17 of the World’s Most Incredible Ancient Ruins

These UNESCO World Heritage sites in Lebanon, Scotland, and Ethiopia are all worth the trip.

A field with several moai sculptures on Easter Island

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

Photo by Skreidzeleu/Shutterstock

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 17 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.

The large (and largely intact) temple of Bacchus at Baalbek

The huge temple of Bacchus at Baalbek

Courtesy of Britannica

2. Baalbek, Lebanon

This UNESCO World Heritage site boasts an excellent array of Roman ruins. Three temples, including the largest built by Imperial Rome, were constructed over some 200 years. Dedicated to Venus, Bacchus, and Jupiter, they feature highly detailed carvings. The half dozen remaining columns of the huge temple of Jupiter stand some 70 feet high; the temple of Bacchus is largely intact; its Corinthian columns rise 60 feet from its stone base. A hexagonal courtyard leads to the main court (343 feet by 338 feet), with broken columns of pink granite quarried in Egypt. Baalbek is about 50 miles from Beirut. An annual Baalbeck International Festival offers music and theater each summer at the site.

A pyramid at Chichen Iytza, outside Playa del Carmen Mexico, dwarfs the visitors on the ground.

Chichén Itzá is near Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Photo by Irina Mos/Shutterstock

3. Chichén Itzá, Mexico

A brilliant work of architecture and astronomy, the Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá in Mexico 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

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney, Scotland: Eight vertical stones, part of a neolithic stone circle, against cloudy sky

Ring of Brodgar, Scotland: a stone circle that is part of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage site

Photo by Juris Kraulis/Shutterstock

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.

A row of bell-shaped wats (tamples) at Ayutthaya in Thailand

Several wats (temples) at Ayutthaya

Photo by FocusStocker/Shutterstock

5. Ayutthaya, Thailand

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

One of the largest tombs at Hegram at AlUla

One of the largest tombs at Hegra, which is in the AlUla area and is Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.

Courtesy of Experience AlUla

6. Hegra Archaeological Site, Saudi Arabia

Unlike its famed distant cousin Petra, ancient Hegra has only been open to visitors for the past three years. It is not yet swamped with tourists (Petra gets nearly 1 million a year). Hegra was an outpost of the Nabataean kingdom; it prospered from the 4th century B.C.E. until the 1st century C.E. The 100+ tombs carved into sandstone that remain show Greek, Egyptian, and Roman influences. Many are inscribed in Nabataean (a variety of Aramaic) with dire warnings that the gods will curse anyone who dares to disturb a burial place. The wells built here by Nabataeans are still used today. It became a UNESCO site in 2008, the first for Saudi Arabia. Visitors can fly into nearby AlUla.

Remains of stone walls on bare ground at Caral-Supe, with hills in background

Caral-Supe, the most ancient city in the Americas, is in Supe Valley, north of Lima, Peru

Photo by Shutterstock

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.

Exterior of the Kailasa temple, cave 16 in Ellora complex in Maharashtra, India; a few visitors shown, including three in red robes

Visitors are dwarfed by the Kailasa temple, cave 16 in the Ellora complex in Maharashtra, India.

Photo by Shutterstock

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.

Several of the tall, narrow stele of Aksum, famous obelisks in Ethiopia

Carved stele at Aksum, famous obelisks in Ethiopia

Photo by Shutterstock

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, aka steles. 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.

Two rows of pillars surrounded by magenta flowering trees at the archaeological site of ancient Olympia.

The archaeological site of ancient Olympia is where Olympic games began and where the Olympic torch today is ignited.

Photo by Georgios Kritsotakis/Shutterstock

10. Olympia, Greece

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.

Sand-colored ruins of a fortress-style building at Merv

Merv was once among the largest cities on the Silk Route.

Courtesy of TripAdvisor

11. Ancient Merv, Turkmenistan

The oldest of the oasis cities along Central Asia’s Silk Route, Merv was so prosperous that it boasted an icehouse (filled with winter snow). Its ruins cover four millennia, Bronze Age to medieval. Much of it, including a population estimated at 500,000, was destroyed by Tolui, a son of Genghis Kahn, in 1221. Five miles of walls once surrounded this city, complete with canals, libraries, and orchards. Besides fame for its steel, cotton, and melons, Merv was a cultural and scientific center. Omar Khayyam spent several years working at its observatory. Among the remains in this large archaeological park are a mosque, a Buddhist monastery, and several mausoleums. Travelers can fly to Mary, the nearest city, from the capital, Ashgabat.

Ruins of cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, Colorado, with a few visitors

Mesa Verde, Colorado

Photo by Jeffrey M. Frank_Shutterstock

12. 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.

Three Hindu temples in Java, Indonesia, dedicated to the Trimurti: the Creator (Brahma), the 
Preserver (Vishnu), and the Destroyer (Shiva)

At Prambanan temple compounds in Java, Indonesia, three of the largest temples are dedicated to the Trimurti: the Creator (Brahma), the Preserver (Vishnu), and the Destroyer (Shiva).

Photo by saiko3p/Shutterstock

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.

Underground doorways and windows in portion of the cave city of Derinkuyu in Cappadocia

Large wheels of stone were used to block doorways in the old underground city of Derinkuyu.

Photo by Nina Lishchuk/Shutterstock

14. Derinkuyu Underground City, Türkiye

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.

 The Grand Plaza with the North Acropolis and Temple I (Great Jaguar Temple) at Tikal, empty of visitors

The Grand Plaza with the North Acropolis and Temple I (Great Jaguar Temple) at Tikal

Photo by WitR/Shutterstock

15. 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.

Ruins at Volubilis, a partly excavated Roman city in Morocco, with two large buildings and many columns

Another place to view ruins of an ancient Roman city: Volubilis in Meknes, Morocco

Photo by Shutterstock

16. 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.

Closeup of giant carved heads of two pharaohs at Abu Simbel, Egypt

Abu Simbel, Egypt, is near the border with Sudan.

Photo by Shutterstock

17. 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

This article originally appeared online in 2021; it was most recently updated on August 25, 2023, to include current information.

Pat Tompkins has written for Afar about movies, books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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