Italy is one of Europe’s top tourist destinations. Art, history, food, and culture combine to create il bel paese, the beautiful country. The Italians spread their culture all over the world during the time of the Roman Empire, which lasted roughly 2,000 years. Along the way, they built many structures that still stand today. That means you don’t have to travel to Italy to find Roman ruins and monuments. France, England, Croatia, and Turkey are just a few of the other places you can find outstanding examples of Roman history and culture. Many are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites.
What qualifies a Roman ruin for a UNESCO designation? It must be a masterpiece of human creative genius, a unique example of Roman civilization, and an outstanding example of a type of construction that combined architectural and technical skills. In short, it must be an enduring example of the cultural heritage of the Roman Empire.
France has so many outstanding Roman monuments that I often wondered if I was in Italy!
1. Pont Du Gard, Languedoc
The Pont du Gard, a Roman bridge and aqueduct built in the first century A.D., was meant to transport water to the city of Nimes, referred to at the time as the Rome of France. Located in the Languedoc region of southern France, this magical bridge became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985.
The Pont du Gard is located in a 400-acre park where you can hike, kayak, picnic, or simply enjoy the natural and man-made beauty. You can also walk across the bridge from one side of the river to the other.
The Pont du Gard is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, welcoming 1,000,000 visitors per year.
2. Arles Amphitheatre, Arles
Arles is one of Provence’s most charming cities. Located on the Mediterranean, the city is perhaps best known as the former home of the artist Vincent van Gogh. Van Gogh was so inspired by the colors of Arles that he created 200 paintings during his time there.
As for Roman ruins, Arles has a stunning amphitheater right in the center of town. In its heyday, it seated 20,000 spectators for gladiatorial games. Today, the structure is a venue for bullfights and concerts.
Arles is also home to the ruins of thermal baths, though they have not been restored and can not be compared to those in Bath, England. Built in the fourth century, they were part of the palace home of Constantine, the first Christian emperor.
3. Ruins Of Vienne
A visit to Vienne will make you think you’re in Rome. Located on the Rhone River just south of the city of Lyon, Vienne is home to some of the most wonderful Roman ruins, which you will find spread throughout the city.
Vienne was an important Roman colony in 47 B.C. Located at the junction of the Rhone and Gere Rivers, Vienne served as a strategic outpost and a commercial crossroads.
Walking through the city center, you will come upon the Temple of Augustus and Livia. Built in 10 B.C., it was dedicated to the emperor Augustus following the death of Julius Caesar. After the fall of the Roman Empire, it became a church, which is probably why it was not torn down. Today it is surrounded by cafes and shops. The surprise of seeing this well-preserved temple was a highlight of my time in Vienne.
You’ll also find the remains of ancient ramparts and aqueducts and the Roman Circus, a track for chariot races. Rome’s version of this structure is known as the Circus Maximus. Vienne also has a Roman amphitheater that once seated 13,000 people. It was buried from the fourth century until 1922.
Pro Tip: The best place for a spectacular view of the city and the river is Mount Pipet.
In the later years of the empire, the Romans sought to expand even farther afield. The arrival of the Romans in Britain in A.D. 43 heralded the first written records of life on the island nation.
4. Ruins Of Bath
In the first century A.D., the Romans built a spa complex at the site that is now the city of Bath. The Romans named the site Aqua Sulis and dedicated it to the goddess Minerva. People came from afar to visit the baths and to worship the goddess of wisdom and healing. The thermal springs that bubbled up through the limestone attracted inhabitants even before the Romans arrived, and the springs continue to draw visitors today.
After the Romans departed, the site fell into disrepair and was later destroyed by floods. It wasn’t until 1878 that a geologist discovered the ruins and work began to uncover them. Today, the city of Bath is the only city in the United Kingdom designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.
5. Hadrian’s Wall
After vanquishing the resistance in what is now England, the Romans moved north to try to tame the barbarians in present-day Scotland. This proved to be much more problematic than they expected, so a wall was built to keep the Scots out. It was under the emperor Hadrian that the construction of the wall began.
When the wall was completed, it stretched 80 miles from coast to coast. Along the way, the Romans built forts, towers, milecastles, and turrets. Settlements developed around the wall’s forts, and people came to the area from as far away as Syria. At approximately the midpoint of the wall, there was a Roman fort called Housesteads; it is the best example of a Roman fort in Britain.
6. Diocletian’s Palace, Split
The city of Split on the Dalmatian Coast is home to the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace. Built at the turn of the fourth century, it was the home of the emperor Diocletian after his abdication. More of a huge fortress than a palace, the complex included a cellar, thermal baths, a mausoleum, a temple, and private apartments. There was also housing for the garrison. Today, the palace makes up a large part of the city, and many businesses and houses exist inside its walls.
Diolcletian’s Palace is considered one of the most important architectural and cultural features of the Dalmatian Coast and is the finest example of a complete Roman palace standing today. Season 4 of Game of Thrones was filmed there, as was a season of The Amazing Race.
7. Aspendos Theater, Aspendos
For a chance to experience a live music performance in an ancient Roman arena, you must travel to the city of Aspendos in southern Turkey. Built under the rule of Marcus Aurelius, the city’s theater is considered one of the best preserved in the world, though it is small (seating about 8,000) compared to the Colosseum in Rome (which seated 50,000 in its day) and the arena in Arles. Today, you can see a ballet or opera performance in the theater, which boasts excellent acoustics.
And if you still aren’t convinced that this theater is worth a trip to Turkey, consider the words of the archaeologist David George Hogarth, which I will paraphrase: You may feel burnt out by ancient ruins, but you haven’t seen the theater in Aspendos yet.
Roman ruins are also found in other countries, including Albania, Germany, Spain, Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, and Portugal. Whew! Those Romans were busy. Check out all of our ruins and archaeology content here.