The world is home to a plethora of fascinating ancient ruins, from crumbling cities to temples that have withstood the test of time. Many of these ancient societies were incredibly innovative and forward thinking. Just take a look at their meticulous city planning and incredible feats of engineering; some of which we are yet to fully understand. Some of the most captivating ancient ruins are full of thousand-year-old mysteries that will boggle even the most curious of minds.
Founded around the year 1350, Ayutthaya is a historical city that began as a Khmer military and trading post. It wasn’t long before this thriving trading port became the ancient capital of Thailand. It held onto this title for four centuries until it was burned down by Burmese invaders. As many of the temples and relics of the city were crafted from wood, the large majority were destroyed. Only around 50 stone relics and temples survived the fire and can still be seen today. Since renovations started in the 1970s, exploring Ayutthaya’s mix of Siamese, Sri Lankan and Khmer architecture has become a popular day trip from Bangkok.
Dotted along the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, England, Stonehenge is easily one of the mostrecognized ancient ruins in the world. Dating back over 5,000 years, these curious stone rings are some of the oldest stone structureson the planet. Created out of sandstone, they are ensconced in mystery. Who built them and why is still largely unknown. Two popular theories maintain that Stonehenge was used as a site for religious rituals orothe rwise to monitor the movements of the sun and moon. As you only need two hours to explore the ruins of Stonehenge, a day trip from London is often combined with a visit to Windsor or Bath.
Deep in the American Southwest, you’ll find Mesa Verde National Park with its fascinatingcollection of 600 ancient clifftop dwellings. The most famous of these dwellings is the Cliff Palace, built into an enormous sandstonealcove that’s protected it from the elements for over seven centuries. It’s the largest of its kind in North America and unlike the rest of the dwellings that contained just a few rooms for residential purposes, the palace had over 150 rooms and23 sacred kivas. Having been lived in for close to a century, these unusual cliff-side villages were suddenlyabandoned in the 13th-century.
Sigiriya is an ancient fortress carved into a 200 meter vertical rock face in Sri Lanka. On top of what is now known as Lion Rock are the fascinating remains of an ancient civilization, thought to be the capital of the kingdom of Kassapa. In its heyday, it included a citadel, a mirror wall with stunning colorful frescoes, anda gateway in the shape of a lion. After the king passed, the capital was abandoned and it was used as a Buddhist monastery. While the climb to the top of Sigiriya is certainly not for the faint-hearted, the views of the ramparts, terraced gardens and cave shrines will be worth the effort.
The ancient fortress of Masada is possibly one of the most impressive ruins on the planet. Perched on a cliff top overlooking the Judaean Desert and the Dead Sea in Israel, the site is hauntingly beautiful. Dating back over thousands of years, it was built as the palace of King Herod. It had modern creature comforts such as a bathhouse and even private swimming pools. More famously, the enormous fortification saw the last stand of the Jewish Revolt who chose death over a life of Roman slavery. Two pathways lead to the top and while grueling in the beating sun, the views are worth it!
The second-largest medieval city after Beijing, Hampi was one of the wealthiest in India. Once the thriving epicenter of the Karnata Empire with temples and imperial palaces,now only crumbling ruins remain. Founded in the 14th-century by two princes, the former capital began as a simple riversidereligious center. Highlights include the temple that served as the royal family’s personal place of worship, the House of Victory, the Vitthala Temple with its stone chariot and musicalpillars, and the main temple with its carvings of strange-looking sea creatures.
The eerie ruins of Pompeii can be found near the Italian city of Naples. When the iconic Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, it destroyed the Roman city in waves of lava and took the lives of over 2,000 residents along with it. The ancient city first discovered by accident beneath the volcanic rock in the 1950s is remarkably well preserved. However, it wasn’t until two decades later that it was properly excavated. You can walk down the streets of these ancient Roman ruins and imagine the town as it was in its heyday. There are the remains of stone houses, temples, bakeries, and even a brothel.
An hours’ drive from Cancun, the Tulum ruins are the remains of an ancient cliff top for tressbuilt by the Mayans. Walled on three sides with the fourth open to the Caribbean Sea, the views are simplyincredible. Even though it dates back to 564 AD, Tulum was at its prime during the 13th and 14thcenturies.It was a powerful trading hub for jade, cotton, and cacao beans. Apart from the El Castillo pyramid, the main attraction, have a look at the beautiful mural in side the Temple of the Frescoes and go for a swim at Tulum’s secret beach, surrounded by palm trees and sunbathing iguanas.
One of the most impressive Greek and Roman ruins on Earth, the ancient city of Ephesus can be found in western Turkey. Dating back over 2,000 years, it was once home to the famous Temple of Artemis. But what makes these ruins stand out is just how immersive they are. Unlike many other protected archaeological sites, you can touch, stand on and walk throughevery part of the city. Highlights include a series of ancient public toilets, the Library of Celsus and Hadrian’sTemple. It is also home to the 25,000-seater Great Theater of Ephesus, the largest outdoor theater in the ancient world.
The Ellora Caves are made up of a series of caves, monasteries and temples carved in to the side of a basalt cliff. Out of 100 caves, only 34 are open to the public. Located in Maharashtra, India, Ellora dates back to 600 AD and took Buddhist, Hindu and Jain monks over five centuries to craft. The highlight of the Ellora Caves is the Kailas a Temple. Dedicated to Lord Shiva, it is the largest monolithic sculpture in the world. Other worthy sights include the large preaching Buddha in the Carpenter’s Cave, so-calledbecause of the rock’s resemblance to polished wood.
The Terracotta Warriors are an impressive collection of thousands of life-sized soldiers and horses. Located in Xi’an, China, there are around 600 underground pits dating back to the 3rd-centuryBC.They were discovered by accident in the 1970s when locals were digging for a well point. While many remain unexcavated, three of these pits are open to the public and are enclosedwithin the Museum of the Terracotta Army. Apart from their sheer volume, what’s interesting about these clay soldiers is that every singleface is unique. They were hand-carved with individual features and took around 40 years of craftsmanshipin total.
One of the most famous archaeological sites on Earth, Chi chen Itza was once a thriving city on the Yucatan Peninsula. Built by the Mayans in 600 AD, it was abandoned in 1221 when Mayapan became the region’s new capital. Highlights include the Temple of Kukulkan, a giant stone pyramid with four stairwaysrepresenting a compass and 365 steps for each day of the year. It is best visited during the spring or fall equinox when the sun creates a light show on the stairs of the pyramid. Other must-see sites include the Ball Court, the Wall of Skulls, and the Sacred Cenote that was once a site of human sacrifice.
From its perch above the city of Athens, the Acropolis topped by the Parthenon can be seen from any corner of the city. First built and inhabited by Pericles in the 5th-century BC, the Acropolis was eventuallytransformed into a city of temples. These ancient structures were crafted out of bronze and marble, and some were even goldplated. Restorations are still ongoing so don’t be surprised to find scaffolding still inplace. Many of the original artefacts were relocated to the Acropolis Museum so this is worth a visit while you’re here.
The ancient city of Bagan is a captivating temple town in Myanmar. Once the capital of a powerful kingdom during the 11th and 13th centuries, it had over 10,000temples, monasteries, shrines, pagodas, and stupas in its zenith. In the years since, these sacred sites have fallen into ruin as a result of Mongol invasions, neglect and natural disasters. Just 2,000 temple ruins remain and are scattered over the horizon. While you can explore the Archaeological Zone on foot, the sheer volume of temples is bestappreciated from the air. A hot air balloon ride over Bagan is a worthy addition to the bucket list!
With its grey temple-tops protruding through the lush canopy of the Guatemalan jungle, catching a glimpse of the ruins of Tikal is something truly special. A popular day trip from Flores, these remote ruins are dotted with pyramids, temples and palaces. One of the biggest archaeological sites in Mesoamerica, Tikal was the largest and mostpowerful of the Mayan cities around 600 AD. Don’t miss the Temple of the Two Headed Snake while you’re here. As one of the tallest pre-Columbian structures in the Western Hemisphere, climbing to the top will treat you to incredible 360-degree views of the rainforest and beyond.