Let's say that in a medieval world, a town has been built on the coast, the location chosen as it has ideal conditions for a port town (natural harbor, lots of nearby resources etc.). It is a good sized town, burgeoning on the size of a city.

However it is situated in a region that is surrounded on all sides by either mountain or forest. These are difficult to traverse in order to get to other towns & cities, the nearest of which are a significant distance away.

This means that the only way the town is accessible is by boat. As there are a lot of things that are indigenous only to this region, there is a good amount of trade, so it is a flourishing town.

My question is, would a city like this ever exist? Or do they exist? A town entirely isolated from the outside world except for by the sea?

Obviously there are cities and towns on islands that can only be accessed by boat that can trade, but even if the conditions getting to the town by land are bad, would people eventually build a road there anyway in order to encourage commerce?

Also, is it reasonable to assume that such a town would be set up in the first place? Would people construct a town via sea before they set it up via road if that was an option (albeit a difficult one)?

Any other considerations for such a town can also be thrown in, but are not necessary. I'm mainly asking if such a place is realistic before I start to think about what it might be like.

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    $\begingroup$ While not exactly medieval, Nome, Alaska seems a reasonable comparison to what you are proposing. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ Venice comes to mind. First accessible only by boat for centuries, then a railroad bridge (1846) and at lasta road bridge (1933) $\endgroup$
    – STT LCU
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ Cape town when it was founded, don't want to go through Africa do you. $\endgroup$
    – JKK1111
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 15:08
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    $\begingroup$ I've been to such a village once. Agia Roumeli on Crete can only be reached by ship or by hiking through a 18km gorge. The village existed since the antique. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelKjörling A better example than Nome is our state capital, Juneau. There IS no overland access. You fly in or boat in, there is no drive. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2015 at 18:09

13 Answers 13


The Norse Greenland colonies and Iceland prior to about 1800 serve as pretty good examples of something like what you're describing, and they didn't didn't produce cities. All colonization was done by sea, and the interiors of both islands are uninhabitable. The Greenland colonies, of course, never grew to any size and died out, but the Iceland colonies thrived. Most of the population consisted of subsistence farming, there was only one breed of cattle and one breed of sheep, so there was little local specialization and little lateral trade along the coast. Of course, there wasn't much in the way of sizeable cities either, apart from Reykjavic, and even that did not, apparently, exist as an urban concentration until the 18th century.

I suspect a city could exist as you describe, as long as the reachable area were large enough, and contained a sufficient range of resources to be self-sufficient. Transportation in medieval times was slow, costly and inefficient, so the local exports would have to be exceptionally valuable in order to attract enough trade to make up any major local deficits.

Furthermore, the local export goods could not be susceptible to easy short-term exploitation, such as major deposits of placer gold. Such resources would attract a lot of outside interest and produce a boom-town phenomenon such as occurred in California in the 1850's and 60's. Hard-rock mining might do, but basically any resource which can be easily located and exploited would be, well, quickly located and exploited until it ran out. Something like opium-growing might work, or any other compact, distinctive and desireable agricultural product. Exceptionally fine wine, perhaps.


It depends on the natural conditions and technology present in your setting, but it is possible.

If we're talking early Middle ages, then most of Europe roughly north of the Alps was covered by impenetrable forests. It generally took people centuries to work their way through them and build roads which connected isolated settlements, which eventually led to internal colonisation and a significant increase in population density.

But that was because they had no other choice. There were some places where there was an alternative. Namely these were coastal areas of Northern Europe and Scandinavia, where people figured out it was a lot more convenient to get around on boats, certainly if you wanted to ferry large amounts of cargo or troops.

An example of such a region would be the Lordship of the Isles, encompassing the western part of Scottish Highlands, and the islands of Inner and Outer Hebrides. The people here had Viking-level seamanship and lived in coastal settelemnts, getting around by boat and generally not bothering with trying to build roads through the nigh-impenetrable terrain.

Castles like Dunvegan trace their origin back to that period, where a clan chief would pick a suitable spot on the coast and build a fortification there, which would be accessible only by sea. Eventually, though, the inland of the Isle of Skye was cultivated and it became possible to get there by road.

Where you have a castle, you can have a castle town and eventually maybe a city. This won't last forever, but might last a good couple of centuries (more if you have developmental stasis), which should be enough for your purposes.

The fact that the city is considered "inaccessible except by sea" should not be taken to mean that it's completely impossible to get there by land; just that it's not feasible to do so with a meaningful army or a load of cargo. Wilderness thus provides protection mainly by restricting organised movement (and sea transport is much faster than land transport anyhow, giving you the advantage of interior lines if you were to defend the city).

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    $\begingroup$ There are dozens of towns along the Norwegian fjords that are nearly inaccessible over land. Alaska has some examples too. And don't forget town's along the big rivers in Africa/South America that are hard to get too overland (jungle/swamp) where predominant transport has been river-based for centuries.. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 14:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Tonny I don't follow; how does that relate to my answer? I used Dunvegan as my example, but that's simply because I've been there in person. I'm sure there are many others, and the answer indicates so as well. $\endgroup$
    – Mike L.
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 14:30
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    $\begingroup$ Seems I should have elaborated my comment a little bit. I just wanted to say that especially Norway has many examples of this and that many settlements along jungle-rivers have formed in the same way. By the way: Nice picture of Dunvegan. It was raining hard when I was there 3 years ago. $\endgroup$
    – Tonny
    Commented May 12, 2015 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @BrianDrummond Don't get me started. Bloody Norsemen with their fancy river-sailing drakars all up in the Caspian while my Slavs have to take the long way around. And we're sitting right on top of Danube! $\endgroup$
    – Mike L.
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 12:57
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    $\begingroup$ Compromise: the hostile locals were a significant factor contributing to the impenetrability of the forest ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2015 at 23:37

Juneau, the capital of Alaska, is not accessible by road. It started as a gold mining camp, so it was founded explicitly for its resources, as your fictional city seems to be.

Juneau was already a large city by 1920, before widespread air travel, so almost its entire connection to the outside world was by boat during that time (although I'm assuming at least a few hardened and lucky individuals made the overland trek through the forests and mountains). While not quite "medieval," Juneau's history does provide real-world precedent for a town only accessible by sea.


Short answer is yes.

However the caveat is the following: You generally don't see medieval cities surrounded by mountains or forests for the sake of protection.

The tops of hills were popular choices mainly because it was far easier to defend a castle or fort when you have the upper ground. If you were surrounded by mountain, then presumably you are in a disadvantageous position for defense.

And you wouldn't see forests provide protection to a castle or fort mainly because A) sooner or later that forest is going to be cut down for resources and B) your enemy can hide far easier under the cloak of the forest canopy. Forests could still exist, but certainly not for protective reasons, so you would almost certainly see roads built through them.

However it is also true that we're talking about fiction. If there is a sufficient cause to want to stay out of the forest or mountain that wouldn't create problems for the city, then it would be very useful protection indeed. Suppose there is a type of dire wolf that is near impossible to spot before an attack, you'd have a hard time convincing your army to pass through to attack the castle, regardless of whether or not the dire wolves would actually pose a serious threat to the army. Soldiers generally fear only the types of enemies that they can't size up.

Though for all intents and purposes, there are better alternatives. Venice chose to surround themselves entirely with water, and despite not being directly connected to the mainland, it was and still is a thriving city. It is also easier to defend if you know to expect a fleet rather than a fleet or a standing army through the woods, and as these things go, when it comes to defending a city, nobody likes surprises.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it was a direct answer to the question but i upvoted anyway because it was a good answer. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2015 at 12:59
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    $\begingroup$ In mediaeval times they cut down all the vegetation around castles for exactly this reason. $\endgroup$
    – RedSonja
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 10:40


Not only reasonable, but it did happen. In addition to mountains and forest, you might consider desert.

Near where I live, there are many Arabic cities that flourished in the 10th century and beyond, simply because they were a place for boats to stop, trade, and replenish water supplies.

While Jeddah was a conduit for pilgrims to Mecca, the remainder of the Arabian coast along the Red Sea, in Oman (Muscat), Dubai, parts of India, were all places to stop and do the mentioned activities. Often these stops had access to fossil aquifers and wells and were stops for dhows or larger ships to/from Europe and Asia (I have a book about Venetian merchants stopping in Delma, which means "to bring water", in the United Arab Emirates).

These 'refueling' stops were also an opportunity for a great deal of trade and created bustling settlements.

  • $\begingroup$ I should add that these settlements had very little contact and certainly no roads connecting to the interior. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented May 13, 2015 at 21:24

"Is it reasonable to have a town that is only accessible by sea?"

Yes of course it is. Stop thinking of the sea as a restriction, and just another medium on which transport can travel and it makes perfect sense. Until roads were established in England, and even as late as the 18th century, sea and river routes were by far the easiest and cheapest way to transport goods and people.

The industrial revolution kicked off in a little place called Coalbrookdale, not only because natural resources were available, but because the waterway (in this case the River Severn) on which Coalbrookdale sits, was a major, navigable, arterial trade route, from Shrewsbury down to the Bristol Channel and to Europe and beyond. Jon Reade.


Yes, it is entirely reasonable. Bulk transport of goods by sea is better than land transport by roads by a significant margin. If you can transport things by sea, you don't really need roads.

Ancient Phoenicia was fairly similar to your suggestion, if I were you I'd simply read up on that. The city of Tyre was outright on an island in front of the coast, but the entire area was between the coast and densely forested mountains, just like you want. The mountains were not impassable as proven by the fact that the area was conquered by several ancient empires, but Phoenicians mainly traded by sea.

So basically this is only a question of the degree the surrounding terrain is impassable. In practice it is highly unlikely that coastal mountains are impassable. Your best bet would be that the locals actively fortified the gaps. Otherwise a nearby empire would insist there being a road good enough for their army to use.

The basic shortcoming here is that since the terrain isolates the locals to small (in area) city states, and until industrialization most people were farmers, the isolated people will almost always have much smaller population base than potential nearby empires and consequently will be capable of supporting only a comparatively small army to protect cities very rich in plunder. That is not a sustainable equation.

Obviously, if you only need the situation to be temporary this is not a real problem. Also You can place a desert beyond the mountains so that there is no larger empire.

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    $\begingroup$ Tyre is an excellent example. Alexander the Great finally built a causeway to besiege the island. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2015 at 20:22

Built to keep the British out!:

Is it reasonable to have a town that is only accessible by sea?

It has been done "by design".

Akaroa in New Zealand was a town designed to be accessible almost solely by sea and to be extremely hard to access by land. When it was built Akaroa closely matched your specification. While anything can be accessed by land given enough effort, Akaroa's location made it hard by the standards of the day, despite it being only about 100 miles from another major settlement that would have been deemed "potentially hostile".

Akaroa - designed to be inaccessible by land:------

In New Zealand (where I live) the settlement of Akaroa formed the original French foothold in NZ while the main British settlements were almost 1000 miles to the North. Nowadays Akaroa can be accessed by a charming long and winding drive through steep hill country. When first settled the same hill country provided a welcome buffer against unexpected access from the country's interior.

Wendy windy Google map route shows how hard Akaroa would have been to access.

A good feel for the sea based access can be gained even in modern photos

Guess where Akaroa is located ! :-). If you were designing a world (hey, you are!) you could hardly imagine a more purpose designed "shield" for the distances involved. Akaroa is, of course, inside the long inlet. NZ's 3rd largest city Christchurch, is located beyond the "shield" where the right hand curving coast comes out to meet it.

enter image description here


Many pioneer settlements that develop into towns in newly "discovered" countries only have sea access for practical purposes. Very early US settlements from Britain had no roads between them and what trails existed were initially unknown and totally dominated by largely hostile inhabitants who tended to take objection to be objects of discovery. (And still object to having been in many cases.) Overland routes were the domain of adventurers or expeditionary parties. The US was settled in numerous locations on both seabords long before a viable overland route was discovered.


It's not a "city" per se but the East Cape is a large geographic area in New Zealand that for a long time was accessed very largely only by sea and only with difficulty by land. It had major settlements and industry which invariably used sea access for any movement of trade goods in and out. Even now it has "interesting" but usable rod access.

Sometimes even the modern road in is troublesome !!! :-) Follow photostream for otrher photos of area.

The NZ "East Cape" was well known for its sheep rearing suitabilities. Up until about 1920+ all major produce from the area was brought out by boat over beautiful long wharves at Tolaga Bay and Tokamaru Bay. When the roads finally came the wharves died as commercial entities and are kept alive mainly for historical and recreational purposes. If you now image search for Tolaga Bay 90%+ of the images are of the wharf - a "dinosaur from the days of isolation.

  • Tolaga Bay wharf, at 600 metres the longest on the coast, is no longer used by coastal shipping. The wharf took three years to build and was completed in 1929, but depression, war and better roads all took a toll and it closed to shipping in 1968. Since then walking the length of the wharf has been popular with both locals and visitors, some of whom also fish from it.

enter image description here

Even further out on East Cape is Tokomaru Bay -and another majestic wharf. - now derelict and dangerous at thje far end - but still lots of fun.
Also see Tokomaru Bay

enter image description here - A century ago Tokomaru Bay was, believe it or not, a fairly major port, catering to over a hundred ships a year. It had a booming farming trade, a freezing works, a sawmill, a brick works, and a soft drink factory. All this industry went in and out by boat, with coasters ferrying the products up the coast to Auckland and dropping of supplies. The constant activity led to the formation of Tokomaru Bay’s own harbour board, and a greatly upgraded wharf – a 300m structure had rails embedded in the concrete for the small locomotive that ran the short distance from the freezing works to the port. Other facilities included the Te Puka Hotel (now Te Puka Tavern), a tennis club, a local newspaper, and two schools, and – after the war – a picture theatre.

By the 1960′s it seems as though only the hotel and one school was left, and the wharf and the shells of the factories are all that remain of the town’s season in the sun.


The idea is not entirely impossible, there is a lot of cities that is only accessible from the sea, though most of them is lying on islands and that is the reason for it to be cut off.

In one of my questions: Would a medieval Arcology be possible? it is fairly similar, a city used mainly for trading, that is dependent on food to arrive at intervals, we established that in order for a city like that to function you need to have a basic self production of food, just to get through hard times and long periods without supplies, and fresh water.

It should be possible for the people living in the city to climb the mountains or enter the forest, for the adventurous and the people harvesting the trade-goods that was the reason for the founding of the city in the first place.


Historically, there were western European settlements only accessible from the sea. You had a wilderness trek to get there by land, and medievals mostly hated wilderness. The forest will get pushed back as it is used for lumber (boatyards), firewood, and fields to grow food.


People will usually take the path of least resistance first, and then later on switch to greatest profit.

So would anyone build there? There are a lot of towns all over the place that were founded for small reasons. There is a place where people naturally pass, someone puts up a trading post and digs a well, Someone else builds a house, and then a couple more stay, before long you have a village that grows to a town.

Obviously if this town can't be accessed by land, then the first settlers came by sea. There would have to be a good harbor. If the surrounding land was populated by hostile people at founding then an isolated section of ground would be attractive. A forest isn't good for keeping people out, but a swamp with plenty of quicksand, malaria, and other deterrents would work better. This isn't to say that no one could pass through it. People climb pretty high cliffs, and will brave some pretty nasty terrain to get where they are going, but you aren't going to easily get a road through it for trade.

A road probably isn't impossible, but a boat could still be a lot more attractive. See the Appian Way.


It is not only possible, there are plenty of historical examples of such cities in the world. In addition to the examples already provided, you can see the history of trade among the people of the Polynesian islands for examples of sea-based trade routes between cities.

Note that many cities are located on the banks of a river (London, Paris), at the seashore or edge of a bay (Boston, New York, Tokyo), or on the banks of a lake (Geneva, Chicago). Historically, even when roads were available, transporting goods via ships on the water was (and remains) more economical than transporting goods over land via roads.

From the 20th century onward, the advent of the standard shipping container has made large-scale sea-based trade vastly more efficient than other means of moving goods. Spend some time in a major shipping port and you get a sense of the scale of sea-based trade.


Do you need to build roads anywhere else to begin with?

One logical possibility for how such a city would develop is if a good natural harbor was found on an island where there's no real point in putting any intra-island roads in. It could be a logical place for ships to call in for supplies or shelter from storms, yet since all the trade would happen via sea, the residents would have very little reason to go further inland. Furthermore, there may not be much if any "inland" to build roads into to begin with in addition to the possibility that inland may be impassible due to steep terrain, asymmetric vulcanism, or other obstacles.


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