamo, San Antonio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio, Texas

On June 13, 1691, Spanish missionaries named an area of south-central Texas for St. Anthony of Padua, a Portuguese Catholic priest, and friar. San Antonio was officially settled 25 years later. Then, in 1836, Mexican troops initiated a 13-day siege at the Alamo Mission and the settlers were brutally slaughtered. While San Antonio was further decimated by the Mexican-American War, it rebounded as the center of the cattle industry after the Civil War.

Riverwalk, San Antonio © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With a population of around 1.3 million people, San Antonio is now the second-largest city in Texas. Visitors flock to the Alamo historic site and the popular River Walk which is lined with shops, restaurants, and public art.

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Worth Pondering…

History, although sometimes made up of the few acts of the great, is more often shaped by the many acts of the small.

—Mark Yost