A travel guide to the world's best views

You don't have to be on top of a skyscraper to get an amazing view, writes Brian Johnston.

Long ago, on my first solo trip, I went to Greece, and hoofed up innumerable hills to admire temples sitting among wild fennel in landscapes that fell away to a blue sea. The ancient Greeks had a knack of turning a location into pure poetry. Later, castle-builders chose rocky outcrops for practical defence, but with the same result: views over sweeping countryside to stir the soul.

Societies through the ages have always admired great views, but seldom saw any on the scale that we enjoy. The Great Pyramid in Egypt was the world's tallest structure (146 metres) until 1311, when it was overtaken by Lincoln cathedral in England. Few people climbed mountains, which were considered sinister and daunting. Fifteenth-century traveller Adam of Usk had himself blindfolded and carried across the St Gotthard Pass on horseback rather than face its dizzying paths.

The late 18th-century Romantic movement changed our ideas about views. Before, travellers wrote of the "misshapen scenery" and "horrid fearful crags" of the Alps. Then Byron and Wordsworth enthused about magnificent mountain scenes and how they could improve spirits dampened by the Industrial Revolution. Soon, the Swiss Alps were on the grand tour. Mountain views have been a must ever since.

These days, we've returned to celebrating economic power and progress, symbolised by ever-higher skyscrapers. Ascend Canton Tower in Guangzhou or Dubai's Burj Khalifa and you're as high as you can get on a man-made structure. Such views can be disappointing. They're about dominating the landscape, mapping it out. Many are too high, leaving ant-like scenes beneath. Low buildings are better because you're part of the city, not distanced from it.

 Some of the best views look across urban squares, or along valleys. At their best, views exhilarate. They might make you believe in God, or at least the beauty of our planet, and appreciate the achievements of which we humans are capable. Here are some of the best.

Rigi, Swiss Alps

Get the cog railway up Rigi in central Switzerland and scenery quickly emerges as you are pressed back against your seat. Rising 1798 metres, Rigi is nicknamed the "island mountain" because it's surrounded by lakes. Beyond, mountains serrate the horizon in every direction, glinting in the sun. The panorama provides a 200-kilometre sweep of Swiss Alps on a clear day.

Why here: Unlike other alpine viewpoints, Rigi isn't just a rock platform but a 50-kilometre ridge of meadows with plenty of space to hike.

Insider look: For the clearest views, May, September and October are best. The 20-minute walk from the summit down to Rigi Staffel is stunning; early morning has the sun at your back and shining on the Alps.

Details: Get the train from Lucerne via Vitznau ($50 day pass). Stay at Hotel Rigi Kaltbad (hotelrigikaltbad.ch; from $190). rigi.ch

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Campanile, Venice

The bell tower of St Mark's basilica is a city icon, yet relatively few visitors ascend it to gaze over Venice, outlying islands and the distant, snow-capped Dolomites. The marvellous view, scarcely changed since the Renaissance, includes church domes, spires and towers, rooftop saints and floating palaces along the boat-packed Grand Canal. Below are St Mark's Square cafes and the lovely doges' palace.

Why here: The 99-metre tower is the tallest building in Venice, a city more commonly admired from water level on a boat along the Grand Canal.

Insider look: Book a guided tour of another San Marco tower, Torre dell'Orologio, at the Museo Correr. It finishes on the rooftop with more fine views. Late afternoon provides mellow light on rooftops.

Details: Ascend by elevator ($6). Stay at Hotel Giorgione (hotelgiorgione.com; from $169). turismovenezia.it

Zion National Park, Utah

Much of Utah is flat and hot, but then you come upon a magnificent surprise on a colossal scale. Vast cliffs open up, revealing a valley oasis where the desert erupts in waterfalls and forest glades in which deer and squirrels gambol. No wonder Mormon explorers thought they'd gone to heaven. Trails provide views everywhere; Angel's Landing is magnificent.

Why here: Other south-western national parks are bare, hot rock. Zion is green and accessible, with many scenic valley strolls for the casual walker.

Insider look: Zion's designated rock-climbing areas will challenge your skills on 600-metre cliffs that provide the most dramatic views of any US national park. For views, late afternoon is less harsh and brings out the colours in the rocks.

Details: Zion is a three-hour drive from Las Vegas (vehicle fee $28). Stay at Zion Lodge (zionlodge.com; from $223). nps.gov/zion

Dufferin Terrace, Quebec City

This glorious French-Canadian town embraces cliff-top and riverside in a tumble of churches, statues and squares, topped by a chateau so wildly grandiose it could only the fantasy of a North American industrial baron. From Dufferin Terrace that forms its ramparts, where locals jog and seagulls squat on lamp posts, you can gaze over the St Lawrence River as grand white cruise ships sail in from the distant Atlantic.

Why here: Gaze onto Basse-Ville port below, wander the Haute-Ville or upper town above: brilliant World Heritage bookends for the inspiring view.

Insider look: Admire river sunsets from the terrace's green-and-white gazebos. Chateau Frontenac's red stonework glows, providing great photo opportunities at this time of day.

Details: The terrace is public space (free). Stay at Chateau Frontenac (fairmont.com; from $225). quebecregion.com

Lugard Road, Hong Kong

The rack-railway ascent of The Peak is a Hong Kong staple, but amazingly few people venture beyond the top station. Wander clockwise along bamboo-shaded Harlech and Lugard Roads, however, for one of the world's most spectacular urban walks. When the path emerges from between trees and millionaires' villas, skyscraper-dense Victoria Harbour emerges below in a sight to make the chin sag.

Why here: You can listen to birdsong and chirping insects against the muted hum of downtown Hong Kong, and escape crowds at The Peak.

Insider look: The sun is in your eyes on Lugard Road in the mornings; afternoons provide the best harbour views. Head up nearby Mt Austin Road to the gardens of the now-vanished summer residence of British governors, and join locals for scenic kite-flying.

Details: Ascend by rack railway ($12). Stay at Best Western Harbour View Hotel (from $65). thepeak.com.hk

Red Square, Moscow 

Stand in the north-east corner of Red Square and the view is pure Russia: the Kremlin, home to Tsars and dictators on the right, the gingerbread GUM department store on the left. Straight ahead are the Willy Wonka colours and popping domes of St Basil's cathedral. Few views supply such a splendid congregation of buildings, so curiously familiar from countless television appearances.

Why here: This isn't just a view but a piece of history. Those who remember the Cold War and John le Carre novels will be thrilled.

Insider look: The best view might be in the evening, with fabulous illuminations. Behind Lenin's mausoleum, you'll find Yuri Gagarin entombed in the Kremlin wall along with other famous Soviets, now faded into oblivion.

Details: Get there on Moscow's metro ($1). Stay at National Hotel (national.ru; from $265). moscow.info

Friday Mosque, Delhi

Creep up the narrow 121 steps of the southern minaret, striped with red sandstone and white marble like a giant candy stick, for delightful views to the Red Fort, Parliament House and packed streets of old Delhi. Up close, the mosque's pigeon-flapped white domes are a marvel in themselves. Far below, bearded men sit cross-legged on Kashmiri carpets in the courtyard, chatting the afternoon away.

Why here: How often can you clamber up an historical monument? The elegant 1656 mosque was built by Emperor Shah Jehan of Taj Mahal fame.

Insider look: You'll have to remove your shoes before entering the vast mosque's courtyard, so wear thick socks and watch out for pigeon poop. Go at sunset, when the Old Delhi's red monuments glow.

Details: Minaret entry $2, photography $4. Stay at Hyatt Regency Delhi (delhi.regency.hyatt.com; from $142). delhitourism.gov.in

Petra, Jordan

Enter Petra down a winding canyon, hemmed in by red rock walls so narrow you can barely see the sky. Then round a bend for a very restricted but dramatic view: the famous rose-red Treasury framed by shadowy cliffs. Later, you can get more views from the Roman amphitheatre, cliff-side rock tombs and the third-century monastery, from which desolate panoramas fall away to the desert and Gulf of Aqaba beyond.

Why here: Because Indiana Jones came here on his Last Crusade, and you'll feel as if you're having a rollicking archaeological adventure.

Insider look: First thing in the morning puts sun on the Treasury facade. Crusader castle ruins at Qasr Habis are an unfrequented, one-hour round-trip walk from the museum, and provide splendid canyon outlooks.

Details: Two-day entrance fee $87. Stay at Mövenpick Resort Petra (moevenpick-hotels.com; from $285). visitpetra.jo

Iguazu Falls, Argentina

Walk along a jungle path and you'll hear the roar of Iguazu long before you see its plunging waters and shimmering rainbows. Take a boatride below the waterfalls and another above, guaranteed to make your heart jump from your chest as you skirt the edge of the foaming precipice. The surrounding forest, dripping with spray, is full of orchids and butterflies. Stupendous.

Why here: Because Niagara is cluttered with arcades, dolphin shows and waxworks. Iguazu is higher, wider, wilder and more wonderful.

Insider look: There are 275 falls; Devil's Throat is awesome in late afternoon with the sun behind you. The Argentine side is best, though the Brazil falls supply wider, more panoramic views.

Details: Fly to Puerto Iguazu from Buenos Aires ($340 return). Stay at Hotel das Cataratas (belmond.com; from $470). iguazuargentina.com

Fort Denison, Sydney

Just off the Opera House and bang in the middle of Sydney Harbour, Fort Denison is hard to miss, but curiously overlooked. Even few Sydneysiders disembark here, yet it offers sweeping harbour panoramas and (especially at weekends) a passing parade of yachts and ferries. Even better, it surely has Sydney's best restaurant view. Tuck into seafood and rejoice.

Why here: You'll have to elbow your way through busloads of Korean tourists to admire that other best view from Mrs Macquarie's Chair.

Insider look: Take a 30-minute tour with a national park ranger to hear about Fort Denison's military history and see inside the Martello tower. The best views are in the morning, with the sun shining up the harbour onto the Opera House.

Details: Take the ferry from Circular Quay ($20 including entry fee). Stay at Pullman Quay Grand (pullmanhotels.com; from $413). fortdenison.com.au

TEN MORE STUNNING SCENES 

Pnyx, Athens

Forget the view from the Acropolis. Instead, head up Philopappou Hill through pine trees and rose laurels and follow the ridge onto Pnyx Hill, favoured by sunset lovers, for an inspiring outlook towards the Acropolis and over the city to the sea. thisisathens.org

Monument Valley, Arizona

Time your arrival for late afternoon, when the valley's soaring red buttes, familiar from old Hollywood westerns, glow orange and cast giant shadows. Eleven numbered stops on a 27-kilometre loop drive all provide views; North Window (10) might be best. visitarizona.com

Rue Merciere, Strasbourg

Cross the road from Place Gutenberg to Rue Merciere for a fabulous medieval sight: Strasbourg's cathedral framed by half-timbered houses. The impact of this gigantic, gargoyle-studded building still provides shock and awe in an age used to big structures. otstrasbourg.fr

Sugarloaf Mountain, Rio

Never mind the classic Christ-statue view. Take the cable car up Sugarloaf and you're almost surrounded by water. The coastline unfolds sparkling sand-rimmed bays, and you can enjoy sunset with a caipirinha cocktail from the summit drinks stand. rcvb.com.br

Chexbres, Lake Geneva

A scenic drive between Lausanne and Montreux on the Winemaker's Route leads through steep vineyards with sweeping panoramas across the lake to the French Alps. Best spot: a layby in Chexbres village provides scenery fallen straight from heaven. lake-geneva-region.ch

Western Steps, Huang Shan 

The misty landscapes of eastern China's Yellow Mountain have been lauded by emperors and poets for centuries. Its gnarled pine trees, teetering rock formations and shifting clouds recall scroll paintings. The dizzying Western Steps are gobsmacking. huangshan.com.cn

Arc de Triomphe, Paris

Avoid three-hour queues at the Eiffel Tower and head to the top of the Arc for more intimate, no less wonderful scenes of Paris over mansard roofs. Haussmann's grand plan for the city is evident: the Champs-Elysees and 11 other avenues radiate in all directions. parisinfo.com

Castle Hill, Budapest

Fisherman's Bastion disgorges tour groups for fine views, but walk 10 minutes south to the royal palace's pedestrian-only promenade for glorious (and more peaceful) outlooks over the Danube and Budapest's gothic spires, cupolas and iron bridges. budapest.com

Mkukwini, Drakensberg

Not one inch of South Africa's Drakensberg mountains disappoint, but the unnamed country road between Bergville and Royal National Park via Mkukwini isn't just a view but 50 kilometres of jagged peaks, white-cubed villages and bright green meadows. zulu.org.za

Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Feel like Ali Baba as you gaze from the terraces of the sultans' palace over Istanbul's mosque-punctured skyline, the Maramara Sea and Bosphorus, where ferries chug between Europe and Asia. From Iftariye Pavilion, you can spot the Golden Horn. icvb.org.tr

CLASSIC SCENES

Machu Picchu, Peru

A first sight of these ruins, embedded in steep mountains wreathed in cloud, high above a hairpin bend of the Urubamba canyon, will make you feel like an intrepid explorer. machupicchu.gob.pe

Grand Canyon, Arizona

Picking the best outlook is impossible, but Yavapai Point might win for red plunging cliffs, the Colorado River 1600 metres below and sunsets of improbable hue. nps.gov/grca

Mt Fuji, Shizuoka

At 3776 metres, Japan's highest mountain is seen from many places, even downtown Tokyo, but is splendid from Heda on the Izu Peninsula, where it combines with rugged coastline. shizuoka-guide.com

Burj Khalifa, Dubai

The 452-metre observation deck of the 830-metre world's tallest building isn't quite the world's highest, but offers vertigo-inducing views from both inside and out. burjkhalifa.ae

Charles Bridge, Prague

This medieval bridge, graced with baroque-era statues, provides lovely panoramas over turrets and towers, best at dawn when the river shimmers and crowds are absent. praguewelcome.cz

A ROOM WITH A VIEW 

Longitude 131, Uluru

How many hotels frame uninterrupted views of a world icon? Set in red sand dunes, this safari-like resort captures particularly fine scenes of Uluru at sunset and under the stars. All suites face the famed rock, though 12 to 15 are best. longitude131.com.au

Old Cataract Hotel, Aswan

This Byzantine chocolate-cake of a hotel has Egyptian colonial charm and cliff-top views down the felucca-dotted Nile, embraced by desert. Higher-floor rooms in the cheaper modern tower block actually have the best views. sofitel-legend.com

Trump International Hotel, New York

Guestrooms are mini-apartments with granite kitchenettes and marble bathrooms. Dazzling views over Central Park towards posh Fifth Avenue through huge windows are best viewed in autumn from Park View Suites. trumphotelcollection.com

Shangri-La Hotel, Paris

This former Bonaparte palace has the luxe trappings you'd expect, but who cares? What matters is the drop-dead outlook right onto the Eiffel Tower. You can see it from your bed, enough to get you right in the mood for romance. shangri-la.com/paris

Le Sirenuse, Positano

Italy's Amalfi Coast is renowned for seductive scenery, and this boutique hotel – once a private summer residence – bags vistas from its terraces and balconies. Pastel-coloured houses tumble into the Mediterranean, and bougainvillea blooms. sirenuse.it

FIVE SCENIC FAILS

Niagara Falls, United States

Canada is more modest than its southern neighbour in all respects except when it comes to Niagara Falls. It has by far the best views over Bridal Falls and Horseshoe Falls and yes, even the American Falls are better admired from Canada. niagara-usa.com

Juliet's Balcony, Verona

It's a 20th-century addition to a medieval house that has no connection with Juliet, but hopeful lovers queue to stand on the balcony of Juliet's House, where the only view is of milling, overweight tourists. Not a Romeo in sight. tourism.verona.it

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

For a start, you can't actually clamber up the pyramids to gaze like Napoleon over the desert. And from the rise where they stand, your view is far from ancient or romantic. Expect a huge highway, Cairo suburbs and rows of fast-food shops. egypt.travel

Canton Tower, Guangzhou

Canton Tower has a lovely twisted design aglow with LED lights at night, and boasts the world's highest outdoor observation deck at a windy 488 metres above Haizhu district. But unless you're lucky, you'll get a murky view thanks to pollution. cantontower.com

Rock of Gibraltar, Gibraltar

The rock is more interesting for its monkeys, siege tunnels and Moorish ruins than its hazy views over a boringly flat Mediterranean, hideous airport runway and rather drab town famous for nothing except being British. visitgibraltar.gi

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