World's Prettiest Castle Towns

By Sean O'Neill
November 29, 2011
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany
Courtesy <a href="" target=" _blank">Berthold Werner/Wikimedia Commons</a>
What does a fairy-tale Renaissance palace in Italy have in common with a fortress in South Korea? Both are surrounded by communities that are just as intriguing as the castles themselves. Here we bring you the 10 best town-and-crown day trips in the world.

Historically, castle towns were designed to keep invaders out—the city walls, moats, and cannon ramparts all constructed to serve as protective barriers. But these days, those same majestic architectural features have proven irresistible to visitors, and now these communities welcome tourists with open arms—and gates (no storming the castle necessary!). We scoured the globe to find the most picturesque fortress towns in the world, places where you're just as likely to want to snap photos of the ramparts as you will street scenes of the locals. Best of all, these are real towns, so when you're finished exploring the castles' interiors, you'll have a reason to stick around and enjoy the royal backdrop while you experience the local culture.



About 470 miles west of Delhi looms what is said to be the world's only continuously occupied fort town, Jaisalmer, India. Rajput warriors and Jain merchants founded the so-called Golden City in 1156 and—unlike many fortress communities—it was never abandoned. Jaisalmer Fort rises nearly 25 stories off the flat, seemingly endless floor of the Great Thar Desert in western Rajasthan. Its 99 bastions were constructed out of yellow bentonite sandstone—giving it the appearance of a massive, intricately carved, sand castle. Around the flourishing town, countless temples and mansions stand out for their Technicolor red-, indigo-, and yellow-dyed walls typically decorated with lace-like carvings.
Getting There: A new airport will open near Jaisalmer in December 2011. Until then, you can reach the city via an overnight, 570-mile train journey from Delhi (tickets start at $3 per person, $6 per person for a sleeper-cabin seat), or else you can take a nine-day camel trip from Delhi (, prices vary).
Visiting: Admission is $5.


The unique mix of Islamic minarets, European buttresses, and pebble-stone mosaic pavements in the ancient city of Rhodes makes it look like a clash of cultures—A Knight's Tale meets a 17th-century Turkish village. Indeed, the town is located at the very heart of the crossroads between the Middle East, Europe, and Africa, and its varied architecture reflects all of those influences. Within the city's thick sandstone and limestone walls, you'll find the Palace of the Grand Masters, built by crusading knights in the 14th century, alongside a candy-striped mosque, a Byzantine museum, and a Muslim library—all legacies from the time of Turkish rule. Today, many of Rhodes's Greek residents are shopkeepers who sell honey produced by the island's many beekeepers; others craft necklaces and souvenirs made from shells cast ashore.
Getting There: The medieval town of Rhodes is located at the northern tip of the island of Rhodes—part of the Dodecanese chain. Olympic Airlines and Aegean Airlines both offer flights into the International Airport of Rhodes (prices vary), and five ferry lines connect to the island from the mainland (prices vary).
Visiting: Entry to the town of Rhodes is free; admission to the palace, museum, and other sites vary.


South Korea may not leap to mind as a hotbed of castles, but in fact the country is flush with fortress towns built to thwart Japanese pirates. Instead of Braveheart-style stone fortresses, however, in Korea castles resemble elaborate pagoda-type buildings, surrounded by thick stone walls. The best preserved of these is in the town of Naganeupseong, a three-square-mile gem nestled in a valley beneath some low-lying mountains near the southwestern city of Suncheon. As remarkable as it is unpronounceable, Naganeupseong (nagan means "safe and pleasant"and seong means "castle") was built in 1397 and still has a couple hundred residents living in its hub of 30 or so thatched-roof adobe houses. Locals work in tile-roofed shops linked by pencil-thin stone alleyways, all of which lead to the town's focal point: the Nakpung-ru Castle. Most weekends, visitors can catch a changing-of-the-guard ceremony in front of its pagoda-style entrance, and every October, the town draws about 200,000 tourists to its Namdo food festival, where regional favorite dishes, such as sanchae bibimbap (a bowl of warm rice topped with vegetables), are served and traditional music is played on the 12-string gayageum.
Getting There: The town of Naganeupseong is accessible via a 25-minute taxi ride from Suncheon. Expect to pay about $3.50.
Admission to the Nakpung-ru Castle is $1.75 for adults.


Even if you've never set foot in Spain, the Alcázar Castle will likely look familiar to you. It's believed to be the inspiration for the original Cinderella Castle in Disneyland, in Anaheim, Calif., and it has appeared in countless postcards and photos since. The original 14th-century structure was destroyed by a fire, but its cylindrical turrets, peaked roofs, and soaring stone walls were faithfully re-created in the 1880s, with marvelously designed murals inside depicting famous battle scenes. The Alcázar is surrounded by a deep moat and looms over the small, hill town of Segovia, which is connected by a drawbridge. The walled community itself is a faithful re-creation of the bright side of Middle Ages life, with crafts shops and beer halls done up in true retro style. Segovia also has an amazingly well-preserved Roman aqueduct with 166 graceful arches and the famous Vera Cruz church, which was consecrated in 1208 by the Knights of Templar to house a relic of the True Cross.
Getting There:
The town of Segovia is easily reached via a one-hour-and-45-minute high-speed train ride northwest of Madrid (tickets $11).
Admission to the Alcázar Castle is $6 for adults.


Set on the Atlantic Coast of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Louisbourg began life peacefully enough in 1713 as a fishing port. But when the Anglo-French struggle for Canada began a few years later, the French colonists started building a series of stone city walls, transforming the sleepy village into a massive fortress. Today, the entire town is a national historic site, crawling with visitors, historical reenactors, and—some say—more than its fair share of resident ghosts. There's a phantom sea captain who's said to haunt the ramparts that overlook Louisbourg's pretty harbor; there's the nurse known to walk among the remains of the old hospital; and there's the mischief-maker who causes trouble by the fort's coal-fired hearth, where white-aproned bakers make fresh bread every day for visitors. Just outside the bastion's walls is the Louisbourg Playhouse, which presents traditional colonial dance performances every day during the summer months.
Getting There:
From the mainland, Louisbourg is best reached by car. You cross the Canso Causeway onto Cape Breton Island. Continue on to the city of Sydney. From the NS Highway 125, you take exit 8 onto Route 22 to Louisbourg.
The fort is open from mid-May to late October. Admission is $17.60 for adults.


Matsumoto-jo is a compound set in the shadow of snow-topped Mt. Hotaka in central Japan. It was built in 1592, making it the country's oldest surviving wooden castle. The main tower is surrounded by pagoda-like tiers, which are painted black and white, and a moat teeming with colorful koi carp. The castle was built on top of a series of mazelike passageways, designed to disorient and trap intruders. Visitors today, however, are welcomed and given tours. Outside the castle walls, Matsumoto seems designed for pedestrians, with wide, tree-lined boulevards tracing the breezy Metoba River. You can also explore the fascinating merchant—or nakamachi—district, a hub of low-slung, tile-roofed buildings where local artisans sell crafts and handiwork, such as furniture made without any nails.
Getting There:
The Azusa and Super Azusa express trains run from Tokyo's Shinjuku Station to Matsumoto every half hour. The journey takes about two hours and 40 minutes, and one-way fares cost $79 for non-reserved seats and about $86 for reserved seats. The castle is about a 15-minute walk from Matsumoto train station.
Admission to the castle is about $7.80.


Germany's so-called Romantic Road—which slices north to south through the southern German state of Bavaria—earned its name for its string of stunning castles. But most of the region's bastions are stand-alone tourist attractions, not thriving municipalities. A charming exception is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a red-walled town set up on a hill above the Tauber River. It has all the pastoral views and scenery of the Romantic Road's other castle stops yet has a strong civic pulse, too. Walt Disney was so taken by the town, in fact, that he used it as inspiration for the village in the movie Pinocchio. An earthquake destroyed the castle's main tower in 1356, but the town's red-roofed medieval and Renaissance houses have endured for centuries and were fully restored after World War II. Visitors can tour the castle's stone towers—protected beneath covered walkways—and stop by its base, where crafts shops sell everything from antique clocks to handmade garden gnomes. Cuisine is celebrated here in a way it isn't in largerGerman cities like Frankfurt or Berlin, let alone in castle canteens elsewhere. You may come here for the shining armor—but you'll return for the delicious renditions of Bavarian comfort foods (more spätzle, anyone?).
Getting There:
The closest major tourist city to Rothenburg ob der Tauber is Munich, which sits about 130 miles southeast. Train service runs between the two cities and takes about three hours (tickets from $67). You can also drive: The A7 autobahn runs right past town.
Visiting the town is free.


Sintra is like the one-stop shop for castle lovers, with not one, not two, but three gorgeous castles. This medieval stronghold town is so beautiful it was called Glorious Eden by the British poet Lord Byron. The town's focal point, Sintra National Palace, is distinctive for its whimsical interiors: columns twisted like barley, an Arab-style courtyard situated around pretty fountains, and glazed tile work known as azulejos. Beyond the town's fortress walls—but still within walking distance—Pena National Palace, with its cupolas, minarets, and lookout towers in cherry, lemon, and white hues, stands on a hilltop overlooking a green forest. On another nearby hill, a once-proud Moorish castle lingers in romantic ruins. In between, the old town of Sintra has a mix of Gothic, Renaissance, and art nouveau homes, not to mention many stone-wall shops selling authentic antiques, wine, and paintings—all of this framed by a lushly forested seaside national park.
Getting There:
Sintra sits about 20 miles northwest of Lisbon. Trains run between the two destinations about every 20 minutes, out of Lisbon's Rossio station, and tickets cost $2.60 each way.
Entrance fees to the town's three castles range from $9.50 to $16.20; visiting the ruins is free.


Founded in 1593 as a stronghold of the Venetian Republic, this UNESCO World Heritage town was built in a unique, 18-sided octadecagon shape. When viewed from above, the fortress community looks like a delicately made paper snowflake, with streets radiating out of the structure like sunbeams. Tucked into a valley with a lagoon running into the Adriatic Sea, the land surrounding Palmanova yields high-quality Chardonnay, while the local waters are stocked with mullet, sea bass, and other delicious fish. In town, look out for the symbol of a leafy bough, or a frasca, hanging outside of restaurants to pinpoint ones serving regionally sourced food, such as the classic Venetian dish baccalà, made with dry-salted cod. At night, the city's earth-and-stone defensive works are lit up like a movie set.
Getting There:
Palmanova sits between Venice and Trieste in northeastern Italy. It's accessible by car along the A4 and A23 motorways and Highway 352. Venice is 75 miles to the southwest, while Trieste is 34 miles to the southeast. The town also sits close to the Cervignano del Friuli station and is serviced by the Udine railway (prices vary).
Admission to the town's three castles is free.


The beauty of Carcassonne is in the details. The well-restored Romanesque fortress city in southwestern France is known by the locals simply as La Cité. The castle's crenellated walls punctuate the sky, and the double line of ramparts looks wonderfully forbidding. The cone-shaped, slate-roofed towers are postcard-perfect. The town's stone streets have been populated since the fifth century. Carcassonne sits a mere one-hour drive from the Mediterranean Sea, meaning it's thousands of miles from Paris in both distance and attitude. It's an unexpected gastronomic and artistic hotspot, with restaurants dishing up modern takes on classical French cuisine, such as cassoulet with partridge, and a neoclassic Musée des Beaux Arts, which stands out for presenting masterworks by Courbet, Chardin, and Ingres, among others.
Getting There: Carcassonne is on the main train line linking Toulouse, 50 minutes away (tickets from $20), with Narbonne, 30 minutes away (tickets from $15), and Montpellier, an hour and a half away (tickets from $29). About a dozen trains a day run on this line. Also, Ryanair is the only airline that offers flights in and out of Carcassonne’s airport, about three and a half miles outside of town. It has daily flights to and from London's Stansted Airport and Brussels's Charleroi Airport. It also offers flights from Carcassonne to Dublin and Liverpool (prices vary).
There is an $11.50 entrance fee for adults to visit the castle. Once inside, you can join a free, optional 45-minute tour of the ramparts; guides speak English (

Plan Your Next Getaway
Keep reading

10 Gorgeous Pools You Won't Believe Are Public

Forget every drab, rectangular, over-chlorinated pool you knew as a child: We found 10 shimmering oases across the globe that come with pleasing aesthetics, funky shapes, and naturally sourced water, injecting some novelty into your traditional summer cooldown. Best of all, they're all wallet-friendly, so pack up your crew, practice your cannonball, and dive right in! See the slide show! Sydney, Australia For more than a century, Tasman Sea waves have crashed against—and into—the Bondi Baths, an Olympic-size pool that became the home of the Bondi Icebergs, a winter swimming club, in 1929. Because of its solid concrete construction, the pool is always slightly colder than the ocean, even though it uses the same water—you can follow the fluctuating temps on its Twitter feed. The public is welcome here, but locals who want to become Icebergs (i.e., earn their official stripes as winter swimmers) must log 75 swims here during what most would consider the "off-season" (when pool temps dip below 60ºF in wintry July). Casual visitors favor summertime dips, when the water warms to the high 70s by February. Upon emerging from the striking shoreside pool at the Icebergs, bathers enjoy the amenities of its modernist, beachy clubhouse complex, which includes a gourmet bistro, two bars, fitness facilities, and a 1,600-square-foot sundeck.Accessibility: Year-roundAffordability: Day pass for nonmembers $6Hours: Mon.–Fri., 6 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Sat.–Sun., 6:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m. Closed for cleaning every Thurs. 1 Notts Ave., Bondi Beach, 011-61/2-9130-3120; Vienna, Austria Perhaps "Krapfenwaldlbad" doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it happens to be the name of one of Vienna's loveliest neighborhoods—as well as its renowned park with four heated pools for swimmers, socializers, and families. First opened in 1923 and perched like a leisurely sentinel on a hill, the main pool has become a fixture in the city's summer social scene. Accordingly, amenities run the gamut from a restaurant and a bar to table tennis, soccer, beach volleyball, and a children's playground. While the pools themselves may be standard fare, their exclusive views over the entire city, vineyards, and, well, other bathers, are what make them exceptional.Accessibility: May 2–Sept.Affordability: Adult admission to the park, including pool access, $6.70Hours: Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–8 p.m.; Sat., Sun., and holidays, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Krapfenwaldgasse 65-73, Vienna, 011-43/1-320-1501; (German only, see above link for English) Copenhagen, Denmark Kastrup Søbad, a circular wooden pavilion in the Baltic Sea, captures the essence of Danish design with its clean lines and natural finish. Created in 2005, the "sea bath" rises up at the end of a 328-foot boardwalk that connects it to shore (where visitors will find showers and lockers) and spirals in a way that shields bathers from sea winds. The walls of the $1.3 million structure intentionally slope to provide a vantage point for admiring the three miles of beaches nearby. The swimming here is probably most enjoyed by those of hearty Scandinavian stock, given that the clear waters only reach the low 60s at their warmest. But it's a perfect place to experience hygge—an all-encompassing Danish term that means spending quality time with good friends—and it's only a seven-minute train trip from the heart of downtown.Accessibility: June–Sept.Affordability: FreeHours: 24 hours a day, June–Sept. 15; generally supervised from 11 a.m.–8 p.m., but check schedule for times. Amager Strandvej 301, Copenhagen, 011-45/3251-5135; Bath, England The Thermae Bath Spa taps into the same thermal springs that once soothed Roman conquerors in 43 A.D. From the naturally heated rooftop pool on the spa's New Royal Bath building, visitors can take in a panorama that includes the ornate towers of 17th-century Bath Abbey in the center of town. This building also houses the Minerva Bath, the largest and most futuristically stylized of the three on offer, with massage jets, a whirlpool, and a "lazy river." Here, as well as in the more intimate Cross Bath building (erected on a Celtic goddess-worshipping site), the mineral-rich water boils up out of the earth at 113ºF but is mechanically cooled to a comfortable 91ºF. While in town, it's worthwhile to check out the ruins in the nearby Roman Baths museum, where the spirits of those who soaked before you roam.Accessibility: Year-roundAffordability: Two-hour spa usage, including pool access, $40Hours:New Royal Bath, 9 a.m.–10 p.m.; Cross Bath, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.6–8 Hot Bath St., Bath, 011-44/1225-331-234; Montpellier, France Visitors to Montpellier's Piscine Olympique d'Antigone are simultaneously greeted by Antigone and Venus—that is, the Olympic-size lap pool and leisure pool—upon entering the modernist bi-level sports complex. Downstairs, Antigone hosts everything from lap sessions to sports matches—and some of France's elite Olympic athletes train here, if you're looking to bump into the water-polo team. Upstairs at Venus, bathers' diversions include a five-lane pool, a sun terrace beneath the retractable roof, a whirlpool, and the most chic waterslide you've ever seen (leave it to the French).Accessibility: Year-roundAffordability: Adult day pass $7Leisure pool hours: Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–9:30 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.–7:15 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.–1:15 p.m. and 3 p.m.–7:15 p.m. 195, Avenue Jacques Cartier, Montpellier, 011-33/4-67-15-63-00; (French only) Berlin, Germany Berliners clamber aboard the Badeschiff (literally, "bathing ship"), which floats southeast of this vibrant cultural hub's city center, in the Spree River. The 90-foot-long, seven-foot-deep, bright blue pool was created in May 2004 from a converted barge and is now open throughout the year. Come summer, yoga classes, concerts, and movie screenings lure hipsters here to hang out on the adjacent floating wood platform, at the cafe, and on the man-made beach. During the winter, a translucent shell protects swimmers, and a pair of saunas materializes alongside the pool.Accessibility: May–Sept., Nov.–Mar.Affordability: $6Hours: Summer, daily, 8 a.m.–12 a.m.; winter, $17 for three hours, opening times vary according to day. Eichenstrasse, 4, Berlin; Budapest, Hungary While the Gellért Thermal Baths buildingdates from 1918, records of the healing waters on-site date back to the 15th century. First opened with an offering of six thermal baths, the complex today is an expansive Eastern European respite decked out in intricate stonework and mosaic tiles on a grand scale. The effervescent swimming pool in the art-nouveau-style main hall is arguably the showstopper, sparkling 98 feet long under the double-height glass roof and inevitably inspiring fantasies of swimming in champagne. The rest of the building encompasses the original mineral-hot-spring baths, plus cold baths, saunas, a steam room, a spa, and two outdoor pools, including a 130-foot-long open-air wave pool.Accessibility: Indoor, year-round; outdoor, summertimeAffordability: Pools only from $20Hours: Daily, 6 a.m.–8 p.m. Kelenhegyi út 4, Budapest, 011-36/466-6166; Grindavík, Iceland The aptly named Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavík draws more than 400,000 visitors a year to its 1.6 million gallons of approximately 100-degree seawater. Steam rises from these sky blue hot springs across a surreal landscape of black lava mounds, and bathers slather themselves with silica mud, precipitated from the spring water and known for its relaxing (and purported healing) properties. Formed in the 1970s as a by-product of the neighboring geothermal plant (after the plant used the hot water, it was led back to the lava field and formed the lagoon), the Blue Lagoon spawned a wellness center in 1999. With a restaurant, a spa, a dry sauna, and steam baths, the facility draws visitors from around the globe.Accessibility: Year-roundAffordability: Day pass $42Hours: Sept. 1–May 31, 10 a.m.–8 p.m.; June 1–Aug. 31, 9 a.m.–9 p.m. 240 Grindavík, 011-354/4-208-800;   Austin, Tex. The natural springs that feed the 1,000-foot-long Barton Springs Pool were once considered sacred by Native Americans, who believed in their healing powers. A dip in these waters is certainly rejuvenating, as is the time you'll spend lounging poolside on grassy knolls shaded by ancient oak and pecan trees in surrounding Zilker Metropolitan Park. The idyllic 355-acre green sprawl south of downtown is host to the annual Austin City Limits Music Festival and features Frisbee golf, playgrounds, and the Zilker Botanical Garden, which includes the Isamu Taniguchi Japanese Garden.Accessibility: Mar. 12–Jan. 24Affordability: Adults $3Hours: Apr.–Sept., 8 a.m.–10 p.m. 2100 Barton Springs Rd., Zilker Park, Austin, 512/867-3080;   Coral Gables, Fla. Like something out of a watercolor found at a Florida antiques show, Coral Gables Venetian Pool is a man-made, jade green, eight-foot-deep lagoon created in 1924 by the city's founding father, George Merrick. Drained every night and refilled with 820,000 gallons of spring water, the pool—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is connected to a pair of waterfalls (one of which is 25 feet high!) and grottoes worthy of Michelangelo's eye. Hold court at the poolside cafe during the afternoons; as night descends, Venetian-inspired lampposts bestow a 1920s glamour on this secluded spot, but, sadly, moonlight canoodling is deterred by closing times that precede sunset.Accessibility: Year-roundAffordability: Day pass for nonresident adults $11Summer hours through Aug. 21, Mon.–Fri., 11 a.m.–6:30 p.m., Sat.–Sun., 10 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; Aug. 22–Oct. 31, closes weekdays at 5:30 p.m. 2701 De Soto Blvd., Coral Gables, 305/460-5306; SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: World's Most Amazing Hotel Pools Secret Beaches of North America 25 Most Photographed Places on Earth 10 Most Beautiful Churches 26 Stunning Ireland Photos


25 Most Photographed Places on Earth

Mining data from 35 million Flickr photos, scientists at Cornell University made some surprising discoveries: Not only did the world's most photographed cities (and the most captured landmark in each) emerge, but also so did the most common angles for shooting each place. So what do the results say about us as travelers? The findings suggest that through our cameras, we "vote" for our favorite places, things, and the best representation of them—and, by and large, we agree. We reached out to the researchers to see if the results had changed since the study was released in April 2009, and they crunched the numbers for us again—with a few exceptions (the Lincoln Memorial, for example, has replaced the Washington Monument as most photographed place in D.C.) not much had changed. But how can you photograph world wonders in a way that makes something special out of the overly familiar? In our slide show, we showcase the most commonly shot landmarks from the top 25 cities—first showing you its classic angle and then offering fresh alternatives, with tips from our photo editors on how to put your own unique spin on these iconic destinations. Consider this your photographer's guide to the Flickr Wonders of the World. SEE THE PLACES: 25 MOST PHOTOGRAPHED PLACES ON EARTH 25TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: PORTLAND, OREGON  Landmark: Pioneer Courthouse Square. Portland's 27-year-old public space, host to alfresco concerts and festivals, is the city's most visited spot. Standard shot: The square overlooking the Portland Clock Tower. Tip: The rule of thirds. The foundation for well-balanced images, this rule states that images should be equally divided by two vertical lines and two horizontal lines. Compose your shot so that the elements are placed along these lines. Here, the arm of this sculpture coincides with an imaginary vertical line, while his umbrella lines up with your horizontal line. 24TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: DUBLIN, IRELAND  Landmark: O'Connell Street and the Spire of Dublin. The city's wide main street, which runs into City Hall and Dublin Castle, is home to a hard-to-miss monument: the sleek and pointy spire, completed in 2003 as part of a street redesign and rising nearly 400 feet above the cosmopolitan scene. Standard shot: The spire framed by O'Connell Street. Tip: Experiment with angles. In this case, doing the unexpected—getting as close to the monument as possible and shooting upward—delivered a gem of a vantage point. 23RD MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: AUSTIN, TEXAS  Landmark: Capitol Building. The 1888 Renaissance Revival–style capitol commands 22 gracious acres on Congress Avenue; it's constructed of red-tinged granite that was quarried just 50 miles away. You'll want to shoot this beauty from every angle. Standard shot: Up into the rotunda. Tip: Compare and contrast. Create a lively composition by contrasting your subject with an interesting object in the foreground—and then adjust the depth of field to focus on that object, leaving your original subject blurred in the background. Here, a metal ornament on the state capitol's gate becomes the new star of the shot. 22ND MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA Landmark: Independence Hall. Constructed as the Pennsylvania State House in the mid 1700s, this structure, a beautiful example of Georgian architecture, was the meeting place for the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1783 and the site of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Standard shot: A side perspective of Independence Hall. Tip: Frame with nature. Try to go for the less obvious composition by looking for trees or other sources of organic beauty to complement your subject. Here, the ginkgo trees perfectly frame the clock tower. 21ST MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: VENICE, ITALY  Landmark: Piazza San Marco. St. Mark's Basilica, with its grand arches and Romanesque carvings, dominates Venice's sprawling main square, where camera-toting tourists jostle for space with pigeons. Standard shot: A full frontal view of St. Mark's Basilica. Tip: Capture the vibe. Sometimes it helps to set your sights on the action of a place rather than its overall beauty. Here, focus on the fluttering pigeons that famously fill the plaza, and the feel of the place will be more evident than it could be in any wide-angle shot. 20TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: MADRID, SPAIN  Landmark: Plaza Mayor. The 17th-century principal square is classic Madrid—symmetrical, historic, and abuzz with activity as it's host to cafés, street artists, and various hawkers. Standard shot: A view across the square taken from the southeast corner. Tip: Cozy up to something. In a sprawling square, highlight a specific detail—such as this statue in the Plaza Mayor—and shoot it from below, creating a silhouette framed by an expansive sky. 19TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA Landmark: Granville Island. From industrial wasteland to urban-redevelopment success story, this city island is now home to various colorful and creative attractions, from a sprawling public market and the Adventure Zone (a playground for kids) to theater productions and art exhibits. How to capture the vibe in one great shot? Standard shot: A long shot of the skyline from the harbor. Tip: Find some color. Look for an out-of-the-ordinary corner to focus on, and then, if you have a compact camera, choose a setting that accentuates the colorful hues of the canvas before you, such as "landscape" for a garden or, if appropriate, "night." On Granville Island, for example, explore the docks and capture the lights at night. 18TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: MILAN, ITALY  Landmark: Duomo di Milano. Commissioned in 1386, this soaring, pink-tinged, gargantuan Gothic cathedral (with a capacity of 40,000) has enough spires and statues to humble even the most experienced photographer. Standard shot: A skyward photo of the cathedral from the front. Tip: Get past overwhelming façades. Zoom in on visually interesting lines and sculptures, as this photographer did, turning a collection of spires into an arresting graphic image. 17TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: TORONTO, ONTARIO Landmark: CN Tower. Toronto's center of telecommunications (its broadcast tower serves 16 Canadian TV and radio stations) is also a skyline star and tourist favorite. Its glass-walled elevator zooms riders to an observation deck in less than one minute, but a look up at the tower from below is pretty thrilling, too. Standard shot: A vertigo-inducing angle shot from below. Tip: Get some exposure. Achieving a colorful shot at night is tricky. Use a slow shutter speed, which increases exposure, and a tripod to eliminate blur, and skip the flash to make the lights in your skyline glow. This photographer captured Toronto and its iconic tower from Ward's Island (part of the Toronto Islands), across the Inner Harbor. 16TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: FLORENCE, ITALY  Landmark: Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore). Filippo Brunelleschi's masterpiece—today, the world's third-largest church—was built from 1296 into the 1400s. Its striking red-tiled dome and colorful façade of pink, green, and white are photo-worthy, indeed. Standard shot: The stunning façade. Tip: Capture it all. Juxtapose a section of the landmark building with a view of the city (or other contextual elements) by shooting out from within the icon itself. 15TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: LAS VEGAS, NEVADA  Landmark: Paris Las Vegas hotel. Part of the Strip for a dozen years already, this French theme park of a resort—and especially its Eiffel Tower reproduction—is still a big hit with shutterbugs. Standard shot: A full frontal of the Paris Las Vegas. Tip: Go away. Sometimes it helps to get some perspective. In this case, you can cross Las Vegas Boulevard and go up into Paris's neighbor, the Bellagio, to get an elevated shot of the hotel spectacle. 14TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: BERLIN, GERMANY  Landmark: Brandenburg Gate. Representing the lofty idea of peace and standing 82 feet high, this 18th-century sandstone landmark—Germany's most well-known—can easily make shutterbugs feel like they should fall in line. Standard shot: Straight on. Tip: Break the rules. Shoot directly into the sun as it sets to create a compelling silhouette. 13TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA  Landmark: Balboa Park. Set aside as a public space in 1868, this 1,200-acre park has undergone many stages of development and beautification. Today, it's home to theaters, activity centers, landscaped gardens, and at least a dozen museums, with more than its fair share of photo-worthy landscapes. Standard shot: A zoomed-out focus on the tower of the California Building. Tip: Try fresh angles. This unusual composition, including just the tip of the ornate California Building, fills the frame with the vibrant blue sky as reflected in this body of water. 12TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: BARCELONA, SPAIN  Landmark: Sagrada Família. It's hard to know exactly where to point your lens at Gaudí's elaborately ornate, multitowered Gothic cathedral, which couldn't possibly be captured all in a single frame. Standard shot: From the front entrance, looking up. Tip: Zoom in. Avoid the standard, straight-on shot (and, in this case, unattractive scaffolding) to zoom in on the ornate details, such as the basilica's steeples. 11TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS  Landmark: Fenway Park. Boston tourists love snapping photos of this classic ball field, which is the site of All-Star games, a World Series win, and historic moments ranging from a record Mickey Mantle home run to a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Standard shot: Far, wide. Tip: Seize the moment. Preset your camera on its rapid-fire, or "sports," setting—but, when the big moment happens, look to the stands instead of the field for inspiration. When you see something animated, such as a fan waving his arms in the air, you'll be ready to snap multiple shots, capturing the silhouette (and the energy of the crowd) against the backdrop of the field. 10TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS  Landmark: Dam Square. Created in the 13th century as a dam around the Amstel River, this expansive plaza is now flooded with street performers and tourists (and pigeons). It's hard to capture the frenzied feeling in a wide shot. Standard shot: Wide, with buildings and lots of space. Tip: Try keeping other people in the frame. There's a natural temptation to shy away from shooting photos of strangers, but including people can give viewers a contextual clue about the relative size of the subject you're photographing. Plus families and groups of travelers can make a space seem more alive. Here, the photographer has used the plaza as a backdrop to capture its local talent. 9TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: ROME, ITALY  Landmark: Colosseum. This ancient site is filled with the ghosts of dueling gladiators, tormented prisoners, and slaughtered animals, contained, centuries after the fact, within a stunning framework of Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic columns. It's a gorgeous dichotomy indeed, and it's hard to not want to capture it all. Standard shot: The structure, in its entirety. Tip: Take advantage of a natural "frame." The archways at Rome's Colosseum give shape to the photo. Shooting through windows, courtyards, doorways, and other openings can create an appealing inside/outside dynamic. 8TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: SEATTLE, WASHINGTON Landmark: Space Needle. What began as the symbol of the World's Fair in 1962 has now become the symbol of this supercool city. The 360-degree view from the top is expansive, taking in sights from the Puget Sound to Mount Rainier. Standard shot: From directly below. Tip: Create a mirror image. Reflective surfaces are common in urban areas. For a unique take on a classic monument, look around for how an object might be mirrored in a car window, a building's glass front, or the surface of a fountain. 7TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: WASHINGTON, D.C.  Landmark: Lincoln Memorial. This marble memorial to the 16th president—featuring Ionic columns, oil-paint murals, and a 120-ton statue of Abe himself—is a striking part of the National Mall. Standard shot: The full building, from a distance. Tip: Put things in "perspective." A straight-on shot is the most obvious one to take of the Lincoln Memorial, as it puts the main subject front and center. But including other objects in the picture, like this $5 bill, adds a creative element of whimsy to what might otherwise be a dime-a-dozen postcard image. 6TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS.  Landmark: Cloud Gate sculpture. Anish Kapoor's 110-ton bean of stainless steel is the shiny centerpiece of Millennium Park's AT&amp;T Plaza and makes for a striking photo in just about any composition. Standard shot: A direct shot of the bean, taken from the side. Tip: Avoid the obvious. Whether it's a sculpture, a person, or a building, you can always walk around your subject to get a different view. In this case, the photographer went underneath the bean sculpture—made of highly polished steel and inspired by liquid mercury—and shot upward for a truly unique view. 5TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA  Landmark: Hollywood Walk of Fame. Begun in 1960 as a Hollywood marketing tool (with filmmaker Stanley Kramer the first honoree), the series of coral-colored stars was at 2,441 in May 2011 and continues to grow. Standard shot: One star, shot from above. Tip: Use distance as a frame of reference. Rather than rush in and snap away, pre-visualize your image, thinking about how to photograph a subject from different directions. In this case, the photographer chose to present the stars in a line—a decision that brings context to the shot. 4TH MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: PARIS, FRANCE Landmark: Eiffel Tower. Gustave Eiffel's 1889 masterpiece, constructed in celebration of the French Revolution's 100th anniversary, is magnificent at any angle; but why choose one that you can easily find on a postcard? Standard shot: Full-on, from far away. Tip: Keep an eye out for unexpected patterns. Most pictures of the Eiffel Tower are taken from a distance. But its detailed iron latticework also captures attention. In general, close-up shots of patterns in architecture help a viewer see iconic attractions with fresh eyes. 3RD MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA  Landmark: Union Square. The main downtown plaza—used as a rallying site to support troops during the Civil War—is now a mecca for hardcore shopping and people-watching. It's also a great place to hop aboard a cable car. Standard shot: A wide-angle view of Union Square from the Macy's Building. Tip: Less is more. A close-up photo can sometimes be as powerful as a wide-angle one. As Belgian fashion designer Dries Van Noten once said: "It's more interesting to have just a picture of a small detail. Then you can dream all the rest around it." Here, a tight shot of a sculpture in the square takes that advice to heart. 2ND MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM. Landmark: Trafalgar Square. John Nash designed and developed this former palace courtyard into a public space in the early 1800s; it has since been further transformed with sculptures, fountains, and staircases, and has become a local hotspot for protests—all worthy subjects for your lens. Standard shot: A wide-angle shot of the National Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Fields church. Tip: Shift direction. Tilt your lens down to get some surprising texture in the foreground of your shot. Here, the photographer juxtaposed an urban icon, St. Martin-in-the-Fields church, with the surface of a Trafalgar Square fountain. (And, in case you were curious, the tree stumps in this photo were part of an exhibition that warned about deforestation.) 1ST MOST PHOTOGRAPHED CITY: NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Landmark: Empire State Building. Built in one year and 45 days in the midst of the Great Depression, this iconic skyscraper draws about 3.5 million visitors a year to its observatories. On a clear day, you can see as far as Massachusetts, but backward glances at the soaring architecture are pretty seductive, too. Standard shot: The view of the Empire State Building from the street below. Tip: Broaden your perspective. Photographing an expected sight from an unexpected place can add a lot to your photo. To get this shot, head 16 blocks north and up 70 floors to the Top of the Rock Observation Deck in Rockefeller Center, where you'll get the best view of the Empire State Building—along with a 360-degree panorama of the city.


Explore the Secret Falls of the Smokies by Car

Eight hundred square miles of old-growth forest and quartzite crags, the Great Smoky Mountains make up the most visited national park in the country. Covered in that famously blue blanket of fog, these woods are like something conjured up by the Brothers Grimm—a natural wonder with a dash of fairy tale. But for all the park's appeal, most of its day-trippers, long-haul hikers, and Harley caravanners come looking for just one thing: autumn leaves. To them, waterfalls are a trickling Smokies side note. If only they knew... Once spring is within shouting distance, cascades suddenly begin tumbling from all over the place as the Smokies' 2,100 miles of streams swell with high-country melt and rain. Imagine it: Big, thundering falls and delicate, burbling cataracts. Some run for a few weeks, some for months at a time, but most are gone or vastly diminished by June. Instead of hunting color with the masses, during April you can chase falls in solitude, at their gushing peak. DAY 1 Chattanooga, Tenn., to Sevierville, Tenn. 153 miles Throw a rock from pretty much anywhere in the Smokies and it'll splash a fall in spring. With only two days to explore the region, I wasn't interested in quantity—I was more interested in being selective. To zero in, I downloaded maps from the National Park Service website, then talked to some experts at local outfitters in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This ridge city is a rising star, a Bluegrass-music and organic-bakery kind of place, similar in flavor to another of my favorite small Southern towns: Asheville, North Carolina. If I were to bookend my route with the two towns, I could cut straight through the park, past some of its prettiest falls. I arrived in Chattanooga for lunch at noon and headed straight for Warehouse Row, a former Civil War fort that's been converted into boutiques, galleries, and a modern comfort-food café called Public House. Their fried-chicken salad was topped with slap-your-knee-delicious hickory bacon from local curemaster Allan Benton. Driving east out of Chattanooga, I veered off I-75 near Madisonville (home of Allan Benton's smokehouse) and steered toward the park's western hub of Townsend. At the Smoky Mountain School of Woodcarving, I met the genial, white-bearded Mac Proffitt. Porch-sitting is an art in his family, which settled in the Smokies back in the early 1800s. With one of Mac's beginner Murphy knives and a block of soft basswood, I felt ready to channel my inner hillbilly between waterfall stops. I ignored Gatlinburg's taffy stores and T-shirt shops and instead pointed my wheels straight into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the unofficial heart of Appalachia, with more than 9 million visitors a year. As I traced the winding, 18-mile, Etch-A-Sketch-like Little River Road, foothills grew into full-blown peaks, cloaked in hardwoods at the base and spruce and firs on top. I'd heard good things about two falls in the area—Abrams near Cades Cove Loop Road and the 80-foot Laurel near Fighting Creek Gap—but I was eager to get on to Rainbow Falls, a notoriously gorgeous cascade along one of the park's top ascent trails. I parked at the Rainbow Falls trailhead off of Cherokee Orchard Road and hiked in. After a little more than an hour of low-grade climbing, I was rewarded: Winter's ice formations had melted into a misty, 80-foot veil. The continual collision of water with rock sounded like a turbo-charged, amplified washing machine. The large slabs had been smoothed by time, and dry, mossy nooks made awesome reading benches. Somehow I managed to sit for a solitary hour here, half of which I spent watching a family of black salamanders in a small pool. I could have contentedly whiled away the whole day but decided to press on, with a hike-in hotel in mind. Only the devoted climb the 6.5 miles to LeConte Lodge, set at the end of the trail atop the tallest peak east of Colorado. The cluster of seven cabins and three lodges has been a Smokies institution since 1926, with some of the best views in the park. If you can snag a reservation here—they tend to book up months in advance—expect the best of the South: rocking chairs, Hudson Bay wool blankets, family-style suppers, and, if you're lucky, a black bear sighting. John Muir would love these digs. How to goLodging: LeConte Lodge, Sevierville, Tenn., $79 per personFood: Public House, 1110 Market St., Chattanooga, Tenn., fried-chicken salad from $9.50Activities: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, free entrySmoky Mountain School of Woodcarving, 7321 Lamar Alexander Pkwy, Townsend, Tenn. DAY 2 Sevierville, Tenn., to Balsam, N.C.50 milesWith nearly 85 inches of annual rain, the upper Smokies qualify both as a temperate rain forest and one hell of a spot for showers. And Mingo Falls stands above them all. The 120-foot cascade, just a whisper off the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, is one of the tallest in the area. I slowly wound south down U.S. 441, stopping half a dozen times to take snapshots of overlooks, rippling creeks, and two napping elk. Twenty-one miles into North Carolina, Mingo sits on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Luckily, there's no strenuous hike involved for this one. Inhaling the brisk, ion-rich oxygen helped me forget that my legs were still throbbing from LeConte. About an hour south of Mingo Falls, past gemstone sellers and dream-catcher stands, I came upon the chill little town of Sylva, North Carolina. Sylva embodies that new breed of Southern town, in league with places like Black Mountain and Brevard, North Carolina. Its Main Street is lined with coffee shops and a fly-fishing outfitter.  I rode a quick stretch to an inn that's over a century old, just short of Asheville, in the town of Balsam. If LeConte is the Smokies' old settler-style hangout, then the Balsam Mountain Inn is its Governor's mansion. Built as a summer getaway, the 50-room house has a two-story porch long enough to bowl down and rooms laid with heart-pine floorboards. It has, blissfully, little else—no phones, no TVs—and gives new meaning to the idea of a restful stay. Wood-carving block in my hand, a train calling in the distance, and nothing but foggy Blue Ridge views for miles—the Mountain Inn was exactly what I wanted after two days of waterfall trekking. Civilization could wait. How to goLodging: Balsam Mountain Inn, 68 Seven Springs Dr., Balsam, N.C., doubles from $145Activities: Blue Ridge Parkway   SEE MORE POPULAR CONTENT: 16 Awe-Inspiring American Monuments 4 Tips for Tough Photo Scenarios The Ultimate Packing Guide


10 Islands to See Before You Die

If you're going to imagine yourself on an exotic island, dare to dream big! Here are 10 one-of-a-kind islands where you'll discover every item on your wish list, from overwater bungalows and pristine wildlife to sublime street food and mysterious cultural monuments. Of course, traveling to these islands comes at a price; the dollar signs below provide a general indication of how much you'll want to budget for accommdations and food. Multiply by seven if you stay a week or by 365 if you're convinced to quit your job and stay a year. $: $1–$74 $$: $75–$149 $$$: $150–$224 $$$$: $225–Up SEE THE ISLANDS! 1. VIEQUES When the U.S. Navy packed up and left Vieques in 2003, after more than 60 years, it left something behind: unspoiled nature. Land once used for bombing practice is now designated as a national wildlife refuge. So far there are only a few mega-resorts like those found on the Puerto Rican mainland—instead, you'll find homey inns like the aptly named Great Escape B&amp;B, where breakfast is served poolside (from $115). There are only two notable towns (the population is less than 10,000): Isabel Segunda on the northern side of the island, and the far smaller Esperanza on the south. The effect is that when you reach a beach at the end of a dirt road here, your reward is having the sand largely to yourself. Playa de la Chiva (Blue Beach) attracts daytime snorkelers and divers, but the real reason Vieques belongs on your bucket list is Puerto Mosquito. Of the seven bioluminescent bays on the planet, Puerto Mosquito is the most impressive, thanks to the clarity and brightness of its waters. Schedule a moonless night for a swim or kayak tour and you'll be greeted by billions of micro-organisms called dinoflagellates that ignite the water with a magical blue-green glow (Aqua Frenzy Kayaks, from $30 per person). It's like swimming in a watercolor painting. $$ &gt;&gt;Related: Dream Trips: Find a Deserted Beach 2. EASTER ISLAND With the nearest major landmass, Chile, lying 2,200 miles away, Easter Island is as remote as it is mysterious. No one knows exactly why nearly 900 gargantuan stone monoliths are sprinkled across this isolated, 60-square-mile scrap of land in the middle of the South Pacific—and those long, stone faces aren't talking. For several hundred years, the moai that are unique to this island have maintained their silent sentinel even as the civilization that created them collapsed and a trickle of tourists appeared in its wake. Intended to stand atop cut-stone altars (called ahu), the moai average 13 feet high and weigh nearly 14 tons each; most lie prone, toppled by civil wars in the 17th and 18th centuries. A particularly compelling spot is Rano Raraku, the collapsed volcano where many moai were quarried and where nearly 400 figures remain, all frozen in various states of completion. The island counts only one town, Hanga Roa, where you'll want to check in to Vai Moana, a low-key hotel with 18 rooms set in bungalows (from $102, including breakfast and transport to and from the airport). You can then wander from the volcanic coastline across grassy hills without bumping into another human being who might break Easter Island's spell. $$$ 3. BALI The warm, spiritual essence that writer Elizabeth Gilbert discovered here and celebrated in Eat, Pray, Love has been native to Bali for centuries. It's one of 17,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago—and the only one on which Hindus form the majority (93 percent). Even more striking is the fact that there is a spiritual celebration here nearly every day. Three Hindu temples at the Besakih (the Mother Temple of Bali) survived a 1963 eruption that destroyed nearby villages while missing by mere yards this terraced complex atop volcanic Mount Agung. The event is still considered a miracle by locals, who arrive in regular procession; they balance offerings on their head and climb the steps to the sound of mantras, jingling bells, and the sharp flutter of umbul-umbuls (ceremonial Balinese flags). Anyone interested in exploring the inner self might like the Nirarta Centre, an 11-room hotel set amid rice terraces and gardens that holds daily meditation sessions. After finding your center here, channel your energy into jungle treks, scuba diving, and big-break surfing along beaches of fine white and volcanic black sand. Exhale against a backdrop of rice paddies and Impressionist sunsets that illuminate the Indian Ocean. $$$$ &gt;&gt;Related: Secret Islands of Southeast Asia 4. ISCHIA This volcanic island in the Bay of Naples has hot springs so therapeutic that they have drawn admirers for 2,000 years. Greeks, Romans, and Turks quickly discovered that Ischia's fumaroles, hot springs, and heated mud hold the power to ease sore muscles—or simply provide a degree of self-indulgence. Today's travelers are likewise pampered by massages and mud wraps courtesy of the island's geothermal characteristic, which helps fill the 22 thermo-mineral pools of the beachfront spa Giardini di Poseidon Terme. After your treatment of choice, peel off the sandals for a walk on the beach, a visit to the 15th-century Castello Aragonese, or a glass of biancolella (white) or per 'e palummo (red) wine from local vineyards. You can also get a taste of the glam, jet-setter lifestyle associated with Italy and depicted in the film The Talented Mr. Ripley, shot here on location. Retreat to the family-run Hotel Villa Angelica, whose garden naturally includes a thermal swimming pool with a Jacuzzi (from $75, including breakfast). $$$ 5. CHILOÉ The lush, cloud-covered Chiloé archipelago may lie off the western coast of Chile, but its history, customs, and language bear little resemblance to those of the mainland, or anywhere else in the world, because of its isolation. Local farmers have passed down a mythology of gnome- and witch-filled woodlands and ghost ships. Valdivian temperate rain forests are protected within Parque Nacional Chiloé. In the Pacific, dolphins, penguins, otters, and the largest creatures in history—blue whales—are studied and protected by the Cetacean Conservation Center. In the central city of Castro, order a steaming meal of curanto (shellfish, meat, and potatoes) and peruse handicrafts made of wood and colorful garments created from Chilean wool. Residents still live in traditional palafitos (stilt houses). Jesuit missionaries, who first arrived in small numbers in the 1600s, used local materials and construction techniques to build exquisite chapels. Their work survives in more than 50 wooden churches found in communities such as Castro, Nercón, Chonchi, Dalcahue, and Quinchao; their appearance reflects a hybrid of European and indigenous styles that you won't find anywhere else on earth. $$ 6. BORA BORA If you envision yourself on an island in French Polynesia, Bora Bora is the place to hang your hammock. Even novelist James Michener, who penned sweeping epics set in the South Pacific and beyond, dubbed it the world's most beautiful island. Mingled in among the Society Islands northwest of Tahiti, Bora Bora's lowland reefs and islets are lorded over by Mount Pahia and Mount Otemanu, twin peaks forming an extinct volcano in the island's interior. Super-expensive upscale resorts along the western edge—and a fair share of inns and vacation rentals—feature overwater thatch-roofed bungalows built on stilts above shallow, clear-as-gin waters. (Maitai Resort is a comparatively affordable option, considering the $800-plus competition, with rooms from $198 and bungalows from $408, including taxes.) Slip on a sarong and relax while savoring the vision of endless miles of soft sand beaches and lagoons. Luxurious, certainly, but of even greater value is the philosophy of Bora Bora's residents: Aita pea pea. In other words, "not to worry." $$$$ &gt;&gt;Related: Overwater Bungalows: Stay Literally on the Ocean 7. KEY WEST Laid-back, beach-y living coupled with a flamboyant arts scene lends a one-of-a-kind appeal to this lowland island (peak elevation: 18 feet). Key West inspired Mississippi-born balladeer Jimmy Buffett, and it remains hallowed ground for his followers—the "parrotheads" that roost here throughout the year and keep the mythical utopia of Margaritaville alive. Tennessee Williams, Harry S. Truman, and Ernest Hemingway were also seduced. Defying easy categorization, Key West is capital of the Conch Republic, the tongue-in-cheek micro-nation created in 1982 by residents proud of their liberal lifestyle. Natural sand beaches are surprisingly rare here, but with the chance to snorkel above North America's only living coral reef and enjoy the company of a Technicolor collection of 400 species of tropical fish, it would be a shame to spend your beach time on land, anyway. When you've dried off, head to Mallory Square to catch street performers during the daily Sunset Celebration. Follow it up with brews along the "Duval Crawl," a tour of watering holes in the early 20th-century buildings that line Duval Street. From there, it's a pleasant, 15-minute walk to the Grand Guesthouse (from $98, including breakfast). $$$ 8. PENANG Start your food crawl at stalls that crowd the streets of Georgetown, Penang's largest city and Malaysia's food capital. The delectable fare on offer memorably mingles Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and European flavors. Foodies in search of supreme bliss should head to the marketplace Ayer Itam—adjacent to Kek Lok Si (the Temple of Supreme Bliss)—to dine on a variety of dishes based on rice, noodles, fish, shellfish, chicken, pork, vegetables, eggs, and coconut. Look for lor bak (deep-fried marinated minced pork served with a chili sauce); lok-lok (skewered seafood, meats, and vegetables); and ikan bakar (grilled or barbecued fish marinated in spices and coconut milk, wrapped inside banana leaves, and grilled over hot coals). The same fusion of cultures is evident in the local architecture, which ranges from modern high-rises to buildings built by 19th-century British colonialists. Add to the mix beach resorts, preserved mangroves, small fishing villages, and a share of temples, mosques, and churches. Kek Lok Si best exemplifies this coexistence. At seven stories, it's the largest Buddhist temple in Southeast Asia, and it reflects the shared values of Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism—designed with a Chinese octagonal base, a Thai-accented middle tier, and a Burmese-style peak. $$  &gt;&gt;Related: 7 Little-Known Islands: Get There First 9. GALÁPAGOS ISLANDS The namesake tortoise is only one reason to explore this archipelago overrun with more than 500 spectacular native species found nowhere else. Charles Darwin's 1835 visit sparked his curiosity, leading to his landmark book and the observation that these islands are the "laboratory of evolution." Much of the biological kaleidoscope noted by Darwin—such as penguins, sea lions, finches, blue-footed boobies—is still visible on the Galápagos, which are scattered more than 600 miles west of Ecuador. Look out for the waved albatross, which has a 7- to 8-foot wingspan, on Española. Tour operators navigate the islands on everything from luxury catamarans to motor yachts, and many employ naturalists to guide you through the archipelago's rocky coasts, lagoons, coral reefs, bays and white sand beaches. Gap Adventures offers small-group itineraries that often include meals, airfare from Quito, and a cabin aboard a 16-passenger ship. Life on the island is only half the equation, so pack your mask, snorkel, and wet suit. $$$$ 10. PALM ISLANDS DUBAI Nature creates and removes islands every day, but it took a supernatural influx of cash and credit to create what developers hope will be the permanent Palm Island archipelago. Based on a sketch by a sheikh, the world's largest man-made islands are being dredged up and put in place as destination resorts: the Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali, and Palm Deira. Each work-in-progress is designed to attract tourists, who (more than fossil fuels) can provide a renewable source of income. If all goes well, the three islands will be the focal point of Dubai and become a Middle East playground of spas, resorts, upscale residences, villas, and superior shopping malls. Palm Jumeriah is already in place with an Atlantis resort and its wild water park open and a Trump hotel slated to open in 2011. (A more concrete, if off-island option, is the Arabian Courtyard, whose rooms have hardwood floors and richly colored upholstery, with prices as low as $100 a night.) Some islands might be more exotic—and certainly less expensive—but none are more impossibly engineered and ambitious. $$$$