Historical structures and preserving their cultural values are crucial issues for humanity, not only because of their link to important certain periods in the past, but also their unique architectural features. Although many historical structures continue to offer services while keeping their historical values, some of them are at high risk in seismic prone regions. Therefore, the understanding of their structural performance under strong ground motions has been of significant importance to the civil societies as well as engineering community. The structural systems of historical buildings, generally, consist of masonry walls or piers. The behavior of such walls is controlled by either deformation or force. Seismic performance evaluation of historical structures can be carried out within the framework of performance-based evaluation principles. This paper mainly discusses the basic principles to be considered in performance-based seismic evaluation of historical structures. Proposed seismic hazard levels, evaluation of existing seismic hazard, selection of earthquake ground motions as well as site geology, geological and tectonic settings of the area, seismic activity of the region and local soil conditions are needed for a thorough performance evaluation. Seismic performance evaluation of a clock tower located in eastern Turkey was accomplished based on the proposed principles. Copyright (c) 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.