Magnificent seven world wonders
Written by Brian Johnston
People have been counting and arguing over must-see travellers’ sights since ancient times. Here’s our version of a magnificent seven.
Great Pyramids, Egypt
It’s difficult for modern tourists to appreciate just how staggering the sight of the Great Pyramid of Giza was to early travellers. At 143m, it stood as the world’s tallest structure for 4,000 years, until 1300 CE. The pyramids remain a stupendous sight, shimmering in the desert heat on the outer edge of Cairo’s sprawl. After admiring the Sphinx, you can crawl like Indiana Jones through the stone corridors of the Great Pyramid into the burial chamber of Cheops that lies at its heart. Back outside, you can take a camel ride, snap photos, and ponder the many (still unexplained) questions about how the pyramids were built.
Distance: 2,066 km
Flight Time: 3 hours, 25 minutes
Frequency: 3 flights a day
Grand Canyon, USA
The granddaddy of all rugged landscapes is 365km long and plunges 1,600m. Most visitors only see part of it, but jaws still drop, and no magazine photo properly captures its awesome presence. A grand sweep of cliffs and teetering rock formations appear like a landscape from a sci-fi epic. Sunset reveals the colours and beauty of the monumental sandstone faces, which glow red and pink and cast long purple shadows. But the canyon’s beauty also lies in the detail: pygmy pine trees with their shaggy bark, the corkscrew white flowers of mountain mahogany bushes, and unexpected encounters with deer and chipmunks on walking trails.
Los Angeles, USA
Distance: 13,366 km
Flight Time: 16 hours, 25 minutes
Watch any movie set in Rome, and this iconic structure nearly always features in the background, surrounded by a swirl of chaotic traffic. The great amphitheatre was designed to hold 50,000 spectators for the kind of entertainment glamorised in the Hollywood blockbuster Gladiator. Inaugurated in 80 CE, the Colosseum’s design and layout come close to perfection, and are imitated to this day in modern sports arenas. Though surrounded by souvenir sellers, stray cats, and tourists, the soaring edifice remains aloof and magnificent. According to prophecy, as long as the Colosseum stands, Rome will stand, and when Rome falls, so will the world.
Distance: 4,020 km
Flight Time: 6 hours
Frequency: 2 flights a day
The chief city of the Nabataean Empire was constructed in the sixth century BCE where mountainous deserts offered protection against invaders, while being sited at the crossroads of trade routes between the Euphrates and Mediterranean. The Nabataeans flourished, erecting the extravagant public buildings, temples, and tombs that now form one of the world’s great archaeological sites. Petra is also notable for its engineering: you can still see the cisterns, canals, and underground channels the city relied on for water. Don’t pass up the opportunity for a camel ride among the barren hills, an evocative way to experience the ruins of this desert trading city.
Distance: 1,693 km
Flight Time: 3 hours, 5 minutes
Frequency: 9 flights a week
Great Wall, China
This mighty symbol of China is truly incredible. The original wall was started in the fifth century BCE but was subsequently extended; its last segments weren’t finished until the 14th century. It stretches for 4,000km, but estimates of the Great Wall’s length, including its side-arm fortifications, vary by as much as 20,000km – though, despite popular myth, it isn’t the only man-made structure that can be seen from space. For the best visit, hike away from the tourist hordes just north of Beijing until you’re left with the hush of pine trees and soaring hawks among the crumbling watchtowers.
Distance: 6,164 km
Flight Time: 7 hours, 35 minutes
Taj Mahal, India
The delicate marble architecture of the Taj Mahal in Agra, intricately carved with geometric designs and inlaid with semiprecious stones, is utterly brilliant. The famous 15th century mausoleum was built by Emperor Shah Jahan in honour of his wife Mumtaz. The emperor was never to set foot in it; he was deposed and locked up in Agra Fort, spending his declining years staring downriver at his wife’s tomb. But in his darkest moment Shah Jahan managed to create something of eternal beauty, considered one of the most perfect examples of Islamic architecture in India, and guaranteed to dazzle even the most jaded of travellers.
Distance: 2,572 km
Flight Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Frequency: 2 flights a day
Victoria Falls, Zambia–Zimbabwe
What do you get when a fault opens up in the landscape, creating a 100m drop known as the Batoka Gorge that swallows a 2km stretch of the Zambezi River? You get a waterfall that makes Niagara seem puny, with rainbow-catching spray that can be spotted 80km away, and a noise that thunders like a hundred express trains. Straddling the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, this is one of Africa’s greatest landscape wonders, equally astonishing from the air on a scenic flight or from the walkways that skirt the edge of the falls – and vibrate from the sheer power of the tumbling waters
Johannesburg, South Africa
Distance: 6,750 km
Flight Time: 8 hours, 20 minutes
There’s nothing new about bucket lists of impressive sites, which have existed since early times. The most famous is the Greeks’ Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Only the Great Pyramid remains (almost) intact; two others – the Temple of Artemis and Tomb of Mausolus, both in modern Turkey – are ruins. Throughout mediaeval times, other lists included England’s Stonehenge, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, and the Porcelain Tower in Nanjing. In recent times the American Society of Civil Engineers produced Seven Wonders of the Modern World (such as the Channel Tunnel and Golden Gate Bridge), while a BBC television series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World included the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam. In 2007 the New Seven Wonders were voted by 100 million people (controversially, after considerable national lobbying) and included Rome’s Colosseum, the Chichén Itzá pyramids in Mexico, and Machu Picchu in Peru.