The distinction “Wonder of the World” has been watered down a little bit over the years as various categories have emerged. Mostly the phrase calls to mind the ancient wonders – the structures we simply can’t believe people built hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But there are also natural wonders, industrial wonders, “new” wonders, etc. Additionally, many of the ancient ones (which I’d personally consider to be the most authentic) have been virtually fetishised by fictions over the years, to the point that if you ever actually get the chance to visit, it’s hard to know what to expect!
Even with all of this confusion, however, the wonders of the world make for very popular tourist destinations, and many of them remain absolutely breathtaking to behold in person. Below I want to highlight not necessarily the five best, but five that can exceed your expectations even after you’ve grown used to seeing them depicted (and sometimes more or less caricatured) in fiction.
1. The Great Wall Of China
The Great Wall Of China may well be the mots famous man-made structure on the planet. It has also been sensationally fictionalized. For instance, millions of people around the world saw the Disney animated film Mulan (which is getting a live action remake) and imagined giant terrifying armies of barbarians scaling the Wall to attack China. More recently, the film The Great Wall imagined the Wall in an ancient war/sci-fi mash-up (prompting one critic to remark, if this is the future for motion pictures, God help us).
Really, the Great Wall can be made to seem almost ridiculous by some of these fictional models. But in person, it’s as striking as you could ever imagine. It’s higher than it is sometimes depicted, and winds endlessly into the distance in either direction. When you stand upon it and think that it was built largely in the 14th century, and that it’s over 5,000 miles long and can be seen from space, there’s no other word but “humbling.”
Stonehenge has been on and off of wonder of the world lists, and it depends where you’re looking whether or not it’s been included. This is a stunning ancient monument that has unfortunately been fictionalised in wild ways. For instance, the television show Ancient Aliens and other things like it have spread extraterrestrial narratives surrounding the stone columns, suggesting they were arranged by aliens or might even be a portal to another dimension or planet.
Of course, this is ridiculous. But that doesn’t mean Stonehenge isn’t wondrous and a little bit mystical. When you see the sheer size and intentional arrangement of stones, and you keep in mind that they were put there around 3,000 BC, you can’t help but feel awe and wonder how ancient civilizations were capable of such things.
3. Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza, the Mayan pyramid-like structure in Mexico, was designated as a “New 7” wonder in 2001 (as was the Great Wall, for that matter). It’s another structure that we imagine largely through fictional lenses than reality. We see images of it and imagine ancient Spanish conquistadors confronting Aztec rulers there, for instance. A video game online called Rich Wilde and the Aztec Idols even uses a Chichen Itza animation as its primary background. The game is described as having “an undeniable air of Indiana Jones” to it.
But seeing Chichen Itza in person impresses upon you that, adventurers aside, this is an incredible architectural wonder, and as magnificent an ancient temple as there is in the world. One quick note: Chichen Itza is technically the name of an ancient city site; the monument that many ascribe the name to is actually “El Castillo.”
4. Great Pyramid of Giza
The Great Pyramid of Giza (one of the three main pyramids you commonly see images of) is arguably the most fascinating building in human history. It’s the only “original” ancient wonder on this list, and it’s probably simultaneously the most misunderstood and the least understood building in general in the world. We’re used to seeing it through fictional interpretations, including films from The Prince Of Egypt to X-Men: Apocalypse.
The pyramid also plays a role in the brand new video game Assassin’s Creed: Origins, which invites players to journey to “the most mysterious place in history.” This is one instance in which the mysteries aren’t overstated (though ancient alien theories here, too, are absurd). Archaeologists are still making discoveries at the Great Pyramid, which means there’s always something new to learn there.
The Roman Colosseum is another of the “New 7” wonders that were designated in 2001. Built in the 1st century AD, it’s one of our most fascinating wonders in terms of actually understanding ancient cultures – and it’s one that meets the expectation set in films like Gladiator. While we’re unable to see it in its full splendor (it is at least in part a ruin), it’s preserved well enough that we can get a sense of its scope.
There’s simply no mistaking it as a stadium, and only standing and looking at it, or touring its interior, do you truly understand how like modern cultures ancient Rome was in some ways. It’s quite an experience, and one that should keep the Colosseum among the most interesting wonders to visit.