From 4000-year-old island palaces of Greece to fortified mountains of Albania to paved jungle roads in Costa Rica — these are my favorite Lost Cities of 2021.
This year brought me entirely out of Asia for the first time in over a decade. This meant the chance to explore a new assortment of ancient cities entirely unrelated to the tightly woven network of Sinicized and Indianized states I’d been to over the past few years.
2021 gave me my first introduction to Central American archaeological sites, then to Greece for the first time in over 15 years. Spending my entire 3-month Schengen entry in the country, I was able to see a large number of the Bronze Age ancient cities of Crete and the Peloponnese. Venturing out from Greece came Albania, Bosnia, and finally Cyprus, which itself would have so much more to see than I originally expected.
Honorable Mention: Ancient Athens | Attica, Greece
The names of two cities from Ancient Greece tend to be the first to come to mind: Athens and Sparta. And while I made it a point to spend a few days in Sparta during this trip, the modern archaeological landscape of the town pales in comparison to Athens.
Given the expansive number of ruins scattered throughout Athens, it’s impossible to nail down just one spot. You’ve of course got the Acropolis and the Agora. Although, on my first trip to Athens in 2004, there was a spot on Filopappou Hill directly above the rock-cut Socrates Prison, that stood out as one of the most memorable places in Athens. This hill is littered with the ruins of one of Athens’ ancient city walls and provides a sweeping view of the entire city.
10) Myrtos Pyrgos | Crete, Greece
The Minoan site of Myrtos Pyrgos, while not monumental, was among the more unique Bronze Age sites on Crete that I visited. Uncharacteristic of larger Minoan settlements, Myrtos Pyrgos is located on a steep hilltop overlooking the southern coast of Crete. The settlement dates back as far as the Early Minoan Period to nearly 3000 BCE and only the foundations of the settlement remain.
There are two trails to Myrtos Pyrgos from ground level. One is directly from the coastal road almost directly up the only passable part of the steep side. There is another path beginning from behind the hill on the east side of the Mirtos Potamos River that is more gradual. This path brings you along the rear part of the settlement on the way to the coastal-facing buildings.
While there are only foundations left of the settlement, they still show a level of the original artistry in the variety of colored stones used to create the buildings. Certain sections contain finely cut rectangular blocks lining walls and stairs, while pink and red stones mark the boundaries of certain areas of the settlement.
There is another larger Minoan settlement, Fournou Korifi, less than 1km to the east. However, the local signs did not provide a clear means of reaching it from the narrow, two-lane coastal road. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to visit it.
9) Akrotiri | Cyclades, Greece
My initial visit to Akrotiri on New Year’s Day of 2005 remains one of my biggest travel fails. However, this was more than made up for when I revisited the site this 2nd time. At that time, the entire site was closed down indefinitely to place a protective roof over the excavated Minoan settlement. 18 years later, the site has long since reopened with not only the protective covering, but an entire climate-controlled enclosure to prevent further damage to the exposed ruins.
Inside the enclosure, elevated walkways lead visitors through the mostly intact city that had been buried in volcanic ash for over 3000 years. There are even a few sections where you can walk down to street level, enter still-standing buildings, and see Minoan frescoes still with their original colors on the interior walls.
It is possible to reach Akrotiri on a bus trip from Fira or another town on the island. However, I think a night or two in the nearby town of the same name, built around the base of a ruined Venetian castle, is well worth it.
8) Buntrint | Vlorë County, Albania
The almost-island city of Buntrint straddles the Greek border in Southern Albania. The fortified location has been home to the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Venetian, and Ottomans.
Given Southern Albania’s proximity to Greece and influence from Ancient Greek culture, it’s easy to forget just how close it is to Italy as well. The nearest town, Ksamil, is a tourist town with regular ferries from the Italian mainland. And, while reading the history of Roman Buntrint, it becomes immediately obvious how important and closely connected this area was to ancient Italy as well.
Walking the shoreline of the city, you see the formidable fortifications that were erected as early as the late Greek Period, particularly around the questionably named Lion Gate. Further up the hill are where the more recent settlements have their remains. At the very top of the hill are a Venetian-era castle filled with cannons and a museum for the whole archaeology site.
7) Gournia | Crete, Greece
Gournia is a settlement of the Minoans dating from 3000 BCE until after the Mycenaean conquest of Crete, an era in the Late Bronze Age named the Post-Palatial Period of Crete. Leading into the Greek Dark Ages, this was a period when the majority of the Minoan population left their traditional urban centers, which were now being inhabited by the mainland Mycenaean-Achaean Greeks) and settled in the rural and mountain regions of Crete. It was at this time they became known as the Eteocretans (“original Cretans”)
While a coastal community, Gournia is based on a high hill within a mountain valley overlooking the northern coast of Crete. The nearest palatial center is Malia; however, it is relatively close to the island settlements at Mochlos, which were comparable in size to the palatial centers.
Wandering through Gournia is a treat, as it feels much more like a lived-in city than the main centers like Knossos and Phaestos. The narrow “streets” are filled with entrances to homes, shrines, and other buildings. While, like most Bronze Age sites on Crete, are mostly foundations, there are extremely helpful signs around the entire city to add context to what you’re seeing.
6) Guayabo de Turrialba | Cartago, Costa Rica
El Guayabo de Turrialba is the largest known pre-Columbian city of Costa Rica and the only one open for tourists to visit, something I found out after unsuccessful visits to the locations of 3 other ancient settlements. With settlement dating back 3000 years and the architecture seen today about 1000 years old, Guayabo exemplifies much of the architecture found in other sites throughout the region — circular building bases, roads paved with smoothed river stones, etc.
Aside from a few small signs posted at specific locations, there is not a lot of onsite information to help orient visitors to the specific items they are viewing. However, the paths through the archaeological park bring you through all the highlights, with the slight downside that some of the better views are obstructed by the dense mountain jungle surrounding the site. And while the drive to the site from the town of Turrialba was nerve-racking at the time, the ancient city center, with its stone platforms for houses, aqueduct, and broad stone road was certainly worth the visit.
5 Stone Spheres of Costa Rica | Puntarenas, Costa Rica
Being that Costa Rica was overall an unplanned, reactionary trip – once I arrived, I was looking for local archaeology sites after the fact. In deciding to go, I had completely overlooked the famous Stone Spheres tucked away in Palma Sur at the southeastern corner of the country.
These Spheres were used as status symbols in the Diquis culture in the southwest of the country. When first encountered by colonists, many of the spheres were destroyed and broken apart under the idea that there would be treasure hidden inside.
Today, very few of the remaining spheres are still in their original location. There are only 4 designated archaeological parks where the spheres are protected in their original context and open for visitors. However, many others have been moved to public spaces, parks, or private property.
4) Byllis | Fier County, Albania
Nearly 75% of Albania is covered in mountains and scattered throughout these peaks are a number of fortified cities, castles, and, more recently, bunkers. Of the four ancient mountain cities I visited, Byllis was by far the most impressive—and most difficult to get to. Perhaps the only one more remote would’ve been Amantia.
Fortified behind several generations of walls, the latest from the 4th-century Roman occupation of the city, Byllis hosts a Roman theater, and several ruined basilicas dating from the early Christian Period. Although I didn’t see it until my drive back down the questionable roads to the main north-south highway below, there is also another similar walled city on a nearby mountaintop in the village of Klos. I later learned that this is the Nikaia Archaeological Park. Unfortunately, by the time I saw it, I was too far down the mountain road and wasn’t able to turn around until I got back to the valley floor below.
3) Knossos | Crete, Greece
Knossos is one of those exciting modern fables of archaeological rediscovery alongside Troy, the Indus Valley culture, and Machu Picchu. An ancient and mythical civilization to even the Classical Greeks, the ancient Cretans who are popularly known as Minoans, dominated the Aegean during the Early to Middle Bronze Age. Their trade networks spread their goods to the Near East and Egypt and fostered the mainland Mycenaean civilization, which may have eventually contributed to their downfall.
Located in the northern suburbs of modern Heraklion, Knossos itself is the largest Minoan urban center found on Crete. In addition to the main “palace” complex, there are several smaller shrines and residences found in the immediate area of Knossos — however, most of these are usually closed to the public. Although there are many guided tours available from Heraklion, it is very easy to get to Knossos by public bus, where you can also find official tours, or explore on your own.
2) Phaestos and Agia Triada | Crete, Greece
While Knossos is an amazing introduction to Minoan culture and easily accessible from the largest city on Crete, I found Phaestos to be the more awe-inspiring of the two cities both on my initial visit and this most recent one. Set on a quiet rural hilltop near Crete’s southern coast, the ruins at Phaestos feel more open and lived-in than at Knossos.
Add to that, during this most recent visit, I was not restricted by the public bus schedule and was able to drive to nearby Minoan sites including Agia Triada and the port settlement of Kommos (unfortunately closed to the public). While Phaestos is much more a palace center similar to Knossos, Agia Triada is a residential settlement more akin to Gournia. The two sites only 2km apart provide visitors with a great contrast between two walks of Minoan life.
1) Mycenae | Argolis, Greece
As fascinated as I am by the Minoan settlements of Crete, the imposing citadel at Mycenae remains one of my favorite ancient spots in Greece. Mycenae holds a commanding view of the entire Argolis Plain, a thorough onsite museum, and stands at the center of numerous other Achaean fortified citadels in the area, including Tiryns, Midea, and Kazarma. Throughout the mid-Second Millennium BCE, this confederation of Greek city-states became one of several Late Bronze Age great powers on par with the Hittites, Assyrians, and Egyptians.
To any visitor in the region, Mycenae is the best starting point to get acquainted with the history of the immediate area and the greater Peloponnese, the southern peninsula of mainland Greece. The ancient city is easily accessible by bus from Nafplion, the main tourist hub in the area. However, if you get the chance to rent your own transportation, driving through the area is easy, convenient, and gives you the chance to see so much more in one of the densest archaeological landscapes in the world.