Lonely Planet Writer

Wonderings: natural wonders v manmade marvels

Illustration of a traveller looking out of a train window at a lake with mountains and forest in the background © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet Wonderings: rambles through and reflections on travel... this month, James Kay weighs up the merits of natural versus manmade attractions © Joe Davis / Lonely Planet

Heavens above. That's what you'll see inside the Aya Sofya. Stand in the centre of its marble floor, tilt your head back 90 degrees, and look up at the great dome, a representation of heaven on earth fashioned from brick and mortar; this sublime sight might just draw a murmur from your lips involuntarily, a sigh not unlike the sound of its own name: eye-a-soff-ee-ya. And yet, however extraordinary the Aya Sofya might be, it would not have secured a place in the top 10 of my own ultimate travel sights. Nor would the Alhambra, exquisite though that structure undoubtedly is. Why?

If I tell you that the Galapagos Islands and Yosemite National Park would vault up my wish list, you can see a clear bias start to emerge: I give more weight to the natural than the built environment. And it leads me to ask, are natural wonders inherently better than even the most perfectly realised products of human imagination?

Spectacle at scale

The natural world tends to have scale on its side. You could, for example, hide many of the marvels on Lonely Planet's list inside the 4900-odd sq km of the Grand Canyon. Great scale is impressive for its own sake, but it also means there is more potential for a visitor to find a corner of a place all to themselves, away from the crowds that can otherwise compromise such an experience.

And scale has a psychological as well as a spatial aspect: you can lose yourself in a landscape such as the Great Barrier Reef in a way that you can never do in a structure, however labyrinthine. The reef is immersive – literally in that special case; it’s something around and about you rather than merely an object to be observed.

Panoramic view of the Colosseum, Rome © Marco Rubino / Shutterstock Can you hear the echo of ancient times in Rome's extraordinary Colosseum?
© Marco Rubino / Shutterstock

Enter the Colosseum and unchain your imagination as you might a ravenous lion straining at the end of a chain; now listen – that sound is the whimpering of the condemned who once died here in the name of entertainment. For the Colosseum is a 50,000-seat time machine transporting visitors back 2,000 years to the bloodthirsty days of imperial Rome. But for me, even that experience can't compete with the brain-melting implications of places like Iguazú Falls or Fiordland National Park, where you're confronted by a spectacle that can only be explained in the context of geological time.

Structures with a story

So, the natural environment trumps the built in scale and age. But the fight isn't completely one-sided; the latter has at least one advantage: some of the world's greatest structures tell a story in a way that natural attractions cannot. The Taj Mahal is a jewel of jewels, but what it represents elevates it still further: the timeless love of Emperor Shah Jahan for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal.

Of course, the natural versus built debate is not a choice between black and white, but a spectrum of opinion upon which to locate your own position. And the question itself hints at something else: a formula to predict if a place is likely to be ranked as truly great: I’d argue it is no coincidence that three of the top five in Lonely Planet's list fuse the natural and the built environment, drawing on the alchemy of each.

The Great Wall of China is a flabbergasting feat, but the sense of awe comes in part from its zigzagging course over an 8850km obstacle course of mountains; however archaeologically significant the lost city of Machu Picchu, its aura stems from a setting amid a ring of peaks as sharp and serrated as the teeth of a giant bear-trap; and would the temples of Angkor cast such a powerful spell without the jungle, whose sinuous roots seem so intent on reclaiming those moss-webbed stones?