If you’ve been reading for a while, you’ll know that I simply adore ruins. It’s so fascinating to witness the evidence of the passage of time through something so carefully constructed being torn back down to its elements by the sheer force of nature. This juxtaposition of structure turned chaos is beautiful in its unique way, and I can’t get enough of it. If you share in my affinity for the elegance of decay, you’ll love these amazing ruins found all across Europe.
If you’ve ever been to the UK, you’ve likely heard of the town of Bath, a popular day-trip from London. My performing arts group visited here during a summer school trip to London, and Aaron and I returned when we were staying in Bristol.
I honestly didn’t remember much from it, so the visit to the ancient baths was mostly new to me. I appreciated the audio guides that let us tour at our own pace, and yes, we sampled the mineral water (an odd taste, but not that bad). This one makes the list mostly for the history (and the fact that we could visit a real spa afterwards)!
We instantly fell in love with the quaint German streets, the beautiful views from the Philosopher’s Way, and – of course – the remnants of the castle overlooking it all. Home to the largest wine barrel in the world, there was plenty to explore within the castle and around the grounds. Just be sure that if you visit here, you don’t pass up the opportunity to take the funicular all the way to the top!
Some ruins are in better condition than others. Sham Castle, in Bath, UK, is still in really decent shape! In fact, it isn’t really much of a ruin. But it is really cool in that it falls under the classification of a very unique type of architecture: a folly.
This “castle” is really nothing more than a facade. There is no interior, no other walls or ramparts.. no actual castle. It is entirely decorative. But that’s what makes it so fun to visit!
St. Dunstan’s in the East
We sort of stumbled upon St. Dunstan’s in the East while looking for unique free things to do in London, UK. This old church is easy enough to miss, and it looks pretty ordinary from the street. However, once you draw close, you’ll discover a beautiful garden worked into the stone remnants.
Complete with a peaceful courtyard and fountain, with walls draped in greenery, it looked like the perfect place for a picnic or for meeting up with friends.
Istanbul, Turkey has some remarkable history, not least of which the siege that ultimately led to the fall of the Byzantine empire. Because of the positioning of Ottoman troops along the critical artery to the city – the Bosphorus – invading forces were able to throttle the city and bring it to its knees.
One of the pivotal fortresses was the Rumeli Hisari on the European side. Now mostly a shell, it was a joy to explore its many tiers on the hillside. Today, it contains a mosque (with regular calls to prayer), and it has an amphitheater that’s used as a venue for local concerts. And bonus! It comes with cats!
After a rainy introduction to Northern Ireland, we were excited to secure a rental car and explore some of the northern coast. Our first stop was the old mansion of Downhill Demesne. It has no roof, and lush grass has long replaced any flooring, but placards hint at what the structure might have looked like in its prime.
We additionally loved this ruin because of the temple on the edge of the property. Used as a library, this unassuming dome used to have enough land surrounding it to allow a horse and cart to circumnavigate it. Now, the Irish storms have beaten the cliffside back enough to threaten the temple, itself.
We can’t really talk ruins without mentioning one of the most famous: the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Almost obligatory, we couldn’t visit Italy without at least a couple days in Rome. Unfortunately, they were mostly rainy. We had only one decent day to visit the ancient Roman ruins – which of course wasn’t anywhere near enough time.. especially when we wasted half the day just trying to find where we were supposed to purchase tickets! Word to the wise: get into one of the lines either to the Colosseum or the Forum (we recommend the latter because it usually has a shorter line), and buy the tickets at the gate.
This enormous arena has a lot to explore – even more if you pay for one of the higher-priced tours. We couldn’t believe this cavern used to have an actual floor upon which the battles took place, and what used to be stairs to the upper levels are now worn down to nondescript ramps.
Pair castle ruins with Northern Ireland beauty, and you have a really cool place to visit! Sitting right on the cliff’s edge, Dunluce Castle affords luxurious views of the sea cliffs and of the rolling green hills. I’d love to have these views out my bedroom window if I wasn’t worried about my bedroom falling into the ocean!
We even met some fellow Portlanders there, which just put a cherry on top of the day!
Believe it or not, we actually enjoyed roaming the Roman Forum more than we did the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. Sadly, though, we ran out of time, and we were forced to exit after having explored only half of this massive site. Roman columns abound, and we even wound our way through snaking underground passes. We could glean hints of the former Roman empire’s glory through the ruined buildings and magnificent restored halls all along the perimeter.
We’ll certainly return and give this area its due attention. It deserves a day all by itself!
Fans of Game of Thrones, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to walk the grounds of Meereen during our visit to Split, Croatia. This old fortress, perched upon a razor-thin ridge, served as a formidable defense throughout various empires. It has a history spanning more than two thousand years, though its current structure dates back to the 17th century.
We loved the ruin of Klis Fortress because there was so much to explore throughout the various levels. And we had it almost entirely to ourselves during the off-season! The views were fantastic. And our inner geeks could picture Khaleesi roaming the grounds and freeing slaves.
Perhaps the most famous ruin in the world, Stonehenge has been the source of much mystery over the years. Why was it built? How did the massive stones arrive to where they are now? Was it a site for ritual? Astronomy?
Sadly, this has become a really popular tourist attraction, and they highly regulate and restrict access now. However, this does not diminish its incredible nature. We took the free option for viewing it, which meant we were a bit farther away than ticket-holders, but we enjoyed it all the same… and we even caught a harvest moon there!
Fortress of St. John
The Fortress of St. John was another off-season discovery. Also known as the Castle of San Giovanni, it rules over the cat capital of Kotor, Montenegro. This ruin makes you really work to reach it. 1350 steps stand between the town of Kotor below and the fortress at the summit, but with magnificent views of this gorgeous country and purring cats to greet you all along the way, each one is worth it!
We happened to time this perfectly – both seasonally and temporally. Evidently, the turnstiles are closed during the winter, allowing free access to the site. We were pleased to save the 16 euro, though the fee is worth it even if you do have to pay (however, there’s another entrance the locals use that bypasses the gate and fee during peak season as well). And though the late afternoon climb was warmer than it might have been in the morning (though it was still winter, so even peak temperatures were mild), we reached the summit just in time to watch the sun fall on the city, making for spectacular photos!
We had plenty to explore here, especially within the “increased danger” zone. And if you do visit, be sure to look back upon the hillside after dark to see the illuminated ruin above the city.
Quinta da Regaleira
We almost missed this one, entirely, and we only had an hour to enjoy it. The Quinta da Regaleira is a palace that sits in Sintra, Portugal. Often overshadowed by its much more colorful sister, this site should not be overlooked!
Amidst sprawling gardens sprinkled with stone Greek gods, the palace appears to grow straight out of the ground. While we didn’t have time to explore the Gothic main house, we couldn’t leave without descending the Initiation Well – meant to symbolize the circular descent in Dante’s Inferno.
However, when we reached the bottom, we only found wonder in the network of caves that led to other surprise exits throughout the property. The best one – by far – takes visitors behind waterfalls to the edge of a green lake. Only surface stones permit crossing from there, and it made us feel like we were in a magical hidden garden.
I could feel at home amidst the ponds and worldly foliage, and I was so sad to leave, our visit tragically rushed. We’ll have to return, for sure!
Ruins don’t need to be ancient for them to fascinate me. The Hotel Belvedere in Dubrovnik, Croatia, is a prime example of a really cool modern ruin.
Built in 1985, it was only six years old when it fell victim to the Dubrovnik bombings in 1991 during the Croatian War of Independence. With over 200 rooms, this complex is massive. And we had the wonderful fortune to be able to visit this with a Dubrovnik local. She knew the safest routes that we likely never would have attempted otherwise. And we climbed at least a dozen or more floors, but it just. keeps. going… Seriously, it’s ridiculously easy to get lost in this place.
Between the busted elevators, old dance clubs, and rooms full of bathtubs, we couldn’t get enough of this ruin. I only wish we had more time there, though we were a little nervous inside. Our local host frequents the site to pick up replacement glasses (there is a floor of abandoned cookware that’s still in remarkably good shape, if a bit dirty), and she has a dedicated spot where she dispels her anger by smashing old cracked pieces. What a unique experience!
The sheer size, the explorative opportunities, and the added benefit of a local guide really put this visit to the top of our list.
I’m always on the lookout for awesome ruins wherever we go. They’re like a time capsule, preserving what was in cocoons of vines and grass. I try to seek them out, but some have come as a complete surprise, which some have. There’s just something truly fascinating and beautiful about structural decay.
What are some of the coolest ruins you’ve found around Europe?
Psst… do you love reading about awesome things in Europe? You might also enjoy these:
- A Glimpse of Croatia’s Game of Thrones Filming Locations
- Architecture That Will Amaze You in Norway
- 5 Cities to Make You Fall in Love with Holland
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