5 mins

The 10 wonders of the world, as chosen by team Wanderlust

With so many wonders in the world, old and new, it's hard to narrow it down. But we've selected 10 incredible wonders of the world, for travellers to visit, admire from afar, or simply dream about...

Lalibela is one of the true wonders of the world (Shutterstock)

1. Phraya Nakhon Cave, Thailand

Phraya Nakhon Cave, Thailand (Shutterstock)

Phraya Nakhon Cave, Thailand (Shutterstock)

The world’s greatest wonders don’t reveal themselves easily – you discover them. That’s what it feels like as you step inside the Phraya Nakhon cave of Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, one of a number of caverns carved into the limestone cliffs that glower over the Gulf of Thailand, 250km south of Bangkok.

The route in is via rough stone steps, leading through pine forest rattling with dusky langurs and goat-like serow. As you enter the central chamber, light pours in from where the ceiling collapsed into a sinkhole long ago. It forms a magnificent natural spotlight, illuminating the cavern where a handful of trees surround the golden Kuha Karuhas pavilion.

The pavilion was built in the late 19th century for the visit of King Rama V; he never saw it, but a long line of subsequent Thai kings have made the pilgrimage here. As you stand in the shadow of the cave’s mini forest, the light of the sun glinting off stalactites and gold leaf, you can see why. Proof that no matter what we build, nature always gets the final word.

Did you know?

The cave is said to be named after Governor Nakhon Sri Thammarat, who discovered it while seeking shelter here about 200 years ago.

2. Living root bridges, India

Living root bridge in Meghalaya, India (Shutterstock)

Living root bridge in Meghalaya, India (Shutterstock)

With nearly 12m of rain pounding the lush forests of mountainous Meghalaya state in north-east India each year, life in the wettest place on Earth isn’t easy. Crossing the forests’ raging rivers can be impossible during monsoon season (Jun to Sept), and bamboo bridges built elsewhere just rot away.

So, some centuries ago, the region’s Khasi and Jaintia peoples came up with an ingenious solution: they began growing jing kieng jri – living root bridges. Rubber trees are planted on either side of a river, and their roots are carefully trained to grow across the water. It can take up to 20 years for the roots to meet, and the strongest bridges are over 100 years old.

Fine examples survive in the Khasi Hills and Jaintia Hills; the most picturesque of them span torrents deep in the forests of the far south around Cherrapunji, notably the unique double-decker bridge at Nongriat. Reaching many of these fascinating structures requires a guide and hours of hiking – but, like the bridges themselves, the longer it takes, the better the experience.

Did you know?

Reputedly the longest living root bridge is found near the village of Rangthylliang – its span stretches over 50m.

3. Danakil Depression, Ethiopia

Danakil Depression, Ethiopia (Shutterstock)

Danakil Depression, Ethiopia (Shutterstock)

There are some corners of the world that travellers just don’t see – or can’t. Ethiopia’s remote Danakil Depression is not only one of the hottest places on Earth (it can top 50ºC), until recently, tensions with neighbouring Eritrea made it a no-go area.

Now peace has descended, the planet’s most surreal landscape has opened up. Regular tours now visit the area to glimpse an alien land shaped by the divergence of three tectonic plates. Here, glowing green and yellow acid pools gurgle from the cracked earth to form woozy, sulphurous mounds.

Vast salt flats bleach into the horizon and electric-blue lava belches from volcanoes. It’s a place like no other. The route in is via Ethiopia’s city of Mekelle, then on to the parched northern Afar region (the Depression stretches from here into Eritrea and Djibouti).

Trips rattle past the active volcanoes of Erta Ale and Dallol, where starry skies and fiery flames illuminate the night and nomadic caravans trade in fresh salt, building flexible lives around the arid climate. It’s an unforgettable setting and a haunting insight into our planet’s evolution, raw and untamed.

Danakil Depression, Ethiopia (Shutterstock)

Danakil Depression, Ethiopia (Shutterstock)

Did you know?

Ethiopia’s Awash river is rare in that it doesn’t flow into the sea; instead it creates a chain of saline lakes in the Depression that dry up to form salt pans.

4. Fairy chimneys, Turkey

Cappadocia, Turkey (Shutterstock)

Cappadocia, Turkey (Shutterstock)

The ‘fairy chimneys’ of Cappadocia, in Turkey’s Goreme Valley, have little to do with magical sprites. This moonscape has been millions of years in the making, its spires formed from soft tufa, created by the volcanic ash that rained down over prehistoric Turkey, and topped in a layer of hard basalt.

Time and erosion took care of the rest. While nature may have sculpted this scene, what humanity did with it next is just as compelling. Entire cave cities, built to defend against Arab invaders, and around 600 rock-cut Christian churches have been carved out of the land.

The most famous is Karanlik Kilise (Dark Church), where hushed whispers, huge arches and delicate Byzantine frescoes fill the cavern. But it isn’t underground where you’ll find the best views. At sunrise and sunset, hundreds of brightly coloured hot air balloons soar into an endless blue sky as the half-light casts a golden glow over Goreme.

It’s a giddy sight in itself, yet it’s only from a basket, hanging nearly 2.5km above the prickly canvas below, that you can soak in every nook and knobble of this magical landscape.

Did you know?

Cappadocia comes from the Persian word katpatuka, meaning ‘land of beautiful horses’, and on horseback is still a great way to explore here.

5. Baalbek, Lebanon

Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon (Shutterstock)

Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon (Shutterstock)

Baalbek’s temple complex has long been hidden in plain sight. For years it languished on many countries’ ‘no travel’ lists due to instability in the area; it meant that few made the two-hour drive from Beirut to its colossal temples.

Then, in late 2018, the FCO relaxed its stance, and now the chance to explore some of the best-preserved Roman architecture outside Italy – and one of the ancient world’s great mysteries – is back on itineraries. Baalbek was a Phoenician city long before the Greeks (334 BC) or Romans (64 BC) arrived.

The latter built over the old foundations to raise huge temples (Jupiter, Bacchus, Venus) with Corinthian columns that rose high into the heavens. Built atop giant monoliths – some weighing 800 tonnes – how these were cut and laid is a mystery that has never been solved; one that some argue required unearthly abilities.

But it isn’t just Baalbek’s temples that appeal. Views of the idyllic Bekaa valley surround the ruins, and those that arrive from Beirut or are combining with a tour of the valleys and vineyards of old Lebanon can also see how life is changing here.

Did you know?

The nearby Stone of the Pregnant Woman is estimated to weigh over 1,000 tonnes and is among the largest monoliths ever quarried.

6. Tsingy Forest, Madagascar

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Madagascar (Shutterstock)

Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park, Madagascar (Shutterstock)

Welcome to the ‘forest of knives’. Impenetrable limestone towers, shoulder-wide chasms and crooked canyons await travellers who venture into Tsingy de Bemaraha National Park. Yet its tsingy stone forest is more than just a thrilling obstacle course – it is the island’s great biofortress.

One of the best ways in is by canoe. Head out early on the red-orange Manambolo River to avoid the day’s heat. Drift under the Bemaraha Mountains to see the tsingy’s needle-like spikes rise up before you, some topping 60m. Rare birdlife dwells in the forests, lakes and mangroves, and you may even get a glimpse of the majestic Madagascan fish eagle in action.

Discoveries are made here all the time. Slipping in and out of the tight caves, watching for squeaking bats, reveals fragments of broken pottery; proof that people once made this harsh land their home. Then climb to a viewpoint and enviously gaze on Decken’s sifaka and red-fronted brown lemurs navigating the canyon forests with ease, and ponder just what else might be out there

Did you know?

The translation of the name tsingy is pretty apt; it comes from the Malagasy word for ‘where one cannot walk barefoot’.

7. Penguins, South Georgia

King penguins in South Georgia (Shutterstock)

King penguins in South Georgia (Shutterstock)

Had Captain Cook come across South Georgia’s Salisbury Plain today, his initial verdict – that the island was not worth the discovery – would be a little different. In the penguin capital of the world, hundreds of thousands of king penguins would royally greet him, parading down the tightly packed shore.

The only way into this penguin paradise is via sub-Antarctic cruises. Head to shore in Zodiac crafts to explore the windswept Grace and Lucas Glaciers and meet the three-foot-tall throng of squawking orange-billed birds on the teeming beaches that they seemingly monopolise – though sharp-eyed visitors can also glimpse fur seals and albatrosses.

Visit from November to March for a front-row ticket to the king penguin’s breeding performance. Eggs are laid in November, and you can see the chicks hatch from around January, moulting about six weeks later. And while visitors must not approach Salisbury Plain’s famous feathered occupants, the penguins themselves haven’t necessarily had the same memo.

Did you know?

Famous explorer Ernest Shackleton is buried nearby in Grytviken – you can learn more about his epic adventures at the local museum.

8. Cono de Arita, Argentina

Cono de Arita, Argentina (Shutterstock)

Cono de Arita, Argentina (Shutterstock)

“Emerging from one of the world’s largest salt flats, the Cono de Arita eludes perception, shifting in size and shade. From afar, the 150m-high cone appears almost within touching distance. It’s only as you try to approach it that you realise you’ve been hoodwinked and it is further away than you think.

Exploring north-west Argentina’s Puna de Atacama, I was expecting elemental other-worldly landscapes. But our guide had promised us a sight that would be truly unique. Crossing the vast expanse of the Salar de Arizaro, the brooding cone appeared out of an epic backdrop, mysterious and compelling.

We carried on up a slope listening to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon. As the soaring vocals of ‘The Great Gig in the Sky’ kicked in, we looked back down and the hairs on the back of our necks rose. There below was the cone, looking like a giant pyramid and seemingly floating on the dazzling plain. In silence we each found a spot to sit, contemplate, and give thanks to Mother Earth” - Lyn Hughes, Wanderlust editor-in chief.

Did you know?

The desert floor turns white when you look at it from above as the salty crystals in the earth reflect the sun’s rays.

9. Lalibela, Ethiopia

A monolithic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia (Shutterstock)

A monolithic church in Lalibela, Ethiopia (Shutterstock)

Shrouded in mystery and wonder, Lalibela, Ethiopia’s second holiest city after Axum, is home to a complex of medieval monolithic cave churches, including the largest in the world.

Located in the Amhara region of northern Ethiopia, the 11 rock-hewn churches of Lalibela have been called the Eighth Wonder of the World and were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. These unique places of worship are laboriously carved from the ground using hammers and chisels and connected by intricate tunnels.

Bet Medhane Alem is the largest of the churches, measuring 33.5m by 23.5m, but Bet Giyorgis – carved 15m deep into the shape of a Greek cross – is the most impressive. Mystery surrounds when and how the churches were built, although some believe King Lalibela set out to construct a ‘New Jerusalem’ in the 12th century.

Visit during the dry season from October to March and don’t miss Sunday’s dawn mass, when hundreds of locals descend upon the churches to worship – a powerful experience.

Did you know?

The city was once called Roha, but legend has it that King Lalibela saw Jerusalem in his dreams, and with the help of angels, Lalibela was born.

10. Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Ningaloo Reef, Australia (Dreamstime)

Ningaloo Reef, Australia (Dreamstime)

The largest fringing reef in the world is 260km of UNESCO-stamped spectacle. This bonanza of blue is teeming with all sorts of tropical life: turtles, manta rays, dolphins, humpback whales and – if you’re lucky – the elusive whale shark, too.

Sign up to this aquatic assembly is not limited to creatures of the deep, though – snorkellers and divers can book year-round tours in Exmouth. The humpback highway is always popular between July and October, when up to five swimmers can get up close to the whales, staying at least 30m away, unless the gentle giants choose to come closer and befriend you.

Out of season, dolphins and dugongs gather here, but travellers can also head to Turquoise Bay, where there’s plenty of bright corals to explore. If you’d rather stay dry, hop aboard a glass-bottom boat and glimpse whales leaping out of the water.

You can take to the skies on a microlight expedition, too, skimming the waters for a bird’s-eye view of all the goings-on. Whatever you decide, you’ll find a front-row seat to this glittering world down under.

Did you know?

Green, hawksbill and loggerhead turtles nest on the beaches here (November to March) – that’s three of the world’s seven marine turtle species!

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