Get us in your inbox

Illustration of history podcasts
Image: Time Out

The 15 best history podcasts

From sassy takes on recent events to voyages into the far past, these podcasts take the mystery out of history

Andrzej Lukowski
Ella Doyle
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski
Contributor
Ella Doyle
Advertising

Despite its reputation, being a history buff isn’t all about reading books. And the sudden explosion of podcasts a few years ago opened up a whole new world, in which history became more accessible than ever (dare we say it, even cool). Now, there are a whole load of brilliant podcasts taking deep dives into every period of history you can think of – and they're literally the perfect entertainment for your next road trip.

That’s a lot of content, we know, so we’ve picked out the top 15 and ranked them, to give you an idea of the best podcasts to start with. This list is by no means exhaustive, of course, and it focuses on the history of English speaking countries, as well as some broader world history. There's everything from Black history to civil wars, but if what you’re looking for isn’t on here, we can guarantee you it’s probably out there. Ready to learn? Keep reading. 

RECOMMENDED:
🎧 The best podcasts to listen to in 2023
✊ The best political podcasts
💤 The best sleep podcasts
🔪 The best true crime podcasts
🎶 The best podcasts on Spotify
🏃 The best motivational podcasts

Fascinating history podcasts, ranked

‘Slow Burn’ takes deep dives into modern American history, from Watergate to the LA riots via the Iraq War and the killings of Biggie and Tupac. Created by Slate, episodes are hosted by varying presenters, and are typically encapsulating from beginning to end. Often, these are moments in history you already know about, but have never learned about in this much detail before. These seriously in-depth explainers will keep you hooked for an entire road trip, guaranteed. 

The BBC’s excellent bite-size journey through the history of the world initially ran through 2010 and probably wasn’t called a podcast, but it lives on in that form. Narrated by art historian Neil Macgregor - then director of the British museum - it does exactly what the title suggests, being a loosely chronological guide to human civilisation via stuff that we as a species have made, from primitive tools to world-famous pieces of art. The episodes are bang on 14-minutes each, but they’re impeccably well informed and moreover they add up to a genuinely symphonic whole that manages to capture something of the symphonic sweep of human civilisation.

Advertising

Nate DiMeo’s astoundingly long-running podcast - it’s been going since 2008! - is like history dispatched as a dreamy performance project. Appearing once or twice a month, each edition of ‘The Memory Palace’ sees DiMeo turn his drifting tones to what feels less like a history lesson than a memory of the distant past, dredged up and set loose to haunt your consciousness. The episodes have abstract names and DiMeo recommends you don’t find out the contents until you listen to them, and there’s even a randomiser button on the site to stress that that’s the ideal way to listen to them. Each episode is accompanied by an exquisitely chosen soundtrack, played in the background at a quietly atmospheric volume. 

This weighty but digestible podcast from the New York Times tackles the legacy of slavery in America and takes its name from the year that the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived in the nascent country. Hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, ‘1619’ advances through six punchy episodes to examine the impact on American culture of its Black population on everything from music to healthcare. It’s essential stuff to shape your understanding of how the very fabric of contemporary American culture is inextricably bound up in slavery.

Advertising

If you want to find a podcast on any of your favourite global conflicts, just do an online search and fill your boots: there are plenty. But this award-winning 2017 podcast on the US Civil War is really worth a listen - it’s ‘the stories left out of the official history of the Civil War’, and that’s pretty much the remit, not so much an attempt to reframe or recast the war, as put together a fascinating compendium of largely unknown stories relating to the war, and largely untaught in history. A relentlessly interesting, unfailingly high-quality show.

This excellent, funny, fiery Australian podcast presented by Marc Fennell is a guide to the history of the modern-day Commonwealth via exactly what the title says: stuff the British stole during imperial times. From the Parthenon Marbles to the Hottentot Venus, ‘Stuff the British Stole’ is alive to both the absurdity of imperial adventures and the burning injustice while also making a pretty good guide to some of the world’s key museum artefacts.

Advertising

Running weekly since 1998, the BBC’s heavyweight vehicle for presenter Melvyn Bragg isn’t quite as simple as a mere ‘history show’, although contained in its gargantuan vaults - coming up for 1000 episodes, all available to download - are plenty of more straightforward history-based editions. But in essence, ‘In Our Time’ is a reckoning with all the big ideas and philosophical concepts that have shaped humanity - if you want to understand the development of humanity, this is the (very long-running) show for you.

It may have only had seven episodes, but this terrific podcast from Dan Taberski and Pineapple Street Studios is a poignant and penetrating look at how a grim, almost incomprehensible terrorist atrocity on September 11, 2001 went on to become the grimly indelible cultural entity that is ‘9/11’. Episodes tackle everything from the rise of Islamophobia in its wake, to conspiracy theories about the day, to the difficulty faced by humorists in knowing how to talk about it. They’re all dispatched with tremendous humanity and insight.

Advertising

Love it or loathe it, no city looms larger in the global popular imagination than New York. And ‘The Bowery Boys’ is its great podcast. Like NYC itself, the show has humble origins: hosts Greg Young and Tom Meyers did their first show from Meyers’s Bowery apartment: an unresearched story about nearby Canal Street. It’s become vastly more professional in subsequent years - and long moved out of the Bowery - and that’s really a very good thing because it’s morphed into a truly wonderful show that finds a new, fascinating, often delightfully obscure facet of New York’s endlessly alluring story each week.

This podcast series is a spin-off from US television channel ESPN’s series of documentary films of the same name. But you don’t really need to know that! ‘30 for 30’ (the podcast) is an ongoing series of excellent sports documentaries. They’re relatively recent history, but history nonetheless, and always interesting. Where earlier series tended to focus on a different subject each week, later seasons have taken more of a joined-up approach: season five focussed on the downfall of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, while season seven dealt with the controversial Romanian gymnastic coaches Béla and Márta Karolyi.

Advertising

Definitely not one for everybody, US podcaster Carlin’s butchly philosophical, prodigiously long treatises on various cataclysmic world events - usually wars - are not something you just casually put on. Nonetheless, despite his aggressive dedication to blowing our minds, persuading us to rethink everything we thought we knew, he is a supreme storyteller and his shows - which often stretch to well over four hours in duration - are utterly gripping if you’re in the mood.

Though it wrapped up back in 2018, the three seasons of this NPR podcast are essential listening if you have even the slightest interest in the US Supreme Court and its edicts, which have profoundly shaped the country’s history. Although a lot of legal and constitutional scholars are inevitably featured, ‘More Perfect’ is far from a dry affair, and its episodes run the gamut from interesting individual cases to an explanation of how the Supreme Court became so damn supreme to a history of mansplaining (that is to say, unauthorised interruptions) in the court.

Advertising

Blurring the line between history and pop culture, journalist Sarah Marshall’s bimonthly-ish podcast is devoted to explaining why we are indeed wrong about things from the past - a broad remit that runs from distant historical figures like Catherine the Great to more recent phenomena like cancel culture or Tom Cruise’s infamous sofa interview. It’s all good fun, and despite the slightly didactic promise of the premise, you’ll learn plenty even if you had no strong opinion on the subject in the first place.

Brit historian Snow’s daily podcast is a sort of free-flowing greatest hits of history, bounding cheerily from one major event to the next as Snow’s whims take him: in a very literal sense he’s the sort of guy who will do a show about the legacy of the Mongolian empire one day, and another about the real Peaky Blinders the next. While the 20-ish minute episodes inevitably don’t always constitute the absolute last word on their subject, Snow is always engaging, and the slightly fly by the seat of the pants nature of the project means that he can respond with agility to world events - eg lots of stuff on Russia and Ukraine after the former invaded the latter.

Advertising

Greg Jenner’s BBC podcast ‘for those who don’t like history… and those that do’ is a hoot, a sly alternative sideways rummage through the nooks and crannies of history with a firm emphasis on the fun and the interesting. Broadly speaking it is divided into episodes focused on historical figures with outrageously colourful lives, and asking more niche questions of history – such as who invented high heels and how did they become popular? Whatever form an episode takes, it’s always good fun.

Recommended

    More on podcasts

      You may also like
      You may also like
      Advertising

      The best things in life are free.

      Get our free newsletter – it’s great.

      Loading animation
      Déjà vu! We already have this email. Try another?

      🙌 Awesome, you're subscribed!

      Thanks for subscribing! Look out for your first newsletter in your inbox soon!