The world is filled with amazing things to see – both natural and man-made. There are so many great historical sites built by ancient civilizations it is sometimes hard to just narrow it down to a few. Think of all the historical wonders lists out there and how different they are sometimes. Everyone has their own list, including me. Below are the sites I find best, think give a great look at human history and civilization, and think every traveler should try to visit at some point. These are places so great that flocks of people fly from all corners of the world to see them each year. Yes you might have to put up with crowds but the story these ruins tell is part of our humanities story and that is why I love them the best:
Located in southern Peru, this fascinating city lies on top of a mountain that’s only accessible by train or 4-day trek. It was an important cultural center for the Inca civilization, but was abandoned when the Spanish came. It is famously referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas.” The location was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. It was also named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Concerns over growing numbers of tourists have led to limitations on how many people can enter the site, though only by a fraction of what is necessary. Hopefully they will limit it even more so this site lasts for hundreds of years more.
Read more about hiking the Inca trail.
This Mayan city-state is one of the largest and best-preserved ruins of the civilization, and was a dominant force in the Mayan world. Located in Guatemala, this place lets you experience your inner-Indy early in the morning or late at night when the tourists go home and it’s just you and the jungle. It was very serene and one of the best travel memories I have. I particularly enjoyed seeing the sunrise from atop the temples. It’s a wonderful place to explore, deserves at least two days, and is easily accessible from neighboring Belize. (Random trivia: The city at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope? Tikal!)
The Pyramids at Giza
Over 3,000 years old, and we still don’t have a good idea as to how they were built or how the Egyptians got them so precise. The Pyramids align to the stars and the solstices and contain vast chambers we still haven’t opened. I mean what do those little chambers where people can’t even crawl through mean? How did they even build them?! Aliens? They are truly a marvel of human engineering that was fit for kings. The largest one, called the Great Pyramid, was built by the Pharaoh Khufu and has limited access to it. You will also find the Sphinx in this area, another historical site that baffles researchers with its mysteries and is the subject of many conspiracy theories. Due to the Egypt revolution in 2011, tourism is drastically down though the revolution is over. If you ever wanted a time to have the pyramids to yourself, now is the time to visit.
This ancient city in Cambodia was the center of the Khmer empire that once ruled most of Southeast Asia. This empire went extinct, but not before building amazing temples and buildings that were reclaimed by the jungle for hundreds of years. Though Angkor Wat is packed with tourists, it’s still breathtaking to see. And the temple regions to the north and south see far fewer tourists than the main temple group. (Though admittedly, some of them are simply piles of stone rubble now.) The best time to visit is early in the morning before the tour groups arrive and stay late. The most popular temples are Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Phrom, and Angkor Thom and they always have crowds. In order to really experience the temples, you’ll need to purchase the three- or five-day pass.
Carved into a canyon in Arabah, Jordan, Petra was made famous by the third Indiana Jones film when he went to find the Holy Grail. Since then, everyone goes to look for it. It was “discovered” in 1812 by a Swiss explorer who followed some local tribesmen there. Prior to that, it had been forgotten to the Western world. Though its founding is not known, it appears this place had settlers as early as the 6th century B.C. Under Roman rule, the site declined rapidly and was abandoned by the late 4th century. In 1985, Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is now one of the coolest and biggest attractions in the world.
Located near Salisbury, England, this megalithic structure is over 3,000 years old, and its stones come all the way from Wales. Scholars still are not sure how the builders got the stones from Wales, and have tried to replicate the feat with dismal results. Stonehenge is now fenced off, and you can no longer go into the circle. Visitors can only walk around the attraction. But it’s worth visiting for the mystery behind it and the really good audio tour.
The Colosseum and the Forum are right next to each other in Rome, so I included them together. Remnants of a civilization that once controlled the “known” world, these sites are breathtaking not only for their beauty but also for their history and age. You’re standing in the spot Caesar walked and gazing into the arena where gladiators battled to the death. The Colosseum has slowly crumbled throughout the ages and much of it is restricted now, especially the floor and basement where everything was organized. The Forum is great to walk around (and it’s free!!), though a ticket is required for Palatine Hill. I would definitely get a guided tour because the information presented by the authorities doesn’t go into much depth.
Check out my walking tour of Rome on how best to see all the sites in Rome.
Though currently getting a face-lift (and seemingly has been forever), the Parthenon is still amazing and breathtaking. The ancient temple to Athena stands as a symbol of the power of Athens and a testament to Greek civilization. Moreover, it provides a great view of Athens and nearby ruins. The surrounding ruins, temples, and buildings are equally as wondrous. Built in the 5th century B.C., the temple used to house the treasury. Over the centuries, much of it and the surrounding structures have been destroyed by war and thieves. Luckily, the structure still stands… at least for now. Note that there is scaffolding along the right side of the structure and considering it has been there for over 5 years, I doubt it is going anywhere anytime soon. They do things slowly in Greece.
Located out in the Pacific Ocean and a special territory of Chile, Easter Island holds Moai statues that are the only thing left of a culture that once lived here. These gigantic and amazingly carved heads are just another reminder that primitive people are not really all that primitive. The stones that attract visitors to this island are made out of volcanic ash. Many still remain in the quarry, left by the settlers as diminishing resources on the island left their tribes doomed to war that finally killed them off.
Built in the 1600s, this building is a testament to undying love. Located in Agra, India, this white marble tomb built for Emperor Shah Jahan’s deceased wife is a must-see for everyone. In 1983, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Taj sees between two and four million tourists annually. There have been recent restrictions on tourism in an effort to help protect the site. However, the greatest threat to the site is the air pollution that is destroying the white marble the building is constructed of. It too was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
The world has many amazing historical sites and even if you don’t make it to these, there are plenty more out there worth seeing. The more you know about the past, the more you can understand why people act the way they do in the present.
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