Ruins to Remember: 10 Ancient Sites to Add to Your Bucket List
For tourists and history buffs, the great ruins of the world are not really ruined. Here are 10 ancient sites that are just as mesmerizing as when they were first erected.
1. Pompeii, Italy
Once an active and thriving cultural center of Rome, Pompeii’s light was extinguished in 79 A.D. when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the city and other surrounding towns in thick layers of stone, ash and volcanic gas. Today, tourists can walk the stone streets of Pompeii to get a first-hand look at how its citizens lived and died. They can even see the ash-covered petrified bodies of the citizens who could not escape the volcano's wrath. Although Pompeii is often crowded, its lesser-visited sister-city Herculaneum nearby is also worth a visit for its elegantly restored villas and the beautiful frescos painted within them. The Villa of the Faun in Pompeii also has some erotic wall paintings that show you how hedonistic Romans lived in toga days.
2. Aphrodisias, Turkey
If you’re looking for love among the ruins, you’ve come to the right place. These newly uncovered ruins were named after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. The once thriving city fell under disrepair after a seventh-century earthquake destroyed most of the buildings. Visitors to Aphrodisias should be sure to witness the Temple of Aphrodite, the Odeon, which was used as a theater, and the stadium, which housed as many as 30,000 spectators.
3. Hue, Vietnam
Once the seat of the Nguyen Dynasty, Hue is a city in ruins for reasons much more recent than many others on this list. During the Vietnam War, the city was abandoned after repeated bombardment. However, as recently as 2012, Hue received 2.4 million visitors, of which a third were foreign. An excursion to Hue offers the chance to see artifacts of imperial rule as well as examples of damage from modern warfare. The proximity of Perfume River nearby makes it an easy stop on local cruises, and the thriving town close to the ruins is chockablock with pho noodle shops and coffee houses.
4. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The Khmer-era temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world and spreads out over 402 acres. The temple, built in the early 12th century, is near the Cambodian city of Siem Riep. Visitors can fly into the small airport there from both Phomn Penh in Cambodia and from Chaing Mai in Thailand. Knowledgeable guides are a good idea, especially if you plan to wander the grounds beyond the main complex, where you'll find stone sculptures split and overgrown by dense foliage. In the 1990s, many of the outlying sculptures were plundered by art thieves, but enough remains to make this an experience unlike any other.
5. The Roman Colosseum, Italy
Built in 72 A.D., the Colosseum no longer hosts gladiators, animal fights and sea battles, but it's still a sight to behold. Although a massive restoration project is underway, you can still walk around the periphery and see an exhibit inside on the places that the gladiators and animals and other unfortunates were kept before the performances. For a few euro, you can get your picture taken with the strolling gladiator models who stand in full costume in the street in front of the complex.
6. The Istanbul Basilica Cistern, Turkey
The Byzantine Empire left traces of its glory in Turkey, Italy and other parts of Europe, but one of the most stunning ruins from this era lies beneath the streets of Istanbul. Visitors enter from street level and walk down into a world of ancient columns and the famous Medusa heads (one upside down and one on its side) that were taken from other buildings and used to prop up columns inside the cistern. The ancient water source was opened to the public in 1987 and is currently undergoing extensive renovation (but is still open for visitors), which will be finished in March of 2018. Concerts are sometimes held here, and the acoustics of the underground ruin and the moody atmosphere of the place make it a remarkable experience not to be missed.
7. Pentre Ifan, Wales
It is said that the stones that make up Stonehenge were brought to England somehow from the Preseli Hills in Wales. Near the Hills lies another neolithic monument: Pentre Ifan. Unlike Stonehenge, these lesser-known stones are open to the public to walk around, under and inside. It was said that the ancient Druid cults of Wales had their initiation rites inside and that adherents who spent time within the stones received special powers from Cerridwin, the Welsh goddess of rebirth and transformation. Tourists should also visit the nearby Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, which goes for miles along beautiful coastline.
8. Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
The Mayans built extensively in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, and the UNESCO-protected area of Chichen Itza is one of the most-visited and photographed Mayan complexes in Latin America. Visitors concentrate mainly on the northern group of ruins, which includes the Great Ball Court, the Temple of Kukulkan -- the famed step pyramid -- and the Temple of the Warriors. Visitors can also walk to a nearby site that includes an underground entryway (a cenote) where victims were thrown as sacrifices to the Mayan gods of the underworld.
9. Volubilis, Morocco
Not all great Roman ruins are in Rome -- or even in Italy. The Roman Empire stretched so far that there are Roman ruins as far as Bath, England, and Romania. One of the most distant Roman ruin complexes is in Morocco in North Africa. Within driving distance from the city of Fes, the ruin complex of Volubilis sits on a wide, expansive plain with surrounding desert views, visible through the intact triumphal arches. The nearby city of Meknes, with its Berber architecture, is also worth a visit.
10. Petra, Jordan
The remains of the B.C. 312-era Nabatean city of Raqmu, this stone complex hewn from rose-colored rock (it's also known as the “Rose City”) is most famous for its structure called the Treasury. This building is the most architecturally sophisticated in the area, though there's actually nowhere to go inside the building, as it’s remarkably shallow. Tourists used to be able to ride on horseback into the entrance to the Treasury, but because of concerns for the site's preservation, you can only walk through.
Michael Alpiner is a columnist at Forbes.com, co-editor of the website, ExtremeLuxuryGetaways.com, and a contributor to New York Lifestyles Magazine. Michael is also a writing professor at Touro College in New York.