Updated April 2020!
Do you like ruins? They are major draws for tourists around the world, but they’re not for everyone. They serve as a warning against whatever was their downfall, they make epic backdrops, they are a window into the past. There is beauty in the broken, but sometimes it takes hundreds of years to find it. There’s a lesson in there for all of us, but I’ll leave that to you.
The ruins of the Angkor Wat Temple complex are vast. It’s the largest religious complex on Earth, and the Western world was completely oblivious to them until the 1860s. The craftsmanship is stunning, and you could spend days exploring it all. While this is a major tourist attraction for Cambodia, it’s also a working Buddhist temple. You’ll see monks in orange robes walking slowly, peacefully, through their temples. Seeing them offered a reminder to take in the moment slowly.
Read on: Cambodia
The Rapa Nui people of Easter Island were once prosperous, numerous, and highly skilled. These Polynesian people had their own language, customs, and government until over population and deforestation changed all that for them. Peruvian slave ships took all but 100 of the remaining Rapa Nui people into slavery in South America, but those 100 could not keep their traditions alive on their own, so researchers and archaeologists may never know how to read or understand their language. This special, isolated island is a fascinating case study in the rise and fall of a culture. It’s also a beautiful place, far from anywhere else in the world. Sometimes we need to escape.
Read on: Easter Island
Egypt is perhaps the most excavated country in the world. Ruins of their ancient civilization are everywhere. When someone refers to “the Sphinx,” everyone within earshot has the same picture in their head. When you say “the Pyramids,” the three in Cairo come to mind. A mention of Luxor and the Valley of the Kings conjure images of larger-than-life stonework and hieroglyphics. The history is almost unfathomable because it goes back so far. How can these places be so old?
Germany is home to ruins of many kinds, from medieval times to World War II. But my favorite are the castles. Some are more ruined than others (Neuschwanstein comes to mind for the “less ruined” category). My trip to Heidelberg last Christmas was highlighted by the assuming castle on the hill. There are no less than three different architectural styles on the original medieval castle, but that only adds to its beauty and history of its remains. Fairytales are not reality, but sometimes the line between the two is blurred. And sometimes that’s where we find the delight.
Read on: Germany
If the word “ruins” don’t evoke images of Egypt, it will evoke images of Greece. Palaces, the Parthenon, the Acropolis: all ruins that bring people in from all over the world for research, photos, or a chance to be in the presence of such history. Sometimes history and mythology intertwine to become legend. Sometimes we prefer the legend.
Guam may not be on your top 10 list of places to find ruins, but it should be. The Chamorro people used to build their homes in a very specific way such that they would be kept up off the ground—away from water damage and especially animals. There are Spanish ruins from their time here as well. Guam has changed hands many times, and pieces of history are all that remain of some of them. Ruins have a way of reminding us of the things that happened before we all came along. We are not the beginning, nor will we be the end.
Read on: Guam
Speaking of history and tropical paradise, we can’t skip Hawaii. The Hawaiians’ history is something most mainland Americans don’t know much about. Parts of their history and culture may seem offensive, but my personal rule when thinking of the past is that we can’t hold people from one era to the social norms and standards of another. The ruins you may stumble upon throughout the Islands may seem small compared to the Pyramids or the Acropolis, but they are no less significant to the Hawaiian people. Be sure to stop at the Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Park (or anywhere else on the islands!) and learn a little about Hawaiian history before embarking on a hike to King Kamehameha I’s birth site or other historic sites around Hawaii. The ruins of what once was a kingdom will shine brighter for you if you do.
Read on: Hawaii
When I think of ruins, I think of times long past, once-important buildings, and excavation. But a recent trip to Iceland changed my perspective. There are far more recent ruins with a certain beauty and history about them. A DC-3 aircraft crash-landed in Iceland in 1973, and no one ever bothered to clean it up. It’s still there, abandoned on a black sand beach between the villages of Hella and Vik. It’s a bit of a tourist destination, but hard enough to get to you won’t find the faint of heart out there. Some ruins remind us that the forgotten things are not always truly forgotten. Sometimes they become things of beauty for future generations.
Read on: Iceland
If ever there was an epic world power, it was Rome. The Roman Empire stretched from what’s now England to Turkey, from France to Egypt, from Germany to the Arabian Peninsula. But the major roman ruins can be found in… Rome, of course. But Italy boasts the ruins of Pompeii, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and the Palace at St. Mark’s Square in Venice. Italy has seen its share of rulers throughout history, each one intent on leaving his mark. A trip to Italy provides plenty of opportunities to see ruins from any era, but don’t be one of those people who simply takes a picture and moves on. Take the time to really see the ruins and how they intermingle with the newer architecture. Italy has a special respect for the old and never downplays it against the new.
Read on: Italy
The Mayan ruins in Mexico and throughout Central America remind people of the Pyramids in Egypt, but there’s no way the Mayans could have known about them, is there? The large pyramid at Chichen Itza is a popular destination, but the Mayan Empire was much larger than that. You’ll find both indoor and outdoor museums dedicated to the excavation and preservation of this ancient civilization, even in the tourist hot spots like Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Take a break from the beach and take a walk through the ruins. It was surprisingly peaceful compared to the party life Cancun is known for. There are two sides to every story.
Read on: Mexico
Turkey was not on my top 10 list of places to go. Honestly, it wasn’t even on my radar. Not because I was afraid of it or thought it wouldn’t be a good place to go, it just wasn’t on my mind. But when a friend asked me to join her for a trip there, I jumped at the chance! One of the biggest surprises was the fact that there are ruins on the side of the road that you can just walk to—and climb all over. Sometimes the ruins are not ruined after all. They’re the best surprise.
Read on: Turkey
Which ruins do you find most beautiful? Comment below to let me know.
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