The world’s must-see modern engineering marvels

Through water, rock, and wild terrain, engineers have gone to extreme lengths to connect communities and create extraordinary experiences around the world.

See the Grand Canyon from a different point of view. Image credit: diegograndi/iStock
See the Grand Canyon from a different point of view. Image credit: diegograndi/iStock

Grand Canyon Skywalk, U.S.

Constructed using more than 1.2 million pounds of glass and steel, the transparent walkway of the Grand Canyon Skywalk seems to defy gravity, extending out and over the canyon’s edge.

Stepping onto the Skywalk is a sensational experience, giving visitors the chance to look down into the depths of the canyon from 40,000 feet (12,000 meters). Legs may turn to jelly, but the glass walkway is constructed using a clever combination of counterweights, steel support rods, box beams, and columns to support the weight of hundreds of thousands of annual visitors. It’s even built to withstand an 8.0 magnitude earthquake.

The Grand Canyon Skywalk is perched on the edge of the western section of the canyon, just 2.5 hours by car from Las Vegas. It is a great day-trip option for those visiting the City of Sin who don’t have time to visit the Grand Canyon National Park proper, which is located a few hours further east. The journey by car from Las Vegas also passes another famous U.S. engineering marvel, The Hoover Dam.

The Panama Canal

If we’re talking architectural marvels, then it’s only right that we mention Panama Canal, the 48 mile (77 kilometer) ship canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Before the canal opened in 1914, many important trade destinations could only be reached by sailing around the southern tip of South America, a lengthy route that added an incredible 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers) and many weeks to the journey.

The Panama Canal revolutionized trade for both the U.S. and the rest of the world, allowing ships passage between the two oceans in just eight to 10 hours. During the journey, ships pass through a series of cleverly designed water locks, allowing them to sail up and over the land bar that separates them.

This impressive feat of engineering, which cuts through the dense rainforests and rugged terrain of the Isthmus of Panama, is best experienced from the deck of a cruise ship, or on a private boat tour. Take a look at our guide on how to explore the Panama Canal, where we’ve highlighted some of the best options for a variety of travel styles.

Millau Viaduct, France

This spectacular bridge is the world’s tallest, clocking in at a staggering 1,125 feet (342 meters) at its highest point.

The Millau Viaduct isn’t just impressive in height, it’s also a beautiful piece of architecture, stark white in color, with powerful pylons and tall piercing masts. The viaduct was constructed in 2004 and passes over the Tarn Valley in Southern France, helping to streamline traffic in an area prone to congestion, especially during the tourism-heavy summer months. The Millau Viaduct may have been designed to reduce traffic, but its sheer impressiveness has encouraged more than a few extra motorists to the area.

While driving over the Millau Viaduct is perhaps the best way to experience the true scale and power of the structure, those with time for more than a drive-by have additional options. For a spectacular view of the bridge from above, follow the signs to Aire du Viaduc, which will lead you to a special viewing point established at the old farm of Brocuéjouls. Alternatively, you can see the Millau Viaduct from below with a boat cruise, or from a bird’s point of view with a tandem paraglide. A few serious adrenaline junkies have even base-jumped off the edge.

Laerdal Tunnel, Norway

The journey between the Norwegian cities of Laerdal and Aurland takes motorists through the world’s longest road tunnel, which is cut through solid, volcanic, igneous rock.

The Laerdal Tunnel is 15 miles (24.5 kilometers) in length and offers motorists a shortcut through the base of both the Hornsnipa and Jeronnosi mountain ranges. Completed in 1992, the tunnel was excavated using computer-controlled drills and had to be done with particular care and precision considering the rock type and the complexity of drilling at such incredible depths. 

The journey through the Laerdal tunnel takes 20 minutes and incorporates a series of gentle curves and sections illuminated by blue light. These measures were purposefully implemented to ensure that motorists don’t fall victim to “highway hypnosis” due to lack of stimulus during their subterranean journey.

The Laerdal tunnel is a part of the main highway that connects Norway’s two largest cities, Oslo and Bergen. While this scenic seven-hour journey can be completed in a day, it’s best drawn out across a two or three-day road trip. Allow time en-route to explore the area around Hemsedal, often referred to as the Scandinavian Alps and visit the picturesque Rjukandefossen and Hydnefossen waterfalls.

The Bailong Elevator, Zhangjiajie, China

Clinging to the edge of an enormous cliff face, the Bailong Elevator is the highest outdoor elevator in the world, ferrying passengers to a height of 1070 feet (326 meters) within Zhangjiajie National Park, one of China’s most famous natural heritage sites.

Completed in 1999, The Bailong Elevator allows visitors to experience the park’s breathtaking scenery by peering through the glass walls of an elevator cabin while being lifted high up into the air at a speed of five meters per second.

The elevator is built for volume, with a total of three elevator cabins, each with a 40-person capacity. Running at maximum capacity, this one-of-a-kind elevator services an incredible 4,000 passengers per hour.

Zhangjiajie National Park is a towering stone and jungle fortress, packed full of canyons, caves, and hiking trails to explore. The park isn’t located close to any of China’s major cities, so it’s best to fly direct into the nearby Zhangjiajie Hehua International Airport (DYG). Tickets for the elevator can be purchased upon arrival at the park, however during the busy peak season its preferable to join an organized tour to avoid long ticket lines.

Palm Island Jumeirah, Dubai

Shaped like a giant palm frond extending into the Persian Gulf, the birds-eye view of Dubai’s man-made island archipelago is beyond belief.

Dubai has experienced a period of rapid growth over the last decade, which has caused the city’s prized coastal real estate to become increasingly built-up and difficult to purchase. To create additional beachfront land, tons of rock and sand are being piled up to create a series of man-made islands.

While the project is still officially in progress, the largest of the three planned islands, Palm Jumeirah, was completed successfully in 2006 and is now a thriving tourist hotspot. The island is a sight to behold from above, with a central 1.24 mile (2 kilometer) stem, from which 16 island fronds extend, giving the archipelago it’s botanical shape.

Dotted with five-star hotels and resorts, theme parks, and beaches, Palm Jumeirah is a great place to head for a luxury vacation. While you’re there, an aerial tour of Dubai is a must – sip champagne while cruising over the islands in a hot air balloon, take a helicopter or seaplane tour, or even see the islands while tandem skydiving from 13,000 feet (4,000 kilometers).


Grace Catherine

Grace is a freelance writer and digital project manager from New Zealand currently based in Mexico City. She is an avid traveler who loves destinations with an eclectic history, a bike-sharing scheme, and plenty of cool animals.