If you thought the best Roman ruins and architecture were in Rome (or Italy for that matter) you'd only be half right. Certainly during its heyday Rome was a majestic architectural city with buildings that had few rivals throughout the world, but subsequent invaders including the Byzantines and the Germanic Barbarians inflicted some severe damage on Rome. What you see now is a mere remnant of the capital's former glory. Pack your bags for a Roman Holiday with a difference. Some of the most pristine Roman sites are located elsewhere in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and even Asia Minor.
Ephesus is synonymous with its Great Roman Library of Celsus, a building of stunning design and detail. Today the library is only an ornate façade and a series of colonnaded rooms, but the rest of the city of Ephesus, a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site provides interesting insight into what a Roman city really looked like. At its peak around 100 AD, the city's population was probably close to half a million inhabitants, making it one of the largest cities of that era. Originally settled by the Bronze Age tribes like the Carians and Lelegians, Persians and Greeks developed the city further several centuries before the Romans arrived. In 129 BC the Romans were given the city under terms laid out in the will of Attalos, King of Pergamon. With this grant, Ephesus and large chunks of Asia Minor became part of the Roman Empire as the province of Asia. Ephesus is located near the Turkish city of Izmir (the closest airport) and even closer to the port city of Kusadasi. Its accessibility means that it is a favorite tourist hot spot and can get extremely crowded, especially during the summer months. Some of the more outstanding buildings and monuments at Ephesus include the Temple of Artemis (Diana), a massive theatre for 25,000, several major houses as part of a restored residential area, paved marble streets, an agora (main square), fountains, the Temple of Hadrian, public toilets, an advanced aqueduct system and even a brothel. Ephesus makes an exceptional day trip or you could spend a couple of days discovering the site in more detail.
Timgad and Djemila, Algeria
Like a postcard with a surreal setting, the site of Djemila, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a spectacular remnant of the Roman Empire. In Arabic, Djemila means "beautiful one" but its Latin name was Cuicul. This mountain village on the northern coast east of Algiers (near the city of Batna), has some of the best preserved Roman ruins in North Africa. Exceptional buildings include a theatre, two fora, temples, basilicas, arches, paved roads and a residential area. streets and houses. The city was built as an outpost during the first century AD by a colony of Roman soldiers and expanded to become a large trading market. The city fell into disarray and was abandoned after the fall of the Roman Empire in the late fifth century. Interestingly, Muslim settlers never built over the city resulting in an excellent state of preservation
Timgad, originally named Thamugas by the Romans is located on the northern slopes of the Aurè s mountains. It was a colonial town founded by the Emperor Trajan circa 100 AD and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although by no means as beautiful as Djemila, the city is best known as being an exceptional example of Roman urban planning using the grid system. Located about 22 miles from the town of Batna, the city had a similar start as Djemila as a military colony that was later settled by Roman army veterans who received plots of land on retirement. The original Roman grid plan, exemplified by the traditional Cardo and Decumanus is still visible, and the main streets are flanked by a partially-restored Corinthian colonnade. Substantial buildings include the Capitoline Temple of Jupiter, a triumphal arch, a forum, a library, a basilica, four bath houses and a 3,500-seat theater (which is still used to stage modern productions). It became a Christian city but was later destroyed by Vandals and Berbers and was only rediscovered through excavation in the late 19th century.
Both these locations are within a two hour drive of the capital Algiers and are even closer to Constantine, Algeria's second largest city -- both cities have airports but most international flights fly into Algiers.
The Rhineland-Palatinate region in western Germany is rich in history and has four UNESCO World Heritage sites. Perhaps the most beautiful, but still not well known from a tourism perspective, is the city of Trier located on the Moselle River. It was once the great Roman city of Augusta Treverorum, recognized as a "second Rome" due to the grandeur of its urban planning and civic buildings. The Romans founded Trier in 16 BC and by the end of the third century AD, it became an Imperial Residence and capital of the West-Roman Empire. Six emperors held court here and as early as the fourth century Trier had a population of 80,000. During the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337), Trier was embellished with an intense public works program that included the construction of the domed Cathedral, the Imperial Baths, the Basilica and several other Christian houses of worship. Today, Trier retains much of the charm it did in antiquity with an array of magnificent Roman ruins that have been restored. Its classic rectangular layout features a Forum (including the most important buildings) in the center, several Roman baths, a Roman bridge and the oldest preserved building is the Amphitheatre, dating from 100 AD. Considered the most outstanding building, the Porta Nigra, a beautifully preserved three and four-storied fortified gate. Many of the sites are located within walking distance of Trier's central train station, whereas the amphitheatre is further out of the city. For the visitor, Trier also offers Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo churches, stately homes of the nobility and the Electoral Palace with gardens (Plus it was the birth place of Karl Marx). It is also Germany's oldest wine-growing center with several famous vineyard estates and wine producers business and shopping center, in which cultural life thrives with theater, opera, concerts and museums. Trier is located right on the border with Luxembourg and is only about a 30-minute drive from the border with Belgium. The nearest major airport is Frankfurt (120 miles to the east) but the Frankfurt Hahn Airport is less than 40 miles away.
We all know that the Romans were in Israel from the New Testament and Christian theology and although Jerusalem would be the natural choice for where you would find Roman remains, better preserved examples of Roman cities exist further to the north in the seaside city of Caesarea (or Q'sarya in Hebrew), located approximately 20 miles south of the port city of Haifa. Founded by King Herod in the first century BC on the site of a Phoenician and Greek trading post known as Straton's Tower, Caesarea was named for Herod's Roman patron, Augustus Caesar. The walled city in its prime had the largest harbor on the eastern Mediterranean coast, named Sebastos, the Greek name of the emperor Augustus. King Herod's palace was the most imposing building in the city and the limited remains of a major temple dedicated to Augustus Caesar is on a high podium facing the harbor with a broad flight of steps lead from the pier to the temple. In 6 AD, Caesarea became the seat of the Roman procurators of the Judaean province and headquarters of the 10th Roman Legion. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, the city expanded and became one of most important in the eastern part of the Roman Empire, classified as the Metropolis of the Province of Syria Palaestina, featuring a forum, bath houses, a residential district, a marketplace, arches and public buildings. The 15,000 seat Amphitheatre, which has been completely restored is located in the south of the city overlooking the Mediterranean. When the theatre was excavated a stone was found with an inscription mentioning Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Judea, and the Tiberium (the edifice honoring Emperor Tiberius) which he built. The Aqueduct was built in the Herodian period and actually begins at the foot of Mt. Carmel some 10 miles to the north -- remains of which can be seen along the main Tel-Aviv to Haifa road and along the beachfront. The ancient harbor is now several feet below the sea level but scuba divers can dive freely amongst these ruins. The spectacular beachside location and interesting ruins make Caesarea an attractive and easy day trip from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Haifa.
Nîmes and Orange, France
Nîmes is home to two monumental legacies of the Romans - probably the most impressive Roman arena, rivaling the Colosseum in Rome in terms of its magnitude and architectural importance and the famous Pont du Gard, a massive and complex bridge and aqueduct that spans the Gard River nearby. On the border between Provence and Languedoc, Nîmes was originally settled by the Romans, who located the city directly on the Via Domitia, a Roman road constructed in 118 BC that connected Italy to Spain. The Arena of Nîmes was constructed in the time of Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD). The Pont du Gard was built in the middle of the first century AD by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa and was part of 30 miles of aqueducts that brought water from springs near Uzès to the Roman city of Nîmes. An engineering masterpiece, the bridge and aqueduct system was constructed entirely with six ton stones held in place by iron clamps -- without the use of mortar.
Also in southern France, the city of Orange boasts the best preserved Roman Amphitheatre in Europe, a Triumphal arch and several other Imperial Roman buildings. Founded in 35 BC by veterans of the Second Gallica Roman legion as Arausio, the city was built on top of a previous Celtic settlement and was the capital of a wide area of northern Provence. The arch, theatre (which is still use for modern productions) and the surrounding historic area were listed in by UNESCO as a World Heritage site in 1981.
There are obviously dozens of Roman sites not mentioned above. Some of the more outstanding examples include Plovdiv (ancient Philipoppolis), Sofia (ancient Serdica) and Devnya (ancient Marcianopolis) in Bulgaria; Arles, Autun, Lyon, Lillebonne and Vienne in France; Mainz in Germany; Beth Shan in Israel; Amman, Gadara, Gerasa, Pella and Petra in Jordan; Baalbek in Lebanon; Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Libya; Mérida in Spain; Augusta Raurica, Aventicum and Lenzburg in Switzerland; Apamea, Bosra and Palmyra in Syria and Aspendos, Miletis and Side in Turkey.
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