Sometimes life gets in the way of good living. It’s all too easy to feel the strain of daily responsibilities and anxieties and lose sight of what’s really important. The pressures of modern existence are such that many people feel dissatisfied, depressed, helpless or simply unfulfilled. When that happens, it may be time to seek help – and yet therapy can take various forms.
Another option might be to take control by going on a big adventure and experiencing our planet’s regenerative power firsthand. From ancient ruins and holy pilgrim sites, to incredible sinkholes, cloud-fringed mountains and other natural wonders, here are 50 jaw-droppingly beautiful places that will stir the soul and may well inspire personal transformation.
Uluru / Ayers Rock in central Australia’s Northern Territory is considered a holy place by the local Anangu Aboriginal people. Named Ayers Rock after former Chief Secretary of South Australia Henry Ayers in 1873, the UNESCO World Heritage site and iconic landmark was rechristened Ayers Rock / Uluru in 1993 and then Uluru / Ayers Rock in 2002. Formed approximately 550 million years ago, the rock is rich in Aboriginal myth, heritage and lore – not to mention stunning natural beauty. Visitors have marveled at the way its colors seem to shift depending on the season and time of day. Watching the isolated mound of sandstone glow like an ember under a breathtaking Australian sunrise or sunset is bound to inspire a sense of awakening and renewal.
If shots of majestic Mount Aspiring National Park look familiar, that’s because its mighty peaks were appeared in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001 to 2003) trilogy. The park is surrounded by New Zealand’s Southern Alps on the country’s South Island and is part of the Te Wāhipounamu UNESCO World Heritage site. Set up in 1964, the park has breathtaking physical features like the Matukituki River, Matukituki Valley, Haast Pass, and Mount Aspiring, also known as Tititea. It’s hard not to be moved by the stunning rivers, snow-capped peaks, glaciers, waterfalls and wide-open spaces there. And let’s not forget the wildlife: there are 59 species of birds and over 400 varieties of moths and butterflies just waiting to be spotted. One visitor called the park “awesome,” describing it as “one of the most beautiful areas in the world.” Another used the word “spectacular.” At least one company even offers apparently “life-changing” helicopter tours of the park’s sights.
Cenote Angelita is a cavernous, water-filled sinkhole in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula that features an incredible, otherworldly “underwater river.” The sinkhole came to be more than 6,500 years ago thanks to a break-up of limestone bedrock and a mixture of other environmental factors. Astonishingly, a cloudy bed of hydrogen sulfide, three feet in thickness, keeps a layer of freshwater apart from the saltwater below it in the 200-foot-deep body of water. The result is the mesmerizing stream – complete with banks and the kind of natural debris typical of regular rivers. Cenote Angelita means “little angel,” and the caves in the area have been described as “pristine windows to the underwater world.” The Huffington Post called the site “a scuba diver’s dream” and “one of the most amazing natural formations.”
Known as the “Rainbow Mountains,” the dreamy hills of the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park in China’s Gansu Province look like something Willy Wonka or Dr. Seuss might have dreamt up. In reality, the vivid peaks gained their color over 24 million years thanks to the laying down of mineral and sandstone sediments. These multiple layers were then shaped by the movement of the Earth’s plates and defined by the elements – etching texture into the patterned rocks and creating all sorts of unique, otherworldly formations in the landscape. In 2010 the mesmerizing China Danxia was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visitors are bound to leave with a new perspective – and perhaps an appreciation for what can be achieved with patience. “So beautiful, so unique,” said one such traveler.
Life can’t be that bad when this kind of beauty exists. Observed by the Juneau Icefield Research Program since 1942, Alaska’s dreamlike Mendenhall Ice Caves are another compelling example of the transformative power of nature. The breathtaking caves are located beneath Mendenhall Glacier’s West Glacier in Mendenhall Valley, Juneau. To reach them, visitors must kayak or trek before completing an ice climb, but these caves are certainly worth the effort. “There’s magic in the Mendenhall Ice Caves, where water runs over rocks under blue ceilings,” writes Atlas Obscura. Or as photographer Michael Taylor has put it, “Light filters in through 200 feet of crystal clear ice, casting a surreal blue hue.” Unfortunately, owing to climate change, the glacier is retreating: it has diminished by around two miles since 1958. “Words cannot describe this wonder,” said one visitor. Best catch a glimpse while it’s still possible.
Archeologists claim that permanent human activity in Varanasi dates back to around 1000 BCE, making it among the oldest continuously populated cities on the planet. According to Hindus, the mystical berg was instituted by Lord Shiva, and both Hindus and Jainists view it as the most sacred of India’s seven holy cities. Hindus believe that dying there can put an end to the ongoing cycle of reincarnation, granting spiritual release, or moksha. Buddha is also said to have established Buddhism in Varanasi, back in the 6th century BCE. Varanasi’s ghats – which are situated along its “divine cosmic road” and connect it to the Ganges – are also crucial to its spiritual significance. Each year, Varanasi attracts more than three million tourists from India and beyond. In 2012 one satisfied TripAdvisor reviewer wrote, “Overwhelming personal life-changing experience. I have no words.”
Jökulsárlón is another natural wonder that has been used as a jaw-dropping backdrop on the silver screen: James Bond (in 1985’s A View to a Kill and 2002’s Die Another Day) and the Dark Knight (2005’s Batman Begins) are both fans. The exquisite glacial water body is the deepest lake in Iceland and formed as the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier receded from 1920 to 1965. Otherworldly Jökulsárlón has been described as “a ghostly procession of luminous-blue icebergs” and is popular with awe-seeking tourists and explorers alike. A boat tour of the lake is like riding through an ice wonderland of pristine blue and white where the sky and water seem to blend into one magnificent vista. Visitors often come away feeling spellbound. One tourist said, “It’s a place you just don’t want to leave.”
As one of the so-called Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Grand Canyon in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park is the kind of majestic natural feature that inspires deep reflection and perhaps even epiphanies. Cut into the rock over millions of years by the mighty Colorado River, the canyon and slowly elevated Colorado Plateau now reveal fascinating secrets of the Earth’s geological past. The area was first populated by Ancient Puebloans the Anasazi, and the canyon has traditionally been revered as sacred territory by the Hopi. These days, it draws nigh on five million visitors annually. Geologist and former astronaut Harrison Hagan “Jack” Schmitt believes it counts as among life’s great wonders: “It’s like trying to describe what you feel when you’re standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or remembering your first love, or the birth of your child. You have to be there to really know what it’s like.”
The first fossil discovery of an upright-walking hominid at Sterkfontein occurred in the mid 1930s. Since then, the Cradle of Humankind has been the site of a large percentage of the “ape-man” fossils uncovered before 2010, with some of these remains as much as 3.5 million years old. Located near Johannesburg, the UNESCO World Heritage site harbors a system of caverns – most notably the Sterkfontein Caves – that are rich in prehistory. In 2008 paleoanthropologist Lee Berger unearthed the hominid species Australopithecus sediba – referred to by some as the “missing link” between humans and apes – in one of the surrounding caves. One reviewer described a trip to the site’s Maropeng Visitor Centre as “a really unique experience,” adding that “you’ll walk away feeling enriched.” Another wrote, “Take it all in and realize just how insignificant we… really are.”
With light filtering down to reveal the swirling colors of its chambers, Antelope Canyon in the American Southwest is another breathtaking natural wonder that may offer a potentially life-changing experience. Located in the semi-independent Navajo Nation area, not too far from the sacred Rainbow Bridge, the slot canyon was chiefly created by the erosive forces of flash floods. In fact, the indigenous moniker for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tsé bighánílíní, or “the place where water runs through rocks.” Lower Antelope Canyon, meanwhile, is otherwise known as Hazdistazí, meaning “spiral rock arches.” “Visit and experience a harmony you’ve never before felt,” says Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours, adding that the canyon is “the heart of Arizona, and the soul of the Navajo Nation.” Visitors agree: “I would have stayed there for hours… just to look at it and touch the rocks… Just incredible,” said one spellbound individual.
Fiordland National Park, located on New Zealand’s South Island, is another spectacle of nature featured in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001 to 2003) trilogy as well as the director’s other Middle Earth film series The Hobbit (2012 to 2014). Like Mount Aspiring National Park, Fiordland is part of New Zealand’s Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage site. Its immense fiords were scraped out by glaciers over tens of thousands of years; then when the glaciers receded, they left beautiful lakes like Manapouri and Te Anau in their place. The park covers over three million acres and is the result of millions of years of natural sculptural work by the elements: its epic mountains, lakes, waterfalls and ice-carved islands are awe-inspiring works of art. Rudyard Kipling described Fiordland’s incredible Milford Sound fiord as the “eighth wonder of the world.” And in 2008 this popular tourist destination topped Tripadvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards.
As the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth and the point via which the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the Jordan River is important to both Jews and Christians. Located in Southwest Asia, the river is bordered by the West Bank, Israel and Jordan and ultimately ends up in the Dead Sea. Through the centuries, the river has become a symbol of freedom and spiritual rebirth, celebrated in popular music as well as poetry and other literature. In 2005 heavy metal guitarist Brian “Head” Welch became a born-again Christian after quitting the multi-Platinum band Korn and heading to the sacred river to be baptized. Welch described the change as “instant.” “I believe that my evil spirits were lifted from me and now… I feel peace inside,” he told CNN.
Bagan in Myanmar’s Mandalay Region is a historic site that allows visitors to step back in time and tune into the way of the ancients. The royal chronicles of Burma state that it was instituted some time in the second century CE. However, historians typically maintain that the city was founded at some stage in the ninth century by King Pyinbya and served as the Pagan Kingdom’s capital between 1044 and 1287. During that time, Bagan became a mighty and sophisticated city, filled with thousands of sacred monuments and known far and wide for its scholarly and religious pursuits. The temples of Bagan have been compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Peru’s Machu Picchu. Visitors have commented on its “beautiful serenity,” describing it as a “magical place,” a “fantastic adventure” and an “incredible experience.”
Jellyfish Lake is an ocean-linked lake on Eil Malk island, one of Palau’s Rock Islands in the western region of the Pacific Ocean. As its name suggests, the marine lake is jam-packed with jellyfish, and every day millions of the fascinating creatures move crossways within the water body. Even though the golden and moon jellyfish in the lake are capable of stinging, the stings aren’t strong enough to bother humans, and snorkeling here is hugely popular. One visitor described the lake as “amazing and creepy at the same time.” Others called the experience “one of a kind,” “simply magical” and “surreal.” A National Geographic reader was equally overcome, saying that diving with the “harmless jellyfish” was “like a dream.”
With construction of some of the now interconnected walls dating back as far as the eighth century BCE, the Great Wall of China is a marvel of human accomplishment. Mao Zedong famously said, “He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man” – and today setting foot on the succession of ancient fortifications has been described as a life-changing experience by both sexes. “Its sheer scale and beauty will put the timeline of your own life in perspective,” wrote Sixtyandme.com’s Margaret Manning. “Climbing the Great Wall has been a dream of mine since I was little and saw it in a picture book. It feels so good to have accomplished it,” explained one visitor. Another called it “one of those surreal… experiences,” adding, “I had to pinch myself… Amazing.”
In 2014 Istanbul, Turkey topped Tripadvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards as the best destination to visit in the world, and one of its main attractions is the spectacular Süleymaniye Mosque. The mosque was designed by celebrated Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and completed in 1558 following the directive of Sultan Süleyman “the Magnificent” – who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. The design was inspired by Byzantine church-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sophia as well as Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Visitors have commented on the peaceful “simple beauty” of the structure, describing it as offering a richer experience than the city’s perhaps more iconic Blue Mosque. “Beautiful architecture. You can feel the living history of the place,” wrote one traveler. Another called it “a place of quiet contemplation.”
According to the Bible, the Dead Sea provided a safe haven for King David. Over 2,000 years back in time, Herod the Great used the salty lake as the location for one of the earliest health spas, and historical figures like King Solomon, Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba are all said to have sampled its rejuvenating powers. The lake has also been mined for everything from beauty products to mummification balms and fertilizer salts. And today people come from all over the world to float in its amazingly buoyant waters and cover their bodies in its healing, mineral-packed mud. Recognized as the world’s deepest highly concentrated salt lake and the lowest point on land, the Dead Sea has been estimated to be between 1,312 and 1,388 feet below sea level. Floating in it is definitely a life-boosting experience to cross off one’s bucket list.
Spectacular Hang Son Doong in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, Vietnam is the biggest cave yet identified on Earth. Although formed between two and five million years back in time, it was only discovered in 1991 and became common knowledge as recently as 2009. Hang Son Doong – which means “mountain river cave” – is more than 5.5 miles long and over 650 feet wide. It was shaped by water wearing away at the surrounding limestone, with the weaker rock giving way, producing giant “skylights” that illuminate the immense geological chamber. The cave was opened to tourists in 2013. “One’s imagination goes wild… It is so beautiful and romantic,” wrote one visitor. For another, it was the “expedition of a lifetime.”
The Western Wall – often referred to as the Wailing Wall – is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. It is the only surviving fragment of the ancient Holy Temple and makes up a section of the western side of the Temple Mount – which, according to the Tanakh, was home to Solomon’s Temple in 957 BCE. Over the course of history, the Temple Mount has also been used by Romans, Muslims and Christians, and today it is considered among the world’s most disputed religious locations. The Western Wall has long been a holy destination for Jewish people, while the first identified Christian pilgrimage to the locale dates back to 333 CE. In 2013 the Western Wall was one of TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice winners, with visitors saying the experience was “special” and “profound.”
For more than 6,200 years, jaw-dropping marble caverns have been shaped by the jostling waves of Patagonia’s General Carrera Lake. Located on the Chilean side of Patagonia, the lake’s breathtaking geological wonders include the Marble Caves and incredible rock formations the Marble Cathedral and Marble Chapel. U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail described the Marble Cathedral as “an azure temple created by nature,” adding that it shows “just how magnificent the precious geography of our planet can be.” Surrounded by snow-topped mountains, cliffs and crystal-clear water, navigating the lake on a kayak and exploring its network of intricately patterned marble caverns is the kind of unforgettable life adventure that’s sure to put things into perspective.
Completed in the mid 17th century, the Taj Mahal is among the most iconic structures in the world. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan envisioned it as a monument to one of his wives, Persian princess Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to the couple’s 14th baby. As such, the famous marble mausoleum is celebrated as an international symbol of love. In 1983 UNESCO recognized the Taj Mahal as an official World Heritage site, describing it as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces.” Reflecting on his visit, one spellbound traveler called the monument “a fairytale made of stone,” while another said that his trip was life changing, commenting, “Forget Sydney Harbour Bridge, the [Sydney] Opera House and the Golden Gate Bridge… They just don’t compare to this.”
Situated on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, mighty Victoria Falls is another example of the awe-inspiring and transformative power of nature. Named after Queen Victoria by Scottish explorer David Livingstone – who stumbled across the spot in 1855 – Victoria Falls is recognized as among the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, according to CNN. Locally, it’s often referred to as Mosi-oa-Tunya, which basically means “the smoke that thunders.” Its formation, meanwhile, is believed to date back at least 150 million years. Today, Victoria Falls is surrounded by a pair of national parks abundant in wildlife and vegetation, while 134 species of fish call the Zambezi River home. Visitors have praised Victoria Falls’ “crystalline beauty,” “force” and “splendor.”
Ruled by the Pope and serving as the special territory of the Holy See, Vatican City is the global seat of Catholicism. The small sovereign city-state was proclaimed an independent entity in 1929, and its ongoing allure and power to transport people can be attributed at least in part to its timeless landmarks, Renaissance architecture and art, and saintly relics. Walled off from the rest of Rome, this holy city houses religious and cultural attractions like St. Peter’s Basilica, the Apostolic Palace, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. In 2013, from March through December, Vatican City drew an estimated 6.6 million visitors. “The beauty and majesty of St. Peter’s is overwhelming… You are swept away by the experience,” wrote one tourist. “Breathtaking,” declared another.
Looking down on Tanzania from the top of snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro is, unfortunately, not a view most will get the chance to experience. Still, those who have scaled Africa’s highest peak often return with a new outlook on life. Shaped around a million years ago by volcanic activity in the Great Rift Valley, Kilimanjaro has been challenging climbers since the mid 19th century and was first summited in 1889. The famous peak even inspired Ernest Hemingway’s acclaimed short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” One visitor described her climb as “the greatest personal accomplishment” of her life. Another called the ascent an “experience… that… will stay with [him and his wife] forever.” Yet another Kilimanjaro climber reflected, “I was amazed when I stood on top of Africa. Words and pictures can’t describe how great it was.”
As both the Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace and the site where he first revealed the Quran, Makkah, known to the Western world as Mecca, is lauded as the most sacred city in Islam. In fact, it’s compulsory for every capable Muslim to visit at least once. This pilgrimage – staged annually and known as Hajj – first became part of Islamic tradition in 630 CE, but its origins are said to date back to the 2000 BCE traditions of Ibrahim (Abraham). Makkah’s main attraction is the Kaaba, which is surrounded by Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the world’s biggest and most revered mosque. Thought to have been built by Ibrahim in approximately 2130 BCE, the Kaaba is the holiest single spot in Islam. Malcolm X famously described his 1964 Hajj as a “spiritual enlightenment” that helped him abandon “sweeping indictments of any one race.”
Stonehenge is a fascinating and mysterious prehistoric landmark and one of the world’s most iconic settings. According to archeologists, the presumed burial site was constructed from around 3,000 BCE, and it has yielded human remains that are around 5,500 years old. Stonehenge is steeped in folklore and Arthurian legend, and today it is viewed as a sacred religious destination by Neo-Druids, among others. That said, even non-religious visitors have connected with its air of spirituality. One person had the “experience of a lifetime” when he visited the UNESCO World Heritage site. Another called it “a magical place” with “vast history.” Visitors can apparently feel that history “oozing out of every crack in the stone,” “its links with mysticism flowing from under every rock.”
The eerily beautiful landscape of Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park will breathe life into any tired routine or weary soul. “Amazing and life-changing,” wrote one visitor, who added, “I still get chills remembering the sounds of… dried lava crackling as it split open… to reveal fresh flowing lava.” Established in 1916, the park features active volcanoes Kīlauea and Mauna Loa and was recognized as a Man and the Biosphere Reserve and a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980 and 1987, respectively. Traditionally, Kīlauea is the hallowed abode of Hawaiian volcano goddess Pele, and the park is known for its geological significance and contribution to the study of volcanoes. Sights include the footprints of locals caught up in a volcanic explosion in 1790.
What could be more inspiring than staring out over Rio de Janeiro from the top of beautiful Mount Corcovado with the world-famous Cristo Redentor statue towering 98 feet overhead? Religion aside, the sheer scale of the statue – the arms alone stretch to 92 feet – are enough to take one’s breath away. And then, as suggested, there’s the view. The statue known to English speakers as Christ the Redeemer is a true global icon. It was built between 1922 and 1931 and is composed of reinforced concrete covered in a medley of steatite tiles. Located in Tijuca National Park, it has been featured countless times in movies, video games and TV shows, and in 2007 it was identified as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. One visitor described his experience, saying, “Cloudy – as if Jesus was ascending to heaven.”
Bodh Gaya in India’s Bihar state is the holiest destination in Buddhism. The site contains the Mahabodhi Temple, which the emperor Ashoka built in roughly 260 BCE to honor the spot where Buddha is believed to have achieved enlightenment under the sacred Bodhi tree. The temple is among the most ancient remaining examples of original Indian brickwork in Eastern India. With the Bodhi tree to the west and a plethora of monasteries and holy relics scattered about, going to Bodh Gaya is like stepping back in time. Visitors have written about its tranquility and almost tangible holiness. In 2002 Mahabodhi Temple was recognized as a World Heritage site. And in 2013 the King of Thailand and other adherents made a contribution of some 660 pounds of gold, for use in adorning the dome of the temple.
Easter Island in the Polynesian Triangle is a fascinating destination. Surrounded by such impressive beauty, history and tradition, everyday worries may well melt away as visitors breathe in the mythology of the Rapa Nui people and take some time out to reflect. Easter Island is known for its monolithic moai “face” monuments, which from 1250 to 1500 were carved out of local rock and transported to their coastal positions on the island. The heaviest weighs some 86 tons. Adding to the mystique of the location, it is among the most cut-off occupied places in the world. It also features intricate stone carvings, cave paintings and a mesmerizing crater lake. In 2011 Forbes included Easter Island on its “10 Trips That Will Change Your Life” list, writing that “its combination of mystery, awe and natural beauty is unmatched.”
Angkor Wat in Cambodia is another fascinating UNESCO World Heritage site likely to inspire visitors to see the bigger picture and perhaps turn a corner. The Angkor region was once the capital of the Khmer Empire (now Cambodia) – which thrived from roughly 802 to 1431 – and contains ancient sites Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Constructed in the 12th century as a tribute to Lord Vishnu, Angkor Wat began as a Hindu temple but in the 13th century was converted for Buddhist use. Legend has it that it was built overnight by a celestial entity. In 2013 Angkor Wat was a TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Winner, with the website singling out its “mightiness” and “magnificence.” Another word used by visitors to describe it is “magical.”
Navigating a kayak around the Antarctic Peninsula’s crystalline Paradise Harbor is the kind of unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime adventure that prompts deep reflection and, perhaps, major life adjustments. The iceberg-filled site is so beautiful and serene that it’s impossible not to be moved. Also referred to as Paradise Bay, the place had earned its name from whalers by 1920 – and whales, as well as penguins, seals and cormorants, still populate the area today. Embarking on an Antarctic expedition is often described as a life-changing experience, and Paradise Harbor is one of the region’s most impressive features. “Even the cloudiest, stormiest blizzardiest day is still magnificent,” wrote one visitor. Another dubbed it “the beauty of Antarctica.”
Dating back to 750 CE, Chichen Itza in Mexico’s Yucatán region is an ancient ruin site that offers visitors a humbling connection to life on Earth as the Mayans saw it a thousand years ago. Among its many marvels, the sacred city houses iconic pyramid El Castillo. Also known as the Temple of Kukulkan, this structure boasts exactly 365 steps – one for each day of the year. Recognized as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, the pyramid was used to worship feathered snake god Kukulkan. “Amazing,” wrote one visitor; “Loved our excursion to the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza. Incredible sites. Life changing.” “Simply awe-inspiring,” wrote another; “Quite incredible to think how much the Mayans knew about mathematics, astronomy and geography.”
Nestled below the Himalayas in India’s Uttarakhand state, Rishikesh is a spiritual destination recognized as the “birthplace of yoga.” Named for Lord Vishnu, the holy Hindu city is set on the banks of the Ganges and is accessible by the iconic Lakshman Jhula bridge – which offers magical views of the surrounding landscape. Rishikesh is filled with various yoga centers, temples and ashrams and is popular with both international visitors and Hindu pilgrims seeking enlightenment and wellness. According to spiritual lore, meditating in Rishikesh and bathing in the Ganges can help towards release from the continuing cycle of reincarnation. In 1968 The Beatles memorably went to the ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in Rishikesh and there wrote at least 40 songs – a lot of which ended up on “The White Album.”
As well as being blessed with natural beauty, the sacred Kumano Kodō trails that cut through Japan’s Kii Peninsula offer travelers a glimpse into the country’s divine past. The wooded pathways lead to holy Shinto sanctuary Kumano Sanzan, which features the three Grand Shrines of Hongu Taisha, Hayatama Taisha and Nachi Taisha. Kumano Kodō is also graced by Buddhist temples, and for more than 1,000 years the route has promised visitors spiritual cleansing. Today, every year, around 15 million tourists visit the trails, whether for ceremonial reasons or simply to savor the scenery and cultural experience. In 2004 UNESCO recognized Kumano Kodō as a World Heritage site, explaining that it is “rooted in the ancient tradition of nature worship in Japan, and Buddhism.” For its “unique fusion between Shintoism and Buddhism,” UNESCO describes Kumano Kodō as “part of the living culture of Japan.”
Petra is a truly magnificent ruin site that offers visitors a unique connection to our distant past. Located in Jordan’s Ma’an governorate, the World Heritage site is thought to date back to the fourth century BCE, and according to UNESCO, it “represents a unique artistic achievement and an outstanding architectural ensemble.” Petra is indeed renowned for its incredible structural design – excavated out of solid rock – as well as its early plumbing system. The city was established by the ancient Nabataeans and is even referred to in the Bible. Nineteenth-century English poet John William Burgon described it as “eternal, silent, beautiful, alone… a rose-red city half as old as time.” Rather more recently, one traveler wrote that visiting the site was “every bit as magical and impressive [as] you expect it to be.”
Often referred to as the Tiger’s Nest, Taktsang Palphug Monastery is a sacred Buddhist meditation retreat high in the Himalayas above Bhutan’s Paro Valley. The site’s origins date back to the eighth century, although the famous temple was built in 1692. This spot is steeped in myth and legend. One such legend tells how Guru Rinpoche traveled through the air on a tigress to the place and there consecrated the cave to overcome an evil spirit. He then began an extended meditation and is said to have popularized Buddhism throughout the region. “The monastery is simply spectacular,” wrote one visitor: “serene and calm.” Another hailed his trek as a “life-changing experience.” In 2013 Virtuoso Traveler included the monastery on its “29 Experiences of a Lifetime” list.
Recognized for its dramatic landscape and supreme biodiversity, Manú National Park is teeming with wildlife. UNESCO describes the World Heritage site as “home to an unrivaled variety of animal and plant species.” Meanwhile, according to the Pulitzer Center, “There are 1,700 species of birds in Manú National Park… [which is] more than the U.S. and Canada combined.” Before it was established as a protected spot by the state authorities, the park survived thanks to its remote location, and it remains relatively cut off today – which no doubt suits the clusters of Machiguenga natives who still live there. One visitor called “roughing it” in the park the “experience of a lifetime.” Another described Manú as “the most magical place ever.”
Tibet’s breathtaking Mount Kailash is seen as being sacred in Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Bonism. These religions consider walking the 32-mile circumference of the mountain a holy rite that blesses pilgrims with good luck. Interestingly, Hindus and Buddhists proceed clockwise, while Jainists and Bonists choose to walk counterclockwise. Hindus believe that Lord Shiva and his spouse Parvati sit at the top of the mountain, locked in continuous meditation. Religion aside, Mount Kailash was shaped by earth-shattering tectonic activity approximately 50 million years ago. And the sheer majesty and age of Mount Kailash – as well as its palpable air of spirituality – are enough to trigger introspection and personal change in many an individual. It’s the “experience of a lifetime,” according to one visitor.
The Great Blue Hole is an incredible vertical cave popularized by legendary French diver Jacques Cousteau in the early 1970s. Located in Central American waters relatively close to the Belize City coastline, this breathtaking submerged sinkhole is a feature of a UNESCO World Heritage site – the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System. The beginning of the sinkhole’s formation dates back 153,000 years, when the surrounding waters started to rise and inundate the cave. The Great Blue Hole has been described as being among the top dive sites in the world, and its exotic marine life features parrotfish and Caribbean reef sharks. The hole’s underwater caverns are also filled with fascinating stalactites; and in 2012 it topped Discovery Channel’s “10 Most Amazing Places on Earth” list.
Constructed by the Incas in around 1450 CE, Machu Picchu is one of the most iconic manmade creations on Earth. The site is widely believed to have been developed as a residence for Emperor Pachacuti, who reigned from 1438 to around 1472. Today, the classical dry-stone Inca estate remains balanced almost impossibly on top of a mountain overlooking Peru’s Sacred Valley. Cut off from the rest of the world by the Andes mountains and littered with cultural artifacts, Machu Picchu is an ancient ruin site that’s bound to inspire some soul-searching. Those passing through have described their visits as “mind-boggling,” “breathtaking” and “bonding.” The views, of course, are something special. According to one traveler, “Watching the sun rise and being in the clouds is the most amazing thing you will ever experience.” In 1983 Machu Picchu was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Watching the sun set over the pyramids of Giza is one of those unique life experiences that someone never forgets. Dwarfed by the structures’ majesty and intoxicated with the romanticism of Ancient Egypt, visitors are offered a time-traveling glimpse into the world’s mysterious beauty – and what humans can accomplish with patience, dedication and resolve. Believed to have been corner-stoned in all its glory in around 2560 BCE, the Great Pyramid of Giza was designed as a crypt for Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, who ruled from 2589 BCE to 2566 BCE. The giant monument also has the distinction of being not only the oldest of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but also the only one among them still in one piece. Moreover, it remains a truly awe-inspiring place for many that have either stood next to it or been inside one of its chambers or passageways. “The energy… is unbelievable,” remarked one traveler.
Rising above the clouds of the Guiana Shield craton, on the border of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, majestic Mount Roraima looks like something out of 2009 blockbuster Avatar. First given a description in 1596 by Sir Walter Raleigh, after the British explorer went in search of El Dorado, this imposing geological marvel is steeped in local legend. The indigenous Kapon and Pemon people refer to it as the base of a glorious tree that was filled with vast quantities of fruit and vegetables before fabled prankster Makunaima cut it down – causing the surrounding waters to flood. Describing climbing the mountain, one visitor wrote, “It pushed the limits of my physical and mental capability… My reward was an immense sense of achievement and an experience that has changed my outlook on life.”
National parks don’t get much more mind-blowing than this one in northwestern Rwanda. Adjacent to the Virunga Mountains, it features five volcanoes and is, more importantly, a sanctuary for mountain gorillas. American zoologist Dian Fossey – whose story was told in 1988 drama Gorillas in the Mist with Sigourney Weaver – was based in the park for 18 years from 1967 to 1985. Furthermore, despite the recent turmoil in the area, the park is said to be safe for tourists, who get to spend time with the gorillas and among monkeys while also exploring the park’s volcanoes, caves and lakes. Volcanoes National Park is a “top five wildlife experience,” according to one seasoned traveler, who declared, “Getting face to face with the spectacular mountain gorillas is like nothing you’ve ever done before.” Another visitor described his trip as “magical” and something “we will never forget.”
“This is my Everest” has become a saying used to describe any challenge that has to be overcome – so what could be more transformational than climbing the real thing? Everyday fears and insecurities will likely seem inconsequential whilst standing atop the world’s tallest mountain, 29,029 feet above sea level, surveying the Himalayan landscapes of Nepal and Tibet. Buddhists view the southern section of the peak as a spot sanctified by the eighth-century Guru Rinpoche, while the northern flank features holy Buddhist site Rongbuk Monastery. What’s more, according to the local Sherpas, the mountain has a divine energy, so those who visit should show respect and keep their minds pure. “Makes me question what we need in our lives as the Nepalese have so little yet appear to be so content,” wrote one visitor.
Few natural phenomena are as mesmerizingly beautiful as the Northern Lights, and one of the best places to see them is Svalbard. The Norwegian archipelago is roughly the same distance from the North Pole as it is from Norway, and it was used as a whaling station in the 1600s. According to some accounts, Norsemen first located it in the 12th century, and today Svalbard is the most northerly spot on the planet with fixed inhabitants. The islands are also rich with fauna such as reindeer, polar bears and various marine mammals, while mountains and fiords grace the landscape. Tour company Adventure Associates describes Svalbard as “overwhelming” and “extraordinary,” and in 2014 the Daily Telegraph in Sydney listed it as one of its “life-changing travel experiences.”
It’s impossible not to be moved by the timeless beauty of the Galápagos Islands, which are to be found in an Ecuadorian patch of the Pacific Ocean. Known for its exotic local wildlife, the volcanic archipelago – which covers approximately 3,030 square miles of land – was famously studied by Charles Darwin in 1835 and served to inspire his concept of natural selection. Today, watching marine iguanas and Galápagos tortoises – the world’s biggest living tortoises – amble around the idyllic UNESCO World Heritage site is the kind of unforgettable experience that will give tourists a new perspective on life. “It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the sheer spectacle of the place,” British conservationist Mark Carwardine has stated. Meanwhile, Sir David Attenborough has said, “I think what knocks everyone for six when they first arrive and step off the boat is the realization that there are albatross and pelicans just… sitting there.”
The unique and majestic column-like rock formations of Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve provided the inspiration for the floating Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi epic Avatar. Most would say that the real thing is far more breathtaking. “No words can describe the view that awaits you,” wrote one visitor, overcome by the power and enchantment of the place. She continued: “This is definitely one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Photos cannot capture the vastness, the sheer size, depth and extent of these mountains.” China Travel attributes the reserve’s unique features to “aeons of water erosion.” Looking out over the peaks, waterways, cascades and dramatic forested landscape from a cable car, the name Tianzi – or “son of heaven” – makes perfect sense.
Known as the “Golden Temple,” the breathtaking Harmandir Sahib is another iconic landmark on India’s roadmap of holy sites. Located in Amritsar, Punjab, the revered gurdwara – or temple – houses the Guru Granth Sahib, the most sacred and vital text in the Sikh religion. Harmandir Sahib was completed at the beginning of the 17th century and then, following Afghan attacks, was reconstructed in the 1760s. The temple’s four entranceways reflect Sikhism’s acceptance of all religions, and the shrine has been described as a “symbol of human brotherhood and equality.” In 2013 Harmandir Sahib earned a TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award. Visitors thought it was “amazing,” “humbling” and “one of the most beautiful temples on the planet.” Another wrote that visiting the site “fills you with peace and harmony.”
Sprawling across 4,086 square miles, Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt pan on the planet. A more fun-packed fact is that it turns into the world’s biggest natural mirror during its wetter spells, when a shallow layer of water covers its surface – which is truly a sight to behold. This phenomenon has led to Salar de Uyuni being dubbed “heaven on Earth,” and some say being there is like “walking among the clouds.” Salar de Uyuni was shaped by a group of prehistoric lakes, including Lago Minchín, which dried and coated the area in salt crust. Incredibly, the brine beneath the plain’s crust harbors up to 70 percent of global lithium supplies. “This place is extraordinary,” wrote one stunned visitor. “Utter silence… [and] the experience of time being stopped. The most amazing place on Earth.” High praise indeed.