I love the beautiful imagery of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter. But not every dazzling location—inside or outside—for fantasy movies has to be created with a green screen or a matte painting. There are stunning locations throughout the world that look like they belong in a different universe. Here are some of my favorites.
Palácio da Pena, Portugal
What courtly intrigues and romances could take place inside this gorgeous castle? Its history spans the centuries, starting as a hilltop monastery and eventually becoming this architectural marvel in 1854. As a result, it includes a range of styles: Neo-Gothic, Neo-Manueline, Neo-Islamic, and Neo-Renaissance. The color and the beauty are awe-inspiring.
Though they look like houses built by a race of subterranean creatures, the "fairy chimneys" of Cappadocia are formed entirely by nature: wind, rain, and the lava of ancient volcanoes. That doesn't mean they're completely uninhabited; you can book a stay in the region's "cave suites."
Appennine Colossus, Italy
You know I love my giant statues. This fantastic sculpture was created in the 16th century and can be found in the Renaissance Villa di Pratolino in Tuscany. The figure is Appennino, "a personification of the Apennine mountain ranges" nearby. He's 35 feet tall, and looks like he could come to life at any moment.
The Temples of Bagan, Myanmar
I hesitate to use the word "exotic," which reflects my provincial Western perspective, but the 2,200 temples, monasteries, and pagodas of the Myanmar city of Bagan do look otherworldly to many eyes. The city mostly took shape between the 11th and 13th centuries, making it far older than the oldest cities of the United States. The image above almost hums with mystery, spirituality, and adventure.
Ellora Caves, India
A complex over 100 caves. Four centuries of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain artwork. The largest single rock excavation in the world. The Ellora Caves site in India is startling in both its scale and beauty. For some reason, it has attracted theories of alien construction, as if humans (or, perhaps, non-Westerners) couldn't possibly have created such a massive complex of temples, bridges, and stairs. You can imagine the elaborate ceremonies and rituals that took place there, as far back as the year 600.
Fort Bourtange, The Netherlands
How's this for a military structure? An attacking army would have to cross as many as three moats to reach the star-shaped central island, built in 1593. It was a defensive work until 1851, when it became a village. Now it's mostly a museum. Spanish forces besieged it unsuccessfully, as did the army of the Prince of Münster. Few other armies chose to assault the cleverly designed fort. Even though it's out of service, it still stirs the imagination.
Quinta de Regaleira, Portugal
I'll finish where I began, in Portugal. The palace of Quinta da Regaleira, completed in 1910, is beautiful on its own, but I'm drawn to the Initiation Wells. They're actually underground towers lined with stairs, and were never used for water. The Wells were used for ceremonies linked to, of all things, Tarot—as in the cards. The estate's owner, Carvalho Monteiro, was interested in all kinds of mysticism, from alchemy to Masonry to the Knights Templar. So the Wells were as magical and mysterious as they appear today.