The Great Pyramids, the Eiffel Tower, and the Great Wall of China are just a few testaments to human ingenuity throughout the ages. As building technology has advanced, so have engineers been able to create ever more impressive structures. Buildings grow taller, bridges stretch longer, and tunnels dig deeper. Indeed, some of the newest marvels seem to defy the laws of physics and nature. Learn about 20 incredible engineering feats that might merit a visit on your next vacation.
National Stadium (Beijing, China)
Beijing’s National Stadium (nicknamed “The Bird's Nest”) was built to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. Designed by Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the massive building has a circular shape to symbolize heaven, but many say its random geometric angles also resemble Chinese-style “crazed pottery.” Builders used 14,700 precast concrete slabs to support the seating for the stadium. In addition, the entire structure is supported by 24 columns weighing approximately 1,000 tons each. The National Stadium’s layout ensures that all 91,000 spectators can enjoy an optimal view of whatever event they are watching, from concerts to soccer championships.
Burj Khalifa (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
The United Arab Emirates is the site of several incredible engineering feats, and the Burj Khalifa rises above them all — literally. The tallest building in the world, it towers 2,716 feet and 162 breathtaking stories over the Dubai skyline. Construction on the Burj Khalifa was completed in 2010 at a cost of $1.2 billion USD. Visitors can take one of the world’s longest elevator rides to the world’s highest outdoor observation deck (1,820 feet above ground) where they can enjoy spectacular views of Dubai. And on the way down, they can stop for a dip at the 39th-floor swimming pool.
Grand Canyon Skywalk (Arizona)
The Grand Canyon may be one of the world’s most recognizable natural wonders, but it is also the site of a human-made engineering feat. The Grand Canyon Skywalk is a 10-foot-wide, horseshoe-shaped walkway with a steel frame and glass floor that extends about 70 feet over the canyon’s Western Rim. It offers visitors jaw-dropping views down to the floor of the Grand Canyon, some 4,000 feet below. The Skywalk is located on the land of the Hualapai Nation and has vastly increased tourism (and income) to the Western Rim.
Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge (Jiangsu, China)
China’s Danyang-Kunshan Grand Bridge runs an impressive 102.5 miles between Shanghai and Nanjing, making it the longest bridge in the world. Part of the Beijing-Shanghai high-speed railway, the bridge runs alongside the Yangtze River, crossing wetlands and rice fields. Despite having to navigate a number of challenging terrains, the bridge was completed within four years, at a cost of $8.5 billion USD. The Danyang-Kunshan Bridge can withstand earthquakes, typhoons, and even a direct hit from a 300,000-ton naval ship.
Hoover Dam (Arizona and Nevada)
When it was built at the height of the Great Depression, the Hoover Dam was the largest concrete structure in the world. Although it has since been surpassed by larger dams, the construction of the Hoover Dam marked the beginning of the mega-dam era. It took an army of more than 21,000 workers to complete the dam on the Arizona-Nevada border, but it was finished two years ahead of schedule. The project, which diverted the Colorado River through four tunnels, now produces enough hydroelectricity to power more than 1.5 million homes. Las Vegas and Phoenix both owe much of their growth to the Hoover Dam.
Three Gorges Dam (Yichang, China)
Giving Hoover Dam a run for its money is the Three Gorges Dam in China’s Hubei Province. When completed in 2006, the Three Gorges Dam was the largest dam in the world, measuring more than a mile in length and 607 feet above ground at its highest point. It also remains the world’s largest hydroelectric facility, with the capacity to generate 100 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. The reservoir created by the dam is so large that ocean freighters can carry cargo inland from Shanghai. The dam took almost 100 years from initial conception to completion but is now an incredible feat of engineering.
Channel Tunnel (France and United Kingdom)
With the completion of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, Britain and France were connected for the first time since the last Ice Age. The idea for the Chunnel, as it is affectionately known, was first proposed in the early 19th century, but it would take nearly 200 years for the dream to become reality. The tunnel consists of three separate but connected tunnels. They extend a total of 31 miles, including a 23-mile stretch under the English Channel. Thanks to the Channel Tunnel and a high-speed train, people can now travel between central London and Paris in a little over two hours.
The Big Dig (Boston, Massachusetts)
Traffic congestion in Boston was a huge — and worsening — problem by the late 20th century. Main arteries were congested for up to 10 hours a day, and the road accident rate was four times the national average. A project known as the Big Dig was proposed as a solution. Completed in 2007, it involved constructing a network of tunnels through much of the downtown area. The total cost was $14.6 billion, making it the largest and most expensive highway project in U.S. history. In addition to reducing traffic congestion, the Big Dig also reduced carbon monoxide levels in central Boston and allowed for the construction of more than 45 new parks above the tunnel.
Millau Viaduct (France)
Many consider the Millau Viaduct, the brainchild of English architect Norman Foster, to be a true work of art. One of the world’s tallest bridges, reaching 1,125 feet high, it is located in the Massif-Central region in southern France. The steel bridge traverses the River Tarn valley and helps to alleviate heavy tourist traffic between France and neighboring Spain. When crossing the bridge, it is not unusual to look out of one’s car window at the clouds below. The Millau Viaduct is also the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge, extending 8,071 feet.
Golden Gate Bridge (San Francisco, California)
Surprisingly, the design of the now-beloved Golden Gate Bridge was not that popular with the public when it was first proposed. Fortunately, the plans of Joseph Strauss and Irving Morrow went ahead, and work on the bridge was completed in 1937. Now, people take more than 112,000 trips across the Golden Gate each day. Named for the strait it crosses, the bridge is made of enough cable to circle the earth three times. Thanks to its design, which allows it to bend as needed, it can withstand earthquakes, a vital feature given its location. The striking paint job, known as “international orange,” was originally intended to be a primer, but the color proved so popular, so it remained the permanent color.
Venice Tide Barrier (Venice, Italy)
Flooding has long been a problem in the Italian city of Venice. In recent decades, the problem has worsened, and the rising waters have threatened to destroy centuries of history. Engineers hope that the solution lies in MOSE, the Italian acronym for the Venice Tide Barrier. The concrete island (which some say resembles a James Bond villain’s lair) and huge yellow floodgates faced several decades of funding and construction issues, before finally opening in 2002. It proved its worth in 2020, when extreme high tides were held at bay. Since then, the barriers have been closed more than 30 times, helping to prevent disaster.
Great Man-Made River (Libya)
Several major engineering feats of the last century have involved supplying freshwater to desert regions. The Libyan government refers to its Great Man-Made River as “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” and they have reason to be proud. The “river” is actually one of the world’s largest irrigation projects — work began in 1983 and is still ongoing. The project consists of a huge network of 1,752 miles of pipelines and 1,300 wells to pump water from deep beneath the Sahara Desert to cities along the coast of Libya. In addition to providing drinking water, it has made agriculture possible in vast areas of previously arid land.
Bailong Elevator (Zhangjiajie, China)
The Bailong Elevator makes enjoying the spectacular scenery of China’s Zhangjiajie National Forest Park much easier. What was once an arduous hike to the top of the mountains to see impressive gorges and waterfalls has been replaced by the world’s highest outdoor elevator. However, a ride in one of the double-story glass-and-steel cars is not for the faint-hearted, as it ascends 1,082 feet in about 90 seconds. Still, thousands of visitors each day take the Bailong Elevator (also nicknamed the Hundred Dragon Elevator) to witness the region’s natural wonders. The construction was controversial, given that the area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but proponents argued that it would help to prevent further erosion of delicate mountain trails.
Itaipu Dam (Brazil and Paraguay)
Containing enough concrete to build five Hoover Dams, the Itaipu Dam stands at the border of Brazil and Paraguay. The project took a decade to complete and required moving 50 million tons of rock to shift the course of the Paraná River. It is one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world. The dam contains 20 generators that can produce 14 gigawatts — enough to provide electricity to about three-quarters of all Paraguayan households, plus parts of southern and central Brazil.
Delta Works (The Netherlands)
The Netherlands is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world. As such, flooding is a constant threat. The Delta Works are a system of dams and barriers built to protect much of the country from the waters of the North Sea. The Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management began work on the project in 1954, one year after catastrophic flooding killed nearly 2,000 people. The Delta Works were completed in 1997, although an extra storm surge barrier has since been added. As well as flood protection, the Delta Works help to improve overall water quality in the Netherlands and increase the supply of fresh water to nearby agricultural land.
Panama Canal (Panama)
Had it not been for some serious lobbying by French investors, we might have been calling this feat of engineering the Nicaragua Canal, as that is where it was nearly built. For centuries, traders and explorers had pondered a way to cross the Isthmus of Panama, thus saving the costly journey around South America. The dream eventually became reality with the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, which revolutionized international trade. A trip through the 48-mile passage takes roughly 10 hours, and up to 15,000 ships travel through the Panama Canal each year. Between 2007 and 2016, the canal was widened to allow for larger container ships.
Palm Islands (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
In addition to having the world’s tallest skyscraper, Dubai has made headlines with a giant human-made archipelago shaped like a palm tree. There are plans for three islands, but, as of 2022, only Palm Jumeirah is complete. The island — which took six years and $12 billion to build — is also the only island which will be open to the public. It features apartments, hotels, and resorts, all linked to the mainland by a monorail. To create each island, more than 53 million pounds of sand have been dredged from the Persian Gulf.
Kansai Airport (Osaka, Japan)
As Japan’s second-largest city grew, its previous airport could not handle the daily influx of flights and had no room to expand. A new airport was built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, connected to the mainland via a six-mile bridge. Kansai International Airport opened in 1994 and can receive up to 100,000 passengers a day. While the design could withstand earthquakes and tsunamis, it could not handle another unforeseen problem: The island began to sink into the muddy layer at the floor of the sea. A complex series of sensors and hydraulic jacks have resolved the issue (for now), but the solution made the airport one of the most expensive civil engineering works in history, costing upwards of $20 billion USD.
Akashi Kaikyo Bridge (Japan)
When the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge opened in 1998, it was the world’s longest suspension bridge, though it has since lost that title to Turkey’s 1915 Çanakkale Bridge. Nevertheless, it remains an impressive structure. The bridge connects the Japanese city of Kobe and the island of Awaji. The bridge’s central span is 6,532 feet, and its total length measures 12,831 feet. The bridge faced several engineering challenges: It needed to be tall enough to not block sea traffic, while also being strong enough to deal with the region’s extreme weather. Thanks to chief designer Satoshi Kashima’s ingenuity and some steel girders, an estimated 23,000 cars now cross the bridge each day.
New Valley Project, Egypt
The final engineering project on this list has been hailed as both a modern marvel and a mega-failure. Egypt’s New Valley Project, also called the Toshka Project, is designed to reclaim half a million acres of desert via irrigation channels pumping water from Lake Nasser. The land will then be used for agriculture, creating millions of new jobs and allowing for the creation of new towns, a much-needed prospect for the nation’s rapidly expanding population. Construction began in 1997; however, various technical problems and skyrocketing costs mean that the project is currently only partially complete, and its future is uncertain.