There is a certain mystique surrounding ancient ruins that never ceases to amaze tourists the world over. Millions of travelers visit centuries-old cliff dwellings in the American West, impressive Roman monuments overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and exquisite Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia every year, awestruck by the history and culture preserved in these sites. They’re left to wonder what life must have been like during antiquity. Although there is no shortage of these fascinating places worldwide, here are 10 ruins you need to see at least once in your lifetime.
1. Machu Picchu, Peru
Built during the height of the Inca Empire in the 15th century and subsequently abandoned after the Spanish conquest of South America, Machu Picchu still stands today as a lasting testament to Peru’s indigenous history and culture. One popular activity for visitors is hiking along the Inca Trail, which affords stunning views of the surrounding Andes mountains as well as numerous houses, temples, and aqueducts, all dating back more than five hundred years. The exquisite Temple of the Sun is one of the best-preserved examples of ancient Inca architecture, as is the nearby Temple of the Condor. A trip to Machu Picchu is therefore a must for anyone visiting Peru.
© Dan Merino
2. Cliff Dwellings at Mesa Verde National Park — Colorado
A flourishing outpost of the Pueblo Native American tribe from approximately 600 to 1300 AD, the ancient cliff dwellings at Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park are a stellar example of traditional Native American architecture in the Southwest. Tourists can meander through cliffside residences ranging in size from small storage sheds to expansive apartment complexes of 50, 100 and even 200 rooms. First-time and return visitors alike will be in awe when they see the diverse array of rock art intricately carved into the mesas towering above them. It is a historic site not to be missed.
© Ron Cogswell
3. Diocletian’s Palace — Split, Croatia
With its central location facing the harbor in Split, Croatia, Diocletian’s Palace is truly a masterpiece of fourth-century Roman architecture along the scenic Dalmatian Coast. Originally built as a military fortress and residence for the emperor Diocletian, the complex now houses a variety of charming shops, bars, and restaurants. Visitors should tour the historic Cathedral of St. Domnius, built around 311 AD as a mausoleum for Diocletian himself but later converted into its present use. The cathedral plays host to a stunning array of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque artwork, including The Flagellation of Christ, one of the most beautiful sculptures of its time in Dalmatia, along with portraits of Diocletian and his wife Prisca. It is nothing short of amazing.
© Carole Raddato
4. Temple of Borobudur — Java, Indonesia
Built by the Sailendra dynasty between 750 and 842 AD, the breathtaking Borobudur Temple in Java, Indonesia blends Indian and Javanese art forms while also highlighting a fantastic array of Hindu and Buddhist design elements. Visitors will be mesmerized by the 2,674-relief panels – many of which tell the Buddha’s life story – and 504-Buddha statues throughout the immense temple. The nearby Karmawibhangga archaeological museum fascinates tourists with its 4,000-original stones and carvings from Borobudur in addition to a stunning photographic display.
© Johan Wieland
5. Nan Madol, Micronesia
Situated off the coast of Pohnpei Island in eastern Micronesia, the ruins of Nan Madol are the only ones in the world built atop a coral reef. Built on a series of stone islets separated by canals, Nan Madol plays host to the remnants of stone palaces, temples, tombs, and residences built for the rulers of the Saudeleur dynasty between 1200 and 1500 AD. The centerpiece of this real-life Atlantis is Nan Dowas, a massive open-air complex whose stone walls surround a central enclosure. Many of the structures at Nan Madol appear to rise directly out of the surrounding Pacific Ocean, making this abandoned city on the reefs a definite must-see.
© Stefan Krasowski
6. Neolithic Monuments at Papa Westray — Orkney, Scotland
The small Scottish island of Papa Westray is home to a stunning array of prehistoric structures, many of which predate Stonehenge by several centuries and are thus the oldest remnants of any civilization in Britain. Built around 3700 BC, the Knap of Howar consists of two quasi-rectangular stone houses, complete with intact doorways and stone benches. Also on the island is the Holm of Papa Westray, an eccentrically designed multi-chambered burial monument with an exquisite collection of Neolithic rock art dating back over five millennia. It is a can’t-miss attraction.
© Mark Longair
7. Sukhothai Old City, Thailand
Thailand is rich in history and steeped in tradition, and nowhere is this more evident than in the old city of Sukhothai. A thriving metropolis from 1238 until its abandonment some three hundred years later, Sukhothai was the first capital of the Thai Empire and, not surprisingly, boasts an impressive display of ancient Thai architecture. The elaborate Wat Maha That temple consists of nine pagodas – the marvelous Grand Pagoda at its center and eight smaller ones surrounding it – designed to evoke the shape of a lotus flower, a common Thai motif. Another must-see attraction is Wat Sorasak, built in 1412 and renowned for its 24 exquisitely carved stone elephants along the exterior walls. It is not to be overlooked.
© Andrea Schaffer
8. Tikal, Guatemala
Situated amid the vast tropical rainforests of Guatemala, the five towering pyramids of Tikal from the centerpiece of a historic Mayan metropolis. The Temple of the Great Jaguar, built as a tomb for Mayan king Jasaw Chan K’awiil in the eighth century AD, towers over the surrounding countryside at an impressive 155-feet tall. This magnificent structure features nine levels, each ascending level smaller than the one directly below it. Even more impressive is Temple IV, which at a height of 212 feet was once the tallest structure in the Americas. Tikal also boasts a variety of stelae, intricately carved monoliths showcasing scenes from Mayan history. In short, Tikal is a must-see attraction.
© Francisco Chaves
9. Pompeii, Italy
Nestled in the hills of Campania in southern Italy, the ruins of ancient Pompeii are truly a sight to behold. Abandoned in 79 AD following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii was buried under volcanic ash, which remarkably helped to preserve the once-bustling city. Visitors can stroll down the Via dell’Abbondanza, the town’s main street, and meander through houses, temples, shops, and cafés dating back some 2,000 years. Notable sites include Villa dei Misteri, an exquisite 90-room villa, and the Macellum, an ancient farmer’s market whose surviving frescoes depict the goods sold therein. It is not to be missed.
© Victor R. Ruiz
10. Hierapolis, Turkey
Located near Pamukkale in southwestern Turkey, the ancient Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis was founded in 190 BC and remains popular with tourists even today. Visitors should enjoy a leisurely swim in the Sacred Pool, whose crystalline waters have been renowned since antiquity for their high mineral content and supposed healing properties. Other noteworthy attractions in Hierapolis include the Martyrium of St. Philip and the city’s archaeological museum, situated in a converted bathhouse and home to an impressive collection of sarcophagi, statues, and other artifacts. It surely is a must-see.
© Chris Parfitt
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Cover photo: © Mark Vuaran