The Roman Empire stretched far and wide at its height and, as a result, impressive Roman ruins are littered across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. These range from sprawling Roman cities, Roman additions to ancient Greek cities and small outposts and temples.
While you can see remnants of ancient Rome in many places – and a number of these are UNESCO world heritage sites – the list below includes some of the most remarkable Roman ruins in the world today. These are either particularly well preserved, notable for their size or detail, or significant for another reason.
The below sites are also limited to those which are actually the ancient ruins – places which were destroyed and then completely rebuilt (e.g. Bath in the UK) are not included in this article, although those which have been restored are. So, without further justification, here are some of the best Roman ruins, all which are definitely worth travelling for.
One of the best-known landmarks in Rome, the Colosseum was built over 2,000 years ago as a gift to the Roman people. Primarily a venue for the infamous Roman games, which included animal hunts and gladiatorial battles, the Colosseum was also used for performances and public entertainment. With a capacity of up to 80,000 people, the Colosseum is an architectural marvel and is the largest amphitheatre ever built.
As impressive as the Colosseum is from the outside, exploring the inside gives you a wonderful perspective of the scale of the stadium and an idea of how the Games would have been run. If you do the full tour of Colosseum, you can go into the bowels of the building and see the route gladiators would have taken to the stage. You can also go up to the third tier of seating and have magnificent views of the Colosseum and of the centre of Rome.
Visiting to the Colosseum is a must if you ever find yourself in Rome. The ticket includes entry to the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, both which are well worth a visit. For an additional two euro, you can book a time slot online (compulsory during Covid19) and avoid waiting in queues for entry. For access to the underground and upper levels, you’ll need to book the full experience tour, which I highly recommend.
Originally the temple to the Roman pantheon of gods, the Pantheon was made into a church in the 7th Century CE with the Roman deities in the alcoves in the building replaced with saints and other biblical figures. As a result, the Pantheon is one of the best-preserved buildings from ancient Rome. The building is built from a material that seems similar to modern-day concrete which has lasted incredibly well. The floors are still original, and while the doors aren’t original, they are also from ancient times.
The Pantheon is also remarkable for its dome – staring up at the dome from inside is a riveting experience. It was the largest dome in the world for over a thousand years, until Brunelleschi built the dome of the Duomo in Florence, after carefully studying the Pantheon.
On the Spring Equinox light streams through the hole at the top of Pantheon in a way which aligns perfectly with the doorway. The was to mark the date of the legendary founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus. Entry to the Pantheon is free and the scale of the building is truly wonderous, even if it is a bit heart-breaking to see the ancient gods replaced with Christian figures.
The ruins of Baalbek (called Heliopolis by the Romans) are extraordinary and predate the Roman Empire by thousands of years. According to ancient legends, Baalbek was the birthplace of Baal, the Canaanite god of the sun. Long before the Romans conquered the site, there stood at Baalbek the largest stone block construction found in the entire world.
There are two particularly important Roman temples at Baalbek. The Temple of Jupiter, which was built on the base mentioned above, was huge, and probably built over the remains of a Phoenician temple to Baal. The temple served as an oracle and was dedicated to Jupiter Heliopolitanus. Unfortunately, now only a few columns remain of what was once the the largest of the Roman world.
The Temple of Bacchus, while sometimes called "the small temple", is in fact larger (and better preserved) than the Parthenon in Athens. Spanning eight columns wide and fifteen columns deep, the Temple of Bacchus temple is still one of the largest of Antiquity, although it would have appeared small next to the Temple of Jupiter next to it.
The décor of the Temple of Bacchus is particularly impressive. The main entrance rises 11 metres high and is decorated with grapes and vines. The artwork and decorations have led to assumption that the temple was dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine. The site is also quiet, with relatively few visitors, so you can take the time to explore the temple (and city) at your leisure.
The Maison Carrée in southern France, is in such good condition that it technically doesn't qualify as a Roman ruin. With a beautifully preserved exterior, the Maison Carrée (square house) has most of its original ornament and decoration, giving visitors a good idea of what the temple must have looked like in ancient times.
The temple was built in the early 1st Century CE, commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus. The temple was dedicated to Agrippa's two sons, Lucius and Gaius Caesar, who were heirs to the Imperial Throne before both unexpectedly dying at young ages. The Maison Carrée has a near perfect façade and is a beautiful example of Vitruvian architecture as it confirms to Vitruvius' principles of architecture.
Now a museum, the temple has been in constant use since the 11th Century, performing various functions including a church, private house and stables. The inside of the temple is accessible to the public but is surprisingly small and dark. Visitors can watch a film about the Roman history of the city.
Preserved after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, the Villa of the Mysteries is a relatively large house in Pompeii, Italy. Built around a central courtyard, the villa is famous for the colourful frescoes decorating the walls of one of its guest halls.
The Dionysiac frieze is a long fresco, which spreads across three walls and is one of the best preserved ancient paintings. It shows a mysterious rite, with Dionysus and his wife, Ariadne, appearing in the central panel. The walls may depict an initiation into the the Dionysian mysteries or, as many modern historians believe, the rituals and traditions before the wedding of a young woman. The paintings date back to the 1st Century BCE, so were already reasonably old when the city was destroyed.
The villa itself was originally built in the 2nd Century BCE but seems to have been renovated around 80-70 BC, which is the same period as the famous frieze. Grapes and olives were grown in the fields and a few presses were found on the site. Archaeologists have also found small rooms used by the slaves and workers who worked for the owners of the villa.
Zeugma was a 1st Century Roman city in southern Turkey, which has been relatively recently uncovered. Zeugma is situated about 10km out of Gaziantep, on the banks of the Euphrates River, and is said to have been founded by Seleucus I Nicator, a general in Alexander the Great’s army.
The most remarkable thing about this site, are the sheer number of mosaics found on the floors of villas, many incredibly well preserved. The mosaics are on display at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gazientep, Turkey, which is the largest mosaic museum in the world. First opened in 2011 to display these mosaics, The Zeugma Mosaic Museum now has over 3000 square metres of mosaics on display from the Roman and Eastern Roman periods.
Subjects displayed include pastoral scenes, patterns and figures from Greek and Roman mythology, including the famous Gypsy Girl and Dionysus mosaics. There are also several floor mosaics from the Eastern Roman period on display. These are from churches which have been excavated in Gaziantep and the surroundings areas.
The Zeugma Mosaic Museum is usually open from 9am – 7pm during the summer and 10am – 5pm in the winter.
While the city of Ephesus (now located in western Turkey) was originally Greek, the majority of ancient ruins on the site were built during the city's Roman period. The most impressive of these buildings is the Library of Celsus, which towers over the ancient city.
Built in the 2nd century CE, the library was named after the city's former Roman governor, Gaius Julius Celsus Polemaeanus, and also served as a monumental tomb for him. While the library is ruins, the wonderful two-storey façade remains today, distinctive with its Corinthian style columns on the ground floor and window openings in the upper story. The statues in the niches of the columns today are the copies of the originals, which are displayed at the Ephesus Museum in Vienna.
The Library of Celsus housed over 12,000 scrolls, which were kept in cupboards on the walls and was the third wealthiest library in ancient times, after the great libraries of Alexandra and Pergamum.
The ancient Roman city of Thysdrus, now called El-jem, was second only to Carthage in Tunisia. The Roman amphitheatre is of particular significance - it's the one of the largest amphitheatres in the world and is surprisingly well preserved.
Constructed in 230-238 CE from stone blocks, the estimated capacity of the stadium is around 35,000, and it stands at 32 metres high. Near the amphitheatre is a museum, which has a large selection of mosaics and a restored Roman villa.
The ruins are in the midst of a modern city, and it's well worth staying overnight here if you have the time. When you visit the temple, climb to the higher levels for views of the countryside. The basement beneath the arena is also fascinating to explore. This is where the animals for the fights would have been caged, and the area is more accessible and better preserved than the underground areas of the Colosseum in Rome.
Herculaneum is probably the best preserved ancient site in the world. Buried under 16 metres of ash and mud during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, two-storey homes have remained in tact, with most of the internal architecture and décor still visible. Everyday items like fabric, food and furniture have also been preserved.
While Herculaneum is smaller than nearby Pompeii, walking around the city gives you a unique view into the daily lives of everyday people in ancient Rome. The most fascinating part of walking through Herculaneum is the seeing the houses and shops, and getting an idea of what the ancient city would have looked like. The shops still have some of the fittings and the baths have wooden shelves, making it easier to imagine everyday life in the city.
One of the more impressive houses in the city, the Villa of the Papyri, was once home to Julius Caesar's father in law and leads to the sea. In this villa and many others, you can see frescoes, floors and other decorations and well as seeing the layout of the homes. There is also a museum on site, opened in 2018 and displaying jewellery and other precious objects from the archaeological site.
On the Mediterranean coast in Libya, stand the ancient columns of the amphitheatre at Leptis Magna. Founded more than 2,000 years ago, this Roman city was the birthplace of Emperor Septimius Severus who invested significantly in the city during his reign.
Leptis Magna was one of the beautiful cities of the Roman Empire, and the ruins include monuments, a harbor, hops and residential districts. Some of the most impressive sites include the Arch of Septimius Severus, constructed in 203 CE to honor the emperor, the amphitheatre, Hadrian's Baths and the Basilica of Severus. The city was situated on the coast and there are lovely views out to sea.
The site is less than two hours' drive from Tripoli, but the spectacular ruins are quiet with few tourists - a sign of the challenges the country faces. As there is limited signage and information at the site, it's best to visit with a knowledgeable guide.
The haunting ruins of Jerash are all that remain of the ancient city of Gerasa, destroyed in an earthquake in 749 CE. Buried under the desert sands, it took almost a thousand years for the ruins to be discovered - by the German explorer Ulrich Jasper Seetzen in 1806.
One of the best preserved Roman cities in the Middle East, the ruined city of Jerash is Jordan's largest and most interesting Roman site. It was an important imperial centre, and home to Hadrian's arch, built in 129 CE in honour of the visit of the Emperor Hadrian, as well as a large Hippodrome, the site of the chariot races and room for 15,000 spectators.
The forum is one of the most distinctive parts of Jerash, because of its unusual shape, huge size and the 56 Ionic columns which surround it. The cardo maximus, the main road of the city is still paved with its original stones, and you can see the where the ancient chariot wheels have marked them. There is also a small museum which many of the most important artefacts from the site.
As there's almost no signage, it's worth getting one of the guides at the ticket checkpoint to show you around and bring the ruins to life. There are also daily performances in the hippodrome, reenacting some common activities of the time including military drills, mock gladiator battles, and a chariot race.
Last Updated August 11, 2021