People & Places
Exploring the World's Most Historically Rich Travel Destinations
September 21, 2023
When we travel, we don’t just explore space – we also explore time. We navigate the indelible impacts of humans on the landscape, the evolutions of various cultural practices and norms, the slow building up and tearing down of civilizations.
It’s inescapable. And for several travelers, it’s precisely the reason they travel.
Wandering through the ruined race tracks of ancient Olympia, you can picture what it must’ve been like for a traveling Athenian to watch the first Olympic Games. Ascending the steps of the Great Wall, you understand how a sentry must’ve felt surveying the rolling hills for nomadic invaders. And poking your head into the eerily preserved homes at Pompeii, you briefly relive a fateful day 2,000 years ago.
These are immersive, visceral experiences that link us to peoples of the past. These people might not have had access to high-performance merino wool travel clothing, but they weathered the elements and sought comfort just like us. And their impact continues to matter.
In this post, we count down – in no particular order – our favorite historically rich travel destinations. We can’t cover the entirety of human history (that’s for encyclopedias to attempt), but we feel we’ve represented a good cross-section of ancient and modern history.
Athens’ Ancient Archaeological Sites
Athens is one of the oldest continuously populated places in the world. As such, the city has slowly accrued millennia of cultural artifacts, monuments and buildings. They haven’t all stood the test of time, but what remains is magnificent.
The ancient Acropolis, seated atop an outcrop in the city's center, is a candy store for history buffs, containing the Parthenon, Old Temple of Athena, Propylaia and more. Elsewhere in the city, you’ll find the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Tower of Winds, the Temple of Hephaestus and countless other sites of antiquity. But even without a guidebook, you can experience the ebb and flow of history in Athens by simply walking around. Everything seems time-worn and significant – everything seems like it has a secret waiting to be told.
Siem Reap’s Majestic Angkor Wat
The Northwestern Cambodian city of Siem Reap is well worth a trip in its own right. The people are hospitable, the food is delicious, and the “Pub Street” crackles with energy. But every traveler you meet in Siem Reap is there for the same reason: Angkor Wat.
A sprawling temple fortress within an archeological park double the size of Brooklyn, Angkor Wat is stuffed with history. You see it on every finely detailed stone carving, every wall, every pillar, bas-relief and doorway. Estimates guess the fortress contains roughly 10 million sandstone blocks, many of which are intricately carved.
If all you have is a day, you can definitely understand the magnitude and awesomeness of Angkor Wat. But if you can, stretch your visit over a few days.
Credit: tawatchai07 Via Freepik
The Quintessential Historical Trip: Giza
Giza is so old and revered that "traveling to Giza” has its own long history. People (from the West, at least) have been traveling to Egypt’s ancient city since the early 1800s, when the site was “rediscovered” by a Swiss Explorer. In the decades since, far-flung travelers, Egyptologists and archaeologists have flocked to this quintessential historical destination.
The main draw? You guessed it: The Great Pyramids of Giza. The pyramids were built around 4,500 years ago – and yet, if you asked 10 different people in 2023 to draw the pyramids, all 10 would be able to do so without thinking much. Now that’s longevity.
The pyramids are a short drive (like 40 minutes) from central Cairo. If you’ve come all this way to see them, you might as well incorporate a Cairo trip – a city steeped in its own long, impressive history. To beat the arid heat, consider packing our merino polos for men or breathable tank tops for women.
The Megalithic Mystery of Stonehenge
The Neolithic Period was fruitful in the British Isles, with several chambered tombs and stone circles erected around this time. But none of them is more famous than Stonehenge, an enduring mystery in the southwestern Salisbury Plain.
Who made it? Why did they make it? How did they manage to lug these stones (each weighing around 25 tons) from a quarry in Wales, 180 miles away? Don’t expect any hard-and-fast answers.
Stonehenge conjures images of hooded druids and secretive rituals. But at the end of the day, the site is a testament to how industrious humans have always been. And it offers a rare, if mysterious, glimpse into the priorities and values of Neolithic Britons.
Physical Fitness Meets Historical Greatness: Machu Picchu
For those who prefer their intellectual pursuits with a side of physical effort, you can’t do better than Machu Picchu. The 15th-century citadel is the jewel at the end of the Inca Trail, a steep 26-mile trek through the Andes.
The effort pays off. Machu Picchu’s remarkably well-preserved (slash reconstructed) dry-stone walls and buildings transport you back to the heyday of the empire. And the evocative view of the surrounding Andes, blanketed in clouds and vibrant green, is worth the price of admission alone.
The Inca Trail is a grind, however. Be sure to buy women's merino leggings or men’s shorts for the hike; our travel clothing is breathable, sweat-wicking and odor-resistant, keeping you comfortable enough to enjoy your destination.
Beijing and the Great Wall of China
There are so many rich historical travel destinations in China that we were tempted to give the entire country its own entry. You’ve got The Terracotta Warriors, the Temple of Heaven, Longmen Grottos and a thousand other less famous sites to choose from. Plus, there’s one of our favorite historical cities, the Old Town of Lijiang, an immensely photogenic travel destination in the heart of Yunnan.
But this list tracks cultural impact over personal preference. So, we have to give the spot to The Great Wall of China, a monument so famous that it’s practically the national emblem.
The good news is, The Great Wall is indeed great. At any point along the wall, you can see the rest of the wall stretch out toward the horizon, seemingly endless. Restored areas like Mutianyu offer a striking glimpse of the wall in its prime. Meanwhile, relatively wild sections like Jiankou remind you that no monument – however great – is safe from time’s weathering effects.
When visiting The Great Wall, you’ll probably land in Beijing, which is an excellent opportunity to further explore ancient Chinese culture. Tour the Forbidden City or bask in the Summer Palace. Visit recent historical sites like Tiananmen Square and the 798 Art Zone. Or follow your senses through the serpentine hutong alleyways, centuries-old side streets still bustling with activity.
A Whistle-Stop Tour of South-Central Italy
We couldn’t decide between the two juggernauts of Italian historical travel destinations: Pompeii and Rome. Then we asked ourselves, "Why decide?" The two sites are a brisk 2-hour train ride apart. And between them lies several other interesting historical sites – notably, Caserta and Naples.
You might as well see it all. See the old Colosseum and Pantheon, the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Walk the tragic streets of Pompeii with its forums, bathhouses, amphitheaters and residential homes (one home actually has a sign that says “cave canem,” or “beware of the dog”). When you’ve exhausted the world-popular sites, visit spots like Herculaneum, another perfectly preserved city that perished in the 79 AD Mount Vesuvius eruption. And cap it off with a pizza in Naples, home to the world’s first pizzerias.
The Very Modern and Very Old Charms of Kyoto
Kyoto is a study in extremes. The ancient Japanese capital is buttoned-up during the day, but boasts a thrilling nightlife. It’s filled with quaint gardens and shrines, but also glitzy shopping districts. It’s very modern. But it’s also very old.
Among the hip eateries, bars and high-rise business offices, Kyoto wears its history proudly. The city is chock-filled with shrines, ranging from 7th-century Shinto pagodas to 16th-century Zen gardens. Dotted throughout the city, you’ll also find old teahouses, traditional theaters, family-owned kaiseki restaurants that stretch back several generations and – of course – geishas.
It’s far from the only historical destination in Japan – but you can’t beat Kyoto for the sheer density of its historically rich sites. Kyoto – like most of Japan – is expensive, so consider combing through our guide on how to avoid unnecessary travel costs.
Credit: tawatchai07 Via Freepik
A Trinational Tour of Mayan Ruins
The Maya civilization existed in Mesoamerica from roughly the 3rd to 17th centuries CE, a flourishing network of urban centers with grand palaces, pyramidal temples and sports arenas. Maya civilization didn’t survive contact with European settlers, but the civilization remains present in ruins, artifacts and a lineage of ethnically indigenous peoples still proud to call themselves Maya.
The civilization’s heyday has left us with some awe-inspiring architecture, like Chichen Itza (in Mexico), Tikal (in Guatemala) and Lamanai (in Belize). We tend to think of civilizational influence as being contained within our existing borders – you go to France for French culture, Thailand for Thai culture, etc. But here’s the exception. To understand the true magnitude and significance of Maya civilization, consider embarking on a tri-national tour: Mexico, Guatemala and Belize.
Millennia of Continuous Habitation in Byblos
So far on this list, we’ve witnessed several ruins – vestiges of civilizations that came and went. But what about continuously inhabited cities, places that have built upon themselves over the millennia? For that, we turn to Byblos.
The Lebanese city is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited urban centers, stretching all the way back to the Early Neolithic (10,000 years ago). During that time, the city has hosted (read: been invaded by) the Egyptians, Assyrians, Macedonians, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans and more. The city is like a guest book at a hostel – inscribed by various peoples and cultures throughout the years. It wears the influences of several great empires, all wrapped neatly in a seaside UNESCO Heritage city.
More than that, Byblos is just a great city to visit. Its beautiful beaches drew movie stars back in the 60s, and the city still dominates lists of the best cities to visit in the Middle East.
Varanasi and The Birthplace of Hinduism
Varanasi is also one of the world's oldest continually inhabited cities. But unlike Byblos (population: 40,000), Varanasi is home to nearly 2 million.
It’s a roller coaster ride for the senses. You’ll see pilgrims lined up along the Ganges River to wash their sins away. You’ll snake your way through bustling marketplaces. You’ll fend off monkeys that want to steal your water bottle. You’ll encounter tall golden temples, funerary processions, street vendors, merchants and more mopeds than you ever thought possible.
Varanasi is a very sacred Hindu site, so be respectful. If it helps, read through our quick guide on experiencing life as a local before you go.
From Boston to Tombstone: A US History Road Trip
The All-American road trip is a great way to get to know the country. People tend to live in their regional bubbles, far removed from how people live a few states over. When you hit the interstates with an open mind, you work toward bridging that gap.
A road trip is also the ideal opportunity for a history lesson. From American Revolution sites in Boston and Philly to French Colonial influences in Louisiana; from the Mexican and Indigenous sites of the American South to the frontier towns of the Southwest; from the Statue of Liberty to Alcatraz – American history is all over the map.
If you’re planning a summer car trip, pack sweat-wicking and breathable merino travel clothing, like our tees, boxer briefs and premium merino wool pants. They help keep you fresh on long journeys, so you can confidently walk into a Tombstone saloon without worrying about "stinking up the joint."
We know we can't cover it all – these are simply the best historical travel destinations we’ve visited. If you have any favorite historical travel destinations that didn’t make the cut, let us know in the comments section below.