Ruins, despite what fedora-wearing archaeologists would have you believe, do not exist solely to be hacked and slashed so that you can acquire their sweet, sweet artifacts. They actually have a lot of historical and aesthetic value! And only rarely will you fight Nazis there.
The world is full of ancient sites that are honestly pretty awe-inspiring, and while a lot of them can be tough to get to for one reason or another, there are some that remain relatively accessible to a normal person who just wants to see some shrines, please. If you find yourself fiending for some truly old-fashioned adventure, seek out these 12 spots.
Maharashtra, India A prime example of rock-cut architecture, the Ajanta Caves in Maharashtra Province number around 30, and all of them are carved into the cliffside of a horseshoe-shaped valley. There are tons of examples of Buddhist sculpture and iconography in the caves, some of which date back to the second century BCE, and were most likely hand-chiseled by a bunch of monks over the course of several centuries, in order to teach others about the Buddhist tradition. Kinda puts your middle-school dioramas into perspective, huh?
Mandalay Region, Myanmar Myanmar (aka Burma, depending on who you're consulting or if you're Sylvester Stallone) has been opening up to international travel a lot more in recent years, with Bagan as one of its largest draws. The former capital of an ancient empire has been transformed over hundreds of years into a lush valley filled with thousands of pagodas and Buddhist temples. Some of these spiritual monuments date back to the 11th century, and each was constructed in a different style, a detail you’ll certainly appreciate as you fly over all of them in a hot-air balloon. Which you should.
Izmir, Turkey Probably one of the best-preserved ancient Greco-Roman cities, Ephesus has been around for a while. Like, probably since the 10th century BCE. Which means it’s seen a lot of stuff: colonization by the Greeks, then takeover by the Romans, then the fall of the Roman Empire, and then centuries of neglect until it was “rediscovered” by European archaeologists in the 1800s. Now, it’s perhaps most famous for its majestic Library of Celsus, and because of the possibility that the Gospel of John was written there (the book of the Bible, not that joke tome your uncle has in his bathroom).
Gozo, Malta Malta’s “Giants' Tower” is officially the world’s second-oldest religious structure, so you know it’s legit. That means it’s older than the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, but not quite as old as the idea that humans should be building stuff. It’s believed that, as early as 3600 BCE, Gozitan folks would congregate here to practice their religion, and the structure is just as awe-inspiring now -- the area around it is quiet and secluded, and if you end up going, you’ll likely be one of a metric handful of visitors.
Puebla, Mexico You might not have heard of it, but the Great Pyramid of Cholula, or Tlachihualtepetl, is the world’s largest pyramid. Which is pretty sad, because the only element of its name that’s recognizable to some people is the part which is also a (delicious) hot sauce. Now, this enormous Aztec religious center is partially buried under a hill that’s topped, quite ironically, with a Catholic church. The construction process, which is heavily detailed in walking tours of the site, was Mesoamerica’s equivalent of Boston’s Big Dig, taking about 12 centuries to complete.
Masvingo, Zimbabwe The area around this former capital of the Kingdom of Zimbabwe was settled around the 300s BCE, but it wasn’t until around the year 1000 that the people there started constructing the giant stone structures that remain there to this day. The city is huge, at around 1,800 acres total, with some of the intricately bricked stone walls measuring in at 36ft tall, basically high enough that no pervy giraffes can see inside. There are guided tours to the city grounds, which are highly recommended, as the sheer scope of the settlement is pretty... great.
Xinjiang, China Looking like the sand-castle city that would result from a precocious youngster with a limitless budget and a never-ending supply of dads, Jiaohe was actually made out of mud bricks 2,300 years ago by a succession of civilizations who used its advantageous position on an island between two river valleys as a natural fortification. Dusty and sprawling (aka the ancient Los Angeles), Jiaohe was an important site on the Silk Road, until it was sacked by Mongols in the 1200s. Just be glad your sand castles don’t have to worry about Mongols.
Crete, Greece Built during the Bronze Age, before ancient Greeks had even invented the Olympics to justify all that bronze-making, Knossos is thought to be the oldest city in Europe. Legend has it that Minos, its king, constructed a labyrinth there in order to contain the Minotaur, who was his son (man, we’d love to see that episode of Maury). Of course, the labyrinth is gone now, but the ruins of the palace of Knossos still remain, along with a few reconstructions of how British archaeologists think the rest of the site may have looked.
Southern District, Israel Masada (which literally, in Hebrew, means “fortress,” since there was so few of everything back then that they could just call it that) was the last site of the Jewish resistance against Roman incursions in Judea. Located on top of a sandy plateau overlooking the Dead Sea and first fortified by Herod in the decades leading up to the common era, it’s now a popular tourist destination, especially at sunrise, when you’ll find it swarmed with 20-somethings on Birthright trips. It’s in the itinerary, people!
Campania, Italy You might remember Pompeii from those homilies you received advocating the need to remain alert and heed warning signs. Those are all true, your parents are always right, yadda yadda yadda. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, Pompeii is a totally breathtaking ruin, which for thousands of years was preserved underneath 80ft of ash, dust, and soot. Now, you can check out its amphitheater, gymnasium, forum, and other kinda spooky relics and not have to worry too much about another eruption. Because we have science now!
County Kerry, Ireland If being a monk only entailed living at Skellig Michael, then I'd have signed up for a life of celibacy (just kidding, boo). One of the most starkly beautiful monasteries in the world, Skellig Michael was constructed on a mountainous islet off the coast of Ireland back in the 6th century, when Christianity was still new, and you had to get way the hell away from everybody in order to practice it. And for the geekier crowd who still needs some enticement, the upcoming Star Wars movie was partially filmed there! Nerds.
Angkor, Cambodia Hey, nerds? Sorry for calling you out in that last entry. This one, though, will have you champing at the bit: Ta Prohm, an overgrown Buddhist monastery dating back to the 1100s, was used in Tomb Raider, which means that Angelina Jolie and Daniel Craig were there once! These picturesque ruins -- a part of the large area that was once the Khmer capital of Angkor -- have been overrun by strangler fig trees, making for some of the most dramatic photography ever to be featured on your friend’s Facebook timeline with the caption “NATURE ALWAYS WINS.”
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Adam Lapetina is Thrillist's partnerships editor, and hopes that nobody intentionally ruins these ruins. Read his musings at @adamlapetina.