Home>Travel inspiration>Art + Culture>World Heritage

15 Incredible Ancient Ruins Around the World to Visit

By Pat Tompkins

Apr 8, 2021

share this article
flipboard
Moai, huge carved stone figures, dominate the landscape of Easter Island.

Photo by Skreidzeleu/Shutterstock

Moai, huge carved stone figures, dominate the landscape of Easter Island.

All are UNESCO World Heritage sites, so you know they’re special.

share this article
flipboard

Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, Pompeii, Angkor Wat, the Acropolis: Even if you’ve never visited these famous ancient ruins, you know about them. And if you have visited them, you know they’re also usually crowded, as “must-see” places often are. You’re beside the Parthenon trying to imagine it painted in bright colors, as it was originally, while dodging tour groups led by flag-waving guides shouting facts.

Although they are well worth visiting, here are 15 other trip-worthy ancient ruins, including several that may be new to you.

1. Rapa Nui National Park, Easter Island

Moai, huge carved stone figures, dominate the landscape here. These haunting statues, depicting ancestors of the Rapa Nui people, vary in height from 6 feet to 60 and were erected during the 10th to the 16th centuries. To see them, you’ll need to travel to the most remote inhabited island on Earth. That isolation led to distinctive artistic traditions, which include petroglyphs in stone houses and caves. Covering 40 percent of the island, the park contains hundreds of statues.

2. Volubilis, Morocco

This 5,000-year-old city in North Africa was founded by the Berbers and later became a distant outpost of the Roman empire. It was occupied for 10 centuries and various cultures mingled here, including Islamic and Christian. Given their isolation, climate, and long abandonment, the ancient ruins—including an aqueduct, thermal baths, and a triumphal arch—are in good shape, despite earthquake damage. Especially noteworthy: the mosaic floors in the House of Orpheus, the biggest of the excavated residences.

3. Chichén Itzá, Mexico

A brilliant work of architecture and astronomy, the Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá is so precisely engineered that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun casts shadows that slither like snakes and seem to descend its stairways. Said to represent the plumed-serpent deity Kukulkán, the shadows return twice yearly to drink from sacred sinkholes known as cenotes.

Today the phenomenon attracts thousands to the already crowded archaeological site, but almost-identical light-play can be seen the day before, with a fraction of the visitors. Other attractions: a circular observatory, the Great Ball Court, and the Jaguar Temple.—Susannah Rigg, AFAR Local Expert

 4. Heart of Neolithic Orkney, Scotland

Scotland’s Orkney Islands are rich in relicts depicting life 5,000 years ago. You’ll find the Stones of Stenness, Maeshowe, Skara Brae, and the Ring of Brodgar—four monuments known as the Heart of Neolithic Orkney—on the archipelago’s largest island, Mainland. These late Stone Age remnants are well preserved, due in part to their location. Older than Stonehenge and far less visited, the dwellings of Skara Brae have been called the “Scottish Pompeii.” Stenness, an early henge monument, resembles a modern sculpture installation; Maeshowe is a chambered mound tomb (sporting Viking graffiti), and Brodgar’s large stone circle has 27 of the original megaliths still standing.

Photo by FocusStocker/Shutterstock

5. Ayutthaya, Thailand

Article continues below advertisement

While you’re in Thailand, escape the colorful chaos of Bangkok and head for the historic capital of Ayutthaya, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Ayutthaya is a ghostly city of striking ruins and entangled wats, or temples, and prang (reliquary towers). Brightly colored offerings contrast with the aging stones and brick. King Ramathibodi founded Ayutthaya in 1350; located at the head of the Gulf of Siam, it was a trading center, with palaces and monasteries, one of the world’s largest cities in its heyday. Ayutthaya was the capital of the Siamese kingdom until its destruction by the Burmese army in 1767. Bronwen Gregory, AFAR Local Expert

6. Petra, Jordan

Petra flourished more than 2,000 years ago, trading with Rome as an equal before being abandoned after earthquakes in the 4th and 6th centuries C.E. Now, visitors can walk down the long, narrow canyon of the siq to the city entrance—as dramatic an approach as any to a tourist attraction. The canyon opens onto the carved facade of the Treasury, Petra’s most iconic site. From there, you can explore cliffside tombs, the Street of Facades, and an amphitheater hewn from living rock. The splendid old Monastery sits atop a steep but rewarding climb. Consider buying a three-day ticket and visiting at different times to enjoy the changing light. Paul Clammer, AFAR Local Expert

7. City of Caral-Supe, Peru

The UNESCO World Heritage site designation is essentially a reliable stamp of approval that means “visit here.” The ancient ruins of the sacred city of Caral-Supe, the oldest civilization center in the Americas, is one such site. Dating back more than 5,000 years, it is located in a desert near the Supe River, north of Lima. Its 150 acres feature sunken circular plazas, a tall temple, and earth-and-stone dwellings—impressive architecture for a people who did not make ceramic pots. Peruvian archaeologist Ruth Shady Sidal began excavations in 1994, and they’re making ongoing discoveries. Carla-Supe’s weather-worn pyramids were built before the famous Egyptian pyramids. 

8. Ellora Caves, India

Nearly three dozen caves/temples were carved out of cliffsides during the 6th to 10th centuries. The basalt rock-cut structures showcase Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain cultures. Elaborate Hindu “cave” 16, a freestanding temple hewn from solid rock, is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is twice the size of the Parthenon. The caves are 50 miles from the more famous Ajanta Caves. You might want to visit during the annual Ellora Festival of classical dance and music.

9. Aksum, Ethiopia

Back when the Roman empire was powerful, the Kingdom of Aksum thrived in northern Ethiopia for some 10 centuries. The remains of this international trading center include palace ruins, royal tombs, and carved obelisks. The tallest obelisk still standing is carved to resemble a building and rises more than 60 feet. As with the Acropolis and other historical ruins looted by various conquerors, in the case of Aksum, Italian soldiers took an obelisk 1937 during their occupation of Ethiopia; it was returned in this century. Other valuable remnants: stone tablets with trilingual inscriptions in Greek, Sabena, and what was then the local language, Ge’ez.

10. Olympia, Greece

Article continues below advertisement

Although much is gone among the ruins of this sanctuary—including a gold and ivory statue that was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world—the serene setting survives. Today we associate Olympia with sports, but it began as a religious center. The Olympic Games, held every four years starting in 776 B.C.E. for over 1,000 years, were part of a festival for Zeus. Romans and earthquakes later did considerable damage to the site. More columns remain standing at the gymnasium than at the large temples for Hera and Zeus.

11. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

These numerous Ancestral Pueblo Indian dwellings include hundreds of cliff dwellings, at an altitude of 8,530 feet, the remains of a culture that lived here nearly 900 years. Even before the National Park Service began, the federal government protected this area, the first archaeological site anywhere to gain this recognition. Don’t miss the daily ranger-assisted tour of the Cliff Palace, which features 150 rooms and 23 kivas, or the more in-depth tour of the Long House. (Be ready to climb a few ladders.) When planning your visit, note that winter weather closes the cliff dwellings and the park lodge is open from May into October.

12. Derinkuyu Underground City, Turkey

There’s more to see in Cappadocia than what you can view from its iconic hot air balloon rides. Derinkuyu is the largest of two subterranean cities in Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia—an otherworldly landscape of hoodoos, fairy chimneys, and troglodyte villages. The Byzantine city housed up to 20,000 people on multiple levels, descending 18 stories underground, complete with ventilation shafts and ways to obtain water. It provided refuge during sieges. Thick stone wheels served as doors to block intruders. And miles-long tunnels link Derinkuyu to other underground settlements.

13. Prambanan Temple Compounds, Indonesia

These hundreds of Hindu and Buddhist temples on Java date from the 9th century. Earthquakes (as recently as 2006) and volcanic eruptions have damaged the site over the centuries; the small temples have mostly collapsed. The tallest temples are dedicated to Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva; bas-relief panels recounting the Hindu epic poem Ramayana decorate them. From May through October, the Ramayana Ballet performs the story outdoors at the temple compounds, aka Candi Rara Jonggrang.

14. Tikal, Guatemala

Surrounded by jungle are the dramatic remains of this Mayan site, inhabited for some 1,500 years. The ancient capital city may have had 90,000 residents at its peak. Its most famous features—large temples—number over two dozen, in the shape of stepped pyramids, some among the tallest pre-Columbian structures in the Americas. Yes, you can climb the many steps for spectacular views, and because of Tikal’s remote location, you won’t feel like you’re in Times Square. In recent years, sophisticated LiDAR technology indicates that Tikal was part of a vast metropolis. More discoveries await.

15. Abu Simbel, Egypt

The impressive Great Pyramids of Giza rightfully earn their wonder of the world title. But then there’s Abu Simbel. The site has personality. Ramses II is present at every turn, as is his wife Nefertari. Four giant likenesses are carved into sandstone walls and look out over Lake Nasser. Inside, it’s pure Indiana Jones and archaeology with magnificent hieroglyphics and rows and rows of columns at every turn. The temple is dedicated to sun gods; twice a year, the sun’s rays travel 185 feet to fully illuminate the interior. Travel here is from Aswan in a caravan that leaves at dawn. Make arrangements from your hotel for the trip and be glad you decided to pay respects. Kristin Zibell, AFAR Local Expert

Article continues below advertisement

Sign up for the Daily Wander newsletter for expert travel inspiration and tips

Please enter a valid email address.

Read our privacy policy