The world is full of amazing places to visit and must-see archaeological sites. Some of our favourite moments when travelling across 180+ countries happened when discovering some fascinating historical sites and ancient ruins.
There were those that we always heard about and were excited to see such as the Colosseum, Machu Picchu, or the Pyramids in Egypt. But there were also unknown gems that really surprised us. For example, the Persepolis in Iran or Baalbek temples in Lebanon. Just wow! A few archaeological sites remain on our bucket list: from the Leptis Magna in Libya and the incredible Moai or Rano Raraku, also known as statues on Easter Island. Hopefully, we get to see them in our lifetime.
In the meantime, enjoy the list of the 20 most amazing archaeological sites in the world. From iconic monuments, ancient cities to century-old temples, these should be on your bucket list.
Baalbek was known as Heliopolis and it is home to some of the most incredible Roman Ruins. Although it was in Roman times that Baalbek gained its wide recognition, the site was of political and religious importance long before the Romans arrived.
The highlight is the Temple of Jupiter, constructed in the 1st century AD, and the Temple Of Bacchus built a century later. Most importantly, it is the best-preserved Roman temple of its size anywhere. It was almost bizarre to share this huge archaeological site with just a dozen other tourists. Lebanon doesn’t see near as many tourists as bordering countries such as Israel or even Jordan.
More than 2000 temples and pagodas can be found around Bagan. During its golden age when Bagan was the capital of the kingdom, there were more than 10,000 of them. Enjoy the magic sunsets here or book a balloon ride to get some incredible photos. And then get up for sunrise to watch it all again.
We hired a guide with a horse cart for a day, a great way to see it. But you can also explore on a bicycle. Not something that can be done at other archaeological sites. Try to stay in Old Bagan as you will be in proximity to the temples. Check out these day tours in Bagan to get the most from your time here.
We use Booking.com for the best deals on accommodation while travelling in Burma.
3. Moai of Rano Raraku, Easter Island, Chile
Human figures carved out by people for what reason? Nobody knows… The tallest figure is believed to weigh 82 tonnes so the question is – just how were these huge structures moved? In short, we have no idea. To clarify, we believe they date to around the 13-14th century. But we simply don’t understand how or why.
Getting to Easter Islands isn’t so easy unless you live in Santiago, Chile. Flights from here take 6 hours to reach these islands. Best prices can be found using the flight search engine, Skyscanner.com.
4. Petra, Jordan
Jordan’s most amazing attraction and one of the new seven wonders of the world: Petra. While you might have seen the photo of the Treasury many times, there is a lot more to this place! In addition to the treasury, there is an entire city that takes hours to explore – we walked 25kms on the day we visited.
The rose-red city was built by the Nabataeans about 2000 years ago. Carved from the natural red sandstone, the city is a miracle of the ancient world, particularly when one realises that it was built in the middle of the hot and inhospitable Jordanian desert.
Ask your hotel if they have a shuttle to the main gate early in the morning. It gets hot quickly, therefore it’s a good idea to start early. It’s dusty (and hot) so wear comfortable shoes and take plenty of water.
CLICK HERE for availability and best rates on hotels in Petra.
5. The Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Voted as one of the new 7 Wonders of the world, the Colosseum doesn’t need an introduction. The largest amphitheatre in the world built around the year 80 AD could seat 50,000 people! It used to have a massive awning to shelter the audience from the hot sun, while they watched the gladiators fight for their freedom. The arena was once covered in sand to soak up the blood during battles.
Today the top of the floor has been removed and it exposed the cages and underground chambers where gladiators were kept. The Colosseum survived the fall of the Roman Empire and the Middle Ages and it is a great symbol of Roman engineering.
The top three floors and the underground chambers below the arena are accessible only by guided tour. But these require advanced booking and cost €9 each on top of the normal Colosseum ticket. The spring months are the best to visit – fewer crowds and cooler weather make the visit more enjoyable. There are other amazing archaeological sites nearby so make sure you have a few days to see them all.
The size of this Mesoamerican city is almost surreal to comprehend. The highlights are the Pyramid of the Moon, Pyramid of the Sun and the Avenue of the Dead. This huge archaeological complex northeast of Mexico City was once a flourishing pre-Columbian city. It was also the largest city in the Western hemisphere before 1400. Just imagine arriving here and seeing its size. The Aztecs gave it its name later on, which means “birthplace of the gods”.
The enormous Pyramids of the Sun and Moon are not like those in ancient Egypt, being temples rather than tombs. The Street of the Dead connects the pyramids and forms an urban grid. But the whole design is set around the movement of the sun. Amazing! In 2009, a tunnel beneath the Pyramid of the Sun was found so hopefully, we find more answers about Teotihuacán.
The best time to visit is in January to April and as always, the early bird gets the worm. Sunday is the day where locals get free entry so it can be even busier.
Ancient temples original. Tomb Raider. Imagine walking into the thick jungle only to discover temples, some overgrown with trees. The French archaeologists discovered Angkor Wat in the early 20th century and the famous Ta Prohm with a giant tree root enveloping it. Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple built in the 12th century. Today it reminds us of the power of the jungle. Some of the corridors, towers and courtyards are blocked with fallen stones, moss, roots of decaying trees.
Some restoration is underway to keep Ta Prohm as well as the whole Angkor Wat safe and prevent further damage. You will need at least two hours to explore it. The wet season seems to be a quieter time to visit.
8. Persepolis, Iran
This incredible archaeological site was once the capital of the Persian ( Achaemenid) Empire. Located in the Southern part of Iran near the city of Shiraz, it is relatively under-visited by international tourists. This thriving city was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 AD and he ordered to burn the palace after his departure.
The highlights include the grand staircase and the remaining colonnades of Tachara Palace (the oldest palace). Bas-reliefs are among the best we have seen from all the archaeological sites we have visited.
We have hired a taxi driver to take us to Persepolis as well as Naqsh-e Rustam, the rock-cut tombs of four Persian kings. If you can, bring a guidebook or some information on what you will see. Hiring a guide is also well worth it.
Unfortunately, we never got the permit to visit Palmyra when we travelled to Syria in September 2019. Palmyra was a rich city on the Silk Road during the 3rd century, a gateway to the West for travellers returning from the Orient. It was once led by Queen Zenobia who built a large empire that lasted for 13 years.
You won’t find Palmyra mentioned among other archaeological sites these days, as due to the ongoing war conflict in Syria, only very few visitors make the trip – plus you need a special permit to see it. Sadly, in 2015 Palmyra fell under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and its temples, monuments were blown up and destroyed.
Near the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang Di, China’s first emperor stands an army of 8000 life-sized statues – soldiers, generals, archers, and more. Each one of them is unique. Are they just guarding the emperor or are there more treasures to be found?
Visiting this place was a dream come true and prepare yourself for hordes of tourists as you shuffle along to look down on the pit filled with the terracotta warriors. The actual tomb Qin Shi Huangdi has not yet been excavated as is too deep to uncover. A landslide may occur when excavating if the grave is built with soil walls like the terracotta warriors pit.
We are still unsure how old Stonehenge really is, but most archaeologists believe around 3000 – 2000 BC. How these huge stones have been lifted and why remains a mystery. Was it used as a burial ground? Or as an ancient form of a calendar due to the position of the stones? And how were these heavy stones transported here? So many questions remain about this archaeological site…
A visit here is pretty easy and straightforward. Best to come early morning. You can book a tour or get here on your own.
12. Tikal, Guatemala
Nestled in the depths of the forest in Guatemala, the ruins of a former Mayan city date back to 300 to 800 AD. It was home to 60,000 people once, but archaeologists are unsure what caused its decline. The highlight includes the Ball Court and the very steep step pyramid.
We arrived before dawn to see the sunrise at the pyramids back in 2008 but unfortunately, were not allowed to get in by the guards. Still, later on in the morning, we entered to explore the area almost empty.
You needed to have your passport to enter and we bought the ticket the day before.
13. Leptis Magna, Libya
Along with Palmyra in Syria, Leptis Magna could feature on the list of Archaeological Sites nobody is visiting. Due to the ongoing civil conflict in Libya, travel here is practically impossible. Located on the edge of the Mediterranean, these incredible Roman ruins remain empty of visitors for now. The city was founded by Phoenicians and Berbers, but it was under the rule of Romans when the city really thrived.
Roman emperor Septimius Severus, born in Leptis Magna, spent a vast part of his wealth on the city, building the Arch of Septimius Severus and the Severan Basilica, among many other buildings. Other highlights include Hadrian’s Baths and the Amphitheatre of Leptis Magna, constructed in 56 AD. Around the same time as the colosseum.
One of the most famous archaeological sites in South America. This 15th century Inca city is set 7,970 feet above sea level and getting here can be half the fun: via the famous Inca Trail or on a really scenic rail journey.
On the backdrop of the Andean peaks, Machu Picchu can be described as a stone complex made up of hundreds of buildings— houses, palaces, temples and baths. Its own water system is a very clever design, using a nearby natural spring as its main water source. A canal with help of gravity then carried it into the city centre. It proves the advanced hydraulic and civil engineering capabilities of the Incas. The main question remains: why was the city abandoned? The locals tell us that there are more archaeological sites hidden in the jungle, we just need to find them.
If you wish to visit Machu Pichu via the Inca Trail, then make sure you plan ahead. The only way to do the Inca Trail is to hire the services of a tourism agency authorised by the Ministry of Culture of Peru. We recommend reserving a spot on a hiking tour with either Intrepid Travel or GAdventures.
May is the most popular month to hike and we recommend booking at least 8 months ahead.
15. Acropolis of Athens, Greece
Towering over the capital of modern Athens, there is no doubt that Acropolis is a vivid reminder of the Gold age of Greece. 21 attractions from this archaeological site — the Parthenon, the Theatre of Dionysus, the Propylaia and the Temple of Athena Nike is the most famous. Acropolis was constructed under the rule of Pericles, a Greek statesman, general and lover of the arts. Its construction began around the 5th century BC and it took around 100 years to complete it as it was built in stages.
We’ve visited a few times and be prepared for crowds. Since everyone does tend to visit in the morning, we recommend heading up in the afternoon instead. The winter months are a great time to visit.
A Pre-columbian Mayan city is only a day trip away from the popular Cancun so be ready for hordes of tourists. It receives over a million tourists per year. Founded around the 6th century AD by the Mayan people, it once was a thriving metropolis for 50,000 people. Chichen Itza’s famous ball with a length of 146 m is the largest court in Mesoamerica. The Temple of Kukulcan, also known as El Castilo is one of the new 7 wonders.
Archaeologists are still puzzled about how the construction took place. No remains of wheels have been found near the archaeological site, which has resulted in the opinion that none were used in the construction of the pyramids. But since small wheels were found on Maya toys, we know they knew wheels. The main monuments at the archaeological site of Chichen Itza cover approximately five square kilometres; nevertheless, the predicted extent of dense urban development during the city’s peak is five times that.
Highly recommend paying for a guide or bring a detailed guidebook. Alternatively, check out this range of day tours available from Cancun.
17. Wat Ratchaburana in Ayutthaya, Thailand
The stunning Wat Ratchaburana in Ayutthaya is well known for its restored ruin which once had a beautiful monastery. The name translates to “the temple of Royal Restoration” and it was built in 1424 by King Borommarachathirat II as a memorial to his two elder brothers.
To be honest, we had never heard of this as part of archaeological sites to see before we arrived in Thailand. But so glad we didn’t miss it. We explored Ayutthaya on bicycles which we hired from our hotel. Best way to get around and see the different parts. But don’t miss Wat Ratchaburana at sunset.
The Meroe Pyramids appear out of nowhere on the side of the road. Surrounded by desert and partly covered by orange sand dunes, they are silent reminders of the past. You will have the place to yourself, there are no wait lines, no hordes of tourists as you usually find at well known archaeological sites. Only a few souvenir vendors outside the main entrance hoping to make a small income. Like the well-known pyramids in Egypt, Meroe pyramids served as tombs for the queens and kings.
Did you know Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt? You can find about 100 of them here, some have been decapitated when looking the first explorers were looking for treasure. We arrived by public bus from the capital Khartoum – more info about that can be found here: How to visit Meroe Pyramids in Sudan.
19. Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
Lalibela in Ethiopia is one of the few archaeological sites that will surprise you. There are eleven churches carved into the rock on the side of a mountain 2,500 meters above sea level, built in the 12th and 13th centuries. These monolithic churches, also known as rock-hewn are still used to worship and hold events throughout the year. The Church of Saint George has been rock-hewn into the shape of a cross and it’s the most iconic part of Lalibela.
You can explore the churches on your own after you purchased tickets, but we do recommend a guide. Gino from This Is Africa Travel was an exceptional guide. Travel to Ethiopia usually involves multiple flights, so it is a good idea to see other parts such as Gondar, Aksum, Bahir Dar, or the south.
The Great Pyramids of Giza might be the first of the archaeological sites you think of. This is the only ancient wonder still standing (7 Ancient Wonders) and a must-see. The pyramids were constructed about 4,500 years ago. Scientists are still trying to figure out how these three monuments were built and the stories alone are fascinating.
More tombs might be located in the future as in 2018 archaeologists in Egypt have made an exciting tomb discovery. The final resting place of a high priest, untouched for 4,400 years.
While you can see the Pyramids alone as well, we recommend hiring a professional guide. This is probably always worth doing when it comes to archaeological sites. Because many of them are partially in ruins and a guide can help to understand and learn more about the place.
Did we miss any places that should have made our list of the best archaeological sites you must see? Let us know in the comments.
Here are a few runner-ups for the best and most amazing archaeological sites to see in your lifetime!
A coffee lover, history junkie, former tour guide, and endless optimist. The mastermind of logistics and chief navigator for Very Hungry Nomads, two women on an adventure to visit EVERY country in the world. Marty is a social butterfly who describes her life as “just livin’ the dream".