Living at an altitude: 7 of the world’s most incredible city-cliffs

Samira Banat
Sep 14, 2020

From colourful coastal towns in Italy to ancient cave dwellings in the USA, here are seven of the world’s most fascinating city-cliffs

From our early school years, we learn about how civilizations wrote their stories on river banks and shores. But lesser-known to most, many ancient cities and dwellings built their foundations atop rolling hills and cliffs. Here is our selection of the most fascinating settlements built into cliff faces around the world.

Rocamadour, France

Located in south-central France, the sacred village of Rocamadour cascades into the Alzou Canyon. Dating back to the 12th century, stone houses, monastic buildings and elegant towers rise in three successive stages up the side of a cliff.

Recognised as one of France’s most loved tourist destinations and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the medieval village holds onto hundreds of years of history as a pilgrimage site on the ‘Way of Saint James’. Guarded by four arched stone gates; Porte Basse, Porte du Figuier, Porte Salmon and Porte Hugon, Rocamadour’s town is speckled with golden houses on streets charmed with restaurants and eclectic boutiques.

Mesa Verde, Colorado, USA

The famous cliff dwellings of the ancient Anasazi people are the most significant archaeological preserve of Native American culture in the US. With more than 5,000 sites across southwest Colorado, including 600 cliff dwellings, one of which is thought to be the largest cliff dwelling in North America, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. 

The desert-coloured mud settlements bear a tragic history of deforestation, drought and eventual abandonment, but the lives once-thriving among panoramic canyon views were preserved once the site was turned into a national park in 1906.

Ronda, Spain

Situated in the mountains, the city split in two is home to prehistoric settlements dating to the Neolithic Age and more modern, yet still ancient, Roman establishments. Its location by the Guadalevin River causes it to sit on either side of a canyon, connected by a massive stone bridge carved out of the mountainous landscape. However, its creative layout is not the cause of its popularity, but its title as the birthplace of bullfighting.

Bandiagara Escarpment, Mali

An escarpment in the Dogon country of Mali, the sandstone cliffs are dotted with ancient cave dwellings of the Tellem people. The rust-coloured cliff rises above the sandy plateaux and spreads across an outstanding area of 150 kilometres. Although the stone dwellings resemble ancient ruins frozen in time, the cave structures are home to the Dogon people and age-old traditions, making this geologically, archaeologically and ethnologically fascinating plateau one of West Africa’s most impressive sites.

Al Hajjara, Yemen

Windows peak out of camouflaged buildings in the rocky mountain.

Located in the Manakhah District of the Sanaʽa Governorate, the 12th-century cliff city in the Haraz Mountains is one of the most impressive and easily accessible mountain villages in Yemen. Once a popular market town spread along the Sana’a-Al-Hudayda road, the convenient location now serves as a base camp for trekkers and an ideal spot for a backpacking vacation.

Positano, Italy

Located on southern Italy’s beloved Amalfi Coast, the well-known holiday destination was built as though scattered from top to bottom down a hillside leading to the pebbled coast. Home to narrow streets lined with multi-hued houses, boutiques and cafes, the coastal town makes for an ideal Instagram location.

Castellfollit de la Roca, Spain

Despite its unique location on a narrow volcanic escarpment, bordered by the confluence of the Fluvià and Toronell rivers, the municipality in Catalonia, Spain is a surprisingly urban area.

Home to narrow roads and small squares, gastronomy rich traditional restaurants, and even a Museum of Cured Meats, Castellfollit de la Roca is an essential stop among the rural villages by the Pyrenees mountains. While its dramatic scenic views have earned it a place on the list of the most beautiful villages in the Catalonia region and could be taken advantage of with a hot air balloon ride.

For more stunning historical locations, live out your fairytale with 10 of Britain’s most striking castles.