These amazing structures seem too detailed, too complex, too intricate, or too big to have been built by people, particularly those made long ago before machines existed to aid in their creation. Yet the world’s most beautiful buildings and statues stand as a testament to human capability and innovation. Some cities have more than one – we could do a whole story on Paris alone – but we searched the world to find the structures that best inspire, mystify, and leave us awestruck. We might not be able to see them all in real life, but luckily we can take a trip around the globe to visit them virtually.
The Eiffel Tower
Paris has an abundance of beautiful sites: Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe, and many more. But the Eiffel Tower stands as the iconic landmark of France’s capital – although it’s only been part of the city for 131 years.
Designed by Gustave Eiffel and built in just over two years, which was considered record speed at the time, the 300-metre-tall iron tower was created for the 1889 World’s Fair. “Before coming together at the high pinnacle, the uprights appear to burst out of the ground, and in a way to be shaped by the action of the wind,” Eiffel explained of his simple yet elegant design.
The Taj Mahal
The most beautiful tomb ever created, India’s Taj Mahal looks delicate and refined, decorated with floral and geometric patterns, jewels, calligraphy, and a lace-like design in white marble that reflects the changing colours of the sun in front of a shimmering reflecting pool. Commissioned in 1632 by the Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal, who had died after giving birth to their 14th child, the mausoleum took 20 years to build.
The complex also includes a gateway, mosque, guest house, gardens, and four minarets. Inside the Taj Mahal, the decorations are just as elaborate around the cenotaph, or false tomb, of Mumtaz Mahal; her actual remains are buried below, at ground level.
The Pyramids at Giza
The only one of the seven wonders of the ancient world left standing, the three ancient Egyptian pyramids outside of Cairo house the tombs of three pharaohs: Khufu, his son Khafre, and his son Menkaure. Khufu’s is called the Great Pyramid because it’s the biggest, originally reaching 139 metres high.
The three amazing structures were built over 70 years from about 2575 to 2465 BCE. It’s not completely known how the stone blocks from nearby quarries were lifted into the pyramid shapes, although experts believe they were built by tens of thousands of farmers in the off-season, not slaves. However they were constructed, the work was solid, literally, leaving the impressive pyramids still standing today to astound people just as they did thousands of years ago.
The Golden Gate Bridge
One of the most famous bridges in the world, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is also perhaps the most breath-taking, spanning the Golden Gate Strait, which links the San Francisco Bay to the Pacific Ocean. In addition to the striking towers and graceful cables of the suspension bridge, its most recognisable aspect is the unique colour, called ‘international orange,’ painted on the steel structure.
But the colour wasn’t an easy sell back in 1933, when the bridge began construction. ‘The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the greatest monuments of all time,’ consulting architect Irving Morrow wrote to convince the bridge’s board of directors. ‘It’s unprecedented size and scale, along with its grace of form and independence of conception, all call for unique and unconventional treatment from every point of view. What has been thus played up in form should not be let down in colour.’
Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament
“Big Ben! Parliament!” Everyone remembers the line from the movie National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and the most famous and beloved clock tower in the world does indeed dominate the London skyline. But it’s actually the bell inside, which weighs more than 13 tonnes, that is technically called Big Ben; the 96-metre tower is officially Elizabeth Tower.
The original Palace of Westminster, which now houses the British government’s Parliament, was destroyed by fire in 1834. Nearly a decade later, plans were made for a new, Gothic revival-style stone building. Designed by Charles Barry to blend in seamlessly with the surviving medieval buildings, the ornate Parliament building and the tower took 30 years to build.
Christ the Redeemer
Keeping watch over Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this 30-metre-tall Art Deco statue with outstretched arms was completed in 1931 and was the only modern structure voted to be included in the ‘new seven wonders of the world.’ (The other six are the Machu Picchu, the Great Wall of China, Chichen Itza, the Colosseum, Petra – all of which we’ll get to later – and the Taj Mahal).
Perched on the top of Corcovado mountain over 700 metres above the sea, the beauty of Christ the Redeemer stirs the soul, even among those who aren’t religious. Known locally as Cristo Redentor, the statue is also part of Tijuca National Park, the largest urban rainforest on earth.
Sydney Opera House
Even if you’ve never been to the opera, you probably recognise the soaring arches of this building over Sydney Harbour, Australia. “It stands by itself as one of the indisputable masterpieces of human creativity, not only in the 20th century but in the history of humankind,” reads a report to UNESCO World Heritage, of which the building is now a member.
Designed in the late 1950s and opened in 1973, the vaulted ‘shells’ of the opera house seem to burst out of its harbour-side setting, at once totally modern but also evoking emotion – a dramatic setting to match the drama of the performing arts it houses. Fun fact: 1,056,006 ‘Sydney tiles,’ made of a unique combination of clay and crushed stone, cover the roofs of the shells.
The Great Wall of China
Rolling over the landscape of China, this marvel of architecture blends into the countryside it was built to protect. The Great Wall is not actually one wall, but many branches over thousands of kilometres. Built over two millennia from the 3rd century BCE to the 17th century CE, the military defence system’s length was likely around 20,920 kilometres.
While much less of it remains today, it’s still the longest wall in the world, currently with 3460 metres of its mainline and about the same number of branches and spurs, according to Guinness World Records. One of mankind’s greatest building achievements, it’s impossible not to be awed by the sight of it.
Every ancient site in Rome is outstandingly beautiful, from the Roman Forum to Palantine Hill to the Pantheon temple to the chariot racetrack Circus Maximus – all reminders of a thriving and vibrant city that existed long ago. But one site represents all the glory that was ancient Rome: the Colosseum.
A massive stone amphitheatre originally covered in marble and travertine, it was built for the same reasons as the stadiums of today: for sport and entertainment. Holding more than 50,000 spectators, this huge structure took eight years to build, from 72 to 80 CE, though it got a few updates later.
As in the movie Gladiator, the entertainment did tend to be on the gory side, with actual gladiators fighting to the death. The arena also held executions and was even flooded for mock naval battles. Imagining these spectacular events at the Colosseum, you can practically hear Gladiator’s Russell Crowe shouting the line, “Are you not entertained?”
Germany has many gorgeous castles, but the most storybook one has to be Neuschwanstein in Bavaria. Dubbed ‘the fairy-tale king,’ Ludwig II was so inspired by the mountain scenery that he wanted to create a romantic castle-like in the poetry of yore – and he succeeded.
Unfortunately, he wouldn’t live to see the completely finished castle, because he was found dead in a lake under mysterious circumstances in 1886; the castle wasn’t mostly completed until 1892. Neuschwanstein seems to float above the surrounding countryside, and though the castle isn’t that high, it gives that impression because of its mountain perch, which also made the construction of the castle difficult. Its beauty, though, is unparalleled.
This intricately decorated Buddhist (originally Hindu) temple complex in Cambodia became an important pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages. Today, Angkor Wat is revered by those of all religions for the sophisticated construction its of five towers, bas reliefs (3D pictures sculpted into stone), and impressive size as the largest religious monument in the world.
In addition, it looks like something out of an adventure movie, as the jungle reclaimed some of the ruins and became one with the architecture – huge trees seem to grow out of the stone itself. The entire Angkor area contains many temples worth exploring, but Angkor Wat is considered the best of the region and even appears on Cambodia’s flag.
St Basil’s Cathedral
This vivid church looks like a candy confection with its bright colours, lively patterns, and swirling stripes on domes that look like icing on a cupcake. (They’re actually called onion-shaped domes, but we like cupcake icing better.)
Completed in 1561 by Ivan IV, known as Ivan the Terrible, this Russian landmark in Moscow’s Red Square looks in some ways like a confusion of colours and shapes, but the unexpected whimsy of the design is also part of its appeal. The layout is surprisingly orderly, with eight chapels around a central church. Originally, the colour scheme may have been white with gold domes; the hues were added 100 years later, giving it a totally unique style.
The Empire State Building
This Art Deco skyscraper has entered into legend: King Kong climbed it, lovers marry on Valentine’s Day atop it, it’s the most photographed building in the world, and it’s dominated the New York skyline for nearly 100 years. Opened in 1931, the Empire State Building has 102 floors, stands at 381 metres high, and was the world’s tallest building until the World Trade Center was built in 1970.
Its sleek silhouette leads up to a glass tube flanked by modern ‘bird-wing’ buttresses that add to the 1920s and ’30s style. At the tube’s top, just before the spire, is the 102nd floor. The only NYC skyscraper to rival its beauty is perhaps the Chrysler Building, which opened in 1930 – but the Empire State overtook its rival in both height and popularity to become the top landmark of the city.