Exploring These Lost Cities Is The Closest You'll Get to Time Travel
Stroll through the centuries and visit extinct civilizations.
People love to call the world apocalyptic, or dub any moderately empty city street a ghost town. But no matter what your friends' hashtags say, civilization doesn't just end after a period of social isolation. It takes more than that. Just ask the Mayans or the Romans.
Lost cities offer glimpses into ancient civilizations that, either suddenly or over time, collapsed, often leaving artifacts intact and architecture fully preserved. Machu Pichuu might be the most famous, and we have yet to discover Atlantis, but the cities below are rife for discovery. You'll find accessible ruins to easily place on your bucket list and kingdoms so lost and isolated you never knew they existed. Some were decimated by disaster, others simply faded away. But all are worthy of exploring once our civilization's gears turn back on.
You know Pompeii, but until you see it, you don't really comprehend its magnitude. It was a thriving Roman city with wide stone streets, a forum peppered with temples devoted to Roman gods, lavish dwellings with opulent courtyards, and even takeout restaurants and brothels (the mark of any thriving city). But one fateful day, Mount Vesuvius erupted spewing hot ash and lava all over the city, burying it for centuries -- but perfectly preserving it in the process. It wasn't discovered until the 18th century, when a group of explorers began to dig in the area. What they found was a city frozen in time almost exactly as it was left nearly 2,000 years prior.
"Lost" may not be the best term to describe Pompeii these days, but its accessibility makes it one formerly lost city that you can experience with minimal effort. Visitors -- approximately 2.5 million annually -- can roam the ancient streets, pop into the dwellings, and even visit the brothel where frescoes of the various, erm, menu options are still visible on the walls. It's the closest we can get to time travel.
Bangkok may be the current capital of Thailand, but it wasn't always this way. Back in the 13th century, when Thailand was still the Kingdom of Sukhothai, the ancient city of Sukhothai was at the country's center. At its height, it was an opulent tribute to the kingdom, with magnificent temples, palaces, monuments, and more. It rivaled other majestic cities of the time, like Angkor Wat in Cambodia or My Son in Vietnam, and its design has had a lasting impact on modern day Thai art and culture.
As years went on and surrounding kingdoms shifted and changed, the grandeur and fame of Sukhothai began to diminish. It shrank in population and wealth, and was ultimately swallowed up by the kingdom of Ayutthaya, which eventually became modern Bangkok. Visitors can roam the vast complex of Buddhist temples, ruins, and crumbling structures, the entirety of which spans an impressive 17,000 acres.
Tikal is one of the oldest known Mayan capitals. It rises out of the jungles of what is now northern Guatemala, and has since around 1,000 B.C. By the first century A.D., it was one of the top Mayan cities in a sprawling empire that covered what is now southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador.
Things started to turn funky for Tikal around 900 A.D. due to drought, disease, and warfare. Like many other Mayan cities, it shrank back into the foliage, laying in wait until the mid-1800s when Europeans stumbled upon it. Modern visitors can wander this UNESCO site to take in its sheer majesty and magnitude. Many of the temples, pyramids, platforms, and carvings are still intact, giving an eerily accurate depiction of what life must have been like in this ancient city. Just be advised: Central America is a hot trail for young backpackers toting teetree oil and Lonely Planet guidebooks, so don’t be surprised if you’re sharing your Tikal moment with a lot of white people wearing woven ponchos.
Given its strategic location near Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus, and the Red Sea, Petra hit the sweet spot for trading when it was built in the 4th century B.C. Sure, it was sacked a few times by some envious Greeks -- and later the Romans … then Byzantines, who eventually took over -- but really, what ancient city wasn’t? Petra fell into ruin around the 8th century and was left abandoned, except for the Bedouin tribes people who continued to live in the ruins until the 1980s when the site was declared a World Heritage Site and the Jordanian government asked (erm, told) them to relocate.
Dubbed The Rose City due to its pink-hued stones, it's now one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, so to call this a “lost” city is a bit of a misnomer. But up until 1812, when it was rediscovered by a Swiss explorer, it was definitely a forgotten empire. Today, the ancient architectural masterpiece is a key to helping solve some of the many mysteries of the region: For example, excavations have led to discoveries of Greek scrolls that date back to the Byzantine era.
Persepolis, which translates to the City of Persians, ages back more than 7,000 years. It was the capital of the Persian empire, and one of the best examples of the magnitude and grandeur that the empire exuded over several centuries. Yet Iran's distant enough that it tends to elude many US travelers. As such, there's a good chance this mind-blowing site has flown under the radar of most Westerners.
Located about 40 miles outside the Iranian city of Shiraz, Persepolis was the capital of an empire that touched three continents. It blanketed North Africa, India, and Southern Europe. While much of the magnificent city lays in crumbled ruin, it's hard to deny its once-overwhelming majesty. Picture sprawling palaces, ornamental stone facades, temples, and carvings. The lost city has become a symbol for Iranians. In fact, Persepolis was the birthplace of the Cyrus Cylinder (named for King Cyrus the Great), a text from about 539 B.C. that talks about religious and racial human rights. Despite being more than 2,500 it's still ahead of our time.
While everyone else is elbowing their way through Pompeii, you can skip the hordes by heading over to Herculaneum -- the other city that was destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D., only to be remarkably preserved under layers and layers of volcanic ash. Most of the ash fell onto Pompeii, which was destroyed first, but Herculaneum, about 5 miles from modern Naples, was not far behind. The difference, however, is the type of volcanic material that covered Herculaneum left it, in many ways, even more pristine than Pompeii: Wooden door frames, for example, are still intact.
So why isn't Herculaneum as well-known? Because it is so well-preserved, it is incredibly delicate and it's tough for archaeologists to excavate. Basically, there's more of Pompeii to explore. Still, visitors to Campagnia would be remiss to skip over this other snapshot of frozen Roman life.
If you've ever rifled through the pages of travel magazines, or seen any picture of Myanmar, you've likely seen a field of copper-colored temple pagodas speckling miles and miles of lush, verdant jungle. The dirt paths between the temples in Old Bagan leads to treasure after treasure of historical discovery. Many visitors come to Bagan to watch the sunset dip behind the mountains, bathing the temple field in liquid gold before turning the sky to a smudgy purple with silhouettes of hundreds of temples in the distance. You honestly cannot wax poetic about it enough.
Bagan was the first dynasty in the history of Myanmar, which was at its height from the 11th to 13th centuries. Buddhims was the religion of the city, hence the hundreds of temples. At the end of the 13th century, wars with China eventually collapsed the Bagan dynasty. The kingdom faded into history, and all that was left was this sprawling sea of pagodas. It's a rich, miraculous bit of history hidden. Unfortunately, it's located in a region country plagued with atrocity whose continued ethnic violence makes seeing it in person a serious moral quandary year after year.
The state of Chiapas is one of Mexico's most under-the-radar destinations in the country, and one of the most beautiful. It's a place of thick jungles, highland colonial cities, deep mystic traditions, canyons, and waterfalls. But one of the best kept secrets of Chiapas is the ancient Mayan city of Palenque.
Shrouded in jungle and surrounded by mountains, the lost city was one of the most powerful in the Mayan world, rivaling Tikal in Guatemala. It's a sprawling complex of temples, palaces, and pavilions seemingly untouched by time and rising out of the jungle in true lost city splendor. Palenque was abandoned around the year 900 and was discovered by intrepid European explorers in the 18th century. Its hieroglyphics have been integral to the study of Mayan culture today.
La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia
Tucked deep in Colombia's Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains, this impressive site -- literally translated as Lost City -- was built more than 1,000 years ago, but only discovered in the 1970s. That means it's more than 600 years older than Machu Picchu, yet receives a fraction of its visitors.
Getting to La Ciudad Perdida is a feat that starts in the city of Santa Marta. You need a licensed guide to get there, as it's a 29-mile hike through hot, steamy jungle. But those who put in the legwork are rewarded with an ancient, abandoned city that is believed to have been home to about 8,000 people. It was the seat of the Tairona kingdom, which swept this mountainous region. The ruins include terraced temples, walkways, and building remnants, all surrounded by the towering, lushly carpeted mountains, and its remoteness makes visitors feel like they've truly discovered one of the world's last remaining secrets.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Any globe-trotting backpacker worth their prayer beads has made their rite of passage to Siem Reap, but there's so much more to Siem Reap than cheap hostels, street food, and general debauchery: namely, the city of Angkor Wat.
The sprawling temple complex spans more than 400 acres, and is rumored to be the largest religious monument in the world. It started as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu, but around the 12th century it became a Buddhist site. Now the entire area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the most pristine embodiment of the archetypal "lost city." Picture crumbling facades chiseled with highly detailed characters, gnarled tree roots that strangle old stone columns, and mischievous monkeys that dart in and out of dark, secretive passages. Go at sunrise, when the entire main temple is reflected in the pool up front, for an experience that will sear itself into your memories.