Visiting Rome is a no-brainer. But the Roman Empire stretched far beyond Italy, with amazing sights you can still see today.
There’s no doubt the Romans were clever, living cultured and forward-thinking lives in a world of theater, gourmet feasting, even indoor plumbing. Cunning enough to figure out that if they pleased the masses with “bread and circuses”—if their citizens had full bellies and were distracted with violent spectacles—they wouldn’t revolt. The Romans ruled the known world for 507 years with an empire that stretched as far north as northern Britain, as far east as the Euphrates River, as far south as Sahara, and as far west as the Atlantic Ocean. You obviously can see their architectural and engineering wonders in their capital, the Eternal City. But traces of their former ways of life exist throughout their ancient empire, mind-blowing and majestic masterpieces that give testament to the Roman ingenuity. Here are some of the best preserved Roman ruins outside Italy that you should see.
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Nîmes Amphitheater & Maison Carrée
The crafty Romans thought of everything, evident at Nîmes’ beautifully preserved amphitheater, built in the second century AD. Stone corridors winding beneath the structure are actually vomitaria—pathways for spectators to spew into the streets in a matter of minutes (oh, if only our arenas had this trait!). The amphitheater was rediscovered in the 19th century as a bullring, and bullfights are still held here. Though the biggest event of the year is the annual Great Roman Games, when marching soldiers, gladiators, and an entire imperial court take over the city in an enormous reenactment of ancient Rome.
INSIDER TIPWhen Thomas Jefferson visited Nîmes in the 18th century as Foreign Minister, he fell in love with the Maison Carrée, a “square house” that served as a temple on the Roman Forum, and had a mold made. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that the Roman house looks very similar to the State Capitol building in Richmond, Virginia (which he designed).
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you will know this classical work of architecture doubles as the city of Meereen. It’s actually an ancient Roman palace, built in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD as Emperor Diocletian’s retirement home. But even without the HBO fanfare, the palace is a curiosity. Mostly, don’t expect a palace. It’s a living city behind fortified walls with winding streets, people, bars, shops, banks, and restaurants. You can even stay in a hotel overlooking Diocletian’s former living room. Through the ages, residents borrowed a Roman column here, an ancient arch there, to add to their own Gothic and Renaissance residences, making for a hodgepodge of architecture. Shop for fruit in the market amid ancient pillars or lean against a Corinthian column while standing in line at the bank. Emperor Diocletian himself makes a daily appearance in a grand entourage, as the crowd cheers in an obvious reenactment, but a clear statement that the Roman legacy lives on.
The provincial Roman city at Jerash is huge and beautifully preserved, with a temple of Zeus; colonnaded streets; a forum edged with 160 Ionic columns; and a theater with still-perfect acoustics. The magnificent Hadrian’s Arch once welcomed the emperor to the city in 129 AD. But buildings can only speak so much. The most thrilling thing to see here is a full-fledged chariot race around the ancient (and restored) hippodrome, accompanied by 45 “legionaries” in armor and battling gladiators (staged daily). Amid the shrieks and cries (not to mention the real-to-life costumes), it’s easy to forget you’re in the 21st century.
INSIDER TIPBe sure to stop by the Jerash Archaeological Museum, full of artifacts found here including coins, statues and sarcophagi.
You’d think the Romans were into sunbathing, given this city’s glorious perch along the sparkling Mediterranean. But they, of course, had other things on their minds when they first came here in 22 BC. Caesarea, named after Augustus Caesar himself, was founded for its strategic port, receiving luxury goods from all over the Mediterranean. Today it’s one of the best preserved Roman ports, with a magnificent Roman theater (hosting summer concerts), a portion of the guest wing of King Herod’s palace, and a hippodrome. The primo experience here? You can dive and snorkel among the ruins; take one of four underwater trails among collapsed walls, sunken columns, and enormous schools of colorful fish.
Once the Roman Empire’s African capital, Leptis Magna contains one of the empire’s best preserved Roman cities. These day’s it’s a little tricky to visit, of course, given the recent Libyan war and terrorism threats. But if you ever do make it there, you will find a nearly perfectly preserved amphitheater, where actors once belted out their lines against a dramatic backdrop of marble columns, the shimmering Mediterranean Sea beyond. This amphitheater demonstrates a quality present in all Roman amphitheaters: outstanding acoustics. A gentle whisper can be heard by every single member of the 3,000-strong audience. The forum and main arch are exceedingly well-preserved as well.
INSIDER TIPThese days it might be safer instead to head to Windsor Great Park, England, where columns and stones from Leptis Magna’s basilica, an arcade and several minor palaces were incorporated into a re-creation of a ruined Roman temple.
Conímbriga’s not the biggest Roman city in Portugal, but it’s the best preserved. And it gives us an excellent picture of the domestic side of Roman life. Take, for example, the villa that is said to have belonged to one resident. It’s a veritable palace, with baths, pools and sophisticated underground heating system. Though it’s the beautifully preserved—and vividly colored—it’s the mosaic flooring throughout the town that truly impresses. Enormous swaths of tiny pieced-together stones depicting the four seasons, mythological scenes, hunting seasons, monsters, and birds. Just try to wrap your head around the fact these were pieced together more than two millennia ago.
INSIDER TIPThe Museu Monográfico de Conímbriga showcases locally found artifacts that delve into the everyday life of a Roman city, including architecture, religion, and politics
What’s a list of Roman ruins without Hadrian’s Wall? When the Romans reached the northernmost reaches of their empire, Emperor Hadrian ordered a wall be built to keep out barbarians. Constructed between 122 and 126 AD, this massive stone endeavor measured 73 miles, with walls up to 9 feet thick and 15 feet high. It was abandoned by the early fifth century, and much of its stonework was subsequently incorporated into local farm houses and churches, as well as what is today’s B6318 highway. Those in the know say the stretch near remote Newcastle-upon-Tyne is the best.
One of the classical world’s legendary cities, Ephesus boasts perfectly preserved temples, theaters and merchant houses that give a magnificent sense of what a Roman city looked like. The superb Library of Celsus, dating from 135 AD, is one of the site’s most glorious buildings. It’s a shame the thousands of books that once filled its shelves were destroyed by invading Goths in the third century AD. The theater, the largest outdoor theater in the entire Roman Empire, thrilled 25,000 spectators—and is still in use today (Elton John, Ray Charles, Sting and many others have performed here). But it’s the tiny details that delve most into stories of the past, including chariot-wheel grooves that can still be detected in the marble streets.
INSIDER TIPBefore the Romans arrived, Ephesus was the home to one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis. All that remains today are ruins, with an evocative single column standing sentinel.
Even Roman soldiers had to retire somewhere, and Emerita Augusta is one of those planned cities where they were sent. A Roman version of Florida, so to speak. One of their most popular leisure activities was the theater, and Emerita Augusta’s Teatro Romano is the most beautifully preserved in Europe. It boasts two dramatic tiers of Corinthian columns, and you can still read the original dedication inscribed in 16 BC: Agrippa L.F. cos III. Trib. Pot. III (Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three times council, in the third year of his tribunal powers). Even more fascinating, perhaps, is the Roman bridge standing nearby; it’s the world’s longest standing 1st century Roman bridge, with 57 graceful arches standing over the Guadiana River and still used by pedestrians. Walk across and just think about the toga-sporting veterans who walked this way long before.
Baalbek has several temples that hint at the Romans’ religious side, harking back to a time when thousands of ancient pilgrims gathered here to worship Jupiter, Venus and Mercury. Some of the world’s tallest columns are integrated into the Temple of Jupiter, towering 70 feet skyward. Inside, ritual sacrifices were performed on the stone altar. The Temple of Bacchus is smaller, but better preserved. It’s named for the god of wine thanks to the extensive stone-carved poppies and grapes found here, making some believe drugs and wine may have played a part in religious ceremonies; though in reality it’s believed the temple was dedicated to a sun god.
INSIDER TIPBoth temples come alive during the annual Baalbeck International Festival, when plays, ballets and musical performances are staged on the spot.