There are many things that can leave someone breathless, aside from grinding out a triathlon or spending time at high altitudes. The sight of a bride on her wedding day may take the breath from a groom-to-be. Witnessing an orchestra play a Mozart symphony in a grand concert hall might do it as well. Perhaps the sight of your baby being born might do the trick.
But sometimes it's not a life event at all, but the mere sight of something awe-inspiring. You stand before it, a chill comes over you and your breath becomes shallow and measured. One can only imagine the early settlers making their way across the American West and riding up to the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time. The feeling they must have gotten is likely similar to what a modern tourist might feel when faced with that same breathtaking vista. The Grand Canyon makes the cut on our list, along with nine other breathtaking views around the globe.
The expanse of New York City's urban jungle is something that's left many tourists over the years confused and maybe a little intimidated. Street level is where the action is, but if you really want to take it all in and leave your breath behind, there's no better way than to take the long elevator ride to the observation deck of the Empire State Building (ESB).
Since the fall of the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, the ESB has regained its status as the tallest building in New York. This National Historic landmark climbs more than a quarter of a mile straight up, with the observation deck located 1,050 feet (320 meters) above the city streets on the 86th floor. The view from the deck has taken the breath away from more than 110 million visitors since it opened in 1931 [source: Esbnyc.com]. The deck offers a 360 degree vista of the 230 buildings that are at least 30 stories high, including an unparalleled view of the chrome spires of the legendary Chrysler Building [source: Aviewoncities.com].
What the Empire State Building offers New York tourists, the Eiffel Tower matches in Paris. And while the City of Lights doesn't have the kind of jaw-dropping skyscrapers that Gotham does, it's still a breathtaking view once you take the elevator ride up the tower to the observation deck. At 984 feet (320 meters), the tower is the second tallest structure in France, behind the Millau Viaduct, and was the tallest in the world until the completion of the Empire State Building.
While there are 1,671 steps that go to the top of the tower, visitors can only climb to the first and second tiers at 189 feet ( 57 meters) and 379 feet (115 meters) [source: Discoverfrance.net]. In order to go to the top lookout for the most breathtaking view, you need to ride one of two elevators that make the trip every eight minutes -- about 100 per day [source: Tour-eiffel.fr]. For the best viewing, show up about an hour before sunset and take in the "magic hour" before the sea of yellow lights come to life as darkness falls.
The shining star of the National Park Service program in the United States, the Grand Canyon hosts more than 5 million visitors each year [source: NPS.gov]. Standing on the edge of the canyon rim is something that can only be fully understood by doing it yourself. No words can aptly describe, and no photograph can fully capture the sheer size and magnitude of the natural world wonder. It truly does take your breath away and is something that must be experienced in person.
The canyon is a jaw-dropping 277 miles (445.7 kilometers) long and 18 miles (29 kilometers) wide at its widest point and we can thank the Colorado River for forming it over a period of about 3 to 6 million years [source: Explorethecanyon.com] For a little more solitude, try venturing out to the more distant North Rim. This section of the canyon is no less breathtaking, and gets about 10 percent the number of visitors as the more heavily frequented South Rim.
This view takes your breath away in more than one way. Not only will you feel like you're at the top of the world at the summit of Nepal's Mount Everest, but the incredible altitude will literally leave you breathless. Everest was formed about 60 million years ago and is the tallest peak (from sea level) on the planet at 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) [source: Mounteverest.net]. Because of the extreme weather conditions at the summit, climbers rarely attempt to complete the ascent outside of the months of May and June, when the jet stream is pushed north.
If you do choose to make the ascent, you may come across some dead bodies along the way. There are about 120 bodies of those that the mountain has claimed on your path to the top -- they've been impossible to remove. But don't let that dissuade you. If you're an experienced mountaineer, you can be one of the 150 people that attempt to reach the summit each year. Once you're at the top, have your camera ready, because you'll only be there for a few minutes before you start your descent.
The Incan ruins at Machu Picchu have been the subject of research and speculation since their rediscovery in 1911. While Peruvians knew about this "Lost City of the Incas" above the Urubamba Valley, they weren't excavated and examined by historians until Hiram Bingham did so in 1911. Ever since then, the tiered stone ruins have been on the radar of historians, anthropologists and tourists alike. Nobody is exactly sure why the Inca people built this architectural wonder, but some theories include use as a destination for religious pilgrimages, a retreat for Incan rulers or as an astronomical observatory.
Whatever its purpose, to view the ruins that sit unseen from below remains one of the truly breathtaking things you can take part in. The three distinct areas constructed in the 1400s (agricultural, urban and religious) are all built to blend seamlessly into the surrounding natural environment. The combination of the history, mystery and natural wonder of Machu Picchu make it one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
While Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite might get more attention than other national parks, Glacier National Park in Montana may take the cake as the most breathtaking. There is no shortage of amazing views along the 730 miles (1,174 kilometers) of hiking trails throughout the park. The park is known for its tall mountain peaks, isolated alpine lakes, abundant wildlife and, of course, the glaciers. It does indeed get its name from the huge glaciers that helped to shape the park's signature rock formations 10,000 years ago. In 1850, the park had 150 glaciers, but sadly only 26 now remain because of the effects of climate change on this high-altitude treasure. Don't forget to take the snow line into account. You'll have to wait until mid-June for a snow-free hike in the lower elevations, and as long as late July for the higher elevations.
Naturalist Charles Darwin may not have known what he was getting into when he first explored the Galapagos Islands as part of a five-year journey to chart the area for the Royal Navy. He and his cohorts discovered hundreds of new species and collected thousands of samples from the plants and animals that live there. Almost 200 years later, the wonder of the life that lives above and below the sea at this archipelago remains as breathtaking as ever.
Despite the inevitable tourism trade that's grown over the years, the islands are fiercely protected and divers can still rub elbows with sea creatures that haven't learned to be afraid of humans. There are more than 300 species of fish, 650 shells and mollusks, 120 crabs and 200 starfish and urchins alone [source: Gct.org]. Add to that the giant sea tortoise, marine iguana, penguins, sea otters, dolphins and sharks, and it's clear why diving in the protected waters of the Galapagos Islands is on the list of most SCUBA enthusiasts.
Unfortunately not many people will be able to see this one firsthand, but even high resolution images of the Earth from outer space can be pretty breathtaking. Satellite photos are appreciated for their aesthetic value now. The first photograph of Earth from outer space is a grainy black-and-white taken by a 35 millimeter movie camera in 1947 [source: Reichhardt]. Even this captivated researchers, but the rocket that flew the camera into space was unmanned. When Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to fly into outer space 14 years later, his post flight description was this:
"There was a good view of the Earth which had a very distinct and pretty blue halo. It had a smooth transition from pale blue, blue, dark blue, violet and absolutely black. It was a magnificent picture" [source: Polfeldt].
Since that flight space exploration has never been the same. It's doubtful that anyone who has ever witnessed the Earthrise was any less awe-struck as Gagarin was. Perhaps with continued colonization efforts and space tourism, more people can witness this sight firsthand.
Since art is completely subjective, it's impossible to find a single work of art that everyone would agree is breathtaking, but you probably won't hear too many arguments against the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Michelangelo, the original Renaissance man, is regarded more often as a great sculptor even though his most famous work is arguably the vast fresco painting. Fresco is a challenging technique in which the artist paints on wet plaster, forming a bond causing the paint to actually become part of the surface. The Italian painter, sculptor and poet (among other things) spent four years painting more than 400 figures above his head while standing, contrary to legend that he worked on his back. One great aspect of the ceiling is that you can stand just about anywhere underneath it and view a single, distinct work of art.
Upon completion of the arduous work, the great artist said, "After four tortured years, more than 400 over life-size figures, I felt as old and as weary as Jeremiah. I was only 37, yet friends did not recognize the old man I had become" [source: Ruehring].
An aurora is a bright glow that occurs in the night sky when energetic particles, mostly electrons, enter the Earth's upper atmosphere from the magnetosphere. When they break through, they collide with atoms and molecules, which take some of the energy and store it, creating what's known as an excited atom. The only way to calm this atom down is for it to rid itself of the energy by firing off a photon. This makes the glow we see here on Earth.
There are all kinds of auroras, but the most well-known are the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. These are the multi-colored lights in the Northern Hemisphere's polar region. Green, white, purple and red glowing "curtains" blanket the dark, clear skies of the North Pole about 1,500 times a year during what's called a substorm. This is when the sun releases hot plasma gas as energy into the magnetosphere. This gas breaks up and penetrates the Earth's atmosphere and curious humans below marvel at the breathtaking result. For your best chance at witnessing the Northern Lights, trvael north during the winter in Canada, Alaska or Scandinavia and then keep and eye on the skies.
How much do you know about the artificial archipelago called the 'World Islands'? Test your knowledge with this quiz at HowStuffWorks.
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More Great Links
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- "Eiffel Tower History." Discoverfrance.net. 2009.http://www.discoverfrance.net/France/Paris/Monuments-Paris/Eiffel.shtml
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- "Explore Galapagos." Gct.org. 2009.http://www.gct.org/intro.html
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- "Frequently Asked Questions about Aurora and Answers." Geographical Institute. 2009.http://odin.gi.alaska.edu/FAQ/
- "Grand Canyon Fast Facts." Explorethecanyon.com. 2009.http://www.explorethecanyon.com/explore-learn/grand-canyon-facts.cfm
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- "The Sistine Chapel." Vatican.va. 2009.http://mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/CSN/CSN_Storia.html
- "What is a Fresco?" Livingwithfrescos.co.uk. 2009.http://www.livingwithfrescos.co.uk/what_is_a_fresco.htm
- Polfeldt, David. "I see the Earth. It's so beautiful!" Kosmonaut.se. 2009.http://www.kosmonaut.se/gagarin/index_article.html
- Reichhardt, Tony. "The First Photo From Space." Airspacemag.com. Nov. 1, 2006.http://www.airspacemag.com/space-exploration/16045732.html
- Ruehring, Lauren Mitchell. "Sistine Chapel Michelangelo Paintings." Howstuffworks.com. 2009.http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/sistine-chapel-michelangelo-paintings1.htm
- Shostak, Seth. "Where does 'outer space' begin?" Msnbc.com. June 25, 2004.http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/5287945/