Ruins reach across centuries to fire the imagination and fuel travel plans. The very best make you feel young, small, and utterly amazed by the architectural chops of the ancients. Among the many amazing ruins that still exist today, a few stand out as the trip of a lifetime.
No matter which ruins you visit, a few rules hold true: Time your trip for the less crowded times of day, often early or late. Give yourself plenty of time, as some ruins require days of exploration. Hire a knowledgeable guide, since the history is rich but the signage is often cursory. And get beyond the most popular parts of the ruin; you’ll need a bit of quiet space to appreciate this kind of ancient majesty.
Machu Picchu, Peru
The journey to Machu Picchu is epic even with relatively newfangled transportation like trains. But each year, about 25,000 people forgo the more direct routes and walk for days along the 27-mile Inca Trail to reach the ruin. Since its rediscovery a century ago, this treasure of the Inca set high in a cloud forest of the Peruvian Andes has captured imaginations worldwide. The massive stone blocks tell the story of both a sprawling agricultural zone with terracing and ancient food storehouses and an urban zone replete with temples, squares, tombs, and living quarters. If you’re considering a trek to Machu Picchu, plan ahead: You can only make the hike with a licensed company, and spots book up quickly, especially in high season.
Waiting for the traffic to speed past at a crowded intersection in Athens, you’re likely to forget that history keeps constant watch over the city. Glance up, however, and you’ll catch the view Athenians and visitors alike have been admiring for the last 2,500 years. Time has battered the once-pristine temples and gates that crown the hill of the Acropolis, leaving stone ruins that retain a familiar splendor even after thousands of years of wear and destruction. The elegant proportions of the fifth-century B.C. Parthenon and the Temple of Athena Nike—both dedicated to the city’s patron deity—are a reminder of how much we still rely on ancient Greece for our concepts of beauty.
Mesa Verde, United States
Great ruins aren’t always an ocean away: Some of the best preserved Native American cliff dwellings in North America reside in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Home to the Ancestral Puebloans—whose descendants became 20 different Southwestern tribes, including the Hopi and Zuni—Mesa Verde traces 700 years of history across 4,000 archeological sites. Visit mesa-top pueblos and the dwellings built beneath massive overhanging cliffs. Ascend steep trails and ladders, or crawl through tunnels to explore ancient architecture such as the 150-room Cliff Palace or the hard-to-reach Balcony House. The park’s hours vary by season, and not all sites are open year-round.
War or natural disaster might have weakened the Khmer Empire’s ancient capital, but ultimately, it was the jungle that conquered this ninth- to fifteenth-century urban center. Today, the densely forested 150-square-mile Angkor Archaeological Park protects part of a vast cluster of ancient capitals, many of which remain buried. The park’s most famous temple, Angkor Wat, is the world’s largest religious building. But the park’s dozens of other ruins, including Bayon temple with its wall of 11,000 carved figures, offer quieter glimpses into the art and architecture of this culturally rich 600-year period.