Hidden Man-made Wonders of the World
Not all of the world's wonders get the attention they deserve. We searched the globe to find nine marvels that are so awe-inspiring, you'll find it hard to believe that they were crafted by human hands—and so far off the beaten path, chances are you've never heard of them.
A gravity-defying palace: Lucknow, India
Few people have heard of Lucknow, capital of the eastern region of Uttar Pradesh in India, and even fewer know of the maze-like palace complex—a blend of European and Arabic architecture—that is located there. It was the brainchild of 18th-century ruler Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula, who put nearly 22,000 city residents to work during a severe famine (struggling noblemen were rumored to have come in at night to avoid being identified among the crew). Bara Imambara's magnificent central arched hall—which stretches 50 meters long (roughly half the length of a soccer field) and about three stories high—is held up, amazingly, without any pillars, girders or beams. Instead, the hall was constructed solely with interlocking brickwork. Another one of its mysteries is the Bhulbhulaiya, a dense labyrinth of more than 1,000 narrow stairway passages meant to thwart any possible intruders—some stairways lead to abrupt drops, others have dead ends. It’s possible to roam around the secret maze, preferably with an approved guide, and to explore the adjacent mosque and manicured gardens.
Find your way: Hussainabad Trust Road, $7; extra $3.30 for the main hall, extra $1.50 for a labyrinth guide, open daily, dawn to dusk. It's a two-hour flight from Mumbai to Lucknow at about $75 each way.
The truly lost Incan city: Choquequirao, Peru
These 15th-century ruins, which consist of a central plaza and dozens of slope terraces built some 6,000 feet above the glacier-fed Apurímac River, received fewer than 7,000 visitors in 2006. That’s just a little more than 1 percent of those that made the trek to its far more famous sister site, Machu Picchu, whose nickname “The Lost City of the Incas” seems misleading given its typical tourist crowds. But at its height, Choquequirao was no less significant: It was roughly the same size as Machu Picchu and believed to be the last main religious center of the Incan Empire before its fall. From the tiny town of Cachora (about 100 miles away from Cuzco), getting to Choquequirao is an arduous 20-mile trek. You’ll pass arid country full of cacti and agave before the vegetation turns lush. Take a breather to spot the occasional condor, and exhale with the jagged, snow-capped Vilcabamba Range in the distance.
Find your way: SAS Travel Peru offers a five-day Choquequirao trek; 011-51/84-249-194, from $390 per person with a four person minimum.
An unexpected royal city: Isfahan, Iran
When Shah Abbas chose to relocate the capital of the Persian Empire to Isfahan around 1600, he was determined to make a big impression. So surely he'd be disappointed to know that centuries later his masterpiece remains hidden in plain sight—at least for Americans, who are largely restricted from and cautioned against visiting Iran. The Shah's massive building centered on grand Naqsh-e Jahan Square, which he surrounded with four monumental structures: the gleaming, mosaic-tiled Royal Mosque to the south, the Portico of Qaysariyyeh to the north, the Mosque of Sheykh Lotfollah to the east, and the magnificent entrance to Ali Qapu palace and the royal gardens to the west. Ali Qapu's grand covered balcony was where the shah and his guests would watch polo matches, horse races—even public executions. Inside, spiral staircases connect each floor, and the walls are adorned with intricate bird-patterned murals. Even more impressive is its sixth floor Music Room, covered with ornately decorated stucco niches and cutouts in the shapes of pots and vessels that once reverberated the sounds of the ensembles who performed there.
Find your way: As an American, if you don’t know anyone in Iran who can sponsor your visit, then you have to go through a tour group and stick with it; Cyrus Travel arranges visas to Iran and offers customized tours throughout the country, 800/332-9787, from $300 per person per day.
An open-air museum of elaborate wooden churches: Karelia, Russia
It requires a flight or overnight train ride from Moscow or St. Petersburg and then a ferry ride to reach Kizhi Island, part of the 1,650-island chain on northern Russia’s remote Lake Onega. Your reward is becoming one of the choice few to explore the one-of-a-kind State Kizhi Museum, made up of nearly 90 wooden structures, including chapels, windmills, and granaries. Its most remarkable portion, set on a narrow strip of land on the island’s southern tip, is Kizhi Pogost, a walled enclosure that houses an octagonal bell tower and two 18th-century wooden churches. Twenty-two cascading bulbous cupolas fashioned from aspen shingles top the 121-foot Church of the Transfiguration of Our Savior. Amazingly enough, this masterpiece was built without a single nail. Legend has it that a sole axe was used to carve the shingles and the interlocking corner joinery that hold the majestic structure up, and after its completion, was tossed into the water so a similar marvel couldn’t be built.
Find your way: Transfers are available directly from Airport Peski, October–May, 011-7-814/2747-566; they can be made through Tourholding Karelia, May–October, 011-7-814/2-733-433. Admission to the island, $21.50; guide service, $3.50 per person. Summer, 8 a.m.–8 p.m.; fall, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.; winter, 10 a.m–3 p.m.; spring, 9 a.m.–4 p.m.