As my top five cities entry probably indicates, when I travel, much of what I prioritize is visiting historical sites, especially ancient ones.
It’s hard to narrow a large list of amazing places down to a top 5. But this represents my best effort. Here goes.
1. Angkor Wat
OK, this one was easy. There is nowhere more spectacular that I have been than Angkor.
Undoubtedly, if you travel there today, it will be much more touristy than it was when I visited in 2002. Nonetheless, you should do it, and do it before it becomes more touristy than it already will be.
The way we did this was a) to fly from Bangkok and b) to hire a car and driver for the day (actually, a couple of days). This gives you latitude to spend lots of time at every temple you want (Angkor is a large temple complex). It also gives you the benefit of air conditioning, which you don’t have if you hire a scooter driver (very common in Cambodia). Since I was traveling with my mother, a car was also going to be better than going by scooter (the latter is a lot more tenable when you’re under 40 than when you’re retired or pushing retirement).
All of the temples are special, and gorgeous. They date from as early as the 9th century when the Angkor area was a major global population center, and were originally Hindu. Thereafter, several centuries later, the temple complex became Buddhist. There is a specific Angkor Wat temple, and this is probably the most photographed and visually familiar. However, my personal favorite temple within the overall complex is Banteay Srei. It is a small, pink-red sandstone temple and has particularly intricate bas relief carvings. Lost to the jungle, it was rediscovered in 1914.
(image via Wikipedia)
If you visit, remember a couple of things. First, take a lot of water: It is hot and humid as hell at Angkor and you do not want to get dehydrated and end up missing out on what will be one of the high points of your life because you pass out, vomit copiously, or otherwise get sick and have to retire to your hotel/hostel bed. Second, check on the situation with regard to land mines (Laos is really, really bad on this front, but Cambodia has a lot of land mines, too), and stay on the trails. You do not want to tangle either with snakes or the prospect of stepping on a landmine that hasn’t been cleared. Third, wear your insect repellent, and not the light stuff you wear when going hiking in the woods in America or Europe. Mosquito bites can entail a lot of nastiness beyond merely serious itching. (Related: Take your anti-malarials).
This is the ancient site in Syria that was recently taken by ISIS—raising fears of history and archaeology lovers everywhere about its future and prospects for destruction.
Originally Neolithic, subsequently Assyrian and Seleucid and Roman, the city is situated at an oasis and was famously run by one of the great female leaders of the ancient world, Zenobia. She attempted to extend Palmyran control as far south as Egypt, and clashed with the Romans, who ultimately took the city after much trying (Mark Antony had reportedly made Palmyra a target, though it took several hundred years for the Romans to gain a firm handle on it).
There are various temples here, most notably the Temple of Bel. There is also a beautiful theater and colonnade, as well as a surviving monumental arch. There are also several interesting tombs, above and below ground. The site also contains Aramaic and Greek inscriptions, and a Byzantine church.
(photo via Wikipedia)
Palmyra was largely lost to history until the beginning of the 20th century. Hopefully, the site will be preserved despite ISIS’ control of it.
I recognize that I am on something of a Levantine trip right now, but Baalbeck really is spectacular, and worth a look—despite the fact that it sits right smack in the middle of territory controlled by Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The general Baalbeck area has been inhabited for thousands of years, including by the Phoenecians and Hellenes (and, she says half-jokingly, the culture vultures who now visit for the Baalbeck International Festival, as well as possibly ancient aliens—no, not really, but the show apparently featured something about the site at some point). However, it is the Romans who really built it up, and indeed tore it down when Christian emperors shuttered it and used stones from the site to construct a basilica (blame Constantine for the former action, and Theodosius for the latter).
Known as Heliopolis (thanks to Alexander the Great), Baalbeck holds four temples (to Jupiter, Venus, Mercury and Bacchus, or alternately, the local equivalent gods that were merged with Roman gods to make worship according to Roman dictates easier and more natural for the local population). The Temple of Jupiter is the biggest (and, it is worth noting, not intact), but the Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved. There are various colossal stones here, too, and roof sculptures of various gods and goddesses, as well as Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
(image via Wikipedia)
If you visit, dress conservatively—not burqa-conservative or Saudi-sheikh-robe conservative, but if you’re a woman, it’s best to wear trousers, and no exposed shoulders, (I rocked a somewhat minimalist headscarf, too, not least to protect from the sun) and if you’re a man, avoid tank tops. Recognize also that there is a certain amount of danger, at least theoretically, though when I was there (admittedly the summer of 2001), I did not feel threatened or intimidated or scared (just very hot). Bigger dangers to tourists than Hezbollah, or neighboring countries targeting the area are probably heatstroke, sunstroke, and mass sunburn. Wear your sunscreen. Bring and drink a lot of water, or indeed Gatorade (electrolytes are important).
4. City of London
This may seem like an odd inclusion here, but the square mile known as London (the actual City of London, not broader London) contains a wealth of historical gems from the Roman period onward. These can all be viewed, and many visited, for free, just by walking the streets of the City.
London was Londinium in Roman times, and you can still see the city wall built by the Romans here if you walk the area immediately around the Museum of London, or just behind Tower Hill tube station. The remnants of a Roman fort still stand on Noble Street. If you visit the Guildhall, you can actually view the remains of a Roman Amphitheater down in the basement. The foundations of a Roman temple were discovered in the City, too, but have now been moved to an alternate location (supposedly, Bloomberg, which owns the land where the temple ruins were found, will be relocating them back in due course).
The Tower of London is also worth a visit, despite the expense involved in doing so. A Norman fortress, the Tower has served as the traditional pre-coronation palace for kings and queens. It has also served as a prison for the biggest and baddest or just most famous, and an execution site. Anne Boleyn, Lady Jane Grey and others were executed here. Prior to becoming queen, Elizabeth I was held here by her sister, Mary I. This is where the famed Princes in the Tower went missing (and may have been disposed of).
The City also holds St. Paul’s Cathedral, the great masterwork of Sir Christopher Wren, St. Mary-le-Bow (the church within range of whose bells a Londoner must live in order to be a true Cockney), and a whole slew of headquarters of livery companies, the modern-day versions of the medieval guilds (Goldsmiths’ Hall is probably the most notable of these; the Goldsmiths have been headquartered at this site since the mid-1300s).
The Guildhall itself is, of course, here. As is St. John’s Gate, the former home of the Knights Hospitallers and an entrance to their priory, Clerkenwell Green (which used to host a monastery and a convent, connected by an underground passage that still exists and is accessible via the basement of the Karl Marx Memorial Library) and the Charterhouse, a major Carthusian monastery dissolved by Henry VIII (it was the home of the Carthusian Martyrs).
(image via Wikipedia)
Tower Bridge (London’s most famous bridge, which people erroneously mistake for London Bridge, the far more boring bridge upriver) runs between the site by the Tower and the South Bank.
You can also visit Leadenhall Market and Smithfield Market, two of the City’s historic markets. Smithfield still functions as a meat market. It is also the site where Richard II met with Wat Tyler, leader of the Peasants’ Revolt. Nearby are the church or St. Bartholomew the Great and the execution site of William Wallace.
All this, of course, is mixed with tall, modern buildings bustling with financial services activity, especially. It is a site to behold.
Note also that while the Temple Church is outside the City, as technically are Clerkenwell Green and St. John’s Gate, it is worth a visit (and you can rope in a visit to Pieminister on Leather Lane with ease, too).
Picking a fifth site for the purposes of this post was tricky. Sigiriya narrowly wins, because of its spectacular situation, its beautiful frescoes, and the astonishing fact that people actually managed to build a palace on top of the massive stone mesa in the middle of the overall site at the point in history that they did.
If Sigiriya looks familiar, it may either be that you’re a) interested in Asian architecture, history and/or archaeology or b) someone who watched a lot of Duran Duran videos in the 1980’s (the video for “Save a Prayer” was shot here). In my case, I first became aware of Sigiriya by virtue of being the latter.
(image via Wikipedia)
Sigiriya was inhabited before it was developed as the capital in the 5th century. However, the urban planning for which Sigiriya is known is the construct of its history after taking over from Anuradhapura as the capital. Sigiriya hosts an artificial (i.e., non-natural) reservoir, highly decorative and planned gardens, hydraulic systems, and sculpted lions’ legs and paws (the head used to also exist, but it fell away).
Sigiriya also now hosts a bevy of mischievous monkeys, who will steal any food you bring into the site and which they are even remotely capable of getting their hands on (I’ll cop to having lost my lunch this way).
If you visit, be forewarned that the climb to the top of the mesa is arduous and quite scary (especially if you have even a remote fear of heights). Depending on the weather, despite it being hot down at ground level, up top, it can be cold and windy—so bring a sweatshirt or windbreaker if you go. Also, bring something to snack on, and lots of water. You will need it to replenish after climbing to the top, before heading back down.