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Across the roughly 60 million square miles of land covering this breathtaking planet, there are a lot of exceedingly beautiful places. From serene and stirring to surreal and sublime, trying to list them all would be an impossible task; and of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But that doesn't mean we can't do our best to give a shout-out to some of the places that showcase the amazing accomplishments that Mother Nature — sometimes with an assist from her inhabitants — has achieved. Here are 30 of our favorites to get the conversation started.
Like one of Mother Nature's emoticons, this lovable heart-shaped island can be found in the Republic of the Maldives, a country that is spread out over 35,000 square miles in the Indian Ocean, 250 miles southwest of India. The nation is comprised of 1,190 coral islands formed around 26 natural atolls, each of which is made of a coral reef circling a lagoon. While the Maldives is one the world's most geographically dispersed countries, it is the smallest Asian country in both land area and population; only 200 of those islands are populated. Hello, deserted island paradise.
Rice terraces of Vietnam
Rice terraces of Vietnam
While the terraces pictured here are located in Lao Cai province of Vietnam, equally mesmerizing scenes can be found throughout Southeast Asia where people have been doing the seemingly impossible for millennia: growing rice — which requires a flat surface and a lot of water — in mountainous areas. The trick? Terraced paddy fields that not only yield substantial crops of the widely consumed staple, but are also a gorgeous sight to behold. Agriculture at its best ... and most beautiful!
Located in the northern state of Karnataka in India, the ruins of Hampi represent the former capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, which was in power for several hundred years starting in the 14th century. The bewitching, crumbling remnants of temples, palaces, aquatic structures, ancient market streets, royal pavilions, military forts and municipal buildings are among the more than 500 monuments scattered amid a wild landscape of giant boulders, palm groves, banana plantations and paddy fields. The hauntingly beautiful ruins spread out over an area of nearly 10 square miles, like an offbeat amusement park paying homage to antiquities and the ghosts of empires past.
Salar de Uyuni
Salar de Uyuni
At 4,086 square miles, Salar de Uyuni in southwest Bolivia holds the record for the largest salt flats in the world. In fact, so flat are the flats that the U.S. Geological Survey found that elevation variations across the entire area were less than one meter. It is the flattest place on the planet, and it is so stunningly featureless that you can see the curvature of the Earth there. Needless to say, this provides an opportunity to create what might be considered the planet's largest mirror, a place for the sky and earth to collide in dizzying illusions. (We wonder if the moon catches glimpses of her own reflection there.)
Located in southwest Argentina along the border of Chile, Los Glaciares National Park offers 2,807 square miles of rugged mountains, large lakes and a lot of — you guessed it — ice; the Patagonia ice field occupies nearly half of the park and represents the largest ice mantle outside of Antarctica. It contains 47 glaciers, along with another 200 smaller glaciers not included in the main field. Mount Fitz Roy (pictured here) is in the northern part of the park. Its 11,168 feet of sheer granite makes it one of the most challenging mountains to climb in the world, but hikers can enjoy the less arduous routes around it, not to mention the incredible play of colors that reflect off the face of the mountain each morning with the sunrise.
Iceland is a place of stunning wonders, like glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, fjords and beautiful lagoons filled with healing geothermal seawater — not to mention the 13 different kinds of elves that inhabit the country, according to Icelandic folklore. (And given the enchanted beauty of the country, is it any wonder that people believe it's rife with sprites?) The Blue Lagoon falls under the "healing geothermal seawater" category; its namesake, blue-hued waters are not only gorgeous to look at, but they are praised by many for their deeply salubrious nature.
The 17 hot water springs that fill the travertine terraces of Pamukkale in southwestern Turkey have been providing soothing mineral soaks to bathers for thousands of years. But beyond the health benefits, the area is a geologic wonder that occurs when calcite is deposited by the water as it pours over the edges of the pools. The result is an expansive cliff covered in white sparkling cascades of stone; petrified waterfalls that look like the work of fairy magic frozen in time. The location was the home of the ancient Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis, which was built on top of the "cotton castle" — and that is what Pamukkale means in Turkish.
Located just outside of Page, Arizona, the dreamlike landscape of Antelope Canyon is one of the most bizarre — and beautiful — in the country. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is "Tse' bighanilini," which means "the place where water runs through rocks." And indeed, Antelope Creek, which flows into nearby Lake Powell, forms two sections of slot canyons, the diligent work of water and time carving otherworldly formations into stone that never fail to inspire involuntary gasps of "ooh" and “aah.” Add to that the play of desert light and the result is downright breathtaking.
Cave of the Crystals
Cave of the Crystals
Hidden nearly 1,000 feet beneath the ground in Naica, Mexico, is an implausible scene, one that could serve as the natural world's testament to the adage that truth is stranger than fiction. Most of us have held crystals in our hands, but here in the subterranean "Sistine Chapel of crystals," the translucent selenite specimens measure up to 36 feet in length and weigh up to 55 tons, making them some of the largest crystals known to man. The magical Cave of the Crystals is about 30 feet wide and 90 feet long, with a floor tiled in perfectly faceted crystalline blocks from which the giant mineral beams emerge.
In southern China is Yangshuo County, an area that offers a captivating mix of karst pinnacles, caves, lush vegetation, traditional Chinese architecture, rice fields and the inexorably picturesque Li River, which many believe is the most beautiful waterway in the world. The mountains in the region are an irresistible magnet for climbers from all over the globe, while other tourists enjoy biking through the villages or taking a bamboo raft ride down the famous river.
Located in the southern part of the Namib desert in the Republic of Namibia, Sossusvlei is a treasure trove of sand dunes of staggering size and cinematic splendor. The pristine mountains of sand were built by the air, having been pushed and shifted by the colliding easterly winds from the Atlantic Ocean and the westerly winds from the Naukluft Mountains. They are believed to be 60 to 80 million years old and represent the highest sand dunes in the world — and easy contenders for the most beautiful. While they are visited by tourists who leave their footprints in the sand daily, all traces of humankind are erased each night as the winds sweep up the mess and return the dunes to a state of perfection for the next day.
Princess Aurora, are you in there? While this fairytale castle perched atop a hill in the Bavarian Alps never actually housed a royal family — King Ludwig II of Bavaria who commissioned it died before its completion in 1886 — it was the inspiration for Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty castle. We've selected this photo because it shows a castle floating in the clouds, but the dreamy mist obscures the picturesque view of the rugged peaks and magnificent scenery of the Hohenschwangau Valley below. You'll have to go see it for yourself; just don't get tangled up with any bad fairies.
Nestled in California's incredible Sequoia National Park is the colossal Giant Forest, where you can find trees that would have felt right at home during the Jurassic period. Named in 1875 by John Muir, the forest is a stand of more than 8,000 towering sequoia trees — many of them thousands of years old. The Giant Forest is where you can find five of the 10 largest living trees on the planet, including the General Sherman, which is recognized as not only the single largest living tree on the planet, but the largest organism, by volume, alive today. Props to the big guys, seriously.
Northern lights, Norway
Northern lights, Norway
While it's possible to witness the completely crazy phenomenon known as the aurora borealis from any number of locations positioned far enough north, we're picking Norway as the bucket-list destination. Why? Because it's Norway. There are fjords, islands, glaciers, whales, moose and polar bears! But also because Norway just so happens to be a particularly wonderful spot to see the magical light show that occurs when highly charged electrons from the solar wind meet up with elements in the Earth's atmosphere along the lines of the magnetic force of the planet's core (in a nutshell). From the land of the Vikings, you can see some of the strangest and most splendid antics the sky has to offer.
The meaning of Meteora is variously defined as "middle of the sky," "suspended in the air" or "in the heavens above," and indeed, all three seem to apply. Built on barely accessible sandstone pinnacles that rise 1,300 feet from the Peneas valley in Greece, 24 of these Greek Orthodox monasteries originally perched atop the geological columns. Intrepid pilgrims were lifted up the cliffs by nets; supplies were hoisted by ladders and baskets. Talk about escaping the rat race ... but today visitors can get there by paths and stairs that were built in the 1920s. Now only six of the original 24 remain; it's of little surprise that these stellar structure and their environs can be found on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
With an impressive age of 25 million years, Lake Baikal in southeastern Siberia is the oldest lake in the world; with depths reaching nearly 5,400 feet, it is also the deepest lake on the planet. In fact, it contains 20 percent of Earth’s total unfrozen freshwater reserve. But beyond its impressive stats, it is a marvel of nature and beauty. Known as the "Galapagos of Russia," Lake Baikal is one of the most biodiverse places anywhere, thanks to its age and isolation. It plays host to over 1,340 species of animal (745 endemic) and 570 species of plant (150 endemic). The area surrounding the lake is no less spectacular and includes mountains, boreal forests, tundra, lakes, islands and steppes; according to UNESCO, which includes the region in its World Heritage List, the area is “exceptionally picturesque.” Even just a sliver of the lake when frozen, as pictured here, hints at its secrets and allure.
It's possible that the only way you could improve upon the stunning spectacle of the "fairy chimney" pinnacles found in central Turkey's Cappadocia region is by enhancing the already surreal scene with some hot air balloons. But balloons or not, Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia — as the area is officially called — is a marvel. Located on the Central Anatolia plateau, the volcanic landscape has teamed up with the forces of erosion to create the ridges, valleys and towers that have provided a rich backdrop to a fascinating human history since at least the 4th century. Within many of the towering pinnacles are caves which house domestic dwellings and churches, many with intact frescoes; while below the ground are expansive subterranean cities — one which extends five levels down and once harbored 20,000 people. It is one of world's most striking and largest cave-dwelling complexes and offers impeccable examples of post-iconoclastic Byzantine art. Oh, and bonus points for being able to stay in a cool cave hotel if you visit.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
Great Barrier Reef, Australia
The largest living structure on the globe, the Great Barrier Reef is comprised of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands; it stretches more than 1,400 miles long the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Within its 133,000 square miles, the array of life is almost hard to fathom. Amongst the tangle of colorful reefs, more than 600 types of coral reside along with more than 100 species of jellyfish, 1,625 types of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins. That’s a lot of sea creatures! It is one of the most complex ecosystems around; it’s diversity is only matched by its physical beauty. Plus: heart-shaped reefs (swoon!).
Off the west coast of Scotland travelers can find the Isle of Skye, an island dominated by the dramatically dark and jagged Cullins mountain range, which provides for an abundance of geologic nooks and crannies. At the foot of the mountains between the Glen Brittle Forest and the Glen Brittle Beach are the magical Fairy Pools that lure visitors from across the globe. As the River Brittle dances and shimmies to the sea, it creates waterfalls, streamlets, stepping stones and pools of crystal blue water surrounded by ferns, heather and lichen. So lovely is the array that, apparently, the fairies have made the pools their swimming spots of choice. And speaking of swimming, you are allowed; but brace yourself for a wee bit of shock. Local swimmers have described the pools as within the usual Scottish temperature range: "cold, bastard cold or freezing."
"I have seen persons of emotional temperament stand with tearful eyes, spellbound and dumb with awe, as they got their first view of the Valley from Inspiration Point (pictured), overwhelmed in the sudden presence of the unspeakable, stupendous grandeur," said Galen Clark, the first European American to "discover" Yosemite in eastern California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. And we can thank Clark for pushing legislation that led to the Yosemite Land Grant signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. It was the first time the federal government set aside land for preservation — it is generally recognized as the birth of the national parks idea. But beyond the historic significance, Yosemite is indeed a place of unspeakable, stupendous grandeur. Maybe best known for its waterfalls, the park also plays home to hypnotic valleys, ancient giant trees, incredible rock formations, meadows worthy of odes and sonnets, and 750 miles worth of trails from which to explore it all.
Anywhere you land in the Galapagos archipelago will be fascinating; the islands and their aquatic environs — made famous by Charles Darwin — form a national park and a marine reserve, all within the Ecuadorian province of which they are a part. Of the 18 main islands, San Cristobal Island (pictured here) is the easternmost, and the oldest as well. It was formed by the fusion of several volcanoes and it is where Darwin first set foot on the islands. While it is the most populated of all the islands (and serves as a gateway for exploring the archipelago) it also hosts frigate birds, marine iguanas, Galapagos tortoises, blue footed boobies, Galapagos sea lions, swallow-tailed seagulls, dolphins and other must-see wildlife. But take your pick of any of the islands that comprise this special spot and you will easily find yourself in one of the prettiest and most interesting places in the world.
Lavender fields of France
Lavender fields of France
For this one we're also considering the olfactory component, because fields of vibrant flowers in Provence, France are one thing; but add waves of heady lavender fragrance to the setting and it's a slam-dunk in the beautiful places department. We can thank the Romans for bringing lavender to France, which they did more than 2,000 years ago. The hillsides and plateaus provided the perfect place for wild lavender to flourish and throughout the Middle Ages the local Provencal inhabitants collected the flowers for natural remedies and cleaning. By the end of the 19th century, increased attention was paid to maintaining and cultivating the lavender, resulting in its thriving position in the economy, culture and fields of the region today. Take a deep breath.
Nestled in the jungles of Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat comprises 155 square miles of what UNESCO calls one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. The site was the capital of the Khmer Kingdom, and with its beautifully ornamented temples, hydraulic structures and urban planning, it represents an impressive range of Khmer art from the 9th to 14th centuries. But beyond the beauty of the monuments in general, one of the most striking sights to behold is the way in which the jungle is slowly reclaiming the temple of Ta Prohm. While the other monuments have been protected from the clutches of arboreal exuberance, archeologists have left Ta Prohm to fend for itself. As a result, visitors are graced with the opportunity to see the incredible power of nature. In the contest between architecture and trees, the trees are winning.
While most people associate Hawaii with the "perfect beaches and palm trees" brand of beauty, we're taking another tack here; we're adding Big Island to the list for its "otherworldly planet turning itself inside out" appeal. Pristine Pacific paradises are one thing, but the opportunity to see active volcanoes oozing and spewing lava is a humbling sight. Between 1983 and 2002, lava flows added 543 acres of land mass to the island; how incredible to be able to witness geology in action. (And if you get tired of watching volcanoes, you can always head back to the perfect beaches and palm trees.)
Antarctica, Southern Ocean
Antarctica, Southern Ocean
The stark frigid atmosphere of the southern tip of the globe may not be all that hospitable, but its beauty is sublime. Antarctica holds the title as the coldest, windiest and driest continent, with nearly 98 percent of it covered in very deep ice. This all conspires to create stunning landscapes of pure white snow mingling with blue ice in structures of architectural magnificence. Striking as it is though, the land is so forbidding that the sea supports most of the continent’s wildlife, which is relatively meager in diversity. There are a number of flying bird species, as well as eight species of penguins, seven species of pennipeds and around 10 species of cetaceans. However, you may be surprised to learn that there are over 100 species of moss, 400 species of lichen-forming fungi and over 1,000 species of free-living fungi. Heroic life forms, to be sure!
Although 19th century explorer David Livingstone named the magnificent waterfall which separates Zambia and Zimbabwe in honor of Queen Victoria, the indigenous (and much more poetic) name — Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means "the smoke that thunders" — is commonly used and is thankfully recognized by the World Heritage List. While this chronically rainbow-creating waterfall is neither the highest nor the widest in the world, it is still considered the world’s largest sheet of falling water based on height (354 feet) and width (5,604 feet) combined. It is an exquisite vision, the product of the full width of the Zambezi River — 1.25 miles wide here — flowing along a basalt plateau, only to suddenly plummet in a single drop into the deep chasm that divides the countries. This wonderful waterfall is considered by many to be the most awe-inspiring of all.
Tunnel of Love
Tunnel of Love
Ukraine's Tunnel of Love located near the town of Klevin may not be the most dramatic spot on our list, but for the tree-loving romantic, it may steal the show. Fortunately, someone decided that train tracks and forests need not be mutually exclusive, and thus, a towering tunnel through the trees has been maintained to allow travel of a train that makes its way through the fairy tale passage three times a day. The rest of the time, this arboreal archway — which is nearly 2 miles long — hosts strolling lovers and is said to seal promises made there if their love is true.
Taktsang Palphug Monastery
Taktsang Palphug Monastery
Also known as the Tiger's Nest, the Taktsang Palphug Monastery can be found near the city of Paro in Bhutan, the small eastern Himalayan country nestled between India and China. The monastery, which is perched on a cliff at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, was built in 1692 at the site of the cave where a guru by the name of Padmasambhava meditated (as the story goes) for three years, three months, three weeks and three hours back in the 8th century. This dream home for hermits remains a great example of Bhutanese architecture, an exquisite jewel tucked into the rugged beauty of its surroundings.
While many of the world's most notable mountains are famed for their imposing drama, Japan's Mount Fuji is a departure from the norm. It doesn't brood; it's serene and contemplative — which isn't to say that it doesn't have some personality. At 12,388 feet it is Japan's highest mountain; and although it hasn't erupted since 1707, it is still considered an active volcano. Yet it somehow manages to exude a sense of calm. And if ever a mountain were to be a muse, Mount Fuji would be it. For centuries its form has been a recurring theme in paintings, literature, gardens and other crafts. As UNESCO describes it, the mountain's perfect, snow-capped conical form has "inspired artists ... to produce images that transcended cultures, allowed the mountain to be known around the world, and had a profound influence on the development of Western art." It remains a potent and sacred symbol of Japan.
The night sky
The night sky
This is the most democratic of destinations, one that everyone can visit as Earth spins us around offering a perfect 360-degree view. All you need to do to enjoy the splendors of the night sky is to find some darkness and tilt back your head. The sights are many, from stars and galaxies to satellites and planets. Gazing at the moon all night might be enough, but add in eclipses, meteor showers, star clusters, nebulae and constellations ... and all without leaving the comfort of a lounge chair, you have perhaps the single most beautiful place in the world right in front of you: the entire universe!