– Some ancient sites get all the attention. Every year, visitors show up in khaki-clad droves to all of the old standards: Machu Picchu, the Colosseum, Stonehenge, Chichen Itza. And while these attractions are well deserving of their fame, there is a lot more out there for those willing to step off the tour bus. Adventurous travelers (or those who simply want to avoid the crowds) should check out these alternative historic sites that have lots in common with their more popular brethren, but that come without the touristy bustle.
If you like: Pompeii
Turns out the volcanic eruption of Italy’s Mount Vesuvius wiped out more than just one town. Although Pompeii gets all the fame (and movie deals), nearby Herculaneum is actually better preserved, and visitors can see many of the buildings in their original state — roofs and all — as well as tons of beautiful original artwork.
If you like: Machu Picchu
While the crowds board the train or set off on the highly regulated Inca Trail to Peru‘s Machu Picchu, you can (literally) take the road less traveled to Choquequirao. This ancient city was also an important hub for the Incas in the 15th and 16th centuries and the design and architecture of the site is very similar to its much more well-known sibling. Plus, the incredible views from the site — complete with terraced ruins and a stunning backdrop of jagged Andes peaks — are definitely on par with Machu Picchu. Tourists can currently only get to Choquequirao by way of a two-day trek from Cusco, which has helped to maintain this site’s relative peace and tranquility, but a new tram may be in the works that would bring in the masses.
If you like: Stonehenge
If mysterious Neolithic stone circles are your thing, you won’t want to miss Avebury, located a short distance away from the much more famous Stonehenge. While the rocks themselves may not be quite as big as those of its neighbor, visitors to Avebury are rewarded with not one but three ancient stone circles that are much more accessible than the roped-off Stonehenge. Plus, there’s a pub in the middle of one of them — reason enough to give this alternative site a shot.
If you like: Chichen Itza
Then: Uxmal or Palenque
The Maya were a pretty industrious civilization. While Chichen Itza gets much of the attention, there are a number of other sites around Mexico that are in great condition and are just as fascinating to explore. Palenque, which was populated between the 3rd century BC and the 8th century AD, was slowly consumed by the jungle after the humans moved out. It still hasn’t been fully excavated (in fact, only about 10 percent of it is), which is an added mysterious bonus for adventurous visitors. Closer to Chichen Itza is Uxmal, one of the most important Mayan cities. What makes this site so captivating is the fact that so many of the enormous structures have remained largely intact. Spend hours wandering around pyramids and palaces in this city that was, as Mayan legend claims, built in one night by a magical dwarf king.
If you like: Mesa Verde
Mesa Verde National Park, which is home to ancient Native American cliff dwellings, is one of the most popular archaeological sites in the United States. Another stunning example of the Pueblo people’s unique lifestyle is the lesser-known Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, New Mexico. Here, those without a fear of heights can climb ladders into the cliffside caves where they will find beautiful views and, some say, the opportunity to feel the “spirit” of the Pueblo ancestors.
If you like: the Colosseum
Then: Arena di Verona or Pula Arena
The Romans sure did like a good show. So much so that their former empire is dotted with amphitheaters that played host to the day’s most riveting performances, many of which included a great deal of bloodshed (gladiator combat, animal slayings, executions, etcetera). While the Colosseum is by far the most well known, in no small part because of its location in the center of Rome, there are other very well preserved arenas throughout the former empire. The Verona Arena in the north of Italy is popular for its blood-less modern day performances, most notably the opera. A little further afield is Croatia’s Pula Arena, which is one of the biggest amphitheaters. It has also been very well preserved and put to use as a site for modern entertainment options, including film festivals and concerts.
If you like: Angkor Wat
Then: Wat Phou
The Khmer people, the group most famous for constructing the temples of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, also built several other sites around Southeast Asia. Wat Phou, in Laos, is one of them. This complex is an excellent example of the architecture of that period (circa the 11th century AD), and while you won’t see the overwhelming number of temples like you would at Angkor, you also won’t see nearly as many fellow travelers crowding your view.
If you like: Sparta
Greece is not short on ancient sites or tourists to pack into them. Although it may be hard to believe, there are still plenty of places left to explore that haven’t yet made it onto the radar screen of the regular tourist circuit. One of the most interesting and beautiful is Mystras, a Medieval walled fortress built on a hill above Sparta. Yes, it is much younger than many of the country’s famous sites from classical antiquity, but it packed in plenty of interesting history under the Franks, Byzantines, Turks, and Venetians since its founding in the 13th century to keep history-loving tourists engaged for hours.