Everything has beauty, according to Confucius, but not everyone sees it.
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Take even the glorious Taj Mahal, for example—deemed “breathtaking,” “stunning,” and “spectacular” by most TripAdvisor reviewers, but “overrated,” “uninteresting,” and “a disappointment” to others. Who can account for taste?
The most beautiful places in the world.
That’s exactly why attempting to narrow down the most gorgeous spots on the planet is no easy feat—and why we decided to turn to a handful of pros, who have come up with a collection of sumptuous, oft-surprising picks ranging from remote natural wonders to glittering cities:
“From Piemonte to Sicilia, each of Italy’s regions has its own magic, but hill-town-studded Tuscany (Toscana)—like the timeless location you’ve seen in Merchant-Ivory films—takes the prize,” said Patricia Schultz, author of the best-selling trip bible "1,000 Places to See Before You Die." “The showcase city of Florence is its zenith, but look just beyond the city walls to a painting-perfect campagna of rolling hills blanketed with Chianti vineyards and olive groves, ancient Etruscan sites and history-rich towns like Lucca, Siena, and San Gimignano." Along its less-visited coast, the added surprise of sandy beaches and a sprinkling of islands is a welcome sight (Napoleon spent years of exile on Elba), Schultz adds.
“With the rise of Palmyra in Syria and sea-trading routes, the death knell was sounded for Petra, ancient capital of the Nabateans,” says the expert panel at Geographic Expeditions. “By the Arab invasion of the 7th century A.D., Petra was a forgotten city and remained so until it was rediscovered in 1812 by the young Swiss explorer Johann Burckhardt.” Today the elegant site, which dates back to 1200 B.C., is known as the “Pink City” because of the rose-hued sandstone used to create the phenomenal palaces and tombs. It’s perhaps most stunning at dusk, when the ancient city is aglow with thousands of candles.
Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile
“Looking across the lake from the Explora Lodge you see one of the most magnificent mountainscapes in the world,” says Peter Friedman, a trip expert with Unique Travel, citing his favorite spot from which to take in one of the newest and grandest parks in South America, and a UNESCO World Heritage Reserve. The 598,000-acre park, tucked at the far south end of the Andes, offers a stunning mix of landscapes and fauna. Say the folks at Geographic Expeditions (who had it on their shortlist, too): “Paine’s unique physical attributes of glaciers, lakes, gnarled Magellanic trees, and dramatic mountains offer some of the most awe-inspiring hiking in the world.”
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
“Rio is possibly the most beautifully sited city on the globe,” says Schultz. “Head up to the statue of Christ the Redeemer at Corcovado for a take-your-breath-away view of la Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City). It is a unique city in many ways—where nature collides with a thrumming metropolis, the elegant with the seedy, and the rich with the poor.” The spot's proximity to the water makes for arresting views.
Located about halfway between the United States and Asia, this stunning atoll is a U.S. territory known for the Battle of Midway, which played a major role in World War II; today it’s home to a massive albatross population and is a designated National Wildlife Refuge. “History lives here,” says Peter Greenberg, CBS News travel editor. “The site of the most decisive naval battle in world history, Midway is where I go to think, to write without interruption. If you’re looking for footprints in the sand, just look behind you, because the only ones are the ones you made.”
“Truly a beautiful location, and a wine connoisseur’s delight,” says Friedman of this historic and fertile region. It’s studded with more than 7,000 wineries and bursts with sweeping vineyards, mighty rivers, gorgeous beaches, picturesque villages, and the stunning city itself, which has earned Bordeaux a place in the collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Mount Everest, Nepal
“Mount Everest is perhaps nature’s most magnificent creation – certainly it is the raison d’etre in the climbing world,” offer the travel planners at Geographic Expeditions. Part of the Mahalangur Himal—a link in the Himalayan chain—Everest, soaring to 26,035 feet, is the highest mountain on Earth. “The Tibetan word for Everest is Chomolungma, which means ‘Mother of the Universe,’ and the Nepalese, Sagarmatha means ‘Goddess of the Sky.’ Both are perfectly fitting, as there is no other mountain as grand as Everest.” Friedman of Unique Travel also has a soft spot for Everest—along with Himal Chuli, Manaslu, Pabil and the many other peaks dominating the spectacular views from Kathmandu. “Looking out at some of the tallest mountains in the world,” he says, “you ponder the reality of how small we truly are.”
Fire Island, New York
“This might seem a surprising choice, but imagine a 32-mile-long barrier island—and National Seashore—just 50 miles east of Manhattan. No cars, just bicycles and wagons and bare feet. Fire Island is the Hamptons without the attitude,” says Greenberg, who has lived there, at least part-time, since infanthood. Accessible via ferry, the island is home to 17 resort communities, a massive white-tailed deer population, and extraordinary stretches of sand dune-edged beaches. “It is a place I return to every year in April, May, June, and again in September (the most magical month), where I can relive my youth, my freedom and my innocence.”
Plain of Temples, Bagan, Myanmar
“One of the great sights of Asia, Bagan’s Plain of Temples displays pagoda after pagoda, large and small, rising up from the green delta plain,” notes Geographic Expeditions, which chose this sacred spot. The kings of ancient Bagan built more than 4,400 Buddhist temples here in only 230 years. Today, around half of the red brick works of artistry are still standing; many of them, such as Anando Pahto, are on every visitor’s hit list, though the more obscure ones offer thrills, too, from hidden frescoes to spectacular views of the landscape.
Okavango Delta, Botswana
“A tributary of the mighty Zambezi, the Okavango River creates a unique ‘water in the desert’ ecosystem, considered the world’s largest inland oasis and a magnet for wildlife,” notes Schultz. “Explore it by dug-out canoe (makoros), jeep, by foot or on elephant back—a safari here promises birdlife second to none." Add to that legions of elephants, zebras, buffaloes, giraffes, and hippos.
In Pictures: The Most Beautiful Places in the World