Sometimes life gets in the way of good living. It’s all too easy to feel the strain of daily responsibilities and anxieties and lose sight of what’s really important. The pressures of modern existence are such that many people feel dissatisfied, depressed, helpless or simply unfulfilled. When that happens, it may be time to seek help – and yet therapy can take various forms.
Another option might be to take control by going on a big adventure and experiencing our planet’s regenerative power firsthand. From ancient ruins and holy pilgrim sites, to incredible sinkholes, cloud-fringed mountains and other natural wonders, here are 15 jaw-droppingly beautiful places that will stir the soul and may well inspire personal transformation.
1. Makkah – Hijaz, Saudi Arabia
As both the Prophet Muhammad’s birthplace and the site where he first revealed the Quran, Makkah, known to the Western world as Mecca, is lauded as the most sacred city in Islam. In fact, it’s compulsory for every capable Muslim to visit at least once. This pilgrimage – staged annually and known as Hajj – first became part of Islamic tradition in 630 CE, but its origins are said to date back to the 2000 BCE traditions of Ibrahim (Abraham). Makkah’s main attraction is the Kaaba, which is surrounded by Al-Masjid Al-Haram, the world’s biggest and most revered mosque. Thought to have been built by Ibrahim in approximately 2130 BCE, the Kaaba is the holiest single spot in Islam. Malcolm X famously described his 1964 Hajj as a “spiritual enlightenment” that helped him abandon “sweeping indictments of any one race.”
2. Stonehenge – Wiltshire, U.K.
Stonehenge is a fascinating and mysterious prehistoric landmark and one of the world’s most iconic settings. According to archeologists, the presumed burial site was constructed from around 3,000 BCE, and it has yielded human remains that are around 5,500 years old. Stonehenge is steeped in folklore and Arthurian legend, and today it is viewed as a sacred religious destination by Neo-Druids, among others. That said, even non-religious visitors have connected with its air of spirituality. One person had the “experience of a lifetime” when he visited the UNESCO World Heritage site. Another called it “a magical place” with “vast history.” Visitors can apparently feel that history “oozing out of every crack in the stone,” “its links with mysticism flowing from under every rock.”
3. Fiordland National Park – South Island, New Zealand
Fiordland National Park, located on New Zealand’s South Island, is another spectacle of nature featured in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (2001 to 2003) trilogy as well as the director’s other Middle Earth film series The Hobbit (2012 to 2014). Like Mount Aspiring National Park, Fiordland is part of New Zealand’s Te Wāhipounamu World Heritage site. Its immense fiords were scraped out by glaciers over tens of thousands of years; then when the glaciers receded, they left beautiful lakes like Manapouri and Te Anau in their place. The park covers over three million acres and is the result of millions of years of natural sculptural work by the elements: its epic mountains, lakes, waterfalls and ice-carved islands are awe-inspiring works of art. Rudyard Kipling described Fiordland’s incredible Milford Sound fiord as the “eighth wonder of the world.” And in 2008 this popular tourist destination topped Tripadvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards.
4. Jordan River – Israel/Palestinian Territories and Jordan
As the place where John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth and the point via which the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the Jordan River is important to both Jews and Christians. Located in Southwest Asia, the river is bordered by the West Bank, Israel and Jordan and ultimately ends up in the Dead Sea. Through the centuries, the river has become a symbol of freedom and spiritual rebirth, celebrated in popular music as well as poetry and other literature. In 2005 heavy metal guitarist Brian “Head” Welch became a born-again Christian after quitting the multi-Platinum band Korn and heading to the sacred river to be baptized. Welch described the change as “instant.” “I believe that my evil spirits were lifted from me and now… I feel peace inside,” he told CNN.
5. Bagan – Mandalay Region, Myanmar
Bagan in Myanmar’s Mandalay Region is a historic site that allows visitors to step back in time and tune into the way of the ancients. The royal chronicles of Burma state that it was instituted some time in the second century CE. However, historians typically maintain that the city was founded at some stage in the ninth century by King Pyinbya and served as the Pagan Kingdom’s capital between 1044 and 1287. During that time, Bagan became a mighty and sophisticated city, filled with thousands of sacred monuments and known far and wide for its scholarly and religious pursuits. The temples of Bagan have been compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Peru’s Machu Picchu. Visitors have commented on its “beautiful serenity,” describing it as a “magical place,” a “fantastic adventure” and an “incredible experience.”
6. Jellyfish Lake – Rock Islands, Palau
Jellyfish Lake is an ocean-linked lake on Eil Malk island, one of Palau’s Rock Islands in the western region of the Pacific Ocean. As its name suggests, the marine lake is jam-packed with jellyfish, and every day millions of the fascinating creatures move crossways within the water body. Even though the golden and moon jellyfish in the lake are capable of stinging, the stings aren’t strong enough to bother humans, and snorkeling here is hugely popular. One visitor described the lake as “amazing and creepy at the same time.” Others called the experience “one of a kind,” “simply magical” and “surreal.” A National Geographic reader was equally overcome, saying that diving with the “harmless jellyfish” was “like a dream.”
7. Great Wall of China – China
With construction of some of the now interconnected walls dating back as far as the eighth century BCE, the Great Wall of China is a marvel of human accomplishment. Mao Zedong famously said, “He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man” – and today setting foot on the succession of ancient fortifications has been described as a life-changing experience by both sexes. “Its sheer scale and beauty will put the timeline of your own life in perspective,” wrote Sixtyandme.com’s Margaret Manning. “Climbing the Great Wall has been a dream of mine since I was little and saw it in a picture book. It feels so good to have accomplished it,” explained one visitor. Another called it “one of those surreal… experiences,” adding, “I had to pinch myself… Amazing.”
8. Süleymaniye Mosque – Istanbul, Turkey
In 2014 Istanbul, Turkey topped Tripadvisor’s Travelers’ Choice Awards as the best destination to visit in the world, and one of its main attractions is the spectacular Süleymaniye Mosque. The mosque was designed by celebrated Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan and completed in 1558 following the directive of Sultan Süleyman “the Magnificent” – who ruled the Ottoman Empire from 1520 to 1566. The design was inspired by Byzantine church-turned-mosque-turned-museum Hagia Sophia as well as Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Visitors have commented on the peaceful “simple beauty” of the structure, describing it as offering a richer experience than the city’s perhaps more iconic Blue Mosque. “Beautiful architecture. You can feel the living history of the place,” wrote one traveler. Another called it “a place of quiet contemplation.”
9. Dead Sea – Jordan Rift Valley, Jordan/Palestine/Israel
According to the Bible, the Dead Sea provided a safe haven for King David. Over 2,000 years back in time, Herod the Great used the salty lake as the location for one of the earliest health spas, and historical figures like King Solomon, Cleopatra and the Queen of Sheba are all said to have sampled its rejuvenating powers. The lake has also been mined for everything from beauty products to mummification balms and fertilizer salts. And today people come from all over the world to float in its amazingly buoyant waters and cover their bodies in its healing, mineral-packed mud. Recognized as the world’s deepest highly concentrated salt lake and the lowest point on land, the Dead Sea has been estimated to be between 1,312 and 1,388 feet below sea level. Floating in it is definitely a life-boosting experience to cross off one’s bucket list
10. Hang Son Doong – Quảng Bình Province, Vietnam
Spectacular Hang Son Doong in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, Vietnam is the biggest cave yet identified on Earth. Although formed between two and five million years back in time, it was only discovered in 1991 and became common knowledge as recently as 2009. Hang Son Doong – which means “mountain river cave” – is more than 5.5 miles long and over 650 feet wide. It was shaped by water wearing away at the surrounding limestone, with the weaker rock giving way, producing giant “skylights” that illuminate the immense geological chamber. The cave was opened to tourists in 2013. “One’s imagination goes wild… It is so beautiful and romantic,” wrote one visitor. For another, it was the “expedition of a lifetime.”
11. Western Wall/Temple Mount – Jerusalem, Israel/Palestine
he Western Wall – often referred to as the Wailing Wall – is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism. It is the only surviving fragment of the ancient Holy Temple and makes up a section of the western side of the Temple Mount – which, according to the Tanakh, was home to Solomon’s Temple in 957 BCE. Over the course of history, the Temple Mount has also been used by Romans, Muslims and Christians, and today it is considered among the world’s most disputed religious locations. The Western Wall has long been a holy destination for Jewish people, while the first identified Christian pilgrimage to the locale dates back to 333 CE. In 2013 the Western Wall was one of TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice winners, with visitors saying the experience was “special” and “profound.”
12. Marble Caverns of General Carrera Lake – Patagonia, Chile
For more than 6,200 years, jaw-dropping marble caverns have been shaped by the jostling waves of Patagonia’s General Carrera Lake. Located on the Chilean side of Patagonia, the lake’s breathtaking geological wonders include the Marble Caves and incredible rock formations the Marble Cathedral and Marble Chapel. U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail described the Marble Cathedral as “an azure temple created by nature,” adding that it shows “just how magnificent the precious geography of our planet can be.” Surrounded by snow-topped mountains, cliffs and crystal-clear water, navigating the lake on a kayak and exploring its network of intricately patterned marble caverns is the kind of unforgettable life adventure that’s sure to put things into perspective.
13. Taj Mahal – Uttar Pradesh, India
Completed in the mid 17th century, the Taj Mahal is among the most iconic structures in the world. Mughal emperor Shah Jahan envisioned it as a monument to one of his wives, Persian princess Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to the couple’s 14th baby. As such, the famous marble mausoleum is celebrated as an international symbol of love. In 1983 UNESCO recognized the Taj Mahal as an official World Heritage site, describing it as “the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces.” Reflecting on his visit, one spellbound traveler called the monument “a fairytale made of stone,” while another said that his trip was life changing, commenting, “Forget Sydney Harbour Bridge, the [Sydney] Opera House and the Golden Gate Bridge… They just don’t compare to this.”
14. Vatican City – Rome, Italy
Ruled by the Pope and serving as the special territory of the Holy See, Vatican City is the global seat of Catholicism. The small sovereign city-state was proclaimed an independent entity in 1929, and its ongoing allure and power to transport people can be attributed at least in part to its timeless landmarks, Renaissance architecture and art, and saintly relics. Walled off from the rest of Rome, this holy city houses religious and cultural attractions like St. Peter’s Basilica, the Apostolic Palace, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. In 2013, from March through December, Vatican City drew an estimated 6.6 million visitors. “The beauty and majesty of St. Peter’s is overwhelming… You are swept away by the experience,” wrote one tourist. “Breathtaking,” declared another.
15. Mount Kilimanjaro – Kilimanjaro Region, Tanzania
Looking down on Tanzania from the top of snowcapped Mount Kilimanjaro is, unfortunately, not a view most will get the chance to experience. Still, those who have scaled Africa’s highest peak often return with a new outlook on life. Shaped around a million years ago by volcanic activity in the Great Rift Valley, Kilimanjaro has been challenging climbers since the mid 19th century and was first summited in 1889. The famous peak even inspired Ernest Hemingway’s acclaimed short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” One visitor described her climb as “the greatest personal accomplishment” of her life. Another called the ascent an “experience… that… will stay with [him and his wife] forever.” Yet another Kilimanjaro climber reflected, “I was amazed when I stood on top of Africa. Words and pictures can’t describe how great it was