The allure of the ancient world is real, made evident by popular tourist sites like the Parthenon in Athens, the pyramids of Giza, and Rome’s famous Colosseum. These incredible structures are certainly worth visiting, but the next time you are yearning to peek into the past, indulge your inner archeologist by heading to one of these alternative destinations. Packed with remnants from millennia-old civilizations, they are equally as impressive as their world-famous counterparts, and their lesser-known status means you won’t be fighting the crowds for an up-close look.
When you think of ancient ruins in Jordan, the rock-cut architecture of Petra inevitably comes to mind. But once you’ve checked the “Lost City” off your list, head north to Jerash. This once-powerful settlement in the country’s hilly highlands draws history buffs for its sprawling archeological park filled with Roman structures dating back to the first century. Start at the imposing southern gate, known as the Arch of Hadrian, before snapping photos at the Forum, a massive limestone plaza surrounded by columns.
When you’re done, head to nearby Ajloun Castle, a 12th-century Muslim structure with a complex and fascinating history. The castle’s strategic location was chosen to defend the area against attacks, but it was eventually conquered by Crusaders. Today, it is home countless artifacts that relate to various periods throughout its existence.
Like Jordan, Peru also has an ancient claim to fame—the high-altitude Incan citadel Machu Picchu is one of the world’s favorite man-made wonders. But the ruins don’t end there—check out Choquequirao, one of the last strongholds against Spanish invasion. Just as impressive as Machu Picchu with significantly fewer visitors, it’s reachable via a beautiful two-day trek from the town of Cachora, near Cusco.
If a two-day hike isn’t in your itinerary, make your way to Pisac and explore the ruins that sit on a terraced mountainside above a town of the same name. Just a short hike (or shorter cab ride) allows you to discover sites like a ceremonial center, irrigation channels, Incan baths, and astounding views. Another option? The Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu is much less crowded than the well-known Inca trail and has ruins of its own along the way. Although it takes four to five days to complete, you’ll be treated to stunning views and breath-taking scenery as you loop around glacial Mount Salkantay.
Planning a European trip filled with sunny coastline, great wine, and lots of ancient history? Skip Italy and give Croatia a try. Head to the Istrian seafront city of Pula to visit one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world. Take a tour, or better yet, enjoy one of the shows that still take place there each year, like the Pula Film Festival in the summer.
In the Northern Dalmatia region, you’ll find the town of Zadar, Croatia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. It was a Roman colony for hundreds of years and reminders of that period can still be found scattered throughout. Finally, Diocletian’s Palace is perhaps the best known of Croatia’s historic sites. Built in the fourth century B.C., today it forms a large part of Split’s Old Town area, a great place to wander, explore, and people watch.
Cambodia may have Angkor Wat, but neighboring Thailand has plenty of ruins from the same era (and even earlier). In Udon Thani, you’ll find the Phu Phra Bat, a historical park known for its surreal rock formations, some of which are decorated with prehistoric paintings. Central Thailand’s Phimai Historical Park contains some of the biggest and best examples of Khmer architecture in the country, including Prasat Phimai, a temple dating back to the eighth century. A short trip to Bangkok offers even more insight into the country’s history: Wat Pho, a temple complex containing a 46-meter-long, gold-plated statue of a reclining Buddha, is an easy walk from the city’s Grand Palace. Built in the 18th century, it’s not the oldest attraction on the list, but it’s impressive enough to warrant a visit.
Jennifer Kotlewski is an LA-based travel writer for kimkim.com. She’s explored 29 different countries and enjoys curating travel advice based on her adventures.