We love exploring ruins, temples and the ancient sites of the world. Indeed, we have walked or cycled around our fair share of them from the mountains of Himalayas to the jungles of Central America. There are, of course, still plenty that we want to see, but here are thirteen of our favourite amazing ancient sites of the world so far:
1) Chichen Itza, Mexico
We arrived at the ancient city of Chichen Itza at opening time, enabling us to beat the tourist buses. We were so glad that we did – we were able to explore the site while it was still relatively quiet. The most impressive of the Mayan buildings is El Castillo, the central pyramid and star of the show. The pyramid is, in fact, known for its extraordinary architecture and reflection of the Mayan astronomical calendar. Indeed, Chichen Itza is one of Mexico’s best preserved ancient sites and we loved exploring it. Although the ruins themselves were impressive, one of our most abiding memories of the day was a face-off between two giant iguanas!
2) Hampi, India
Magical and bewitching, Hampi is an ancient temple town in Karnataka, surrounded by 16th century ruins. Giant boulders are strewn across the landscape, set against a backdrop of vibrant green paddy fields and palm trees. We explored Hampi in depth over several days. Walking for miles in the intense heat under deep blue skies, there was much to see. We stumbled across stunning ancient ruins as well as incredible rock formations. Deservedly adorned with UNESCO World Heritage status, Hampi and its surrounding area formed part of the fourteenth century Vijayanagara Empire.
3) Petra, Jordan
Built by the Nabateans, it is believed that Petra dates back to the 4th century BC approximately. The Nabatean capital was, in fact, a thriving city of 30,000 people. Indeed, it was also an important trade centre dealing in myrrh together with frankincense and spices. In 106 AD, the city was taken over by the Romans and then in 363 AD many of the buildings were destroyed by an earthquake.
Petra was then ‘lost’ to the western world until it was discovered by Swiss explorer, Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812. The city brims with incredible rock-cut architecture along with monasteries, temples and churches, not to mention a well-preserved ampitheater. What’s more, new discoveries are constantly being made. In fact, most recently, a huge ceremonial platform was uncovered in 2016. One of the highlights of our visit was experiencing Petra by night. The Treasury, one of the main monuments, was illuminated by hundreds of candles creating a magical ambience.
4) Bagan, Myanmar
Cycling along the dusty lanes of the ancient city of Bagan is one of our favourite travel memories of all time. The twenty-six square mile area is home to over two thousand temples, most of which are superbly preserved. Each temple has a character of its own with a Buddha statue along with carvings and frescoes. Indeed, every stop was different and we never knew what we would come across next. Pedalling through the rugged terrain with the evocative sound of monks chants emanating from the temples was a truly incredible experience.
5) Machu Piccu, Peru
Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu was challenging, but worth the effort! Despite suffering from a little altitude sickness, we are both so glad that we did it. The hike consists of 26 miles of mountains, cloud forests, sub-tropical jungle and, of course, Inca ruins. The feeling of achievement when we finally reached the ‘Lost City of the Incas’ was unforgettable. Machu Picchu became an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983 and is one of the few pre-Columbian ruins which was discovered reasonably intact. The combination of the stunning setting and the ruins themselves is a majestic sight indeed. We did our trek with Peru Treks who were excellent.
6) The Colosseum, Rome, Italy
The Colosseum is, of course, the largest ampitheater ever constructed. Situated, a stone’s throw from the Roman Forum, it was built in 72 AD by the emperor Vespasian and had capacity for over 50,000 spectators. At a time when Rome was at its most powerful, The Colosseum was a scene for celebrating its many triumphs. Gladiatorial contests and executions together with animal hunts and battle re-enactments took place there. The Colosseum definitely lived up to expectations for us and it was even possible, with a little imagination, to conjure up images of what it must have been like back in the day.
7) Taj Mahal, Agra, India
The iconic Taj Mahal was constructed by Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan in 1631 and was dedicated to his wife who died while giving birth to their 14th child. 20,000 workers and 1,000 elephants took around twenty years to complete construction of the mausoleum together with the gardens. Strangely, despite the selfie-stick toting crowds, we experienced a feeling of serenity as soon as we entered the grounds. It was fascinating to take a close look at one of the world’s majestic buildings. The marble masterpiece is carved with flowers and inlaid with precious stones. Indeed, the world’s most famous symbol to love certainly lived up to expectations.
8) Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Although it is always crowded, nothing can detract from the beauty of this sprawling temple complex. The Khmer Kingdom ruled the whole of South East Asia from the city until 1431, when it was invaded by Thailand. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until the 1860’s that the city was rediscovered by the French. Reclaimed by the jungle, nature has taken its course and tree roots twist their way round the ancient temples. As a matter of fact, Angkor Wat, became even more popular after Lara Croft’s Tomb Raider was filmed at Ta Prohm. Angkor Wat is, without doubt, one of the most awe-inspiring destinations on the planet.
9) Tikal, Guatemala
If you fancy yourself as Indiana Jones, Tikal is the place to head for. It’s the largest and most important Mayan site in Central America and the fact that the ancient city is hidden in the heart of the jungle only adds to the appeal. From the tallest pyramid, we enjoyed panoramic views over the treetops and looked out at other temples peeking through the canopy. Toucans together with howler and spider monkeys populate the park and are easily spotted. However, the elusive jaguar keeps a low profile.
10) Tulum, Mexico
Our main incentive in visiting Tulum was to see the famous Mayan ruins. These ancient ruins are, in fact, pretty special. They are situated in the most picturesque location imaginable. Perched on some cliffs overlooking a beautiful beach and the azure Caribbean Sea, the Mayans who lived there knew what they were doing when they chose such a scenic spot to settle. Indeed, there aren’t many ancient ruins where you can take in a history lesson followed by a dip in the Caribbean.
11) Sukhothai, Thailand
Sukhothai Heritage Park in Thailand is about three hundred miles north of Bangkok. The park is full of 13th-14th century temples, not to mention an abundance of Buddha statues. The best and most enjoyable way to explore is by bicycle, which we did over two days. The grounds are well-maintained and the central zone has a scenic lake, complete with lotus flowers. Smaller than South East Asia’s major sites, it’s less crowded and has a more peaceful vibe. Adjacent to the park, there is a market – a great place to sample some tasty Thai street food.
12) Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa is a wonderful complex of ancient temples and was the former capital of Sri Lanka. Dating back to 1070, Polonnaruwa is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout the area, there are temples galore to explore. We hired bikes to get around and it was, in fact, a perfect way to see everything. Many of the buildings are well-preserved and in addition to temples and stupas, it’s possible to view the remains of the grand palace and royal court. Indeed, although we didn’t know of Polonnaruwa prior to visiting Sri Lanka, it was one of the highlights of our visit.
13) Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal
In the heart of Kathmandu, Durbar Square is a great place to people watch from the high steps of a temple In fact, we have spent many an hour doing so. Surrounded by a labyrinth of alleyways, together with impressive ancient Nepalese buildings, there are shrines located throughout the square. Vibrantly dressed sadhus pose for a few rupees. In a tiny courtyard, the Living Goddess, Kumari, makes occasional appearances on her balcony. Elsewhere, pigeons scatter as small children run amongst them, locals sell fruit and vegetables or worship at a colourful shrine.
14) Cappadocia, Turkey
Although Cappadocia is primarily known for its surreal and breath-taking landscapes, it is also a site rich in history. Originally settled by the Hittites between 1800 BC to 1200 BC, it was then taken over by the Persians, followed by the Romans, after which it became a refuge for early Christians. These days, the ruins of cave churches together with monasteries and underground cities remain. We absolutely loved exploring the incredible landscapes and caves, many of which still have frescoes on the walls within them.