10 Must See Ancient Cities to Add to Your Bucket List
Everyone ought to have a bucket list and for passionate history buffs, that list invariably includes visiting ancient cities. While reading about them in history books, or in news reports about archaeological discoveries, can provide an element of thrill, you can never get a full picture without visiting sites in person. If you made up your mind and want to commit to your very own personal bucket list, we’re here to offer inspiration. Here are 10 must-see ancient cities that you simply have to visit at least once in your life!
1. Samarkand, Uzbekistan
Tourist visiting the ancient city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan. (Dudarev Mikhail / Adobe Stock)
Known also as Samarqand, this very ancient city is situated in modern-day Uzbekistan, and constitutes one of the oldest continually inhabited ancient cities in the world! That fact alone makes it a must-have on your travel bucket list - especially if you are a history enthusiast. In ancient times, it was one of the largest and wealthiest cities in all of Central Asia - owing much to its strategic position on the lucrative Silk Road.
An old and venerated city, this Silk Road jewel had a turbulent and varied history. Within the ancient Achaemenid Empire, it was the capital of the crucial Sogdian satrapy. However, it was conquered by the mighty Alexander the Great, and later saw different rulers arriving at its helm. In 1220 AD, it was by Gengis Khan, the great Mongol leader. But its greatest flourishing began when the infamous conqueror Timur made it the capital of his new empire. Today, Samarkand is on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and is known as the “Crossroads of Cultures”. Those visiting this ancient city can enjoy its numerous architectural marvels, and the priceless features of its intricate Islamic art.
2. Athens, Greece
Sunset at the Acropolis in Athens. (lucky-photo / Adobe Stock)
You’d think that a visit to the capital city of Greece isn’t such a big deal. It’s just a modern city, right? Well, if you consider the fact that Athens was also the capital of ancient Greece, you’ll begin to understand how it simply has to be on your bucket list. One of the world’s oldest cities, Athens has both its modern and its ancient layers - and they are yours to explore. Extant and inhabited for many centuries, the city has a lot to offer. Immerse yourself in its diverse history and experience its every age - from its very ancient origins to its medieval and modern eras.
Of course, every history buff will vote for the Classical Greek aspect of Athens as the most thrilling one. Visiting this city, you cannot overlook the marvelous Acropolis of Athens, the most fascinating remnant of Ancient Greece. Bask in the glorious Parthenon, and soak in the stunning sights over the city. What is more, visiting one of the city’s museums will undoubtedly be the thrill of a lifetime - they are filled with iconic archeological finds and some of the best preserved artifacts. As a world center of archeology, Athens is buzzing with history that still lives!
3. Teotihuacan, Mexico
The Teotihuacan pyramids in Mexico. (Dmitry Rukhlenko / Adobe Stock)
A visit to the ruins of this ancient Mesoamerican city is a dream come true for many. Located in Mexico, some 40 kilometers (25 mi) northeast of its capital, Mexico City, Teotihuacan is one of the most magnificent of all ancient sites in Central America. Its well-preserved remnants are filled with towering pyramids, temples and platforms, houses and expertly paved streets. All of this is a true testament of the skill and dedication of the ancient inhabitants of Teotihuacan.
The origins of this city can be traced back to 600 BC at the oldest. By 100 BC it had evolved into a sprawling urban and economic center, and began growing as a true ancient metropolis. At the height of its power - from 1 to 500 AD - Teotihuacan was likely the largest and most powerful city in Mesoamerica. A true economic giant, the city rose in prominence and reached a true renaissance of its own. Today, visitors can marvel in the astounding Mesoamerican pyramids - most notably the magnificent Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon. One of the true marvels of all pre-Columbian civilizations of the Americas, Teotihuacan needs to be a part of every bucket list.
4. Machu Picchu, Peru
The ancient city of Machu Picchu in Peru. (alexpermyakov / Adobe Stock)
As far as ancient cities go, Machu Picchu remains one of the most visited by tourists from around the world. A true and undeniable cultural heritage of Peru, the ruins of this city-citadel are located on an astounding 2,430-meter (7,970 ft) mountain ridge, high above the Sacred Valley and just 80 kilometers (50 mi) northwest of Cuzco - another ancient city. Machu Picchu is a relic of the Incas, and was created around the 1420s AD as an estate for the Incan ruler Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui . It was only inhabited for about a hundred years, when the arrival of the conquistadors left it abandoned.
Covered in dense jungle growth, Machu Picchu was discovered in the late 1800s, and was officially excavated around 1912. Since then, it has been remembered as the Lost City of the Incas, and remains one of the most visited ancient sites in the world. Either way, it remains a stunning insight into classic Incan architecture and art, and gives visitors a window into their culture and way of life. For all those seeking adventure and a glimpse into ancient ruins, Machu Picchu is a must-see!
5. Timbuktu, Mali
The Djingareyber Mosque in the ancient city of Timbuktu. (United Nations Photo / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
If you ever happen to find yourself in the African nation of Mali, visiting the ancient city of Timbuktu can’t be overlooked. Once a fabled medieval city known as the Mysterious Timbuktu, famed as a city of gold and great wealth, it is today an impoverished regional city in Mali. First settled in the Iron Age, the site saw the rise of Timbuktu as a regional trade center in the Middle Ages, around 1200s AD. Situated at the southern end of the Sahara, Timbuktu swelled through trade in exotic goods. Gold, ivory, salt, and slaves were the main aspects of the regional economy, and Timbuktu was its very center.
In the early 14th century, the city became a part of the wealthy Mali Empire, and soon established itself as a center of learning, culture, and arts. Thanks to its early Islamic universities, notably the Sankore Madrasah, it was known as the scholarly center of Africa. An official UNESCO World Heritage Site, Timbuktu is noted for its unique architecture of clay buildings with wooden frames that have survived over many centuries. Today, the city suffers from desertification due to the shifting boundaries of the Sahara, but even so, it remains a stunning historic place to visit, and one of the oldest towns in Africa.
6. Rome, Italy
Roman ruins in the ancient city of Rome. (sborisov / Adobe Stock)
"When in Rome, do as the Romans do" is an old saying attributed to Saint Ambrose. Nowadays, it could easily be said that when you’re in Rome - bask in its glorious sights! Of course, this ancient city needs little introduction. With its long history spanning some incredible 28 centuries - 2,800 years - Rome is without a doubt one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in Europe. Today, it is the capital city of Italy and prides itself on the many venerable relics from times long past. As such, it is a true tourist hotspot, and simply has to be on your bucket list.
Rome is a city with very old roots. However, it’s fame comes from the ancient Romans, who claimed that their glorious city was formed around 753 BC. From that point on, it gradually grew in power and size, first becoming the core of the Roman Republic, and later the Roman Empire. Both entities were the foremost European power of classical history, coming to dominate great swaths of the then known world. Of course, as it was the capital city of the Republic, Rome became the global center of culture, arts, architecture, learning, and commerce. Numerous remnants from this age remain today - visiting modern Rome, you can see the amphitheater of Colosseum, the Pantheon temple, the Trajan’s Column, Circus Maximus, and many other breathtaking sights of Roman history.
7. Cairo, Egypt
The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the Pyramids in the background, Cairo, Egypt. (AlexAnton / Adobe Stock)
Egypt is often the number one choice on many bucket lists. Home of ancient Egyptian civilization, it is an endless throve of wondrous sights and ancient relics. Still, a great start of this exploration is always Cairo, the nation’s capital city. That is because the area around the modern city was the site of Memphis, the old capital of Egypt. Memphis was known to the ancient Egyptians as Inebu-Hedj and Menefer, and was always a hotspot of activity. One of the most powerful ancient cities of that civilization, it was considered the core of its religious activity, of art and culture, commerce and architecture.
Nowadays, visitors to Cairo will need to step just a little outside of the bounds of the modern and busy city in order to glimpse the monumental remnants of ancient Egypt. Some 30 km (19 mi) to the south lies the ancient necropolis of Memphis, Saqqara. It is the home of wonders such as the Stepped Pyramid of Djoser and many remarkable mastaba tombs. What is even more impressive is the Giza Plateau. Situated near the city of Giza - itself on the outskirts of Cairo - the plateau houses some of the major wonders of the world: the pyramids. The famed Pyramid of Khufu (Great Pyramid of Giza) is the foremost of these, and is a site many dream of visiting. If you get the chance to come here - do not miss it!
8. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The Bayon temple at Angkor Wat. (tawatchai1990 / Adobe Stock)
Known as the City of Temples, Angkor Wat is a majestic ancient city whose superbly preserved ruins lie in northwest Cambodia. A popular tourist center, it is characterized by its remarkable architecture that leaves many visitors in awe. More of a temple complex than an actual city, this sprawling piece of world heritage managed to survive across centuries and remains in good shape today.
Built at the order of the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 1100’s AD, Angkor Wat lies in the remnants of the city of Angkor, which was once the sprawling capital of the Khmer Empire. In its original role, this was a Hindu temple devoted to the God Vishnu. However, over the course of history, it was converted into a Buddhist Temple. As such it is the most important pilgrimage site for Buddhists across the world, and was the crucial establishment to help convert the Cambodians to Buddhism. Still, even if you put religion aside, the historic importance of Angkor Wat and its breathtaking architecture make it an ideal place to visit.
9. Tikal, Guatemala
The stunning ruins at Tikal, in Guatemala. (Ingo Bartussek / Adobe Stock)
Of all the Maya ruins, Tikal - known to them as Yax Mutal - is by far the most stunning one. The ruins of this ancient sprawling city are located in the rainforests in Guatemala. One of the largest urban centers of the ancient Maya, Tikal was the capital of their most powerful kingdom. As such, it can be dated back to the 4th century BC at the earliest, when it began its gradual development. Between 200 and 900 AD, it reached its zenith, and was the center of the Maya region in every regard - economically, militarily, and culturally.
A powerful force of pre-Columbian Americas, Tikal had one major rival to its north - Teotihuacan. Around the 4th century AD, Tikal was likely conquered by this rival - an event that changed the flow of its history. By the 10th century AD, the city was abandoned and dilapidated, and gradually consumed by jungle - until its rediscovery in modern times. Today, it is home to remarkable Maya pyramids and temples, testaments to the intricate architectural style of this civilization. Visiting this ancient ruined city is a must.
10. Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichen Itza in Mexico. (IRStone / Adobe Stock)
The world of the ancient Maya was diverse and enigmatic. The remnants of their cities continue to captivate every historic buff. And, of course, Chichen Itza is one of the most marvelous Maya cities in existence. These ancient ruins have survived the ravages of time and are in pristine state today, making them a fantastic addition to your ancient cities bucket list.
Chichen Itza was at its prime the foremost of all Maya cities. A metropolis and a hub of commerce, culture, and art, it thrived for centuries before finally being abandoned in the Middle Ages, some time before the arrival of the Spanish. Today, it is Mexico’s most popular tourist location, with over 2.6 million visits annually. In Chichen Itza, you can marvel at the incredible achievements of Maya architecture, most notably the incredible Temple of Kukulcán.
Top image: The Mosque-Madrassa of Sultan Hassan and the Pyramids in the background, Cairo, Egypt. Source: AlexAnton / Adobe Stock
Cichanowicz, L. 2018. “The 10 Most Historical Cities in the World” in Culture Trip. Available at: https://theculturetrip.com/south-america/peru/articles/the-10-most-historical-cities-in-the-world/
Cisse, A. 2019. “10 Ancient City Ruins You Should Add To Your Bucket List” in The Travel. Available at: https://www.thetravel.com/best-ancient-city-ruins-visit/
O’Shea-Evans, K. 2020. “8 Ancient Cities of the World to Add to Your Travel Wish List” in Jetsetter. Available at: https://www.jetsetter.com/magazine/ancient-cities-to-see-now/