9 Mythical Places You Can Visit in Real Life

Mount Olympus with clouds over the it

Lev Paraskevopoulos / Shutterstock

We all grew up hearing stories based on myths. Thanks to these tales — and the books, artwork, movies, and cartoons they inspired — most of us have developed images of these mythical places in our minds. But not all of these images have to stay locked in the realm of imagination. Many famous legends are set in or inspired by real places.

Yes, some of these fairy-tale destinations are far away. While it may not be practical or financially feasible, it's technically possible to reach these places and see how the real setting matches up with the scenery you've always imagined. At the very least, you can take the armchair approach and catch a virtual glimpse of them for yourself.

Here are nine places where myth and reality merge.

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The Ruins of Troy

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Troy served as a major setting in the works of Greek writer, Homer. In "The Iliad," he wrote extensively about the Trojan War, fought by mythical figures such as Achilles and Paris and influenced by Greek deities. The city appeared in other works of ancient Greek fiction, and historians long believed that it was an entirely fictional place. Though there is still some debate about the location and events that inspired Homer's epic tales, most agree that the ruins of Troy are in Anatolia in modern-day Turkey.

The ruins are in a place called Hisarlik (or Hissarlik). Archaeologists first started excavating Hisarlik in the 19th century. Though no one is completely certain that this is indeed Homeric Troy, the hypothesis is widely accepted and the area is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins of Troy have become a tourist attraction, but much of the area still looks like an archaeological site. This might be refreshing to some visitors, but there are signs of tourism including a replica of the Trojan Horse that is large enough that visitors can climb inside.

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Loch Ness

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The legend of Loch Ness dates back to 6th century sightings and stories of a monster in the lake near modern-day Inverness in the Scottish Highlands. Water beasts actually appeared often in Celtic and Pictish mythology, so the origin of this tale isn't surprising. Loch Ness has an average depth of more than 400 feet. The murky, deep water makes this place ripe for myth and mystery.

The Loch Ness myth resurfaced in the 1930s when grainy images of a "monster" reawakened the legend of the lake. Though the images and some inconclusive sonar images never produced any concrete evidence, the media (and perhaps local tourism stakeholders) embraced the story and created a legend that still draws people to Loch Ness more than eight decades later. Monster illustrations usually portray a dinosaur-like creature or a giant water serpent. While you probably won't see the Loch Ness monster during a trip to the Highlands, you can see the lake itself, which is surrounded by hills and features historic castles and an artificial island that dates back to the Stone Age.

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Hobbiton (Matamata, New Zealand)

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J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" series was set in the fictional world of Middle Earth. Tolkien was English, but the series of movies based on his books used filming locations in New Zealand. Subsequently, the "Lord of the Rings" franchise has become associated with the scenery of New Zealand. One of the most popular sites, Hobbiton is still standing in Matamata on the North Island.

Tourists can visit the site where the film was made and wander the created "village" as part of a tour. The same North Island province is home to Mount Ngauruhoe, which served as Mount Doom in the film. Sites exist throughout the country, and New Zealand has credited the film with increasing its tourism numbers.

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Mount Olympus

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Mount Olympus stands almost 10,000 feet above sea level and is one of the most prominent peaks (in terms of distance between ground level and the summit) in Europe. It lies on the modern-day border between Greece and Macedonia. According to Ancient Greek mythology, the 12 main gods lived on top of Olympus and many of the most important mythological events took place on the peaks.

Olympus is rather remote compared to other major Greek destinations, but it is accessible. Mountaineers can climb on the mountain, and people come to hike at lower elevations. Most of these tourist expeditions start at the town of Litochoro at the foot of Olympus. The mountain has dozen of different peaks. The highest and most atmospheric is Mytikas, which is often covered with mist and is associated with the king of all Greek gods, Zeus.

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Sherwood Forest

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Sherwood Forest is in the county of Nottinghamshire in England's East Midlands. Today, the forest is covered by a 1,000-acre nature reserve. The name is instantly recognizable, even to people who've never set foot in England, because of its association with Robin Hood. The legendary robber first appeared in poems in the 13th century. The legend lasted over the centuries thanks to oral tradition, early English theater and children's books. A series of movies, cartoons and television shows have carried the legend into modern times.

Sherwood Forest is now much smaller than it would have been in the Middle Ages, but the area experienced an increase in the number of visitors after the latest television series featuring Robin Hood gained popularity in England. There's an annual Robin Hood festival and some features that hearken back to the Middle Ages, but the forest also has natural attractions, including the 1,000-year-old Major Oak and other flora and fauna protected as part of National Nature Reserve and Special Area of Conservation.

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Shangri-la

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English novelist James Hilton described the supposedly fictional city of Shangri-la in his novel "Lost Horizon," which he published in the 1930s. Since the book's publication, people have offered various theories about the inspiration for the paradise. Hilton offered clues about the location, including the region and the presence of Tibetan culture. One of the most popular theories puts Shangri-la in China's Yunnan Province. Locals have embraced this hypothesis, and authorities actually renamed a city in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Shangri-la (Xianggelila in pinyin) in 2001.

Several other areas in China and Pakistan also claim they were the inspiration for Hilton's Shangri-la. The Yunnan version is 10,000 feet above sea level, but surrounding mountains protect it from harsh weather. Tibetan culture is very evident here, especially in places like the spectacular Ganden Sumtseling Monastery, while nature is showcased at Potatso National Park adjacent to the city.

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Tono, Japan

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Tono is a town in the Iwate Prefecture on northeastern Honshu, Japan, that earned the nickname "City of Folklore" because of its rural scenery, penchant for traditional culture, and a popular collection of folk tales by writer Kunio Yanagita. Tono's idyllic landscapes enhance the fairy tale-like atmosphere. Mountains surround the town, which sits in a valley with a lush floodplain.

The area is popular with tourists because of its scenery and its association with Yanagita's "Tono Monogatari" ("Tales of Tono"), a collection of classic folk tales set in the area. Some of the stories include amphibious imps called kappa who locals say inhabit pools and streams in the area, especially a small lake called Kappabuchi. Each February, Tono holds the Tono Folklore Festival, and folklore-related sites operate year-round.

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Tintagel Castle

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Tintagel Castle is in Cornwall, England. The area was occupied as early as the era of the Roman occupation of England. A castle from the Middle Ages is often associated with the legend of King Arthur, though in real history its most notable tenant was an Earl named Richard. A 12th century writer Geoffrey of Monmouth claimed that Arthur was conceived at Tintagel after Merlin helped his father, Uther, make a disguise so that he could have a tryst with the lord of the castle's wife (who became Arthur's mother).

The land surrounding the ruins of the coastal castle is currently owned by Prince Charles. The area is a popular tourist attraction because of its beautiful coastal location and also because other writers, including Alfred Lord Tennyson, have associated the castle with Arthurian legends. Excavations have unearthed portions of the castle ruins from what would have been Arthur's era, as well as older settlements dating back to Roman times.

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Giant's Causeway

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A prehistoric volcanic eruption created the strange rock formations that make up Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. Cooling volcanic rocks created hexagonal tubes that almost resemble paving stones in some areas. An Irish legend attributes the unique geographic feature to a giant named Finn (Fionn in Irish), a figure from ancient Gaelic mythology.

The legend says that Giant's Causeway is the remnant of a road that Finn built to reach Scotland, where he intended to confront a rival giant. Different versions of the narrative exist, with one saying that Finn's wife, also a giant, disguised herself as a baby when the Scottish giant used the road to come to Ireland. Seeing the size of the "baby," the interloper was fooled into thinking that if the child was the same size as an adult giant, then the father, Finn, would be too large for him to fight. He fled back to Scotland destroying the causeway so that Finn couldn't follow him.