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9 of the Most Impressive Ancient Ruins Around the World

From grand temples to unearthed cities and mysterious monuments, these archaeological ruins beckon visions of ancient civilizations.

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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.

Maybe you’ve already seen the Roman Colosseum. But what about Montezuma Castle? Have you watched the sunset over the rose-canyon splendor of Petra or Maharashtra’s rock-hewn Hindu temples? The world is full of ancient ruins beckoning travelers to leave their textbooks and travel guides at home and peer into the ancient world in person. It’s a motley collection, with many to name and too many to see. But our favorites can make your planning—or daydreaming—a little easier.

1. Appian Way (Via Appia Antica), Rome, Italy

People explore the Appian Way in Italy.
A sunny day along the Appian Way.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

Who needs the Colosseum when you've got the "queen of the roads?"

Known as the regina viarum (“queen of the roads” in Latin), the Appian Way once connected ancient Rome to modern-day Brindisi. The Appian Way Regional Park preserves 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the ancient road and religious sites along the route, including the church where Christ is believed to have met Peter, and the catacombs of Saint Sebastian and Saint Callixtus. This section is a pleasant cobblestoned thoroughfare lined with cypress trees and crumbling ruins—see it on foot, by electric bike, or by Vespa.

Related: 7 Epic Multi-Day Hikes for Your Next Italian Vacation

2. Montezuma Castle, Camp Verde, Arizona, US

Reflections at Montezuma Castle in Arizona.
Montezuma Castle in Arizona is a place to reflect.Photo Credit: Dennis Swena / Shutterstock

This mysterious castle is an archaeological highlight of the American Southwest.

It’s a mystery why the Sinagua people abandoned Montezuma Castle—preserved pre-Colombian dwellings in Camp Verde, Arizona—in about AD 1425. The best theories suggest drought or conflicts with other Native people and newcomers. What is clear is that they left behind a 20-chamber castle cut into a limestone cliff high above a creek bed, an offshoot of the Verde River. Montezuma is one of several Sinagua archeological sites in the American Southwest: see them on a single tour or stop by en route to Sedona or the Grand Canyon.

3. Ajanta and Ellora Caves, Maharashtra, India

Women in red sit by Ellora Caves.
Take pause at Ellora Caves.Photo Credit: Leonid Andronov / Shutterstock

Fascinating Indian cave complexes that warrant a day of exploration.

The Ajanta and Ellora Caves are UNESCO World Heritage sites about 60 miles (100 kilometers) apart in Maharashtra, a state in central India. They’re among the largest cave temple complexes of their kind in the world, with some carved from massive single blocks of stone. Ajanta holds nearly 30 2nd-century Buddhist cave temples; Ellora’s 34 caves are newer and more varied, built for Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist worship. You’ll likely need one day for each complex and can also see the Mini Taj Mahal nearby.

Insider tip: Visiting during the Ellora Ajanta Festival of classical dance and music in October is highly recommended.

4. Easter Island, Chile

Ancient head statues on Easter Island.
The stone carvings on Easter Island are wrapped in mystery.Photo Credit: Gabor Kovacs Photography / Shutterstock

Striking sculptures on an island in the South Pacific.

Nearly 900 monumental carved human figures called “moai” dot the landscape of Easter Island, a remote volcanic island in the southern Pacific. The island is a World Heritage Site, much of it protected within Rapa Nui National Park. Built by the Rapa Nui people, the moai resemble upright humans with oversized heads, and are thought to assist in ancestor worship. Reaching the island is challenging—limited flights from Santiago are your best bet—but once there it’s easy to take a few days to explore multiple moai sites or check out the island’s volcano and village ruins.

5. Petra, Jordan

The glowing red rocks of Petra, explored by people.
The glowing red rocks of Petra.Photo Credit: Vova Shevchuk / Shutterstock

Ancient Petra is a highlight of Jordan ... and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Nicknamed the “Rose City” for its pink sandstone cliffs, Petra is a 2-millennia-old archeological city set within a narrow canyon in southwest Jordan. The much-photographed Al Khazaneh temple has a recognizable 150-foot-tall (45-meter) Greek-style facade. A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of The World, the archeological site comprises tombs, temples, and Roman structures famous for their rock-cut architecture—think of it as a lost city surrounded by magical mountains and deserts.

6. Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico

Visitors explore the grounds of Chichen Itza.
Chichen Itza is awe-inspiring.Photo Credit: Carlos Rivera / Viator

Imposing Chichen Itza is one of Mexico's most famous archaeological sites, for good reason.

There’s a reason millions of travelers visit Chichen Itza from Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum every year. One of the New Seven Wonders of the World and a designated World Heritage Site, Chichen Itza is among the greatest Maya archeological sites in Yucatan. The sprawling site occupies 4 square miles (10 square kilometers) east of Valladolid with temples, ball courts, and a cenote (freshwater sinkhole). The massive central step pyramid, called the Temple of Kukulcan or El Castillo, dominates the ancient city, which has around 26 official archaeological sites.

7. Pompeii, Campania, Italy

Visitors wander the ruins of Pompeii near Naples.
You could easily spend a whole day exploring Pompeii.Photo Credit: Silvia Longhi / Viator

One of Italy's top archaeological ruins, Pompeii merits a day's exploration.

About one-sixth of Italy’s UNESCO-listed sites are in Campania, a hefty proportion for one of Italy’s 20 regions. Surrounded by ruins in Herculaneum and Paestum, Pompeii is the most impressive: the sprawling archeological site is a nearly intact town, famous for being miraculously preserved under volcanic ash from the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius nearly 2,000 years ago. Here, you can walk Roman cobblestone roads; behold millennia-old frescoes and mosaics up close; and explore ancient temples, villas, and shops with archeologists.

8. Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

Great Zimbabwe as seen from above.
Great Zimbabwe is well worth exploring.Photo Credit: evenfh / Shutterstock

A feat of engineering within easy reach of Harare.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Great Zimbabwe was a medieval-era city in the southeastern hills of Zimbabwe near modern-day Masvingo. The ruins favor curves over straight lines and are built in a freestanding style without mortar—an impressive feat of engineering for the time. They're also among the largest stone structures south of the Sahara Desert. Visitors can tour ruins with an acropolis, a large circular wall, high towers, and mud-brick houses where villagers once lived.

9. Machu Picchu, Andes Mountains, Peru

Machu Picchu is deep in the Peruvian mountains.
Machu Picchu in all its glory.Photo Credit: Antonio Franco / Viator

This mysterious mountaintop citadel is one of the world's most famed ruins.

Top of the list for many travelers, Machu Picchu is an Incan citadel perched nearly 8,000 feet (2,440 meters) above the Urubamba River Valley in the Andes Mountains. A hugely popular backpacking destination via the Inca Trail or alternative routes, the ruins appear as if by magic, with ancient plazas, terraced hills, and astronomically-aligned structures amid a tropical mountain forest. Like all good ruins, Machu Picchu cradles lasting mysteries, including who built the sophisticated lost city and exactly how.

Related: Know Before You Go: Visiting Machu Picchu

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