The world’s top tourist attractions by the number of visitors have a lot in common: they are typically in urban centers (Union Station, Washington, D.C.), free of charge (Central Park, New York) and have broad cultural appeal (Buckingham Palace, London.) In contrast, this selection of the top 50 attractions honors local heritage and cultural landmarks at major destinations that have captured the world’s imagination – more than a train station or park – to inspire trips that explore farther afield.
The last of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World standing, and more than 3,000 years old, the Great Pyramid rises 479 feet from a 754-feet square base. Scientists still don’t understand how the ancient Egyptians were able to move, carve and erect more than 2 million stone blocks, each weighing from 2 to 60 tons. It is one of three pyramids to tour on the Giza Plateau; get there early to purchase entry tickets or work with a local tour operator.
Located in the best place to visit in France, the Eiffel Tower sells about 7 million tickets annually and is appreciated at a distance by all Paris visitors. Completed for the 1889 Exposition Universelle after two years of construction, it has 1,665 steps to the top and elevators to two observation levels. Computer programmed beacons, which are seen up to 50 miles away, complement the tower’s 20,000 lightbulbs as part of a thrilling, hourly night show designed to celebrate the millennium.
The Hollywood sign, which debuted as Hollywoodland in 1923 to advertise a real estate development, was rebuilt in 1978 to mark the iconic industry that makes Los Angeles a company town, even today. For the best selfies, park along North Beachwood Drive off Franklin Avenue and look up Beachwood Canyon, or get nostalgic at Griffith Park Observatory, where “La La Land” was filmed.
Graffitied segments of the Berlin Wall that separated the socialist, former East Germany from democratic West Berlin are enshrined around the world. In Berlin, however, one of the few monuments to the Cold War is this gallery of 101 panels totaling around 4,300 feet. They were painted by artists in 1990 to commemorate the Wall’s fall and preserve a segment from destruction by urban development.
One of the world’s most famous cathedrals, La Sagrada Familia features undulating lines, abstract stained glass and dripping stone towers. This masterpiece is the work of visionary architect Antoni Gaudí, whose ornate private commissions and playful Parc Güell are also top attractions in Barcelona. Construction on La Sagrada Familia began in the late 1870s and was supervised by Gaudi for 43 years until his death (he is buried in the crypt). It is expected to be completed in 2026.
Formerly a palace for Kings Rama I through Rama V, and home to Wat Phra Kaew (the Temple of the Emerald Buddha), today’s ceremonial royal complex is Bangkok’s top attraction. Allow a half day to admire the ornate carvings, gilded teak woodwork, tiles and classic architecture of the palace’s three courtyards, and see the temple interior. Visitors are asked to wear black or white out of respect for the late King Rama IX, who died in 2016.
Often capped with snow, Mount Fuji’s gently sloping volcano is Japan’s definition of perfection. Revered by locals and considered a top place to visit in Japan, the 12,388-foot summit is open to hikers in certain seasons. Most visitors opt for a sighting, either from Tokyo‘s sky-high observation decks or a passing bullet train heading to Osaka. Or, consider a visit to Hakone, a town with natural hot springs where you can savor the view – best in early morning or late afternoon, between November and May.
The 1,000-year-old Tower of London fortress has served as a royal palace, prison, armory, execution chamber and treasury, safeguarding the 24,000 gems that make up the famous Crown Jewels, still worn by the Queen on special occasions. Tours are led by the colorfully costumed Beefeaters who thrill kids. Buy tickets online to avoid long waits; save with a three-palace Royal Pass if you’re into nobility.
South Las Vegas Boulevard, or The Strip, the city’s main road and home to numerous casinos and clubs, welcomed 30.5 million visitors in 2016. Since traffic is bad and the monorail is not scenic, put on comfortable shoes to stroll from the free dancing waters show at the Bellagio Fountains to the 550-foot-tall High Roller observation wheel for a closer look at some of the city’s most famous sights.
The hilltop Schloss Neuschwanstein was home to young King Ludwig II of Bavaria, who ascended to the throne full of dreams for his kingdom, lost power to the Prussians, retreated to several fantasy palaces and became so isolated that he was declared insane in 1886. The lavish, white fairy-tale palace welcomes more than 1.4 million curious visitors annually and is said to be Walt Disney’s inspiration for the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland.
Topping many bucket lists, the Indonesian island of Bali is a Hindu enclave that has welcomed Westerners for more than a century, hosting New Age and traditional cultures alongside a beachfront party scene. Ubud, a hilltop inland village surrounded by Instagram-worthy rice fields, already the epicenter of yoga, Pan Asian foodie cuisine and elaborate family ceremonies, was made even more popular by the book and film “Eat, Pray, Love.”
While all United Arab Emirates countries boast architectural superlatives, the tallest of the futuristic towers – and the tallest building in the world – is the slender silver and glass Burj Khalifa. Even though you can see it from everywhere, to experience the 148th-floor Observation Deck without lines, and feel the breeze whooshing past the partial glass barriers, is a bucket-list adventure many think warrants the sky-high admission fee.
Officially known as “The Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World,” the copper Lady Liberty was gifted by France as a symbol of friendship and dedicated in 1886. Conserved by the National Park Service, it can be easily seen from the free Staten Island Ferry, but to tour the museum at its base or climb the 377-step spiral staircase into the fascinating crown, you must book ahead with Statue Cruises.
Opened in 1994, Shanghai’s favorite vintage tower design – 11 red and gold spheres pierced by a silver column supporting a glass elevator – was inspired by a Chinese poem describing “large and small pearls dropping on a plate of jade.” Located in Pudong, the top sphere holds the tallest observation deck with a glass overlook; other spheres have views over the Huangpu River toward the classic Bund, a revolving restaurant and the interesting Shanghai Municipal History Museum at its base.
Now the remains of an enormous, carved marble ellipse, the Colosseum was commissioned in A.D. 72 by Emperor Vespasian as an amphitheater to entertain the masses. Using four levels pierced by 80 arched entrances, 55,000 spectators could quickly take seats to watch all-day games between wild animals, slaves and criminals. The local guides in gladiator costumes hanging around today will tell you how the ground was once soaked in blood and that Christians, indeed, were thrown to lions here.
The jagged, 14,692-foot Matterhorn peak resembles a flint ax head above the posh resort town of Zermatt. Higher than most of the peaks in the Alps near the Italian border, the mountain attracts skiers and snowboarders in winter with fine snow conditions and grooming, and sightseers year-round who want to ride the funicular.
Although Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar attracts millions of visitors, the city’s most authentic must-see is Sultanahmet Camii, the Blue Mosque built for Sultan Ahmet I in the 17th century. In addition to the stunning blue-glazed tiles that decorate the dome and walls, look for layers of prayer rugs from the Muslim world and Sultan Ahmet’s tomb. Dress modestly (long slacks for men, head coverings for women), remove shoes and respect the prayer times when it closes briefly for non-Muslims.
Hong Kong may be most famous for the busy waterway separating the island’s glittering skyscrapers from the commercial mainland at Kowloon. The most spectacular views of the city are from the water, whether seen on a cheap Star Ferry connecting Wan Chai to Tsim Sha Tsui, a traditional Chinese junk or a guided cruise. Set sail after sunset for the world’s largest light and sound show at 8 p.m. nightly, when the city’s skyscrapers erupt into seasonally themed lighting effects synchronized to music.
The Library of Celsus commemorating the Roman governor Julius Celsus Polemaeanus was commissioned by his son and begun in 110 A.D. Originally two stories tall with a central reading room and three tiers of decorative niches holding life-size statues, it was reconstructed from ruins by archeologists during the 1970s. The excellent replicas and stunning facade restoration make it among the top excursions for cruise ship visitors to the ancient port of Ephesus.
With 50 million visitors annually, Manhattan’s monument to billboards, Broadway and buskers is a must. It all began at Long Acre Square when New York Times publisher Adolph S. Ochs built his paper’s office tower in an area benefitting from the recent arrival of electric lighting and the subway. Times Tower opened in 1904. Shortly after, former Mayor McClellan renamed the square after the paper, and it’s still used for the New Year’s celebration they pioneered.
Followers of “The Crown” and royal weddings know the British people love their monarchy, although Buckingham Palace, the royal residence since 1837, only opened for public visits in 1993. Greater as a symbol of power than as a mansion, it nonetheless fronts 354 feet of prime real estate between Green and St. James parks. The palace has 775 rooms, including 52 royal and guest bedrooms, 78 bathrooms and 188 bedrooms for staff. Book far ahead for State Rooms tours.
The 197-foot bell tower rose at Campo dei Miracoli between the 12th and 14th centuries to accompany a Romanesque cathedral and baptistery. Although it began tilting immediately, Pisa’s eight-story marble structure, ringed with arches and 207 support columns, was considered an engineering feat. Following centuries of effort to right it, the tower reopened in 2001 after three years of placing weights on the tower and removing soil from below the foundation succeeded in reducing the tilt.
This former royal compound, where size matters, is more than a half-mile long and exhausting to see. Home to 24 emperors of the Ming and Qing Dynasties between 1420 and 1925, Forbidden City is a heritage site, not a museum of antiquities. Laid out according to Confucian ideals, its men-only outer court comprises more than 90 palaces while the family-centric inner court was devoted to imperial residences and ceremonial halls.
This large carved stone slab covered in text dominates Room 4 at the British Museum because of its crucial role in uncovering ancient history. Actually, a decree about King Ptolemy V meant for public display, it has the same text inscribed in three ancient languages: hieroglyphics, demotic and ancient Greek. Because scholars could read the latter, the stone became the key to deciphering hieroglyphics and has become synonymous with the solution to any riddle.
It opened July 17, 1955, launching a theme park industry that is emulated around the world. Within two years, more than 4.5 million people were visiting Disneyland, cementing Walt and Roy Disney’s model of building a fairy-tale place to please guests who were a happy audience for story-based thrill rides, expensive food and themed souvenirs. Today, with new Pixar character theming and the movie-themed Cars Land, it remains the second most attended theme park in the Disney empire.
As well-known for its Riviera Maya beach and Caribbean Sea as for its UNESCO-designated Mayan ruins, Tulum is one of Mexico’s top destinations. Just 80 miles south of Cancun, Tulum is as tranquil and laid-back as that city is bustling, yet it also has plenty of boutique hotels and restaurants. The picturesque archaeological site – several white limestone temples and carvings highlighted against blue sea and sky – dates to the sixth century and is very well-preserved. If you’re looking for a deal to this increasingly popular destination, consider visiting Mexico on a cruise.
Although the Lotte World theme park attracts more visitors, the classical architecture and gardens of the Joseon Dynasty royal residence make it a window into Korea’s past. Opened in 1395 when Seoul became the country’s new capital, the palace was destroyed in the 16th-century Japanese invasion, then rebuilt on a nearly 100-acre compound. It’s open daily except for Tuesday; try to catch the Royal Guard Changing Ceremony at Gwanghwamun Gate or the occasional evening tour to see it after dusk.
Orlando welcomed 72 million visitors in 2017 and, by some estimates, more than 17 million of them went to the Magic Kingdom. Home to Mickey Mouse, beloved Disney film characters and the iconic Cinderella Castle, it’s the centerpiece of a 40-square-mile park comprising Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, two water parks, trains, more than 25 hotels and the dreams of millions worldwide.
Argentina and Brazil share World Heritage national parks conserving spectacular waterfalls that feed the Iguazu River. Multiple cataracts, extending more than 8,800 feet from a height of 262 feet, generate a vast spray of water in a unique subtropical rainforest habitat. Stay in either country’s tourist town, boat or bus in and carry your passport to cross the border. Plus, look for rainbows, 2,000 plant species and animals, including tapirs, anteaters, monkeys, ocelots, jaguars and caimans.
The smallest country in the world, the Holy See is the center of Roman Catholicism, home to the pope, beautiful gardens and 11 museums, some dating to medieval times. Book timed tickets to join the nearly 6 million visitors who last year admired Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling. Or, queue for free entry to St. Peter’s Basilica to see the Vatican’s colorful Swiss Guards, priceless religious art and the balcony where the pope addresses the faithful.
An architectural wonder when it was designed by Jørn Utzon in the mid-1950s, the billowing “sails” of Sydney’s waterfront hall have defined the city to the world ever since. Visitors can tour several performance spaces inside and out, join dawn exercise classes on the steps, hear world-class symphonies, watch light shows and capture its elegant lines through a lens.
Since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay claimed the first ascent in 1953, more than 7,600 people have summited Mt. Everest – the highest peak on earth at 29,035 feet – and nearly 300 have died trying. Still considered the pinnacle of human achievement, the risk-averse peak bagger or non-climber can get up close to the summit on a flightseeing tour from Kathmandu.
Petra is referred to as the “Rose-Red City” and, at dawn especially, the pink cut-rock remains are a remarkable sight. Daylong visits begin at the Siq, a half-mile gorge lined with horse carriages heading to the vast complex. Wonder turns to astonishment at the first view of Al-Khazneh, a royal tomb carved by the Nabataeans 2,000 years ago. Although most structures have fallen, the remaining facades and amphitheater testify to the sophistication of early Arab settlers.
While spectators are captivated by Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile and gaze that follows you around the gallery, Renaissance master artist Leonardo da Vinci also painted the horizon behind her at eye level to draw viewers in. The priceless oil on wood portrait was kept by King Francois I, King Louis XIV and Napoleon before the French government declared her a public treasure; today, she has her own fan mailbox at the Louvre.
Since they were first discovered by farmers in 1974, the life-size, terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shihuang has become the defining attraction of Xi’an, a historic northwestern city boasting pagodas, towers and fortification walls from several eras. Although the huge Qin mausoleum site, located about an hour outside of town, requires decades more excavation, more than 2,000 perfectly restored chariots, horses and individual warriors now stand in proud formation, guarding the passage of China’s first emperor from life to death.
The largest Buddhist temple compound in the world rose on a Central Java hilltop during the eigth and ninth centuries. Like a three-dimensional mandala, or a representation of the cosmos, it has a pyramidal stone base with five concentric square terraces, topped by three circular platforms and a domed stupa. The setting, monumental scale and eye-pleasing symmetry quietly complement thousands of carved reliefs and Buddha statues. Circle each terrace clockwise, like the sun, to walk the path toward enlightenment.
Africa’s tallest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro at 19,340 feet, is one of Tanzania’s top attractions and one of the few great mountains that can be summited without too many technical skills or climbing equipment. Several guide companies run six-day round-trip hikes that allow trekkers to acclimatize to the altitude. The drier January to March season is colder but quieter than the more crowded summer months.
Site of the State Historical Museum, St. Basil’s Cathedral, the luxury GUM department store and other important structures, the gray-paved square was cleared by Prince Ivan III in the 15th century to enlarge his fortress, or kremlin, and add ornate, red brick walls. After Lenin’s Tomb opened here in 1930, the changing of the guards around it and the frequent military parades began to attract tourists. It was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990.
Known as the crossroads at the crossroads of the world, this bustling marketplace houses orange juice stalls under sun umbrellas, horse-drawn carriages and wizened snake charmers. After dark, the smoke of grilling meat swirls around fluorescent-lit food stands, dancers and fortune tellers entertaining the crowds. The heart of Marrakech’s old medina, you’ll cross this tantalizing square whether you shop in the souk, pause for mint tea or explore the old mosques and madrassas.
Erected by a multinational team of engineers from 1922 to 1931, this art deco statue of Christ with arms outstretched watches over Brazil – and the world’s Christians – from the peak of Corcovado Mountain. At nearly two-thirds the size of the Statue of Liberty, the white soapstone and concrete work designed by Paul Landowski can be seen for miles and was selected as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the construction of the Great Wall in 221 B.C. to protect China’s first feudal empire from the Huns to the north. Eventually more than 5,500 miles long from east to west, a section built after the 14th century can be seen near Beijing. Skip the restored and crowded section at Badaling and join a tour to Jinshanling or Jiankou to hike between towers and turrets, the ever-snaking wall in view, and imagine the clatter of chariot hooves beneath your feet.
Most travelers put the Taj Mahal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a remarkable monument to love, on their bucket list – with good reason. The almost translucent, 240-foot-tall mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, is made of intricately carved white marble inlaid with semiprecious stones and gems. Commissioned in 1632, it represents 22 years of labor by 20,000 workers, yet is just one of many stunning Mughal monuments in Agra.
One of Tokyo’s most popular attractions with 30 million visitors each year, this Shinto shrine embodies the people’s gratitude to Emperor Meiji and his consort, who modernized Japanese society and government in the early 20th century. In addition to seeing the torii gate, teak buildings and public prayer wall, travelers can participate in traditional prayer rituals. One hundred thousand trees donated to the surrounding Yoyogi Park make this a tranquil spot in Shibuya.
This flat, eye-catching plateau is a sky-high recreational area that has attracted 24 million visitors since the Table Mountain Aerial Cableway opened in 1929. While the cars rising to 3,600 feet rotate to show off picturesque Cape Town, the mountain’s rich biodiversity – 1,470 species of plants and myriad forest animals in a relatively small area – is the top attraction.
Reaching an estimated 22 million annual visitors, the 6 million cubic feet of water per second tumbling over the rocky U.S.-Canada border gets everyone wet. While Canada’s thundering Horseshoe Falls is the widest, New York’s stunning American Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are seen from a more natural environment. Bring passports to cross the Rainbow Bridge and see both, and don’t miss any under-the-falls experiences on land or by boat.
A huge square in the city’s Centro Historico, Zócalo is for those who love local action. Stop to admire politicians scurrying to government offices and street hawkers peddling toys, snacks and the Mexican flag. Explore the Metropolitan Cathedral to the north, built on the ruins of the Aztec’s Templo Mayor. Art abounds, from Diego Rivera murals at the Ministry of Education to ornately tiled cafes, museums and several traditional bakeries selling colorful Mexican sweets.
The 12th-century stone Hindu temple, or wat, built by King Suryavarman II is the largest religious structure in the world. An architectural marvel surrounded by jungle and smaller shrines, Angkor Wat is laid out as a mandala, or plan of the universe, with courtyards on three levels. Famously covered in beautifully preserved Hindu carvings, the structure features scenes of Lord Vishnu, religious tales and thousands of dancing apsaras, alluring celestial maidens with their feet turned out.
Isolated in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles off Ecuador where three ocean currents meet, these volcanic islands boast biodiversity that inspired scientist Charles Darwin to write “On the Origin of Species” after a visit in 1835. Go soon on specially licensed boat tours, before the warming ocean threatens the islands’ coral reefs and unique species of boobies, turtles, sharks and more.
Around 15 million annual visitors to Tokyo Disneyland and nearly 13 million annual visitors to Tokyo DisneySea make both attractions among the world’s most successful theme parks. Celebrating 35 years in Japan, Tokyo Disney Resort has the traditionally favorite characters and rides, while DisneySea focuses more on themed attractions tied to recent movies. Be sure to visit both, noting the ways in which Disney incorporates elements of Asian culture to make the themes, cuisine and souvenirs more engaging for locals.
Like icing on the cake of ancient treasures, the Acropolis – literally “highest point” of Athens – is a must-see. Fifth-century B.C. marble masterworks include the 228-foot-long Parthenon, decorated with friezes seen at the on-site museum; Athena Nike temple; colonnaded Propylaea gateway; and the Erechtheum, whose portico is held up by caryatids (sculpted svelte women). Visit Athens in May and go to the Acropolis early before the heat and crowds build to appreciate the Golden Age of a civilization that defined the Western world.