As progress and civilization have grown, much of our history has been lost. Sadly, far too many colonists were more intent on putting their stamp on the world than preserving cultures they thought were beneath them. That’s true of the Spaniards in South America, the British and French in Africa and the U.S. with the rest of America. Not to mention that after a war, it’s all too easy to wipe out what’s left of your enemies, thus robbing us of such treasures as the Library of Alexandria. However, amazingly, some structures of the ancient world are still with us today. They can be weathered and beaten but they are still there, surviving centuries of war, the environment and more to stand as testaments to the civilizations that spawned them. Today, they have become tourist attractions as visitors flock to see them and enjoy the wonderful history behind them.
Many are famous all over the world while others may not be as notable but are still impressive to see. A few are little more than ruins while others are surprisingly intact after all this time. They are a great focus on the world that once was and a reminder to us all of the civilizations that blazed the path to our current one. It’s amazing to see how much construction and care was pulled off by people in the past and a testament to their work that they still hold up today. Here are 30 ancient places around the world that everyone needs to see to appreciate how our world was crafted.
30 Great Zimbabwe - South Africa
There are still those who claim this was founded by the Queen of Sheba herself. Regardless, it took about 500 years to create this city in what is now Southern Africa. It was clearly built for royalty with huge quarters for a king as well as his wives and servants. It’s estimated about 18,000 people lived and worked there although it’s still unsure exactly who ruled as records of that time are mostly lost.
It utilized the work of massive stone walls, many amazingly thick and showed a craftsmanship that is rarely associated with Africa. The large boulders are modeled after the famous birds of the region and contained eight lavishly crafted bird statues that now reside in museums. Much of the area was damaged by people greedily hunting for gold.
29 The Great Wall of China - China
Any list of ancient sites has to count this amazing achievement. It still is astounding how it was crafted, built and still stands today. It took several dynasties over a thousand years to link separate walls together into a length of 13, 171 miles, making it the only man-made structure seen from space. That length naturally means you can access it from several areas in China.
There is “the First Mound,” which is cited as the place it all started; several of the larger and tighter sections in various provinces; and the Old Dragon Head where it meets the sea. Some sections are in better shape than others and there are even places where it’s barely completed. Yet any visit to China must include a trip to at least one part of one of the greatest architectural achievements in human history.
28 Cobá - Mexico
A key to understanding Mayan culture, this city resides by the Yucatan Peninsula and thus quite a key travel spot in Mexico. Dating to 500 B.C., the biggest draw is the huge temple called Nohoch Mul Pyramid, standing 137 feet high and has a terrific view of the river. It’s a majorly photographed spot but there are also the surrounding areas boasting smaller buildings and temples with artwork and plates detailing more of life in this period.
There’s also a ball court as the Mayans are credited with creating a sport that would later inspire both soccer and basketball. The Pyramid of the Painted Lintel allows you to see paintings from a far distance and show the great art of the times. It may not be as famous as other Mayan spots but it is still a great showcase for its culture.
27 Ephesus - Greece
Usually, when the Roman Empire took a place over, they sacked it. But when they seized Ephesus in 129 B.C., they were so impressed by its design that they not only left it intact but helped it flourish more. It contained the Temple of Artemis, one of the fabled “Seven Wonders of the World,” which sadly has long been lost following the fall of Rome, the sack of the Goths in 263 and an earthquake 400 years later. But what remains is still impressive, as it’s believed passages of the Bible were written here.
Thanks to its easy access from the airport or sea, it’s one of the top tourism spots in Greece with the huge gate of Augustus and the tomb of John the Baptist. While some areas have been reconstructed, much of it is still the same to showcase a city that still retains some wonder today.
26 Montezuma Castle - US
The only item on this list residing in the United States, these impressive structures have amazed since the first colonists came to what is now Arizona. Located in Cape Verde, it was created by the Sinagua people sometime around 1100 AD. The name is actually a mistake as those first explorers assumed it had to be tied into the Aztec culture when it predates that.
The Hopi and Yavapai tribes both pay pilgrimage there to honor their ancestors. It looks for all the world like a high-rise apartment complex, only built right into the rock face of the huge cliff. Even modern engineers are impressed by the skill. While decades of looters have sadly robbed it of many treasures, the sight alone makes this the only “castle” in the U.S. worth checking out.
25 Ellora - India
Usually, the big sights of India are above ground with their temples and the Taj Mahal. However, the most impressive are the massive series of temples located in underground caverns numbering roughly 38 buildings in all. It mixes both Buddhist and Hindu influences along with Jian, crafted between 600-1000 CE period. The highlight is the Kailasanatha temple, notable by its chariot design. Visitors never cease to be amazed at the variety of artwork and statues that abound in the area, mixing in various eras and faiths.
While there has been damage due to weather and earthquakes, nearly 100 caves have been explored in full to boast a great series of sights. It all comes together as a reminder of how ancient India was a time when various faiths could live in peace and harmony and the caverns show that message still.
24 Angkor Wat - Cambodia
It is often cited as the largest monument of any religion in the world (fitting as its name translates to “temple city”). Located in Cambodia, this huge Buddhist temple stretches more than 400 acres, built by Emperor Suryavarman II, in the 12th century as a showcase of his empire. By the end of the century, following Suryavarman’s death, it had become a fully Buddhist retreat.
Its huge domed temples and massive statues are a terrific highlight and impressive both from the ground and river tours. Sadly, the area sustained heavy damage during the infamous reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. Combined with an earthquake and the heavy forest and much of the area has been a challenge to restore. But it’s a key sight in Cambodia to focus on a place of harmony, even in times of violence.
23 Mycenae - Greece
Found about 56 miles from Athens, Mycenae was one of the key military strongholds of Greece from 1600 to 1100 B.C. It’s so huge a place that the entire era is named after it. Anything from the Bronze Age of Greece is very rare which is why the Lion’s Gate entranceway is such an amazing discovery, still intact after thousands of years. It plays a huge work in Homer’s classic tales The Odyssey and The Iliad and thus is part of the culture of the world.
The other highlight besides the Gate is the central temple with its throne and various panels dedicated to the gods and the history of the land. The remainder of the city is mostly intact and showcasing classic Greek architecture. All told, this is one of the only remaining reminders of this period of Greek history and an important part of literature.
22 Carthage - Tunisia
Once merely a Phoenician colony, Carthage grew into the capital city of the empire that dominated the Mediterranean for nearly a millennia. The legend is that Queen Dido bought enough land to be covered with oxide and used it to establish the only power on Earth that could rival Rome at its height. This led to wars with the Third Punic War in 146 BC basically destroying the city and the empire. Rome thus took over, turning it into a key trading center.
Its ownership shifted over the years yet much of the original city remains standing today. It showcases a variety of styles from the original owners to Rome and thus a fascinating look at the period. There still remains the theater, temples, the residential homes and baths and even the old port. It’s an amazing reminder of a great empire that once was and still showcases how easily a mighty power can fall to another.
21 Borobudur - Indonesia
Located in Central Java, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. Built in the 9th century, it’s notable for its design of three tiers, a pyramidal base with five concentric square terraces, the trunk of a cone with three circular platforms and, at the top, a monumental stupa. This is meant to emulate the three stages of Buddhism although the site was mostly abandoned when Java’s population converted to Islam in the 15th century.
But since its discovery by outsiders, the temple has been revived as a place of worship, particularly the 504 statues and 72 stupas, each with its own statue inside. The temple is also known for its amazing perseverance. It’s been subjected to a terrorist bombing, a 2006 earthquake, and a 2014 volcanic eruption yet still remains, a testament to its construction.
20 Hadrian’s Wall - England
It can sometimes be forgotten that England was once part of the Roman empire. For decades, the Romans had conflicts with what they saw as a native people of barbarians. To protect their lands, they built a set of walls set amid the hills, the largest of which runs 73 miles in length. Named after a key Roman emperor of 120 AD, the wall was soon pushed in construction, created along what is now Northumberland.
While the wall was strong in its time, Haridan’s successors didn’t have the same passion for the project as he did and basically led to Rome abandoning England. With Rome’s fall, the Wall wasn’t used as much due to its distance but has been reborn as a tourist attraction. It still is amazing with the stone structures across several hills and while it may mean muddy walks, it’s a good hike through history.
19 Colosseum - Italy
A must when you hit Rome, the Colosseum is now surrounded by modern roads and huge traffic all around it. Yet, it remains as one of the best remaining signs of the Roman Empire in all its glory. It still is impressive, 610 feet tall, 510 feet wide and a circular base of 1,788 feet. It could house 50,000 Romans to watch the various gladiator games and events and the first Olympics.
Over the centuries, earthquakes and other events have led to one wall partially collapsing, which adds to its nice appeal today. It’s held up amazingly well given the various conflicts of Rome as even the Axis didn’t want it damaged too much during World War II. It is hands down the most popular destination spot in Italy and remarkable that amid this modern metropolis is a structure millennia old and whose history dominates its landscape in many ways.
18 Wat Ratchaburana - Thailand
A very popular sight in various movies and TV shows, this massive temple area is one of the most visited spots in Thailand. It was built in 1424 by Borommarachathirat II, a king who “honored” his brothers, who’d fought a duel for the next heir to the throne.
The temples are marked by their long needles and the central prang has undergone a few restorations. Several of its images and artwork have been moved to museums but the structures themselves are impressive, especially viewed by boat. It’s also an impressive sight at night, lit up nicely to showcase the shadows and still the site for some religious ceremonies. It looks older than it truly is but counts as an ancient area and one that should be a must for visitors to the nation.
17 Petra - Jordan
One of the standout areas of Jordan, this city was originally known as Raqmu. Established as a city in the 4th century B.C., Petra soon became a center point of trading thanks to its place by the mountains and the Dead Sea. However, an earthquake in the 4th century devastated the region and the various conflicts with Rome led the city to decline. It was basically just a refugee for nomads before being found in 1812.
The most famous sight is Al-Khazneh (“The Treasury”), a building with an opening craved right into the mountain, a sight that’s been used for a variety of “ancient temples” in movies and TV shows. The site is basically the centerpiece of Jordan’s economy with millions of visitors per year and while getting into the valley can be a long journey, it’s worth it to see this amazing rock building that can still contain treasures.
16 Baalbek - Lebanon
Originally called Heliopolis (“City of the Sun”) this system of temples was built around 2000 years ago but their origins are unknown. Most claim it was done by the Canaanites but questions abound about their capability yet there are no records of the Romans being behind it. It appears as if it was built by one society, then a different one finished it, leading to a mix of styles that has added to its appeal.
Situated in what is now Lebanon, it’s dominated by the Temple of Bacchus, the Greek god notable for what would now be called a “partying style.” There’s also a nice entranceway of a huge temple area with columns and a large court. Sadly, due to the massive conflict in the region, getting there is tough and tourism isn’t exactly a booming business. But if you can risk it, you’ll be rewarded with an amazing look at a city whose mysterious origins make it stand out.
15 The Pyramids of Giza - Egypt
It’s harder to find a more iconic ancient structure than this. The logical theory is that these were constructed as the best tombs for Egyptian kings where they insisted on taking their treasures into the afterlife. Of course, some folks will go so far as to claim they were built by aliens, citing the perfect alignment and design. Yet the fact there are records of their construction showcase how much work went into building these, which truly impresses people.
The largest is the Great Pyramid with the Pyramid for the pharaoh Khafre nearby, both boasting the wear and tear of centuries of the desert but impressive with areas for tourist to look on. There is also the Great Sphinx not far off, the massive structure built with a likeness of Khafre, notable by its missing nose. The fact is, you mention Egypt and these are the first things that come to mind, structures that are part of world history and still one of the most incredible sites to witness today.
14 Luxor Temple - egypt
Not to be confused with the Vegas casino, this structure is an underrated site to enjoy in Egypt. It’s on the east bank of the Nile in what had once been Thebes, one of the most powerful cities of the ancient Egyptian empire. While other temples are dedicated to various gods, this one is more on the kings of the region. It’s been rumored several kings were crowned here like Alexander the Great, although it’s hard to figure out the truth between history and legend.
The temple entrance is notable for its two large statues embodying the royal Ka and there is a huge statue of Ramses II at its center. One of its obelisks was transported to Paris but much of the rest remains intact even after centuries of harsh weather and conflict. The various statues abound across the area from priests to kings to animals and showcase the excellent craftsmanship of the era. So forget Vegas, the better Luxor is in Egypt.
13 Pantheon - italy
Records have long been lost to who built this and how long it took. It was built as a temple for the Roman gods, located in what is now modern Rome, completed around 128 A.D. It saw transformations through the centuries, including becoming a Christian church which was a key reason for its survival as the papacy wanted to restore it. The domed ceiling rises 142 feet with a hole to allow sunlight in and has inspired everyone from artists like Michelangelo to Thomas Jefferson, who based his Monticello home on the place.
It is the burial place for Raphael and other great Renaissance artists as well as royals. The huge opening of columns leading into the temple is amazing and its wide open spaces showcase detailed prints and tiles. There’s also the lovely statues of the outdoor fountains that are popular for tourist pics. Overall, this is a must-see in Rome and a throwback to the days of their empire.
12 The Acropolis - greece
If you haven’t seen this spot, you haven’t seen Athens. The fifth century B.C. had Athens rising up as a democracy and building slews of major sites that remain today. The Acropolis is the most famous, one of the first things you think of about Greek culture. The place atop a hill makes it stand out, dominating the landscape as tourists flock there regularly.
The highlight is the Pantheon, a massive temple long stripped of its treasures but remaining strong today. It’s been ravaged by centuries of weather and odd conflict but the classic columns remain standing. A modern touch is a Greek flag raised by a pair of youths in 1942 as a sign of protest against the Germans who had overtaken Greece in World War II. Any student of Greek culture must make a stop here to embrace its long history and see how Greece remains a nation of great respect with some lessons for modern life.
11 Xian - china
Don’t be fooled by the modern building with a huge roof. The interior is a site that remains almost exactly the same when it was first dug millennia ago. It houses the famed Terra Cotta Army, a platoon of stone soldiers created around 200 BC. They were buried in a series of trenches and chambers, long hidden until a construction crew found them by accident in 1974.
Since then, there have been tours of the soldiers but the majority reside in this special building with a huge museum built over the archeological site. The sight of these stone soldiers in perfect formation, complete with chariots, is amazing and adds to the appeal of this city. That’s not mentioning the City Wall which dominates the area and is a reminder of how this was once one of the capitols of China. Any trip to China must include a look at a place that never ceases to impress with its power.
10 Easter Island - Polynesia
Located 2300 miles off the coast of Chile, Rapa Nui (to use its native name) is only about 64 miles wide. Its more common name was given by the Dutch explorers who found it on Easter Sunday 1722. Annexed by Chile, its entire economy rests on tourism. That’s due to the massive stone statues spread across the island. Several are grouped on cliffs facing the ocean while others litter the hills. All share the same design and believed part of Polynesian culture.
The largest is about 32 feet tall and weighs 80 tons. Sadly, several have been lost over time due to conflicts and the harsh weather of the region. The exact purpose has long been debated to suggest it was a tribute to the gods. Whatever the reason, they are fascinating to see with their design work and to respect the dedication placing them about to make this a great site to see any time of the year.
9 Teotihuacan - Mexico
Located 30 miles outside of Mexico City, this place is a popular site among UFO buffs who insist it’s “evidence” aliens visited Earth. It helps those theories that there are no records of who built it as it was fully created when the Aztecs found it in the 15th century. The name means “the place where the gods were created”.
It’s spread about 8 square miles and is linked by streets that include the ominously named “Avenue of the Dead.” The main calling point is the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of the Aztec culture. The site has been discussed and explored but there are still secrets abounding. In 2003, a huge rainstorm opened up a sinkhole revealing a massive underground chamber of treasures and artifacts that are still being cataloged. Thus, to this day, the “Gods” are still unveiling secrets that make a visit to this site a remarkable exploration of history.
8 Longmen Grottoes - china
Considered one of the most popular tourist spots in China, the Grottoes rest between two mountains and a river, already a prime spot. Construction was ordered by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty around the year 493 when he moved the capital to Luoyang. Over 400 years of construction went into it, outliving the Emperor’s dynasty.
The caves and temples boast stunningly detailed stone sculptures of Buddha and his various disciples. Several of them can reach a height of twenty-five to forty feet, a stunning achievement in sculpturing. They are spread out and allow guests to see the variety of figures and the evolution of Buddhism over the centuries as more statues were added. That’s not to mention the wall paintings and carvings inside the caverns which look barely touched by time. The sheer size of it all is impressive to see the care the Chinese made with this structure.
7 Chichén Itzá - mexico
Whenever the Mayan civilization is mentioned, Chichen Itza comes to mind. This magnificent temple is the largest and most intact of any of the Mayan culture and impressive with its huge stone staircase and unique design. The city was the most powerful of the Mayan world and it’s believed the temple was used for their infamous prayer rituals.
In the 13th century, a huge revolt by the lower class was made against the rulers, shifting the power of the Mayan world. The city wasn’t fully abandoned but fell from its status and was pretty much a desert when the Spanish explorers found it centuries later. Most of it was covered in jungle as late as the 1920s with that cleared out for further study and tourism. The stairs may be a hike but tourists can enjoy them as well as the nearby observatory. For anyone who wants to know about the Mayans, this is the place to see.
6 Delphi - greece
The ancient Greeks considered this spot to be the center of the world. The legend is that Zeus released two eagles who met at this one spot. It’s home to several of the sights Greek myth lovers will know such as the Temple of Apollo as well as the “navel” which was home to the famed Oracle. Sadly, much of the site was ravaged during Nero’s rule of Rome with statues destroyed and buildings razed.
What remains is still impressive, the classic architecture and its gorgeous view of the mountains make it stand out even more. It’s a must-see for any visitor to Greece and even though the modern village nearby takes away some of the ancient aura, what remains makes you realize why the Greeks felt this place was touched by the divine.
5 Machu Picchu - peru
It’s a big climb to get here. 7970 feet above sea level to be exact. But that just adds to the magnificence of this structure in Peru. Its exact origins are unknown as many Inca records were lost when that civilization as wiped out by the Spanish explorers in the 15th century. Due to its remote location, Machu wasn’t found until 1911 when an American archeologist literally stumbled onto it when he got lost.
It stretches an impressive five miles, comprising 150 buildings. It appears to have been either an estate of some sort which doubled as a religious center. Thus, bathhouses are mixed with temples and there is an impressive sun dial which generates a lot of interest. It may be a big hike getting there but the amazing view adds to how this remarkable place is one of the last vestiges of a lost civilization.
4 Ta Prohm - Cambodia
This temple has achieved some fame as being used as the setting for some adventures of the hit Tomb Raider video games. Its appeal is in the fact that unlike so many other temples of Cambodia, it’s not as open to the air as others. True, the forests leading to it have been scaled back to help tourists and hikers but for the most part, it remains as mysterious and moody as when it was found by European explorers in the 20th century.
Constructed in the 12th century, the temple was swallowed quickly by the jungle when it was abandoned and thus, most of it is still covered with thick trunks and vines about its structures. In reality, much of its supposed “wild” nature is actually maintained to ensure it’s not too dangerous for visitors and keep it from totally collapsing. But it’s still a remarkable sight for all the vegetation around the magnificent structures to show how easily nature can engulf man’s works.
3 Masada - Israel
Herod the Great built this castle on a huge hilltop in the last century B.C., intending to use it for his kind rule. When the Romans took over Judea in the first century A.D., they began attacks on the Jewish people. When Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 AD, the majority of the Jewish people fled to Masada for safety. 8000 Romans battled with 960 Jewish people trapped in the city walls but who managed to hold out for five months before the Romans finally broke through.
All but a handful of Jews escaped to tell the tale which has become an iconic one in Israel. Today, the area is a place for both tourists and worshippers with a cable car taking guests up to the main mountaintop. Most of the rest is still untouched, with notes on the great battle, the palace and temples a sight to walk through. It’s an iconic Israel spot and worth looking at to see reminders of this great tale.
2 Stonehenge - England
Exactly where it came from and who built it is lost to time. It is suggested they took almost 1500 years to fully construct but what made tribesmen drag massive stone boulders into a field and lay them out in such a way is a puzzle. Some stones had to have come from Wales, roughly 200 miles away and thus it took some serious dedication to transport them. It’s that mystery that adds to its appeal and it is why it attracts over a million visitors per year.
It’s been featured in various movies and TV shows to add to its popularity as it’s one of the iconic sights of the United Kingdom. Whether you’re a random visitor or a scholar trying to gain insight as to how this was built and why, Stonehenge remains one of the more fascinating ancient mysteries of the world today.
1 Pompeii - italy
Once it was a city, a gem of the Roman empire. Thousands lived and worked in this coastal area from farmers to merchants to even gladiators in games. They paid no heed to the rumbling mountain nearby as they went about their lives. But in late August, 79 AD, that mountain, Vesuvius, erupted in one of the most violent volcanic explosions ever recorded. Within the space of a day, Pompeii was buried under several feet of rock and ash, wiped from the face of the Earth. It fell into legend with Romans often fearful of even speaking of it for fear of angering the gods who had wiped the city out.
It was finally uncovered in the 16th century with further excavations decades later. Today, most of it is open to the air but is still very buried thanks to a millennium of shifting earth. It attracts 2 million people a year who are fascinated to see how much of the classic Roman architecture still remains today. And of course, the sight of the bodies of those left behind, transformed into statues of ash. With the volcano in the background as a reminder of what occurred, many can’t help but be amazed at this reminder of a disaster.
Sources: Wikipedia.org, History.com