Pretty much since the beginning of time, people have been sharing pictures of their trips. Ancient cavemen drew scenes from their hunting grounds on cave walls; Egyptian hieroglyphs used pictures to share the best locations to see pyramids; genteel young ladies painted watercolor scenes of rivers and cathedrals after their Grand Tour.
Then came the camera. Maxime Du Camp took what was perhaps the first travel photo in 1849 using a calotype camera. The subject? His friend Gustave Flaubert, sitting on a camel in front of the Sphinx. People realized that not only could they take pictures of beautiful places, they could be in those photos as well, creating the ultimate proof for bragging rights. It was the beginning of the end. The rise of photography ushered in the age of travel slideshows and photo album explanations that friends and family (who weren’t on the trip) were forced to listen to, murmuring appreciatively. And then of course the development of digital cameras and other technologies led to an increase in the amount of photos shared. And now we have selfies … sigh. The subjects of these travel photos are perhaps as varied as the people taking them, though there are some distinct repeats: the feet in the sand shot, the jumping shot, the perspective shot (you know, where you pose so that it looks like you’re eating a rainbow), the groping a statue shot, etc. These shots are clichéd and, though it may take a Herculean effort, try and refrain from taking them. However, there are some photos that are permissible and necessary — crucial, even. These are shots every traveler should strive to have in their album: photos in front of the most iconic sites in the world. If you visit these locations and fail to get a photo proving that you were there … well, you might as well retire your passport now.
Leaning Tower of Pisa
More than 200 years passed between the beginning of construction and completion of this famously tilted bell tower in Italy. Though the tower in Pisa was not designed to lean (as other buildings have been), due to soft ground and an inadequate foundation, the bell tower continued to gain more tilt until it was stabilized in the late 1990s/early 2000s. However, this slanted structure has become a popular tourist destination, putting Pisa on the proverbial map. The most famous shot, of course, is a trick of perspective which makes it look as if you’re holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The Great Wall of China
Running from east to west along the ancient northern borders of China, the Great Wall of China is a symbol of the country’s strength and its desire to protect its borders. The wall has been built, destroyed and rebuilt many times; the entirety is thought to be more than 13,000 miles long. The easiest place to access the wall is from Beijing, and the Badaling section is perhaps the most popular spot. Get there early and you may be able to avoid some of the crowds making their way along this winding fortification.
Christ the Redeemer
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Since 1931, this 98-foot-tall soapstone representation of Jesus Christ has been keeping watch over the city of Rio de Janeiro. It stands at the peak of Corcovado Mountain in the Tijuca National Park and grants those who trek to the top some amazing views of Rio. Christ the Redeemer is one of many similar statues of various sizes, but it is by far the most famous.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Located just a few miles from the town of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat adorns the flag of Cambodia. Angkor comprises a whole complex of temples and is the largest religious monument in the world. Visitors make an early morning pilgrimage to see the sun rise over the temples; if the clouds stay away, it’s a spectacular sight. Be sure to allow a full day if not two to explore the various Khmer structures, including Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm, the temple the “Tomb Raider” movie made famous.
Sacred Valley, Peru
High on a mountain (almost 8,000 feet above sea level), the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu is perched, awaiting the hundreds of thousands of visitors who flock there each year. Since its “discovery” in 1911, Machu Picchu has become Peru’s most famous tourist attraction, and it’s had an impact on the site. However, getting a picture posed high above the city is a must on every visitor’s list. To get it, head uphill as soon as you can — and as early as you can — to avoid the crowds.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful mausoleums in the world, the Taj Mahal was built in the 17th century by the emperor of India in memory of his wife. More than just her final resting place, the entire complex is a marvel, from the expansive grounds to the architecture of the actual structure. No visit to this UNESCO World Heritage Site is complete without a photo in front of it — be sure to stand at the end of the reflecting pool for the most popular shot.
Ah, Paris. The City of Light — and home to perhaps one of the most recognizable icons in the world: the Eiffel Tower. Constructed to welcome visitors during the 1889 Universal Exposition, it was the tallest building in the world. Others have surpassed it now, but the Eiffel Tower remains one of the most visited structures in France. There are various locations to capture your image in front of this famous tower, but the most popular place to get a full shot is from the Champ de Mars.
Sydney Opera House
The newest structure on this list, the Sydney Opera House, opened in 1973 after almost 15 years of construction. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in Australia — more than eight million people visit each year — and it’s become a symbol recognized around the world. On Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbour, the best way to get your shot with this iconic building is by boat. Take a tour through the harbor and you’ll have multiple opportunities to pose with this “shell”-encrusted structure.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
It’s perhaps one of the most iconic sights in Russia: the multi-colored tulip domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow. If you make it to the capital of Russia, you’re almost compelled to get a shot in front of this magnificent structure. Bonus points if you purchase a giant furry hat to wear in the shot and manage some Cossack dance steps.
The Great Pyramids
El Giza, Egypt
As history shows, perhaps one of the most iconic travel shots is that taken in front of the pyramids in Giza, Egypt. The oldest of the original Seven Wonders of the World (and one of the last to remain mostly intact), the three pyramids dominate the desert sands. Some of the earliest photographic works depict these pyramids, many with early tourists dominating the foreground. For added authenticity, be sure to perch on a camel; you can pretend you’re the ancient pharaoh Khufu, coming to supervise construction of his magnificent mausoleum.