35 architectural masterpieces everyone should see in their lifetime

  • The world may have only a handful of designated wonders, but it’s full of architectural marvels that are worthy of anyone’s bucket list.
  • Some of these must-see sites date back centuries, while others have been around for just a few years.
  • We’ve rounded up the architectural masterpieces that everyone should see in their lifetime.

Buildings may be some of the most impressive works of art we have.

After untold sums of money are sunk into their construction, we can walk through the finished products and even live inside them. Older structures offer a window into the past, while newer buildings provide a sense of where we’re headed.

Here are some of the most ambitious projects from architects around the world, whose works span thousands of years.

The oldest building we know of, built around 9500 B.C., is Gobekli Tepe in present-day Turkey. Archaeologists aren’t certain of its function, but it was probably religious.

Teomancimit / Wikimedia Commons

Since then, humans have built some pretty rad structures. In the past year, we’ve seen futuristic openings like the Fulton Center in New York …

Spencer Platt / Getty

… and the Penleigh and Essendon Grammar School in Melbourne, Australia.

World Architecture Festival

The Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, is a stunning structure surrounded by a massive pool. It is the center of the Sikh faith, and it’s lustrous at night.

The Las Lajas Sanctuary in Narino, Colombia, is equally mystifying. It looks as if it defies gravity.

The modernist architect Antoni Gaudí didn’t live to see his Sagrada Família completed — in fact, it’s still being built. The exterior looks like something out of Narnia …


… and the interior is even more surreal.


In nearby Portugal, the Belém Tower has dungeons that once served as prisons. It’s one of the best examples of Portuguese gothic architecture.

The Flatiron Building in New York was one of the first skyscrapers …

Mario Tama / Getty

… as was the moody Woolworth Building, which was the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930.

Ludovic Bertron / Flickr

In Onomichi, Japan, couples frequently turn to the Ribbon Chapel for their wedding ceremonies — and understandably so.

Also surrounded by green is the Light of Life Church in Seoul, South Korea.

World Architecture Festival

On the inside, the church looks completely different.

World Architecture Festival

Chicago’s Marina City apartments are, to say the least, uniquely designed. Built in 1964, they were one of the first mixed-use buildings and the first to be built with a crane in the US.

cdelmoral / flickr

The Taipei 101 skyscraper in Taiwan is hard to miss. It rises more than 1,600 feet in the air, making it one of the world’s tallest buildings.

Inside, a golden damper helps stabilise the structure and can be viewed from multiple floors.

Wikipedia Commons

Few, if any, skyscrapers compare to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which has held the title of world’s tallest building since 2009.

Not all impressive buildings need to scrape the sky. The Temppeliaukio Church in Helsinki is built into a rock underground and still gets lots of sunlight.

Jorge Láscar / Flickr

The Church of St. George in Lalibela, Ethiopia, was carved out of a single stone in the 12th century.


The Chand Baori in India takes carving to an unworldly level with its 3,500 steps. The structure was built over the course of more than 10 centuries, with the oldest tiers dating back to the eighth century.

Some of the most beautiful buildings integrate into their landscape. The Turninn building in Reykjavik reflects the wild beauty of Iceland.

Courtesy of Architizer.

The modernist master Ludwig Mies van der Rohe used minimal lines and open space to create buildings that seemingly float in the air around them, like the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, built in the 1960s.

seier+seier / flickr

Berlin is also home to the mecca of electronic music: the brutalist masterstroke Berghain.

Michael Mayer / flickr

Integration into the surrounding environment is one of the oldest ideals of architecture. The old Japanese capital Kyoto has a few stunning examples, like the breathtaking Golden Pavilion …

Freedom II Andres / Flickr

… and the more subtle Silver Pavilion.

Reginald Pentinio / flickr

The Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali is the largest mud-built structure in the world — it can hold 3,000 worshippers.


The whimsical Pompidou Center in Paris is a postmodern masterwork: It gleefully displays the guts of the building.


Built around 1200, the Chartres Cathedral in Northern France is a primary example of Gothic architecture. Notice the ornate “portals” that serve as entrances to the building …


… and the stunning organ inside.


Perhaps the only house of worship that can match its grandeur is the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, built in the early 1600s at the height of the Ottoman Empire.


Its interior features more than 20,000 handmade tiles.


Neuschwanstein Castle in the German state of Bavaria reportedly inspired Walt Disney to create Sleeping Beauty’s castle. It’s easy to see why.

Sean Gallup / Getty

Trinity College in Dublin is a gem of a university.

Chris Jackson / Getty

It has the prototypical library, the most stunning section of which is called, fittingly enough, the Long Room.

Tony Webster / Flickr

The Imperial Palace — aka the Forbidden City — is the ultimate form of high Chinese architecture. It was the seat of government from 1420 to 1912.

Lintao Zhang / Getty

Today, some of the most experimental modern architecture in the world is being built in Beijing, like the CCTV Tower, locally known as “The Trousers.”


With Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Zaha Hadid did what she could only ever do — turn the hard, clean lines of modernism into something organic.

Perched high in the Peruvian Andes, Machu Picchu is the best example we have of Incan architecture. Archaeologists say it was built around 1450.

Wikimedia Commons

Opened in 2007, the Parque Biblioteca España in Medellín, Colombia, was designed by the Colombian architect Giancarlo Mazzanti. The three buildings are meant to look like stones.

Dr EG / Flickr

Sydney’s Opera House is the rightful ambassador of Australian architecture.

Designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon and opened in 1973, it has become a literal canvas of public expression.

The al-Qarawiyyin university, library, and mosque were founded by Fatima El-Fihriya in 859 — around the time early forms of algebra were being invented.

The center reopened to the public in June 2016 after more than 1,000 years of dormancy.

Wikimedia Commons

The Alhambra palace in Spain dates back to the same time period. Despite its clean facade, the Alhambra is a playground of architectural marvels.


The site’s honeycomb ceilings, calligraphed chambers, and tile mosaics make it a top item for anyone’s bucket list.


Drake Baer and Chris Weller contributed to an earlier version of this article.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.