Step into the Stone Age at Europe’s 10 Best Prehistoric Sites

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Travelers flock to Europe for its rich history—but many people don't realize that Europe is also dotted with incredible sites that pre-date recorded history, allowing up-close contact with human ingenuity that in some cases reaches back well into the Ice Age, which ended some 12,000 years ago. From cave drawings to stone villages, these 10 sites stretch across the continent from Portugal to Finland, and they're each—naturally—on UNESCO's World Heritage list.—Dan Allen

Prof saxx via Wikimedia Commons, [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Lascaux Caves

WHERE: France

The numbers are staggering: Up to 20,000 years old and containing nearly 2,000 images of men, symbols, and often startlingly realistic animals on its underground walls, France's Lascaux Caves were famously discovered by chance by four children in 1940. For 15 years between 1948 and 1963, visitors were allowed to freely enter the caves, until scientists realized that this sudden influx of humans was seriously harming the precious prehistoric art. The original caves have been sealed to the public ever since, but Lascaux II, which includes meticulous reconstructions of many of the grottos, was opened nearby for visitors in 1983.

Insider Tip: In December 2016, the site will debut the highly anticipated Lascaux IV, which will feature a new and nearly complete replica of the original cave's 10,000 square feet of art, as well as a state-of-the-art visitor center.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Dordogne Guide

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Skara Brae

WHERE: Scotland

Scotland's Skara Brae is Europe's most complete Stone Age town. A pathway takes you past eight of the site's nine houses, inside of which were found stone beds, dressers, cupboards and other artifacts. One fully reconstructed house shows how things may have looked when the village formed 50 centuries ago. Skara Brae is the highlight of what UNESCO calls the “Heart of Neolithic Orkney,” which also includes a burial tomb and two stone circles.

Insider Tip: Skara Brae is unique in that it lies on the grounds of a much more recent historical site, the 17th-century Skaill House, which belonged to the Bishop of Orkney—giving you the chance to experience history from two very different eras at the same time.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Orkney and Shetland Islands Guide

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Coa Valley

WHERE:  Portugal

What's generally considered the world's largest open-air museum of Paleolithic petroglyphs can be found at the Côa Valley Archaeological Park, just a few miles from the Spanish border in northeast Portugal. Dating to more than 20,000 years BCE, the first rock art in the area depicted nature scenes, but animal drawings—including those of horses, cows and deer—later became the norm. Thousands of examples span 18 sites on both sides of an 11-mile stretch of the Côa River, with five additional sites along its tributaries.

Insider Tip: Three prime Côa Valley rock art sites (Canada do Inferno, Penascosa, and Ribeira de Piscos) can be visited on an inexpensive jeep tour run by the archaeological park's museum, but advance booking is highly recommended.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Porto and the North Guide

Altamira Cave

WHERE: Spain

While some of its lesser-known paintings date back an astounding 35,000 years, Altamira is best known for its array of beautiful animal art dating to (a still-really-old) 15,000 years ago or so.  Tourist hordes and their rampant carbon dioxide began to damage the priceless images, and the cave was restricted to limited guests after 1977, then completely closed to the public in 2002. As at Lascaux, visitors now experience the art via a replica cave and museum nearby.

Insider Tip: Since 2015—after studies maintained that it wouldn't damage the art—on one day every week, five visitors to Altamira's museum are chosen at random to explore the original cave, on a strictly guided 37-minute tour.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Galicia and Asturias Guide

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Sammallahdenmki

WHERE: Finland

Practically new compared to other sites, Finland's Sammallahdenmäki dates back about 3,000 years—and though made of stone, is actually from the Scandinavian Bronze Age. The site's 33 cairns (or rough stone mounds) are spread over about 90 acres, and were used in burial rites as part of a farming-based sun-worship religion that had spread to Finland's coastal regions from Scandinavia.                      

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Finland Guide

Kernavė by Laisve Lideikyte [CC BY 2.0]

Kernave

WHERE: Lithuania

Lithuania's Kernavė represents a rare phenomenon indeed—a prehistoric site dating back 10,000 years that's remained in constant use, albeit sometimes sparingly, until modern times, for a while even serving as the medieval capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. A terrific museum displays artifacts found at the site and gives them historical (or prehistorical) context, while the paths through and over the complex's five riverside hill forts create a lovely hike through the ages.

Insider Tip: Each July, Kernavė hosts the International Festival of Experimental Archaeology, with a huge array of crafts, costumes, and music from prehistory and the early Middle Ages.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Lithuania Guide

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Alta Rock Art

WHERE: Norway

Some of the northernmost prehistoric remains on the planet are the petroglyphs at Alta Fjord at the top of Norway, which date back some seven millennia and reflect the combined hunting and fishing culture of the peoples who created them. Spread over 45 open-air sites in five areas at the fjord's head, thousands of carvings and paintings give an invaluable insight into the mindset and spirituality of the local hunters and gatherers of prehistory.

Insider Tip: Alta Museum in the town of Alta provide contextual backstory for area rock-art pilgrims.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Norway Guide

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Stonehenge

WHERE: England

The global powerhouse of prehistoric sites, Stonehenge draws approximately 1.3 million visitors every year, making it one of England's most popular attractions—but things move smoothly (and make much more sense) with the help of a snazzy new interactive visitor center that opened in 2013. Scholarship is constantly evolving about Stonehenge's origins and usages, but archaeologists now believe that work on the complex—a 108-foot-wide ring of 13-foot-high standing stones, set within huge earthworks—began more than 5,000 years ago, with revisions made throughout its use (which lasted into the Iron Age in the first millennium BCE).

Insider Tip: Stonehenge can only be viewed at a distance from beyond a roped walkway circling the stones—that is, unless you plan way ahead and book special Stone Circle Access, which, during most of the year, allows up-close visits for a small number of guests, just before and after closing hours.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's South England Guide

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Bru Na Boinne

WHERE: Ireland

One of the world's most important concentrations of prehistoric structures can be found at Ireland's Brú na Bóinne, a collection of more than 90 funerary monuments dating back well over five millennia. Two of the complex's three main sites, the passage tomb mounds Newgrange and Knowth, are reached by tours from the Brú na Bóinne Visitor Centre (a third, Dowth, is off limits to the public). The mounds likely served not only as burial chambers, but also as important astrological, spiritual, and ceremonial centers for those who built them.
 

Insider Tip: The number of guests allowed on daily tours to the mounds is limited, so arrive early in the day to avoid disappointment.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Dublin Environs Guide

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Valcamonica

WHERE: Italy

One of the planet's greatest collections of prehistoric stone carvings is located in the Val Camonica valley in the Central Alps. More than 140,000 ancient figures and symbols have been found so far in the area, which covers a few hundred square miles on Italy's Lombardy plain. Depicting themes of hunting, agriculture, navigation, war, and magic, the petroglyphs date back some 8,000 years.

Insider Tip: Several great spots for viewing the carvings are concentrated at Capo di Ponte, including the National Park of Rock Engravings in Capo di Ponte, the National Archaeological Park of Massi di Cemmo, and the Seradina-Bedolina Municipal Archaeological Park.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor's Lombardy and the Lakes Guide

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