Whether seasoned or occasional travelers, we all have trips that we dream of taking—places praised by friends returning from vacation or discovered through our reading. Some even create lists. Here, we present our own compilation of the 10 most fascinating and memorable places in the world, ranked according to their popularity within the Lonely Planet community. These destinations will challenge you, move you, or simply inspire you to share your experiences.
Temples of Angkor, the Hindu paradise on Earth (Cambodia)
The site that came out on top won a landslide victory, with a 36% gap over the next site, while for the second place, the results were very close. What is the secret of the success of the archaeological site of Angkor ?
The largest temple in the world dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, dating from the 12th century, Angkor Wat stands out a bit in a predominantly Buddhist Cambodia . Huge representation of Mount Meru, the residence of the Hindu gods, it is the undeniable centerpiece of the site. It is made up of thousands of blocks of sandstone adorned with bas-reliefs so delicate and graceful that they seem carved by the gods; they illustrate the legends of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. This magnificent monument is the most precious remnant of a Hindu kingdom that once stretched as far as Burma, Laos and southern China.
Even in Southeast Asia, so rich in temples, Angkor is out of the ordinary. This complex contains more than 1,000 temples, shrines and tombs whose towers rise like those of a city lost in the jungle of northern Cambodia.
With nearby Siem Reap served by international flights, Angkor cannot be said to be secret, yet the visitor who ventures among the roots piercing ancient walls and the effigies of deities covered in vines will have the feel like an adventurer discovering a virgin land behind a curtain of greenery.
Over the centuries, the inhabitants of this heavenly city abandoned Hinduism for Buddhism. In the temples, the two mythologies mingle. Arriving at dawn in the ruins of the temple of Bayon is a unique experience: the benevolent faces of the Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of Compassion, then emerge gently in the mist, like celestial apparitions. The traveler is also moved by the overgrown ruins of Ta Prohm, a 12th century temple almost entirely engulfed in jungle, which has changed little since the arrival of the first European explorers at Angkor in the 17th century. Angkor offers such unique experiences that travelers often spend several weeks there to soak up the splendor of these temples and remains.
Scattered over more than 400 km2 around are sacred pools and stone bridges with ramps depicting demons brandishing monstrous serpents, as well as the remains of temples. Some have become unmissable, such as the temple of Banteay Srei, whose stone carvings are among the most delicate in Angkor, and Kbal Spean, not far away, with its riverbed carved with countless linga (symbols of Shiva).
Angkor is a powerful testimony to the ambitions of human creativity and the fundamental need of man to leave a lasting mark. The place generates an awareness dear to Buddhism: nothing material is eternal; over time, nature always takes back its rights. More than just a worthwhile ruin, Angkor is an epiphany carved in stone.
Great Barrier Reef, an underwater eldorado (Australia)
The second place in our ranking is occupied by a natural wonder that stretches for more than 3,000 km off the northeast coast of Australia . No need to introduce the Great Barrier Reef . Let’s just remember that it is the largest coral reef in the world, populated by 400 species of coral and 1,500 species of fish. Some 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises have been identified there, as well as 6 species of sea turtles and 17 varieties of sea snakes.
The reef is in danger of disappearing or at least losing its splendour. The warming of the oceans is responsible for the bleaching and death of corals and nothing suggests that the phenomenon can be stopped. For now, the reef remains an underwater paradise for divers and snorkelers. Even above and near the Queensland coast , this essential ecosystem captivates visitors, with its abundant feathered wildlife and myriad tropical islands and beaches.
Machu Picchu, the Inca enigma (Peru)
Only a few votes separated the second winner from the third. However, they differ in every way… The blissful contemplation of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate after four grueling days of trekking on the Inca Trail has become a rite of passage during any trip to Peru . The city, dating from the 15th century, is surrounded by a spectacular Andean landscape and suspended above the void, but its main attraction lies in the mystery that surrounds it. It ‘s a real enigma. The hypotheses abound – royal retreat, temple of the virgins of the Sun, landing strip for extraterrestrials – but none could be confirmed. Even Hiram Bingham, the American amateur archaeologist who discovered the ruins in 1911 and excavated there for years, didn’t really know what he was looking for (he died mistakenly believing he had discovered Vilcabamba, the legendary lost city of the Incas .) Today, you can stroll through the mysterious perched city , giving free rein to your imagination. Don’t miss the ascent of Huayna Picchu, the craggy Andean peak that overlooks the ruins, along the dizzying path to the Temple of the Moon.
Great Wall of China, Imperial Wall (China)
Each country has its flagship monument; in China , this monument criss-crosses almost the entire country. The Great Wall is not a wall like the others, but an imposing maze of fortifications extending over 8,850 km through the rugged terrain of the north of the country. Built in successive phases over more than a millennium, the Great Wall ultimately failed in its mission – the fight against the Mongol invasions – but became the emblem of the Ming dynasty, the greatest power that reigned in the Far East until the advent of Mao Zedong.
Contrary to what is said, the Great Wall is not visible from space, but faced with this building which seems to extend as far as the eye can see, one could be convinced. A few stalwarts travel the entire wall on foot, but even if you settle for just one section, you will be impressed by its indestructible aura . Choose from imperial grandeur (near Beijing ), military precision (Gansu) or ageless desolate landscapes (Inner Mongolia).
Taj Mahal, the Mughal pearl (India)
How to achieve architectural perfection? Start with a few acres of gleaming white marble, and add a few thousand semi-precious stones chiseled and set in elaborate Islamic designs. Choose a sublime setting on the banks of a sacred river, in a sumptuous garden with perfect symmetry. Wrap it all up in an intriguing love story. You get the Taj Mahal .
Built in the 17th century in India by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan to serve as a mausoleum for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal, the Taj has been attracting travelers for centuries. Ironically, at the end of his life, the emperor was imprisoned by his son at Agra Fort, from where the direct view of the Taj was the only memory of his lost fortune.
Despite the flood of visitors it attracts, the Taj Mahal continues to open the doors of a vanished era. The specters of Mughal India skirt the glittering marble of the courtyards, slipping under the arcades and behind the trellises. No other Indian monument so perfectly reflects the customs and atmosphere of that time.
Grand Canyon National Park, an exceptional natural spectacle (United States)
When you contemplate this deep fault in the earth’s crust, two billion years stretch before your eyes. The numbers do not leave you indifferent. Set ablaze by the setting sun, coated in oceans of mist or sprinkled with snow crystals, this 450 km long and almost 2 km deep corridor is to nature what cathedrals are to architecture. Facing the Grand Canyon , you will feel both tiny and grown up, moved and serene, poet and mute. As explorer John Wesley Powell said, “The wonders of the Grand Canyon are unspeakable and cannot be expressed in words.” We had to try anyway. Come hike, raft the fiery Colorado, observe condors and black bears, or simply be amazed.
Colosseum, theater of Roman cruelties (Italy)
Nothing like a Roman battle arena to awaken the historian who sleeps in you. A symbol of ruthless power, this massive 50,000-seat amphitheater is the most fascinating of Roman remains. The gladiators clashed here and the convicts measured themselves against the beasts in front of the beleaguered crowd. Two thousand years later, the influence exercised by this place on the visitor has remained intact.
The “Colosseo” first impresses with its size (however, the amphitheater was so named, not because of its size, but because of the Colossus of Nero, a statue erected nearby). Navigating through the 80 arcades and being seated in minutes was probably no small feat: slip into the shoes of a Roman and imagine having to jostle with the other spectators. Magistrates and high dignitaries sat in the lower tiers, closer to the action; wealthy citizens occupied those in the middle; the plebs sat on top. Women, considered second-class citizens, were relegated to the top of the bleachers and forced to crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the spectacle.
Despite the horror of the fighting, there is no denying the grace and majesty of the compound . The rather disturbing guided tour (not to be missed) will show you the Colosseum in its dark light: in the bowels of the arena all the horror, violence and filth of gladiatorial combats are revealed. This underground labyrinth, the hypogeum, made up of corridors and ramps containing cages, is as vast as it is complex. Imagine the cries of animals, the stench, the chaos of wounded men and dead or dying animals, and you will understand how heartbreaking and bloody these Roman spectacles could be.
Iguazú Falls, crashing waterfalls (Argentina – Brazil)
The Guaraní word designating the place where the Iguazú flows from the plateau to join the Paraná is really weak: the Great Water. Indeed, the force of these waterfalls is extraordinary, and the boats posted on the foaming basins below resemble frail matchsticks. Footbridges allow you to approach the waterfalls, which are set in a corner of humid subtropical forest forming a national park of 55,000 ha populated by animals, in particular jaguars.
The Alhambra, Spain’s Moorish masterpiece (Spain)
The Alhambra in Granada is one of the most spectacular medieval monumental ensembles , and one of the finest examples of Islamic art in the world. It is also the most tenacious witness to eight centuries of enlightened Muslim rule in medieval Spain . The fortified towers of the Alhambra dominate the city: its red walls can be seen from afar above the cypresses and elms, with the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada as a backdrop.
Inside, a network of lavish palaces and irrigated gardenswhich have inspired many dreams and legends. The contrast between the meticulousness of the ornaments and the epic dimensions of the Alhambra makes all its charm. The perfectly proportioned gardens of the Generalife are a striking evocation of paradise, while the interior of the Alhambra shines with unearthly beauty. In the center, the Nasrid Palaces (Palacios Nazaríes), with innumerable rooms, are the most precious treasure of the Alhambra. Harmonious balance between space, light and shade, water and greenery, they must plunge the sovereign into the heart of an earthly paradise. The walls are covered with ceramic tiles, muqarnas (corbels), vaults and stucco ornaments, and the Court of the Lions (Patio de los Leones) is a masterpiece of Islamic geometric tracery. In a nutshell, the Alhambra is the most beautiful monument in Spain.
Hagia Sophia, the fusion of beliefs (Turkey)
Part basilica, part mosque, part museum, Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) in Istanbul is unlike any other monument, defying categorization as it defied the laws of architecture when it was built 1,500 years ago . The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I dreamed of a church capable of eclipsing the marvels of Rome, its rival, and whose majesty would also be that of an earthly paradise. His wish was granted. Hagia Sophia, which became the main Orthodox church, still dominates the city. It ‘s a huge space, almost cosmic, creating an impression of unheard-of grandeur – all the more so for the time. Inside, it reveals one by one its treasures: huge columns brought from various cities of ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, and vast galleries adorned with sparkling mosaics. And then, imposing, rising above the smooth marble, the famous dome, which imitates the shape of the celestial vault – better however to forget that it collapsed several times.
The history of Hagia Sophia is as extraordinary as the building: indeed, few monuments have undergone so many metamorphoses. After being looted by the Crusaders, it was transformed into a mosque after the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, as evidenced by its four gigantic minarets – surprisingly, the new mosques of Istanbul (notably the famous Blue Mosque) took over this architectural feature. In 1935, it was deconsecrated and transformed into a museum. Entering it nevertheless remains a spiritual experience., whether to marvel at a golden fresco sparkling in the evening light, or to embrace Christian masterpieces and Islamic calligraphy with the same gaze. Like Istanbul the Magnificent, Hagia Sophia stands at the crossroads of continents and beliefs.