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The best historical places to visit in Europe

Whittling down a list of the best historical sites in Europe isn’t easy. There are Megalithic temples and Bronze Age forts, Ancient Greek theatres and Roman villas, medieval castles and Venetian palaces – and that’s just for starters.

By Laura Weeden

Published 24 June 2024

Ancient Greek Delphi Temple

This is a continent that holds tight to its heritage, protecting and preserving as much as possible. If you’re into history or archaeology (or both), mark these spots on your must-visit map and prepare to travel back in time.

Colosseum, Roman Forum & Palatine Hill

Rome, Italy

Forget Europe – the Colosseum is hands-down one of the most beautiful historical sites in the world. Built between 72-80 AD and originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, it’s seen clashes between beasts and gladiators, been flooded for staged naval battles, held artisan workshops and even been a place of worship.

The Colosseum in Rome is one of the most beautiful historical sites in the world

The Colosseum in Rome is one of the most beautiful historical sites in the world

Two thousand years later, its grand arches (carved with Roman numerals, to help people find their seats) are remarkably well-preserved on the north side. Admire its scale and grandeur from afar, then head inside to tread those famous travertine stone steps and peer down into the hypogeum, the warren of below-ground chambers and alleyways that would have once held slaves, animals and gladiators.

Just around the corner from the Colosseum is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Here, you’ll discover a wonderful assortment of buildings and monuments – palaces, temples, basilicas, arches – from the time when Rome was the powerhouse of Europe.

Palace of Knossos

Crete, Greece

One of the most powerful remains of the Minoan civilisation, the Palace of Knossos is a must for anyone with an interest in the past.

Our archaeology holidays always include expert guides at the sites we visit, and here, you’ll get a fascinating insight into the various layers that make up this colossal structure.

The Palace of Knossos on Crete

The Palace of Knossos on Crete

Spreading across 22,000 square metres, more than a thousand rooms, halls and passages have been uncovered so far – it’s not hard to imagine Theseus roaming through the labyrinthine corridors in his quest to defeat the Minotaur.

Palace of Diocletian

Split, Croatia

Next up on our list of historical sites in Europe: UNESCO-listed Diocletian’s Palace, in the Croatian seaside city of Split.

It was built for the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 3rd century, as a lavish retirement villa. Over the centuries, houses, churches and chapels were added, turning the palace into something of a mini-city.

The Palace of Diocletian was built as a retirement villa for Roman Emperor Diocletian

The Palace of Diocletian was built as a retirement villa for Roman Emperor Diocletian

The architecture is remarkable in itself, but it’s also fascinating to see how modern life has entwined into the walls of this ancient palace – cafes, bars and souvenir shops are now squeezed into these old stone structures, and there’s often live music and theatre performances in the courtyards.

Ephesus

Near Izmir, Turkey

The city of Ephesus was once a buzzing metropolis and the capital of Asia Minor. It was the location of the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, though little remains of the temple today.

Although it dates back much earlier, the majority of Ephesus’s highlights are from its Roman era, including the magnificent Celsus Library, the Gate of Augustus and the Temple of Hadrian.

Ephesus used to be a buzzing metropolis

Ephesus used to be a buzzing metropolis

Other impressive sites include the Great Theatre, crafted from marble during the Hellenistic period and extended under the reign of the Romans, and the Basilica of St John.

Minorca’s Talaiotic sites

Balearic Islands, Spain

Minorca might not be an obvious choice for our shortlist of historical places in Europe. But there are actually some truly fascinating sites on this little Balearic isle.

Delving into Minorca’s Talaiotic (or Talayotic) culture is a fascinating glimpse back in time, introducing you to an aspect of Minorca very few tourists will know about.

The beautiful island of Minorca includes several fascinating sites

The beautiful island of Minorca includes several fascinating sites

The collection of Talaiotic sites scattered across the island has been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status – it’s one of the largest collections of prehistoric archaeological sites in the world. Some of the standout sites include Torrelafuda, with its burial chambers, stone dwellings and crumbled settlement wall, and Torre d’en Galmes, where you’ll see circular houses, a typical central courtyard and an underground water cistern (there’s also a brilliant visitor centre here).

Pompeii

Naples, Italy

You likely know the story of Pompeii already: a Roman summer resort, buried in ash after the mighty eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. But to visit it in person gives you a different perspective than you’ll gain from books alone.

Pompeii was buried in ash in 79 AD

Pompeii was buried in ash in 79 AD

You’ll stroll along the carefully excavated streets, still marked with ruts from chariot wheels. Looking into villas, bathhouses and even brothels(!), you can really start to build a picture of what daily life was like here. Many of the frescoes and mosaics are in remarkable condition – it’s well worth having a guide to unlock the meaning behind these ancient creations.

One thing to bear in mind when you’re visiting Pompeii is that there’s very little shade. You’ll want to spend a decent amount of time there, so bring a hat or parasol and plenty of water with you.

Olympia

Peloponnese, Greece

While the Acropolis of Athens tends to steal the spotlight a little (it is a beauty), if it’s archaeology you’re into, Olympia is one of the best ancient Greek sites.

While famous for being the birthplace of the Olympic Games (held here for more than a thousand years – you can just imagine the roars of the crowd as you stand in the 45,000-seater stadium), the history of Olympia traces back to prehistoric times. Set in the ‘Valley of the Gods’ in the Peloponnese, it soon became one of Greece’s most sacred sites and was a centre for the worship of Zeus in the 10th century BC.

Olympia is one of the best ancient Greek sites

Olympia is one of the best ancient Greek sites

As well as being one of the best historical sites in Europe, it’s also home to one of the most interesting archaeological museums, which displays all sorts of statues, ceramics and artefacts found locally, including some incredible creations that once decorated the Temple of Zeus.


Browse our collection of special interest archaeology holidays, each led by an expert in their field.

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