Fortunately for us, a great view can happen at any place and at any moment: a sunset over an empty field, an unexpected panorama from the top of an office building, the morning sun on a crowded street. There are some classic views, however, that are certainly worth a trip. As a travel writer, I’ve been lucky to behold a number of spectacular sights, but the following ones I’ll remember for a very long time.
1. The Grand Canyon from the South Rim
People come from all over the world to take in this vista, which at sunset resembles an impressionistic painting brought to life. Hopi Point, on the West Rim Drive, extends far out into the canyon and is an excellent vantage point among many. Try to visit during the shoulder seasons of April-May and September-October, when the weather is milder and the park is less crowded.
2. Hong Kong Island from Kowloon
Hong Kong Island is clustered with dizzying neon-lit skyscrapers, and the view from the Kowloon Peninsula across Victoria Harbour is straight out of a science-fiction film. This dense urban scene is especially impressive every evening at 8, when it promptly erupts into a laser light show!
3. Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
This remarkable bay between the island of Phuket and the Thai mainland is dotted with hundreds of tall limestone formations that rise hundreds of feet from the sea. Ten thousand years ago, you could walk among these towers; now only their tops are visible, like the skyline of a sunken city.
4. Manhattan from the top of Rockefeller Plaza
The Empire State Building has some very serious competition when it comes to sweeping views of Manhattan. I now prefer the relatively new “Top of the Rock” Observation Deck in Rockefeller Center, mostly for its incredible panorama of Central Park to the north. Look hard and you can spot Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
5. Istanbul skyline from the Bosphorus strait, Turkey
The Bosphorus strait, which runs squarely through the middle of Istanbul, famously divides Europe and Asia. Both sides of the city slope down to the water like an urban valley. The view from Galata Bridge includes several of the city’s incredible mosques, whose graceful domes and towering minarets are the stuff of fairytales.
6. The Ngorongoro Crater from North Ngorongoro Crater Lodge, Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Crater is one of the world’s largest calderas, which are formed when volcanoes explode and collapse upon themselves. The result is an elevated plateau perfectly ringed with tall mountains. From this hotel, the caldera spreads out below like a vast natural basin, and to know that it’s teeming with elephants, lions and wildebeest is especially exciting.
7. St. Paul’s from Waterloo Bridge, London
Waterloo Bridge, which has been around in various guises since the early 19th century and has inspired all manner of songs and poems, is cannily situated on a bend of the Thames that affords one of the best views in London. Looking east toward the city, St. Paul’s Cathedral (the dome of which recalls the U.S. Capitol) sits like a graceful dowager queen in the midst of cranes and skyscrapers.
8. The Golden Gate Bridge from the Marin Headlands
Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge is vastly overrated; it’s incredibly windy, and rushing traffic is just steps away. You’re much better off heading up to the Marin Headlands (particularly Hawk Hill) and taking in the view from a calm park bench, with the Bay, the bridge, the city and the blue Pacific spread out far below.
9. Machu Picchu, Peru
Perched on a mountain ridge high above the Urumba Valley in central Peru, this remarkable Incan city is surrounded on three sides by steep valleys, giving visitors the distinct impression that they’re hovering in air. The fact that the ruins are frequently draped in a light cloud layer only adds to the thrilling vertigo of the place.
10. The Yucatan Peninsula from the top of Chichen Itza, Mexico
It’s 365 steps to the top of El Castillo, the main temple of this sprawling Mayan city, but the view from the top is well worth it. The soft green expanse of Yucatan jungle stretching out in every direction is truly mesmerizing. And with a good pair of binoculars, you can spot distant ruins rising up from the canopy.
11. Florence from the loggia of Villa San Michele, Italy
The town of Fiesole, perched on a hillside northeast of Florence, was where wealthy Florentines chose to escape the heat and humidity of the Arno River Valley in the gardens of their lavish villas. The Villa San Michele was constructed in the 15th century and is now a famous hotel. A loggia (open-sided gallery) runs along one side of the building, from which you can look out across the entire city of Florence, an expanse of terra-cotta roofs dominated by the great dome of its 14th-century cathedral. The view, which has changed little in 500 years, offers a kind of time travel back to the world of the High Renaissance.
12. Paris from the Pont des Arts, France
A pedestrian bridge across the Seine, the Pont des Arts is at the epicenter of Paris. On the right bank is the Cour Carrée of the Louvre; on the left, the Institut de France; directly upstream is the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral. Standing on the bridge, the great art historian Kenneth Clark famously remarked: “What is civilization? I do not know. … But I think I can recognize it when I see it: and I am looking at it now.”
13. The medina of Fes from the Palais Jamai, Morocco
The ancient walled city of Fes is dramatically sited in a bowl of hills. From the Palais Jamai (now a hotel) you gaze down on the white and beige roofs of the medieval medina, a vast warren of alleys and courtyards in which it is all too easy to become hopelessly lost. At is center are the green-tiled roofs of the University of Al-Karaouine, founded in 859 and the oldest university in the world.
14. Annapurna from Sarankot, Nepal
The Himalayas are unlike any other mountains on earth: They are simply much bigger and grander. Arguments rage about which is the most unforgettable view: The Kangshung Face of Everest in Tibet; K2 from the snout of the Baltoro Glacier; Kanchenjunga across the tea terraces of Darjeeling. The list is endless. The first time I saw the Himalayas in all their incomparable splendor was from the village of Sarankot, 5,000 feet up in the foothills of Nepal. It is a famous panoramic view of immense peaks, dominated by the 26,000-foot Annapurna massif. And to this day, it remains my most indelible memory.
15. Sydney Harbour from Taronga Zoo, Australia
Which is the most spectacular harbor in the world: Rio, Hong Kong or Sydney? It’s hard to say, but on a sunny day, the view from Taronga Zoo across a yacht-strewn expanse of blue water to the Opera House, the Harbour Bridge and the towers of downtown Sydney certainly takes the cake.
16. The Potala Palace from across the Lhasa River, Tibet
Throughout the 19th century, Lhasa was the most mysterious city in the world, a magnet for intrepid European travelers. Today, it is a Chinese regional capital, increasingly swamped by shoddy and depressing concrete buildings. At its heart, however, the magnificent Potala Palace, the winter residence of Tibet’s Dalai Lamas, is still as extraordinary as ever. Its 13 stories are terraced 400 feet up the side of Marpo Ri (“Red Hill”), contain more than 1,000 rooms and have walls 16 feet thick. There are few more remarkable and impressive structures on earth.
17. The Parthenon from Mount Lycabettus, Athens, Greece
Athens is not a particularly beautiful city, but every time you turn a corner and catch a glimpse of the Parthenon, high on the Acropolis, your spirits are instantly lifted. The most stirring view is not from down in the city itself, however, but from the top of 900-foot Mount Lycabettus, one of the isolated limestone peaks that rise from the Plain of Attica. It is possible to walk to the summit through pine trees from Kolonaki, Athens’ chicest residential district.
18. The Lemaire Channel, Antarctica
Nicknamed “Kodak Gap,” the Lemaire Channel extends for seven miles between the Antarctic Peninsula and Booth Island. Snowcapped 3,000-foot peaks rise almost vertically from a sea littered with ice floes. For some reason, the water usually has a mirror-like surface, and the reflections, especially in December and January at the time of the midnight sun, are almost psychedelic.
19. The City Palace from the Lake Palace, Udaipur, India
The Lake Palace, apparently afloat in the middle of Lake Pichola, is an image familiar from innumerable photography books and India Tourist Board posters. But the view the other way, from the Lake Palace to the city of Udaipur, is equally, if not more, extraordinary. The colossal City Palace, a mass of golden stone rising from the sapphire waters of the lake, was a scene beloved by 18th- and 19th-century European watercolorists.
20. The temples of Bagan, Myanmar
Dotted across a plain beside the Irrawaddy River in central Myanmar, the ruins of Bagan cover 16 square miles. Dozens of immense stupas and temples rise from the red, dusty soil, all that remains of a major city sacked by the Mongol Kublai Khan. The scene at sunrise is unforgettably romantic.