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MusicThe 16 best history podcasts right now

The 16 best history podcasts right now

The modern world is a brilliant thing. Even your one-hour commute to work can be a learning opportunity, whether you fancy deep-diving into the dark ages or seeing if you remember the order of Henry VIII’s wives. 

For that, dear friends, all you need is a history podcast. And luckily, there’s absolutely loads of them out there. After all, being a history buff is no longer just about reading books. For everything from Black history to civil wars, here are our favourite history podcasts right now. 

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Top history podcasts, ranked

The Rest Is History

Photograph: Apple Podcasts

1. The Rest Is History

As far removed from the dusty Kings and Queens-style classroom lecturing as you can get, fun history dads Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook quietly cram your brain with knowledge in the most entertaining way possible. Tackling everything from the rise of the Nazis (obvs), to the history of the World Cup, to the story of booze, the duo combine total command of their subjects with much enjoyable silliness and some terrible impressions. Never, in the history of podcasts, has anyone done a worst Churchill.Phil de SemlyenGlobal film editor

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1619

Photograph: The New York Times

2. 1619

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.Rosie HewitsonNewsletter and Events Editor, Time Out London

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Slow Burn

Photograph: Slate Podcasts

3. Slow Burn

‘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. 

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In Our Time

Photograph: BBC

4. In Our Time

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.

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The History of the World in 100 Objects

Photograph: BBC

5. The History of the World in 100 Objects

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.

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The Memory Palace

Photograph: Radiotopia

6. The Memory Palace

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. 

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You’re Dead to Me

Photograph: BBC

7. You’re Dead to Me

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.

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Uncivil

Photograph: Gimlet Media

8. Uncivil

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.

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9/12

Photograph: Pineapple Street Studios

9. 9/12

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.

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You’re Wrong About

Photograph: You’re Wrong About

10. You’re Wrong About

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.

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Stuff the British Stole

Photograph: ABC Radio

11. Stuff the British Stole

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.

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30 for 30

Photograph: ESPNRadio

12. 30 for 30

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.

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Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

Photograph: Dan Carlin

13. Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

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.

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More Perfect

Photograph: WNYC Studios

14. More Perfect

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.

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Dan Snow’s History Hit

Photograph: History Hit

15. Dan Snow’s History Hit

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.

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The Bowery Boys

Photograph: Tim Meyers, Greg Young

16. The Bowery Boys

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.

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