Jen Pinkowski
Jen Pinkowski

15 Ancient Cities You Can Visit

Jen Pinkowski
Jen Pinkowski

Make sure your passport is current, book your flight, and let yourself imagine the lives of the people who called these ancient cities home. These aren’t the “best” cities, or the Top 15—just some mental_floss favorites, in no particular order.

1. Ciudad Perdida // Colombia

Not for the faint of heart, Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) is a strenuous, four-day hike through steamy, dense mountain jungle in northern Colombia that requires local guides. (Seriously: don’t attempt this on your own.) In the last stretch, you climb up 1200 stone steps. But once you reach the top: whoa. Thought to date to the early 8th century CE but largely constructed a few centuries later, Teyuna (as the locals call it) consists of 169 terraces, tiled roads, and small circular plazas. Up to 8000 people once lived here.

2. Hampi // India

Image Credit: Mona Dutta

The last capital of the Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar, Hampi is a gorgeously preserved city built by ridiculously wealthy princes in the 14th to 16th centuries CE. Located in the southwest Indian state of Karnataka, the city was attacked by the Deccan Muslim confederacy in 1565, pillaged for the next six months, and then abandoned. Yet some 1600 structures remain, including royal complexes, temples, homes, gateways, pillared halls, and, most strikingly, stone chariots‚ which are actually shrines.

3. Arykanda // Turkey

Built into the mountainside near the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, Arykanda (photo at top of story) is mostly overlooked in the region because there are dozens of stunning ancient cities dotting this coast, including Perge, Side, and Xanthos. Arykanda is special because of its spectacular setting above a river valley. You can’t even see it from the ancient road. The earliest ruins date to the 5th century BCE. The city was constructed in levels into the mountain, so as you climb up, you find new ruins. In the ancient literature, Arykandans were rumored to be drunkards—and archaeologists have found thousands of wine bottles at the site.

4. Shi Cheng // China

In 1959, the Chinese government flooded Shi Cheng (“Lion City”), a 600-year-old city in southeast China, when it dammed the Xin’an River for a hydroelectric power plant. Since then, the city has been deep beneath the surface of Qiandao Lake. The first scuba dives to visit what some call “The Atlantis of the East” took place in 2001. The water preserved the city quite well, and you can still see large building complexes and wide streets with hundreds of stone archways featuring lions, dragons, and phoenixes. Some dive footage is above.

5. Herculaneum // Italy

You know Pompeii. It’s one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. But do you know its neighbor city Herculaneum, which was equally devastated by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE? Most visitors overlook the small seaside town, once a summer retreat for rich Romans. But Herculaneum has a wealth of ruins to see, including columned buildings, Roman baths, wide streets, and villas with stunning mosaics and frescos. 

6. Ollantaytambo // Peru

Ollanta, as it’s known, isn’t quite as famous as Machu Picchu, but it’s still a much-visited expanse of city ruins located in the Sacred Valley of the Incans in southern Peru. It was built in the 13th century by the Incan ruler Pachacuti (“he who shakes the Earth”), who constructed a royal estate, the city, military defenses, and a ceremonial center 9000 feet up in the Andes. Perhaps its most dramatic feature is its steep stone terracing. Want to hike the Incan trail? Start here.

7. Teotihuacan // Mexico

Teotihuacan may be Mexico’s most famous archaeological site—and as an ancestral home to the Olmec, Maya, Aztec, and other cultures, Mexico has no shortage of ancient wonders—but you’ll still be infused with awe by the mighty pyramids here. Located about 50 kilometers northeast of Mexico City, the city dates to the 1st century BCE and continued to expand over the next seven centuries. At its height, the city was home to some 25,000 people. "It was the largest city anywhere in the Western Hemisphere before the 1400s," archaeologist George Cowgill says. "It had thousands of residential compounds and scores of pyramid-temples and was comparable to the largest pyramids of Egypt."   

8. Xi’an // China

By the time Qin, the first emperor to unite China under a single ruler, died in the 3rd century BCE, Xi’an had been one of China’s most important political and cultural capitals for nearly 1000 years. Buried with Qin was an astonishing wealth of treasure (and, brutally, hundreds of living people) and the Terracotta Warrior Army, at least 7000 of which have been unearthed since 1974, all of them carrying real bronze weapons. Qin’s remains are just outside Xi’an, a bustling modern (and smoggy) city of 8 million where you can walk atop the ancient city wall, which was built just decades after Qin died. Xi’an is also the eastern end of the famed Silk Road.

9. Tiwanaku // Bolivia

Lemurian Grove, Flickr // CC BY-NC2.0

Located near Lake Titicaca nearly 12,000 feet up in the Andes of western Bolivia, Tiwanaku was once the spiritual and political center of an empire that from the 8th to the 11th centuries CE ruled a vast region and spread its technological advances, from irrigation technology to basket design, far and wide. But its roots go back more than 4000 years. While archaeologists know residential areas were once part of Tiwanaku, it’s the ceremonial centers that are mostly above ground, including the Gateway to the Sun, the Gateway to the Moon, and the Kalasasaya temple complex.

10. Aksum // Ethiopia

Aksum was the capital city of an Ethiopian kingdom that was the most powerful state between the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia for hundreds of years. Aksum’s ruins date from the 1st to the 13th centuries CE and include giant stelae, royal tombs, villas, and, most famously, monolithic obelisks. (Mussolini stole one in 1937; Italy finally returned it, in three pieces, in 2005. It was restored and erected in 2008.) Located in northern Ethiopia near the Red Sea, the city was well positioned at the place where Africa, the Mid-East, and the Greco-Roman world met, and its kings capitalized on that well. Indiana Jones should've looked in Aksum for the Ark of the Covenant; some Christians believe it is stored in a church here. 

11. Cahokia // United States

It looks like a collection of grassy mounds now, but Cahokia was once the largest pre-Columbian city in North America. Located just north of St. Louis, the city was once the political, religious, and economic capital of the Mississippian culture (800 to 1350) and home to 10,000 to 20,000 people at its peak from the mid 11th to the mid 12th centuries—as large as many European cities of the time. Today you can visit 51 of its 120 mounds, which were once homes, buildings, ceremonial centers, and even an astronomical observatory. The largest is Monks Mound. With four terraces, at 90 feet tall it’s the largest prehistoric earthen structure in the New World.  

12. Thebes // Egypt

The Valley of the Kings. The Valley of the Queens. The Temple of Luxor. Karnak. These are some of the most famous archaeological sites in the world—and they’re all in what was once ancient Thebes, the capital of Egypt during the late Middle Kingdom and throughout most of the New Kingdom (1550 to 1070 BCE). These sites aren’t exactly off the beaten path, but they are undeniably powerful. The sheer scale of these ruins is overwhelming. You’ll never feel as awe-inspiringly small than you will while standing near the monumental statue of a pharaoh whose big toe is twice the size of your head.

13. Persepolis // Iran

If you’re American, you might have a tough time visiting Persepolis, but regardless of today’s political realities, this famed ancient city in southwest Iran is well worth a visit. The capital city of the Persian Empire during the Achaemenid Dynasty (550–330 BCE), Persepolis still features the 2500-year-old ruins of the royal palace, the treasury, and a military compound that miraculously survived Alexander the Great’s invasion, burning, and looting of the city in 330 BCE.

14. Mesa Verde // United States

The cliff-dwelling Ancestral Puebloans lived in this remarkable city in what is today southwest Colorado from the 6th century to the 13th century CE. Mesa Verde (“green table” in Spanish) is just one of 5000 archaeological sites and 600 cliff dwellings dramatically built into the harsh landscape of the region. The most famous ruin is the Cliff Palace. The people who called the region home grew vegetables and hunted game here for centuries—until a drought hit in the late 13th century and the city was abandoned.

15. Mohenjo Daro // Pakistan

The Indus Valley (or Harappa) civilization dates to 5000 years ago—and is one of the most mysterious in the ancient world. Located in southern Pakistan, Mohenjo Daro’s ruins include public baths, a large residential structure meant to house thousands of people, a marketplace, and many homes with inner courtyards, private baths, and drainage systems. Though the Harappan culture thrived for about 1000 years, we know little about its people or its Indus Script, which remains undeciphered to this day. We’re not even sure it’s a language. It’s one of archaeology’s greatest puzzles.

Editor's Note: This post has been updated. 

Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

How the Log Cabin Became an American Symbol

Many Americans have a special fondness for the log cabin, viewing it as the home of heroic pioneers, or at least a great weekend escape. But it wasn’t always this way. The log cabin was originally disdained here in America—and it took decades of pop culture and political shifts to elevate the structure to the vaunted status it holds today.


While there’s plenty of imagery portraying log cabins in the English colonies of Plymouth and Jamestown (established in Massachusetts and Virginia, respectively), these depictions couldn’t be further from the truth. The English had no history of log cabins—they preferred more “refined” frame houses, and would sometimes squat in subterranean dugouts until they could be built. In fact, the log cabin was first constructed in the New World in the short-lived colony of New Sweden, established in the Delaware River Valley in 1638. Such structures had been around continental Europe for centuries, and the Swedish colonists were simply using a skill that had been passed down through generations.

Log cabins might have remained a Swedish anomaly in the New World had it not been for the German and Scots-Irish who adopted them after arriving in the mid-1700s. But none of these log cabins looked much like the quaint, cozy structures we revere today. They often had dirt floors, were crawling with lice and other pests, and were prone to drafts; as one traveler remarked around 1802, the gaps between logs were "filled up with clay, but so very carelessly, that the light may be seen through in every part." Yet as uncomfortable as these cabins were, they offered impoverished immigrants an invaluable slice of freedom. Cheaper and far easier to construct than finer homes, the log cabin thus became the go-to home for newcomers to the New World, helping millions of desperate refugees turn their dreams of settling in America into a reality.

But the practicality of the structure did nothing for the log cabin's public image, or that of its inhabitants. Benjamin Franklin wrote that there were only two sorts of people, "those who are well dress'd and live comfortably in good houses," and those who "are poor, and dirty, and ragged and ignorant, and vicious and live in miserable cabins or garrets." Dr. Benjamin Rush, Surgeon General of the Middle Department of the Continental Army and a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, said the cabin dweller was “generally a man who has out-lived his credit or fortune in the cultivated parts."

As for cabins themselves, they were generally seen as “rude” and “miserable,” and no self-respecting American would deign to live in one. Not permanently, at least. Cabins back then were temporary stepping stones meant to be abandoned once something better could be afforded; barring that good fortune, they were to be covered with clapboard and added to as the cornerstone for a finer home.


But the log cabin and its inhabitants’ public image got a makeover after the War of 1812. The nation had just defeated the British for a second time, and Americans were feeling good, forging their own identity and distinguishing themselves from the old world. Log cabins—ubiquitous and appropriately rustic—started taking on an all-American sheen.

Soon enough, writers and artists were portraying them in a positive light. One notable example is James Fenimore Cooper’s 1823 novel The Pioneers, where the house of protagonist Natty Bumppo is described as being “a rough cabin of logs.” That scene in turn is thought to have inspired artist Thomas Cole’s 1826 painting, Daniel Boone Sitting at the Door of His Cabin on the Great Osage Lake. Together, these works helped spark an entire movement that saw the pioneer as a hero. Log cabin dwellers were no longer disdained for their rough edges; these same edges were what made them romantic and distinctly American.

A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
A "Harrison & Tyler" woodcut used in the 1840 campaign
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Similar shifts occurred in the political realm during the 1840 election. President Martin van Buren faced an uphill battle for reelection that year, and a politically aligned newspaper thought it could give him a leg up by launching a classist attack against rival William Henry Harrison: “Give [Harrison] a barrel of Hard Cider, and settle a pension of $2000 a year on him, and my word for it, he will sit the remainder of his days in his Log Cabin.” In other words: Harrison was an ignorant hick.

It was a lie—the wealthy Harrison actually lived in a mansion—but most of the public didn’t know it, and his rivals assumed voters would scorn Harrison’s poverty. They were wrong: Millions of Americans still lived in log cabins, struggling day-in-and-day-out, and they were not impressed. (“No sneer could have been more galling,” John McMaster wrote in his 1883 A History of the People of the United States from the Revolution to the Civil War.)

In no time at all, Americans rich and poor were displaying their Harrison love and log cabin pride by holding cabin raisings and patronizing specially-constructed log cabin bars, marching in massive parades with log cabins pulled by teams of horses, and purchasing heaps of Harrison-themed, log cabin-stamped merchandise, including tea sets, hair brushes, and hope chests. With his eye on the prize, Harrison gamely played into this fib, telling frenzied crowds that he’d rather relax in his log cabin than run for president, but that he had heeded their call to run for the White House. That fall, he won handily.

Though Harrison died 32 days into his term, his log cabin campaign became a reliable template for candidates in the years ahead. Franklin Pierce downplayed his family’s wealth in 1852, instead focusing on a brief time spent in a log cabin as a baby. James Buchanan did the same in 1856, and Lincoln’s log cabin youth was brought up consistently come 1860. “Like President Harrison, Mr. Lincoln has spent about one third part of his life in a log cabin,” one biography read.

"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" by Frances Flora Palmer
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way"
Frances Flora Palmer, Library of Congress

Log cabins became an even more persistent presence in the arts, culture, and commerce in the decades ahead, making cameos in iconic images like Frances Flora Bond Palmer’s 1868 painting Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, in which the cabin is the symbol of an ever-expanding American empire. The log cabin also figured into tales high and low, such as The Log-Cabin Lady—a prescriptive memoir about escaping low-class drudgery—and The Log-Cabin Bishop, an uplifting account of a man who brought religion to the frontier. The Log Cabin Library dime novels even peddled swashbuckling adventures to young boys.


Most powerful in terms of ingraining log cabin adoration in young Americans, though, were the scores of false histories that projected the log cabin back onto Plymouth and Jamestown. Historians of the late-19th century had heard so much about the log cabin that they just assumed it was key to American growth and expansion, leading to assertions like John G. Palfrey’s 1860 claim, “[Settlers] made themselves comfortable in log-houses,” and images like W.L. Williams 1890s painting, Plymouth in 1622. The latter shows the colony as a smattering of log cabins and was widely distributed to elementary school classrooms, cementing the image of a cabin-laden Plymouth.

A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
A set of 1970s Lincoln Logs
Tinker*Tailor loves Lalka, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

From then on, the log cabin was portrayed as the ultimate proverbial rag from which the rich nation of the U.S. had emerged, as when historian Warder Stevens declared in 1916, “The story of America is written in log cabins.” It’s this tradition of myth-making and believing that inspired subsequent outpourings of log cabin nostalgia: Lincoln Logs in the interwar years, log cabin chic of the 1990s, and today’s reality programs showing urbanites fleeing to the woods.

These days, the log cabin is emblazoned on money and sewn onto flags; it fascinates modern artists like Will Ryman (who created a gold-resin-covered log cabin at the New Orleans Museum of Art); and it appears in music of all genres, from country crooner Porter Wagoner’s 1965 track “An Old Log Cabin for Sale” to T-Pain and Lil Wayne’s 2008 romantic rap “Can’t Believe It.” That said, perhaps the log cabin itself is the nation’s greatest rags-to-riches story; it went from being sneered at as a poor immigrants’ hovel to being revered as an American icon. Not bad for something that writer John Filson, discussing Boone’s home circa 1784, described as “not extraordinary.”


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