More than Italy
The Roman Empire was a sprawling beast that left its mark on three continents, which then was the whole known world. It’s legacy of forts, temples, mosaics and towns draw tourists of all kinds, from history buffs to those looking for the perfect Instagram picture.
Some locations are extremely busy (see: the Colosseum in Rome), but one benefit of the enormous stretch of their Empire is that there are impressive Roman ruins spread all over the place, often in places the non-Roman specialist would find surprising.
Here’s a quick run down of the some the best lesser-visited sites, and why else you might visit the area.
Pula is a small seaside town on the Istrian peninsula in north-eastern Croatia, and happens to also contain one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world. As this articles featured image (courtesy of Tim Bounds) shows, it still has a complete outer circuit of walls, which to the layman is the most impressive part of any amphitheatre.
Over 2,000 years old, the Arena still dominates its surroundings, and occasionally still hosts concerts and plays. There’s also a large network of underground tunnels still accessible, showing how theatrical tricks would have been performed to the 23,000-strong audiences.
There’s still a smattering of other Roman delights through the city, from the Triumphal arch pictured above, to the almost perfect Temple of Augustus.
Other Reasons to Visit
Pula is a beautiful city in a beautiful location. A large harbour, views across the Adriatic to the islands of Brijuni, sunshine and a mix of Roman and Venetian architecture. It’s also been a wine making region for centuries, so if you just want to slouch about on holiday, eating fresh fish, drinking good wine and enjoying sweet gelato, Pula is perfect. The Roman ruins are right in the city centre, making it a very low effort break for the casual historian.
For those who like to do a bit more, it’s really the area around Pula that has more to offer. Yes, there’s a fort to explore, and some museums about the local region, but really you need to get in a boat and go to the islands of Brijuni. These islands are nature reserves, and well worth a day to explore. You can take to nature for the whole day, explore the archaeological sites, or visit Tito’s old house from when Brijuni was his personal holiday home.
A 40 minute bus ride will also take you to nearby Rovinja which is a lovely village surrounded by water, with buildings that go straight down to the sea, and a church on the hilltop modelled on St Mark’s in Venice.
Finally, you can also get a ferry over the Adriatic to Venice. These only run in the high season, but are timed so you can pop in for a day trip to Venice, have about 6 hours there and then come back. Of course, staying longer is always a thoroughly recommended option.
Train options are very limited, Pula station only really being connected to local stations, even Zagreb being 2 changes away.
Pula airport is only 6km from the city, and has connections to London, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, East Midlands, Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool and Doncaster.
Salamis, North Cyprus
A city that the Romans inherited from the Greeks, there’s definitely influences from both cultures in Salamis, and calling it a Roman city might not be completely accurate. But they were there from the 1st century BC, and was heavily restored and improved in the first two centuries AD, so a lot of what is left is Roman. And there is a lot left.
Salamis has two main drawbacks- it has no stunningly complete buildings to draw people in, and it’s not easy to get to. However, both of these things means you can go there and have an entire Roman city to yourself. There may not be a massive amphitheatre or palace, but it is both expansive and full of little details. Tucked behind an unimpressive crumbling wall might be a pristine mosaic floor, still bursting with colour. At the end of a long row of headless statues, you might come across one whose face is so perfect you feel it must have only been captured days ago.
The city was substantially rebuilt in the 4th century, following an earthquake, then abandoned in the 7th century following another series of them, which is why there are no entirely complete buildings.
For those who want Roman legions and barracks, this might not be the spot for you. This is thoroughly domestic Roman life, with houses, fora, mosaics and fountains dominating. Salamis provides a hauntingly ghost-like image of life in the provincial Roman empire.
Other reasons to visit
Given North Cyprus’ delicate international situation (briefly, it’s occupied by the Turkish and not recognised by most of the international community), it’s a very quiet place in terms of tourist numbers. If you want Mediterranean beaches, Byzantine ruins and dusty streets with old men playing backgammon all to yourself, this is the place to do it. Just make sure you are aware of the politics and make your decision to visit accordingly.
Famagusta/Gazimağusa (all places in North Cyprus have a Greek and Turkish name) is a mostly 16th century walled city which conjures up a past of Venetian merchants, knights on their way to the crusades and fierce naval battles. It’s the closest big place to Salamis, being about a 20 minute drive away, and definitely worth at least a day of your time, and don’t forget to sit down and enjoy a lazy Turkish coffee in the afternoon.
St Barnabas Church is very close to Salamis, although again not really close to anything else. It is supposed to hold the body of St Barnabas, who came back to his native Cyprus with Paul to preach Christianity. He was stoned to death at Salamis in 61AD, and buried in a secret location with the gospel of Matthew on his chest. In 478AD, the archbishop of Salamis had a dream that Barnabas showed him where he was buried. When they dug up the location they found a body with the gospel of Matthew on his chest. These bones are now in a tiny chapel nearby. As St Barnabas is seen as the founder of the Cypriot church it’s a very important spot locally.
North Cyprus as a whole is not that easy to get to. You can either fly into Larnaca airport in Cyprus and cross the border by taxi or hire car, or you can fly into Ercan airport in North Cyprus having arrived via Istanbul.
If you want to holiday in Cyprus, day trips to Salamis and Famagusta are run from Aiya Napa.
If staying in North Cyprus, you will need a car or a taxi to get to Salamis, and Famagusta is by far the closest town to stay in.
Hadrian’s Wall, UK
It’s no good trying to pretend that Hadrian’s Wall is a spectacular Roman ruin. It’s small (in height, at least), it’s grey, it’s in the north of England instead of the sunny Mediterranean- in short it has seemingly little going for it. But there is so much charm to this far-flung outpost of the Roman empire.
Firstly, if you have time to walk the length of it, you can cross an entire country, from coast to coast. The 84 mile walk can be done in about a week, but you don’t need to walk the whole thing to enjoy it.
Secondly, there is more here than just the wall. The wall was the last line of the empire, holding back the unruly Picts in Scotland, so there are plenty of military barracks along the route. The best of these is Vindolanda. Again, on the surface it doesn’t look like much, having been reduced to the classic series of small walls. However, the finds they have uncovered here are revelatory, and give insight into the daily life and thoughts of the regular Roman soldier, albeit one posted in the coldest and loneliest stations he could be.
There are also a few villas along the way, and a Temple of Mithras. Mithras is a fascinating figure, being originally an Indo-Iranian god that found popularity among Roman soldiers and was spread throughout Europe as a result.
Other Reasons to Visit
While the north of England may not match the sunniness of some other locations in this list, it is a striking and pleasant landscape the wall crosses, with dramatic hill top viewpoints, sturdy roadside pubs and small English villages to enjoy.
Undoubtedly the best thing to do on a trip to this region is hire a car, drive the small country lanes, visit some small villages and some big towns and just enjoy the region. Carlisle, Hexham and Newcastle are all close by the route, and Whitley Bay on the East coast is a breezy but attractive spot to have a post-walk ice cream.
Train is an excellent option for getting about. Both Carlisle and Newcastle are well connected to the rest of the UK, being about 3 to 4 hours from London. Then there is also a rail line connecting the two, so you can hop off at one station en route, and hop on another when you’re done with walking.
If flying in, Newcastle airport is definitely the closest.
Hiring a car is a very pleasant way to get about as well, with tourist sites being very well signposted, and many villages not being connected to public transport.
From one outpost to another, Jerash was one of the eastern-most cities in the Roman empire, sitting in modern-day Jordan. It is a supremely well-preserved city, and covers a massive area. It also includes the best-preserved hippodrome from the Roman Empire, although it does also happen to be the smallest.
Hadrian visited here in 130AD, and a monumental gateway was built to commemorate the event, which still provides the impressive entrance to the park now. From Hadrian’s Wall on the soggy border of Scotland to Hadrian’s arch in the deserts of Jordan, it really helps drive home just how big this empire was.
You can easily spend a whole day exploring here, and it’s even easy to become a bit blasé about it, there’s just so many outstanding things to see. Temples, fora, administrative buildings, theatres, the hippodrome, it really does feel endless.
There are also chariot racing displays put on twice a day, which help bring it all back to life.
Other Reasons to Visit
Jordan has so much to offer it’s hard to know where to start. Amman is only a 90 minute drive to the south, and has its own share of Roman ruins, along with a buzzing cafe culture and some excellent souks to shop in.
Of course, there’s also Petra further south, the rock city carved by the Nabatean traders between 400BC and 100AD, as well as the beauty of the desert in places like Wadi Rum, and the many Crusader castles dotted around the hilltops.
The other feature of Jordanian tourism is Christian sites. It has the site of the baptism of Jesus, the ruins of King Herod’s palace, the cave that Lot sheltered in after fleeing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and Moses hilltop burial site, overlooking Israel, among others.
Amman is the best airport to fly into for Jerash. You can either hire a car and drive out to the site, take a bus or go on a day trip from the capital. The buses leave from the North Bus Terminal in Amman when they’re full.
Germany is not a place people often think of the Romans as reaching, but along its southern and western edges, they did indeed settle and build. Trier, so far West it’s almost in Luxembourg, was built by the Romans in the 1st century BC and is one a few places fighting it out for the title of Germany’s oldest city.
There are several remarkable Roman structures in the city, all within easy walking distance of each other, as well as a large portion of the city museum being devoted to its Roman past.
The most impressive Roman building in Trier is undoubtedly the Porta Nigra. While it stands today completely intact, it has an unusual conservation history. It was the North gate of the city, and by the 11th century, the boundary gates of the city were no longer required, and they were being pillaged for stone. The three other gates succumbed to this, but after a hermit that had lived in the Porta Nigra died and was beatified, a monastery was built next to the gate and, in order to save it from further destruction, the gate itself was converted into a church.
After Napoleon dissolved many of the churches in Trier in the 1800s, he persuaded not to demolish the Porta Nigra but revert it back to its original form.
As well as the gate, there are three Roman baths in the city, the most grand being the Imperial Baths. There’s also a Roman bridge, an amphitheatre (although not as intact or grand as others from this list) and the Basilica of Constantine. This is actually the largest extant hall from antiquity, and was the Throne room for the Western Roman Emperor although the outside of the building has changed much since its original Roman form.
In total there are 9 Roman UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Trier, making Germany a surprisingly strong contender for Roman tourism. There is also a Roman festival held once a year, with gladiator fights and events throughout the city to celebrate and educate about its Roman heritage.
Other Reasons to Visit
Trier city centre itself is a picture-book medieval German town, with gaily coloured buildings and expansive market squares.
The birth place of Karl Marx is in the town, which has a small museum covering both his life and his ideas.
Trier also has a Christmas market, meaning you could mix your Roman history with some real German tradition.
The closest airport is actually Luxembourg, and there is a direct train from Luxembourg Centraal to Trier, but with getting from the airport to the bus station, the journey could take up to 3 hours. By renting a car at the airport, you could be there in about 45 minutes.
Frankfurt Hahn, is also close by, with a few buses a day, taking just over a hour.
Finally, Frankurt Airport proper is three hours away by train, with a change in Koblenz.
Another location on the fringes of the empire, Volubilis was only a Roman city for about 300 years. They took over and rapidly developed the previous Berber settlement in the 1st century BC, and then it fell to local tribes in 285AD.
The city was neglected but in good shape until an earthquake in the 18th century, and even today it’s only partially excavated. There’s a few buildings, columns and a wonderful triumphal arch, but the best thing is the mosaics that are still there. In fact, most of the sites are simply named after the mosaics they contain.
The main thing you will get from this site is peace. You’ll be able to wander the town and really send yourself back in time. It’s not just lack of other visitors, but also the lack of other buildings around. The ruins sit surrounded by farmland and hills and it’s easy to forget you’re not a Roman yourself.
Other Reasons to Visit
Volubilis really is just the Roman ruins, but the nearby (very small) city of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun is definitely worth your time. Visited usually as a day trip from Meknes, this small place is the holiest Islamic site in Morocco. It was here that Moulay Idriss I arrived in 789AD and formed the state of Morocco. He is buried here, although in a site only accessible to Muslims, and is seen as the father of Shiism in Morocco.
There are also some usable Roman baths nearby, which can be visited in a 1 hour circular hike.
Meknes is the nearest big place, and it has everything you want from a Moroccan city- palaces, mosques, madrassas and gateways.
This one isn’t easy to get to. Firstly, you need to get to Meknes, which is best done by flying into Fez from London and getting a train in.
Then, the only option that is simple is if you are happy to get a taxi from Meknes for the day. This will probably cost around £40, but you never know until you haggle.
If you’d rather do it the locals way, you can get a Grand Taxi or a bus from outside the Institute Francaise. The Grand Taxi will cost about 150MAD and the bus (number 15) only 10MAD. These will both take you to the town of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun.
From there, you can either walk about 5km to Volubilis, pay for a private taxi (about 40MAD) or hitch-hike. There is also a hotel in town that offers bike and donkeys for the route.
Looking over the Straits of Corfu is the archaeological nature reserve of Butrint. It’s 29km large, although the main sections will only take you a couple of hours to explore.
It shouldn’t really come as a surprise to find Roman ruins in Albania, just over the border from Greece, but many Western Europeans seem to have a blind spot around the Balkans and any pre-communist or sometimes pre-Ottoman history. After WWI and the creation of an independent Albania, Butrint was in fact Greek for a while, before the Italians appealed and had it awarded to Albania instead.
Butrint was initially a Greek city, allegedly founded by the Helenus, a son of the last King of Troy. He was the twin brother of the prophet Cassandra, and had been taught the gift of prophecy by her.
In 31BC, after Emperor Augustus’ defeat of Anthony and Cleopatra, he proclaimed Butrint to be a veteran’s colony, and in that era the size of the city doubled.
This site is such a lovely, green spot. You can wander in the woods, shaded by the trees, and being a nature reserve means it is also excellent for animal and bird spotting. It’s quite a contrast to the more desert based sites on this list.
Other Reasons to Visit
Burint itself is rather isolated, a definite place for a day trip rather than somewhere to stay by itself. However, it is only 9 miles south of Sarande, the unofficial capital of the Albanian riviera, and the place that Albanians traditional honeymoon.
The rapidly developing Albanian coastline may be starting to have a few too many beachside hotel complexes, but there’s no denying the old towns and the sandy beaches are still very attractive.
Just above Sarande is a ruined castle, with panoramic views over the town and out to sea to Corfu. A restaurant in the castle can get quite busy at sunset.
There are a couple of options for getting to Sarande. The first is to fly into Tirana and get a 6 hour bus ride to Sarande. Timetables can be found at www.gjirafa.com. The bus station in Tirana is not always easy to find- look out for the roundabout with the Eagle on it to the north east of the city. It can be found on google maps once you know which station you are looking for.
There are also trips in high season run by Riviera Bus. They are more expensive than the public buses, but are more luxurious mini buses. They run to a set schedule and it’s worth booking in advance.
The other option is to fly into Corfu and take a ferry from just outside Corfu Town to Sarande. The ferry takes between 35 and 65 minutes depending on which company you book with, and there are as many as 6 sailings a day. Many people will visit Butrint on a day trip from Corfu.
From Sarande, there are buses once an hour to Butrint. The timetable can vary, but they more or less between 9 and 5, so do not stay too late unless you want to have to arrange a taxi or hitch-hike back.