For this list, we’re exploring the most impressive, jaw-dropping ruins the world has to offer. To keep things interesting, we’re broadening our timeline of ancient history to include sites built past the fifth or sixth centuries AD.
Alongside Petra, this Incan icon has been called one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, and there’s little doubt as to why. Machu Picchu was constructed in the 15th century, but what it lacks in age it more than makes up for in splendor. Perched atop a mountain nearly 8,000 feet above sea level and overlooking the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu truly gives visitors the impression that they’re on another world. Built by the Inca at their most prosperous, it went largely unknown to the international community until 1911. But since then, people have flocked to it in such numbers that entrance restrictions have been put in place to reduce numbers and damage to the site.
As impressive as the Montezuma Castle National Monument may be, when it comes to ruins built into the side of rock walls, Petra is the gold standard. Or should we say “rose-red standard”? Carved out of the red sandstone cliffs found between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea in southern Jordan, this city was brilliantly designed by the Nabatean people to help manage the area’s inconsistent water supply. When visiting, one can’t help but marvel at the seemingly impossible, ornate structures – especially the famous Treasury at Petra, otherwise known as Al-Khazneh. If built today, it would be remarkable… but considering it may date back as a far as the 5th Century BC, it’s downright unbelievable.
Found just east of the aforementioned Roman Forum, the Colosseum was another center of Roman culture. However, whereas the Forum served as commercial and political meeting point, the Colosseum was all about entertainment – often of a violent nature. And while the gladiators have long stopped fighting to the death for the 50,000 to 80,000 spectators the amphitheater could hold, this testament to Roman architectural ingenuity continues to draw big crowds, pulling in an estimated 4 million tourists per year. Completed in 80 AD, it remains the largest amphitheater ever constructed.
The largest Buddhist temple in the world, this structure – which was likely built over a 75-year period spanning the 8th and 9th centuries – is an architectural masterpiece. Although a lack of documentation shrouds much of its history in mystery, this site of pilgrimage never fails to astound today, over a millennia later – even without historical context. Boasting 2,672 detailed pictorial relief panels, 504 Buddha statues and 72 perforated or “open-air” stupas, this glowing example of Javanese Buddhist architecture is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Indonesia. Interestingly enough, when viewed from above, it resembles a gigantic Buddhist mandala.
More popularly known to outsiders simply as the Easter Island heads, Moai are the massive human-looking stone carvings of the Rapa Nui people. And while, for the most part, only the heads are visible, they actually have bodies concealed underground. A number of these impressive stone symbols of power are positioned along coastline, but many – almost 400, in fact – remain at Rano Raraku; the volcanic crater that served as the quarry for most of the moai found on the island today. While all moai are impressive, the collection around the crater – which includes incomplete examples and the largest known moai at 71 feet in height – makes for a truly fascinating sight.
If any civilization can give Ancient Greece a run for its money in terms of ability to captivate modern minds, it’s the Roman Empire. Located at the very center of Rome is the Forum, which served as a central hub of culture and politics. However, in the Middle Ages – after the fall of the Roman Empire – it began to fall into disrepair; some monuments were even broken down for their materials. But, even though much of it was lost to time, the Forum continues to wow over 4.5 million visitors each year.
When, as a visitor, you simply cannot fathom how such a structure could possibly constructed in the modern age, let alone hundreds of years ago, you know you’re in the presence of truly remarkable ruins. Be warned, the name of this structure is incorrect on two counts: it had nothing to do with Montezuma, and it most certainly is not a castle. Built by the Sinagua people between roughly 1100 and 1425 AD near modern day Camp Verde, Arizona, this huge structure consisting of 20 rooms spread across five stories is built in a natural alcove of a cliff, 90 feet off the ground. It likely protected the tribe from both the elements and enemies.
Ahhh, Ancient Greece. Is there any bygone civilization more romanticized or more studied? While it’s sure to face strong competition on this list, the city of Ephesus – found in modern day Turkey – serves as strong reminder as to why the modern world continues to obsess over this culture of yesteryear. The many surviving ruins allow imaginative minds to fill in the blanks to see a city of breathtaking splendor. Within the city itself, one finds the Library of Celsus, the Temple of Hadrian, a massive open-air theater and much more. Plus, nearby you’ll find the remains of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
While Angkor Wat is all about the details, this prehistoric monument found in Wiltshire, England proves that intricate carvings aren’t a prerequisite for drawing crowds and filling them with a sense of wonder. Set amidst hundreds of burial mounds, this arrangement of standing stones was constructed over a long period of time, between roughly 3000 BC and 2000 BC. But given that it was built by a people who left behind no account of their process or intentions, a great many mysteries surround this imposing structure. The site shows the inevitable signs of aging, but thanks to restoration efforts, much of the structure has been preserved for curious minds present and future to enjoy.
No trip to Cambodia is complete without a visit to this massive, world-renowned temple. In fact, you’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to explore, as this complex is the largest religious structure on Earth and is overflowing with things to appreciate. Built in the 12th century, Angkor Wat is a testament to the skill of Khmer builders and architects – from its lotus bud-inspired towers to the many detailed carvings of divine figures. While its magnitude and classic symmetry are jaw dropping in their own right, it’s the finely detailed works of art contained within that will really leave your head spinning.