Do you dream of going on an epic adventure like Indiana Jones? You’re in luck!
You don’t need an archaeology degree to explore the Egyptian pyramids, the Lost City or Angkor Wat– just a sense of adventure. Many of the world’s most fascinating ruins are located near major cities and can be easily accessed by plane, train or automobile.
These are the eight most fascinating ruins I have visited during my travels. Is your favorite destination missing from this list? Share your pick by leaving a comment below!
#8) Ayutthaya, Thailand
If you are visiting Thailand don’t miss the chance to explore this historical landmark. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a 2-hour train ride from Bangkok but is a world away.
The second capital of Thailand’s Ayutthaya (or Siamese) Kingdom, the city was founded around 1350 by King U Thong and was destroyed in 1767 during a Burmese invasion. All that remains are the crumbling ruins of stone towers and monastery buildings.
The Ayutthaya ruins are known for their ornate, bright red prang (reliquary towers) and buddha statues. Interestingly, many of the statues are headless, although one often-photographed statue is a bust of Buddha that has been enveloped by a tree.
>> For more info: Visit the Ayutthaya Wikitravel page for helpful tips.
#7) Quilmes, Argentina
Travelers come to Argentina for many reasons– tango, wine, gauchos and steak come to mind– but did you know this South American nation is home to a 1,000-year old indigenous city?
The Quilmes Ruins are all that remain of a stone-walled city created by the Quilmes people. In its heyday this metropolis housed an estimated 5,000 people, before the Spanish forced the Quilmes to relocate to a reservation outside of Buenos Aires.
The Quilmes Ruins are refreshingly free of crowds; during our visit, there were only two other tourists at the site. This important archaeological site is located in Tucuman province in northwest Argentina, just off the paved highway between Cafayate and San Miguel de Tucumán. The ruins are easily accessible by car rental.
>> Recommended reading: Argentine road trip: The best of Tucuman, Salta and Jujuy
#6) Jerash, Jordan
Petra may be the most famous ancient city in Jordan (see #3 below) but Jerash offers a taste of ancient Rome in the Middle East. Conquered by Rome in the 1st century AD, the city of Gerasa thrived until it was damaged by an earthquake in 747 AD.
Located in northern Jordan, near the Syrian border, this ancient city is surrounded by a modern-date metropolis that has been continuously occupied for 6,500 years. The ruins are a 40-minute car or tour bus ride from the capital of Amman.
Among the breathtaking ruins are the Arch of Hadrian, built in 129 AD to celebrate the emperor’s visit; the hippodrome, where chariot races are still held today for tourists; and the forum, a circle of Roman columns where we saw a group of Jordanian school girls spontaneously burst into song.
The sheer number and size of the Jerash ruins are impressive and it’s hard to imagine that this massive city of light stone was hidden under sand until just 70 years ago. If you are visiting Jordan, make sure to take a half day to visit Jerash– you won’t regret it!
>> Recommended reading: A warm welcome in the ancient city of Jerash
#5) Machu Picchu, Peru
If you love to travel you’ve probably heard of Machu Picchu. This 15th-century Inca site has been Peru’s leading tourist attraction for about 100 years, since an American historian spread the world about this “lost city.”
Considered by some to be a sacred religious site, Machu Picchu is a series of stone-walled dwellings built at an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet. Needless to say, the views from this UNESCO World Heritage site are amazing!
Machu Picchu was never ‘discovered’ by the Spanish conquistadors and is remarkably well preserved, thanks in part to reconstruction efforts. For the ultimate photo op, arrive at Machu Picchu early and wait in line for tickets to hike up Huayna Picchu mountain. It’s a steep climb but offers 360′ views of the historical site and surrounding valley.
Machu Picchu can be reached via a 4-day day guided hike on the Inca Trail (prior reservations required), or by walking or taking a bus from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. The nearest major city is Cuzco, which is connected to Lima by plane, train and bus routes.
>> Recommended reading: Embracing Cliche in Machu Picchu (amazing photos from the Over Yonderlust blog)
#4) Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
You don’t have to visit Machu Picchu to see the ruins of an ancient metropolis in South America. A 5-day hike through the Colombian jungle to Ciudad Perdida is less crowded, less expensive and just as spiritual as a trip to Machu Picchu.
Hidden away in a dense jungle and only accessible by foot, Ciudad Perdida was reportedly built by the Tairona people in 800 AD, which would make it older than Machu Picchu. The ruins of its stone dwellings, stairs and terraces were ‘discovered’ in 1972 by local treasure hunters and, in the past few years, have attracted adventurous travelers.
Ciudad Perdida can only be reached by guided trek, which can be booked in neighboring Santa Marta or Taganga. Groups are kept small and are led by locals who grew up in the mountains and can shed light on the area’s history and culture. The trail to the lost city cuts through lands still inhabited by indigenous people; they wear traditional dress (white cotton tunics) and maintain thatched huts near the trail.
Hiking to the lost city is not technically difficult (there is no rock climbing, for example) but the high humidity, heat, river crossings and muddy trails combined with day-long hikes can be exhausting. Make sure you have a good fitness level before setting out.
>> Recommended reading: Trekking to Ciudad Perdida, Colombia’s Lost City
#3) Petra, Jordan
For the true Indiana Jones experience you have to visit Petra. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was founded in the 6th century BC by an Arab people called the Nabataeans and is Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction. A desert city carved into red rocks, Petra was an important stop on the silk and spice trading route stretching from Asia to Europe.
You’ll realize what a magical place this is when you walk through a narrow gorge at Petra’s entrance and emerge in front of the famed Treasury building. Movie fans will recognize it from the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
However, the Treasury is just one of many awe-inspiring structures in Petra; it’s hard to describe the massive scale of the ruins until you visit. The largest monument, the Monastery, was built in the 1st century BC and can only be reached by a brief but steep uphill hike. It’s well worth the effort.
Petra is a 2-3 hour drive from the capital of Amman and can be reached by tour van or bus.
>> Recommended reading: Escaping the crowds in Petra (a firsthand account from travel writer Sherry Ott)
#2) Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Step into the hiking boots of action star Angelina Jolie when you visit Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, the setting of her 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
Angkor Wat dates from the 12th century and is considered one of Southeast Asia’s most important historical sites, in addition to being a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Cambodia’s top tourism attraction. This complex of ancient temples was built during the Khmer Empire and was originally Hindu and later Buddhist.
You’ll need at least two days to explore the ruins, which feature fascinating sculptures of mythical features ranging in size from minute to massive. Arguably the best photo-ops are at the Ta Prohm ruins, where stone buildings have merged with winding tree trunks to create a surreal landscape.
Angkor Wat is a quick drive from the bustling city of Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. Hiring a tuk-tuk driver in Siem Reap for the day is a comfortable way to see the complex, which is too large to get around on foot. Bike rentals are also available.
>> Recommended reading: Pushbike and Angkor Wat (a firsthand account of touring the ruins by bike from blogger Runaway Juno)
#1) The Giza Pyramids, Egypt
The name “Giza” might not ring any bells but you’ve probably seen photos of its most impressive monuments: the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid. One of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Giza Pyramid was built around 2560 BC and by the 1st century BC was luring tourists from ancient Greece.
The site is essentially an ancient cemetery; its three giant pyramids serve as a resting place for the Old Kingdom pharaohs Khufu, Khafre and Menkaure. At night, the Light and Sound show bathes the ruins in neon colors and explains the history of ancient Egypt.
Giza is a short drive from downtown Cairo and can be reached by taxi, public bus or tour bus.
>> Recommended reading: Is it safe to visit Egypt? Q&A with a travel expert
What’s your favorite ancient ruin?
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