You’ve seen the pictures: The Eiffel Tower with sky ablaze in brilliant color. The Taj Mahal with no tourists. Lakes with perfectly mirrored mountain reflections.
Unfortunately, the photos often have been doctored. Many places can’t live up to the expectations set by photography that has been filled, brushed, blurred, and balanced to a flawless finish. It can leave travelers feeling disappointed when they see famous sites in real life.
But the splendor of some places can’t be fully captured in a photo — edited or not. Here, CNBC Travel contributors identify the destinations that vastly exceeded their expectations.
Iceland is one of the few countries that looks better in real life than in postcards. Its beauty is unearthly. A walk along any of its coastlines is so picturesque, you expect a soundtrack to start at any moment.
Morgan Awyong on Lake Baikal in the Russian region of Siberia.
Courtesy of Morgan Awyong
Siberia’s Lake Baikal is also jaw-droppingly stunning. The area is so isolated that it’s nearly impossible to think it could ever be touristy. As you stand upon the lake’s marbled ice, time seems to slow — even stop.
—Morgan Awyong, Singapore
Artists have attempted to capture the Parisian light on canvas for centuries. The Impressionists came closest, but still, no painter has quite succeeded.
The most iconic photos of Paris are in black and white, which simply doesn’t do the city’s rich, creamy colors justice.
—Christian Barker, Australia
One road lies between the small Patagonian port city of Punta Arenas and the town of Puerto Natales. It’s the path to the Torres del Paine National Park — a place of indescribable beauty and grandeur.
The “torres,” or towers in English, are three granite peaks that are surrounded by snow-capped mountains and crystalline lakes and glaciers. There are few places like it on the planet.
Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park.
Courtesy of Kevin Cox
The park occupies just a tiny part of Patagonia, most of which is accessible only to trekkers, climbers and adventurers. It spans Chile and Argentina in the area of South America known as the Southern Cone, which stretches to the literal end of the road, at the bottom of the continent.
It is beautiful beyond compare. The very sight of it made me want to conquer it in ways I hadn’t anticipated — maybe I could climb the mountains, paddle the fiords or traverse the glacier crevasses.
Then a frigid wind swept inside my open jacket, and I lunged back into the sanctuary of my car.
—Kevin Cox, United States
For a country the same size as Massachusetts, I was blown away by the diversity and majesty of the landscapes in Slovenia. A mix of Balkan, Mediterranean and Alpine vistas and cuisines make it a truly memorable escape.
Slovenia’s Lake Bled.
Courtesy of Chris Dwyer
The rolling, vineyard-covered hills on the Italian border, the elegant and eco-friendly capital city of Ljubljana, the perfect tranquility of Lake Bled, the snowy valleys in Triglav National Park and the warm waters along the Adriatic coastline — the nation definitely punches way above its weight.
—Chris Dwyer, United Kingdom
With Sedona, no words or pictures do it justice. When I first saw photos of it, I wanted to make my way there. When I finally did in 2019, it was surreal, the beauty other-worldly.
Sheryl Nance-Nash near the Arizona desert town of Sedona.
Courtesy of Sheryl Nance-Nash
A hike through Red Rock State Park, with its babbling creeks and woods, soothed my soul. The massive red rocks are mysterious and majestic.
Better still is a visit to one of the area’s vortexes, believed by some to be energy fields. As I got out of the car and approached the mountains, I felt a vibration. Power and peace totally enveloped me the higher I climbed.
—Sheryl Nance-Nash, United States
In my case, the photos I take never adequately capture anything! But that’s especially the case with the east coast of Japan’s Tohoku region, the area devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.
I’ve been several times over the last few years, visiting the markets in the city of Hachinohe, taking boat trips in Yamada Bay and walking parts of the Michinoku Coastal Trail. It’s got a lovely calmness coupled with rugged beauty. A photo just can’t convey the feeling of being there.
—Ross Goss, United Kingdom
The island of Zamami is the second largest of Japan’s Kerama Islands.
Courtesy of Duncan Forgan
In Thailand, where I’m based, we are spoiled for paradise-like islands. But a short break to the Japanese island of Zamami — a short ferry ride from Naha, the capital of Okinawa — more than exceeded my expectations.
Days spent hiking the island’s quiet mountain paths were followed by evenings scoffing seafood at excellent izakayas. And the beaches? The crystalline waters of Zamami’s Furuzamami and Ama beaches are as spectacular as any I’ve ever seen.
—Duncan Forgan, United Kingdom
I’ve always had a soft spot for Africa. A canoeing safari down the Zambezi river reignited that love.
On the numerous river islands, lush reeds swayed in the balmy breeze. The flapping of a white heron’s wings splashing water against the canoe, and the all-consuming symphony of hippos were the only sounds heard for hours. No cell phones, car horns or human bickering disturbed the experience — just silence, occasionally interrupted by the sounds of nature.
The area around the Zambezi River is renowned for its large hippo, crocodile and elephant populations, said Petra Loho.
Courtesy of Petra Loho
When paddling down the gentle water, the sunlight reflections on the blue ripples of the Zambezi River look like dancing diamonds. At sunset, the river takes on a soft golden hue, which changes to bright orange before deepening to rich purple.
—Petra Loho, Austria