Living in: Great cities for history and ancient ruins

These five cities are pieces of living history, where the past is not only present in everyday life, but tangible in myriad forms.

Some cities are pieces of living history, where the past is not only present in everyday life, but tangible in myriad forms, from ancient fountains to Roman temples. Centuries of human habitation are visible in their architecture, and modern-day urban necessities like subway tunnels and cables have to be carefully built, lest the precious past be destroyed. Taken from lists in publications such as the WebEcoist and National Geographic, these historical cities are known for their ancient ruins and storied pasts.

The glory days of the empire are never very far away in Italy’s capital, where a glimpse of the Colosseum or a 2nd-century city wall is practically an everyday occurrence. Not to mention the centuries that followed, embedding framework beneath (the catacombs) and building structures above (Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling in Vatican City). From the 2,000-year-old Pantheon to priceless pieces of Renaissance art, residents of the Eternal City are surrounded by history, making the central districts of Rome some of the most coveted real estate in Italy, especially for foreign buyers. “The English, French and German have always been the most important buyers, but now we are seeing Americans, Russians and even Emiratis in the market,” said Mauro Bianchi, a private advisor at Santandrea Luxury Houses.

The city centre is the most desirable area, but the upscale Pinciano and Parioli districts north of the centre are also very popular for their proximity to Villa Borghese park. Just south of the centre, historic Aventino is in demand due to the presence of the UN and other international organisations. Across the Tiber River, trendy Trastevere is popular because of its cafes, restaurants and nightlife, while near the Colosseum, formerly working-class Monti is a gentrifying area that has become very sought after because of its village feel and proximity to the historic city centre.

The average price for an apartment near the city centre ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 euros per square metre, depending on the type of building, view and location. “A penthouse with a terrace overlooking the Spanish Steps or the Colosseum can cost as much as 30,000 euros per square metre,” Bianchi said. The average rent for a similar centre city apartment ranges from 350 to 600 euros per square metre per year.

Ancient Egypt is at Cairo’s doorstep – even if the city itself did not exist 4,000 years ago – with the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Sphinx about 10km to the west and Memphis, the capital of Ancient Egypt, about 20km to the south. Great treasures from the time of the Pharaohs fill the city’s museums; Coptic churches and early Christian artefacts abound; and the most ever-present thread to the past, the Nile, flows by on its way to the Mediterranean. Today, modern metropolitan Cairo is home to nearly 20 million inhabitants, and the largest city in the Arab world is undergoing political and economic turmoil after the 2011 uprising. But while the security situation has deteriorated since the 2012 election of President Morsi, foreign firms, particularly retail companies, continue to enter the Egyptian market.

Cairo’s history can be traced through its neighbourhoods, from Islamic Cairo, built more than 1,000 years ago, to the European-designed areas such as Garden City and Heliopolis. Just south of Tahrir Square, Garden City is a leafy, residential area on the east bank of the Nile that is home to the British and American embassies, luxury hotels and grand villas. Other desirable city neighbourhoods include upscale Zamalek, which is located on the Nile’s Gezira Island, and convenient Dokki on the west bank, a walkable district close to the Metro. Further south of downtown, affluent Maadi is one of the most sought-after suburbs for its quiet streets and less-crowded feel. New Cairo City is a planned community about 30km east of downtown, home to many international universities, luxury high rises and gated communities, as well as shopping malls and golf courses.

There are some restrictions on foreigners buying property in Egypt, and many internationals moving to Cairo rent furnished or mostly furnished apartments. Most landlords require a month’s deposit, one quarter’s rent in advance and a copy of your passport. A two-bedroom flat in Zamalek starts around $1,600 a month and a similar apartment in Maadi ranges from $2,000 to $5,000 a month. A furnished two-bedroom apartment in New Cairo starts at around $2,800 a month. Prices for high-end apartments and villas in Egypt are usually listed in US dollars.

One of the oldest cities in the world, Athens is the capital of Ancient and modern Greece and is considered the birthplace of Western civilisation. The Parthenon shines brightly up on the Acropolis, overlooking the city as one of the world’s most famous monuments – instantly recognisable and celebrated as a symbol of Classical Greek architecture. When Athens was preparing to host the 2004 Summer Olympics, construction of the underground metro encountered so many archaeological significant sites that delays lasted for years. The city is home to dozens of archaeology institutes and museums, with academics studying the best of Hellenic art, culture and architecture. Today, the economic crisis, high unemployment and unpopular austerity measures have depressed prices across the Greek property market. However, the finance minister recently announced that the recovery should start to be seen in 2014.

“Currently, prices are at very attractive levels,” said Theo Bosdas, managing director of Engel & Völkers Athens. “The real estate market for foreign buyers is starting to show its strength.” Districts close to the Acropolis, such as Plaka, are in demand by foreigners who want to be near the heart of the tourist areas. However prices are still low. “These areas have not experienced a solid stream of demand that would allow prices to show an uptick,” Bosdas explained. Other popular areas include the luxury districts in city’s north, such as residential Dionysus and upmarket Kifissia, which includes the quarter of Politia and nearby Ekali. Also very desirable is the area south of the city known as the Athens Riviera, with seaside suburbs such as posh Glyfada, Voula and Vouliagmeni. A two-bedroom house or flat in these areas rents for four to 10 euros per square metre, and similar properties in these areas cost between 2,000 and 6,000 euros per square metre.

Tel Aviv-Yafo
Just 60km west of Jerusalem’s religious and historic sites, modern Tel Aviv is the financial and cultural capital of Israel with its Mediterranean beaches and hopping nightlife. But it has a dose of history as well in Jaffa, the ancient Arab port that was absorbed into Tel Aviv after the creation of the state of Israel. Jaffa has been inhabited for millennia and archaeologists have made finds that date back to the Iron Age, continuing up through the Biblical and Roman periods to the Crusades.

Near the city centre, the area known as White City is filled with 1930s Bauhaus and Modernist architecture and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. These white, curvilinear buildings and apartments attract foreign buyers as well as artists and local residents. “The [White City] buildings were built to get the most out of the local climate, sun and sea breeze, and are concrete structures with high-ceilinged interiors, decorated tiles and a unique aesthetic,” said Orian Cohen, a local real estate specialist.

One of Tel Aviv’s oldest neighbourhoods, Neve Tzedek, was built just outside of Jaffa’s walls around the turn of the 20th Century and is today a trendy and desirable neighbourhood known for its sandstone buildings. “Locally referred to as ‘The Red City’, the area has a colourful, eclectic design and historic buildings that made it attractive for preservation,” Cohen said. Many younger Tel Avivians live in central and south Tel Aviv, close to the bars, restaurants, beaches and cafes, and both developers and buyers are looking for older houses and apartments in central Tel Aviv to renovate. The area around the Jaffa Port, with its many art galleries and new food market, has become increasingly popular over the last five years.

A central Tel Aviv two-bedroom flat sells for around 2.1 million shekels and rents for around 6,000 to 8,000 shekels a month. In Neve Tzedek, a two-bedroom flat costs around 3.5 million shekels and rents for between 6,000 and 9,000 shekels a month. Around the Jaffa Port market, a similar apartment costs anywhere from 1.8 to three million shekels and rents for around 4,000 to 5,000 shekels a month.

Xi’an, China
This city in central China, more than 1,000km west of Beijing, is one of the country’s oldest metropolises. It is also where the Silk Road ended in the East and is home to the famed army of terracotta soldiers that belonged to the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang. While his actual tomb has not been explored yet because of the difficulty in excavating the site, the vast pits containing the terracotta soldiers, cavalry, archers and officers can be viewed at the Emperor Qui Shi Huang Mausoleum Site Museum. Thousands of these life-sized figures are part of the mausoleum and imperial palace that sits about 30km east of Xi’an, built to resemble the empire’s capital city of Xianyang. In addition, the city is peppered with old city walls, temples, pagodas and tombs from Han Dynasty rulers, including the Hanyangling Tomb, which houses Emperor Jingdi and his wife Empress Wang.

Modern Xi’an is a centre for tech, software and aerospace industries, as well as home to almost 100 universities and colleges. According to a 2012 report by the Economist Intelligence Unit, it is one of China’s 13 emerging megacities. Samsung recently opened a microchip plant in the Xi’an High-Tech Industrial Development Zone (XHTZ), an event that is attracting further foreign investment and workers to the city. In turn, this is spurring the government to provide infrastructure and schools for the internationals who are moving there. The city also built six parks within the XHTZ and added bus stops and additional parking. The average cost of a three-bedroom apartment in the city centre is 9,000 renminbi per square metre. A similar  three-bedroom flat in the city centre rents for around 1,300 renminbi per month, while a two-bed in the Crystal Island area of the XHTZ goes for around 2,000 renminbi a month.