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Travel bucket list ideas:

Last updated: 20 July, 2023

From the Egyptians to the Romans, the Etruscans to the Mayans, throughout human history vast empires have risen and fallen into ruin, their culture and customs lost to the sands of time.

Thankfully, some outstanding examples remain – to fascinate and educate, and to stand as testaments to the fragility of human society.

To truly understand human history, and for an evocative step back into the past, pay a visit to these world-class ancient sites and ruins of lost civilisations.

 

Table of Contents

Abu Simbel, Aswan, Egypt (1250 BC)

Aswan, Southern Upper Egypt Region, Egypt

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Bucket List Experience

The two temples of Ramesses II at Abu Simbel in Aswan are among the most impressive of all the world’s surviving ancient monuments. It remains a testament to the power of the Egyptian empire at its height under Ramesses II, aka ‘Ramesses the Great’.

Cut into the rock above the Nile floodplain more than 3,000 years ago, fronted by four colossal statues of the pharaoh. His consort Nefertari and their children can be seen in smaller figures by his feet. Queen Nefertari was the first of Ramesses’ ‘Great Royal Wives’.

Best for ages: 8+ | £12

Acropolis (438 BC)

Athens, Central Greece, Greece

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Bucket List Experience

This iconic citadel and world-famous Athens city landmark contains half-a-dozen buildings, mostly built from 500 BC to 450 BC on the orders of the powerful statesman Pericles, during the so-called ‘Golden age of Athens’.

The star attraction is, of course, the Parthenon, a 2,500-year-old temple made from a marble jigsaw made of 70,000 pieces. It’s the most important surviving building of Classical Greece, and dazzles with its perfect symmetry.

Best for ages: 7+ | £9

Angkor Wat (AD 900-1300)

Siem Reap, Northwestern Region, Cambodia

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Bucket List Experience

The former capital of the Khmer people, Angkor is a pilgrimage site for Buddhists and the archetypal ‘lost city’ for the rest of us.

Built between the 9th-13th centuries deep in the Cambodian jungle, the site represents Khmer architecture at its finest and includes Angkor Wat, the largest religious building ever constructed.

Best for ages: 10+ | £28

Ayuthhaya (AD 1350)

Bangkok, Central Thailand, Thailand

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Bucket List Experience

Thailand’s ancient capital, just outside of Bangkok and now home to ruined palaces and crumbling Buddha statues, was once one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities, a vast span of grand palaces and gilded temples.

That abruptly ended when the Burmese ransacked the city in 1767 and reduced its splendours to rubble.

Best for ages: 13+ | £3

Baalbek Temple (1 BC)

Baalbeck, Baalbek-Hermel Governorate, Lebanon

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Bucket List Experience

This remarkable temple complex is home to some of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the world.

Situated on a hill overlooking the surrounding valley, the site’s biggest draw are the six remaining columns of the famous Temple of Jupiter, but it also boasts the much better-preserved Temple of Bacchus.

Best for ages: 13+ | £8

Banditaccia Necropolis at Cerveteri (900-200 BC)

Cerveteri, Lazio, Italy

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Bucket List Experience

The mostly wooden cities of the Etruscans have all but vanished, but they also built astonishing cities of the dead that replicated their long-lost abodes.

Cerveteri, just outside of Rome, is one of the best – a necropolis with more than 400 tombs from the 9th-2nd centuries BC. Visits are now enhanced with 3D technology.

Best for ages: 18+ | £7

Calakmul, Campeche (AD 200-900)

Campeche, Mexico

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Bucket List Experience

A huge, impressive and little-visited 2,000-year-old Mayan city on the Mayan Riviera that was once a rival to Tikal.

The giant pyramids of this ruined city emerge evocatively from a wildlife-filled rainforest, the second-largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere.

Best for ages: 13+ | £8

Interior of a cave covered in paintings and full of rows of Buddhas
Experience

Cave Temples of Dambulla (1 BC)

Dambulla, Central Province, Sri Lanka

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Bucket List Experience

The largest and best-preserved temple complex in Sri Lanka, Dambulla towers above the surrounding plains.

It houses eighty individual caves, with five home to over 150 Buddha statues – a wealth of cultural and religious history. The monastery dates back to the 2nd century BC, and still functions as such today.

Best for ages: 18+ | £5

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Chauvet Cave (30,000 BC)

Ardeche, Auberge-Rhone-Alpes, France

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Bucket List Experience

Discovered in December 1994, Chauvet is arguably the most spectacular paleolithic cave of them all, decorated with extraordinary vivid scenes of lions, horses, aurochs, bison, and woolly rhinoceroses that seem to race across the contoured walls.

Painted 36,000 years ago, the art was preserved when the entrance collapsed 20 millennia ago.

Best for ages: 4+ | £15

Chichen Itza (AD 500-900)

Piste, Yucatan, Mexico

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Bucket List Experience

The most iconic of Mexico’s mystical pre-Hispanic Mayan ruins, whose oldest structures date back to the 5th century.

This famous site on the Mayan Riviera is littered with stunning, monumental buildings – the perfectly proportioned Castillo pyramid, decorated with plumed serpents, the collonaded Temple of a Thousand Warriors, vast ball courts and exquisitely carved palaces.

Best for ages: 8+ | £20

Citadel of Aleppo (3,000 BC)

Aleppo, Aleppo Governorate, Syria

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Bucket List Experience

This sprawling citadel is one of the largest and oldest castles in the world – records of its existence in some form date back to 3,000 BC. Over the centuries, it’s been home to multiple civilisations, including the Greeks, Byzantines, Ottomans and Romans, and has survived multiple invasions and wars.

Highlights today include the imposing stone entrance bridge, the Ayyubid Palace and the ancient hammam.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

Coba (AD 200)

Quintana Roo, Mexico

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Bucket List Experience

This conglomeration of Mayan towns, linked by extensive paved walkways and centred on pyramid-lined plazas, was one of the most important Mayan trading centres in its heyday between AD 200 and AD 1400.

Set in lush forest near two pretty lakes, it receives far fewer visitors than Chichen Itza or Tulum and consequently feels more authentic and atmospheric.

Climb the steep, vertiginous steps to the summit of the 126ft-high Nohoc Mul pyramid, the tallest on the Mayan Riviera and the only one tourists can still climb.

Best for ages: 13+ | £5

Colosseum (AD 80)

Rome, Lazio, Italy

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Bucket List Experience

Rome’s heritage centrepiece, the Colosseum, was the largest ever amphitheatre built during the Roman Empire – and it still manages to pull a hefty crowd.

Built to host gladiatorial contests and handle an unruly crowd of 50,000 spectators, it is considered one of the greatest works of Roman architecture and engineering.

Best for ages: 8+ | £14

Derinkuyu Underground City (1180 BC)
Experience

Derinkuyu Underground City (1180 BC)

Derinkuyu, Central Anatolia, Turkey

This extraordinary, 85m deep, multi-level underground Cappadocian city, carved into the soft bedrock, is the largest underground city in Turkey.

A visit entails a descent via long lamp-lit tunnels, through chambers and store rooms, into the heart of an apparently endless warren that once sheltered over 20,000 people.

Best for ages: 18+ | £3

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Diocletian’s Palace (AD 305)

Split, Dalmatia, Croatia

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Bucket List Experience

Facing Split’s seafront promenade, this vast 3rd-century AD palace was Roman emperor Diocletian’s retirement home. It now forms the core of Split’s stunning, UNESCO-listed historic centre.

In later centuries, medieval, Gothic, Renaissance and baroque buildings were erected within the citadel’s sturdy white-marble walls.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

Ephesus (1 BC)

Selcuk, Aegean Region, Turkey

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Bucket List Experience

The Roman capital of Asia Minor and one of the largest cities in the ancient world, Ephesus was home to the famous Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Today, the Ephesus site is a stunning evocation of Roman-era life in the Empire’s east and a must-see on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast.

Best for ages: 18+ | £7

Giza Plateau (2,500 BC)

Cairo, Lower Egypt, Egypt

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Bucket List Experience

The Giza Plateau, wedged between the city’s borders and the Western Desert, is a remarkable complex of gargantuan stone pyramids, several cemeteries, and a giant statue of a mythological sphinx – all dating back to 2,500 BC.

The Great Pyramid of Giza, tomb of the Pharaoh Khufu, is the oldest and largest of the pyramids; standing 147m in height, it was the world’s tallest man-made structure for nearly four millennia.

Best for ages: 8+ | Free

Great Wall of China (220 BC)

Beijing, China

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Bucket List Experience

Often cited as the greatest ever man-made construction, built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), the Great Wall snakes along China’s 5,000-mile-long northern boundary 75km north of Beijing.

Up to 8m tall and 9m wide, this ancient defensive wall traverses the stupendous mountain scenery of northern China, with numerous sections that can be hiked.

Best for ages: 8+ | Free

Hierapolis (AD 80)

Denizli, Aegean Region, Turkey

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Bucket List Experience

This unique ancient site is home to the evocative Roman-era ruins of Hierapolis, an arresting UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to AD 80.

At its height, thousands travelled from across the Roman Empire to bathe in the medicinal hot springs and the town grew to a population of 100,000. The town was eventually destroyed, first by marauding Persian armies, then later by a devastating earthquake.

Today, it is notable for its fine theatre, impressive necropolis, museum and martyrium of the apostle St Philip.

Best for ages: 18+ | £8

Istanbul's Ottoman Mosques (1500 AD)

Istanbul, Marmara Region, Turkey

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Bucket List Experience

After conquering Constantinople, Mehmet the Conqueror converted the Hagia Sophia, the great Byzantine church, into a mosque. By the 1500s, the Ottoman sultans were transforming Istanbul’s skyline with spectacular granite, marble and tile mosques, including the gasp-worthy 17th-century Blue and Sinan’s Suleymaniye Mosques.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

Istanbul's Ottoman Palaces (1500 AD)

Istanbul , Marmara Region, Turkey

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Bucket List Experience

Rivalled only in their magnificence by the great mosques, the Ottoman Sultan’s also lavished on magnificent palaces. First up, in 1453, was the opulent Topkapi Palace, built by Mehmet the Conqueror – which set the style and remained the seat of power for centuries.

The result was a legacy of 11 extravagant palaces, reaching a dizzying level of crystal chandelier splendour in the Dolmabahce Palace.

Best for ages: 8+ | £2

Jerash (200 BC)

Jerash Governate, Jordan

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Bucket List Experience

The remarkably well-preserved remains of the Greco-Roman city of Gerasa – today known as Jerash – lie 48km north of Amman.

Jerash was a Greek city in the third century BC and became a wealthy city under Roman rule. After falling into decline, the city was eventually buried by sands until excavation and restoration during the past 70 years unearthed the remains of some magnificently preserved buildings. It evokes powerful ghosts of Rome.

Best for ages: 13+ | £14

Aerial view of a large temple cut down into the rock
Experience

Kailasa Temple (AD 770)

Ellora, Maharashtra, India

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Bucket List Experience

The largest of the 34 cave temples in the extraordinary Ellora Caves complex, this Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva was carved out of a rock face in the 8th century by the Rashtrakuta king Krishna I.

Astonishingly, it’s a megalith, carved up to 33m downwards from the top down.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Karnak Temple (1552-1306 BC)

Luxor, Southern Upper Egypt Region, Egypt

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Bucket List Experience

The largest temple complex in the world, Karnak was the most important place of worship for ancient Egyptians, with 80,000 people working here during the reign of Ramses II.

The Temple of Amun is the most impressive of all, spread across 250,000sq m, with a magnificent hall of 134 columns.

Best for ages: 10+ | £10

Knossos Palace (2000–1580 BC)

Crete, Greek Islands, Greece

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Bucket List Experience

Considered the oldest city in Europe, this royal palace in Crete was a Bronze Age centre of commerce and culture. The centre of Minoan civilisation, it was also home to the legendary Minotaur.

Best for ages: 18+ | £5

Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia – world's must-see churches
Experience

Lalibela (AD 1300)

Lalibela, Amhara, Ethiopia

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Bucket List Experience

This fascinating religious site is home to eleven extraordinary monolithic churches, dug downwards out of the volcanic tuff. They were built on the orders of King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela (who gave the site its name) following a celestial vision.

The stand-out is the beautifully-preserved Church of St. George, a popular pilgrimage site.

Best for ages: 18+ | £2

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Lascaux Cave (17,000 BC)

Montignac, Nouvelle-Aquitaine , France

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Bucket List Experience

Two hours’ drive from Bordeaux, these astonishing caves, painted around 17,000 BC, are known as the ‘Sistine Chapel’ of Palaeolithic art.

The breathtakingly sophisticated polychrome paintings of animals that remain have a keen eye for perspective and movement

Sadly, the cave had to be closed in 1963 because of the damage caused by carbon dioxide in visitors’ breath. But in 1983, after 11 years of work, a perfect replica of the two main sections of the cave, known as Lascaux II, opened 200m away.

Best for ages: 6+ | £15

Machu Picchu (1400 AD)

Aguas Calientes, Cusco Region, Peru

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Bucket List Experience

Peru‘s top sight, the Incas’ magnificent 15th-century mountaintop citadel sprawls across ten hectares of Peruvian cloud forest. Its elaborate architecture comprises ceremonial centres – including a sun temple – as well as residential areas and agricultural terraces.

At the north end is Wayna Picchu, the cone-shaped mountain that rises imperiously above the site.

Best for ages: 8+ | £28

Aerial view of the site
Experience

Masada (30 BC)

Masada National Park, Judea, Israel

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Bucket List Experience

Set on a plateau at the top of imposing cliffs in the Judaean Desert, the ancient fortress of Masad was built by the Hasmoneans in 1 BC before being taken over by the Romans in 75 BC.

The original complex included an armoury, soldiers’ barracks and storehouses – Herod the Great added two palaces around 30 BC.

Best for ages: 18+ | £5

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Moai of Easter Island (1250-1500 AD)
Experience

Moai of Easter Island (1250-1500 AD)

Rapu Nui National Park, Easter Island, Chile

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Bucket List Experience

These strange-looking stone monoliths were carved by the native Rapu Nui people. Called moai, meaning ‘statue’, they’re inspired by the faces of deified ancestors.

The tallest, Paro, is 10m and weighs a staggering 82 tonnes – emphasising the remarkable feat to produce and transport them.

Best for ages: 13+ | Free

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Nazca Lines (500 BC)

Nazca, Ica Region, Peru

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Bucket List Experience

A broad alluvial plain in the southern desert contains one of Peru’s most enigmatic sights: dozens of 2,000-year-old glyphs carved into the earth, on a scale so gargantuan that they can only be seen from the air. These land drawings of a monkey, spider and other figures have drawn legions of archaeologists, conspiracy theorists and curious travellers since they were first discovered in the 1920s.

Explanations vary; they may have been used as a giant astronomical calendar, a ritualised walking meditation or to communicate with the gods.

Best for ages: 13+ | £65

Ostia Antica Archaeological Park (AD 100)

Rome, Lazio, Italy

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Bucket List Experience

Located where the River Tiber meets the sea, Ostia Antica was the harbour city of ancient Rome, and is one of Italy’s best-preserved archaeological sites. As a port, it was naturally cosmopolitan: Persian, Phrygian and Egyptian gods were all worshipped in its shrines.

Beautiful mosaic pavements (notably in the Forum of the Corporations), warehouses, apartment buildings (insulae), merchant’s houses, taverns, baths and a theatre, recall Ostia’s old prosperity on silent streets under the parasol pines.

Best for ages: 18+ | £10

Petra (312 BC)

Ma'an, Jordan

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Bucket List Experience

Jordan’s premier sight is a vast and spectacular 4th-century BC Nabataean city, carved into the pink-hued cliffs of the surrounding mountains and gorges.

The sight remained a secret to everyone except the Nabataeans until it was ‘discovered’ in 1812 by Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

Best for ages: 13+ | £52

Pompeii (AD 79)

Naples, Campania, Italy

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Bucket List Experience

The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 smothered the thriving Roman town of Pompeii in choking volcanic ash.

Today, you can stroll Pompeii’s streets and see the town as it was that day in almost perfect detail – right down to ruts in the roads caused by chariot wheels.

Best for ages: 13+ | £13

Exterior of Prambanan Temple
Experience

Prambanan Temple (AD 850)

Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia

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Bucket List Experience

Built in the 9th century to serve as the royal temple of the Kingdom of Mataram, this vast compound of 240 temples is second in size only to Angkor Wat in South-East Asia.

Mysteriously abandoned in the 10th century, and damaged by a 16th-century earthquake, it remains an evocative showcase of Hindu architecture, with classically tall, pointed temple designs.

Best for ages: 18+ | £10

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Sacsayhuaman (AD 1450)

Cusco, Cusco Region, Peru

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Bucket List Experience

This ruined Inca fortress and ceremonial centre, on the northern outskirts of the Peruvian city of Cusco, is an imposing sight – a series of tri-level ramparts hundreds of metres long and overlooking a vast field.

The masonry boggles the mind: boulders weighing hundreds of tons cut into strange geometric shapes – transported without the use of the wheel – are jigsaw-pieced together without cement or metal tools.

Best for ages: 18+ | £24

View of a granite rock monolith with a small temple on the summit
Experience

Sigiriya (AD 477)

Sigiriya, Central Province, Sri Lanka

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Bucket List Experience

This ancient rock fortress and former royal palace was built in AD 477 by King Kashyapa. It was abandoned after his death in AD 495 and used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.

Halfway up is the King’s oversized lion gateway – hence its name ‘Lion Rock’.

Best for ages: 13+ | £23

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Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple (1 BC)
Experience

Sri Ranganatha Swamy Temple (1 BC)

Srirangam, Tamil Nadu, India

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Bucket List Experience

India’s largest functioning Hindu temple – one of the largest religious complexes in the world – contains over 80 shrines, 20 towers, 35 pavilions and 7 enclosures on a vast 155-acre site.

One of Hindu’s holiest sites, it’s recognised as being first and foremost among the 108 Divya Desams dedicated to Bhagwan Vishnu.

Best for ages: 18+ | £1

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St Catherine's Monastery

Sharm el-Sheik, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

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Bucket List Experience

At the base of Mount Sinai, set amid a dramatic and harsh desert landscape, this remarkable Greek Orthodox monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I (AD 527-565) to protect the biblical ‘Burning Bush’, where Moses received his instructions to lead the Israelites out of Egypt in Canaan.

The monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world, and is a holy pilgrimage site.

Best for ages: 18+ | £2 | 3-5 hours

Stonehenge (2,500 BC)

Salisbury, Wiltshire, United Kingdom (UK)

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Bucket List Experience

There is nowhere else in the UK that matches Stonehenge for history, atmosphere and mysticism.

An ancient burial site dating back to between 2,000-3,000 BC, the iconic stone circle is one of the most famous prehistoric monuments in the world, offering a unique glimpse at England’s pre-history.

Best for ages: 4+ | £22

Sutton Hoo (6th century AD)

Woodbridge, Suffolk, United Kingdom (UK)

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Bucket List Experience

One of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time – the burial site and treasure hoard of the 6th-century Anglo-Saxon King Raedwald.

Only discovered in the 1930s, the site dates back to the 6th century and holds the remains of a royal ‘ship burial’, complete with a spectacular hoard of armour, weapons and artifacts that were laid out alongside the monarch, thought to be King Raedwald.

Best for ages: 4+ | £13 | 4 hours

Taj Mahal (1653 AD)

Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India

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Bucket List Experience

Founded in the 1520s by Babur, a warrior chieftain from present-day Uzbekistan, India’s Mughal Empire dominated most of north, central and even a swathe of south India for two centuries. Its capital shifted between Delhi, Agra, Fatehpur Sikri and Lahore (Pakistan), and it is these destinations which today boast an array of spectacular Mughal monuments.

Greatest of all is the mesmerising Taj Mahal, built by the great Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to entomb his wife, Mumtaz.

Best for ages: 10+ | Free

Temple of Isis (690 BC)

Aswan, Upper Egypt, Egypt

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Bucket List Experience

One of the most beautiful Greco-Roman temples, with the most romantic setting of all, this 4th century BC was dedicated to the goddess and her husband, Osiris.

It became one of Egypt’s most sacred sites during Roman times, and attracted pilgrims from along the Nile and around the Mediterranean for thousands of years.

Best for ages: 18+ | £13

Beautiful golden pagodas rise out of the forested countryside
Experience

Temples of Bagan (900-1300 AD)

Bagan, Mandalay Region, Myanmar (formerly Burma)

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Bucket List Experience

Bagan’s mist-shrouded landscape, peppered with seemingly random pagodas and temples, was once home to the capital of the Bagan Kingdom.

At its height, over 10,000 intricate temples, pagodas and monasteries graced its skyline; only around 2,200 that have withstood the periodic earthquakes remain. Experience it from a hot air balloon at sunrise. Magical.

Best for ages: 18+ | Free

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View of large pyramid of Teotihuacan. Small pyramids in foreground
Experience

Teotihuacan (400 BC)

Mexico Valley, Mexico

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Bucket List Experience

This ancient Mesoamerican city, just north of Mexico City, was once the largest in the Americas, home to over 125,000 people. Highlights are its stand-out stone two pyramids, the ‘Pyramid of the Sun’ and the ‘Pyramid of the Moon’, connected by the ‘Avenue of the Dead’.

It was established in around 100 BC and thrived until its mysterious sacking and burning in AD 550.

Best for ages: 18+ | £5

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Terracotta Warriors (210 BC)

Xi'an, Shaanxi Province, China

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Bucket List Experience

An extraordinary ancient army of life-sized terracotta warriors, built to guard the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shihuang in the 3rd century BC, is one of China’s most awe-inspiring sights.

So far, more than 6,000 warriors have been found – each unique – with an estimated 2,000 more yet to be excavated.

Best for ages: 8+ | £17

Tikal (AD 200)

Tikal National Park, Peten Basin, Guatemala

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Bucket List Experience

One of the largest and most majestic ancient Mayan cities, Tikal’s awe-inspiring ruins soar through the Guatemalan jungle canopy. More than 3,000 structures reveal the extent of a city that once housed 100,000 Maya.

Although now a city of the dead, the surrounding rainforest thrums with wildlife including howler monkeys and toucans.

Best for ages: 13+ | £16

Valley of the Kings (16th century BC)

Luxor, Middle Egypt, Egypt

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Bucket List Experience

This remarkable desert valley, known to the ancients as the ‘Place of Truth’, is home to 62 known tombs belonging to some of the greatest of Egypt’s pharaohs, including the famous tomb of Tutankhamun.

The treasures are long gone, but the hieroglyphic-decorated ceilings and walls are no less impressive.

Best for ages: 13+ | £8

Frequently asked questions

What are the greatest empires & civilisations in history?

Here are the 20 greatest human civilisations, in chronological order from oldest to most recent, that left behind the incredible sites and monuments listed above.

Akkadian Empire (2334-2154 BC)

The Akkadian Empire encompassed the region of Mesopotamia, comprising modern-day Iraq, Syria, and parts of Iran and Turkey. Its headquarters was located in Akkad, in present-day Iraq. The Akkadians were renowned for being the first empire in history, known for their military conquests and the development of the Akkadian language and literature. In terms of architecture, they followed the traditions of the Sumerians, constructing impressive ziggurats and grand palaces.

Ancient Egyptian Empire (16th-11th centuries BC)

The Ancient Egyptian Empire, specifically the New Kingdom, held dominion over Egypt and parts of modern-day Sudan, Israel, and Palestine. The capital during this period was Thebes, known today as Luxor in Egypt. The empire is celebrated for its monumental architecture, including pyramids, temples, and tombs. Famous pharaohs like Ramses II left their mark, and the empire’s legacy includes hieroglyphic writing, a complex polytheistic religion, and intricate burial practices. Egyptian architecture showcased structures such as the temples of Karnak and Luxor, the Valley of the Kings’ elaborate tombs, and the iconic pyramids of Giza.

Ancient Greek Empire (5th-4th century BC)

The Ancient Greek Empire encompassed mainland Greece and its surrounding regions. It was renowned for its city-states, such as Athens and Sparta, which thrived culturally, intellectually, and militarily. The Greeks made significant contributions to philosophy, art, literature, and democracy, which shaped Western civilisation. Their legacy lives on through enduring literary works like the Iliad and Odyssey, architectural marvels like the Parthenon, and enduring philosophical concepts from scholars like Plato and Aristotle.

Persian Empire (Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 BC)

The Achaemenid Persian Empire extended across a vast expanse, from Egypt and Greece to the Indus Valley. The empire’s capital was Persepolis, located in present-day Iran. The Achaemenids were distinguished by their efficient administration, the establishment of the Royal Road (an extensive network of roads), and the development of the Persian religion of Zoroastrianism. Architecturally, they built magnificent palaces, massive columned halls, and grand staircases. Persepolis exemplifies their architectural prowess through elaborate stone reliefs and monumental structures.

Maurya Empire (322-185 BC)

The Maurya Empire held dominion over the Indian subcontinent. Its headquarters resided in Pataliputra, modern-day Patna in India. Notable achievements of the Maurya Empire include the unification of India by Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka’s conversion to Buddhism and promotion of dharma (moral law), and the establishment of a robust centralized administration. In terms of architecture, the Maurya Empire is known for its rock-cut structures, exemplified by the magnificent cave temples at Ajanta and Ellora. Emperor Ashoka also erected numerous pillars engraved with edicts across the empire.

Carthaginian Empire (7th-2nd centuries BC)

The Carthaginian Empire, centred in the ancient city of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia). Carthage was a prominent maritime power that controlled territories in North Africa, parts of the Iberian Peninsula, and Sicily. The empire is renowned for its prowess in trade, seafaring, and military campaigns, particularly the Punic Wars against Rome. The Carthaginians built monumental structures such as harbours, temples, and fortifications, although much of it was lost to history due to conflicts and subsequent reconstructions.

Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD)

The Han Dynasty ruled over China, parts of Central Asia, and Korea. Its capital was Chang’an, known today as Xi’an in China. It was renowned for its centralised bureaucracy, technological and agricultural advancements, the establishment of the Silk Road trade route, and the influence of Confucianism. The Hans built grand palaces, ceremonial tombs, and impressive infrastructure projects, most notably, the Great Wall of China.

Roman Empire (27 BC – AD 476)

The Roman Empire, headquartered of course in Rome, covered the Mediterranean Basin, including parts of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. The empire left an indelible mark on history through its extensive road network, republican and imperial governance systems, engineering marvels like aqueducts and colosseums, the development of Roman law, and cultural assimilation. Architecturally, the Romans drew inspiration from classical Greek styles, resulting in structures such as the Colosseum, Pantheon, and grand aqueducts. See our round-up of the greatest Roman ruins.

Persian Empire (Sassanian Empire, 224-651 AD)

This second Persian Empire covered Persia (modern-day Iran), Mesopotamia, and significant parts of Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Arabian Peninsula. Its capital was Ctesiphon, located near present-day Baghdad in Iraq. It left a lasting impact with its political, administrative, and cultural achievements. Notable contributions include advancements in art, literature, and architecture, such as the construction of majestic palaces, grand cities, and iconic structures like the Taq Kasra, a large arch considered a symbol of Persian architecture.

The Maya Empire (250-900 AD)

This complex Mesoamerican civilization, renowned for its advanced culture and accomplishments, flourished across present-day southern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. The Maya were known for their remarkable achievements in architecture, mathematics, astronomy, art, and writing systems. They constructed impressive cities with monumental temples and palaces, developed a sophisticated calendar, and left behind intricate hieroglyphic inscriptions that offer insights into their history and beliefs. It’s headline legacy is Chichen Itza, but there are evocative Mayan ruins across the Yucatan.

Byzantine Empire (330-1453 AD)

The Byzantines thrived as the Eastern Roman Empire, spanning regions across Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Constantinople, present-day Istanbul in Turkey, stood as its capital. Notable for preserving and transmitting classical Greek and Roman knowledge, the empire is remembered for Justinian’s codification of Roman law known as the Justinian Code, Byzantine art and architecture, and the influence of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Byzantine architecture showcased distinctive features, including domes, mosaics, and basilicas, with the Hagia Sophia being a prominent example.

Gupta Empire (4th-6th centuries AD)

India’s Gupta Empire ruled over a significant portion of northern India. Its capital was Pataliputra, present-day Patna in India. The empire is widely regarded as the Golden Age of India, known for its achievements in mathematics, science, arts, and literature. It promoted Hinduism and witnessed advancements in various fields, including metallurgy, astronomy, and medicine. Remnants today can be seen in intricate stone carvings in temple structures, exemplified by the Dashavatara Temple in Deogarh.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD)

Headquartered in Chang’an, the Tang is considered a golden age of Chinese civilization. It achieved remarkable political stability, territorial expansion, and economic prosperity. The dynasty fostered a cosmopolitan society that facilitated cultural exchange with neighbouring regions and beyond, resulting in notable achievements in poetry, painting, and porcelain production. It also implemented effective governance systems and promoted Buddhism as a prominent religion within the empire.

Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD)

The Abbasid Caliphate emerged as the second Islamic caliphate after the Umayyad Caliphate. It spanned a vast area, including the Middle East, North Africa, Persia, and parts of Central Asia. The capital of the Abbasid Caliphate was Baghdad in present-day Iraq. Known for its intellectual and cultural achievements, the empire fostered a flourishing Islamic Golden Age marked by advancements in science, mathematics, philosophy, and literature. Architecturally, the Abbasids combined influences from diverse cultures, resulting in the development of splendid palaces, mosques, and gardens

Viking Empire (8th-11th centuries AD)

The Viking Empire, also known as the Norse seafaring culture, emerged in the late 8th century CE and expanded throughout the Viking Age, reaching its height in the 9th to 11th centuries. The Vikings originated from Scandinavian regions, but their seafaring and trading activities allowed them to influence territories across Europe, including the British Isles, Iceland, Greenland, and parts of Russia. Known for their skilled navigation, military prowess, and exploration, the Vikings left a lasting impact on the regions they encountered. They left a lasting legacy of wooden longhouses, stave churches, fortified structures like Viking ring fortresses and some remarkable ships.

Khmer Empire (9th-15th century AD)

The Khmer Empire encompassed large parts of Southeast Asia, including present-day Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. The empire’s capital was Angkor, renowned for its majestic temple complexes like Angkor Wat and Bayon. The Khmer Empire is celebrated for its sophisticated irrigation systems, advanced agricultural techniques, and intricate temple architecture. The Khmers left behind massive stone temples adorned with intricate bas-reliefs and intricate sculptural details, displaying a fusion of Hindu and Buddhist influences.

Mongol Empire (1206-1368 AD)

Founded by Genghis Khan in the 13th century, it became the largest contiguous empire in history, stretching from Eastern Europe to Asia. It reached its peak under Kublai Khan, with its capital established in Khanbaliq, present-day Beijing, China. The Mongols were renowned for their military conquests, efficient administration, and the Pax Mongolica, a period of stability and cultural exchange. Influenced by Chinese, Persian, and Central Asian styles, the Mongols built structures such as the palaces and temples of Karakorum and the Yuan Dynasty architecture in China.

The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD)

Headquartered in Beijing, the Ming witnessed a restoration of Chinese rule after the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty. The Dynasty is known for its significant contributions to maritime exploration, exemplified by the expeditions of the renowned admiral Zheng He. The dynasty constructed impressive architectural landmarks such as the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. It revived and enhanced Chinese arts, literature, and philosophy, leaving a profound cultural legacy that continues to influence Chinese culture to this day.

Inca Empire (13th-16th centuries AD)

The Inca Empire flourished over a vast territory along the western coast of South America. Its capital was Cusco in present-day Peru. It was renowned for its sophisticated administrative system, extensive road network (Qhapaq Ñan), and impressive stone masonry. Notable architectural achievements include Machu Picchu, the mountain citadel, and Sacsayhuaman, a colossal fortress with precisely fitted stones.

Aztec Empire (14th-16th centuries AD)

The Aztecs territorial domain covered much of central Mexico. The empire’s capital was Tenochtitlan, situated on an island in Lake Texcoco (present-day Mexico City). The Aztecs were known for their military might, tribute system, complex social structure, and monumental architecture. They constructed impressive pyramids, temples, and palaces, with the Templo Mayor being the most notable example of their architectural prowess.

Ottoman Empire (15th-17th centuries AD)

Established in 1299, the Ottomans reached their peak between the 15th and 17th centuries, encompassing vast territories across Europe, Asia, and Africa. Its capital, Constantinople, was renamed Istanbul and became a regional centre of power and culture. The empire was renowned for its military prowess, efficient administrative system, and cultural achievements. Ottoman architecture featured grand mosques, palaces, and public buildings characterized by intricate geometric patterns, domes, and minarets. Many can be seen to this day in modern-day Istanbul, notably its world-famous gargantuan mosques.

Mughal Empire (1526-1857 AD)

This Indian subcontinent empire was established by Babur and reached its height under emperors like Akbar, Jahangir, and Shah Jahan. The empire covered a vast region, including present-day India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The Mughals were known for their administrative prowess, religious tolerance, and patronage of art, literature, and architecture. Their architectural style blended Persian, Islamic, and indigenous Indian elements, resulting in iconic structures such as the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, and Jama Masjid.

British Empire (16th-20th centuries AD)

The British Empire was one of the largest and most influential empires in history. At its height, it covered territories across the globe, including large parts of North America, Australia, India, Africa, and the Caribbean. The empire had no specific headquarters but was governed from various administrative centres, including London. It was known for its maritime supremacy, vast colonial holdings, and the spread of British culture, legal systems, and language. Architecturally, it left a legacy of styles, from neoclassical government buildings to Victorian-era structures.