Our historical hotlist
By Martha Hales
It's easy to explore our connections with history when we experience palpable evidence of past societies, past civilisations or past ideas. Most regions of our planet have a history of human settlement dating back millennia, but in some places the tangible relics of the past and the connection to foregone culture is stronger. These are places that stir the soul and ignite the imagination, as well as offer a glimpse into past lives and communities. It is an education and an inspiration to explore the places that held ancient life long before our time. Read on to discover ten of the best historical destinations you can visit with TravelLocal's local expertise to make your trip extra special.
Known as the 'Camelot of Africa', Gondar is peppered with impressive castles and churches dating from its two centuries as the imperial capital, while atmospheric Lalibela throngs with pilgrims who come to worship at the 13 incredible monolithic churches, hewn from the rock more than 800 years ago. These churches are alive with prayer and play an important role in Orthodox Christianity, making the experience all the more immersive and spiritual. Time your visit to coincide with one of the major Orthodox festivals such as Easter, Timkat (Epiphany) or Christmas, and you will see the town and the churches at their most devoted, full of pilgrims in white robes celebrating their faith in powerful style. Be aware though that Ethiopia follows the Julian calendar (rather than the Gregorian calendar) so dates will fall 13 days behind - so for example Christmas is on 7th January.
Scattered throughout the jungles of Belize and Guatemala are hundreds of Maya relics, from fragments of carved masonry right up to whole ruined cities. Caracol is the most sizeable Maya site in Belize, home to the 42 metre tall Sky Palace which remains one of Belize's tallest buildings over 1,000 years after construction. Xunantunich is Belize's other major Maya ruin, not as extensive as Caracol though still impressive on its flat-top hill, and far more accessible. Tikal, in neighbouring Guatemala is arguably the most impressive of all Maya sites - the central hub of the complex includes several 60 metre tall temples nestled in the rainforest which is alive with wildlife.
The magnificence of imperial Russia lives on, especially in the splendid architecture of its major cities. Feel the wealth and grandeur echo down the centuries as you take in the glories of the Kremlin in Moscow or the Winter Palace and Peterhof in St Petersburg. Beyond these Tsarist jewels, Russia also reverberates with modern history, and evidence of the Soviet era is all around. For a taste of rural Russia's enticing history, look no further than the Golden Ring, a circuit of delightful rustic towns with plenty of historical interest which lie within easy reach of Moscow.
The ancient network of trade conduits known as the Silk Route was extensive in Central Asia, and stopping points along the way bloomed into the cities we see today, rich with history and infused with influences from far and wide. Historic cities known for their appealing atmosphere and ancient monuments include Samarkand, a jewel of Uzbek architecture and hub of ancient trade; Bukhara and Khiva, smaller but no less enchanting Uzbek towns which grew up around the Silk Route staging posts and still maintain many of their ancient monuments, bazaars, caravanserais and madrassas; and Kashgar, the last stop in Uyghur China before crossing the mountains into Kyrgyzstan, where the mercantile bustle of yesteryear is still evident today.
Edo era Japan was a time of emperors, samurai, and travelling merchants, and it is this world which you can still sense behind the glossy modern towers and gadgetry that contemporary Japan is famous for. Take a few days to hike the Nakasendo Trail, an ancient route linking Tokyo and Kyoto which allows you to take a step back in time as you pass through ancient wooden villages with stone cobbles for streets. Inhale the historic atmosphere in Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan for 1,000 years prior to Tokyo assuming the role in 1868. Kyoto is the cultural heart of Japan and contains many UNESCO World Heritage Sites - predominantly historic buddhist temples and shrines.
The lost Nabatean city of Petra is the desert jewel in Jordan's crown. Hewn directly into the warm pink stone canyons of the region, the magnificent monuments of the Treasury, the Monastery and the Royal Tombs are breathtaking. Thought to have been founded around 2,000 years ago, this city would have been a hub of ancient trade, commerce and ceremonial events. The warren of canyons and clefts in the towering rocks were ready made streets and watercourses ready for communities to arrive and carve their dwellings into the cliffs. The Siq, a deep, narrow cleft which leads into the site, is as dramatic an arrival as you could wish for, delivering you directly to the facade of the Treasury, which reveals itself inch by inch as you emerge from the Siq.
The immense and imposing Forbidden City palace complex in Beijing was the longtime seat of the Ming and Qing dynasty emperors who roamed its ornate corridors, gardens and offices for 500 years. The Forbidden City is so named because the entire 70 hectare enclosure remained off limits to almost everyone until the early 20th century when it was opened to the public. Two of China's other most famous historical highlights are the Terracotta Warriors, an absurdly enormous army of 8,000 clay infantry built to accompany Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in his pursuit of continuing power in the afterlife; and the Great Wall, parts of which date back around 2,500 years, and which is one of the defining structures of China.
Historic monuments come thick and fast as you journey between the ancient cities and sites of India's famous Golden Triangle, but the most loved monument from past centuries must surely be the Taj Mahal. Rising in ethereal beauty on the banks of the Yamuna River, this elegant and eloquent love token has endured 400 years and still takes the breath away today with its harmonious proportions and intricate carvings dedicated by Shah Jahan to his favourite wife upon her death. Agra is also home to the magnificent Agra Fort, a 16th century red sandstone masterpiece built for defensive purposes by the emperor Akhbar. Jaipur, known as the 'Pink City' is a stunning collection of elegant palaces and imposing forts, all constructed with a particular flair and attention to detail that endures today. The Amber Fort is the iconic building of the city, and it's pink and yellow sandstone walls are a beautiful sight reflected in the nearby lake.
The temples of Angkor are thrilling, beautiful and vast. Constructed between the 9th and 12th centuries by the Khmer rulers, this ancient city has been recognised as the largest preindustrial city in the world, with a population of around one million. The temples are the monuments which have stood the test of time most defiantly, and there are still around a thousand examples dotted among the forests of Cambodia, many lying in ruins but several still in a remarkably solid and impressive state. The largest and most intricate is Angkor Wat, where the detail in the centuries-old carved masonry is mindblowing and the iconic shapes of the building are a feat of artistry and inventiveness. Baygon has hundreds of larger than life carved heads, each distinct from the last, while Angkor Thom is the jungle-draped lost world you've been dreaming of.
Early Christian monuments are one of Armenia's most appealing features and there are many ancient churches and monasteries dotted in awe inspiring locations throughout the nation. Enjoying a magical setting in a rocky valley, the Noravank monastery is a masterclass in medieval church architecture and actually consists of three separate churches. Highlights are the intricate relief panels found in and on the churches themselves, and the decorative khachkars, which are sculptural stone monuments with religious significance. Another enticing historic sight in Armenia is one of the world's oldest cathedrals - Echmiadzin. It dates from the first few years of the 4th century, built on the site of a previous pagan temple and symbolizes the conversion from paganism to Christianity. St Gregory the Illuminator - Armenians patron saint - is thought to have been instrumental in the founding of the cathedral.
Make it happen
Step back in time in these historically impressive destinations where the past and the present collide. With the expertise of our handpicked local partners you can plan a bespoke holiday to any of these destinations with as much emphasis on historical highlights as you choose. Click on the links above for more information or to speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.