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The Top 15 Historical Sites in the World in 2019
#1
Favorite Historical Site #1: Machu Picchu
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Located in southern Peru, this ruined city lies on top of a mountain that’s only accessible by train or a four-day trek. Rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, it was an important cultural center for the Inca civilization but was abandoned when the Spanish invaded the region. (It is famously referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas,” though that is actually Vilcabamba). The location was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, and it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Concerns over growing numbers of tourists have led to limitations on how many people can enter the site, though only by a fraction of what is necessary. Hopefully, they will limit it even more so this site can last for hundreds of years more.
How to get there
Machu Picchu is open year-round. The easiest way to get to from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to take the train to Aguas Calientes (the town located a few miles from the site). It’s a scenic 3.5-hour trip each way along tracks that run right along the Urubamba River in the Sacred Valley, with dramatic canyon walls on either side. The other way to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu is to walk as part of a multi-day Inca trail tour, which is the far more scenic and rewarding way. My preferred tour company for that is Intrepid.
Favorite Historical Site #2: Tikal
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This Mayan city-state is one of the largest and best-preserved ruins of that civilization and was a dominant force in the Mayan world during the Classic Period (200-900 AD). Located in Guatemala, this place lets you experience your inner Indiana Jones early in the morning or late at night when the tourists go home and it’s just you and the jungle. It is very serene, and that made for one of the best travel memories I have. Be sure to spend the night in the park, as you then really get to see it without the crowds. I particularly enjoyed seeing the sunrise from atop the temples. (Random trivia: The city at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope? Tikal!)
How to get there
Tour companies have mini-buses that will pick you up from your hotel in Flores and cost 100 GTQ return or 70 GTQ without the guided tour. Regular public buses leave from the Santa Elena bus station every 30-60 minutes and take two hours. They do not run on Sundays. If you’re coming from Belize, you may find a bus at the border for 100 GTQ per person. Otherwise, the best way to get there from Belize is to do a tour from San Ignacio or drive yourself (watch out for border officials overcharging you for visas!). The park’s main gate opens at 6 am and officially closes at 6 pm. Adult tickets for foreigners are 150 GTQ.
Favorite Historical Site #3: The Pyramids at Giza
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They’re over 3,000 years old, and we still don’t have a good idea as to how they were built or how the Egyptians made them so precise (were aliens involved?). The three pyramids align to the stars and the solstices and contain tons of chambers that still haven’t been (and cannot be) opened. I mean, how did they create those little chambers where people can’t even crawl through? The largest one, called the Great Pyramid, was built by the Pharaoh Khufu and has limited access to it. The Pyramids are truly a marvel of human engineering that was fit for kings. (You will also find the Sphinx nearby, another historical site whose mysteries baffle researchers and are the subject of many conspiracy theories.)
How to get there
Take a bus from Midan Tahrir. The large buses that go to the pyramids are #800 and #900. The small bus that makes the trip is number 82. When you arrive, you can take a ride on a camel or horse to the pyramids themselves. They are open Monday to Sunday from 7am to 5pm. General Admission is 60 EGP. To go inside the pyramids, it’s an extra 100 EGP.
Favorite Historical Site #4: Angkor Wat
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This ancient city in Cambodia was the center of the Khmer Empire that once ruled most of Southeast Asia. This empire fell into decline, but not before building amazing temples and buildings that were later reclaimed by the jungle for hundreds of years.
Though Angkor Wat is packed with tourists, it’s still breathtaking to see. And the temple regions to the north and south see far fewer tourists than the main temple grouping. (Though admittedly, some of them are simply piles of stone rubble now.)
The most popular temples are Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Phrom, and Angkor Thom, and they always have crowds. In order to really experience the temples, you’ll need to purchase the three- or five-day pass. The best time to visit is early in the morning before the big tour groups arrive and stay late after they have gone.
How to get there
The temples are about a 20 minute drive from Siem Reap. A 1-day pass is $37 USD, 3-day is $62 USD, and 7-day is $72 USD. There’s no real need to carry the local currency, Cambodian Riels (KHR), unless you paying for really small things on the street. You can rent a tuk-tuk driver for about $20 for a day to take you around or bike around yourself. The area is too big to walk.
For more travel tips on Angkor Wat, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #5: Petra
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Carved into a canyon in Arabah, Jordan, Petra was made famous by the third Indiana Jones film when he went to find the Holy Grail. The site was “discovered” in 1812 by a Swiss explorer who followed some local tribesmen there; prior to that, it had been forgotten to the Western world. Though its founding is unknown, it appears this place had settlers as early as the 6th century BC. Under Roman rule, the site declined rapidly and was abandoned by the late 4th century. In 1985, Petra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was recently named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
How to get there
Tour companies run full day tours that include entrance fees, horse ride, and an English speaking guide. Intrepid also offers multi-day tours. If you are driving, Petra is a 3-hour drive from Amman. The site is open from 6 am to 6 pm. The entrance fee is 50 JD.
Favorite Historical Site #6: Stonehenge
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Located near Salisbury, this megalithic structure is over 3,000 years old, and its stones come all the way from Wales. Scholars still are not sure how the builders got the stones there and have tried to replicate the feat, with dismal results. Moreover, we only have a vague idea of its purpose (we’re basically just guessing). Stonehenge is now fenced off, and you can no longer go into the circle; visitors can only walk around the attraction. But it’s worth visiting for the mystery behind it and an excellent and detailed audio tour.
How to get there
Trains leave from London to Salisbury every thirty minutes from 6.30am. Stonehenge is open from 9:30 am to 7 pm from March 30 – May 31, 9am-8pm from June 1 – August 31, 9:30am-7pm from September 1 – October 15, and 9:30am-5pm from October 16 – March 29. Prices start at 17.50 GBP for adults, and 10.50 GBP for children.
For more travel tips on England, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #7: The Colosseum and Forum
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The Colosseum and the Forum are right next to each other in Rome, so I included them together. Remnants of a civilization that once controlled the known world, these sites are breathtaking not only for their beauty but also for their history and age. You’re standing in the spot Caesar walked and gazing into the arena where gladiators battled to the death. The Colosseum has slowly crumbled throughout the ages, and much of it is restricted now, especially the floor and basement where everything was organized. The Forum is great to walk around (and it’s free), though a ticket is required for Palatine Hill. I would definitely get a guided tour because the information presented by the authorities doesn’t go into much detail.
How to get there
Take “B” line Metro station Colosseo. Bus lines 51, 75, 85, 87 and 118 go to the Colosseum as well. You can also take tram line number 3. The Colosseum opens at 8:30 am year-round and closes depending on the season. Admission is 12 EUR. There is free entry on the first Sunday of the month so expect long lines.
For more travel tips on Rome, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #8: The Parthenon
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Though it’s currently (and seemingly has been forever) getting a face-lift, the Parthenon is still astounding and breathtaking. This ancient temple to Athena stands as a symbol of the power of Athens and a testament to Greek civilization. Moreover, it provides a sweeping view of Athens and nearby ruins, whose temples and buildings are equally as wondrous. Over the centuries, much of it and the surrounding structures have been destroyed by war and thieves. Luckily, the structure still stands… at least for now. Note that there is scaffolding along the right side of the structure; considering it has been there for over five years, I doubt it is going anywhere anytime soon. They do things slowly in Greece.
How to get there
The easiest way is to follow Dioysiou Aeropagitou, the large pedestrian street that starts near Hadrian’s Arch and goes around the north of the Acropolis. You can also take the metro line 2 to “Akropolis” and when you get out of the station walk to your right and follow the people. Many bus routes service the area. You can also take trolleys 1, 5, or 15. Admission is 13 EUR for adults, and children enter free.
For more travel tips on Athens, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #9: Easter Island
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Located out in the Pacific Ocean, Easter Island, a special territory of Chile, is home to Moai statues that are the only thing left of a culture that once lived here. These gigantic and impressively carved heads are just another reminder that primitive people were not really all that primitive. The stones that attract visitors to this island are made out of volcanic ash; many still remain in the quarry, left behind by the inhabitants as diminishing resources on the island left their tribes doomed to wars that finally killed them off.
How to get there
The island is accessible by regular commercial air service from Santiago. Easter Island is relatively small so it is possible to get around fairly easily.
For more travel tips on Chile, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #10: Taj Mahal
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Built in the 1600s, this building in Agra, India, is a testament to undying love. This white marble tomb built for Emperor Shah Jahan’s deceased wife is a must-see for everyone. In 1983, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site, and also has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The Taj sees between two and four million tourists annually, so there have been recent restrictions on tourism in an effort to help protect the site. However, the greatest threat is the air pollution that is destroying the marble.
How to get there
The site is open from 8am-5pm from Saturday-Thursday and closed Fridays. Adults cost 1,000 RS. Children are free.
Favorite Historical Site #11: The Alhambra
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The Alhambra is Granada’s — and Europe’s — love letter to Moorish culture, a place where fountains trickle, leaves rustle, and ancient spirits seem to mysteriously linger. Part palace, part fort, part World Heritage site, part lesson in medieval architecture, the Alhambra has long enchanted a never-ending line of expectant visitors. During the Napoleonic occupation, the Alhambra was used as a barracks and nearly blown up. What you see today has been heavily but respectfully restored. This is a beautiful site with so many various gardens and buildings, and its view of the historic area of Granada is second to none.
How to get there
Using public transport take line C3 and get off Generalife. The site is easily walkable from the downtown area of the city too. It is open daily from 8:30am – 8pm (April 1-October 14), and 8:30am-6pm (October 15-March 31). Due to high demand and visitor restrictions, I highly recommend booking in advance. Adult tickets are 14 EUR. Children under 12 are free.
For more travel tips on Granada, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #12: The Great Wall of China
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The Great Wall of China actually consists of numerous walls and fortifications. It was originally conceived by Emperor Qin Shi Huang (ca. 259–210 BC) in the third century BC as a means of keeping out the Mongol hordes invading the country. The best-known and best-preserved section of the Great Wall was built in the 14th through 17th centuries, during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Though the Great Wall never effectively prevented invaders from entering China, it’s still a massive engineering and construction feat and human accomplishment.
How to get there
From Beijing, you can access the wall at Badaling, Juyongguan, Mutianyu, or Jinshanling. Badaling is just 47 miles from Beijing. You can easily take the public bus there for just 12 CNY. It takes less than 2 hours each way. Ticket prices for the wall are be.tween 30-60 RMB. Visiting hours vary depending on which part of the wall you visit.
For more travel tips on China, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #13: Chichén Itzá
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Chichén Itzá, meaning “at the mouth of the well of Itzá,” is the second most visited archeological site in Mexico and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s one of the most important Mayan historical structures in the Americas and has been restored greatly in the last few years.
How to get there
Chichen Itza is located 125 miles from Cancun and 75 miles from Merida. It can be visited as a day trip from either location. The admission fee is 188 MXN per person and free for children 12 and under. The site is open daily from 8am-5pm.
For more travel tips on Mexico, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #14: Volubilis
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A major trading center and the southernmost settlement during Roman times, Volubilis in Morocco is one of the best preserved (and least frequented) ruins of its kind in the world. I found it empty of tourists, not built up, and open in a way that really lets you get up close and see the structures without being behind ten feet of barriers and jostled by crowds. Most of the city is still unexcavated, so the site has a very raw feel to it. I’ve been to a lot of Roman ruins in my travels, but I love this one the best. It’s a lovely day trip away from the crowds and noise of Fez. Entrance is 20 MAD (Moroccan dirhams), or about 5 USD.
How to get there
Volubilis is located about 19 miles north of the city of Meknes. It can be reached from Meknes by taxi, by car, or by organized tour. My preferred tour company is Intrepid. Volubilis is open daily and costs 20 MAD to enter.
For more travel tips on Morocco, check out this detailed planning guide.
Favorite Historical Site #15: Sukhothai
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Located in a beautiful in north-central Thailand, Sukhothai was the capital of Thailand for a couple hundred years. This is site is often overlooked by travelers, as few stop there on the way to Chiang Mai. The central area contains 21 temples enclosed by a moat. Its many temples showcase the unique Sukhothai style of decoration, which incorporates Khmer (Cambodian) and Sri Lankan influences. It’s a huge, huge site and takes a good day or two to see. Most of it is exposed to the sun, so bring sunscreen or you’ll get massively sunburned.
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