Sagrada Família – Barcelona, Spain
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This church is no less spectacular a sight for being unfinished (estimated completion date: 2026). For the best light, shoot the Nativity façade from the far side of the lake in Plaça de Gaudi across the road in the early morning and the Passion façade from the Plaça de la Sagrada Família on the opposite side in the afternoon (the church is lit up at night). These are also good times to shoot the stained glass interior; book a ticket ahead of time because the queues can be long. Should you choose to climb one of the towers, consider they can cast long shadows over the city, adding an interesting element to your photos. There are also incredible architectural details of the staircase and towers to be had.
The Treasury – Petra, Jordan
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To avoid the crowds visiting Petra, stay in the nearby town (4.8km away) of Wadi Musa overnight to shoot the ancient Nabataean façade in the evening on the night of your stay and in the early morning light. The approach through the slot canyon provides some interesting photo ops. For an incredible view, adventurous travellers with time to spare can tackle the challenging Al Kubtha Trail for a commanding vista of the cliffs opposite.
The Eiffel Tower – Paris, France
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The Champ de Mars provides classic shots of Paris’s most iconic monument, but for sweeping views down along the Pont d’Iéna and through to the Paris Military School, head to Place du Trocadéro. Note that it’s especially busy at night when the tower’s light show begins. For a bird’s-eye view try the observation deck of Tour Montparnasse (adults €17, about A$26), which gives an incredible 360-degree view of the whole city, or from the top of the Arc de Triomphe (entry €12, about A$18). From a more grounded angle, the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, down from Place du Trocadéro, will give a clear view of the tower with the Seine in the foreground.
Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque – Istanbul, Turkey
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The bluish domes and minarets of these mosques look best at twilight when a warm glow illuminates them from below. The pick of elevated vantage points include the Seven Hills Teras Restaurant and the Sofa Café’s rooftop terrace for the Blue Mosque and A’Ya Lounge on the rooftop of the Four Seasons Hotel for the Hagia Sophia. Take in the sunset and a drink or dinner before lining up your shots when the sun goes down.
Pyramids of Giza – Cairo, Egypt
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This tourist hotspot is always busy and chaotic. For a chance to get better photos, set aside enough time for a tour on camel or horseback. At the end of the causeway, you can get a nice frame up of the Great Sphinx and the Pyramid of Khafre. For a shot of multiple pyramids, head further west past the builders’ quarters and look east back over the site. South of the Pyramids of the Queens is where you can get a shot of all three main pyramids in a row. If you’re prepared to take long exposure shots it’s also worth coming back at night when the pyramids are spectacularly lit up.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral – Moscow, Russia
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Unique domes and a crazy colour scheme make Saint Basil’s Cathedral a must-see in Moscow. Although you can capture it from behind, with the beautiful 19th century GUM shopping mall in the background, Red Square is the most obvious spot from which to photograph Saint Basil’s. The colourful domes and golden spires of this historic building, which is now a museum, make it hard to take a bad shot. Stand far back to frame photo-worthy Spasskaya Tower in the photo, too. While its gold trim is highlighted in the mornings, the bright colours of this landmark look incredibly vivid at night, when the whole cathedral is lit up. Do some research before your trip to ensure the square is open during your stay – there are often ticketed events planned.
Colosseum – Rome, Italy
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The best vantage points for photographing the Colosseum are from the western and northern sides where the impressive outer structure remains, while sunrise is best for atmospheric lighting and fewer tourists. There’s plenty of open area around the western side, however a wide-angle lens will make it easier to capture the entire width of this monument. Across the road from the Via Nicola Salvi to the north, up by Parco Del Colle Oppio, slightly elevated banks provide a good view; try from the street outside the Colosseo metro stop for a more pulled-back shot with the road in the foreground.
Angkor Wat – Siem Reap, Cambodia
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Although the gates open at 5am, it’s best to buy tickets and organise transport a day ahead if you want the sunrise money shot at Angkor Wat. Once you’re in, leg it for prime position on the edge of the Northern Reflection Pond to the left in front of the main temple (taking your shot from here will ensure the sun rises behind the temple). Be prepared to shoot for a long exposure and for a large, jostling crowd. Hike further out to Phnom Bakheng temple at any time for beautiful shots of Angkor Wat from higher up. This is also a favourite spot for sunset shots; be sure to get in early as space is limited.
El Castillo, Chichén Itzá – Yucatán State, Mexico
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More than a million people visit this World Heritage site every year: avoiding the crowds is key to ensuring you get a good shot at El Castillo – the Pyramid of Kukulcán. It’s completely surrounded by a flat, open plaza but is impressive enough to not have to shoot it from an elevated angle. Stay nearby to get in first when Chichén Itzá opens at 8am to avoid the heat and the day-trippers or book one of the many sunrise or sunset tours available. The latter takes in the impressive nightly light and sound show telling the history of the ruins with graphics projected onto the temple.
Sydney Opera House – Sydney, Australia
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It’s easy to snap a beautiful shot of the Sydney Opera House, maybe even with the Harbour Bridge in view, but there are a few key locations you shouldn’t miss. Most won’t be crowded, unless of course it’s New Year’s Eve or the Vivid Festival is on (note: amazing light shows make this a prime photo op). At sunrise, the promenade by the Park Hyatt Sydney offers a perfect profile shot. During the day, the Pylon Lookout (adult entry $15) offers spectacular aerial views. A classic twilight scene with an illuminated bridge can be had from Mrs Macquaries Point in the Royal Botanic Gardens.
Mount Fuji – Honshu Island, Japan
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The distinctive shape of Japan’s beloved national icon is visible for miles around, but there are a few tried and tested spots from which to take excellent photos. In Yamanashi Prefecture, about an hour and a half from Tokyo, Lake Kawaguchi has perfect views of Fuji from across the water. If you’re there in the right season, photos are framed with cherry blossoms; travel a little further to the annual Fuji Shibazakura Festival to shoot Mount Fuji with a brightly coloured carpet of pink and purple moss phlox in the foreground. For beautiful shots looking down over the treetops and the city to Mount Fuji with the Chureito Pagoda in view, head to the Arakura Fujisengen Shrine.
Moai – Easter Island, Chile
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One of the most recognisable photographs on Easter Island is of the largest line up of moai statues at Ahu Tongariki, east of the Rano Raraku quarry on the eastern side of the island. Sunrise is the best time to capture these 15 standing monoliths as well as the ones by Anakena beach. At Rano Raraku there’s an opportunity to take photographs of many moai in different positions – some are partially buried or still lying down in the rock they were carved from. Ahu Akivi also has an impressive row of seven moai and Ahu Tahai, on the western side of the island, is known for its striking appearance at sunset.
Tikal – Flores, Guatemala
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Surrounded by jungle, the World Heritage-listed site of Tikal is thought to have been at the centre of Mayan civilization. There are many impressive photos to be taken here: the Great Plaza flanked by Temples I and II and the North Acropolis is one, as are the tallest, stately towers of Temples IV and V. Open from sunrise (6am), this is the best time to capture these areas devoid of crowds. Late risers should consider staying nearby – enter the park after 3pm and your ticket also allows entry the next day. Tackle the imposing steps of Temple IV for incredible images of the treetops and the roofs of temples – try for a shot at sunset, which will yield beautiful light. Star Wars fans might recognise Tikal as the planet Yavin in a scene from Episode IV.
Taj Mahal – Agra, India
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Being among the first to enter this stunning mausoleum at sunrise has advantages, foremost is taking a less crowded version of the shot everyone is after: looking straight at the Taj Mahal across the central pool. Make sure you take some photos once the sunlight hits the white marble for the best effect and continue to the east side for beautiful shots in the morning light. Across the Yamuna River, the Mehtab Bagh garden is open every day and has perfect views of the Taj Mahal (closed on Fridays), making it worth the small entry fee. Tip: leave the tripod at home as you’ll have to check it at the Taj Mahal entrance.
Burj Khalifa – Dubai, United Arab Emirates
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The Burj Khalifa Lake is perfectly positioned to give gawkers an unobstructed view of the world’s tallest building from top to bottom. Anywhere in front of the Souk Al Bahar shopping mall and along the Souk Al Bahar Bridge offers clear views, although you’ll have to snap it from a rather steep angle! The lake is also home to the Dubai Fountain and at show time you can take great shots with arcs of water in the foreground. Both are illuminated at night, making twilight particularly photogenic. Prefer a skyline shot? You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to hotel rooms with views; or consider a rooftop bar – the Treehouse at the Taj Hotel and Above at Sofitel Dubai are two notable offerings.
Great Wall of China – Huairou County, China
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Although the Badaling section of this famous Chinese landmark is one of the most popular and easily accessible, less crowded and arguably more scenic photos can be taken from Mutianyu, 70 kilometres northeast of Beijing. Most of the wall here is very well preserved and doesn’t bear the scars of more recent restoration efforts. Best of all, you’ll be able to line up some of the 22 watchtowers winding along the ridges. The surrounding forest also makes for a picturesque backdrop. You’ll have to hire a car or driver though – there is no public transport to the site. Adventurous types may want to hike across to the adjacent, unrestored Jiankou section.
Charles Bridge – Prague, Czech Republic
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Although Prague’s best-known landmark is visible from both sides of the Vltava River, the most beautiful photos are taken close enough to see the 30 statues that line either side of the Charles Bridge. Eager photographers might want to walk the bridge at dawn for people-free photos. The top of the Old Town Bridge Tower (CZK 100, about A$6 entrance fee) has an overview straight down along the bridge with the Old Royal Palace, St. Vitus Cathedral and St. Nicholas Church in the background. At dusk, lights along the bridge and around the palace complex make for a pretty sight with the light of the setting sun behind the city.
Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco, United States
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You can’t miss the Golden Gate Bridge, painted in its signature International Orange. To get a great shot, first you must decide which side of the bridge to shoot from. Further out, try Bakers and Marshall’s Beach, on south side, for their rocky shores and barren cliffs and Torpedo Wharf, where Fort Point is visible to the south. Closer in, Crissy Field takes in the bridge from a higher angle while north at Vista Point, you’ll look over the bridge and city. The most postcard-perfect spot by far though is Battery Spencer – expect it to be busy! If you’re lucky, you might get some classic shots with the fog rolling into view.
The Alhambra – Granada, Spain
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There’s one spot to go to get the perfect panoramic view of the Alhambra: Mirador San Nicolás. It sits next to the church of the same name and is popular with locals and tourists alike. To get a good position to shoot the changing colours of the sky and the Sierra Nevada at sunset, get there at least an hour early. Or visit first thing in the morning instead if you’d prefer to avoid the hoards. That said, the atmosphere in the evening is convivial and there are nearby eateries where you can enjoy the view with a drink in hand. If you are after a more low-key experience, climbing the church’s bell tower is also an option.
Louvre Pyramid – Paris, France
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The lively and stately courtyard that is home to I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid is surrounded by the historic Louvre on three sides and offers plenty of interesting photographic angles. Visit early in the morning when it’s quieter and take in grandiose views from the Place du Carrousel. The light at sunset is not to be scoffed at either, and the pyramid lit up at night also makes an excellent photo. At Le Café Mollien, on the first-floor landing of the staircase of the same name in the Denon wing, the terrace has exceptional views looking down to the courtyard below.
Uluru, Uluru-Kata Tjuṯa National Park, Australia
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It’s more about the timing than the position when it comes to photographing Uluru, the sandstone monolith that’s the main draw card of the Red Centre. The surrounding landscape of Uluru-Kata Tjuṯa National Park is flat so getting a clear view is a piece of cake. There are designated viewing spots for both sunrise and sunset, when the rock turns an intense red-orange, although they can get busy at peak times. Night shots are also possible from further afield once the park has closed. Splurge and take a scenic helicopter or plane flight or watch the colours change around the clock or stay at Longitude 131° where every pavilion has views of Uluru.
Machu Picchu – Cusco Region, Peru
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Being one of the first people at the gate early in the morning will help with avoiding crowds at this remarkable Incan ruin. Either explore the site in relative peace, or head straight up towards the House of the Guardian to the Funerary Rock at the southern end for amazing views over Machu Picchu looking towards Huayna Picchu from the terraces below. (All the better if you’re surprised by a photobombing llama.) If you’re fit and up for the tough ascent of Huayna Picchu, you’ll also be rewarded with a sweeping view across the ridge from the opposite, less-photographed, direction.
The Acropolis – Athens, Greece
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Being atop a rocky outcrop high above the city makes it easier to photograph this ancient ruin in its entirety. While it’s ideal to get to the site early for the best photos, photographs from nearby vantage points can be taken at any time – although the illumination of the Parthenon at dusk and the light at sunset can make for especially striking images. Philopappos Hill is a short 15-minute walk from the base of the Acropolis and provides one of the most iconic views, while The Pnyx is only a 10-minute walk west. The highest point in the city, Lycabettus Hill, is directly opposite and slightly further away – take care at night, especially if you’re alone.
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As popular as they are, the prehistoric ruins of Stonehenge are surprisingly easy to shoot without getting the nearby highway or too many people in your shot. Book your ticket in advance (entry is timed) and once you’ve set up your shot, prepare to wait for a break in the foot traffic and for the stones to conveniently hide people standing on the far side. Note this will be almost impossible on equinox and solstice days when the site gets an influx of visitors. It’s not possible to enter during sunrise or sunset, however, surrounding public access areas will still allow for good photos at this time. Desperate to get in early? English Heritage members can book special tours that start before opening hours.
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