11 Unexpected Places to See Roman Ruins

Roman ruins—outside of Rome—that have all of the beauty and history and less of the crowds.

Merida is an instantly likable city and easily reached from Madrid on a day trip. Life is slower in Extremadura; upon our stepping out of the car, palm trees were gently swaying in the breeze, and the pace of life on the streets felt just right—perhaps because the people live in a rich city with deep roots. Holding the oldest Roman ruins in Spain, Merida has the privilege of being a UNESCO World Heritage site, with an Aqueduct, Roman Bridge, Amphitheater, and a host of other locations. For 12 euros, you can buy a ticket that allows you to visit all the monument sites over a span of 3 days. Each year in summer, the Roman Theater is brought back to life with concerts, plays, and other galas; these events typically sell out, but are still relatively unknown to tourists. Discover Merida for yourself! Photo by Angel Felicisimo/Flickr.
Alemdar, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34110 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
A city as ancient as Istanbul has many layers of history, and you’ll have to go below the surface to see the Basilica Cistern, the largest of the underground cisterns. Built in the sixth century for the Byzantine emperor Justinian, the atmospheric reservoir is supported by 336 columns, many of which have been repurposed from other ruins over the centuries. The Medusa-head column bases are a favorite to photograph, along with the carp that swim silently in the dimly lit waters. The cistern is located between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and the best time to visit is simply whenever the line looks short, especially on a hot summer day—it’s always cooler underground.
Flavijevska ul., 52100, Pula, Croatia
The sixth-largest Roman amphitheater still standing today, the Pula Arena is Croatia’s most magnificent classical monument—and reason enough to check out Pula, Istria’s main city. Built in the 1st century C.E. during the rule of Emperor Vespasian, this oval-shaped stunner once hosted gladiator fights and could hold up to 23,000 spectators. Today, visitors can roam freely through the small underground chambers and enjoy the sweeping ocean views. During the summer months, the arena doubles as the most imposing stage in all of Croatia, hosting several concerts and film festivals.
Israel National Trail
Caesarea, the city and harbor that Herod built, is now preserved as a national park. A walk along its pathways allows visitors to experience the city’s role as part of ancient Rome and its days during the Crusades in the Byzantine era. Check out a concert at the partially restored amphitheater, or dive in Caesarea’s sunken harbor and underwater archaelogical park. Ancient ruins, including the remains of Herod’s palace, sit along the coastline. A state-of-the-art visitor center offers a historical perspective, complete with famous figures presented as hologram tour guides: King Herod, Rabbi Akiva, the Apostle Paul, and Hannah Senesh. Right outside the park’s boundaries, find a modern city with restaurants, cafés, and some eclectic galleries selling wine, cheese, olive oil, and jewelry—plus a lovely stretch of Mediterranean beach.
1 Rond-Point des Arènes
Long associated with Van Gogh, who produced hundreds of paintings there, the UNESCO World Heritage City of Arles on the Rhône River in Provence also has some of the finest Roman ruins in France. The well-preserved amphitheater is still utilized for bullfights today, and the partially restored Roman theater is also once again in use. Not far away, Les Baux looks like an unbelievable movie-set vision of a fortified hill town.
Emperor Hadrian built the most enduring monument of the Roman occupation of England around 122 C.E. to protect against Scottish invaders. Hadrian’s Wall spanned the country from west to east, and today the remaining sections are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visit them on a scenic drive through the countryside just outside of Newcastle upon Tyne, and stop at Chesters Roman Fort along the wall to see well-preserved bathhouses and officers’ quarters.
Porta-Nigra-Platz, 54290 Trier, Germany
Considered the largest Roman city gate north of the Alps, the Porta Nigra has been designated a World Heritage Site.
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