Think you know all there is to know about the world's most visited sites? One lesson that savvy travelers learn is that even the most-well known landmarks — the ones that clutter our Instagram feeds and continue to attract millions of tourists each year — can still surprise you. If you're curious about what purpose Times Square originally served, what other famous landmark Gustave Eiffel helped design, or what color the pyramids of Giza once were, read on to discover 20 things you never knew about 20 of the top tourist attractions on the planet.
New York City's Times Square Wasn't Always Called That
For the most visited tourist site in the U.S., New York City's Times Square had humble beginnings. Once an area surrounded by countryside and used for farming by American Revolution-era statesman John Morin Scott, the area now known as Times Square fell into the hands of real estate mogul John Jacob Astor in the 1800s. By the second half of the 19th century, it had become the center of the city’s horse carriage manufacturing industry and home to William H. Vanderbilt’s American Horse Exchange. City authorities named it Long Acre Square, which was a reference to London’s historic carriage and coach-making district. This name remained until 1904, when The New York Times moved its headquarters to a lavish new skyscraper called One Times Square. Just eight years later, the newspaper relocated again to a nearby building, but the name Times Square stuck.
The Taj Mahal's Four Minarets Look Perpendicular — But They're Not
In the 1600s, Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built India's Taj Mahal to honor the memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Four 130-foot-tall minarets surround the Taj Mahal’s central tomb, where Shah Jahan and his wife are both buried, and showcase the emperor’s passion for symmetrical design. At first glance, they seem to stand perfectly perpendicular to the ground; however, on closer inspection you’ll notice they are tilted slightly outwards. This wasn’t a design fault, but rather a way to protect the tomb in the event of a natural disaster — should the minarets fall, then the material would land away from the building. The four towers were built to be used by a muezzin, the person who calls daily prayers, and each features two balconies and an elevated dome-shaped pavilion, called a chattri.
The Eiffel Tower Grows Six Inches Each Summer
When the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, its 1,063-foot height made it the tallest building in the world at the time. But did you know the iconic Paris monument grows ever so slightly taller each summer? Because the tower is made of iron, it is sensitive to temperature variation. In warm summer months, the tower grows approximately six inches in a natural phenomenon called thermal expansion. (Or you could say it shrinks six inches every winter.) Because of the thermal expansion, the Eiffel Tower also shifts slightly away from the sun — rotating throughout the course of the day depending on which side is facing the sun.
Gustave Eiffel Helped Designed the Statue of Liberty
Even prior to the building of his namesake tower in Paris, Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel was already one of France's leading structural engineers in the 19th century. Thus, he was a natural choice for New York Harbor's Statue of Liberty, especially after the statue's original designer unexpectedly died. Thanks to Eiffel, the statue's interior boasts a more contemporary design. Eiffel came up with the idea of a central spine in the statue, which functions as a connector for the various asymmetrical metal girders that give the statue its shape. This innovative technique not only provides the framework for the statue but also creates a kind of suspension system that allows the monument to withstand winds and other harsh weather conditions.
The Great Wall of China Isn't a Continuous Structure
With parts that date back to the seventh century BCE, the Great Wall of China is considered the world's longest wall, extending a total 13,170 miles. Although our mental image of the Great Wall is probably one of a continuous structure winding its way across China, the reality is different. The Great Wall is actually composed of various stretches of wall and watchtowers — often with gaps between. There are even areas where the wall is non-existent. The original builders also made use of natural barriers to keep invaders out. As much as a quarter of the wall's length relied on features like rivers and mountainous ridges to keep the marauding hordes back.
The Great Barrier Reef Is So Large You Can See It From Space
Australia's Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef ecosystem on the planet, covering an area of approximately 135,000 square miles. It’s not just the immense scale of the reef that makes the Great Barrier Reef visible to astronauts in space. The contrast between the dark blue of the deeper parts of the ocean and the light turquoise of the lagoons on the other side of the reef makes it relatively straightforward to identify with the naked eye. But the pictures taken from space are valued for more than their aesthetic appeal. The MERIS sensor used on the Envisat satellite mission was a useful tool in mapping the extent of coral bleaching, the term given to stressed coral which has rid itself of algae.
Machu Picchu's Buildings Were Designed to Be Earthquake-Proof
The Inca people certainly knew how to build to accommodate their environment. That’s evident not only in Machu Picchu’s epic surroundings, but also in the foundation of the Lost City itself. Peru is located in a seismic zone, and the Incas were familiar with potential earthquakes. To protect against them, they made the buildings of the citadel seismic-resistant by using precisely fit stones held together by gravity alone. Nothing so thin as a credit card could be inserted in the cracks, allowing the mortar-free stones to “dance” during an earthquake, only to resettle back into place once it ends. Additionally, the Incas cornered structures with L-shaped blocks, built terrace buttresses into steep mountain slopes, rounded the corners in some buildings, and tilted the trapezoidal doors and windows inward. All of these small but ingenious details ensured that their structures were earthquake-ready.
The Golden Gate Bridge's Color Was Supposed to Be Temporary
San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge features a distinctive reddish-orange paint color — but it came about by accident. Architect Irving Morrow noticed that some of the steel that arrived for construction of the bridge was coated in a dark red primer, which inspired him to write a 29-page report advocating for a similar color to be used in the bridge’s final design. Although most bridges at the time were painted gray, silver, or black, he suggested using paint in a shade like orange vermillion or burnt sienna, as these luminous tones would emphasize the grand scale of the bridge and provide a contrast to the grey and blue color of the water beneath. Not everyone agreed, but in the end, Morrow won over his critics. The bridge was painted a shade unimaginatively called “International Orange,” and it’s been the same ever since.
There's a Secret Suite Inside Disney World's Cinderella Castle
Cinderella’s castle at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida holds a few secrets. For starters, the bricks used to build the tops of the tall towers are smaller than the bricks used for the lower part of the structure — an engineering trick used by the designers in many buildings here to make them appear even taller than they truly are. Perhaps even more surprising, there’s a hidden suite inside this castle that was originally designed to be an office for Walt Disney himself, but he passed away before the castle was completed. Cinderella’s castle isn’t the only one hiding a surprise: Sleeping Beauty’s resting place (at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.) boasts an actual working drawbridge. Reportedly, it has been used just twice, once for the opening ceremony in 1955 and again in the 1980s when Fantasyland opened.
Some of the Stones at Stonehenge Came From Nearly 200 Miles Away
Located in Wiltshire, England, Stonehenge — roughly 5,000 years old — is one of the world’s most enigmatic monuments. It consists of roughly 100 bluestones and sarsens positioned upright and arranged in a circle. While the larger sarsens (a type of sandstone boulder) were hewn from the Marlborough Downs, which is relatively close to the site, the smaller bluestones have been traced to the Preseli Hills in southwest Wales, over 180 miles away. It’s hard to believe that its Neolithic builders — who lacked sophisticated tools or engineering — floated and dragged many of these giant lumps of rock over such a great distance, which only adds to the mystery of the original purpose of the stone circle.
The Great Pyramid of Giza Was Once Fully Covered in White Limestone
The only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still standing, the Egyptian Pyramid of Giza was constructed around 2550 BCE. At 454 feet tall, it was the world’s tallest building at the time — a title it held until the 14th century. In contrast to the weathered sand-colored blocks you see today, the pyramids were once completely covered in polished limestone. This higher-quality stone was quarried at a place called Tura, which was about nine miles south of Giza. Its smooth, white surface would have gleamed in the sunshine, creating a dazzling effect. Today, most of the casing is gone except for a cap on the peak of the Pyramid of Khafre (Chephren), which has dulled over time.
Las Vegas Is the Brightest City on Earth
About 80% of the world’s population lives in a place lit up by artificial light at night. And according to NASA, nowhere do those lights shine brighter than in Las Vegas. A city that loves its neon signs and bright marquees, Las Vegas offers an around-the-clock dose of sensory overload — even New York City, “the city that never sleeps,” and Paris, “the city of lights” can’t match the over-the-top light show of Las Vegas when viewed from outer space. And in a city with so much artificial light, one manages to stand out: the Sky Beam atop the Luxor Hotel pyramid. It's powered by 39 ultra-bright xenon lamps (each 7,000 watts) and curved mirrors that collect their light and focus them into the world’s strongest beam of light. Not only can it be seen from space, but the Sky Beam provides enough illumination to read a book from 10 miles out in space.
The Colosseum Once Hosted Mock Naval Battles
Constructed over a decade in the first century CE, this monumental arena in Rome is the largest amphitheater ever built on Earth. While the Colosseum was famous for gladiatorial contests, animal hunts, and executions, it also served another surprising purpose: as a space to recreate famous military victories. The most elaborate of these recreations were mock naval battles, known as naumachiae. Prior to the construction of the hypogeum, the hidden substructure of the Colosseum that was used as a staging area, the arena's floor could be flooded to create a lake. Flat-bottomed replicas of typical Roman boats were brought in and hundreds of participants acted out battle scenes. Ancient historians, including Cassius Dio and Suetonius, recorded such events.
The Acropolis of Athens Was Originally Known as Cecropia
The Acropolis of Athens in Greece is one of the most significant sites of ancient Greek history still standing today. The word “acropolis” translates to high city, but in ancient times the site was instead known by the name Cecropia — after the city’s mythical first king, Cecrops. According to legend, Cecrops had the body of a human but a serpent's tail instead of legs, and was said to be the first of the gods to defy Zeus. He also helped the goddess Athena win the coveted title of the city's protector — so it’s only fitting that the impressive citadel was named after him. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is home to the remains of several famous temples, including the Parthenon, and receives more than 1 million visitors annually.
Cambodia's Angkor Wat Temple Is the World's Largest Religious Structure
Sprawling across a vast area of over 400 acres in northern Cambodia, the Angkor Wat temple complex is the world’s largest religious structure. Erected by the Khmer Empire in the 12th century, this awe-inspiring monument began as a Hindu temple and was later converted into a Buddhist place of worship. The temple design is an architectural portrayal of Mount Meru, which is the center of the Hindu universe. The five towers represent the five peaks of the mountain, and the surrounding moat and defensive wall symbolize the oceans and mountain ranges. How colossal is Angkor Wat? It's so large that many of its features are visible from space.
We Know of the "Lost" City of Petra, Jordan, Thanks to a Swiss Explorer
Once a thriving cultural and economic hub, Petra (believed to have been established around 312 BCE) was later abandoned and left to ruin. For centuries, all except the local Bedouin people forgot Petra — its tombs and temples carved directly into the sandstone cliffs were abandoned and buildings fell into ruin, hidden by the surrounding canyons. But in 1812, a Swiss explorer named Johann Ludwig Burckhardt set off on an expedition in search of the source of the River Niger. On his way to Cairo, he heard rumors from locals of secret ruins of a grand city in the desert, so he hired guides and disguised himself as an Arab to gain access to what was considered a sacred place, forbidden to Westerners. They brought him to Petra. However, wary of pushing his luck too far, he didn’t stop to excavate. Five years later, Burckhardt died of dysentery in the Egyptian capital, but his “discovery” paved the way for future exploration of the site.
The Grand Canyon Isn't the Deepest Canyon in the U.S.
Given its name, it’s a common misconception that the Grand Canyon is the deepest canyon in the United States. The Grand Canyon is 4,000 feet deep with the deepest point reaching 6,000 feet. This gives it an average depth of about a mile. Hells Canyon, running along the border of Oregon and Idaho, exceeds the depth of the Grand Canyon by plunging nearly 8,000 feet in some places. While not the country's deepest canyon, the Arizona landmark has other impressive stats: It extends for 277 miles and measures 18 miles wide. Totaling 1,904 square miles, this canyon is roughly the size of Rhode Island. And the national park is visited by around 6 million people each year.
The "Shells" of the Sydney Opera House Combine to Form a Perfect Sphere
With its distinctive white roof resembling sails or shells and a picturesque location on Sydney Harbor, the Sydney Opera House is one of the most famous structures in the world. It was designed by architect Jørn Utzon, whose team experimented with various echoes of curves before landing on the opera house’s final geometrical shape. At first, Utzon had simply bent a ruler to form the curved shapes that he wanted; however, the need for structural integrity and the lack of reusable formwork resulted in a design that wouldn’t be practical. At last, Utzon arrived at the “Spherical Solution.” He is said to have hit on his “eureka!” moment while peeling an orange, with each shell acquired from a single form: the plane of a sphere. This prompted Utzon to refocus the 14 separate roof pieces into a puzzle-piece set that, together, forms a perfect sphere.
Beijing's Forbidden City Is the World's Largest Imperial Palace
Occupying some 7.7 million square feet, the Forbidden City is the largest imperial palace on the planet. The most visited UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world, it features 980 individual buildings, which are home to almost 9,000 rooms. There are two distinct areas: The Inner Court served as the emperor’s residence, while the Outer Court was for ceremonial events. A 32-feet-high defensive wall protects the entire complex, around which is a 171-foot-wide moat. What's inside is even more impressive: The palace is home to a reputed 1.9 million artifacts — everything from calligraphy, ceramics, and paintings to gold and silverware, literary works, and religious icons.
70 Olympic Swimming Pools Worth of Water Flow Over Niagara Falls Each Minute
Located on the border of New York and Ontario, Niagara Falls is one of the most impressive waterfalls in the world. But it's not the tallest — that would be Angel Falls in Venezuela. However, one reason it's so famous is the sheer amount of water that the cascades produce. More than 6 million cubic feet of water go over the crest line every minute. To put that in perspective, there are 88,263 cubic feet of water in an Olympic swimming pool, which means about 70 Olympic swimming pools go crashing to the ground every minute at Niagara Falls.