Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.Louis D. Brandeis
Archaeology might have been my previous career, but I will always love visiting archaeological sites. Whether you’ve only heard of the super famous sites like Pompeii or also love seeking out the lesser-known sites like Tipon, if you love history, you’ve got to visit as many archaeological sites as possible.
It’s so cool to be able to venture to spaces preserved in time or that transport you back to places and eras that are so different from your own. The sites below you may not have heard of, but they absolutely deserve to be a household name and major tourist attraction. Luckily for us, they are not crowded no matter when you visit. However, they do still need funding for upkeep to keep their amazing history alive, so I wanted to put them on your radar!
Copán is an ancient Mayan city sitting near the border with Guatemala. The site dates back to 1,000 BCE where it began as a small agricultural settlement and grew to an important city in 250CE. In its heyday, it was home to approximately 20,000 people and didn’t begin to decline until ~822CE and was completely abandoned by 1200CE.
The site itself is massive at a whopping 250 acres. There are stone temples, two pyramids, stairways, plazas, a tlachtli court, and residential areas. You can walk all around the town and explore so much. The site is famous for its hieroglyphic stairway which features 1,260 extremely well-preserved symbols. There are also friezes, monuments, and statues/carvings to see throughout the site.
Lalibela’s Rock-Hewn churches, Amhara, Ethiopia
These are not your average churches. Unless your average church is one that is also carved out of the volcanic rock during the Middle Ages and extend several stories into the ground. The 11 rock-hewn churches I’m talking about are in northern Ethiopia and are still important pilgrimage sites centuries later. King Lalibela commissioned the churches’ construction in the 12th and 13th centuries as an attempt to evoke a new Jerusalem in his country.
The churches are unique in that they are more sculpture-like than building. They were constructed from the top down and carved right into the existing rock like giant, functional statues. There are no seams, mortars, or separate pieces. The entire structure is one piece of rock. How cool is that!? The outside of the structure remains simple, but once you step inside there is adornment all over.
Göbekli Tepe, Şanlıurfa, Turkey
Want to visit what may be the world’s oldest place of worship? Göbekli Tepe dates back to 11,500 years ago and turned the religion followed agriculture theory on its head. People during this time period were still hunter gatherers, so it was a discovery that rocked the archaeological world and shed light on a piece of the past that doesn’t usually provide a ton of information for us to examine.
The site has round/oval megalithic (think Stonehenge) structures as well as T-shaped pillars carved with depictions of wild animals. The carvings helped give a glimpse of what daily life and beliefs entailed which is rare in the archaeological record. When you visit the site you can explore the site via walkways and even see the pillars from above for a closeup look at the carvings. What’s even cooler is what isn’t uncovered yet. Surveys done of the ground beneath show 16 more megalithic rings nearby. The acres of the site uncovered only shows 5% of what remains to be found.
Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily
You don’t have to go to Greece to find an entire valley full of ancient temples. Pop over to Sicily instead for a much less crowded experience. There are temples to gods and goddesses, a necropolis, and sanctuaries dotting the landscape. This isn’t your typical tour of temples though. The temples are in various states of ruin, but it just adds a layer of adventure to the trip. Many structures are still standing and you’ll have to pick your away around fallen statues that used to stand as pillars.
Buildings dating back to before the 5th century are still standing and some are even adorned with modern sculptures depicting famous Greek myths. You can see evidence of a fire from centuries before, grooves cut into streets by carts, and even a sacrificial altar. Ince
Uxmal Pyramid, Yucatán, Mexico
Considered one of the most important and representative cities of Mayan culture and architecture you’d think more people would have heard of Uxmal. However, this site gets significantly less visitors than its more crowded ruins like Chichen Itza. The site is unique in that it relied solely on rainwater instead of cenotes for water. Uxmal eventually became the capital of the area. Between Uxmal and Chichen Itza, they were the only two cities in the area that survived after the 10th century.
Unlike many archaeological sites, you can actually touch a lot of the site. Most of the structures are free to explore, but you can’t climb the Adivino (aka Magician’s Pyramid) Pyramid. The site also has a ball court, training grounds, a palace, temples, shrines, and so much more.