Where can you explore incredible historic sites and ancient cities, without tripping over tourists?
We’ve found 14 of the most incredible historic sites and ancient cities on the planet – and we guarantee some of them will be new to you. After all, Rome and the Great Wall of China are amazing, but you already know about them.
Just so you can plan your next adventure, we’ve focused on ancient monuments that have cities or airports reasonably close. So you don’t have to paddle a dugout canoe three weeks into the jungle to explore incredible forgotten cities and ancient monuments. All you need to do is to pack your camera and your imagination.
1. Borobudur, Java, Indonesia
Sunrises and sunsets are extra special at Borobudur. That’s when the temple is silhouetted against an orange streaked sky. Note that there is a surcharge to visit at these times, but it’s worth the price.
Made from over 2 million stones in the fifth century, Borobudur is the world’s largest Buddhist temple, towering over a misty plain, with jungle-covered mountains in the background. The wall carvings make Borobudur extraordinary to visit at any time of year, but if you can manage to visit on Vesak Day in May, it’s extra special. Hundreds of saffron-robed monks walk in procession to Borobudur, carrying lit candles to commemorate the birth of Buddha. The temple is lit up for the festival. After an evening of chanting, monks and Buddhists release candle-lanterns into the night.
Tip: Borobudur is a 45-minute drive from Yogyakarta city and international airport. Your hotel can call a taxi and negotiate taxi rides for you. A taxi ride will be about 150,000 rupiah or US$16 each way. BTW: Yogyakarta is a great city to visit, with ancient Javan palaces, excellent craft shopping and food – try Ayam Goreng Yogyakarta (crispy fried chicken with a gingery glaze).
2. Ruined City of Gedi, Kilifi District, Kenya
Imagine walking around the ruins of an ancient city, hiding inside the largest remaining forest area in East Africa. The Ruins of Gedi were only officially rediscovered by archaeologists in the 1920s, and they’re still so rarely visited there’s a good chance you’ll be able to wander around on your own. Locals say guardian spirits called “jinns” keep these ancient ruins safe, and they look mysterious, with forest trees growing over the remains of palaces and tombs.
Gedi dates from around the 12th century, and it was clearly a town with an international outlook. Archaeologists have discovered items from all over the world, including a Ming vase from China, metal scissors from Spain, an Indian lamp and glassware from Venice and more.
As well as exploring the remains of palace buildings and treasure stores, you can see practical touches like drainage gutters, water-storage tanks and bathrooms with flush toilets – a rarity for the Middle Ages. Yet in the 17th century, Gedi was abandoned. Was it war? Disease? Drought? No-one knows. Local folk stories are full of mysteries about Gedi, which makes exploring it even more memorable.
Tip: Gedi is a two hour drive from the Kenyan capital of Mombasa, on the main north-south coastal highway to Malindi and the coastal resort of Watamu. Watamu is a good base for exploring, because it has a Marine National Park, with snorkelling and diving. Plus it’s easy to take tours to the Arabuko Sokoke Forest Reserve to see the ruins of Gedi and view wildlife, including elephants.
3. Qasr al-Hosn, Abu Dhabi, UAE
The Qasr al-Hosn is both a historical landmark and the oldest stone building in the city of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Beduin tribes first settled on the island of Abu Dhabi when they discovered drinking water there. And in 1761, they built Qasr al-Hosm to defend the coastal trade routes.
Since then it’s been a fort, a palace, and now it’s an art and cultural centre, with exhibits about Arabic and Beduin art and culture. The gleaming white walls of Qasr al-Hosn are dramatic to walk around, and it’s surprisingly cool and windy inside, thanks to ancient Wind Towers that have ventilation holes at the top to suck in every breeze.
Tip: If you enjoy architectural contrast, you can walk from this ancient fort along the waterfront, to the ultra modern Louvre Museum Abu Dhabi.
4. Sigiriya or Lion Rock, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya today is a UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site. Built in the 5th century, it’s a palace and ruined city perched on top of a cliff. Because the cliff walls are so straight, it’s like looking at an ancient skyscraper. You have to climb 1200 steps to the top of Sigiriya, but they’re fairly broad. So take lots of water to drink and make use of the frequent rest areas.
Once at the top, you can walk around the ruins of the oldest planned town in the world, to marvel at water storage tanks and ancient frescos of alluring Apsara angels. Even if you decide you don’t want to climb all the way up, it’s amazing to see the bottom of the stone staircase – it’s flanked by enormous lion paws, carved in stone.
Tip: Sigiriya is great for a weekend getaway because it’s also close to the historic town of Kandy – known for the Temple of the Tooth Relic. Tourists usually fly into the Sri Lankan capital Colombo and hire a driver. Driving in Sri Lanka is “challenging,” with truck drivers who keep one hand on the horn and one foot on the accelerator.
5. Herculaneum, Campania, Italy
Most people know the ancient Roman town of Pompeii was buried in a volcanic eruption – but the nearby city of Herculaneum is less well-known. It can be more interesting to visit because it was a richer town, with more fancy mosaics. Plus Herculaneum is better preserved than Pompeii because it was entombed in a very dense mat of stone and ash that’s 50 to 60 feet deep (15 to 18 metres).
This mat is so difficult to dig through, that the town was left undisturbed for centuries. You can see the wood frames of houses, painted walls, mosaic floors, wood furniture, pieces of cloth and even loaves of bread, still in the ovens.
Tip: If you want to see the famous plaster casts made from the bodies of people buried by the eruption, Pompeii is the place to go because it was buried in light ash, which left the shape of the bodies undisturbed. But be aware: Pompeii is more crowded, and it’s a much larger site. This makes it harder to get around if you are travelling with kids, or when the weather is very hot.
6. Petra, Ma’an Governorate, Jordan
The astonishing “Rose Red City of Petra” hides in a stony valley surrounded by arid red mountains that run from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. As early as the 4th century BC, Arabian nomads settled here to become farmers and traders. They founded the Nabataean culture, with Petra as their capital. Because it controlled lucrative trade routes, Petra flourished and grew rich – at one stage 20,000 people lived in these narrow red canyons. Over the centuries they carved tombs, temples and amphitheatres into the red rock walls, including the Al-Khazneh treasury or tomb.
The best way to visit Petra is to hire a local guide. It’s a big site and the hills around the city are cross-crossed by secret hiking paths that can give you unusual views of the monuments.
Petra is just a three-hour drive from the Jordanian capital of Amman, so it’s never exactly empty. But if you can stay one or two nights in the nearby town of Wadi Petra you can catch the sunrise and sunset at Petra, and avoid the mass of the day-trippers.
Tip: Before you arrive in Jordan, buy a Jordan Pass online from the Jordan Ministry of Tourism. This unified ticket combines a tourist visa fee, entry to 36 tourist sites, downloadable maps and guides. If you visit at least one tourist attraction in Jordan, you’ll already save money – plus you get to skip queues. You must buy your pass before arrival in Jordan.
7. Ephesus, Izmir, Turkey
Ephesus used to be the second most important city of the Roman Empire, after Rome. Now it’s one of the best-preserved ancient Roman cities in the world – and it’s just a 45-minute drive from the tourist airport of Izmir, Turkey. Once the Roman’s regional capital for Asia Minor, Ephesus had a wealthy, cosmopolitan population who loved to build fancy public buildings, including a library, amphitheatre, at least six aqueducts, water mills, a saw mill… and of course, several bath complexes.
It’s a good idea to hire an expert guide to tell you more about the ruins you’re seeing. They can point out surprisingly modern touches, like training facilities for gladiators, snack bars at the amphitheatre, stone bollards to stop chariots speeding down the main road – and even saucy paintings inside the brothel.
Tip: Ephesus is important to Bible historians. It’s where St. Paul wrote his “First letter to the Corinthians” and where St John wrote his Gospel. It’s believed the Virgin Mary lived here, and died in a small stone house near the city. The house of the Virgin Mary is now a pilgrimage site. Although the Catholic Church has never confirmed this as Mary’s home, three popes have visited and the Church pays for the upkeep of the site.
8. Anasazi Rock City, Utah, USA
No one is sure who the Anasazi were – their name just means “The Old Ones”. Their civilization arose as early as 1500 BC, and at the peak of their power these native Americans built magnificent five-storey villages in the valleys of New Mexico and Utah, and laid a 400-mile network of roads across deserts and canyons.
Then around 1250 AD, the Anasazi started building multi-story towns on cliff ledges, hundreds of feet off the ground. No one knows why they started building – or why they later left. But the dry climate preserved their homes, giving you a chance to stand on the canyon floor and gaze up at a medieval Manhattan, high overhead. You can discover more in the museum nearby, which also has interactive guides to hiking trails around the surrounding Anasazi State Park.
Tip: There are several ways to get to Anasazi Rock City. You can fly into Las Vegas or Salt Lake City and drive, or take a small plane to Cedar City Regional Airport, about 90 miles away. Since you’ve come all this way, why not include a detour to nearby Capitol Reef National Park? With spectacular natural rock bridges and towers, it makes you feel like you’re in an old Western movie.
9. Edinburgh Castle, Midlothian, Scotland
Glowering on top of a rocky cliff, Edinburgh Castle is the most-attacked castle in the UK, and it shows in the castle’s granite yards littered with well-used medieval weapons and cannons. The castle has also sheltered centuries of royal families and clan chiefs, who left behind carved wooden halls, stained glass windows and the Scottish crown jewels. The crowns and gems are now displayed behind plate glass.
Edinburgh Castle is still a working army barracks, but it’s mostly a museum devoted to military history, Scottish royalty and history. Book your tickets and times ahead – this place gets busy and entry can be restricted. You can also visit a free 3D model of Edinburgh castle online. It lets you explore the castle and plan what to see in person.
Tip: Edinburgh is like stepping into a Harry Potter movie, with wonky medieval buildings and narrow “closes” or alleyways. In fact, author JK Rowling wrote many of her hit books sitting in cafes around Edinburgh. You can do free guided walking tours around Edinburgh to see where she got her inspiration.
10. Salzwelten near Salzburg, Austria
The movie The Sound of Music was set in and around Saltzburg. This Austrian town first got rich because it controlled the salt trade going up and down the Salzach river. Plus Mozart was born here.
All this means the chocolate shops of Salzburg are chock full of tourists. But few of them drive just a couple of hours away to visit Salzwelten – an ancient salt mine. Historians think the first salt miners were Celtic tribes, who quarried salt in between wars with the Romans.
Today, this historic salt mine is an underground attraction that’s like a funfair crossed with a history lesson. You can take a train ride inside ancient tunnels, see salt carvings and even ride on an exciting underground slide – because apparently Celtic miners removed blocks of salt by pushing them down a slide.
Tip: Kids have to be four years old or older to get into Salzwelten. But Salzwelten is right next to a recreation of an ancient Celtic village, with a museum. It’s suitable for kids of all ages. You can walk into ancient Celtic houses and even dress up as an ancient Celt. To explore further, peruse this guide to Salzwelten.
11. Skellig Michael Island, County Kerry, Ireland
You’ve already seen part of Skellig Michael if you’ve seen the Star Wars movies Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. This rocky island dotted with tiny stone huts is where Rey meets Luke Skywalker and later battles Kylo Ren. It may look out of this world, but this World Heritage Site is actually an ancient Gaelic monastery from the 6th century.
Skellig Michael is around 12 kilometres (8 miles) off the coast of west Kerry, and can only be reached by a one hour ride on a ferry boat. Today it’s wonderfully atmospheric, with tiny stone pathways just waiting to be explored. Plus, it never gets crowded. Only 180 people are allowed on the island daily, and they can stay for just two and a half hours. To avoid the worst winter storms, entry is only open from Mid May to early October. Book your ferry and entry tickets a least a month ahead, here.
Tip: This is an incredible destination but it’s not for everyone. From Dublin, you need to fly or drive to the town of Killarney in County Kerry. Then drive or take a bus to the coastal town of Portmagee, to catch a ferry. So that’s potentially seven hours travel. Plus, the ocean off County Kerry can be rough, so ferry crossings are not guaranteed. If you do land, you have to climb 600 rock steps to get to the top of the island.
12. Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico
One of the largest cities built by the ancient Mayans, the ruined city of Chichen Itza is around 73 miles from Merida, or 111 miles from Playa del Carmen, so you can visit during a long day trip from either town. The ancient Mayan people levelled five kilometres of uneven limestone rock to build large ceremonial pyramids, connected by a network of paved causeways.
The standout is the Temple of Kukulcán, a stepped pyramid oriented towards the spring and autumn equinoxes. In the late afternoon, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows that look like a serpent wriggling down the stair – scholars think it may represent a Mayan serpent gods.
But you don’t have to wait for the equinox to see this magical effect. Every night (except Monday) the temple is illuminated by a spectacular 30-minute sound and light show called Kuklulan Nights. It shares snippets of Mayan civilization and re-creates the serpent in light. Reservations are not necessary, just buy your ticket at Chichen Itza’s entrance from 3 p.m.
Tip: Make a 10-minute side trip to swim in one of the world’s loveliest natural swimming pools. Ik Kil, in Chichen Itza’s Eco-Arqueological Park, is a cenote – a deep natural hole which forms when the limestone bedrock collapses. The 40-metre deep groundwater pool at the bottom of Ik Kil cenote is an ideal spot for a swim. The pool is 26 metres below ground level, so you’ll have to walk down a stairway to a wood swimming platform. The entrance fee is a bargain, at around 100 Mexican pesos.
13. Luoyang, Henan, China
Luoyang is not that well known outside of China, yet it’s one of the six ancient capitals of China and an important cradle of Han Chinese culture. You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to historical monuments: Do you go to the first Buddhist temple in China, White Horse Temple, built back in 68 AD? Or take a two hour bus ride to visit Shaolin Temple, to see monks famed for Kung Fu martial arts?
We vote you head first to the Longmen Grottoes. This World Heritage Site includes hundreds of ancient caves, filled with over 100,000 statues of Buddha, bodhisattvas, gods, angels and travellers setting out on the ancient Silk Road, to the West.
The carvings were done over hundreds of years so you can spot several different styles, with artistic influences from China, India, Central Asia and the Himalayas. Leave time to try the local Longmen cuisine – derived from imperial court recipes, it’s based around noodles and peppery soups.
Tip: Fly direct to Luoyang from Singapore or from any major city in China. There are also high-speed trains available. It’s around five and a half hours from Shanghai to Luoyang on a high speed train, one hour less from Beijing. Many companies offer two-day tours of the region that give you a day at the grottoes and a day at Shaolin Temple.
14. Luxor, West Bank, Egypt
Luxor towers above Egypt’s other towns because of its wealth of temples and tombs, including the magnificent Karnak Temple. Why? It’s because Luxor used to be the ancient city of Thebes, the capital of Upper Egypt, during the golden age. This means generations of pharaohs threw money at impressive building projects, both along the Nile and up into the valleys nearby.
Highlights include The Valley of the Kings, which has 63 royal tombs, including the tomb of the famous boy-king Tutankhamun. Or, there’s also the terraced Temple of Deir el-Bahri, cut out of sheer cliffs of sandstone by Queen Hatshepsut. The wall paintings of Medinet Habu are some of the best you’ll see in Egypt – some of the carvings still have traces of their original colours, so they look almost new. In fact, there’s so so much to see in Luxor it’s well worth taking a private tour – many are guided by trained Egyptologists.
Tip: The Luxor Museum is worth visiting to get up-close and personal with gleaming gold treasures, including pieces from the tomb of Tutankhamun. Opening hours seem to change at will, so get your hotel or guide to check before you set off.
By Tara Barker