Here are 10 of the most beautiful places on Earth — from cascading waterfalls and towering mountains, to tropical islands and picturesque cities.
Despite ills such as pollution, climate change, ecological disasters and the destruction of many wild places, Earth is a beautiful place. From waterfalls and islands to forests and mountains, our planet boasts myriad natural wonders that can amaze even the most jaded observer. But it also boasts equally dazzling human-made wonders, like picturesque cities and unique architecture.
Our list of the 10 most beautiful places in the world is subjective, but we think it is eclectic enough to capture the diverse beauty of our planet. If you were to point a camera at any of the places listed here, you’d get a breathtaking image.
The South Island of New Zealand boasts one of the world’s most picturesque fjords. Known as Milford Sound, it is located along the Island’s southwest coast, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Queenstown, which is a resort center famous for its skiing and outdoor activities.
Milford Sound is the crown jewel of New Zealand’s Fiordland National Park, which is the largest of the island nation’s 14 national parks, according to the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Beginning at a small village, also called Milford Sound, the fjord zigzags through a lush, green environment for nearly 10 miles (16 km) before opening into the Tasman Sea, situated between Australia and New Zealand. Buttressed by towering sheer cliffs and high mountain peaks, several of which soar to heights of 3,940 feet (1,200 meters), Milford Sound is a unique ecosystem. It is one of the wettest places on Earth, receiving an estimated average yearly rainfall of 22 feet (7 m). Mosses, lichens and ferns thrive in the wet environment and grow in abundance. Beech (Nothofagus sp.), an iconic tree of the Southern Hemisphere, is ubiquitous, but equally profuse are other trees, such as the podocarp (Podocarpus sp.), or native conifer, and the kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides), or white pine, which can reach heights of 196 feet (60 m). Ferns, however, are among Milford Sound’s most common plants. Several fern species live in the environment, including the silver fern (Alsophila dealbata), another one of New Zealand’s most iconic plants.
As is the case with all fjords, Milford Sound was formed as the result of glacial activity occurring over several million years. As the glaciers coalesced, flowing down from the South Island’s Southern Alps mountain range, they made deep cuts in the surrounding landscape. During warmer periods, the glaciers retreated, giving the fjord its unique geography and configuration.
The whitewashed, blue-capped houses of the Greek village of Fira are typical of the many picturesque villages of modern-day Greece. But these particular houses, along with those of Fira’s sister city Oia, are perched impossibly on the ridge of a caldera and command a bold, panoramic view of the surrounding Aegean Sea.
The caldera is the remnant of the ancient island of Thera, now called Santorini. Situated in the southern Aegean Sea and forming the southernmost of the Cyclades group of islands, Santorini is a volcanic island located 120 miles (200 km) southeast of the Greek mainland. It is famous for its rugged landscape, towering cliffs displaying distinct and colorful geologic layers, volcanic beaches, romantic sunsets and 360-degree view of the deep-blue Aegean Sea.
Santorini is also famous for the catastrophic volcanic eruption that occurred 3,600 years ago, during the height of the Minoan civilization, according to the World History Encyclopedia. The eruption destroyed much of the island, spewing a massive cloud of ash and debris into the air, creating a water-filled caldera and breaking the island into several separate islands. The eruption also destroyed the ancient village of Akrotiri, the most famous Minoan settlement outside Crete. First excavated in 1967, it is now a well-known archaeological site, some of it partially reconstructed but much of it, like Pompeii, still preserved under a thick layer of ash. The site is famous for its well-studied frescoes, or wall paintings, which depict fishermen, boats, dolphins and well-manicured Minoan ladies of high rank.
Santorini is a major tourist destination, and the archaeological site of Akrotiri is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Isle of Skye has a long history of appearances in songs, stories, novels and poetry. Novelist and poet Walter Scott used the picturesque location as the setting of his epic poem “The Lord of the Isles,” and Sir Harold Boulton’s romantic ballad “The Skye Boat Song” tells the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s flight from the Scottish mainland to Skye after his defeat at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. It is unclear where the name Skye comes from, but some sources, such as the Gazetteer of Scotland, claim it comes from the old Norse word “sky-a,” meaning “cloud island,” likely in reference to the fog that often enshrouds the island.
Skye is the largest and northernmost of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, a group of islands located on the country’s west coast. The island is roughly 50 miles (80 km) wide from east to west and is made up of a hodgepodge of moors, blue lochs, windswept coastline, fields of heather, stark medieval castles and craggy mountains. Its climate is wet, windy, cool and frequently overcast. But when the sun breaks out, the island is aglow with rainbows, sparkling lochs and some of the most beautiful coastal vistas in the British Isles. “In a country famous for stunning scenery, the Isle of Skye takes top prize,” according to the Lonely Planet travel guide.
North of Portree, the island’s main town, is a cluster of pinnacle-like rocks known as the Old Man of Storr. Farther north is Kilt Rock, a sheer coastal cliff of sedimentary and igneous rock that draws a constant stream of sightseers, many having come to see Mealt Falls, a cascade that drops 164 feet (50 m) straight down to the water. Near the top of the list of jaw-dropping attractions, however, is Spar Cave, a cathedral-like sea grotto filled with calcium carbonate formations. It was a major tourist attraction during Victorian times and continues to draw adventurous hikers. All of these can be viewed at the official Isle of Skye tourist site.
“Shan” is Mandarin for “mountain,” and hua means “splendid” or “magnificent.” Huashan, a towering mountain located near the city of Huayin in China’s Shaanxi province, about 74 miles (120 km) east of Xi’an, lives up to its moniker.
It consists of five separate peaks, the tallest of which, South Peak, rises to 7,070 feet (2,155 m). The mountain is composed primarily of Mesozoic-era granite upthrust as the result of geologic faulting over millions of years, according to UNESCO. This created the sheer rock faces that characterize the mountain and plunge precipitously to the valley below. The surrounding flora is rich and varied. Mosses, lichens and shrubs characterize the understory, while several species of pine clinging precariously to steep rock faces and sheer cliffs form the overstory.
Taoists, who are practitioners of the ancient Chinese religion of Taoism, have cherished Huashan for centuries, and it is considered one of China’s most sacred mountains. Several Taoist temples dot the mountain’s slopes and peaks. The earliest temple, the Shrine of the Western Peak, dates back to the second century B.C.
The mountain is also a major tourist destination. Many people from around the world venture to climb the South Peak, an ascent to the top of the mountain that some have dubbed the “most dangerous hike in the world.” The initial ascent is easy enough; it begins relatively flat but gradually transitions to stone steps, which then give way to a wooden plank that hugs the mountainside with a series of chains for handholds. The dangerous trail is only about 1 foot (0.3 m) wide and is known as the “plank walk in the sky.”
The capital of the Czech Republic, Prague is known as the “City of a Hundred Spires,” a name that references its famous castles, cathedrals, Gothic and Baroque architecture, and medieval squares and bridges. It is home to 1.3 million people.
The area around Prague is a region known as Bohemia, which has been settled for many millennia, first by Paleolithic peoples and much later by the Celts. But Prague did not acquire the rudiments of a city until the ninth century A.D., according to Encyclopedia Britannica. During the medieval period, the city grew in size, scope and renown, becoming a major city of political and cultural influence in the 14th century. In 1348, the Holy Roman emperor Charles IV founded Charles University in Prague, the first such center of learning in central Europe. And during the latter Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Prague played a major role during the Reformation, a period of intense religious ferment that gave rise to Protestantism. Under the influence of Catholic Church critics like Jan Hus, Prague became a hotbed of opposition to Roman Catholicism.
The Vltava River runs north to south as it meanders through the city, passing such famous landmarks as the Prague Astronomical Clock, the Vysehrad Museum and the famous Charles Bridge, a medieval stone bridge that links Prague’s Old and New Towns and is famous for its Baroque statuary of prominent saints.
Perhaps the most picturesque of Prague’s buildings, however, is Prague Castle, which sits atop a hill and dominates the city’s skyline. It was built in the ninth century and was expanded upon over subsequent centuries. Today, it is the official residence of the president of the Czech Republic.
In 1992, Prague’s historic city center was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List.