History and travel are natural bedfellows. History helps us understand the past in the abstract, while travel connects that past to the present and helps us comprehend its importance now and into the future. Thus, there are few things more rewarding for travellers than to engage with history. Likewise, there are few things more beneficial to a history buff than to travel.
Considering that we’re all stuck at home right now, it’s a good time to delve into some history in order to prepare for the vacations that’ll come when travel returns. Thus, we’ve shared some of the best countries to visit for history buffs, which should help us prioritize how we spend our time in the present. The following list gives a general overview of historical sites in these countries. It’s by no means exhaustive, nor does it include every country with fascinating history to explore. But hopefully it’s a good jumping off point for travellers who want to explore history on their future vacation.
What are the best countries for history buffs?
Whether you are fascinated with ancient times, the medieval world, or the innovations of the Renaissance, Italy has a lot to offer. Start in Rome, the centre of the ancient Roman Empire and the perfect place to trace the history of this civilization that conquered much of the western world. The Colosseum, the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Pantheon all offer insight into this world from 2,000 years ago. Then head to Florence to learn about the Medici Family, which ruled during the early centuries of the Renaissance. You can also follow their impact on art and culture in the world-class museums, the Uffizi Gallery and the dell'Accademia. In Venice, you can learn about the late medieval world and the trading empire that influenced much of the Aegeatic and the wider Mediterranean as well as see landmarks like St. Mark’s Basilica. Italy is a land full of historical treasure, so no matter which region you focus on, you’ll find historical landmarks and learn about how the nation has helped shape the world.
Like many nations in the Middle East, Jordan has a vast number of historical landmarks from the past few thousand years. But unlike some of its neighbours, Jordan is also very safe to visit, which makes it an ideal Middle-Eastern stop for history buffs. In the capital Amman, you can see the Citadel that overlooks the town from the hillside, which was used by various empires, from the Assyrians to the Babylonians and Romans. You can also learn about the formation of this kingdom in the aftermath of the Ottoman and British Empires. Of course, the ancient city of Petra in the nation’s south is likely the most spectacular of the country’s historical landmarks, so it’s essential that you include Petra on an itinerary here. Between Petra, Amman, the Dead Sea, and the haunting landscapes of Wadi Rum and ancient ports like Aqaba, Jordan has more than enough history to offer travellers.
As the birthplace of democracy and the ancient Hellenic empires, Greece should be near the top of most history buffs’ bucket lists. You should start in Athens, where the famous ruins of the Acropolis will give you a taste of the heights of Hellenic civilization. After seeing the Parthenon and these other famous ruins, arrange a journey through the Greek Islands to see archaeological sites and learn about how history and myth intersect on these sunbleached, rocky islands. For instance, on Rhodes, you can explore the medieval old town and learn about the Colossus that used to straddle the port, or you can head to Delos to learn about mystical cults and explore ancient sites that rival those of Olympia and Delphi. Seemingly every corner of Greece is home to historical sites of utmost importance to Western civilization.
It should go without saying that Egypt is a land of utmost historical importance. But in the interest of absolute clarity, let me reiterate that Egypt was home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations, which left behind massively impressive monuments such as the pyramids. In Cairo, you can delve into the ancient world with tours of the pyramids at Giza, including the Great Pyramid of Khufu, the only existing remnant of the Ancient Seven Wonders of the World. A subsequent cruise down the Nile River will introduce you to more historical wonders, from the ancient capital of Memphis to the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens outside Luxor, home to the tomb of King Tutankhamun among many other pharaohs, to the far southern temples of Abu Simbel. Add in the medieval treasures of the Islamic Empire in Cairo and the more modern wonders of the Aswan Dam, and you have more than enough history to fit in one vacation.
Machu Picchu, the Lost Citadel of the Incas, would rank at or near the top of any list of the greatest historical attractions in the world. For that reason alone, Peru is an essential destination for history buffs. However, there’s more to this country’s history than Machu Picchu, no matter how spectacular this mountaintop citadel in the Sacred Valley of the Incas may be. The entirety of the Sacred Valley—from the cliffside fortress of Ollantaytambo to the ruins of Pisac to the agricultural terraces of Moray and the salt pans of Maras—should delight both hardcore history buffs and casual travellers. But the cities themselves such as Lima, Cusco, and Arequipa also have wonders from Incan times and the more recent Spanish colonial period. Also don’t forget Lake Titicaca, which is the highest navigable lake in the world and a place to learn about civilizations that predate the Incas.
England is an obvious fit for history buffs with an interest in western civilization. As the capital of England and former lynchpin of the British Empire, London is a treasure trove of historical wonders and a great starting destination. The British Museum alone, with its many historical artifacts on display (some of them, shall we say, “borrowed” from places around the world), is something of a historical mecca in its own right. Add in the British landmarks of Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey, among others, and you get a fuller image of how significant London is. For Neolithic history, head to Stongehenge to the northwest of London. Nearby, you’ll also find Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of William Shakespeare, and Bath, which was an important vacation spot in the Enlightenment and home to the nation’s best-preserved Roman sites. In England, you’ll also find the renowned universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Hadrian’s Wall along the northern border with Scotland, and the significant pilgrimage site of Canterbury Cathedral. Suffice to say, history buffs will find a lot to keep occupied with in England.
Like Peru, Cambodia deserves inclusion on this list due to the magnificence of one site alone: Angkor Wat, the former capital of the Khmer Empire during the 12th century and one of the world’s most spectacular collections of temples. Located in the country’s northwest, just outside the city of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat consists of Buddhist and Hindu temples dating from the 9th to 15th centuries. Some of the temples, including Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, are massive demonstrations of the empire’s opulence, while the northern temple Ta Prohm shows how the natural world has swallowed up much of the empire over the centuries. Aside from Angkor Wat, Cambodia also has the the Royal Palace in the capital of Phnom Penh and the nearby Killing Fields, which trace the devastating history of the country’s genocide in the late 1970s.
Like so many nations in Europe, Germany rewards people with an interest in history, whether medieval or modern. In Berlin, you’ll find Brandenburg Gate, which was once the icon of Prussia’s imperial might, but today stands as a symbol of German reunification. You’ll also be able to delve into the Cold War at the remains of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie, where a lucky few could cross the border between East and West Berlin. Outside of Berlin, Nuremberg offers sobering insight into the history of the Nazi Party as well as the trials of party officials in the aftermath of World War II. The state of Bavaria features some happier historical landmarks with its medieval town centres in Munich and fairy tale castles built by the eccentric King Ludwig II, including Neuschwanstein and Linderhof Palace. On the eastern border of Germany, you’ll also find the city of Cologne and Cologne Cathedral, one of the most impressive Gothic churches in the world.
As one of the world’s largest countries, Mexico offers a lot of historical sites for travellers to explore. The Yucatan Peninsula has many archaeological sites tracing back to the Maya civilization that controlled the region prior to European contact. Chichen Itza is the most impressive of these Maya ruins, best known for the massive Pyramid of Kukulcan, but you’ll also find Maya temples in Tikal, Tulum, and Uxmal on the peninsula. The capital, Mexico City, showcases more modern wonders, ranging from the Spanish colonial period through to the present day, including the Metropolitan Cathedral, the largest cathedral in the Americas, and Zocala, built atop an Aztec commercial hub. Mexico also boasts the Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan, best known for the Pyramids of the Sun, Moon, and Feathered Serpent, located about 50km northeast of Mexico City. The Pyramid of the Sun is one of the largest in the Americas and has been an essential icon of the region for almost 2,000 years.
It’d be impossible to end this list without mentioning China, the world’s largest country and home to one of the oldest continuous civilizations in the world. The capital Beijing introduces you to China’s imperial past with the Forbidden City, a massive complex that used to be home to the emperor, as well as other imperial landmarks like the Temple of Heaven and the Summer Palace, the royal summer resort built in the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century. To the north of Beijing, you can visit the Great Wall of China, the most famous symbol of its past. If you visit the former national capital of Xi’an in central Shaanxi province, you’ll find more imperial landmarks such as the Terracotta Warriors, which protect the elaborate tomb complex of Qin Shi Huang, the country’s first emperor. Of course, China’s history is not limited to its imperial sites. The city of Qufu in eastern Shandong province was the home of Confucius, the influential Chinese philosopher. The various temples and Kong family mansions remain important historical sites to this day. The more recent history of the People’s Republic of China and its immense economic power is also worth exploring. It is perhaps best embodied by the Three Gorges Dam, a hydroelectric dam along the Yangtze River in Hubei province, which is the world’s largest power plant and actually affected the planet’s gravitational rotation upon construction. Its historical impact will likely be felt for generations.