Most countries have at least one famous building or landmark that qualifies it as a bucket list destination. But for history, ambition and quirkiness, Europe and Asia take the lead. Here are our top 5 off-the-beaten-track monuments to add to your travel bucket list in 2018 that must be seen to be believed.
Being a monk in the 15th century was not supposed to be enjoyable. Nevertheless, it must have been a little gratifying to live within the grounds of Jerónimos monastery, where architectural divinity meets the eye everywhere you look. Dripping with ornate embellishments and carved stone features both inside and out, this UNESCO-listed abbey is a symbol of Portuguese identity, both for its beauty and for its role in creating the original recipe for pasteis de Belém custard tarts.
Inside, cool cloisters and light-filled halls await, with beautiful arched ceilings and tranquil gardens. Enjoy the stained glass windows in the magnificent Santa Maria church, which contains the tombs of the explorer Vasco da Gama and linguist Luís de Camões. And then get a taste of the most authentic pasteis in the city at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém pastelaria, down the road at 84 Rua de Belém.
Explore Jerónimos monastery, along with Belém tower, the Alhambra in Granada and the Great Mosque of Córdoba on a Best of Spain and Portugal tour.
No-one does hey-where’s-the-sky-gone? fortresses quite like India, and Mehrangarh fort – which towers over the bright blue city of Jodhpur – is one of its most impressive. And when you’re stood looking across at this magnificent mountaintop castle rising up 120m above the skyline in imposing red sandstone, you can imagine invading soldiers in the 17th century wishing they were anywhere, anywhere else than there.
Mehrangarh fort is filled with jaw-dropping, centuries-old architectural features, including the 16th-century gate Dodh Kangra Pol, forever marked with cannon fire from 1808; and the original entrance gate Loha Pol, which is fortified with iron spikes to deter the elephants of attacking enemies. Do spend some time relaxing under the shade of the trees in the Chokelao Bagh, a restored 18th-century garden that offers some lovely views.
See Mehrangarh fort and the Blue City of Jodhpur on a tour of the Highlights of Northern India.
Granada may draw a crowd with the Alhambra, but Spain’s beautiful south has more than one eye-popping wonder. Ronda is the most famous of Andalucía’s white hilltop settlements and is symbolised by the incredible 19th-century bridge that straddles the deep gorge running through the city. Designed in 1794, Puente Nuevo Bridge is the stuff of fantasy – a series of grand arches soaring 120ft-high from the foot of El Tajo gorge. Tolkien would have loved it, so you can see why HBO’s Game of Thrones chose to film here.
Naturally, you’ll want to walk across the bridge itself, but its beauty is best appreciated from a distance. You can get a decent view from the Jardines de Cuenca (Cuenca Gardens) in the east, and from the garden viewing platform in the House of Don Bosco (€1.50).
Visit Ronda, and the Alhambra in Granada, the Great Mosque in Córdoba and the famous Alcazar in Seville, on our Highlights of Andalucía tour.
It may be white, but there is nothing minimalist about Wat Rong Khun – the White Temple – in Chiang Rai. A gleaming mirage of Buddhist-style architecture on the banks of a small lake, it’s an unconventional piece of concept art created by a local artist in 1997.
Enter Wat Rong Khun, the world's weirdest temple
Nervous much? Walk across the Bridge of the Eternal Cycle of Rebirth, over the Hands of Unrestrained Desire
Anything to declare? Meet the Angel of Death on your way in to the temple
Beauty among the beasts - a roof figurine
Bet you weren't expecting to find this mural inside...
You’ll need a good amount of time (and camera film) to fully take in all the statues and symbols woven into the building. Walk across the Bridge of the ‘Cycle of Rebirth’, surrounded by hundreds of hands stretching out in unrestrained desire towards you. Smile at the two lakeside Kinnarees – half-bird, half-human creatures from Buddhist mythology; show your respect to the characters of Death and Rahu (decider of the fate of the dead) who guard the Gate of Heaven; and look out for serpents, skulls and demons covering every spare inch of its exterior.
It gets even more surreal inside. Vivid colour floods every wall. Swirling murals of outer space are peppered with pop fiction characters such as Neo from The Matrix, Angry Birds, and the T100 from The Terminator in a morality lesson that’s truly unique. Of all the places to visit in Thailand, this is one ‘temple’ you’ll never forget.
See Wat Rong Khun, as well as Bangkok’s best temples, Ayutthaya Historical Park and the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia on our Thailand Experience tour.
Around two centuries ago there was no ‘China’: it was just a collection of 38 states, all vying for power. Out of the chaos rose Zhao Zheng, who unified the country, built the original Great Wall and declared himself China’s first emperor.
This achieved, he wasn’t keen to pass it on and ordered his people to discover an elixir of immortality so he’d never die. But, just in case, he set about creating the world’s biggest mausoleum, guarded by 7,000 life-sized clay warriors with real weapons. The Terracotta Army lay underground in secret until 1974, when a chance discovery revealed the legend of this vanished civilisation.
Why and how were they made? No one knows. But one thing’s for sure: only a visit to the mausoleum of the first Qin emperor and a Terracotta Warriors tour can really put into perspective the sheer scale and backbreaking labour that went into this extraordinary feat.
See the Terracotta Warriors, along with the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City on our unforgettable China Experience tour.