Magical things happen on mountain tops. Throughout history, the highest pinnacles have been revered as sacred sites, the places where the gods frolic, or from whence they hand down their commandments.
It’s not just gods who enjoy a scenic perch, however. From the Andes to the Alps to the Himalayas, countless cultures have chosen to head to the mountains and build themselves a city with altitude. And while they may not be quite as dazzling as the mountain abodes of myth – such as China’s fabled Kunlun Mountain, where the cliffs are made of jasper and jade – each of these high-elevation cities has developed its own character.
The sheer variety of these sky-high settlements is surprising. Some, such as the Incan capital of Cusco, were the centres of mighty empires, complete with grand palaces and gilded temples. Others, such as Shimla and Quito, retain a charming colonial feel.
From the skyscrapers of Mexico City to the adobe buildings of Santa Fe, the world’s highest cities include some of our most dramatic destinations. So take a deep breath and get ready to discover these vertical wonders.
LA PAZ, BOLIVIA
ALTITUDE: 3600 METRES
The vibe: Leave your morning run off the itinerary while you are in La Paz: at this elevation, the air is so thin some people get out of breath just walking. Instead, get a birds-eye view of this extraordinary city, clinging to the sides of a narrow canyon, aboard the extensive cable car system, its gondolas painted cheery shades of red, green and yellow.
What to see:
– The collection at MUSEF, the National Museum of Ethnography and Folklore, covers 3000 years of pre-Columbian cultures, including ceramics, textiles and more.
– At the fascinating Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches Market, stalls are laden with everything from herbal remedies to dried toucan bills, believed to fend off evil spirits.
– The ornate stone carvings on the exterior of the San Francisco church include a menagerie of colourful creatures, from snakes and parrots to dragons. Selfie spot: The scenic Tupac Katari Mirador, a lookout perched on the canyon rim above the city, is also an Incan sacred site.
Out of town: If you are taking a day trip to Lake Titicaca with its floating islands, stop in along the way at Tiwanaku, an ancient city that pre-dates the Incas.
Where to stay: With chic interiors, not to mention excellent views across the mountains and the city, Stannum Boutique hotel makes a great base in La Paz. Rooms from $US128 a night. stannumhotels.com/en
ALTITUDE: 3600 METRES
The vibe: Don’t let your first glimpse dishearten you. Rampant modernisation means much of Lhasa is indistinguishable from any other Chinese city. However, the mighty Potala Palace still dominates the skyline, and a walk through the narrow alleys of the Tibetan quarter will reveal Lhasa’s unique culture.
What to do:
– Towering above the city, the fortress-like Potala Palace is one of the world’s great palaces. The complex is divided into the White Palace, where the Dalai Lamas once lived, and the sacred Red Palace, its gilded stupas bedecked with jewels.
– Watching the pilgrims at the Jokhang Temple – spinning prayer wheels, making offerings and circumambulating the temple – never gets boring.
– The Dalai Lama’s summer palace, Norbulingka, is worth visiting as much for its gardens as for its palaces. The wooded copses and extensive flower beds make this an open-air oxygen bar.
Selfie spot: Chakpori Hill, a short walk from the Potala Palace’s west gate, offers superb views of both the palace and the city, particularly at sunrise.
Out of town: There are a number of historic monasteries outside Lhasa worth visiting, including Sera Monastery, which was once home to 5000 monks.
Where to stay: Traditional touches – earth tones, gold highlights and local textiles – and an oxygen lounge for those suffering the effects of altitude help set Shangri-La Lhasa apart. Rooms from RMB640 a night; see shangri-la.com/Lhasa
ALTITUDE: 3400 METRES
The vibe: Perched high in the Andes, this former Incan capital turned colonial centre is the continent’s oldest continuously inhabited city and one of its most fascinating destinations, a place where centuries collide.
What to see:
– The Spanish plundered the gold that once lined its walls and built a church on top of it, but the remains of the greatest Incan temple, Qorikancha, still impresses.
– The religious paintings in Cusco’s cathedral are a quirky blend of European and Incan motifs. Check out the depiction of the Last Supper where a dish of roast guinea pig sits on the table.
– The compact Museo de Arte Precolombino has some spectacular artefacts, including carvings, ceramics and jewellery from the Huari, Nasca and Incan people.
Selfie spot: The walled complex of Sacsayhuaman once housed palaces, temples and warriors barracks. Today, its mighty outer walls are the main attraction, along with a great view over the city.
Out of town: The essential day trip is the Incan citadel of Machu Picchu; other Sacred Valley highlights include the Incan ruins at Ollantaytambo and the colourful traditional market at Chinchero.
Where to stay: Housed in a 16th century Spanish seminary, the Belmond Hotel Monasterio is a wonderfully atmospheric lodging. Rooms from $US345; see belmond.com/hotel-monasterio-cusco
ALTITUDE: 2800 METRES
The vibe: Surrounded by snow-capped Andean peaks, Ecuador’s low-key capital has more going for it than its scenic backdrop. This laidback city also contains the most beautifully-preserved Old Town in the Americas.
What to do:
– The Old Town offers plenty to explore, from the spectacular La Companía de Jesus church, with its Moorish design and its lavish gilding, to lively alleys such as La Ronda.
– He is Ecuador’s greatest artist, but few outsiders have ever heard of Oswaldo Guayasamín. A visit to his superb museum, set in the hills above town, is an eye-opener.
– The impressive collection of the Museo Nacional takes in everything from ancient ceramics and other pre-Colombian relics to superb colonial pieces.
Selfie spot: Take an elevator up the spires of the Gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional for the best view in town. Keep an eye out for the stone iguanas and turtles that decorate the edifice.
Out of town: The volcanic peaks around Quito offer a host of day trip options. Depending on your preferred adrenalin level, try ziplining through the cloud forest (keep an eye out for toucans) or hiking to the crater lake of Quilotoa.
Where to stay: A $10 million refurbishment has transformed a 1920s mansion into Casa Gangotena, an elegant boutique hotel in the heart of the Old Town. Rooms from $US450; see casagangotena.com
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO ALTITUDE: 2250 METRES
The vibe: Mexico City is a megalopolis where Aztec ruins rub shoulders with colonial cathedrals and buzzing contemporary bars, and where culinary highlights include street-corner taco stands as well as high-end restaurants.
What to see:
– The Centro Storico is packed with attractions, from the ruined Aztec temple and the massive cathedral to the Palacio Nacional with its eye-catching Diego Rivera murals.
– The Aztecs weren’t the only pre-Columbian culture to flourish in Mexico. The superb Museo Nacional de Antropología is the place to discover the Olmecs, the Mixtecs, the Zapotec and the Maya.
– Casa Azul, the home that artist Frida Kahlo shared with her husband Diego Rivera, is packed with her artworks, as well as her original furniture and belongings.
Selfie spot: Mexico’s ill-fated Emperor Maximilian once lived in Chapultepec Castle; today it houses the Museo Nacional de Historia. The former imperial apartments open onto a deck with superb views across the city.
Out of town: Don’t miss a visit to the massive pyramids of Teotihuacan, one of the largest pre-Columbian cities in the Americas. Alternatively, the pretty colonial town of Huichapan, with its nearby prehistoric cave paintings, is another appealing option.
Where to stay: Part of the charm of the Condesa DF hotel is the Condesa neighbourhood itself, where tree-shaded streets are lined with art nouveau cafes and galleries. The hotel has its own charms, including stylish interiors and a rooftop terrace. Rooms from $US233; see condesadf.com
ALTITUDE: 2200 METRES
The vibe: Once the summer capital of British India, Shimla remains a popular holiday spot thanks to its mild climate and its spectacular location atop a 12-kilometre long mountain ridge. The traffic-free upper town and the labyrinthine alleys of the bazaar are made for wandering.
What to see:
– Shimla’s architecture reflects its colonial heritage. Keep an eye out for the grand Viceregal Lodge, the mock Tudor post office, the neo-Gothic Gorton Castle and the Town Hall.
– Visitors to the famed Jakhu Temple are advised to bring a walking stick, and not just to help with the 30-minute hike. The temple is dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman and hosts huge numbers of macaques who aren’t above demanding food from visitors.
– One of Shimla’s landmarks is the Gaiety Theatre, where Rudyard Kipling once performed. You can still catch a show there, or just take a tour and learn more about its colourful history.
Selfie spot: Shimla is set on seven hills; perhaps the best views can be enjoyed from Summer Hill, where potters once gathered clay to make their pots.
Out of town: Soak up the scenery at Chadwick Falls, a roaring waterfall in a verdant setting, or at the forest-fringed Renuka Lake.
Where to stay: The Oberoi Cecil has a best-of-both-worlds feel, with heritage exteriors and modern interiors and technology. Rooms from INR11000; see oberoihotels.com
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA
ALTITUDE: 2300 METRES
The vibe: Most visitors to the Ethiopian capital stay just a night or two before heading out to explore the country’s more spectacular sites. They are missing out on some of Africa’s best museums, as well as a vibrant coffee culture.
What to see:
– Learn more about Ethiopia’s diverse cultures at the Ethnological Museum, which examines everything from war and hunting to body culture and burials.
– The star draw at the National Museum is Lucy, the 3.2 million-year-old skeleton that changed our understanding of human evolution. The other fossils on display – including giant pigs and sabre-toothed cats – are just as fascinating.
– Ethiopia is the home of coffee, so it should be no surprise that cafe culture is alive and well in Addis. Top picks include the city’s oldest cafe, To.mo.co, an Italian-style drink-and-go outlet, and the trendy Lime Tree.
Selfie spot: Before Addis Ababa was selected as the site for Ethiopia’s new capital, nearby Entoto was briefly the chosen site. If you visit Entoto’s never-used palace and the Church of St Mary, step onto the deck behind the church to soak up the panoramic views.
Out of town: Trail rides through the nearby forests are a popular option for horse riders. Alternatively, a trip to the Debre Libanos monastery makes for an interesting day out.
Where to stay: The sprawling Sheraton Addis offers all the usual high-end trimmings, from a dozen different restaurants to an outdoor pool and a spa and wellness centre. Rooms from $US310; see sheratonaddis.com
SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO
ALTITUDE: 2100 METRES
The vibe: The second-oldest city in the US has done a good job of holding on to its history. Not content with preserving its original adobe buildings, the city has decreed that all downtown buildings be built in the same style. A thriving arts scene adds to Santa Fe’s charm.
What to see:
– Georgia O’Keeffe created some of her most famous works while living in New Mexico; many of them are on display in the extensive Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
– The city’s lively arts scene is centred on Canyon Road, where more than 100 galleries, studios and shops line the street.
– Santa Fe’s Spanish missions include some of the oldest buildings in the United States. Don’t miss the Loretto Church, which has a remarkable circular staircase with no visible means of support.
Selfie spot: There’s no quick way to reach the top of the Atalaya Trail; you’ll have to hike the entire five-kilometre trail. Fortunately the Ponderosa pines and Douglas fir provide some shade, and the view at the top is worth the climb.
Out of town: Some of the oldest Native American settlements in the country are found nearby, including the multi-storey Taos Pueblo, and the 10,000-year-old settlement at the Bandelier National Monument.
Where to stay: Nowhere does rustic chic quite like the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi, which has sandstone walls, handwoven rugs and hand-crafted beds. Rooms from $US295; see rosewoodhotels.com/Anasazi
ALTITUDE: 1400 METRES
The vibe: Colourful, chaotic and crowded, Kathmandu is a bustling city with an ancient heart, where modern life unfurls against a backdrop of medieval temples and palaces, artisan workshops and carpets of drying chillis.
What to see:
– Durbar Square, where the city’s kings were once crowned, is the heart of Kathmandu. Although the royal palace was damaged in the 2015 earthquake, there is still plenty to explore, from the terraced Maju Deval temple to the fearsome statue known as Black Bhairab.
– The ancient golden stupa of Swayambhu is considered by Buddhists to be the “power point” of the valley, and also offers beautiful views.
– Kathmandu’s narrow alleys are lined with food stalls dishing up tasty local favourites. Don’t go home without trying local specialties such as momo (dumplings), choila (buffalo meat) and chatamari (stuffed rice flour crepe).
Selfie spot: The town of Kirtipur, just south of Kathmandu, does a nice line in faded grandeur. Once you have explored the maze-like streets lined with medieval palaces, check out the panoramic valley views.
Out of town: The Kathmandu Valley has some beautifully preserved medieval cities worth exploring. Top choices include Bhaktapur, where the mansion houses have intricately adorned window frames, and the palaces and temples of the Buddhist city of Patan.
Where to stay: There’s atmosphere galore at the lovely Dwarika’s Hotel Kathmandu, where the rooms are housed in traditional Newari buildings and decorated with local woodcarvings. Rooms from $US285; see dwarikas.com
LA CHAUX-DE-FONDS, SWITZERLAND
ALTITUDE: 1000 METRES
The vibe: Its lofty perch high in the Jura Mountains means La Chaux-de-Fonds lies well off the usual tourist routes, but this elegant town – one of the highest in Europe – is well worth a visit. As well as being the headquarters of the country’s watchmaking industry, this is also the home town of the celebrated architect, Le Corbusier.
What to see:
– Le Corbusier built some of his earliest designs in La Chaux-de-Fonds. Architecture fans will want to check out the Villa Turque and the charming Maison Blanche, the home that Le Corbusier designed for his parents.
– The city’s other claim to architectural fame is its stunning collection of art nouveau buildings. The highlight is the town’s incredible crematorium, an art nouveau masterpiece decorated with images of sky and fire done in glass and gold, copper and bronze.
– Amateur horologists will enjoy the city’s watchmaking museum, the Musee International d’Horlogerie, with its collection of more than 4500 pieces.
Selfie spot: Take the lift to the top of the Espacite Tower for 360-degree views over the city’s lovely old town.
Out of town: The lakeside town of Neuchatel, just a 30-minute drive away, has lovely old sandstone buildings and a lively cafe scene.
Where to stay: La Chaux-de-Fonds have a limited range of accommodation to choose from but the centrally-located Athmos Hotel, which housed a period building, makes for a comfortable stay. Rooms from CHF239, see athmoshotel.ch
* If you plan to travel to locations or undertake activities at high altitude (above 2500 metres) you should seek specific advice. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, even the physically fit. See http://smartraveller.com.au/
SIMIEN MOUNTAINS, ETHIOPIA
One of Africa’s most awe-inspiring landscapes, this World Heritage listed are is the place to spot adorable gelada baboons, and perhaps even rare ibex.
Those soaring peaks are just the start: southern Germany’s Alps also boast romantic castles and picturesque villages, as well as an endless array of hiking trails. Make time for a boat trip on one of the many beguiling lakes.
SRI LANKA CENTRAL HIGHLANDS
Rice paddies and tea plantations, Buddhist temples and roaring waterfalls: Sri Lanka’s hill country offers many surprises. Explore it on foot or via an unforgettable rail journey.
SOUTHERN ALPS, NEW ZEALAND
A touch of luxury or serious adventure? Both are on offer on New Zealand’s South Island. Explore its glaciers, fjords and snow-clad summits on a hard-core expedition, or enjoying cocooning in a luxury lodge.
SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS, PAPUA NEW GUINEA
From pristine forests where rare orchids and birds of paradise flourish to villages that are home to Huli wigmen, PNG’s underexplored highlands remain one of the most fascinating places on the planet.
HOTELS WITH ALTITUDE
You are always on a high at these sky-scraping hotels.
YETI MOUNTAIN HOME KONGDE, 4250 METRES
There are half a dozen luxury lodges in Nepal’s Yeti Mountain Home collection; what sets Kongde apart is its views of Mount Everest. Getting here is part of the experience: the only way in is via an eight-hour hike. yetimountainhome.com
3100 KULMHOTEL GORNERGRAM, 3100 METRES
Guests at the highest hotel in the Swiss Alps can enjoy year-round skiing, mountain biking and hiking, or spend some time in the hotel’s planetarium. gornergrat-kulm.ch/?lang=en
AMANKORA GANGTEY, 3000 METRES
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has plenty of dramatic mountainscapes but at this luxurious eight-suite lodge, the views are dominated by gently rolling hills and lush alpine meadows. aman.com/resorts/amankora
EXPLORA ATACAMA, 2400 METRES
This luxurious Chilean wilderness lodge is set in the world’s highest desert, a place studded with salt flats and geyser. Guests can admire the starry skies from the hotel’s observatory. explora.com/hotels-and-travesias/atacama-hotel
BELMOND MACHU PICCHU SANCTUARY LODGE, 2400 METRES
The only property located inside the Machu Picchu sanctuary, this Peruvian hotel is surrounded by some of the most dramatic mountain scenery you can imagine. belmond.com/sanctuary-lodge-machu-picchu
DON’T LOOK DOWN
It’s a long way down when you are crossing these vertigo-inducing bridges
SIDU RIVER BRIDGE
Distance from roadway to ground: 500m
China has all other nations beat when it comes to building high-in-the-sky bridges; its current champion is the Sidu River Bridge in Hubei Province.
Distance from roadway to ground: 403m
This cable-stayed bridge, spanning a ravine in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental mountains, is so high that the Eiffel Tower could fit underneath.
Distance from roadway to ground: 336m
Another of China’s startling constructions, this 1110-metre bridge took five years to build, and connects to a tunnel at either end.
ROYAL GORGE BRIDGE
Distance from roadway to ground: 291m
The highest bridge in the US, suspended above the Arkansas River, is the centrepiece of Colorado’s Royal Gorge Bridge & Park.
THE MILLAU VIADUCT
Distance from roadway to ground: 270m
Drivers crossing the 2460-metre long Millau Viaduct in southern France enjoy wonderful panoramas, except on those days when clouds block the view of the valley below.