Best Places to Visit Before You Die
“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do,” Mark Twain once mused. “So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Simply put, you only live once and there’s a world of things out there to explore.
Tap into your adventurous side and traverse new terrain with GAYOT’s Best Must-See Travel Destinations. Featuring everything from ancient temples in Cambodia to an awe-inspiring waterfall in Argentina, this bucket list is a great starting point to set you off on the journey of a lifetime. You can also celebrate America’s natural wonders with our guide to the Top 10 US National Parks.
1. Angkor Wat
Built by Khmer King Suryavarman II in the first half of the 12th century, Angkor Wat was one of the most significant architectural achievements of ancient times. It remains the world’s largest religious monument today.
The sprawling Cambodian temple complex is a source of national pride and international renown thanks to its distinctive sandstone spires, intricate artistry and massive moat that encloses the grounds in a three-and-a-half-mile perimeter. It was first dedicated to Vishnu as a Hindu temple and later a center of Theravada Buddhism. The well-preserved site is one of more than 1,000 temples in the Angkor area, many of which are easily accessible from nearby Siem Reap.
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This remote and mysterious part of the world draws many visitors.
The Earth’s southernmost point, Antarctica is the driest and coldest of the seven continents. For a place that’s 98 percent covered in one-mile-deep ice, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would want to visit at all. But there’s an eerie, stark beauty about Antarctica that is incomparable to anywhere else on the planet. Sprinkle in some penguin sightings and you’ve got one of the most unique settings in the world. While Antarctica has no permanent residents, there are often up to 5,000 researchers working there at a time. We recommend visiting by cruise ship.
3. Easter Island
A UNESCO World Heritage Site that is a testament to the Rapa Nui civilization.
It is believed the natives of Easter Island carved massive heads out of stone hundreds of years ago to honor their ancestors. Today, there are 887 “moai,” as the statues are called, which create a mysterious, yet intriguing landscape to this Polynesian island, which is a four-and-a-half hour flight from Lima, Peru. A more recent finding revealed the statues have torsos that had been buried by sediment and rock.
The tallest statue on the island — named Paro — is 33 feet high and weighs 82 tons. In addition to statue appreciation, Easter Island also boasts great hiking trails and decent scuba diving.
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4. Galápagos Islands
Located some 600 miles off the South American coast, this Ecuadorian archipelago has been drawing nature-lovers to its remote shores ever since naturalist and geologist Charles Darwin explored the islands in 1835.
A one-time outpost of pirates and prisoners, the Galápagos Islands are also home to an incredibly diverse collection of flora and fauna, including many species — such as the Galápagos giant tortoise and marine iguana — that can be found nowhere else on Earth. Today, 97 percent of the archipelago’s land area is protected by a national park. Visitors can get up-close-and-personal with wildlife on guided boat tours, scuba expeditions and hikes, where curious creatures often approach sightseers without hesitation.
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5. Grand Canyon
If North America’s greatest natural wonder — a red-hued canyon 277 river miles long, 18 miles wide, and one mile deep — doesn’t make your mouth drop in awe, then you might not be human.
While the north rim attracts fewer visitors, you’ll most likely appreciate the epic vistas of the south rim. There are plenty of spots to pull the car over and have a look from the top, but we recommend trekking along the rim on foot. You can also descend into the canyon’s depths via mules or guided hiking excursions, experience “The Heart of the Canyon” by raft on the Colorado River and even spend the night at a lodge below the rim.
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6. Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China is the largest cultural relic humans have ever built and is the only man-made structure that is visible from space.
It snakes through China ever so majestically, around undulating hills and through a vast countryside, stretching from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Lake in the west. Wall construction began more than 2,000 years ago in an attempt to keep out the tribes from the north.
This landmark is thousands of miles long, passes through 156 counties, with 7,062 lookout towers. The most colorful (and least costly) times to go are spring and autumn — pink cherry blossoms blanket the landscape outside of Beijing in late-March, and in mid-October red leaves abound near Badaling National Forest Park.
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7. Iguazú Falls
Iguazú National Park, situated on the international border of Argentina and Brazil, features one of the world’s most striking natural wonders.
Iguazú Falls offers a misty and majestic realm of rushing, roaring water with rainbows adorning the cascades, which stretch for nearly 2 miles. Experience this marvel up close from one of the wooden walkways that stretch out over the river, and be sure to take in the spectacular vista from the giant balcony of the “Devil’s Throat.” According to ancient myths, a jealous god slashed the Iguazú River (meaning “great water”) in two, creating falls as high as 269 feet. The UNESCO site is bordered by its sister park Iguaçu in Brazil, and the falls are surrounded by the lush Misiones rainforest, so don’t be surprised to see tropical birds flitting about as they search for fish in quieter waters.
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The discovery of these ancient drawings was completely unexpected and accidental.
On September 12, 1940, four teenagers in the Vézère valley of the Dordogne in southwestern France followed a dog into a cave and discovered 17,000-year-old animal paintings. Eight years later, the public was allowed to view the paintings of bison, horses and stags, among other Paleolithic Era images. To preserve the original findings, the cavern was closed in 1963. A nearby cave, known as Lascaux II, displaying brilliant recreations of the paintings, was opened in its stead.
Depending on the time of year, tickets for the 75-minute guided tours can be purchased online or at the ticket office. Keep in mind, only 30 people are allowed per tour, so plan in advance.
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9. Machu Picchu
Eight thousand feet above sea level, this five-centuries-old pre-Columbian site was once home to the Incas.
Until American historian Hiram Bingham publicized his findings of the area in a 1911 book called “Across South America,” the mountain-top ruins were widely unknown to anyone living outside of the Urubamba Valley and nearby Cusco. Since Spanish colonialists had no idea of Machu Picchu’s existence, its Incan architecture and design were preserved.
There are two ways up to the “old peak,” by train or on foot. Unless you’re wildly adventurous — and don’t mind a two-to four-day massive hike up the Inca Trail — we recommend you go by rail, stay overnight in Aguas Calientes and take an early bus to the ruins to beat the crowds (and in the sweltering summer months, the sun).
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A marvel that wasn’t discovered until 1812 and has been featured in films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
Chiseled out of pale pink sandstone, the ancient metropolis of Petra in Jordan’s Jebel al-Madhbah mountains is an architectural and engineering marvel nonpareil. Carved more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, a nomadic Arab tribe, the breathtaking megalith boasts an abundance of awe-inspiring rock facades, formations, tombs and temples.
You enter the UNESCO World Heritage Site through the “Siq,” a narrow, winding gorge so steep you must crane your neck to see the sky. After about a kilometer, the gorge opens to reveal the massive “Treasury,” one of Petra’s most famous ruins. Rose-red Petra is stunning at night, when both the Siq and city are lined by thousands of candles, as well as during the golden glow of the late afternoon.
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11. Pyramids of Giza
Like Stonehenge, many mysteries surround the construction of these three pyramids, which are part of a mausoleum complex.
The Great Pyramid of Giza, the best-known of the group standing outside of Cairo, is the only one of the ancient Seven Wonders of the World that also graces our list. Finished around 2,560 BC, the 481-foot creation (now shorter due to erosion) was the tallest man-made structure in the world for 38 centuries until the completion of Lincoln Cathedral in 14th-century England.
How were these made? Were space aliens needed to cut, move and stack the millions of stones, some weighing 88 tons? Does some powerful force emanate from them today? Hop on a camel or hail a taxi and go judge for yourself.
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The purpose of its creation remains a mystery and it’s an enigma that draws nearly a million visitors every year.
Does the arrangement of the 25-ton sarsens (sandstone blocks) at Stonehenge suggest some sort of celestial prediction? Or is it just a bunch of big rocks? No one really knows. Theories about the nearly 5,000-year-old circular stone structure in southern England vary. Some believe it was a place of healing, others that it was a burial ground and used for ancestor worship.
The most enchanting time to visit Stonehenge is at sunset when a yellow-orange glow can be seen through the magnificent towers’ arches. Booking a guided tour is required to visit the center and see the stones up close. But the best views of the structure, about a two-hour drive from London, are from a distance where you can fully appreciate their grand design.
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13. Taj Mahal
An architectural love letter, this massive marble temple in northern India is one of the most recognizable structures on the planet.
It was built in the first half of the 17th century by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to hold the body of his beloved third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The building is now a mausoleum for both. The construction took more than 22 years to complete, requiring as many as 20,000 workers.
Some skilled artisans came from as far as Constantinople (today, Istanbul), and about 1,000 elephants were used to transport materials. Today, vehicles that emit pollution are not allowed within a mile of the structure, so be prepared to walk or hire a battery-powered vehicle called a tuk tuk.
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Teotihuacan was an ancient Mesoamerican city that was established around 100 BC.
At one time, it was the largest metropolis in the pre-Columbian Americas and had significant cultural influence on surrounding areas. The Aztecs named the region Teotihuacan (“the place where gods were created”) when they arrived centuries after its fall. Here, you can walk along the Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan’s main road.
The broad, central thoroughfare dissects the city and is surrounded by mounds that resemble large tombs. Tourists can view a number of well-preserved murals, as well as the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun. The latter is the third largest pyramid in the world. Teotihuacan became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
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A World Heritage Site, Uluru is an awe-inspiring sandstone rock formation rising out of the desolate outback of Australia’s Northern Territory.
The name derives from the aboriginal tribes that settled in the area 10,000 years ago. The landmark is also known as Ayers Rock, named in honor of Sir Henry Ayers, who served as Chief Secretary of South Australia in the late 19th century. Jutting nearly 1,150 feet in the air, the natural monolith is taller than the Eiffel Tower.
It stands in stark contrast to the miles of flat desert that surround it. Visitors can climb to the top of Uluru and explore the base, which is about six miles around. The hike takes anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. The view atop the rock is remarkable during sunrise and sunset.