We all know that the history of Europe goes back a long way. Empires have come and gone, societies have risen and fallen, and many even left something behind for us to enjoy today. Every modern country can see at least part of its past in the leftover crumbling stone structures that pepper the European landscape. We will take you from the coast of Northern Ireland to the ancient Greek settlements in Turkey. Some are in city centres, and some require a trip to the countryside, but all are well worth the visit. Let’s get started.
Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland
Most people think of the sad and troubled history of the late 20th century when they think of Northern Ireland, but its medieval history is just as rich as its southern neighbour and the rest of the British Isles. Dating back to the early 1500s, Dunluce Castle is perched on a rocky outcropping overlooking the ocean. In fact, the stunning scenery is worth the trip alone and at just over an hour’s drive from Belfast, it is easy to get to.
Fun Fact: Money from the sale of the wreckage of a ship from the Spanish Armada helped to pay for castle restorations in the 16th century.
Located among the undulating hills of Salisbury Plain and only one and a half hours by car from central London is the enigmatic and continually fascinating monument of Stonehenge. Dating as far back as 5,000 years, Stonehenge has been the subject of many a theory as to its history and purpose. These range from its purported use as a healing site, a burial ground, and a place of rituals, with the stones aligning with sun on the winter and summer solstice. Whatever it is, it is one of the most famous structures on the planet and a fun place to visit and wonder what the inhabitants of the area were doing in 3000 BCE.
Pont du Gard, France
At its height, the Roman Empire surrounded the Mediterranean Sea and stretched north, encompassing the Balkan peninsula and all of southern and far western Europe, including France, Spain, and even Britain. Echoes of Roman domination remain throughout this vast area and one of the best examples of Roman architecture and engineering is at Pont Du Gard. This beautiful aqueduct was built in the middle of the first century and the famous bridge section is just one part of the 50 km long water passage intended to bring water to the Roman colony of Nemausus (present day Nîmes). It is an hour and a half’s drive from Montpellier.
Roman Forum and the Colosseum
Moving west, we are going to head to Rome, the heart of the eponymous empire and the home to some of its best ruins. Situated directly in the heart of the city, just 2 metro stops from the central train station, the ruins of the Roman Forum and the Colosseum are perhaps Italy’s top tourist draw. The Forum was a central meeting point for citizens and politicians alike from the time of the Roman Kingdom, the Roman Republic, and the Roman Empire. Today, there are the ruins of several of the structures that once held huge importance, including the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, the Temple of Saturn, the Arch of Titus, and the Curia Julia (at one point the seat of the Roman Senate), and many more. The Colosseum is right next to the Forum, and needs little explanation.
250 kilometres south of Rome and just 25 kilometres south of Naples are the tragic ruins of Pompeii. Pompeii, unlike other ruins, maintains a sombre and unusually human aspect. The result of a devastating volcanic eruption, the ruins do not seem abandoned or empty as most others, as for over 1,500 years it was buried under 4 to 6 metres of ash and pumice stone. What that means today is that Pompeii offers a great example of how life was in a Roman city. Here, you can see a roman amphitheatre, the Forum, a basilica, and several baths. What makes it even more special though, are the plaster casts made as the ash was being removed. They show the exact positions that many of the city’s citizens were in during the eruption and serve as a sombre reminder of the power of nature.
Megalithic Structures of Malta
If you’re going to be making a stop in Malta on your travels, you will no doubt come face to face with a number of striking and incredibly old structures. In fact, some of these stone temples are believed to be the oldest free-standing structures on Earth next to Göbekli Tepe. Malta is quite small, and it takes just 45 minutes to drive from one end to the other of the main island. Explore Ġgantija on the island of Gozo, a 5,500 year old temple. Or visit the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, the only known underground temple from prehistoric times, and Mnajdra Temple, a larger complex overlooking the ocean.
Ogrodzieniec Castle, Poland
An hour’s drive outside of beautiful the Polish city of Krakow lies Ogrodzieniec Castle, a medieval castle dating from the 14th century. You can explore this castle, which still has some visible medieval frescoes and its crumbling facade has been capturing the imagination of visitors for years. What makes the castle unique, is that according to some, the castle is haunted by the “Black Dog of Ogrodzieniec”, that has burning eyes and wanders the grounds at night, dragging a heavy chain.
The Parthenon in Athens, Greece
Visitors to Athens will no doubt be visiting its famous and historic ruins. Like Rome’s they lie right in the centre of the ancient city. Many of the well-known structures are perched atop the so-called Acropolis and are visible from much of the city. Long known as the symbol of democracy, perhaps the most famous building here is the Parthenon, completed in 438 BCE. It was built as a temple and remains in part today as the most visible of the city’s ruins. Other sites include the Old Temple of Athena, the Theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, and the Temple of Athena Nike.
Efes (Ephesus), Turkey
Located in western Turkey and known today as Efes, Ephesus was an ancient Greek city on the Ionian Coast. Dating from 10th century BCE, it has some Greek, but primarily Roman structures as it was conquered by the Roman Republic in 129 BCE. The main sites here are the Library of Celsus (pictured), the small remains of the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), and the largest outdoor theatre of the ancient world. It is an hour’s drive from the coastal city of İzmir.
Fun Fact: Rumour has it that the Gospel of John was written here.
Göbekli Tepe, Turkey
The oldest ruins on our list are the oldest in the world, with an estimated age of 10 to 12 thousand years old. That puts Göbekli Tepe almost twice as old as the ruins on Malta and to date very little is known about who built it and what it was used for. It is speculated that it was used as a place of worship (surprise, surprise), and has changed our understanding of hunter-gatherer societies, proving that they were capable of building monumental complexes. The stones have carvings of various animals on them, and perhaps one of the most puzzling aspects of Göbekli Tepe is that is seems to have been deliberately buried…
This complex is perhaps the hardest to reach of any on our list, located in south-eastern Turkey. Day tours are available from Istanbul which include flights and transfers, so you can go there and back on the same day.
Well, that’s our list of some of the more well-known and not so well-known ruins that you can explore in Europe. This is just a small handful of what’s out there and chances are, if you stray off the path a bit in Europe, you will find all sorts of ancient remnants. All you have to do is get out there!