The American writer James Michener is one of countless visitors to call Bora Bora in French Polynesia the most beautiful island on Earth. It is even the inspiration for the island paradise in the musical South Pacific, based on Michener’s book. A favourite haunt of celebs to this day, Bora Bora is found in the Leeward group of the Society Islands. A lagoon and a barrier reef surround it, and an extinct volcano rises in its centre.
The statue of David is the most famous presentation of the male body ever created.
The Vasari, art historian of the 16th century wrote: “Anyone who has seen this project do not need to see another sculpture, whether in our time or at any other time of year. ” The statue of David as painted by Michelangelo completed in 1504, after three years of work. It is to be found in Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence. Also the Hermes of Praxiteles, located in the Museum of Olympia, is another famous nude.
The Resplendent Quetzal is often called the most beautiful bird in the world; the name translates roughly as “large brilliant tail feather” because, during the mating season, the males grow vibrantly coloured twin tail feathers of up to a metre in length. But these rare birds sport iridescent blue, green and red feathers all year round. The quetzal lives in the mountainous, tropical forests of Central America, especially Guatemala and Costa Rica, where they have been revered since Mayan and Aztec times.
The most valuable painting in the world is Jackson Pollock’s No 5, 1948. But its frenetic splash marks don’t always rate highly with the general public. However, the third most expensive painting ever to be sold is one consistently adored by art aficionados and the public alike. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt was completed in 1907 and sold for $135m (currently £86m) in 2006. It’s now on display in the Neue Galerie, New York.
There’s no question which castle Disney thought the most magical in the world; the company modelled the Sleeping Beauty castles in its theme parks on it. “Mad King Ludwig” of Bavaria commissioned Neuschwanstein Castle in the 1860s. Like its theme park counterparts, it is a fantasy of towering white turrets and spires, built more for theatrical effect than any defensive purpose. But its coup de grâce is its stunning location amid the Bavarian mountains near Füssen, where it often seems to float on clouds: a spot that Ludwig himself described as, “the most beautiful one you could find, holy and unapproachable… ”
Giant crystal chambers, glow worm infestations, eerie underwater lights and vast forests of dripstone: all these are found in caves that qualify for the title of the world’s loveliest. But if one subterranean site must be picked, then our choice is for the awesome cave complex that has been called the Sistine chapel of prehistoric art. The Lascaux caves in south-west France are filled with startlingly beautiful 17,000-year-old images of bison, horses, wild cattle and ibex. While the caves are no longer open to the public, for fear of damaging the paintings, nearby Lascaux II is a very impressive replica of the most celebrated halls, created by using the same methods and materials as the original artists.
The most beautiful modern building
Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is one of the most recognisable places of worship on the planet – and one of the longest running construction projects of modern times, started in 1882 and to be finished in 2026, the 100th anniversary of its creator Gaudi’s death.
The most beautiful car
In 2009, the Citroen DS was voted the most beautiful car of all time by a panel of 20 renowned automotive designers. One panel member, Giorgetto Giugiaro, himself voted Car Designer of the 20th Century, said: “The Citroen DS is the only example of a car really conceived ‘outside the box’.” It was designed by the Italian Flaminio Bertoni and released in 1955 to general astonishment. In the UK, you’ll find the DS on display at museums such as Haynes Motor Museum in Somerset.
The Maldives enjoy one of the most beautiful clusters of beaches anywhere, which is why they inevitably pop up in every poll and top 10 of the subject. It’s the perfect place to play at castaway, with 1,200 mostly uninhabited islets of silky soft coral sand, sparkling turquoise lagoons and kaleidoscopic reefs. But with an average ground level of just 1.5 metres above sea level, the islands are particularly vulnerable to rising ocean levels – and the fear is they will simply disappear in years to come.
Vietnam’s Halong Bay is the world’s most gorgeous bay. It is currently a finalist in a global poll to find the New 7 Wonders of Nature, and it has had many famous admirers over the years. The Communist revolutionary Ho Chi Minh reportedly once called it “the wonder that one cannot impart to others”, and it does have to be seen to be believed. The bay is a glorious seascape of some 1,600 steep-sided islets, each topped with jungle and many riddled with caves.
Caños Cristales is actually a rather ordinary river for much of the year, but for a short time between the wet and dry seasons, when the water level is just right for its unique algae and moss to flourish, it erupts into a rainbow of extraordinary colours. The river is buried deep in the Sierra de la Macarena in central Colombia, and is only accessible on foot or horseback.
The most beautiful painting
No other piece of artwork has ever prompted such fevered admiration, speculation, imitation and dissemination as Da Vinci’s enigmatic Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda. And, as such, it would be a crime not to include it here among the world’s most beautiful things. Finished in 1506, the painting now sits behind bulletproof glass – and usually a throng of slack-jawed tourists – in the Louvre, Paris
The most beautiful sunset
Selecting a sunset that is second to none is like trying to choose your favourite snowflake in a blizzard. They’re all different, and the choice is a wholly personal one. But, that said, some places are legendary for their spectacular sunsets. Manila Bay in the Philippines is one of those. The Valle de la Luna in Chile’s Atacama Desert is another. Here scores of travellers climb an enormous sand dune every evening to see the spectacular volcanic landscape drenched in vivid pinks, oranges and purples. Unforgettable.
This astonishing 17th-century site clings to the craggy cliffs of Bhutan’s Paro valley. Known as Paro Taktsang – the Tiger’s Nest – it is a working monastery that still flutters with prayer flags and echoes with the sound of chanting Buddhist monks. It was picked not only for its obvious beauty and unlikely location 700 metres above the valley floor but also for the fact the precarious monastery is so unspoilt by tourism; visitor numbers are strictly limited.
It’s a cliché but that doesn’t make it any less true to call India’s Taj Mahal the most beautiful historic building in the world. Anyone who thinks this otherworldly marble construction overrated has never actually seen it. It seems almost to glow with life: its stone is of dazzling purity, its craftsmanship extraordinary and its story endearingly romantic. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore is one of countless wordsmiths to have waxed lyrical about the Taj; he described it touchingly as, “a teardrop that sparkled spotlessly bright on the face of eternity”.
The most beautiful place for diving
No surprises here. The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef system, and unrivalled in subaquatic splendour. It stretches for an incredible 2,600km off the coast of Queensland, Australia, and comprises several thousand reefs and around 900 islands. The reef also supports thousands of species, from sea-dragons to crocodiles, and is home to 125 kinds of sharks.
Death. Burial. Decay. Not usually words synonymous with beauty. But there’s much to be said for the melancholic charm of burial grounds. And London is hard to beat when it comes to cemeteries. The Victorian cityfolk had a knack for nailing the perfect mixture of grand, gothic, overgrown and whimsical. The so-called Magnificent Seven were all established between 1832 and 1841, and of these the superstar is Highgate cemetery, a hugely atmospheric sprawl of elaborately carved marble and granite. It’s also home to some famous tombs, including those of Karl Marx and Douglas Adams
The medieval chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis said of it, “you might believe it was the work of an angel,” while the art critic MD Hoffman called it “the most beautiful book in the world”. The Book of Kells is a lavishly illuminated Latin manuscript from the 8th century, and one of Ireland’s foremost national treasures. Its painstakingly intricate decoration is so elaborate that the text itself is often all-but illegible. The book (or books, as it’s split into four volumes) is on display at Trinity College Library in Dublin.
The fountains of the Bellagio hotel are the showiest water display in the world, dancing jets superbly choreographed to music and lights. Set in a huge man-made lake, they have more 1,200 nozzles and 4,500 lights.
The terracotta warriors and horses of China were one of the most staggering archaeological finds of the 20th century. An estimated 8,000 life-sized figures of soldiers, plus myriad chariots and horses, all beautifully shaped in unglazed clay were found buried in a field in Lintong, Xian, Shaanxi province in 1974. Described by Unesco as “masterpieces of realism”, they were apparently crafted around 210BC to defend the first emperor of all China, Qin Shi Huang, in the afterlife. His unopened mausoleum is found nearby. A museum is built around the site, where thousands of statues still remain to be unearthed.
The most beautiful waterfall
Niagara is the world’s most famous waterfall; Angel Falls is the tallest. And Victoria Falls has the largest single cascade. But the most beautiful?…. that honour falls to Iguazu Falls, on the border between Argentina and Brazil. It is made up of some 275 cascades, spread over an incredible width of 2km and has an average flow of 1.3 million litres a second. All very impressive, but the winning features of the site for us are its pristine rainforest setting and its fabulous shape, which at one point allows you to stand surrounded by walls of water on three sides.
The most beautiful ancient ruins
Machu Picchu is one of the best known archaeological sites in the world for a reason: it is simply spectacular. Built at the height of the Inca empire, in the 15th century, and rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911, the remote mountaintop city dominates a narrow ridge and is surrounded by steep-sided peaks and misty cloud forest. Its giant walls, terraces and ramps are entirely invisible from below, but create an incredible condor-shaped spectacle – or so the Incan people believed – for the gods above.
Aldous Huxley once wrote: “Lake Como, it seems to me, touches on the limit of permissibly picturesque, but Atitlán is Como with additional embellishments of several immense volcanoes. It really is too much of a good thing.”
Atitlan is the deepest lake in Central America, it fills a vast volcanic caldera, formed an estimated 84,000 years ago.
If it was good enough for one of the best-loved landscape artists of all time, it’s good enough for us. The glorious gardens at Giverny in eastern Normandy are a piece of living art, created by the Impressionist painter Claude Monet in order for him to paint them. The results include some of the most celebrated works of art of the 20th century. Built from 1883 to 1926, and restored to their former glory in 1976, the gardens range from ordered beds to the most famous water-garden, with its curtains of wisteria and willows and carpet of water lilies.
Palaces are built to boast wealth and magnificence, so it’s no wonder were plenty of contenders for the title. St Petersburg, Versailles, the Potala Palace, the Forbidden City… the list goes on and on. But the most dreamy palace is the Alhambra of Granada, Spain. Built by the Moorish rulers of the emirate of Granada in the 14th century, it is a masterpiece of Islamic design and decorative embellishment, reflecting its history as a refuge for artists and intellectuals.
The most beautiful road
Known in France as “la plus belle avenue du monde”, the Avenue des Champs-Elysées in the heart of Paris is indeed one of planet’s most famous, expensive and lovely streets. Capped at one end by the iconic Arc de Triomphe, its 2km length is lined with high-class speciality shops, cafes, neatly snipped chestnut trees, parks and flowerbeds. The City of Paris is so keen to avoid “banalisation” and maintain the avenue’s character that it has even blocked several international chains from opening branches here.