10. Mont St Michel, France
Before dawn, when the tourist buses haven’t arrived and cats rove the alleys with bleary-eyed delivery men—that is when Mont St Michel is alive. You stumble half-asleep through its medieval streets, and in the cold and the dark it’s not a tourist trap, it’s timetravel.
You stand on the old walls, look out at the treacherous marshes and watch the tide come in. At first the water hardly seems to stir, but then you look away, look back, and the ground’s vanished.
When the monastery opens, and you elbow past the late-comers to an empty nave, echoing with the footsteps of long-gone monks, you feel it again: The aliveness of it, as if the island only pretends to be commodity for swift-talk, swift-bored Americans and camera-ready, peace-sign-wielding Japanese. You know, in the stillness, that Mont St Michel waits for silence.
Then, it sings.
9. Boston, United States
You drift through harp-echoing hulls underground to catch the subway train, then emerge into the middle of a nation’s beginning. The locals laugh as you walk by, wide-eyed and bewildered. The homeless mutter to themselves and occasionally shout senseless words.
It is not a clean city, but there is something at its core that feels fresh. New. Something that is grief swept away and hope slowly rising. When the vendors call to you in Faneuil Hall, waving their samples, or when you stand at the bow of the USS Constitution, breathing in salt air, you can, for a moment, close your eyes and feel the country stirring.
It is a strangeness that’s almost like returning home.
8. Cornish Coast
No safety rails here, only the occasional wash of red in the water far below—the bloodstain of landslides. On an overcast day, the wind will tear at your skin, and the cold will gnaw on your bones. But when the sun comes, everything turns vivid. The colors are bright and painful.
You climb and dip, climb and dip along the path, and occasionally skip over a bridge or duck though a dark wood. The ocean whispers to your left, and the sheep graze to your right.
Sometimes, if you look very quickly, and squint your eyes a little, you will spy a tall ship on the horizon. And maybe, if you lean over the precipice to examine the far drop, you’ll see smugglers in the shadows. Waiting.
7. Haleakala, Hawaii, United States
The world dissolves into cloud beyond this peak. The silversword seems to glow, making “the hillside look like…winter or moonlight” (in the words of writer Isabella Bird). Without these ethereal, distant cousins of daisies to remind you that plants still grow, you might think yourself lost on another universe.
Everything is red below your feet, and white cloud beyond the volcano’s edge, and blue sky turned to gold above. Sit on the rock, and see how your palms turn rusty with ancient soil. Sit and look out, and you cannot help but agree with the old legend—if someone were to capture the sun, they would capture it here.
6. Scottish Highlands, United Kingdom
The isolation calls you. Mist curls in wafts around glassy pools, so clear and still you could be looking not into a reflection, but another world. In the late spring, the green comes, and if the sun graces you with its presence you will almost go blind with color. But in the last grip of winter, it is cold, and the grass is still browned, and the land hums with old battle ballads.
If you only hold still, you may be able to hear them.
5. Aran Islands, Ireland
In the center of the island, you stop, one foot to the ground to brace your bike. Your friend whispers, “Listen.”
You do. There is no sound—no car engines, no nothing—and only the slightest suggestion of wind. It is so quiet, you can hear your other friends as they take a surprised breath. You don’t speak, but look wonderingly at each other.
All around you crisscross stone walls, like lines on a map. A horse grazes, unbothered by you, and for a space your mind blanks. Then the wind blows again, whistling through the walls’ holes, and your friend is off—whizzing on his bike, the others in pursuit. You linger a moment longer, two, and then go after them.
4. Neuschwanstein, Germany
Here is a castle of Disneyland proportions—and, like Disneyland, entirely fake. It was built by a mad king who wanted fairytales and legends, not bankruptcies and shattered countries. Most of the rooms inside are unfinished, and you will be charged a generous fee to see the few that are complete.
You stand now on the gently swaying bridge, high over a canyon creek, and look to your right at the mountains. The queen’s heart—longing to climb new heights—stirs in you, and you silently thank her husband, who built this very bridge to ease her way. You even, for a moment, truly sympathize their son—who, desperately delusional, built a storyworld of castles to shelter himself.
Look out again at the white castle against the German countryside, and spare a nostalgic thought for long gone chivalric romance, and mad kings with mysterious deaths.
3. Istanbul, Turkey
The harem is astonishingly seductive. You gawk at the tiles, intricate and bold in a way Western art never fully mastered. Everyone is a little hushed as they walk through ornate rooms, heads tilted back to look at ceilings, wandering from place to place in a daze of grandeur, only half-listening to their audio-guides.
Yet there is something dark here, beyond the beauty, beyond the facade, and when your friend tells you of the insane sultan raised here in a windowless room, you are hardly surprised. When you hear of the women killed with every turnover of power, you already knew it, somehow.
The tiles are cool and indifferent, and there is no finer cage in the world.
But at the end of three hours, when you stumble from the harem a little drunk on its splendor, you look back and wonder. What would it have been like, to never leave?
2. Kabul, Afghanistan
Kabul is not beautiful in the usual sense of the word. Guns on every corner make it difficult to relax, and its air can be politely called “poo dust”.
But as you walk through the Gardens of Babur in the early morning, when the sun is soft and it is cool under the green trees, you can feel the longing for peace like a pulse in the earth. You go on, to the Queen’s Palace, and a guide points out its new floors and walls with obvious pride. Three times destroyed by war, he says. Three times rebuilt. There is hope in his eyes, a hope that decades of war has not killed.
As you drive away, later that morning, you look out the car window and see boys and old men alike with roses wound around their bicycle bars. The flowers seem to nod to you in passing, brightly colored and vibrant in the dust, their leaves outstretched in an embrace.
1. Venice, Italy
Venice shelters the lost. In the narrow backstreets, you meander over her bridges, past churches and museums. When you know Venice by her alleys, return to her squares. Get ice cream—summer or winter, makes no difference—and sit at Per S. Marco to watch dusk approach.
Then chase the sun across the Ponte dell’Accademia, with rails decked in locks, and down almost-empty streets where, perhaps, a violinist plays out of key. Emerge at the lagoon’s edge, panting, just in time to see the sun dip behind La Guidecca. The water blazes with color, like something out of Monet or Van Gogh, and you linger to watch the ships pass.
Later, you return to your hotel through streets dyed indigo. The sound of city bells reverberates off walls and through your bones. Pause at one of the bridges and look down a dark canal, where the shadows shroud old secrets and the air turns crypt-damp.
Maybe you will hear the gentle splash of oars, the phantom of a plague boat bound for quarantine, or the ghost of a vessel destined for a widow’s midnight wedding. Here in the black crooks and peaceful dead ends, time ceases.
The breeze brushes your cheek in a sigh, and you cannot help but sigh with it.
Disclaimer: I’m 23 and, according to my TripAdvisor account, I’ve only seen 9% of the world. This list is definitely not exhaustive. It’s one girl’s account of her travel to beautiful places in the world.
What places inspire you? Leave a comment below!