30 of the Most Beautiful Places in the World

Four images of amazing natural landscapes: reflective water, tunnel though trees, colorful rock formations and the surf breaking against a cliff.
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Across the roughly 60 million square miles of land covering this breathtaking planet, there are a lot of exceedingly beautiful places. From serene and stirring to surreal and sublime, trying to list them all would be an impossible task; and of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But that doesn't mean we can't do our best to give a shout-out to some of the places that showcase the amazing accomplishments that Mother Nature — sometimes with an assist from her inhabitants — has achieved.

Here are 30 of our favorites to get the conversation started.

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The Maldives

aerial view of four Maldive islands and lagoons in deep blue water

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The Maldives may cover a large area — 34,750 square miles, to be exact — but it is the smallest country in Asia because only 115 square miles of that is land mass. The country is comprised of 1,192 individual islands contained within 26 atolls, which are large rings of coral reef.

On land, the Maldives' beauty is showed through its famously pristine white sand and shallow water that shows both colorful coral reefs and an array of fish species. From above, the lagoons that surround each island offer a stunning contrast of colors and uniqe shape.

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Rice Terraces of Vietnam

layered hills of light green rice fields that look like steps

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For hundreds of years, the people of Vietnam have used terraced paddy fields to grow rice. They are a beautiful sight, but they are also highly efficient. This arrangement allows for rice — which grows best on level ground — to be grown on the steep mountainsides of the landscape. It also helps control and distribute water, which rice needs a lot of.

With their stair-like appearance, it's no wonder that these green and gold fields are a popular attraction. They can be found throughout Vietnam, but the ones in the region of Mu Cang Chai are considered to be the most important for both agriculture and tourism.

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Hampi, India

Virupaksha temple stone monument with many highly carved tiers

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Located in the Indian state of Karnataka, Hampi is comprised of the remains of the former capital of the Vijayanagara Empire, which was in power for several hundred years starting in the 14th century. It is referred to as a village and temple town.

Hampi is known for the beautiful 1,600 monuments that are scattered throughout its 16 square miles. The crumbling remains come from once-great temples, palaces, aquatic structures, ancient market streets, royal pavilions, military forts, and municipal buildings. The group of monuments was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1986.

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Salar de Uyuni

perfectly flat salt ground mirroring light blue sky with clouds

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At 4,247 square miles, Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world. It is made of layer upon layer of salt and sedimentary rock and can be found in southwest Bolivia. And its size is not its only impressive feature — it is also astonishingly flat. A mission by NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) found that elevation variations across the entire area were less than one meter.

What makes Salar de Uyuni truly beautiful is what happens when there is a layer of water covering the surface. The flatness allows the water to create a kind of mirror effect that reflects the sky so clearly it is almost disorienting.

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Los Glaciares National Park

large glacier with platform for viewers to see at eye-level

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Located in the Austral Andes of Argentina along the border of Chile is Los Glaciares National Park. The 2,300 square-mile park offers woods, lakes, and mountains, but its main feature is the field of glaciers that inspire its name. Fed by the South Patagonian Ice Field, the area contains 47 glaciers and takes up nearly half the park. There are an additional 200 smaller glaciers outside of the main ice field.

The most stunning part of Los Glaciares National Park is a massive glacier called the Perito Moreno Glacier. It measures 19 miles long with an average above-water height of 240 feet. Occasional ruptures cause chunks of glacial ice to dramatically fall into the lake.

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Blue Lagoon

blue water running between moss-covered lava stones

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Iceland is known for its many hot springs, and the Blue Lagoon is the most popular of them all. Its milky-blue water is caused by an abundance of silica which forms the iconic white mud at the bottom of the pool. And its unique color stands out even more thanks to its being surrounded by a black lava field.

Interestingly, the Blue Lagoon is not a natural hot spring. Rather, it is a byproduct of a nearby geothermal powerplant. That does not repel visitors, however. The pool is Iceland's best-known tourist attraction thanks to a combination of its beauty and 102-degree water that makes for a pleasant bathing experience. It was even named one of the top 25 Wonders of the World by National Geographic.

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Pamukkale

tiers of white pools filled with light blue water

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Denizli Province in southwestern Turkey is home to a stunning site called Pamukkale. The beauty of the landscape is created by a collection of 17 terraced basins between two and 20 feet high. When water pours over the edge of each basin, calcite is deposited, eventually crystalizing into a form of limestone called travertine. This is what gives Pamukkale its appearance of sparkling white cascades of stone, and also what inspired its name, which translates to "cotton castle."

In the second century BCE, what would eventually become Pamukkale was the Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis. People congregated around the hot springs for their supposed therapeutic qualities. This history, along with Pamukkale's wonder, is why the area is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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Antelope Canyon

glowing purple and orange sandstone in canyon

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Located just outside of Page, Arizona, the dreamlike landscape of Antelope Canyon is one of the most bizarre — and beautiful — in the country. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is "Tse' bighanilini," which means "the place where water runs through rocks." And indeed, Antelope Creek, which flows into nearby Lake Powell, forms two sections of slot canyons, the diligent work of water and time carving otherworldly formations into stone that never fail to inspire involuntary gasps of "ooh" and “aah.” Add to that the play of desert light and the result is downright breathtaking.

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Cave of the Crystals

cave filled with thick, long crystal rods pointing in different directions

Alexander Van Driessche / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Hidden nearly 1,000 feet beneath the ground in Naica, Mexico is a natural marvel. The Cave of the Crystals contains beams of gypsum up to 36 feet long, three feet thick, and weighing up to 110,000 pounds. Admirers often liken its appearance to Superman's Fortress of Solitude.

The crystals' growth was possible because the original pieces of gypsum were submerged in mineral-rich water and exposed to consistent high heat. Scientists believe that to become this incredible size, the crystals must have grown uninterrupted for at least 500,000 years.

Unfortunately, the Cave of the Crystals cannot be visited. The extreme heat and humidity that allowed the crystals to grow create unsafe conditions for humans.

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Yangshuo, China

aerial view of Yangshuo showing tall green hills, towns, and Li river

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In southern China is Yangshuo County, an area that offers a captivating mix of karst pinnacles, caves, lush vegetation, traditional Chinese architecture, rice fields and the inexorably picturesque Li River, which many believe is the most beautiful waterway in the world. The mountains in the region are an irresistible magnet for climbers from all over the globe, while other tourists enjoy biking through the villages or taking a bamboo raft ride down the famous river.

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Sossusvlei

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Located in the southern part of the Namib desert in the Republic of Namibia, Sossusvlei is a treasure trove of sand dunes of staggering size and cinematic splendor. The pristine mountains of sand were built by the air, having been pushed and shifted by the colliding easterly winds from the Atlantic Ocean and the westerly winds from the Naukluft Mountains. They are believed to be 60 to 80 million years old and represent the highest sand dunes in the world — and easy contenders for the most beautiful. While they are visited by tourists who leave their footprints in the sand daily, all traces of humankind are erased each night as the winds sweep up the mess and return the dunes to a state of perfection for the next day.

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Neuschwanstein Castle

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Princess Aurora, are you in there? While this fairytale castle perched atop a hill in the Bavarian Alps never actually housed a royal family — King Ludwig II of Bavaria who commissioned it died before its completion in 1886 — it was the inspiration for Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty castle. We've selected this photo because it shows a castle floating in the clouds, but the dreamy mist obscures the picturesque view of the rugged peaks and magnificent scenery of the Hohenschwangau Valley below. You'll have to go see it for yourself; just don't get tangled up with any bad fairies.

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Giant Forest

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Nestled in California's incredible Sequoia National Park is the colossal Giant Forest, where you can find trees that would have felt right at home during the Jurassic period. Named in 1875 by John Muir, the forest is a stand of more than 8,000 towering sequoia trees — many of them thousands of years old. The Giant Forest is where you can find five of the 10 largest living trees on the planet, including the General Sherman, which is recognized as not only the single largest living tree on the planet, but the largest organism, by volume, alive today. Props to the big guys, seriously.

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Northern lights, Norway

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While it's possible to witness the completely crazy phenomenon known as the aurora borealis from any number of locations positioned far enough north, we're picking Norway as the bucket-list destination. Why? Because it's Norway. There are fjords, islands, glaciers, whales, moose and polar bears! But also because Norway just so happens to be a particularly wonderful spot to see the magical light show that occurs when highly charged electrons from the solar wind meet up with elements in the Earth's atmosphere along the lines of the magnetic force of the planet's core (in a nutshell). From the land of the Vikings, you can see some of the strangest and most splendid antics the sky has to offer.

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Meteora

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The meaning of Meteora is variously defined as "middle of the sky," "suspended in the air" or "in the heavens above," and indeed, all three seem to apply. Built on barely accessible sandstone pinnacles that rise 1,300 feet from the Peneas valley in Greece, 24 of these Greek Orthodox monasteries originally perched atop the geological columns. Intrepid pilgrims were lifted up the cliffs by nets; supplies were hoisted by ladders and baskets. Talk about escaping the rat race ... but today visitors can get there by paths and stairs that were built in the 1920s. Now only six of the original 24 remain; it's of little surprise that these stellar structure and their environs can be found on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

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Lake Baikal

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With an impressive age of 25 million years, Lake Baikal in southeastern Siberia is the oldest lake in the world; with depths reaching nearly 5,400 feet, it is also the deepest lake on the planet. In fact, it contains 20 percent of Earth’s total unfrozen freshwater reserve. But beyond its impressive stats, it is a marvel of nature and beauty. Known as the "Galapagos of Russia," Lake Baikal is one of the most biodiverse places anywhere, thanks to its age and isolation. It plays host to over 1,340 species of animal (745 endemic) and 570 species of plant (150 endemic). The area surrounding the lake is no less spectacular and includes mountains, boreal forests, tundra, lakes, islands and steppes; according to UNESCO, which includes the region in its World Heritage List, the area is “exceptionally picturesque.” Even just a sliver of the lake when frozen, as pictured here, hints at its secrets and allure.

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Cappadocia

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It's possible that the only way you could improve upon the stunning spectacle of the "fairy chimney" pinnacles found in central Turkey's Cappadocia region is by enhancing the already surreal scene with some hot air balloons. But balloons or not, Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia — as the area is officially called — is a marvel. Located on the Central Anatolia plateau, the volcanic landscape has teamed up with the forces of erosion to create the ridges, valleys and towers that have provided a rich backdrop to a fascinating human history since at least the 4th century. Within many of the towering pinnacles are caves which house domestic dwellings and churches, many with intact frescoes; while below the ground are expansive subterranean cities — one which extends five levels down and once harbored 20,000 people. It is one of world's most striking and largest cave-dwelling complexes and offers impeccable examples of post-iconoclastic Byzantine art. Oh, and bonus points for being able to stay in a cool cave hotel if you visit.

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Great Barrier Reef, Australia

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The largest living structure on the globe, the Great Barrier Reef is comprised of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands; it stretches more than 1,400 miles long the Coral Sea off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Within its 133,000 square miles, the array of life is almost hard to fathom. Amongst the tangle of colorful reefs, more than 600 types of coral reside along with more than 100 species of jellyfish, 1,625 types of fish, 133 varieties of sharks and rays, and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins. That’s a lot of sea creatures! It is one of the most complex ecosystems around; it’s diversity is only matched by its physical beauty. Plus: heart-shaped reefs (swoon!).

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Fairy Pools

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Off the west coast of Scotland travelers can find the Isle of Skye, an island dominated by the dramatically dark and jagged Cullins mountain range, which provides for an abundance of geologic nooks and crannies. At the foot of the mountains between the Glen Brittle Forest and the Glen Brittle Beach are the magical Fairy Pools that lure visitors from across the globe. As the River Brittle dances and shimmies to the sea, it creates waterfalls, streamlets, stepping stones and pools of crystal blue water surrounded by ferns, heather and lichen. So lovely is the array that, apparently, the fairies have made the pools their swimming spots of choice. And speaking of swimming, you are allowed; but brace yourself for a wee bit of shock. Local swimmers have described the pools as within the usual Scottish temperature range: "cold, bastard cold or freezing."

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Yosemite

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"I have seen persons of emotional temperament stand with tearful eyes, spellbound and dumb with awe, as they got their first view of the Valley from Inspiration Point (pictured), overwhelmed in the sudden presence of the unspeakable, stupendous grandeur," said Galen Clark, the first European American to "discover" Yosemite in eastern California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. And we can thank Clark for pushing legislation that led to the Yosemite Land Grant signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. It was the first time the federal government set aside land for preservation — it is generally recognized as the birth of the national parks idea. But beyond the historic significance, Yosemite is indeed a place of unspeakable, stupendous grandeur. Maybe best known for its waterfalls, the park also plays home to hypnotic valleys, ancient giant trees, incredible rock formations, meadows worthy of odes and sonnets, and 750 miles worth of trails from which to explore it all.

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Galapagos Islands

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Anywhere you land in the Galapagos archipelago will be fascinating; the islands and their aquatic environs — made famous by Charles Darwin — form a national park and a marine reserve, all within the Ecuadorian province of which they are a part. Of the 18 main islands, San Cristobal Island (pictured here) is the easternmost, and the oldest as well. It was formed by the fusion of several volcanoes and it is where Darwin first set foot on the islands. While it is the most populated of all the islands (and serves as a gateway for exploring the archipelago) it also hosts frigate birds, marine iguanas, Galapagos tortoises, blue footed boobies, Galapagos sea lions, swallow-tailed seagulls, dolphins and other must-see wildlife. But take your pick of any of the islands that comprise this special spot and you will easily find yourself in one of the prettiest and most interesting places in the world.

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Lavender fields of France

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For this one we're also considering the olfactory component, because fields of vibrant flowers in Provence, France are one thing; but add waves of heady lavender fragrance to the setting and it's a slam-dunk in the beautiful places department. We can thank the Romans for bringing lavender to France, which they did more than 2,000 years ago. The hillsides and plateaus provided the perfect place for wild lavender to flourish and throughout the Middle Ages the local Provencal inhabitants collected the flowers. By the end of the 19th century, increased attention was paid to maintaining and cultivating the lavender, resulting in its thriving position in the economy, culture and fields of the region today. Take a deep breath.

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Angkor Wat

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Nestled in the jungles of Cambodia’s northern province of Siem Reap, Angkor Wat comprises 155 square miles of what UNESCO calls one of the most important archaeological sites of Southeast Asia. The site was the capital of the Khmer Kingdom, and with its beautifully ornamented temples, hydraulic structures and urban planning, it represents an impressive range of Khmer art from the 9th to 14th centuries. But beyond the beauty of the monuments in general, one of the most striking sights to behold is the way in which the jungle is slowly reclaiming the temple of Ta Prohm. While the other monuments have been protected from the clutches of arboreal exuberance, archeologists have left Ta Prohm to fend for itself. As a result, visitors are graced with the opportunity to see the incredible power of nature. In the contest between architecture and trees, the trees are winning.

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Big Island

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While most people associate Hawaii with the "perfect beaches and palm trees" brand of beauty, we're taking another tack here; we're adding Big Island to the list for its "otherworldly planet turning itself inside out" appeal. Pristine Pacific paradises are one thing, but the opportunity to see active volcanoes oozing and spewing lava is a humbling sight. Between 1983 and 2002, lava flows added 543 acres of land mass to the island; how incredible to be able to witness geology in action. (And if you get tired of watching volcanoes, you can always head back to the perfect beaches and palm trees.)

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Antarctica, Southern Ocean

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The stark frigid atmosphere of the southern tip of the globe may not be all that hospitable, but its beauty is sublime. Antarctica holds the title as the coldest, windiest and driest continent, with nearly 98 percent of it covered in very deep ice. This all conspires to create stunning landscapes of pure white snow mingling with blue ice in structures of architectural magnificence. Striking as it is though, the land is so forbidding that the sea supports most of the continent’s wildlife, which is relatively meager in diversity. There are a number of flying bird species, as well as eight species of penguins, seven species of pennipeds and around 10 species of cetaceans. However, you may be surprised to learn that there are over 100 species of moss, 400 species of lichen-forming fungi and over 1,000 species of free-living fungi. Heroic life forms, to be sure!

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Victoria Falls

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Although 19th century explorer David Livingstone named the magnificent waterfall which separates Zambia and Zimbabwe in honor of Queen Victoria, the indigenous (and much more poetic) name — Mosi-oa-Tunya, which means "the smoke that thunders" — is commonly used and is thankfully recognized by the World Heritage List. While this chronically rainbow-creating waterfall is neither the highest nor the widest in the world, it is still considered the world’s largest sheet of falling water based on height (354 feet) and width (5,604 feet) combined. It is an exquisite vision, the product of the full width of the Zambezi River — 1.25 miles wide here — flowing along a basalt plateau, only to suddenly plummet in a single drop into the deep chasm that divides the countries. This wonderful waterfall is considered by many to be the most awe-inspiring of all.

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Tunnel of Love

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Ukraine's Tunnel of Love located near the town of Klevin may not be the most dramatic spot on our list, but for the tree-loving romantic, it may steal the show. Fortunately, someone decided that train tracks and forests need not be mutually exclusive, and thus, a towering tunnel through the trees has been maintained to allow travel of a train that makes its way through the fairy tale passage three times a day. The rest of the time, this arboreal archway — which is nearly 2 miles long — hosts strolling lovers and is said to seal promises made there if their love is true.

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Taktsang Palphug Monastery

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Also known as the Tiger's Nest, the Taktsang Palphug Monastery can be found near the city of Paro in Bhutan, the small eastern Himalayan country nestled between India and China. The monastery, which is perched on a cliff at an elevation of over 10,000 feet, was built in 1692 at the site of the cave where a guru by the name of Padmasambhava meditated (as the story goes) for three years, three months, three weeks and three hours back in the 8th century. This dream home for hermits remains a great example of Bhutanese architecture, an exquisite jewel tucked into the rugged beauty of its surroundings.

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Mount Fuji

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While many of the world's most notable mountains are famed for their imposing drama, Japan's Mount Fuji is a departure from the norm. It doesn't brood; it's serene and contemplative — which isn't to say that it doesn't have some personality. At 12,388 feet it is Japan's highest mountain; and although it hasn't erupted since 1707, it is still considered an active volcano. Yet it somehow manages to exude a sense of calm. And if ever a mountain were to be a muse, Mount Fuji would be it. For centuries its form has been a recurring theme in paintings, literature, gardens and other crafts. As UNESCO describes it, the mountain's perfect, snow-capped conical form has "inspired artists ... to produce images that transcended cultures, allowed the mountain to be known around the world, and had a profound influence on the development of Western art." It remains a potent and sacred symbol of Japan.

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The night sky

Photo: Scott Cresswell/flickr

This is the most democratic of destinations, one that everyone can visit as Earth spins us around offering a perfect 360-degree view. All you need to do to enjoy the splendors of the night sky is to find some darkness and tilt back your head. The sights are many, from stars and galaxies to satellites and planets. Gazing at the moon all night might be enough, but add in eclipses, meteor showers, star clusters, nebulae and constellations ... and all without leaving the comfort of a lounge chair, you have perhaps the single most beautiful place in the world right in front of you: the entire universe!