Welcome to Part 3 of my Top Historic Sites in Europe series! I’m glad you came back to check out some more fantastic sites. So far we’ve done the top historic sites from 20 countries in Parts 1 and 2 and today you’ll get to see 10 more in Part 3! I have really loved learning more about these countries along with the significance of some of their historic sites and I’m so excited to share this with you.
With a recorded history going back over 37,000 years, there are just way too many fascinating places to see them all. That’s why I’ve partnered with other travel bloggers to find out which sites are of the most historic and significant importance for each of these countries. I hope you’ll enjoy what we’ve put together today.
Belgium – Bruges Market Square and Belfry
Bruges (or Brugge) is deservedly one of the most popular cities to visit in Belgium. The city experienced its golden age during the late medieval period, between the 12th and 15th centuries, during which time Bruges was one of the busiest ports in the world. However, when the river channel leading into Bruges began to fill with silt, the city gradually lost its importance, along with much of its population. Soon, all that was left of the city that was once Belgium’s crown jewel were its beautiful medieval buildings. It was these historic buildings that first attracted tourists in the late 19th century, and brought new life back to the city.
At the heart of Bruges lie multiple squares, home to the most important buildings of the city, with the largest square being the Markt, or Market Square. Regular markets have been held in this square since the 10th century and are still held to this day. Surrounding the square are impressive guild houses, including the Provincial Palace, the Cloth Hall and towering above all, the Belfry.
The Belfry of Bruges is one of the most famous sites in Belgium. Belfries were a type of medieval bell tower used throughout the region of Flanders and the neighboring Duchy of Burgundy in France. Along with tolling the hours and half hours, they also served as a source of civic pride to the cities and towns, separate from the landmarks built by the church and feudal lords. Along with being an important bell tower, the Belfry of Bruges housed the city’s treasury and archives and was used as a watch tower to keep an eye out for fires and other dangers.
The Belfry in Bruges dates back to the mid 13th century. It was first built in 1240, but was heavily damaged by a fire in 1280, after which it was rebuilt. Unfortunately, the archives house inside the belfry were destroyed during that same fire. The belfry has stayed mostly the same since it was rebuilt in 1280. An octagonal top was added in the late 1400s along with a wooden spire holding an image of St. Michael holding a banner while standing atop a dragon, this addition was struck by lightning in 1493, which resulted in the destruction of the octagonal top and the belfry’s bells. Another wooden spire was added shortly thereafter, but it, too, was destroyed by fire in 1741. It wasn’t until 1822 that the Gothic stone parapet was added to the top, which has stood, undamaged, ever since.
When you visit Market Square, it’s possible to climb to the top of the Belfry of Bruges and take in a magnificent panoramic view of the city. Halfway up you’ll reach the Treasury, which is where the city’s charters, seal and public funds were kept during the Medieval period. And, at the very top, is the chamber for the bells – all 47 of them!
Even if you don’t climb the tower, the market square is one of the best places in Bruges to dine out any time of the day, or just settle for a drink, with the square these days lined with restaurants. Or just stop by one of the many gelato shops and relax by the fountain, taking in the beautiful surroundings.
Shandos Cleaver is the founder and blogger-in-chief of Travelnuity, a travel blog focused on dog-friendly travel around the world. She’s currently travelling around Europe with her Miniature Dachshund, Schnitzel, and shares about their adventures on Facebook.
Belarus – Mir Castle
Mir Castle is one of the most renowned fortifications in Belarus. Construction on what would eventually become Mir Castle took place during the early 1400s in an area which was then called the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This private estate remained in the Gedyegoldovish family for roughly 60 years before it fell into the hands of Duke Yury Ilinich. Due to political ambitions and regional hostilities, Duke Ilinich decided to build a fortress castle in what is now called the Belarusian Gothic style.
The way Mir Castle was built is unique. The five 25-foot high towers of the castle were planned as independent centers of resistance that were capable of supporting adjacent towers. Each tower was designed so that the towers next to it could deliver flanking fire to increase defensive capabilities. One construction aspect of note is that the tower walls were designed with three layers: the two outside layers are made of brick and stone while the middle layer is made up of small stones and broken bricks.
Unfortunately, neither Duke Ilinich nor any member of his family ever saw the completion of Mir Castle. Within 40 years, the entire Ilinich family was gone. Duke Ilinich’s grandson left the Mir Estate to his cousin, Prince Mikolaj Krzysztof Radziwill, in whose family the estate remained for the next three centuries. Prince Radziwill finished construction of Mir Castle by adding two three-story living quarters to the northern and eastern walls of the castle and rebuilt three of the towers. He also added a fortified gate to the entrance.
Over the centuries, Mir Castle has gone through multiple periods of grandeur and decay, as well as surviving many conflicts. Several restorations have been done over the years, but it wasn’t until 1922 that a full-scale extensive restoration was undertaken, which took 16 years. Sadly, Mir Castle was taken by the Germans during WWII and used as a ghetto for roughly 800 Jews who lived nearby. After Belarus was liberated by the Allies in July 1944, Mir Castle was used as a refuge for the hundreds of Mir residents whose homes had been destroyed during the war. The last of the families staying in the castle left in 1962 and it once again fell into disrepair.
In 1983, another extensive restoration was done on Mir Castle and it was opened to the public on December 16, 2010. Nowadays, Mir Castle is a living museum of history as well as a venue for cultural festivals and events.
Mir Castle was one of the highlights of my visit to Belarus. It has a nice lake and park on its territory, which are the most enjoyable during warm months. The entrance to the territory, parks, lake is free. To visit museums inside the castle, you need to get a ticket. One day per month (last Wednesday of the month, as a rule) there is a free entry for everyone.
Budget traveler, Eastern European, living with local people in India to explore the country from a different angle! Beyond traveling, Natalia is an events & marketing specialist by day and a blogger at My Trip Hack. Twitter: https://twitter.com/mytriphack
Albania – Ruins of Apollonia and the Church of St. Mary
Apollonia was founded in 588 BC by Greek colonists and named after the god Apollo (not very original as there were 23 other Apollonias along the Mediterranean coast). This Apollonia was the biggest and most important of them all, with a population of 60,000, a record in ancient times. Over the next 800 years, it became a major port for slaves, agriculture, pottery and asphalt. Due to the slave trade, Apollonia rose to become an important city-state: the city minting its own coins and, in 229 BC, became a Roman Protectorate. Apollonia supported Julius Caesar during the Roman Civil War of the 1st century and was rewarded with the title of “Free City,” meaning it didn’t pay tax to Rome. Under Roman rule, Apollonia also became a major centre of learning. Julius Caesar even sent his nephew Octavius, the future Emperor Augustus, to study here.
Unfortunately, an earthquake in the third century changed everything for Apollina. Due to the changed landscape from the earthquake, the course of the Vjosa river changed, causing the harbour to silt up and prevent vessels from entering. This resulted in a major downturn in trade and started the slow decline Apollonia’s importance. Over time, the silted river became a mosquito-ridden swampland, increasing the frequency of malaria outbreaks. Added to this, the social structure of the city was failing and the Goths were invading the region. Apollonia was no longer a pleasant place to live and, by 800 AD, the city was largely abandoned.
During the 9th century, after most residents had left the city, the monastery of St Mary was built by the small group of Christians who remained. in the ruins of the city and was rebuilt in the 14th century. During communist times, religion was banned, so the monastery was used to house livestock and supplies. Since the fall of communism, the Church of St. Mary was returned to its original use and the former monastery buildings were modified to house a small museum and cafe. With its ancient architecture and dim candle lit rooms, St. Mary’s is once again a place of peace.
These days Apollonia attracts not only tourists but also newlyweds who want to get their photos taken amongst the ruins. Around the site are the remains of public buildings, temples, theatres, fountains, villas and the old city walls.
If you’re looking for things to do in Albania and are interested in Ancient Greece then a day trip to Apollonia is a must.
Ron and Michele are Australians who have decided to live life with less things and have more experiences. Their blog, Legging It Travel, covers their travel experiences across more than 30 countries, which they share on their Facebook page.
Croatia – Diocletian’s Palace
Diocletian’s Palace is one of the few UNESCO Heritage Sites with residents who live, work, and play inside the palace walls. If you’ve ever wanted to experience living in history, staying in this modern community allows you to soak up the site’s history and marvel at how relevant it is for every aspect of contemporary life. Long neglected, but now undergoing a renaissance, the Palace is popular with visitors who arrive by cruise ship from other countries, ferry from the Dalmatian islands, and Croatians on holiday.
Roman Emperor Diocletian, who ruled from 284-305A.D., famously resigned his position due to declining health, wanting to spend the remainder of his days by the seaside close to where he was born. His plan was to grow tomatoes in the lovely Mediterranean setting in what is now the city of Split, Croatia, on the Dalmatian Coast. This just might be the world’s oldest surviving, upscale retirement home on the water. Constructed at the turn of the 4th century A.D., the palace complex’s residential areas, storehouses, public gathering spaces and temples were supported by a military garrison.
Abandoned for several hundred years, and then neglected during Yugoslavia’s Communist regime, the buildings are now repurposed and individual property values within the Palace walls are rising. Foreign nationals looking for an inexpensive holiday home have invested in apartments here, many of which have required restoration within the confines of protected, heritage status. Visitors will experience a bustling, yet relaxed vibe which incorporates historical heritage and clever renovations. Innovative restaurants, upscale accommodations and specialty shops are interspersed among historical squares, a circular oculus open to the sky, colonnades and arches, and ornamental entry gates designated as Gold, Silver and Iron. A stay in comfortable accommodations within the Palace walls will be a memorable experience for newcomers and returning visitors alike.
Betsy and Pete Wuebker have been location independent for six years, visiting close to 40 countries on four continents since they began traveling full-time in September, 2014. Get more information and inspiration at their blog, PassingThru, and connect with them on their Facebook page.
Kazakhstan – Mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi
Kazakhstan is certainly not a top tourist destination, the few that venture here mostly visit the area of Almaty, the only expanse of Kazakh territory that is not a flat steppe, with its beautiful alpine lakes and the gorgeous Charyn Canyon. Part of the nowadays Kazakhstan, though, was once part of the Silk Road, and a few historical sites remain, testifying to the grandeur of the Timurid Empire. In Turkestan, especially, is still possible to experience the Silk Road atmosphere, with its beautiful and chaotic bazaars, and admire the most iconic building and a national symbol of Kazakhstan: the Mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi.
The city of Turkestan, once the ancient city of Yasi, has had a long history, dating back to the 3rd millennium BC, and was a headquarter of the Timurid empire. Timur himself, leader of the Timurid people, commissioned this mausoleum in 1389, in honor of a Sufi mystic and poet named Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi, who lived during the 11th and 12th centuries. After Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi died in 1166, he was buried in a small mausoleum in Yasi, which became a pilgrimage site for Sufi Islam followers.
During Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi life, the city of Yasi was populated by Sufis, or those who follow Sufi Islam and followed Sheik Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi. In the early 13th century, Mongols invaded and settled the area. In the 1360s, the city of Yasi was conquered by the Timurid people and fell under their rule. Timur, who was also called Tamerlane, had a habit of constructing monuments for important figures in the lands he conquered in order to gain public support of his rule. In Yasi, he decided to curry public favor by creating a larger mausoleum for Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi. The architects and builders on this grand project were some of the skilled workers from other cities Timur had conquered and, to give greater honor to Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi, Timur, himself, took part in designing the mausoleum and introduced innovative architectural techniques, such as spatial arrangements, types of vaults, and the use of domes.
Sadly, construction was halted when Timur died in 1405 and never resumed. Despite being unfinished, the mausoleum has survived as one of the best-preserved of all Timurid structures, Over the years, the architectural style of the Mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi has been imitated all over Central Asia, making it the “father” of Timurid architectural style. The innovative spatial arrangements, experimental architectural solutions (mixing vault and dome constructions), and the peculiar ornamentations using glazed tiles made this building into the prototype for this distinctive style, which spread across the empire and beyond.
Thousands of pilgrims from across Central Asia visit Turkestan every year, making it one of the most visited cities in Kazakhstan. A trip to Turkestan is mandatory for those on a deep Silk Road exploration. The friendly locals will make you feel welcomed, while the typical food, more similar to the Uzbek than the Kazakh, is really worth tasting.
UNESCO recognized the Mausoleum of Khawaja Ahmed Yasawi as a World Heritage Site in 2003, the first in Kazakhstan. The admission fee is 200KZT for locals and 500KZT for foreigners (as of March 2017).
Daniele Giannotta is the co-founder of Cycloscope. Together with his partner, Elena Stefanin, they set off to cycle the world in 2014 and are still on the road, which they share about on their Instagram page.
Malta – Megalithic Ġgantija Temples
If Stonehenge and the Pyramids of Egypt excite you, then the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Megalithic Ġgantija Temples in Gozo definitely will, too! For someone who doesn’t appreciate history, it might all seem like a bunch of rocks and pillars, but these structures consist of two temples dating back to between 3600 and 3200 B.C, existing even before the invention of the wheel. According to archaeologists, the Megalithic Ġgantija Temples in Gozo are the second oldest manmade religious structures still in existence.
The temples get their name from Ġgant, the Maltese term for giants since the site had massive elements and hence were believed to be built by a race of giants centuries ago. As metal tools were not yet invented and some pillars weigh over 50 tonnes, it is quite reasonable that the Islanders would think so! An array of figurines and statues have been found which lead researchers to believe this site was used for fertility rite ceremonies. A local legend says that, centuries ago, a local giantess lived in the area and ate nothing but broad beans and honey. This giantess became pregnant by a “common man” and bore his child. This giantess built the temples of Ġgantija while her child hung on her shoulders and began worshiping there.
The grounds of Ġgantija contain three buildings. Two are temples that were completely built at one time and a third which only had a facade constructed before the site was abandoned. The oldest, and best preserved, of the three temples is believed to have been built around 3600 BC. The temples were built in a clover-leaf shape with semi-circular apses and covered roofing. All of the elements are astounding, considering these temples were built before the wheel or metal tools had been introduced to the island.
Around the site there are numerous hearths, indicating the presence of fire. Remains of animal bones were also found here. There’s also a large terrace at the front indicating it was being used for ceremonial gatherings while ritual offerings were being conducted. Little is actually known about the exact happenings at these temples. While locals knew of the temples, concrete data was never gathered from soil samples. The inhabitants apparently disappeared around 2500 BC and the cause is also unknown; however, food shortages and diseases have been suggested as possible reasons for the site being abandoned.
While residents and those who have been to the area had known about the temple ruins, it wasn’t until the 1800’s that excavations were carried out. When debris was cleared from the site in 1827, none of it was preserved to be studied and analyzed, thus losing valuable information as to what types of rituals were performed here. Another unfortunate result of the excavation was that the ruins slowly fell to decay before being properly preserved and maintained in the 1900’s. Today, the temples are presented in a considerably good state as they are enclosed by a limestone boundary wall. The use of limestone in the construction has probably helped in its preservation over time.
To make it easier for the public to view the area and keep a safe distance from the ruins, lightweight walkways were recently installed. You could opt to take a walk by yourself, as information is placed at all the important locations, or you can take part in a guided tour. There’s also an interpretation centre at the entrance helping visitors understand life during the Neolithic age. Do allocate at least an hour or two to appreciate the site!
Georgia – Historic Bathhouses
In Tbilisi, Georgia there is a district called Abanotubani which literally means ‘bath district’. This district is filled with ancient bathhouses that are an iconic part of Tbilisi’s history. The city was, in fact built, because of the sulphur springs that provide warm water to the bathhouses. There is a Georgian legend that says King Vakhtang Gorgasali was out hunting with his falcon one day and discovered the warm water of the sulphur springs. He was so impressed he demanded a city be built there. This city would later become the capital and be named after the springs: Tbilisi means “warm place.”
The Tbilisi baths were used by travellers on the silk road as well as local people, becoming a tradition of the city. Bathing is particularly popular with the elderly as sulphur is believed to help with healing, skin conditions, and joint pain. At one time, there were as many as 60 bathhouses in use but these days there are around seven. Even with the diminished number of bathhouses, the bathhouse district of Tbilisi is still a popular attraction for tourists. In 1829, Alexander Pushkin visited the bathhouses and one of them has a room named in his honor.
Over time, the Tbilisi bathhouses have been used as more than just a luxurious way to relax or as a way to loosen stiff joints. During the time when Soviet Russia occupied Georgia, heat and electricity were hard to find. To keep themselves warm during the harsh winters, locals and those passing through would congregate at the springs and the bathhouses to stay warm. Fortunately, that time has passed and locals no longer need to rely on the springs for survival. Another interesting tradition of the past was that when a woman got married, her future husband’s mother and aunts would take her to the springs to ensure she was a virgin and check for diseases and imperfections.
When visiting Tbilisi and the bathhouses, you will enjoy both the interior and the exterior. The domed roofs are an interesting spot to wander and beneath the surface are some luxurious bathing rooms. People can hire a private room to relax in and even enjoy a traditional scrub and massage on a concrete slab. It costs between $20-50 for one hour that will leave you feeling fresh and relaxed.
Many of the bathhouses have been restored and feature beautiful tile work. Aside from the private bathhouses, there is also one public bathhouse still in use. Between the bathhouses runs the sulphur river which visitors can walk down to and follow along to a beautiful waterfall and the Tbilisi Botanical Gardens.
Rohan of Travels of a Bookpacker is currently travelling from Germany to New Zealand, the long way. She blogs about budget, long-term travel and great books and libraries she finds along the way and shares all her finds on her Facebook page!
Armenia – Echmiadzin Monastery
Echmiadzin is a UNESCO World heritage site in the small town of Vagharshapat, formerly Echmiadzin. The complex consists of a cathedral, The Holy Echmiadzin, and a monastery. The Holy Echmiadzin is believed to have been built between 301 and 303 AD by Gregory the Illuminator after Armenia adopted Christianity, replacing the pagan temple that had once stood there. It is unknown when the monastery was built, though it is believed to have been built some time after the cathedral, not at the same time.
The Holy Echmiadzin Cathedral and Armenia played an important role in the World Christian history. Armenia was the first country that officially became Christian in 301 AD and Echmiadzin Cathedral is considered to be the oldest Christian cathedral in the world. For the Armenian nation, this cathedral has been a religious centre since the day it was built, though with intermittent periods of neglect over the centuries.
The history of where Vagharshapat now stands dates back to 3000 BC, though not much is known other than the area was inhabited at that time. The earliest known name of the area was Artimed, in honor of the Greek god Artemis. The city of Vagharshapat was born in 685 BC when Prince Vardges founded a settlement that he called Avan Vardgesi. During the first century AD, the city was renamed Vagharshapat and it became the the capital of Armenia a century later. After Armenia adopted Christianity as the official state religion, the city was called Ejmiatsin, or Echmiadzin, but it eventually went back to being called Vagharshapat.
Christianity was adopted in 301 AD and, soon after, it was decided a cathedral needed to be built. The place for the cathedral was chosen after St Gregory saw a beam of light falling from the sky and creating a divine vision of a future cathedral right there. The original 4th century cathedral was built from wood, though the original design has been disputed. Some scholars assert it had three naves and a vaulted basilica while others assert it was a rectangle with four interior pillars supporting a dome and yet others believe it was shaped like a cross with a canopy overhead. We may never know what it looked like because Persians invaded during the 360s and decimated the cathedral. It was only partially rebuilt due to the financial constraints of the church, the city, and the country. Armenia was dissolved in 428 and rule of the city fell to the Sasanians, who, in 450, built a fire temple inside Echmiadzin Cathedral in an attempt to impose their religion on the Armenians. Rule of Armenia eventually went back to the Armenians and the interior of Echmiadzin Cathedral was rebuilt in 483 AD using stone. This is when scholars believe it was shaped like a cruciform. The only features that weren’t added at this time were the three bell towers. These were added in the 17th and 18th centuries.
While always being important to the Armenian people, Echmiadzin Cathedral has gone through periods of neglect and decay. The only known renovations of the cathedral were done in 618. Over time, the cathedral deteriorated and items of importance were stolen, such as the cathedral cross that was taken by an Arab emir in 982. In 1441, Catholicos Kirakos restored the cathedral, but the cathedral was again damaged. Due to the conflicts between Persia and Ottoman Turkey, Armenia was routinely plundered. Etchmiadzin was ransacked in 1604 and the cathedral was damaged. The most important stones of the cathedral, the altar, and the right arm of Gregory the Illuminator were moved to Iran in an attempt to dissuade Armenians from returning to their homes.
In 1627, the dome, roof, foundations, pavings, and ceiling of Echmiadzin Cathedral were repaired along with other structures being built around the cathedral. An exterior wall with towers was also built to provide greater security for the cathedral. The interior of the cathedral got some changes in the 18th century when floral ornaments and 120 frescos with portraits of saints and apostles were added to the wall.
It’s difficult to overestimate the meaning of Echmiadzin for Armenia and the whole Christian world. Aside from being the oldest Christian cathedral in the world, this cathedral is home to ancient relics that are invaluable to Christianity: the Holy Lance, relics belonging to John the Baptist, and a fragment of Noah’s Ark. In 2001, when Armenia celebrated 1700 years since becoming a Christian country, Pope John Paul II brought back the relics of St. Gregory that were kept in Florence for about 500 years and placed them back in Echmiadzin Cathedral.
Campbell & Ayla describe Stingy Nomads as an adventurous budget couple travel blog or just Awesome Travel blog, at least we believe so, where you can get inspiration, find money saving tips and travel ideas for your next adventure. You can follow their adventures on their Facebook page.
Finland – Suomenlinna Fortress
The island of Suomenlinna, off the coast of Helsinki, makes a pleasant half-day excursion from the capital. In the summer, there are 2 ways to reach the island from the Helsinki kauppatori (market square) – a 5-euro ferry which takes you to the main quay on the north side in 15 minutes, and a 7-euro seabus which sails to the imposing King’s Gate at the southern end. Tip: Don’t forget to look back at the Helsinki skyline from the water!
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Suomenlinna was built by the Swedes as a naval fortress in 1748 when Finland was part of the Swedish kingdom. The fortress complex was set up as individual fortresses on each of the six islands with a naval dockyard in the very center. Soldiers lived in the vaults of the fortress, initially, while officers lived in specially-built quarters built into the landscape and based on a baroque cityscape style. Officers created oil paintings along the walls, which give a view as to what life was like during the fortress’s construction. When the grand fortress complex was complete, it was thought nothing could get past it.
Suomenlinna Fortress wasn’t terribly effective, however, at keeping the Russians out or even managing repairs on their own fleet and personnel. During the Russo-Swedish War, the Russian fleet blockaded Suomenlinna Fortress and prevented the Swedish fleet and supply ships from reaching the islands. This happened more than once. Later, Alexander I and Napoleon got Russia to go after Sweden again. After taking over the country in the 19th century and taking control of the fortress, the Russians added to the fortifications and extended the dockyards. Another result of the Russian occupation was that Finland was separated from Sweden and became an autonomous grand duchy within Russia.
The fortress last saw action during the Crimean War, where it managed to repel the attack of the Anglo-French fleet while sustaining heavy damage. Suomenlinna was restored after the war and new placements for artillery were added around the edges of the island. There were fears of seeing war again at Suomenlinna during WWI when Peter the Great created a naval fortification of St. Petersburg out of the surrounding islands, but the war never reached that far. In 1917, following the Russian Revolution, Finland became in independent nation and Suomenlinna was made part of that country.
Today, Suomenlinna is still home to the Finnish Naval Academy, but it’s largely a tourist attraction (and one of Helsinki’s most popular too). Most of the military architecture, which earned the site its heritage status, is still present and can be explored. The visitor centre is right in the middle of the island and tells the history of the fortress in film, scale models and photographic panels. History buffs may want to learn more about Finland’s military past at the military museum and in the submarine Vesikko.
For the rest of us, Suomenlinna can be perfectly treated as a park in the middle of the sea and a retreat from the city. The gentle terrain makes the island easy to walk and the paths are generally smooth enough for strollers. Besides the great overgrown stone walls and cannons that make for wonderful photos, there are pretty merchant houses from the 19th Century that are worth checking out. In summer, lilac blossoms perfume the air and make al fresco dining at the island’s restaurants a pleasant experience.
Italy – Ostia Antica
Ostia Antica is one of the most incredible ruins anywhere. It is frequently called the “other Pompeii” for the extent of the preservation at the site. Unlike Pompeii, which was buried under the ash of Mount Vesuvius and now receives millions of visitors, Ostia Antica was just abandoned. And it has been left largely ignored by most visitors to Italy.
The community at Ostia Antica is believed to have been Rome’s first colony. While Rome sits inland on the Tiber River, Ostia Antica was the original Roman port city and was right on the coast. The Roman Navy was based here for several centuries. However, after centuries of silt building up and extending the coast, Ostia Antica is now located a few kilometers inland – and it is perfectly preserved.
Not much is known about Ostia Antica, but it is believed that Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome, established Ostia Antica after destroying the nearby non-Roman town of Ficana. An inscription confirms Ostia Antica existed in the 7th century BC, but the oldest archaeological evidence only goes back to the 4th century BC and the oldest buildings date from the 3rd century BC.
Of the few things that are known of this town, historians know of a civil war between Gaius Marius and Sulla in 87 BC. Then, in 68 BC, pirates sacked Ostia Antica, set the port on fire, destroyed the war fleet, and kidnapped two senators. Rome responded by sending an army to destroy the pirates. When the city was rebuilt, Marcus Cicero paid for protective walls to be placed roundabout. Later, Julius Caesar established a new route for grain by using Ostia Antica’s harbor. In the 1st century AD, Tiberius built the town first Forum and later a new harbor by Emperor Claudius. Over time, the city built a public toilet, a theater, public baths, taverns, inns, firefighting services, a synagogue, and a lighthouse.
During the 2nd century AD, the new harbor was encircled by silt and a new harbor had to be built further away. Nearby, Civitavecchia had their own harbor, which took some of Ostia Antica’s commercial business. Both of these are believed to have contributed to Ostia Antica’s decline. At the peak of the city’s existence in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, there were roughly 100,000 people living there. Towards the end of the 3rd century, Ostia Antica’s port was no longer active and the city became more of a vacation destination for the wealthy and no longer a bustling commercial town. The ports are recorded as not being actively maintained as early as 414 AD.
Eventually, the town was abandoned during the 9th century. It is assumed the combination of commercial decline and invasions by Arab pirates led to Ostia Antica being abandoned for good.
Walking into Ostia Antica is like walking back in time into an abandoned city. Visitors are free to walk through the site among the statues and across the original frescoed floors. Ostia Antica dates from the 4th Century BC, but it is absolutely timeless. Within the site, statues, baths, temples and even a theater are well preserved and completely recognizable. All of the buildings are completely open to explore.