Some ancient cities have gone decades without being disturbed by a single soul. In turn, there are endlessly magnificent structures to explore and probably a few we’ve yet to stumble upon. Those who visit the oldest cities on earth go to appreciate the ruins that still stand, often saying there’s nothing else like it.
There’s a lot of mystery surrounding the most ancient civilizations, but what’s been left behind can tell us so much. Hopefully, centuries from now, the world’s oldest cities will still remain. But you never know when another part of human history may crumble. Because there’s no time like the present, I’d make it a point to travel to these incredible, ancient wonders that may or may not exist tomorrow.
The cradle of Western civilization, Athens’ ancient heritage is still intact. Greece’s capital and largest city has been inhabited for over 7,000 years. The Ottoman, Byzantine, and Roman empires left imprints on the most explorable parts of the city.
At almost every turn, you’ll be walking in the footsteps of some of the most prominent philosophers, writers, playwrights, and artists in all of human history. Dominated by 5th-century BC landmarks, make your way to the Acropolis, the hilltop citadel covered in ancient buildings like the Parthenon.
You might be less familiar with this one, but Timbuktu is one of the world’s oldest cities. It’s also still home to tens of thousands of people. In its heyday around the 14th century, the capital of the Tombouctou Region enjoyed two centuries of global fame as a top center of trading and learning. But it began to lose its power shortly after.
Situated near the Niger River, those in Timbuktu had access to much of west and north Africa. Trading soon migrated coastal cities, its influence diminished, and neighboring countries began to attack. But its 14th-century buildings, learning centers, and mosques remain standing.
No one’s quite sure when this temple/jungle city was built, but it’s believed to have been established around 200 BCE and abandoned by 800 CE. It remained uninhabited for about a thousand years after that, and the rainforest soon intermingled with the structure. Hardly anyone visited its more than 200 structures, including pyramids, the Temple of Skulls, ancient crypts, and a palace for centuries.
Archaeologists were the only ones frequenting it, inevitably discovering ancient texts that gave clues about this mysterious civilization. Then in the 1950s, people realized it was a diamond in the rough, and it’s believed about 90% of Palenque has yet to be discovered.
You might recognize this one from Indiana Jones. So if you’ve got a thing for historic/movie sites and one-of-a-kind photo opportunities, make your way to Jordan’s Arabian Desert and visit a stunning city like no other. This ancient Metropolis known as the ‘Rose City’ is carved directly onto the ruddy rock face. Once a popular trade route, the earliest inhabitants are believed to have resided here around 7000 BCE, with the most famous architecture built around 400-200 BCE.
Once a wealthy city, their way of life began to decline after the Romans invaded in 106 CE. Then a major earthquake turned it into a ghost town. Rediscovered in 1812, it’s now considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Looking for something to marvel at? Go to the Treasury. One of the best-preserved buildings in all of Petra, it’s believed to be the tomb of an ancient king. But Petra’s no one-trick pony. There are tons of things to see along the street of facades and in the Siq valley.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
If you’re into ancient cities, Southeast Asia is the place to be. It boasts some of the oldest cities and temples on earth. Sukhothai in Thailand and Bagan in Myanmar are both worthy stops, but none quite compare to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat complex, the largest religious structure ever built.
Angkor Wat is one of 72 temples in the abandoned complex, but you can spend an entire day exploring it. This ancient city started as a Hindu temple in the 12th century, but by the end of the century, the area transitioned into Buddhist practices. Now it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations on earth, but remains strongly tied to its roots in the most mystical and jungly of ways.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Frequently dubbed one of the wonders of the modern world, we can’t talk about the oldest cities in existence and not travel to Machu Picchu. Sitting pretty at 8,000 meters above sea level, there’s no view from the top quite like this one. Built in 1450, this ancient city was only inhabited for about a century and swiftly abandoned during the Spanish invasion. What remains is both eery and magnificent. And the only inhabitants you’re likely to run into are the photo-friendly llamas.
Unlike many surrounding cities, it escaped destruction upon invasion. In 1911, Machu Picchu became revered for its architectural soundness. If you want to visit this well-preserved piece of history, you can take a multi-day trek alongside other hikers. If you’re not up for it, there’s also a bus or a train for travelers. Once you’re up there, be sure to check out Inihuatana, the Temple of the Three Windows, and the Temple of the Sun.