20 Jaw-Dropping Places to Visit Once in a Lifetime

January 10, 2024

Machu Picchu

Are you dreaming of where you’d like to travel? Why not make it someplace spectacular? The world is brimming with amazing destinations, but here are nineteen particularly jaw-dropping places to visit once in a lifetime.

Note: They are not in any particular order… I recommend that you see them ALL.

Cappadocia

Turkey

cappadocia

Cappadocia is a semi-arid region in central Turkey famous for its unique “fairy chimneys” – towering, cone-shaped rock formations clustered in Monks Valley, Love Valley, Göreme, Uchisar  and elsewhere. Uchisar Castle and Goreme Open Air Museum contain Bronze Age homes carved into valley walls by troglodytes (cave dwellers) and later used as refuges by early Christians seeking to avoid persecution.

What I loved. There are numerous ways to experience the sunrise hot air balloons hovering over that unique, somewhat bizarre landscape. Pure magic. We did view the unparalleled scenic landscape from inside a hot air balloon, arguably the best place in the world to take a hot air balloon ride, but honestly it was just as magical watching them at sunrise every morning (4 mornings total!) from the viewing terrace of our hotels in Goreme and Uchisar.

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Machu Picchu

Peru

Machu Picchu

Often (mistakenly) referred to as “the Lost City of the Incas,” American historian Hiram Bingham is credited with discovering (more accurately exposing) Machu Picchu in 1911.

The exact purpose of the remote and sprawling bastion in the heights of the Andes Mountains remains shrouded in mystery. One of the recent theories suggests that Machu Picchu was built to be a palatial retreat for Pachacuti, but was abandoned at the time of the Spanish invasion so that the conquerors would not find and ransack their cherished citadel. Another theory insists that due to the eight access routes into the city, it must have been an administrative and trading center between the Amazon and the Urubamba Valley and highlands. It is estimated that approximately 1200 people could have lived in the area. Whatever its purpose, Machu Picchu remained “lost” for almost 400 years.

What I loved:  Machu Picchu was literally the first destination to make my Bucket List, when I was in my early 20’s. Decades later, I finally fulfilled that dream and it did not disappoint. The view of the citadel, shrouded in a fine mist, took my breath away. I spent several hours exploring every nook and cranny of the ancient site (you need a guide to enter), and even had an interaction with one of the local llamas, all perfectly set up by AdventureSmith Explorations.

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Pyramids at Giza

Egypt

places to visit once in a lifetime

The pyramids, built some 4,500 years ago, have endured time as the eternal resting place of the great Pharaohs, – although the Pharaohs themselves or their treasures are no longer housed there. The Giza Pyramid Complex in Cairo is often cloaked in mystery as to how they were constructed. While originally thought to have been built on the backs of slaves, after thorough excavation was done, it was discovered that the construction workers were actually Egyptian laborers from low-income families.

What I loved:  A fanatic of ancient archeological sites, I visited the pyramids in 1997. It was one of my most memorable trips, from the first sighting of the pyramids (surprisingly, just outside the city of Cairo), climbing the interior – very narrow – vertical tunnel up the Pyramid of Khufu, the oldest and largest of the three pyramids, to the tomb room, seeing the Sphinx, as well as exploring Khan el Khalili Bazaar and cruising on the Nile.

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Taj Mahal

India

Taj Mahal

Commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, the purpose for the Taj Mahal was to be the mausoleum for his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, a Persian princess who died giving birth to their 14th child. Located in the city of Agra, the ivory marble mausoleum is set on 42-acres of beautifully manicured grounds with abundant flowers and a reflecting pool leading to the ornate tomb. There’s also a mosque and a guest house.

What I loved:  I passed through the elaborate gate at the main entrance – a beautiful construction unto itself – and gasped as I looked through the rounded frame. There it was… the elaborate, dazzling white marble castle-like structure that inspires so many dreams. The best and most iconic viewpoint is standing at the end of the reflecting pool, with a walkway on either side. It was such a dramatic contrast, juxtaposed against the poverty and chaos in much of India.

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Bora Bora

French Polynesia

beaches in bora bora

James Michener proclaimed it to be “the most beautiful island in the world.” I could not agree more. Part of the French Polynesia archipelago, Bora Bora is located in the South Pacific, around 160 miles from Tahiti and approximately 2600 miles from Hawaii. Bora Bora, northwest of the main French Polynesian island of Tahiti, is surrounded by a stunning turquoise lagoon, tiny islets called “motu,” and a barrier reef.

What I loved:  I’ve been on a search to find the most beautiful beach in the world since I was 19 years old. To-date, Bora Bora fits that bill. Words simply do not do justice to the beauty that my eyes beheld. I stayed in a private overwater bungalow where I simply climbed down a ladder into the sparkling, iridescent lagoon. Pure magic.

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Kenya Safari

Africa

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

There are plenty of great reasons to go on a safari. Whether you want to see the Great Migration, get up close and personal with the Big Five, a safari in Africa will never disappoint. There are many options to choose from, from budget luxury. And the cost of the game drives includes conservation fees for the parks you visit, which supports conservation efforts fights against poaching. In addition to the wildlife, the landscapes are breathtaking and the bush experiences like nothing you’ve experienced before. It is guaranteed that you will walk away with the memories of a lifetime.

What I loved:  Initially, a safari wasn’t on my bucket list. How wrong I was! My Kenya safari with Elewana was hands-down one of the most surprising and memorable trips of my lifetime. I stayed in high-end luxury camps and treehouses on the savannah and had up-close-and-personal encounters with lions, rhinos, giraffes, and many other kinds of wild animals. The local guides were incredible, including their “sundowner” tradition. My adventure truly made me fall in love with “the Dark Continent.”

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Halong Bay

Vietnam

halong bay

Located in northeast Vietnam, this iconic UNESCO Heritage Site is known for its dreamy landscape of emerald waters and more than 1600 rugged karst limestone islands rising up in the natural bay and topped by rainforests. The landscape is simply surreal. Known as the “Bay of Descending Dragons,” Ha Long Bay was officially recognized as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature in 2011 and enjoys popularity on many, many travelers’ bucket lists, one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam, and one of the must-do places to visit once in a lifetime.

What I loved.  Embarking on an overnight cruise through the emerald waters on a traditional Chinese junk is an experience like no other. Sunsets over the bay are glorious and the fog climbing up from the still emerald water creates an ethereal element to this natural beauty. I also really enjoyed trekking through mythical caves, floating fish farms, and exploring the cliffs, lagoons, and grottos by kayak.

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Grand Canyon

United States of America

places to visit once in a lifetime

The Grand Canyon is a steep-sided canyon carved by the Colorado River in Arizona, United States. The Grand Canyon is 277 miles long, up to 18 miles wide, and attains a depth of over a mile. The canyon is 277 river miles long, and up to 18 miles wide. Most visitors see Grand Canyon from the “South Rim” overlook accessed by free park shuttle buses or personal vehicles. Some of the best trails include the Bright Angel or Rim trails on the South Rim. Rafting the Colorado River is another option.

Here’s what to see in the Grand Canyon in one day.

What I loved:  I flew into the Grand Canyon on a helicopter. The birds-eye view gives an entirely different perspective than arriving by car. The Canyon is massive!

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Great Barrier Reef

Australia

places to visit once in a lifetime

Located in the Coral Sea, off the coast of northeast tropical Queensland, the Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest coral reef, stretching out for 1800 miles. It comprises over 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays. It’s one of the seven wonders of the natural world, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only living thing on earth visible from space.

What I loved: The reef is massive and can we explored it via different cities, islands, and also from above by a small seaplane. We were headquartered in Cairns where the locals were exceedingly friendly and the number of activities almost limitless. As far as diving in the Great Barrier Reef itself, my very personal encounter with a wild-but-friendly sea turtle that ate a patch of seaweed from my hand was unexpected and amazing…and caught on video.

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Great Wall

China

places to visit once in a lifetime

The Great Wall of China is a series of fortifications that were built across the borders of northern China as protection against various nomadic groups from the Eurasian Steppe. Construction of this staggering ancient engineering marvel began as early as 7th century BC and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

A quote from Mao Zedong says “不到长城非好汉” which means “not arrive Great Wall, not good man” and has been accepted as Chinese folklore.

Note: Although impressive, the claim that the wall can be seen from space has been debunked.

What I loved:  I entered at the Badaling Gate and went left as per my research. While that path is steeper and more difficult, most people take the easier right side, so you can avoid getting caught in the crushing horde. The path was steep, and it took a while to get to the desired height, but once there, there were nearly no other people around and we got some fantastic photos. Note: I toured the Great Wall and many other parts of China with Viking River Cruises, but due to current events, it appears that the tour has been suspended.

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Paris

France

places to visit once in a lifetime

Ah, “Par-ee!” Paris is the capital and most populous city of France.

Since the 17th century, Paris has been one of Europe’s major centers of finance, diplomacy, commerce, fashion, science, and arts. It boasts some of the world’s most popular attractions, such as the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triumphe, the Louve, and Notre Dame Cathedral. Yes, Paris is an expensive city to visit, but the lure of its bohemian romanticism cannot be denied.

What I loved:  “Paris is always a good idea,” said Audrey Hepburn. I agree…these are my people! Our family claims 100% French DNA and traces my mother’s lineage to 1645 Paris. From my first visit to “la Ville Lumière” (City of Lights) in 1991, I was hooked. Exploring the twenty arrondissements (districts), historic and elegant architecture, museums, theatres, cafés, and bistros never gets old.

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Roman Colosseum

Italy

places to visit once in a lifetime

The Colosseum, an oval amphitheater that sits in the center of the city of Rome, is the greatest example of Roman architecture and engineering, the very symbol of Ancient Rome. Adjacent to the Colosseum is the Roman Forum, is the largest ancient amphitheater ever built. Construction of the Colosseum began in 72 A.D. under Emperor Vespasian and was completed in 80 A.D. under his successor and heir, Titus. The arena was used by gladiators as well as for public executions, and it is said that up to 400,000 people met their demise in the arena, as did one million wild animals of many different species.

What I loved:  Walking through the interior of the arena, it’s almost impossible not to imagine the screams of people who met their tragic and many times unjust end here. It’s quite an impressive piece of history, as well as a look into the dark minds of humanity.

The Colosseum is only one of the great historical sites to see in Rome with kids.

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Amazon River

South America

Delfin Amazon cruise

Since pre-Colombian times, the Amazon has been a source of intrigue for outsiders, from daydreams of riverboat adventures to nightmares of shrunken heads. The largest river by volume and second longest, the Amazon is often considered the most dangerous river in the world.

What I loved:  My small eco-friendly cruise ship meandered along the waterway during the rainy season, quietly gliding through the tributaries and rainforests that are home to an incredible collection of flora, fauna…and unexpected adventure. Jungle treks, fishing for piranha, shaman ceremony, night safaris, animal sightings, and a baby turtle rescue were all part of my authentic Amazon trip with AdventureSmith Explorations.

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Dead Sea

Israel and Jordan

dead sea

The Dead Sea rests on the boundary between Israel and Jordan. It lies in the Jordan Rift Valley, and its main tributary is the Jordan River. The Jordan River, from which the Dead Sea receives nearly all its water, flows from the north into the lake. The Dead Sea has the lowest elevation and is the lowest body of water on the surface of Earth, approximately 1,410 feet below sea level.

What I loved:  You can’t help but giggle uncontrollably as you venture into the Dead Sea. Just take a seat in the water and the high salt content will guarantee that you’ll be buoyed in that position. I’d seen a postcard of a woman reading the Jerusalem Times while sitting in the water and decided to mimic it. Success and so much fun!

Chichen Itza

Mexico

chichen itza

Chichen Itza is a large pre-Columbian city built by the Maya people of the Terminal Classic period. It’s the second most-visited archeological site in Mexico, occupying an area of 4 square miles in south-central Yucatán state, Mexico. It is thought to have been a religious, military, political, and commercial center with a population of 35,000 Mayans. The Kukulkan Pyramid also known as “El Castillo” (the castle), is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Chichen Itza is usually busy, as it’s a major tourist attraction for people visiting Cancun, Merida, and Valladolid.

What I loved:  I first visited Chichen Itza in the 1980s when you were still allowed to climb the main structure, El Castillo. Climbing has been prohibited since 2006 due to the death of someone falling. While it certainly was a great experience to climb it, closing it will also likely contribute to preserving the sacred site.

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Petra

Jordan

petra

Originally known as Raqmu, Petra is a spectacular historic and archaeological city in southern Jordan. The site lies around Jabal Al-Madbah in a basin surrounded by mountains that form the eastern flank of the Arabah valley that runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. The rose city’s appeal is famous for its multicolored sandstone and genuine Nabatean architecture, making it one of the most archaeological treasures not just in the Middle East and the world. The long, deep, and narrow gorge opens to the Siq and then the famous and spectacular Treasury.

What I loved: I hired a Bedouin to take me up a special path to see the Treasury from the best photo spot above.  There is also a spectacular view of Petra down below, seen from the High Palace of Sacrifice which is worth every step of the 900 flights of stone steps.

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Angkor Wat

Cambodia

angkor wat cambodia

The expansive Angkor Wat Archaeological site is a UNESCO-listed temple complex in Cambodia located just outside of Siem Reap. The 250-square-mile sandstone complex is the largest religious monument in the world by land area. It was originally constructed between the 9th and 15th centuries as a Hindu temple to the god Vishnu by successive “god-kings” of the Khmer Empire. Highlights include Angkor Wat, a masterpiece of Khmer architecture with a shimmering reflective pool, the ruined city of Angkor Thom, and Ta Prohm, where the ruins have become tangled in the roots of ancient trees.

What I loved: Dubbed “the Tomb Raider temple” because it provided the surreal backdrop for the 2001 movie “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, root-covered Ta Prohm is arguably the most mystical ruins in Cambodia’s magnificent Angkor Wat complex. Constructed in 1186, Ta Prohm was once home to more than 12,500 people, including 18 high priests and 615 dancers.  After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, this temple was abandoned for centuries and nature had its way in transforming the site into the magical ruins it is today.

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Meteora

Greece

meteora view

Perched on the peaks of towering limestone pillars formed millions of years ago, the monasteries of Meteora view is hauntingly enchanting. Constructed during the Middle Ages, Meteora is a marvel of human creativity. The Greek word meteora means “suspended in the air,” and this phrase aptly describes the otherworldly Meteora view. Originally there were 24 uniquely different Byzantine monasteries; today only six remain, inhabited by 60 monks and nuns, and are living museums housing fascinating historical relics. The Meteora complex is included on the UNESCO World Heritage list and one of the best places to visit in a lifetime.

What I loved. Meteora is full of stunning photo spots of the high rocks and the monasteries. If you have your own car (and this is one of the reasons we recommend it), you can literally pull over almost anywhere to get a photo of a breathtaking view. One of the most popular spots is Psaropetra, where sunsets are considered among the most beautiful in the region. Also, climbing up some of the monasteries is brutal in hot weather, but worth the effort.

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Chernobyl

Ukraine

chernobyl

Broken glass crackled and crunched beneath my feet. Sun streamed through the remains of a once-magnificent stained glass window. Broken dolls and filthy baby shoes littered the floor.  A child’s storybook stood open as if waiting for its reader to continue.  Never would I have imagined that Ukraine‘s Chernobyl tours, the site of the worst nuclear meltdown in human history, would become a dark tourism attraction. Pripyat, once the darling of the Soviet Union, is now in a state of abandon shambles.  In its heyday, the average income in this model town was 40% higher than in the rest of Ukraine. Now called “the Exclusion Zone,” the site of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe is open to visitors on a highly restricted basis.

What I loved. Touring the Chernobyl disaster site went well beyond my expectations. Walking through the ghost town, frozen in a tragic space-time continuum, was eerie, heart-wrenching, and fascinating.

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Disclaimer: The sad situation in Ukraine that has transpired since this article was first published in 2020 has changed the ability to visit Chernobyl and other sites in the country.  So while it may be one of the most interesting places to visit in a lifetime, you may not be able to.  Would you please pray with me for peace?

Pamukkale

Turkey

pamukkale

Pamukkale, meaning “cotton castle” in Turkish, is famous for a carbonate mineral left by the flowing of thermal spring water. The cascading  pools of turquoise water juxtaposed against the brilliant white pools is breathtaking.

Your entrance ticket also gives you access to two fantastic places in the Pamukkale complex.

The Greek city of Hierapolis (“Sacred City”)) was originally a Phrygian cult center of the Anatolian mother goddess of Cybele. In the 1st century, it was part of the tri-city area of Laodicea, Colossae, and Hierapolis. The cities are linked in Paul’s reference to Hierapolis and Laodicea in his epistle to the Colossians. It is also believed to be the place where St. Philip was martyred in 80 A.D.

According to legend, the UNESCO Cleopatra Antique Pool is a man-made sculpted pool was a gift from Marc Antony to Egyptian queen Cleopatra, though it’s unclear if she ever visited.

What I loved.  It was quite a sight to see the pools cascading down the hill with the colorful sunrise and hot air balloons on the horizon. And because we got there so early, we were able to get photos with no one else in them for a while, and I did get to soak in the thermal pools which are said to have healing properties.

Honorable Mentions

AKA, my bucket list

Now, you may be thinking that I forgot some very important and incredible destinations. Yes, I agree – this is not an exhaustive list of the places to visit once in your lifetime. That’s because the above represent the places I’ve actually visited in person.

Below are more amazing places that are on my bucket list for the future.

Antartica

antarctica

Antarctica, the southernmost continent and site of the South Pole, is a virtually uninhabited, ice-covered landmass. Most cruises to the continent visit the Antarctic Peninsula, which stretches toward South America. It’s known for the Lemaire Channel and Paradise Harbor, striking, iceberg-flanked passageways, and Port Lockroy, a former British research station turned museum. The spectacular South Shetland Island is one of the most visited sites in Antarctica. The island is completely covered in ice and is home to some of the most incredible fjords and glaciers. Antartica offers opportunities to view Adélie penguins, blue-eyed shags, humpback whales, minkes, and leopard seals.

Tentative visit date: January 2025

Tiger’s Nest

Bhutan

places to visit once in a lifetime

Paro Taktsang, or Tiger’s Nest, is a sacred Vajrayana Himalayan Buddhist site perched precariously on a cliff in the upper Paro valley in Bhutan. It’s one of Bhutan’s most recognized sites It was founded in the 9th century as a meditation cave and in 1692 was converted to a Buddhist monastery which it still functions as today. The only way to get to the monastery is by hiking two miles up and then two miles back down, or partially by horse and carriage. Note: you can only visit Tiger’s Nest on an organized tour.

Tentative visit date: Fall 2024

Bagan

Myanmar (Burma)

places to visit once in a lifetime

The temple town of Bagan is an ancient city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Mandalay Region of Myanmar. From the 9th to 13th centuries, the city was the capital of the first Burmese empire, the first kingdom that unified the regions that would later constitute Myanmar. It covers a 26-mile area on the eastern bank of the Irrawaddy or River. There are more than 2,000 pagodas and temples to be found, most of which were built by the ancient kings and leaders of Burma.

Tentative visit date: Unknown, due to current political unrest in the country.

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About the Author

Patti Morrow

Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and the southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of the “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials” and she was named one of the “Top 35 Travel Blogs” in the world.

She is also the star of the upcoming TV series “Destination Takeover” which is scheduled to premiere in the next few months.

Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled extensively through six continents looking for fabulous destinations, exotic beaches, and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer tribe.

This article may contain affiliate/compensated links. For full information, please see our disclaimer.

10 comments

  1. Comment by Best10Hiking

    Best10Hiking Reply February 19, 2021 at 8:28 am

    Machu Picchu is on my bucket list. I would love to go hiking in that region.

    • Comment by luggageandlipstick

      luggageandlipstick Reply February 19, 2021 at 2:18 pm

      I highly recommend hiking at least a part of the Inca Trail!

  2. Comment by Journey On

    Journey On Reply May 3, 2021 at 9:42 am

    How I wish to experience and take photos in Petra and Great Wall of China, This is not only a destination but also a sentimental place. Thank you for sharing your list of places, they are all nice!

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  8. Comment by Emma Walts

    Emma Walts Reply March 25, 2024 at 6:53 am

    Wow these places are beautiful! I wish I will be able to visit all of these places one day!

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