In terms of historical sites, nothing quite beats exploring lost, abandoned and ruined ancient cities. Among the most popular of these historic cities to visit are Pompeii, Chichen Itza and Angkor Wat. Other popular sites tend to include Machu Picchu, Teotihuacan and Carthage.
From the remains of the ancient city of Babylon to lost Roman metropolises, Mayan centres and Egyptian mega-towns, the ancient cities of the world are as varied as they are numerous.
Our ancient cities guide will help you plan your very own ancient city tour and explore the world’s best ancient places. So whether you’re seeking ancient cities in Europe, South America or anywhere across the globe, our ancient city guide will help you get exploring.
What are the most popular ancient cities to visit?
Angkor Wat is an enormous 12th century temple complex in Cambodia and the best preserved of its kind. Incredibly grand and ornately decorated, Angkor Wat’s sand-coloured buildings rise up to form five towers, representing the home of the Hindu deities. Friezes and sculptures are found throughout, depicting both day-to-day life from the time it was built and religious events.
Today Angkor Wat is one of Cambodia’s most popular tourist sites. There is an incredible amount to see and it’s a good (although relatively expensive) idea to get a licensed tour guide. Angkor Wat has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992.
Machu Picchu is an extraordinary ancient stone city along the Inca Trail in Peru and forms one of the most famous historical sites in the world. Believed to have been constructed by the Inca Yupanqui people sometime during the mid-fifteenth century, the ruins of Machu Picchu sit high atop a granite mountain. Some of the most impressive structures include the semi-circular Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, the mausoleum and the upper cemetery.
Machu Picchu’s agricultural section, with its terraces and granaries, is also an important aspect of the site demonstrating the advanced agricultural methods employed by the Inca people. The main Machu Picchu city is surrounded by other sites forming the Inca Trail and some of which take some serious hiking, but are well worth it. It’s also a good idea to stop at the Museo de Sitio Manuel Chávez Ballón at the base of the mountain.
Ephesus is a treasure trove for enthusiasts of Ancient Roman and Greek history, allowing them to walk through its streets and view its magnificent houses, community buildings, temples and stadiums. Some of the most impressive sites include the Library of Celsus, the ruins of which stand two storeys high, the Temple of Hadrian which was built in 118 AD, the classical theatre where it is believed Saint Paul preached to the Pagans and the Cave of the Seven Sleepers, so called because legend has it that the Romans locked seven Christian boys there in 250 AD, who only awoke in the 5th century.
A trip to Ephesus usually takes at least half a day – some tours include other local sites such as Priene and Miletus – but history enthusiasts will probably want to enjoy this site for a whole day. There is also a great Ephesus Museum displaying artifacts found in the old city.
Abu Simbel is an archaeological site in Egypt housing a series of incredible Ancient Egyptian monuments, especially a number of rock temples. The most famous sites at Abu Simbel are the two Temples of Ramesses II. The site was rediscovered in 1813. One of the most startling sights at Abu Simbel is the main hall of the Great Temple. This was also cut into the sandstone and along the hand hewn length are two rows of Osirid statues of Ramses, each one 30 feet high. Incredibly, the temples at Abu Simbel were once located elsewhere, but were moved – with the help of UNESCO – to their current location in order to protect them from flooding. The place they once stood is now under water.
Teotihuacan was a holy Mesoamerican city built in around 400 BC in what is now Mexico and forms one of the country’s oldest archeological sites. Characterised by looming stepped pyramids, indeed one of the most impressive aspects of Teotihuacan is the sheer size of these monuments, including the Pyramid of the Sun, which measures 225 by 222 metres at its base, rising 75 metres high. Incredibly well-preserved, despite a fire which tore through Teotihuacan in the 7th century, Teotihuacan is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Visitors to Teotihuacan can manouver their way through the city via its original streets, such as Avenue of the Dead, which divided the city into quarters, although take note that the site is absolutely enormous. Today, Teotihuacan is one of the most popular tourist sites in Mexico and includes numerous museums, including the Museo del Sitio, just south of the Pyramid of the Sun where visitors can see various artefacts from the site.
Jerash is one of the world’s best preserved ancient Roman sites. Today, tourists flock to see Jerash’s extensive and impressive ruins, including the Temple of Artemis and the Forum with its large ionic columns. Jerash’s original main street, the Cardo, runs through the centre of the site and, with its visible chariot marks and underground drainage system, is fascinating in its own right. Other must-see aspects of Jerash include its still-functioning 3,000 seat South Theatre built between 90-92AD during the reign of Emperor Domitian, its second century AD North Theatre and its Nymphaeum fountain. Visitors can also see many of the artefacts found during the excavation of this site at the Jerash Archeological Museum.
Monte Alban in Mexico is an impressive ancient site created by an incredible feat which involved carving a flat space out of a mountain rising to an elevation of over 1,600 feet above the valley below it. The site is characterised by over 2,200 terraces as well as numerous pyramid structures, large staircases, ornate palaces, elaborate tombs and even a ball court known as Juego de Pelota, mostly arranged on its “Grand Plaza”. The ball court is very well-preserved, made up of two facing stepped platforms with the playing field in the centre. The ball games played were ritualistic and often ended in the death of the losers. Today, Monte Alban is a popular tourist destination and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It has a small on-site museum showing some of the finds from excavations of Monte Alban.
Pergamum is a famous archaeological site in Turkey which developed under the Attalid dynasty following the death of Alexander the Great. The historic ruins of Pergamum are split into three main areas. In the Acropolis, one can find sites such as its library, gymnasium, very steep theatre and arsenal as well as the Roman Temple of Trajan. This was also once the site of the incredible Altar of Pergamum, now controversially located in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Now only its base remains at Pergamum. The other two areas of Pergamum are its lower city and its stunning health centre or Asclepion, where a variety of treatments were offered, such as mud baths. Pergamum has a small archaeological museum, with some of the finds excavated from the site.
Carthage was one of the most powerful cities of the ancient world and spawned the powerful Carthaginian Empire which dominated much of the western Mediterranean. The ruins of this famed city can be found on the outskirts of modern day Tunis.
The best way to begin exploring these ruins is probably by visiting Byrsa Hill and the Carthage Museum. The museum hosts a collection of Carthaginian and Roman artefacts including marble sarcophagi and a model of Punic Carthage. Other key points of interest include the impressive Antonine Baths, the Roman Amphitheater, Roman villas and reconstructed Roman theatre of Carthage. Among the best preserved Punic remains are the Magon Quarter, Punic Port and unnerving Sanctuary of Tophet.
Stunningly well-preserved and imposingly beautiful, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s most impressive historical sites. A UNESCO World Heritage site based in the forests of the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is actually made up of two cities built by two peoples, the Mayas and the Toltecs.
The site is made up of several surviving buildings including a circular observatory known as El Caracol, the Warriors’ Temple and El Castillo. Accounts vary as to the date of the first settlement at Chichen Itza, placing it between the 6th and 9th century AD when the Mayas built the original city including “The Building of the Nuns” and a church.