It might be an ancient, inspiring work of nature. Or it could be a man-made creation with a deep social or political meaning. There are certain timeless places in this world that imprint themselves on our imaginations and fire up our travel dreams. We’re lucky enough to have many of them in North America; places that we instantly recognize and yearn to visit. Over the next several pages, we honour four of our favourites and give you the lowdown on how to do them right.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
The end of a continent; the starting line of the California dream. With its brilliant orange towers rising above the blue-grey sea, the Golden Gate Bridge is an engineering marvel that was the longest single span in the world (1,280 metres) when it was built over a treacherous stretch of water in 1937. It’s also an enduring symbol of a city and state that inspires dreamers and wandering souls looking for a fresh start.
Timing matters: On a clear day in winter, it doesn’t make a difference what time you visit. But, if you’re planning to see the bridge during the foggy summer season, your odds of getting a clear view are best in late morning or early afternoon.
Best photo ops: The classic shot from above—the one you see in brochures and TV ads—is taken from high on a hill on the Marin County (north) side. There’s a small road that winds up the hill, with several vantage points. You can also get an amazing shot of the underside of the bridge from Fort Point, which is perched under the south end of the bridge.
Savvy touring: One of the best ways to see the bridge is by bike. Cyclists ride on either side for free, but must yield to pedestrians, who are allowed only on the east side (but also cross for free). Try Bay City Bike Rentals and Tours for rentals, or you can book a walking tour with San Francisco City Guides.
Price alert: If you want to drive over the bridge, it’ll cost you (prices range from US$4 to US$49, but general fare for standard vehicles is US$7). The tolls are electronic, so it’s best to check the website for how to pay in advance.
Talking point: The bridge is painted “International Orange” to make it visible for passing ships. There’s a crew of more than 30 workers (including 28 painters, five paint labourers and one chief bridge painter) who battle wind, fog and rain to keep it looking sharp.
Getting There: WestJet flies to San Francisco twice a day from Vancouver and Calgary.
Niagara Falls, Ontario and New York
You can’t help but feel an incredible jolt when you stand at the edge of this swirling, ever-rushing force of nature and listen to the deafening sound of water crashing. The flow varies, but the general consensus is Niagara Falls spills some 154 million litres of water every minute in the summer months. Straddling the border between New York and Ontario, the falls are worth checking out from every vantage point. The Canadian side offers the more iconic view, but it’s also busier because of all the hotels and shops. The American side is more relaxed and has equally great vistas.
Timing matters: Early morning is a great time to visit, before the tour buses arrive. Your photos might look prettier with the sun behind you in the morning, so think about venturing to the U.S. side for your a.m. shots. Evening is equally beautiful when the lights come on. The falls are also gorgeous in winter, with massive icicles and piles of snow on the surrounding rocks.
Best photo op: You’ll need to keep your equipment dry, but a shot looking up at the falls from a tour boat is a great treat.
Savvy touring: A boat ride on the Niagara River, below the falls, is still the best way to grasp the sheer power of this world wonder. Hornblower Niagara Cruises and the Maid of the Mist both offer this experience. Rather stay on land? The Journey Behind the Falls, offered on the Canadian side, lets you descend in an elevator 38 metres through the bedrock to tunnels that give you an up-close (and wet) experience.
Price alert: Niagara Parks, on the Canadian side of the border, offers a discount package called the Niagara Falls Adventure Pass that gives you 30 per cent off the Falls’ top attractions, including Hornblower Niagara Cruises, Journey Behind the Falls and a 4D experience called Niagara’s Fury. Passes are $49.95.
Talking point: Based on the current rate of erosion (about one foot a year), experts say the American falls could dry up in 2,000 years. The rest of the falls could erode in 50,000 years, leaving only a river.
Getting There: WestJet flies to Hamilton six times a day from four Canadian cities, and to Toronto 98 times a day from 19 Canadian, eight U.S. and 20 international cities.
The Grand Canyon, Arizona
Niagara Falls impresses with its power and thunder, but the Grand Canyon impresses with its ancient silence. It took Mother Nature millions upon millions of years to carve out this massive valley that stretches 446 kilometres long and measures 1,800 metres deep. With its curious wrinkles and deep-red, ochre and orange ridges and spires, the Grand Canyon is considered one of the natural wonders of the world. And it’s as powerful and mysterious a place as anywhere on earth.
Timing matters: The canyon is most beautiful in early morning and late afternoon, when the sun is at an angle instead of overhead and shadows add dramatic contrast. Remember that rainstorms occasionally hit during July and August afternoons.
Best photo ops: The Grand Canyon Skywalk in the west canyon area is located on Hualapai Indian land and lets you look down through a glass floor that extends about 21 metres from the canyon rim. For a stunning sunset shot, head to Hopi Point on the south rim, but get there early—it’s a popular spot. The north rim has far fewer visitors because of harsher weather, which means more elbow room for photographers (but it’s closed in winter).
Savvy touring: Book a chopper flight out of Las Vegas (a four-and-a-half-hour drive away). Maverick Helicopters can drop you off inside the canyon, where you’re treated to light snacks and a glass of bubbly. The U.S. National Park Service offers mule rides into the canyon from both the south (all year) and north rim (summer).
Price alert: It costs US$25 per vehicle (less for motorcycles or bikes) to enter Grand Canyon National Park, and you get seven days of access to both the north and south rim.
Talking point: Some 650 people actually live in the Grand Canyon. The Hualapai Reservation occupies a large area of the western canyon.
Statue of Liberty, New York City
She’s a symbol of freedom and possibility, a welcome beacon for newcomers in search of a better life in a new country. The words on a plaque inside the pedestal on which she stands are as poignant as ever: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French government (commemorating the alliance between France and the U.S. during the American Revolution) and was unveiled in 1886. She remains one of the most recognizable monuments in the world.
Timing matters: The statue is located on Liberty Island, which means you have to take a boat to get there. Rides are offered through Statue Cruises, but the crowds can get crazy, so opt for one of the first boats out—usually around 8:30 a.m. in summer and 9:30 a.m. the rest of the year. Boats can be boarded at Battery Park in lower Manhattan or at Liberty State Park in New Jersey (which is less crowded and offers easier parking).
Best photo ops: You can get amazing shots from the old girl’s feet, especially in the morning with the sun on her face. You’ll also get postcard-worthy shots from the Staten Island Ferry, which is free.
Savvy touring: Try a harbour ride on the schooner Adirondack. You’ll get a fresh view of the statue from a distance while enjoying a ride on an old-time sailing ship, complete with bar service. Tours depart at the Chelsea Piers on the Hudson River.
Price alert: The boat ride to Liberty Island costs US$18 for anyone 13 and over, with discounts for youth and seniors. Official rides to the statue are offered by Statue Cruises, but you can get free entry if you pay for a New York Pass or a CityPASS, both available online. The U.S. National Park Service recommends reserving tickets in advance.
Talking point: One of the architects who helped design the inside of the structure was Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel, designer of the Eiffel Tower.
Getting There: WestJet flies to LaGuardia 48 times a week from Toronto, and to JFK once a day from Calgary.