When we travel it’s often to see a building – the Taj Mahal, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Eiffel Tower. We then photograph ourselves in front of them as though needing proof that we stood in their shadows. But why? Because, buildings are endlessly intriguing: things of beauty, symbols of their age and emblems of human endeavor.

Lonely Planet’s book, Amazing Architecture: A Spotter's Guide, celebrates this fascination, embarking on a grand tour of more than 120 brilliant buildings around the world, a selection that stretches from must-see classics to contemporary marvels.

Here are some highlights from the book and beyond, offering a taste of what the world’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, once described as "the mother art."

View of Palacio da Pena (Pena National Palace), 1840-1850, Sintra, Portugal
The vibrant Palacio da Pena © De Agostini / Getty Images

Palácio Nacional da Pena, Sintra, Portugal

Built: 1885
If the approach lends to the spectacle, Portugal’s Palácio Nacional da Pena is truly spectacular. An hour train ride from Lisbon into the Sintra Mountains, then a winding walk up an ancient road wrapping the mountain (and past Madonna’s 18th-century Moorish mansion) leads to a big reveal – a fantastical, red-and-yellow castle set on a 1450-foot-high mountain top with domes and turrets and romance to spare. Built for Portugal’s King Ferdinand II, the palace is a Unesco World Heritage Site incorporating Moorish, Manueline and gothic elements. Visitors can enjoy the grounds filled with flowers from every part of the Portuguese empire and interiors kept virtually unchanged since Queen Amelia departed around the time of WWI.

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Sydney Opera House, one of the 20th century's most famous and distinctive buildings
Sydney Opera House, one of the 20th century's most famous and distinctive buildings © Richie Chan / Shutterstock

Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia

Built: 1973
The jewel of Sydney’s skyline, and one of the greatest works of 20th-century architecture, the Sydney Opera House enjoys a plum setting on a peninsula facing Sydney Harbor. The iconic structure consists of a series of 8 roofs that were highly technical to engineer, causing a falling out between Danish architect Jørn Utzon and his client with another architect brought in to finish the job. Innovation ain’t easy. Like flower petals fanning out over the building, the roofs are made of more than 1 million concrete roof tiles held in place by 217 miles of tensioned steel cables. Performance spaces anchor each interior space but even if you don’t go for a show, visit the bars or lounges with views out over the harbor.

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La Sagrada Família in Barcelona
The incredibly ornate La Sagrada Família © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

La Sagrada Família, Barcelona, Spain

Built: started 1881, ongoing
One of the most artistic buildings of all time, Antonio Gaudi’s design for Barcelona’s Temple of the Holy Family remains unfinished, which in some ways lends to its aura. Construction continues today, an incredible 135 years after the laying of its cornerstone, and it is now a functioning church, along with an architectural marvel. Gaudi’s design, inspired by nature and resembling a surreal sandcastle, included 12, 350-foot towers decorated with colorful mosaics and filled with bells ringing through their hollow cores; three grand facades and a giant nave constructed without the need for flying buttresses. He dedicated the last 10 years of his life to its construction, and while construction is still ongoing, unfortunately, Gaudi’s original plans and models were destroyed during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 leaving today’s architects to guess at his vision. So visit soon if you’d like to see its most Gaudi-true state.

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Petra, Jordan © Mark Read / Lonely Planet
Familiarity from the movies notwithstanding, Petra still has plenty of ‘wow factor’ in real-life © Mark Read / Lonely Planet

Petra, Jordan

Built: 1st century CE
It’s now shallowly defined by its starring role in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but Petra is a jolt of deep history and deeper colors. An ancient city carved into the most pinky-red rock you’ll ever see, the fabled kilometer-long sandstone Siq (the narrow canyon that leads directly to the famous Al Khazneh, or the Treasury), is the most familiar view, but there’s so much more, and as you scramble from tomb to temple, taking in mile upon mile of antiquity, that "wonder-of-the-world" impact just doesn’t stop.

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The Qatari Faculty of Islamic Studies, Doha, Qatar
The curved lines of Qatari Faculty of Islamic Studies in Doha, Qatar © Travel Photography / Getty

Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, Mangera Yvars Doha, Qatar

Built: 2015
It looks like a vast insect or a new kind of futuristic vehicle, but the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, in Doha’s Education City, is in fact a new kind of place of learning – one that melds faith, knowledge and modernity. As Qatar positions as a culture hub under Her Highness Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser, this building proposes learning in its very fabric, with five large columns representing the five pillars of Islam and Arabic calligraphy taking the message forward in sci-fi manner.

Discover the best of Qatar’s art and architecture

Monastery of Geghard, Goght, Armenia © Takepicsforfun / Getty Images
The Monastery of Geghard occupies an awesome spot at the foot of cliffs in Armenia © Takepicsforfun / Getty Images

Monastery of Geghard, Goght, Armenia

Built: 4th–13th centuries
A church cut into rock is an eternal sight and this, the monastery of Geghard in Armenia’s Upper Azat Valley, has several in a medieval complex. The monastery began as a small cave chapel, which Gregory declared held a sacred spring in the 4th century, and perhaps due in part to its awesome location, with looming cliffs and the Azat river gorge, became the ecclesiastical and cultural center of medieval Armenia. The name "Geghard" refers to the spear that wounded Christ, and Dan Brownites will enjoy the fact that the spear remains here.

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Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey © Artur Bogacki / 500PX
Visitors can explore the multi-layered history of a region inside Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia © Artur Bogacki / 500PX

Aya Sofya, Istanbul, Turkey

Built: 532–537 CE
This splendid scarab rising from Istanbul’s skyline is one of the world’s most important buildings, having served as the center of the Byzantine empire, then an Ottoman mosque, and now a museum. Its dome is a technological masterpiece that bridges the Roman to the monotheistic era. When it was completed, Justinian is supposed to have remarked "Solomon, I have outdone thee." It’s not on tape, but perhaps he gets the benefit of the doubt.

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Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln, England © Alastair Wallace / Shutterstock
Lincoln: not the biggest, but perhaps the greatest of English cathedrals © Alastair Wallace / Shutterstock

Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln, England

Built: 1072–1311CE
It’s only the third biggest of the English cathedrals, but many (including John Ruskin, who called it "the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles") think it the best. Perhaps it’s the three towers that look over the flatlands – in 1311, it overtook the Great Pyramid of Giza to be the tallest building in the world – or the setting at the top of quaint Steep Hill, or the rich collection of Anglo-Medieval art, including one of the four copies of Magna Carta. An English dream.

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Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil © Thiago Leite / Shutterstock
Colourful colonial architecture dominates the senses in Pelourinho, Salvador © Thiago Leite / Shutterstock

Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil

Built: 1550–1600 CE
The old district of Pelourinho or "Pelô," in the city of Salvador, has the kind of atmosphere you can slice – not least because, beneath its beauty, it was a place of past atrocity – in 1558 it became the first slave market in the New World. Cobbled, steep and surrounded by colorful Portuguese colonial buildings, including beauties like the light blue baroque Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, it’s Unesco-listed and utterly alive. Attend one of the huge bloco or drum orchestras here on Sundays and you’ll hear a defiant link to a difficult past.

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Shah Mosque, Esfahan, Iran © Ravi Tahilramani / Getty Images
Iran has many fine examples of Islamic architecture, but the Shah Mosque, or Masjed-e-Shah, might just top them all © Ravi Tahilramani / Getty Images

Shah Mosque, Esfahan, Iran

Built: 1611
The Masjed-e-Shah, considered by many to be the finest mosque in Iran, is in the royal square of Isfahan, once the country’s capital. With glittering mosaic tiles in seven colors and calligraphic inscriptions, it’s one of the Islamic world’s great buildings and a centerpiece of Iran’s growing tourism industry. Notable features include the four iwans or arcades, by which the Shah promoted a Persian architectural style, and with the dome you can enjoy a wondrous moment when a stamped foot creates seven echoes.

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 Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, US © Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock
Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece strives to achieve harmony between the outside and inside  © Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock

Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, US

Built: 1936-1939
A tumble of tiers hanging over a creek makes this house look as if it was designed with Jenga. The maestro’s "most beautiful job" (as cited by Time magazine on its completion), and a glorious example of his trademark organic architecture, was designed for department store mogul Edgar J. Kaufmann and is renowned for its cantilevers over the Bear Run waterway. A museum since 1964 and a National Historic Landmark, it remains one of Wright’s masterpieces, merging home and landscape in a stunning piece of built theatre.

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Bank of Asia Robot Building, Bangkok, Thailand © Bob Henry / Alamy Stock
The Bank of Asia building looms over Bangkok like an oversized escapee from a retro computer game © Bob Henry / Alamy Stock

Bank of Asia Robot Building, Bangkok, Thailand

Built: 1987
Architect Sumet Jumsai’s brief was to design a building that reflected "the modernization and computerization of banking." The muse hit him when he saw the toy robot belonging to his son. What ensued was a bank that really does look like a sci-fi robot, complete with two antennae on the roof and doleful large eyes… but that’s not the only reason to love it. The architect himself had high-minded ideals: to create a building that reflects the "contemporary amalgamation of human and machine." Go robot.

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 Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, Doha, Qatar © Qatar Foundation
Observers of the curvaceous Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies could be forgiven for expecting the structure to take off © Qatar Foundation

Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, Doha, Qatar

Built: 2015
It looks like a vast insect, or a new kind of futuristic vehicle, but the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, in Doha’s Education City, is in fact a new kind of place of learning – one that melds faith, knowledge and modernity. As Qatar positions itself as a culture hub, this building proposes learning in its very fabric, with five large columns representing the five pillars of Islam and Arabic calligraphy taking the message forward in sci-fi manner.

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Opus, Dubai, UAE

Built: 2020
The latest landmark on Dubai’s canal waterfront has never been seen by its designer, Zaha Hadid. She died four years before her architectural design and interiors for Opus were fully realized. But that doesn’t make them any less spectacular. Opus houses the ME Dubai hotel and is made up of a 20-story cube that appears to have an amorphous chunk missing from the middle – an 8-story chunk! In fact, it’s made of two towers that are joined on the first four floors then again with a sky bridge linking the two structures. Inside the dramatic four-story atrium is a can’t miss, with Hadid-designed space-aged furniture that echoes the organic shape of the building’s missing “hole.” Have a seat and take in downtown Dubai’s skyscrapers including the 160-story Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building.

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Rumah Miring (Slanted House), Jakarta, Indonesia © Budi Pradono Architect
Right angles are in short supply in Jakarta’s perspective-distorting Slanted House © Budi Pradono Architect

Rumah Miring (Slanted House), Jakarta, Indonesia

Built: 2015
Who says a house has to be, you know, straight up and down? This handsome house in an upscale suburb of Jakarta was described by the architect as "anti-establishment" and is a clear riposte to its plush neighbors, who’ve largely opted for pillar-and-portico grandeur. With a tilted steel frame and oodles of glass over three floors, it’s really married a sense of play with a feeling of high-tech luxury. Its owner, gallerist Christiana Gouw, called it a "celebration of individual freedom."

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Chapelle de Notre-Dame du Haut, Romchamp, France

Built: 1955
Ironically for a nonbeliever, one of modernist architect Le Corbusier’s greatest legacies may be his design for a chapel: the Chapelle de Notre-Dame du Haut. After the previous chapel in Romchamp, France was bombed during WWII, the mid-century modernist designed a replacement for the site where religious pilgrims have been arriving since the end of the 6th century. Today visitors can still appreciate the artistry in its unconventional form. Its funnel shape channels attention towards the altar and an ethereal vertical volume draws eyes and minds to the heavens. The dreamy quality of the scattered painted windows allows colorful light to stream through the chapel. Set on a hilltop overlooking four mountain peaks, Le Corbusier also gave the building a purposeful exterior form to allow distinct areas for outdoor services and events during times of pilgrimages.

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Destination expert Carrie N. Culpepper reviewed and updated this text for accuracy and relevance. Some content has been adapted from Lonely Planet's Amazing Architecture: A Spotter's Guide.

Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.

This article was first published April 2018 and updated March 2022

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