Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World’s Oldest Tourist Destinations
Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Stepping Back in Time in Athens, Greece
Athens is one of the world's most ancient cities, with a history stretching back over 7,000 years. As the cradle of Western civilization and the birthplace of democracy, this Greek capital has an unparalleled cultural legacy that continues to draw visitors from around the globe.
A trip to Athens is truly a journey through time. Turn any corner and you'll come face to face with a remnant of the city's storied past, from the marble monuments of the Acropolis to the cobblestone streets of the Plaka district. Walking through the city center feels like wandering through a living museum.
The crown jewel of Athens is undoubtedly the Acropolis. Perched atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the city, this UNESCO World Heritage Site encompasses some of the most significant architectural achievements of Classical Greece. Dating back to the 5th century BC, the Parthenon remains astonishingly intact and is the definitive symbol of ancient Athens. Gazing up at the monumental temple, you can easily imagine Socrates and Plato debating within its colonnaded walls.
Equally impressive are the Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the Acropolis, and the Erechtheion temple with its iconic Caryatid statues. Take time to admire the details of each structure and reflect on the incredible feats of engineering and craftsmanship required to construct these ancient marvels.
Below the Acropolis lies the Ancient Agora, the public heart of ancient Athens where Greeks gathered to shop, socialize and discuss politics. The ruins include temples, fountains, and stoas or colonnaded porticoes where philosophical debates once raged. An onsite museum displays artifacts that provide insight into daily life thousands of years ago.
No visit to Athens is complete without exploring the narrow lanes and pastel buildings of the Plaka. This atmospheric neighborhood rests in the shadows of the Acropolis and retains an old-world village charm. Wandering the labyrinthine streets, you’ll happen upon charming cafes, tiny Byzantine-era churches, and fragments of ancient history around every turn.
Beyond the major monuments, Athens has countless hidden gems for history buffs to uncover. The excellent Benaki Museum spans Aegean antiquities to 20th century art in a stately neoclassical mansion. The Acropolis Museum houses an unparalleled collection of artifacts from the Golden Age of Pericles. Neighborhoods like Monastiraki and Psyrri tempt with flea markets, indie boutiques, and street art galore.
What else is in this post?
- Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Stepping Back in Time in Athens, Greece
- Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - The Pyramids of Giza - Marvels of Ancient Engineering
- Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Petra, Jordan's Rose-Colored City Hidden in Plain Sight
- Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Standing in Awe Before Angkor Wat in Cambodia
- Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Roaming the Ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru
- Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Walking on Sacred Ground at the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
- Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Discovering Tenochtitlan, the Ancient Aztec Capital
- Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Exploring the Ancient Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde, USA
Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - The Pyramids of Giza - Marvels of Ancient Engineering
Towering against the endless dunes, the Pyramids of Giza remain the quintessential symbol of ancient Egypt. As the sole survivors of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, these colossal structures are perhaps humanity’s greatest engineering feat from antiquity.
The most famous of the trio of pyramids is the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the largest of all Egyptian pyramids. This marvel of construction originally stood at over 480 feet high and was built from an estimated 2.3 million limestone blocks, each weighing around 2.5 to 15 tons. The sheer scale of the pyramid boggles the mind, a testament to the skill and tenacity of its ancient architects. Khufu's burial chamber deep inside the pyramid is reached by a cramped passageway that descends through the heart of the inner structure. Despite the humid, claustrophobic conditions, venturing inside brings you closer to experiencing the pyramid as Khufu once did centuries ago.
The two smaller pyramids were built for Khufu’s successors, Khafre and Menkaure. Khafre's pyramid appears taller thanks to its elevated location, though it is actually slightly smaller than Khufu’s in mass. The most intact façade and interior can be found in Menkaure’s pyramid, allowing you to wander the dark descending corridors and royal burial vaults. Don't miss the pyramid's exterior features either – the original smooth casing stones that once encased Khafre's pyramid still cover the very top, giving an idea of how the pyramids originally appeared.
Surrounding the pyramids sits the Great Sphinx, carved from an immense single limestone outcrop. With the body of a lion and head of a pharaoh, this mythical creature guards the plateau. Considered one of the world’s largest and oldest monolithic statues at 241 feet long, the history and purpose of the Sphinx remain shrouded in mystery.
While pictures convey the enormity and magnificence of the pyramids, nothing quite compares to strolling around the complex yourself. As you crane your neck gazing upward at the dizzying height, you gain a deep appreciation for the vision, ingenuity and tireless labor required to construct these stone giants. Even today, experts still debate exactly how the pyramids were built given the rudimentary tools available to ancient Egyptians. Pyramids this colossal had simply never been built before.
Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Petra, Jordan's Rose-Colored City Hidden in Plain Sight
Tucked away in the Jordanian desert, the ancient city of Petra lay hidden for centuries, known only to the Bedouin locals who called it home. That changed in 1812, when it was introduced to the Western world by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. Tales of a spectacular lost city, carved into the rose-hued cliffs of the Sharah Mountains, captured the Victorian imagination. Soon intrepid travelers were flocking to Petra to marvel at its rock-cut monuments and wander its empty stone streets. Two hundred years later, this desert oasis remains enshrouded in an aura of mystery and grandeur.
Approaching Petra for the first time is an experience unlike any other. The site is intentionally desolate and nondescript, giving no hint of the wonders ahead. You wind through a narrow rocky gorge, called the Siq, surrounded by swirling multicolored sandstone. The path grows darker and narrower, the walls closing in ominously. Then you round a bend, and there it is revealed in its full glory: the Treasury, Petra’s most iconic monument. This glorious façade, carved from the vertical cliff, rivals the grandeur of the Acropolis or the Roman Forum. Intricate columns, statuary and geometric carvings fresco the sandstone, all exquisitely preserved. You crane your neck, awestruck by its scale and beauty. This is just a taste of what Petra has in store.
Beyond the Treasury unfurls a full ancient city, with temples, tombs, residences, storerooms and an amphitheater ingeniously incorporated into the natural cliffs. Obelisks, sanctuaries and houses of worship appear around every turn, literally hidden in plain sight. The Monastery looms at the end of the main trail, reached by climbing 800 hand-carved rock steps. At an imposing 147 feet tall, its entrance façade overwhelms you with elaborate decorations and imposing grandeur.
One of Petra’s most captivating qualities is the pure artistry evident in every chisel mark and stone pillar. Every surface is covered in intricate detail, from abstract geometric shapes, to deities, to spirits and animals. Sphinxes stand guard outside lavish facades that could rival Classical Greek architecture. Petra’s creators clearly took great pride in the adornment of their public buildings and places of ritual.
Adding to the mystique is the lingering question of exactly who carved this magnificent metropolis. Most archeologists attribute it to the Nabataeans, an Arabic people who controlled trade routes throughout the region because of Petra’s key positioning. However, influences from Assyrian, Egyptian, Greco-Roman and Persian artistic traditions all intermingle in Petra's façades. As you walk the craggy Siq or stand before the imposing monuments, you can't help but wonder what stories these stones would tell if they could speak.
Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Standing in Awe Before Angkor Wat in Cambodia
Rising from the steamy Cambodian jungle, the sprawling temple complex of Angkor Wat is an architectural marvel without parallel. Built in the early 12th century as a state temple for King Suryavarman II, this UNESCO World Heritage site is the largest religious monument on Earth. The sheer scale and artistic intricacy of Angkor Wat defies comprehension. Standing before these hallowed walls, one can't help but feel humbled by such a feat of human devotion and ingenuity.
The most recognizable feature of Angkor Wat is its tower-topped central temple, considered a masterpiece of Khmer architecture. Approaching from the west, your eyes are drawn to its impressive silhouette – a quincunx of four towers surrounds a central spire, their joined peaks creating an unforgettable skyline. As you pass through walls and moats into the inner complex, the fine details come into focus. Over 2,000 Apsara celestial dancers cover the walls, their slender forms and elaborate headdresses frozen in stone. Delicate moldings, latticework, and ornamentation blanket every surface in elaborate geometric and floral motifs. The sandstone lintels still display some of the original paint, their faded hues hinting at the vibrant colors which once adorned the entire complex.
Beyond the central temple sprawl two more layers of walls and gateways, creating an expansive campus with libraries, galleries, shrines and monasteries. Rows of serene Buddha statues meditate in resplendent pavilions, one of the finest remaining ensembles of Khmer sculpture. The terraces contain stunning bas-reliefs depicting legendary battles and Hindu epics, with over 11,000 figures intricately carved across a half mile expanse.
While Angkor Wat appears ethereal in photographs, experiencing it in person is a humbling privilege. The dawn sun illuminating the central spires or the crowds gathered at sunset make you feel part of something timeless. The sheer ambition and artistry of the Khmer civilization is evident in each exquisite carving. Angkor Wat also highlights how fragile even the grandest human creations are. Many buildings are in disrepair, worn down by the persistent jungle. You are reminded that one day, every civilization falls into ruin, claimed by the vines of time.
Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Roaming the Ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru
Hidden high in the misty mountains of Peru lies the lost city of Machu Picchu, one of the world’s most enigmatic ancient sites. This sacred Incan citadel, abandoned and unknown to the outside world for centuries, continues to capture the imagination of travelers drawn to its air of mystery and natural grandeur. A trip to Machu Picchu feels like stepping into an adventure novel, as you explore temples, plazas and palaces perched atop dizzying green cliffs, all backdropped by ethereal Andean peaks.
One glimpse at Machu Picchu’s setting makes clear why it was chosen as a royal retreat and ceremonial center far removed from Cusco, the Incan capital. Sheer 60-meter high cliffs protect the citadel on three sides, with the Urubamba River coiling below like a serpent. The thin mountain air and frequent fog imbue the city with a peaceful, otherworldly atmosphere. Llamas graze placidly amid the perfectly pieced-together walls, giving the ruins a timeless quality. Architecturally, Machu Picchu exemplifies the Inca genius for stonemasonry. The joints between the rocks are so flawless as to be undetectable. Buildings support themselves seismically, enabling the walls and 148 stone structures to withstand major earthquakes while entire cities crumble. The Sun Temple’s incredible curved retaining wall stands as a testament to how skilled the Inca were at placing stones.
Like all ancient sites, Machu Picchu leaves many questions tantalizingly unanswered. Why was it built in such an inaccessible cliffside spot? Was it a holy pilgrimage site or pleasure palace for Incan nobility? How was its existence unknown to Spain’s conquistadors for centuries? Theories abound, but the lack of written records ensures the ruins retain their secrets. This air of mystery is part of what makes wandering through the empty plazas and clambering up the countless stone staircases here so special. Use your imagination to fill in the missing pieces.
An early morning hike along the Inca Trail, before the daytrip crowds arrive, allows for contemplation of the spiritual significance this site would have had for its earliest inhabitants. When the first rays of sun illuminate the Temple of the Sun and its nearby ritual rock, you glimpse how celestial alignments and sun worship influenced Incan architecture and city planning. Watching the clouds roll through the surrounding mountain valleys, you feel a sense of awe at how in tune with nature and the heavens the Inca must have felt in these heights.
Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Walking on Sacred Ground at the Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Rising from the jungly plains, the ancient city of Bagan is an astonishing sea of over 2,000 Buddhist pagodas, temples and monasteries dating from between the 11th to 13th centuries. As the cultural and political center of the Kingdom of Pagan, Bagan was one of the richest and most powerful cities in Asia during its golden era. The kingdom’s kings constructed thousands of religious structures across the city and surrounding plains, aiming to acquire enough spiritual merit to achieve nirvana in the next life. While wars and invasions damaged many temples over the centuries, over 2,200 structures survive, dominating the landscape in a sprawling archeological zone. meandering among these hallowed pagodas feels like stepping back in time to an era of devout Buddhist rulers and flourishing spiritual life.
Wandering the reddish plains dotted with pagodas in pristine condition, others half-collapsed and being swallowed by strangler figs, you can’t help but feel awed by Bagan’s scale and antiquity. As the popular Indonesian travel blogger The Crazy Sushi says, “Strolling around Bagan’s temples, seeing the sheer number of ancient structures, I was dumbfounded that this city even exists!” The brick and stucco structures display exquisite ornamental flourishes and lavish artwork. Buddha statues peer serenely from alcoves, flashing gilded smiles. Delicate murals depicting Buddhist cosmology and teachings adorn inner sanctums. Styles evolve across the centuries as you walk from site to site, early austere step-sided temples transitioning to graceful spires and bold gilded adornment.
Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Discovering Tenochtitlan, the Ancient Aztec Capital
Of all the wondrous ruins and relics of ancient civilizations across our planet, few sites capture the imagination quite like Tenochtitlan, the once-gleaming capital of the Aztec Empire. Walking the streets of modern day Mexico City, it’s hard to fathom that one of the world’s great pre-Columbian metropolises once stood here, its impressive pyramids, temples and monuments towering over a bustling urban grid built across the waters of Lake Texcoco. Though the Spaniards leveled much of the majestic city during their conquest, enthralling remnants await discovery by curious travelers.
Wandering the ruins of Templo Mayor, Tenochtitlan’s main ceremonial pyramid in the heart of the city, you’re swept into the pulse of Aztec ceremonial life. As TheExpeditioner travel blogger Matt Stabile recounts, “Climbing Templo Mayor’s steps, you envision hordes gathered in awe to watch sacrificial rituals conducted by priests in feathered headdresses." Excavations have uncovered sacred altars, monumental sculptures and the tomb of Axayácatl, one of the greatest Aztec emperors. The temple's location at the crossing of two principal causeways reflects its both literal and symbolic central importance. Nearby, the astronomical observatory of El Caracol and the temple-fortress of Cuitláhuac offer more fascinating glimpses into Aztec engineering, science and architecture.
No site provides a better window into daily life in Tenochtitlan than the Xalla Palace, which once housed Emperor Moctezuma II’s private menagerie and zoo. Theanimal skulls, shells and botanical remains found here paint a vivid picture of the flora and fauna that existed in the valley centuries ago. Of course, your imagination must fill in the crowds of traders paddling canoes laden with crops, the chatter of women shopping in bustling markets, children scampering up temple steps. But the artifacts speak volumes about how advanced this civilization truly was.
The most breathtaking Aztec relic is the calendar stone, a 12-foot wide basalt sculpture elaborately carved with glyphs representing their advanced astrological and cosmological belief systems. Drawn by its magnificence, GlobeTrotteuse blogger Shobha George describes how "[circling] the calendar stone at the National Anthropology Museum, I was astounded by the mathematical, astronomic and artistic genius of the Aztecs.” Every detail possesses significance, from the dual gods at its center to the intricate spider-web adorning the perimeter.
Ancient Wonders: Exploring the World's Oldest Tourist Destinations - Exploring the Ancient Cliff Dwellings of Mesa Verde, USA
Perched atop sheer sandstone cliffs in the arid southwest, the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings of Colorado's Mesa Verde National Park offer an unparalleled window into indigenous life centuries ago. As the largest archeological preserve in the United States, Mesa Verde protects over 4,700 sites including 600 cliff dwellings. Wandering through these crumbling stone villages secreted away on cliff faces, you're immersed in the daily existence of their Native American occupants, who ingeniously adapted to the challenging mesa environment.
Trekking through Mesa Verde's canyons, it's incredible to realize entire communities once thrived in these alcoves. Ancient Puebloans lived, worked, raised families, and performed rituals within these confines from 600 to 1300 CE. Signs of their complex civilization are carved into every mortared sandstone wall and hand-chiseled alcove. The Cliff Palace is the most jaw-dropping of these dwellings, containing over 150 rooms tucked under a dramatic overhang. As popular travel blogger Megan Starr describes it: "I was not prepared for the initial glimpse of Cliff Palace. It left me absolutely speechless that an entire civilization was able to build and thrive in such a majestic place.” Balcony House similarly clings to the underside of a huge cliff before you, connected by incredibly preserved wooden ladders and handholds pecked into the stone. Inside the dwellings, original ceiling beams, fire pits, milling bins and kivas used for religious rites speak to everyday activities 700 years ago.
Just as intriguing as the structures themselves are the relics of those who once inhabited them. Exquisitely crafted Mimbres pottery, jewelry, arrowheads and corncobs found across sites provide glimpses into Mesa Verde's sophisticated culture. In their compelling article on Mesa Verde, AtlasObscura bloggers point out: “Many dwellings still bear handprints of their creators, echoes of these people who survived in an unforgiving environment for generations through ingenuity and hard work.” These traces of humanity put you tangibly in touch with the Ancestral Pueblo people across the centuries.