Awe-inspiring ancient sites

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Taken from Lonely Planet's 1000 Ultimate Experiences, may we present a bevy of BC (or thereabouts) beauties that have stood the test of time without losing any of their ability to drop your jaw.

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Egypt’s a country rich in both World Heritage sites and tourist clichés, and at the Pyramids of Giza you hit pay dirt on both. The sole survivor of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World, these pyramids still live up to more than 4000 years of hype. Their extraordinary shape, geometry and age render them somehow alien and their construction remains almost unfathomable. Visit at sunrise and be dumbstruck.

Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an, China

This subterranean life-size army of thousands of terracotta warriors has silently stood guard over the soul of China’s first emperor for over two millennia. Either Qin Shi Huang was terrified of the vanquished spirits awaiting him in the afterlife, or, as most archaeologists believe, he expected his rule to continue in death as it had in life (and needed terracotta muscle). Visit the aircraft hangar-sized Pit 1: it contains 6000 warriors and horses, all facing east and ready for battle.

'Petra' by Seetheholyland.net. Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike licence

Petra, Jordan

Feel the anticipation as you walk the Siq, the long, dramatic chasm that links the ancient city of Petra with the outside world. Your magical introduction to the site comes with a glimpse of the Treasury, and it’s here that most visitors fall in love with the Rose-red City. As the sun makes its daily passage over the site, the colours glow from the facades of Petra’s great temples and tombs, carved out of rose-coloured rock. If you have the time, don't miss the candle-lit night tour.

Ancient Rome, Italy

If the past is indeed a foreign country, please let its capital be Rome.  Merely the name Rome conjures up 2700 years of Western civilisation, iconic from the perfect dome topping the Pantheon to the crumbling might of the bloodstained Colosseum, by way of the ruinous Roman Forum or the catacombs of Via Appia Antica. And we can’t heap enough praise on a city that gives us la dolce vita to revel in after bringing such history lessons to life.

Hadrian’s Wall, England

Named in honour of the Roman emperor who ordered it built, Hadrian’s Wall was constructed over 117km of northern England to keep the Romans (ie, subdued Brits) in, and the hairy Pictish barbarian louts from Scotland out. Close to 2000 years after the first stone was laid (in AD 122), the still-standing sections are a testament to the Roman knack for building things that last. If you fancy an epic walk in the footsteps of the legions, the weeklong Hadrian’s Wall Walk offers enough ramparts, towers and fortlets to wear your sandals out.

'Stonehenge' by mari. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Stonehenge, England

People arrive at Stonehenge hoping to tap into the site’s spooky mysticism and/or marvel at the ancient engineering system that brought these huge, 4-ton blocks from a Welsh quarry up to 5000 years ago. Who built this compelling ring of rock, how, and above all, why? Theories abound – the huge upright slabs and dramatic triliths (two vertical stones topped by a horizontal one) could constitute an ancient celestial timepiece or place of sacrificial worship. Despite the noisy nearby traffic and hordes of would-be druids, it retains its monolithic power.

Teotihuacán, Mexico

The best retreat into the ancient past from the nearby modern urban jungle of Mexico City is the stunning complex of Teotihuacán. This site, set amid what was once the greatest metropolis in Mesoamerica, is known for its two vast pyramids: Pirámide del Sol (the world’s third largest pyramid, built around AD 100 and painted bright red in its heyday) and Pirámide de la Luna (smaller and more gracefully proportioned than its sunny counterpart). Urban planners, take note: the city’s grid plan was plotted in the early parts of the 1st century AD.

Pompeii, Italy

Although former residents might not think so, the Mt Vesuvius explosion in AD 79 was one of the best things that ever happened to Roman archaeology. On 24 August, the world’s most famous volcano erupted, leaving behind fascinating ruins that provide insight into the daily life of ancient Romans, perfectly preserved under 6m of ash. On Pompeii’s ancient streets, the excavated ruins are a profound and pitiful mix of the monumental and the mundane.

'Pompeii' by Carolyn. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Ubirr, Australia

At the extraordinary Kakadu National Park, in Australia’s Top End, you can explore thundering waterfalls and crocodile-filled billabongs, but don’t overdose on natural highs before you stop by some of the country’s most significant rock-art sites. At Ubirr, a spectacular escarpment perfect for sunset-watching, you can admire ancient Aboriginal art, some of it 20,000 years old. In the main galleries formed out of the natural rock, check out the X-ray-style wallabies, possums, goannas, tortoises and fish on the walls, and the culture-defining Rainbow Serpent painting.

Acropolis, Athens, Greece

Athens exists because of the Acropolis, perhaps the most important ancient monument in the Western world. Still standing sentinel over Athens, it’s visible from almost everywhere in the city. Its crown jewel, the Parthenon is unsurpassed in grace and harmony. From near or far, the rows of columns gleam white in the midday sun, softening to a honey hue as the sun sinks, then becoming floodlit at night, centre stage and shining in the spotlight of a city fuelled by history.

This article was first published in March 2010 and was refreshed in August 2012.