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8 Ancient Cities of the World to Add to Your Travel Wish List

From tombs and temples carved into sandstone to ancient religious sanctuaries, these city-sized archaeological sites are well worth a visit.

Delphi Archeological Site in Greece
Hi, I'm Gianmaria!

Gianmaria Franchini is a writer based in Oakland, CA who makes his life between California and Italy. He’s a Senior Writer with Viator, and the in-house San Francisco expert.

The past is never dead, so the saying goes—and it’s still very much alive among the world’s most ancient cities. Some, like Athens and Varanasi, brim with must-see historical ruins in every direction. Others, like Petra and Pompeii, aren’t quite living cities but provide in-depth views into the everyday lives of the people who lived there. Walk among the ruins in any of these places, and the past (excuse the cliché) comes to life before you. If you like exploring ancient world wonders, add these age-old stunners—most more than 1,000 years old—to your travel wish list.

1. Petra, Jordan

Visitors tour the tombs and temples of Petra, once the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom.
Petra was the capital of the Nabatean Kingdom.Photo Credit: Alex Vasey / Unsplash

“Rose City'' has survived more than two millennia.

In ancient Greek, petra means “rock,” but there’s more to this city than stone ruins. This former stronghold of the Arabian kingdom of Nabataean was carved directly into a rose-colored sandstone valley more than 2,000 years ago—and the rock-cut architecture and ingenious water systems are still much as they were millennia ago.

Once you’ve explored Petra (which is both a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World), take part in an age-old Jordanian desert tradition: safari through the Wadi Rum or “Valley of the Moon,” a spectacular red–rock wilderness home to Stone Age petroglyphs.

2. Matera, Italy

Photo Credit: canadastock / Shutterstock

Once Italy’s poorest city, Matera is rich in ancient settlements.

Though conspicuously whitewashed, Matera looks a lot like many other hill towns in the Basilicata region of Southern Italy. Explore the historic center, however, and you’ll find the Sassi of Matera, UNESCO-listed cave dwellings built into tufa limestone caves that first offered shelter more than 9,000 years ago. Once maligned as the “shame of Italy” for the abject conditions of the poor living in the prehistoric dwellings, the town is now a surreal mix of old and new—step inside the closely built sassi, and you'll find chic restaurants, churches, hotels, shops, and even vacation rentals.

3. Pompeii, Italy

A view of Pompeii's Civil Forum, the ancient city's main square.
Pompeii's Civil Forum, the ancient city's main square, with Mt. Vesuvius seen in the background.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

These ruins were famously preserved under volcanic ash for almost two millennia.

In a nation abundant with ancient ruins, Pompeii is the undisputed king—and offers the closest experience you can get to real ancient city exploration. Once you get your ticket to the site, head down main street (decumanus maximus), and explore the houses and public sites that have been preserved in volcanic ash for some 2,000 years. There are still scenes of life and death here, from the erotic sculptures and frescoes in the House of the Vettii (and other villas) to the silhouettes of the city’s last inhabitants, whose last moments were captured in lava and recreated as plaster casts.

Insider tip: While visiting Pompeii, make time for other nearby archaeological sites—Herculaneum, Paestum, and Cumae are all within a 1–hour drive. Paestum Small Group tour with an Archaeologist

4. Athens, Greece

Photo Credit: Songquan Deng / Shutterstock

The cradle of Western civilization.

Inhabited since at least 3000 BC, Athens is among the oldest cities in the world and has a well-founded reputation as the cradle of Western civilization. To see the evidence for this claim lies, look no further than Acropolis citadel and ruins of the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena, and other historic buildings. The site also offers a wonderful archaeological museum.

Athens also serves as an excellent base for exploring another UNESCO site: Delphi, which boasts remarkably preserved ruins, sits on the southern slopes of Mount Parnassus. The site’s top attractions include the Sacred Way, the Stoa of the Athenians, and the Temple of Apollo (which has its own impressive museum).

5. Varanasi, India

Photo Credit: milosk50 / Shutterstock

Hinduism’s holiest—and most ancient—city.

Lying along the holy Ganges River, Varanasi (also called Benares) is one of India’s seven sacred cities and home to cremation sites for performing the funeral rituals thought to break the cycle of reincarnation. It is also, by some accounts, among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Varanasi is also one of the best places to experience Hindu traditions up close: you can explore riverfront temples, see sacred bathing sites, and visit ghats (age-old cremation grounds). You can also visit Sarnath (just outside of town), the spot where Buddhists believe that Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, gave his first sermon some 2500 years ago.

Insider tip: You can visit ghats by walking along the riverside, but it’s more fun (and efficient) to see them from the water.

6. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

A view of Angkor Wat, reportedly the largest religious building on earth, in Cambodia.
It's all in the details at Angkor Wat where carvings depict nymphs, serpents, and Khmer Empire battles.Photo Credit: Regis Binard / Viator

One of the world’s largest religious structures.

While it’s not technically a city, nor over 1,000 years old (it clocks in at a mere 900), Angkor Wat (“City of Temples”) is worth adding to this list because of its history, cultural importance, and artistry. The temple complex—which, at 400 acres (160 hectares), is roughly the size of a town—contains more than a thousand buildings, all of which are covered with carvings depicting Hindu stories and images of apsaras (celestial beings). For the most iconic views, get an early start so you can watch the sunrise over the temples, or visit at sunset, after the heat of the day has dissipated.

7. Choquequirao, Peru

A view of Choquequirao, one of the least-visited Inca sites in Peru due to the difficult 2-day hike required to reach the ruins.
Choquequirao is undoubtedly one of the least-visited Inca sites in Peru due to the difficult 2-day hike required to reach the ruins.Photo Credit: Viator

The “other” Machu Picchu.

While many of the ancient sites on this list are well known and easy to reach, Choquequirao is a true adventurer’s destination. Lying 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, the archaeological site comprises Inca temples, houses, baths, and agricultural terraces believed to have been built between the 15th and 16th centuries AD. It’s also more remote, and challenging to visit, than its more famous cousin, Machu Picchu: To reach the ruins, you need to commit to a difficult (but richly rewarding) 4-day round-trip trek. If the pace of such a trip feels ambitious, you could opt for a five-day trek instead, or, for an even more memorable adventure, take an 8-day expedition that also visits Machu Picchu.

Insider tip: The trip to Choquequirao will soon be less arduous, thanks to a cable car system being built to take travelers there from the town of Kuñalla; the project was meant to open in 2023 but faces continued delays.

8. Tiwanaku, Bolivia

A clay statue in Tiwanaku, a pre-Incan archaeological site near the southern shores of Lake Titicaca, in Bolivia.
Tiwanaku is a pre-Incan archaeological site near the southern shores of Lake Titicaca.Photo Credit: David Torres / Unsplash

Lost city of the Andes.

The gates, mounds, and platforms of this ancient city in the Bolivian Altiplano, near Lake Titicaca, remain shrouded in mystery; we know very little about its construction and sudden abandonment. In fact, there’s even confusion about its true age. Early estimates placed it between 11,000 and 17,000 years old, but more accurate dating methods have put it at about 2,300. Some archeologists speculate that the grand UNESCO-listed ruins might be the remains of the ancient capital of the Tiwanaku Empire, which once stretched across Bolivia and neighboring South American states.

9. Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Photo Credit: Tom Willard / Shutterstock

The oldest “castle” in North America.

The last people to live in Montezuma were the indigenous Sinagua of the southwestern US, and they abandoned the structures in the early 15th century. But the ruins—not actually a castle, but a 5-story village of multi-family dwellings built into a cliffside—are thought to be much older than that and were likely first settled in the early 1100s by the Hohokam people. Together with the smaller Tuzigoot National Monument, the site comprises some of the best-preserved ruins in the American Southwest and is among the first national monuments ever designated in the US.

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