My 10 Favorite Historical Sites

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This the fourth installment in a series for my 4th Travelversay Celebration.

This was an extremely difficult list to compile. How do you evaluate how historic something is? Where do you put the boundries around it. Most European and Asian capitals have a very deep history, so trying to pick and choose was hard.

The list is biased towards more ancient history, which is why cities like London and Paris were left off. You will also find no American or Canadian cities on the list, even though places like Boston and Quebec City are quite historic. I have visited several archeology digs, but left those off as well because there is very little to see when you visit.


10) Nan Madol, Pohnpei, Micronesia

Never heard of Nan Madol? I don’t blame you. I knew nothing about it before I visited Micronesia. It is a hidden, under appreciated site which should be considered on a par with Easter Island or Machu Picchu. Nan Madol is an ancient city with small canals running between the islets which housed stone buildings. The buildings were built like log cabins, except instead of using wood, they used giant slabs of basalt rock. It is believed that the rock may have come from a different island and experts have no idea how the rock was transported to the island of Pohnpei. If there can be such a thing as a “hidden wonder of the world”, Nan Madol is it.

9) The Acropolis of Athens, Greece

I usually like spending several days, if not several weeks in a place when I visit. Sometimes, however, that just isn’t possible. My vist to Greece consisted of a single 8 hour layover on a flight from Tel Aviv to Rome. During my layover I had one object: get to the Acropolis! Despite my short visit, the Acropolis area and the Parthenon had a lasting impact on me. Since my short visit they have opened a new museum near the Acropolis, which I would love to return to visit.

8) Kyoto/Nara, Japan

Kyoto and Nara are totally different cities, so I really should make them two entries. However, they are rather close together and both are former Japanese capitals. Many people visit Nara on a day trip from Kyoto. Both Kyoto and Nara were spared from Allied bombing in WWII because of their historic buildings. This makes these cities the best preserved examples of Japanese architecture in the country. There are enough temples and palaces between the two cities to occupy several days of sightseeing. I personally would also add the Temple of Horyu-ji in the mix, which can be visited by train when going from Kyoto to Nara. Surprisingly, the best known building in Kyoto, the Golden Pavilion, is actually a replica as the original burned down in the 1950s by an insane Buddhist monk.

7) Venice, Italy

Why put Venice on the list and not other European cities? Mainly because whereas London or Paris contain history, Venice IS history. If you’ve been there you probably understand. Every street you walk, every bridge you cross is like stepping back in history. Because no cars are allowed in Venice, you get a sense of history that you cannot get in other cities. Yes, it is touristy. Yes, it is expensive. It was, however, at one point the most economically powerful city in Europe, and things haven’t really changed that much since then.

6) Easter Island, Chile

I’ve always considered Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) to be a feather in my travel cap. It is hard to get to and not that many people go there. It is literally the most isolated island on Earth. That makes the accomplishment of the ancient inhabitants of Rapa Nui that much more impressive. Everyone is probably familiar with the giant moai statues on the island, but what you might not know is that all of the upright statues you see have been reconstructed since the 1950’s. By the beginning of the 20th century, all of the moai on their original platforms had been knocked over.

5) Jerusalem

How could the city I ranked #1 only be listed #5 in terms of history? Simple: much of what makes Jerusalem are the people. The Muslims, the Jews, the Christians, the pilgrams, the shopkeepers all make the old city what it is. The fact is, Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt so many times there is little in the city which actually dates back to the time of Herod and Christ. Nonetheless, the city where so much of the Bible took place deserves a spot on the list for that if nothing else. What history is there is significant.

4) Petra, Jordan

If it wasn’t for the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade I’m not sure how many people would be aware of Petra. I’m glad they are aware. It was selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World several years ago, and it is deserving of the recognition. I’ve often said that Petra reminds me of the Flintstones, and its true. The ancient Nabatean people who lived there carved out an entire city in solid rock. Most people only see photos of the Treasury or Monastery buildings, but Petra consists of an entire city. You can easily spend a full exhausting day walking around the grounds of Petra.

3) Karnak Temple, Luxor, Egypt

Picking the best temple in Egypt was actually pretty easy. Karnak is the biggest and the most impressive of all the temples I visited. Especially if you include the surrounding area of Luxor: Temple of Luxor, Valley of the Kings, Valley of the Queens and Hatshepsut’s Temple. My only question was how many Egyptian sites to put on the list. In the end I chose to leave the pyramids off the list just because of the horrible time I had there. The pyramids are certainly historic, but it wasn’t one of my favorites. Karnak can more than stand on its own. In addition to its towing pillars, there is an entire street lined with sphinx statues from Karnak to the Temple of Luxor.

2) Rome, Italy

Rome isn’t just about the Roman empire. Yes, the Forum, the Colosseum, the Pantheon and catacombs are all dripping with history. On top of that however, are several other layers of history: the Renaissance, Catholic Church history as well as the history of the modern Italian state. It is hard to go anywhere in Rome without bumping into history, whether it is in the form of a small church with masterpieces or a fountain commissioned by one of the Popes. On top of all that, you have the Vatican, which may be an independent country, but is a part of Rome for all practical purposes.

1) Angkor, Cambodia

I was simply blown away by Angkor. The size and scale of it was something I didn’t expected. There are probably a half a dozen temples in the Angkor compound which could find a place on this list by themselves. I spent 4 days exploring Angkor and another day visiting smaller temples around Siem Reap. Most people only think of Angkor Wat, the main temple, but the entire Angkor complex is much, much larger. You can easily see it on Google Earth when you look at Cambodia. It is a giant rectangle. I would return to Angkor in a heartbeat and could spend an entire week just taking photos. Angkor managed to escape the insanity of the Khmer Rouge because they respected it as a symbol of the Cambodian people.

Honorable Mentions: Mesa Verde, Colorado / Chaco Canyon, New Mexico / Sukhothai, Thailand / Ayutthaya, Thailand / Gyeongju, South Korea / Paris, France / Madrid, Spain / My Son, Vietnam / Nikko, Japan / The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt / Abu Simbel, Egypt / Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Conspicuously Absent Because I Haven’t Been There Yet: Moscow, Russia / Beijing, China / Vienna, Austria / Prague, Czech Republic / Budapest, Hungary / Pompeii, Italy / Machu Picchu, Peru / Chitzen Itza, Mexico

  • 18 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Hi
    I am looking for a photographer for a travel project in the USA
    Is that something you will be interested doing ?
    Cheers
    Shir

  2. Regin says:

    Have you been to Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines?

  3. Regin says:

    You should also go to Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines.

  4. Eric says:

    Hi. I know it’s a little late to be chiming in here, but I had to put in a plug for Ostia Antica. You mention Pompeii in your ‘conspicuously absent’ list. I have been to both Pompeii and Ostia Antica, and I think Ostia Antica is as good as Pompeii. It also has one major advantage over Pompeii, in that it is a 20 minute train ride from Rome, and you can get there with a single, normal metro ticket. The next time you are in Rome I highly recommend it. There are some pictures at the link in my name. Love the site. Thanks.

  5. riitaa says:

    Yah Petra and Giza is my favorite historical destination but you miss Machu Picchu to listed here.

  6. san says:

    Impressive list but you have left out the two most ancient regions- india and china. If you haven’t been to those places….I suggest you do. The experience will be worth it.

  7. Hana says:

    Wow, all of these sites look gorgeous. #10 Nan Madol is very intriguing to me, especially because of the mystery of the source of basalt. I was unaware that all of the Easter Island statues were reconstructed, thanks for teaching me something new! I’ve heard amazing things from friends who visited Yogyakarta. That and Machu Picchu are some of my top places I would like to visit, and your list has surely given me more ideas to consider!

  8. I have been to three of these places and heading off to Luxor in two weeks time. Looking forward to seeing all the sites of Egypt. Although your pyramid review is making me a bit apprehensive. Hope that isn’t characteristic of Egypt as a whole :S
    Siobhan

  9. Aha. Nice list but now I understand why places like Machu Picchu, Choquekirau, Kuelap and Huaca de la Luna are missing. You really need to get yourself down here to South America

  10. Ann Hamilton says:

    I sincerely recommend travelling to Wutaishan , China… Starting at Louyang to see the Longman Grottos and ending in Datong at the Yunang caves …. The Ancient Buddhist heartlands of China… An Overwhelming tapestry of the sacred

  11. faltò una zona arqueològica de Mèxico y/o Tikal Guatemala

  12. I SO agree with you that Angkor Wat is the most evocative historic spot. I love historic travel. I was surprised at how much I liked Richard the LionHeart’s castle in France,Le Chateau Gaillard. And Ireland’s ancient abby and cemetery ruins and ancient fort on the Aran Islands of Ireland had that evocative feel, too. But I can’t argue with your list. 100 would be easier to list, wouldn’t it?

  13. Vacourtoy says:

    You should also be considering Tikal, Guatemala.

  14. Hannah says:

    I would easily add a conspicuously absent for you that is a top for me: Stone Town, Zanzibar

  15. Connie Hum says:

    I love visiting ancient ruins and historical sites when I travel. It’s such a wonder how people were able to create such magnificent buildings and structures. I also like to try to picture the site in it’s original state though it’s quite hard given their current conditions. Great picks! I’d have included Ephesus, Turkey on my personal list though. =)

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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