Many of the world’s most historical cities are incredible to visit for many reasons: holidays can be spent in Istanbul, Rome and Athens, exploring ancient ruins and monuments that have been preserved through the ages, plus enjoying all of the modern sights and attractions that the cities offer.
Those who are familiar with history or mythology know that the ancient world was home to more legendary cities than just Rome or Athens. Many illustrious ancient cities have disappeared, relegated to little more than legend. In some cases, historians and archeologists didn’t even know that a few legendary cities of the ancient world even existed until modern technology helped pinpoint the sites where these once-great metropolises stood.
If these ancient cities were still around and inhabited today, they may still have been some of the most beautiful and incredible cities in the world. While in many cases, it is possible to visit the ruins of these legendary cities and get a glimpse into the architectural marvels and engineering feats that they once contained, it would be quite another thing to visit them in their prime. Let’s imagine being able to walk in the footsteps of Helen of Troy or Alexander the Great, and explore a few lost, forgotten or abandoned cities that we wish we could visit.
15 Carthage (Tunisia)
The ancient city of Carthage was founded by Phoenician colonists in what is modern-day Tunisia, under the leadership of the legendary Queen Elissa, or Dido. It grew to be a large and wealthy city and major powerhouse in the region. This made it a major target of other Mediterranean rivals, including Syracuse and Rome.
It survived a Roman invasion and thrived until 698 AD, when it was destroyed during a conquest by Muslim forces. In its prime, Carthage must have been an incredible sight on the Mediterranean. It had beautiful, orderly neighborhoods on top of a hill, a Forum, buildings with mosaicked walls and roads paved with clay.
14 Troy (Turkey)
Troy was a legendary city made famous by Homer’s Illiad as the place where the Trojan war took place at some point in the 12th, 13th or 14th century BC. Visitors to Troy could stand in the hilly city and gaze across the plain where the ancient battles of the Trojan war took place, and where the gods and leaders of ancient myths once roamed.
Archaeologists have carefully uncovered the many ruins of this massive city (in present-day Turkey). These ruins have stood solidly for thousands of years and give us the only surviving images of the mythical city, which would have been a fascinating place to see in its heyday.
13 Tikal (Guatemala)
The ancient city of Tikal is located deep in a rainforest in Guatemala. It was once the capital of one of the most powerful Mayan states and was a military and political powerhouse. Tikal may be as old as the 4th century BC, with the height of its civilization dating to around 200 to 900 AD.
Excavations have revealed that Tikal had many monuments, temples and palaces and it was a city with beautiful art and incredible architecture. A visitor to Tikal would have been greeted by the city’s many imposing pyramid structures filled with fine carvings and artwork.
12 Ancient Memphis, Egypt
The massive Egyptian city of Memphis was founded back in 3,100 BC, during Egypt’s first dynasty. Early on, it was a fortress that helped control the land and water routes between Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta, but it developed into an important religious center and flourishing capital with a bounty of temples and art.
A great temple, royal palaces and a staggering statue of Rameses II were all once a part of the ancient city. The ruins of the ancient city still exist and are incredible to wander amongst, but they are barely a trace of the grandeur that this wealthy city once held.
11 Babylon & the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Iraq)
The capital of Babylonia in the ancient Mesopotamian empire was legendary for luxury and innovation. Today, the ruins of the city are located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Iraq. Although the Hanging Gardens of Babylon are considered one of the 7 original Wonders of the World, beyond legend, little to no evidence that they existed has ever been found.
The story of the gardens tells us that a king – perhaps Nebuchadnezzar II - built the gardens for his wife, who was homesick for the mountains of her homeland. He used stone slabs and irrigation to create a network of terraced gardens in the middle of the dry desert. The gardens would have needed advanced irrigation techniques in order to stay alive. If the gardens still existed, they would be an unforgettable sight to see – literally a paradise in the middle of the harsh desert environment.
10 Ctesiphon (Iraq)
Ctesiphon was the capital city of the ancient Parthian Empire, located on the Tigris River in present-day Iraq. Ctesiphon would have been another fascinating city to visit because of its advanced architecture and technology. One of Ctesiphon’s landmarks is a stunning vaulted hall that led to a massive and imposing throne room.
The vault was so well built that it remains in tact today, and it is still the largest arch made of bricks in the world.
9 Mohenjo-Daro (Pakistan)
Located in the Indus Valley in what is now Pakistan, Mohenjo-Daro was built in 2600 BC and it was as large as other famous Greek and Egyptian cities that existed at the time.
The people were clearly masterminds of engineering, as the ruins today testify to the complex network of houses, shops, and streets that once filled this bustling city.
8 Mesa Verde (United States)
One of the most unique cities in the ancient world, Mesa Verde, located in the southwest United States in Mesa Verde National Park, is home to over 600 cliff dwellings that were inhabited by the Anasazi people. These incredible houses were built from sandstone, wood and mortar, carved directly into the sides of the mountains.
A massive cliff palace in this ancient city was home to 100 people, which visitors and inhabitants entered via ladders. Needless to say, the Mesa Verde settlement would have been a unique – almost otherworldly - place to visit during the time it was inhabited.
7 Ani (Turkey)
Imagine a city of 1001 churches set amongst picturesque hills. That picture-perfect city, called Ani, was once located in modern-day Turkey. It was the capital of the Armenian Kingdom in the 10th century. Many of the ruins of these tall, ornate churches can still be explored, and they reveal a vast wealth of exquisite art and architecture.
The city of Ani was also staggering at its zenith in terms of population and rivaled another regional powerhouse, Constantinople.
6 Thebes, Egypt
A city that worshiped Amon, the sun god, Thebes was a luxurious city and would have been filled with lots of luster and splendor that was indeed worthy of a god. The ruins of the legendary temple at Thebes are still incredible to visit. The famous tomb of Tutankhamun is also located in Thebes. At the time when the city was flourishing, it was home to talented artisans who produced colorful artwork including frescoes and carvings and statues.
The Thebans enjoyed displaying their wealth on every street corner. Some statues still remain in Thebes, standing tall even after thousands of years and providing modern-day explorers with a taste of how incredible the city must have been in its day.
5 Vijayanagar (India)
Located in present-day India, this was once one of the largest cities in the world, home to 500,000 people in its heyday. It was the capital of the historic Vijayanagara Empire, which covered part of southern India. In its day, the city had many peaceful and impressive spiritual sites.
It had beautiful, massive Hindu temples, some of which have survived to this day. Caves, running water, civic centers and other temples and structures that were important for worship were found all around the city.
4 Persepolis (Iran)
Located in present-day Iran, Persepolis took over a century to build. Apparently, it was well worth the extra time: once considered the richest city in the world, in its heyday (which lasted over 2 centuries), it would have been more beautiful than most cities today. Persepolis had an immense complex built on a terrace with carvings of slaves, kings, and other officials and important figures in the Persian Empire depicted on its side.
The city also had stunning palaces for its kings and queens, massive in size and filled with imposing columns and halls. Unfortunately, the huge King’s palace was burnt by Alexander the Great, who was intent on destroying the Persian Empire from the inside out (which he accomplished).
3 Palenque (Mexico)
Palenque, once one of the most powerful Mayan city-states that dominated the landscape of the Mexican plain, is a site of impressive architecture and advanced engineering. Although it was abandoned nearly a thousand years ago, the ruins of Palenque can still be visited and continue to astound. Palenque was an advanced metropolis with buildings set on massive platforms, palaces, plazas and sports arenas.
Homes in the city even had running water thanks to aqueducts that are still in tact today: in other words, life must have been comfortable. That is, unless you were brought in as a human sacrifice. In line with Mayan customs and religion, Palenque had spaces for elaborate human sacrifices. Needless to say it was a city that one would want to visit as a friendly guest rather than as a political foe.
2 Petra (Jordan)
Petra is a familiar sight thanks to the “Indiana Jones” trilogy. The city was literally carved into the rose-colored mountains in present-day Jordan. Linking Asia and Arabia, Petra was a busy trading hub for silk and spices, which allowed it to enjoy significant wealth and power. A beautiful passage carved directly in the canyon set an impressive tone for visitors entering the city, gradually leading them to the massive so-called “treasury,” one of the most recognizable and photographed remains of the ancient city.
This palatial building was carved directly into a cliff. Today the site is abandoned, but it was once a bustling place: up to 30,000 individuals are thought to once live in the city, and tens of thousands of more visitors (including Bedouins and traders) who would have pitched their tents in the area.
1 Angkor (Cambodia)
The ancient city of Angkor, whose ruins today emerge from the forest and farmland of present-day Cambodia, was once home to stunning buildings and up to a million inhabitants. This made it the largest pre-industrial city in the world.
The city was an astounding place to visit in the 9th to 15th centuries AD. Built over 400 square kilometers, the city featured temples and massive, elaborately decorated structures. The highlight of the city is the famous Angkor Wat, a large Hindu Temple with a recognizable ornate design.