Lounging under a striped beach umbrella along the Mediterranean isn’t the main draw for travelers who come through Kusadasi, Turkey. Many are here to explore the ancient ruins of nearby Ephesus, including an amphitheater that still hosts concerts—much as it did 2,000 years ago.
“Ancient ruins give us a connection to the past that’s visceral,” says Mary Jo Arnoldi, chair of the anthropology department at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. “This was a real place, and you can walk through it.” The world’s most-visited ancient ruins, among them Ephesus, can indeed bring history alive. They feed our curiosity and inspire us to contemplate the passing of time—and gawk at their sheer size.
“Ruins represent human achievement writ large,” says Lynn Meskell, director of the Stanford Archaeology Center. Perhaps none looms larger than the Great Wall, which snakes for 5,500 miles across China—a country of 1.3 billion increasingly travel-hungry people. The picturesque Badaling section is easily accessible from Beijing, and its combination of mass appeal, proximity, and infrastructure accounts for more than 9 million annual visitors, enough to propel the Great Wall to the No. 1 ranking.
Pop culture also fuels the romance of these ruins, whether it’s a highbrow novel set during an ancient Chinese dynasty or a blockbuster movie starring the Egyptian pyramids. Americans recognize other ruins as the model for our own monuments, notably those of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. “When we look at the Acropolis with its majestic Parthenon in Athens, we don’t just see a monument to Classical Greece,” observes John Papadopoulos, chair of the archaeology interdepartmental program at UCLA, citing it as a worldwide inspiration for democracy.
Such symbolic power can come at a price; some of the most-visited ruins are in danger of being loved too much. “We have the tremendous privilege of going to these places,” says Meskell. “We enrich our own lives by visiting them. But we need to promote responsible, respectful, and considerate tourism.”
Read on to discover which ancient ruins attract the most visitors—and heed Meskell’s advice so that these sites will continue to outlast us.
The Methodology: Our criteria were that ruins be several hundred years old (in the Americas, at least 600), human-made, and no longer actively used for purposes other than tourism and research. While Asia has hundreds of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples that meet the first two standards, those sacred sites are still used for worship. People still live in Pueblo de Taos in New Mexico and the ancient Chinese villages of Xidi and Hongcun, so we omitted them too. We used numbers from verifiable sources, such as tourism boards, ministries of culture, archaeological surveys, and local newspapers.