When thinking about amazing civilizations that have come and gone, or those modern cities that have been built alongside the ancient ones — Rome, Athens, Istanbul, and Cairo for starters — I realize this list is woefully incomplete. So, let this be an introduction to archeological sites to put on a bucket list, knowing that except for Antarctica, every continent has its share of ancient places to visit.
Note: I recently visited Flagstaff, Arizona, on a press trip. All opinions are my own.
Here are the 13 ancient cities I’ve visited and recommend, arranged geographically:
1. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado
With the recent discovery of fossilized footsteps found in New Mexico, the first Americans roamed 23,000 years ago alongside wooly mammoths, giant sloths, and camels. The entire Colorado Plateau, located in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, was a hotbed of civilization.
Southern Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park is a prime example. Nearly 600 cliff dwellings, kivas (religious sites), and cliffside courtyards remain. Cliff Palace and Balcony House are highlights of the park. The city was abandoned in the 1300s.
Pro Tip: Two lesser-known and less crowded Colorado Plateau National Monuments are a short drive from Flagstaff. The Walnut Canyon National Monument features Sinagua Tribe cliff dwellings that were abandoned in A.D. 1250. Wupatki National Monument has the largest pueblo in Arizona, made by ancestors of the Hopi Indians. At sunset, the red rock pueblos at Wupatki are particularly stunning.
2. Teotihuacan, Mexico City, Mexico
These were the first ruins I visited and will never forget them — or taking the student-budget-friendly local bus to get there. The Avenue of the Dead runs the length of this complex between the Pyramid of the Moon and the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. The massive Pyramid of the Sun sits midway between the other two. Rather than burial sites, like the pyramids of Egypt, these seem to be temples. In particular, the Pyramid of the Moon was used for animal and human sacrifices. The pyramids were finished about A.D. 300, the city reached a population of about 200,000 by A.D. 400, and the city was abandoned by A.D. 700.
Back in the day, I did a self-guided tour. If I were to go back, I’d hire a guide to get the most out of the experience. Tours by Locals gets great reviews.
3. Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is a 100-acre, 15th-century Incan city, and UNESCO World Heritage Site high in the Andes Mountains. The round building you see is the Temple of the Sun. Just below, The Royal Tombs were formed in a small cave and have carved niches and altars. The terraces, grass-chomping llamas, lush rainforest, and mist that hangs over the Citadel all make for spectacular photographs. And a mystery hangs in the air, too. Why did the Incas abandon such an idyllic spot less than a century after they built it?
Pro Tip: For those who are fit and unphased by the high altitude, you can hike to Machu Picchu over the course of several days via the Inca Trail. And for those who aren’t intimidated by heights, you can climb Huayna Picchu for stunning views of the site. For more information, please read this article devoted to Machu Picchu experiences.
4. Pompeii, Italy
Entombed in volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius’s eruption in A.D. 79, Pompeii is a time capsule showing details of ancient Italian life. The ruins cover 163 acres and include simple homes, stately villas with mosaic floors, shops, public baths, the ancient version of a fast-food restaurant, and a house of ill repute with graphic frescoes — a menu of services offered. You can also see plaster casts of the victims that show remarkable detail.
Guides are available at the entrance, or you can do a self-guided tour.
Pro Tip: There is a centrally located restaurant, called Pompeii Scavi Cafe, on the grounds and restaurants before you enter the site (but be aware, there is no re-entry).
5. Paola, Malta
While not a city, I’ve included this little known Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Malta. It is a human burial site dating back to 4000 B.C. and includes several levels and multiple chambers carved out of the rock. Red ochre paintings decorate some of the vaults.
Pro Tip: With timed tickets and entry limited to 10 people an hour, purchase tickets well in advance. The entrance and viewing area for the introductory video are wheelchair accessible but the remainder of the tour is not.
6. Delphi, Greece
Once the home of the oracle, Delphi’s ruins date back to the late 7th century B.C. Ruins not to miss include the reconstructed Treasury, the replicated Omphalos — or navel of the earth — the Temple of Apollo where the oracle delivered her predictions, and the amphitheater. Climbing the hillside trails beyond the amphitheater rewards you with a spectacular view of Delphi and the valley below.
When you’re walking Delphi’s unpaved paths, you are walking in the footsteps of Alexander the Great’s father, King Philip II, and Emperor Hadrian.
The Delphi Archaeological Museum houses artifacts from the area including statues, golden baubles, and ancient sheet music.
Pro Tip: If you’re visiting Thessaloniki, consider detouring to the Royal Tombs of Aigai in Vergina, Greece, about 40 miles away. This is King Philip II’s final resting place. Besides seeing four tombs, the underground museum houses a dazzling array of golden funerary artifacts.
7. Ephesus, Turkey
Ephesus was settled in 1000 B.C. A mile-long street paved with marble bisects the ancient city and passes its most famous buildings — the Celsus Library, The Temple of Artemis, and the Great Theater. By the 1st century B.C., 250,000 people lived here. Northern European invaders destroyed much of the city in the 3rd century A.D., but you still get a good feel for ancient life here.
Pro Tip: If you’re traveling independently, you can stream an audio guide from Rick Steves.
8. Derinkuyu Underground City, Cappadocia, Turkey
After spending a night in a cave hotel, you can tour the Derinkuyu Underground City near Cappadocia. Built between the 7th and 8th centuries B.C., multiple underground levels were home to 20,000 residents seeking refuge from invaders. The subterranean city had houses, chapels, stables, storage rooms, schools, fresh water, and plenty of ventilation shafts.
Pro Tip: Arrange for a guided tour to get the most out of your visit.
9. Luxor, Egypt
Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, and the Valley of the Queens contain some of the most iconic structures in all of Egypt. Luxor, on the east side of the Nile, has two massive temples — Luxor and Karnak. The Avenue of the Sphinxes that once stretched 1.5 miles between the two temples, is now incomplete, but you can imagine how 1,350 sphinxes in a row might have looked.
On the west side of the Nile, the kings’ and queens’ tombs occupy the valley. King Tutankhamen’s tomb and associated curse on anyone who opened the burial chamber is most famous. Many of the artifacts from his tomb are in Cairo’s museum.
But magnificent tombs for both kings and queens speak to Egypt’s wealth and beliefs in the afterlife.
Pro Tip: Consider taking a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Luxor and the Valley of the Kings for a bird’s eye view of these ancient structures.
10. Abu Simbel, Egypt
First built in 1244 B.C. along the Nile River, Abu Simbel is a testament to human ingenuity. Four 69-foot-high pharaoh statues tower over the temple entrances. These ancient temples, dedicated to Ramses II and his wife, would have been under Lake Nassar — a lake created by the Aswan Dam. But piece by piece, the temple was labeled, moved to higher ground, and reassembled. When you look up at the towering entrance statues, you’ll wonder how it was even possible.
Frescoes decorate the walls and ceiling. If you visit on the spring or solstice, light enters the temple to illuminate three statues on the back wall. One statue is of the pharaoh.
Pro Tip: Driving takes about 3 hours one way with tours departing from Aswan. Short flights leave from Aswan several times a day, allowing about 2 hours to tour the site before catching a flight back. Abu Simbel does not have a hotel.
11. Petra, Jordan
Named one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra is a marvel to behold. Walking through a slot canyon, called the Siq, with steep rose and orange walls, you’ll first glimpse the three-story Treasury that dates to B.C. 56. Continue beyond the Treasury to see the Royal Tombs, Great Temples, cave houses, goats and goat herders, camels, and vendors selling everything from trinkets to sodas. If you’re ready for a climb up many uneven steps, you’ll reach another well-preserved building called the monastery that’s not shown on the map. A restaurant nearby serves mint lemonade that is worth the trek.
On Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, you can attend the Petra by Night light show. Ask about tickets at the visitor center or your hotel.
Pro Tip: I recommend purchasing a 2-day ticket that costs 55 Jordanian dinars (about $78) so you can enter early on the second morning and explore Petra without the crowds. The easy 2.7-mile one-way walk from the ticket booth to the Great Temple takes about 2 hours. The climb to the monastery will add 1 hour each way.
12. Jerash, Jordan
While Petra often overshadows Jerash, this well-preserved city is the best example of an ancient Roman city in the Middle East. Covering a hillside with views of the modern city of Jerash, the ruins include temples to Zeus and Artemis, a Hippodrome, amphitheaters, column-lined streets, and Hadrian’s Arch that was named to commemorate Emperor Hadrian’s visit in A.D. 129.
Pro Tip: You can buy water or snacks just before you get to the ticket booth. Free restrooms are located at the entrance, too. Consider buying the Jordan Pass if you’re visiting several sites in Jordan.
13. Angkor Wat And Angkor Thom, Siem Reap, Cambodia
You could spend several days exploring the sprawling Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom archeological sites that were the capital of the Khmer Empire from A.D. 800–1200. The temples at Angkor Wat reportedly took 25,000 workers 37 years to build and are a frequent subject of dawn and dusk photographs with the large moat in the foreground.
Angkor Thom’s main attraction is the Bayon Temple. The bridge approaching Bayon is guarded by 54 sculpted deities spaced evenly along the balustrade. Bayon and the 54 small towers surrounding it are being overtaken by the jungle.
The Angkor Ticket Center is located between the town of Siem Reap and the actual ruins. They sell one, three, and 7-day tickets.
Pro Tip: Except for Malta’s Hypogeum, all of these sites are outdoors. Most have unpaved paths and uneven steps. Wear comfortable walking shoes, bring water, wear sunscreen and a hat.