Quick — name a famous landmark. Chances are you said something along the lines of the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or even the Taj Mahal. These iconic sights are practically engrained into the popular culture, yet here’s a follow-up: can you name something about them? This, it seems, is where most people draw a blank.
Sure, saying that they’re “big” or “really cool” technically answers the question, yet wouldn’t you rather dive a little deeper into the storied histories of these beloved monuments? Don’t bother reaching for a textbook, because these little-known details about the world’s most iconic landmarks will make you look like a regular history buff on your next vacation.
1. The Leaning Tower of Pisa: During the early stages of its construction, the Leaning Tower of Pisa actually leaned in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until more layers were added that the tower began tilting southward.
2. Mt. Fuji: Though its peak may look peaceful, Mt. Fuji is actually a stratovolcano — three volcanoes stacked into one! It’s still an active volcano, too, though the last time it erupted was 1707.
3. The Great Wall of China: Measuring 13,170.70 miles, the Great Wall spans half the length of the equator. Considering it took more than 2,000 years to build, it’s no surprise that the Great Wall remains the most significant feat of human engineering ever.
4. Machu Picchu: How the Incas managed to build Machu Picchu continues to puzzle historians, as the stones used to create the citadel weigh dozens of tons. Some believe they pushed the stones up the cliff sides themselves; others posit that they carved the stronghold into the mountain.
5. The Great Sphinx of Giza: Believe it or not, the Great Sphinx isn’t a sphinx at all. In classical depictions, a sphinx has the body of a lion, the head of a woman, and the wings of a bird; technically, the Great Sphinx is an androsphinx.
6. The Golden Gate Bridge: While it’d be hard to imagine the Golden Gate Bridge as any color other than red, it was originally supposed to be painted with blue-and-yellow stripes. Upon seeing the red-painted girders, however, the consulting architect changed his mind.
7. Big Ben: Though most of us refer to it as “Big Ben,” the clock tower that sits on the end of the Palace of Westminster is actually called the Elizabeth Tower — it’s the bell inside that’s called “Big Ben.”
8. The Taj Mahal: Commissioned in 1632, the Taj Mahal cost an estimated 32 million Indian rupees to build, equivalent to over US $1 billion at the time. Even with more than 20,000 laborers at work, it took 22 years to complete the mausoleum.
9. Times Square: Originally named for The New York Times newspaper, Times Square sees around a million people pack into its streets each New Years Eve to watch the ball drop. All told, over 50 million tourists visit this slice of New York City each year.
10. The Louvre: Originally constructed as a fortress in 1192, the Louvre is now the biggest museum in the world. In fact, it would take you about 100 days to walk every inch of the museum and take note of every piece inside.
11. Christ the Redeemer: In the wake of the separation of church and state following the founding of the Brazilian republic, Brazilian Catholics feared the country was becoming increasingly godless. Christ the Redeemer was the church’s answer, taking nine years and over six million stone tiles to complete.
12. Mt. Rushmore: Sculptor Gutzon Borglum originally conceived of Mt. Rushmore depicting the faces of great western heroes, including Lewis and Clark and Buffalo Bill Cody. He eventually settled on a more nationally unifying theme with the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
13. The Eiffel Tower: Though the iconic landmark bears the name of French engineer Gustave Eiffel, he actually wasn’t the one who designed it. It was Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, two of Eiffel’s employees, that drafted the original blueprint for the tower.
14. The Trevi Fountain: Roughly $3,300 worth of coins are tossed into the Trevi Fountain each day. Those coins are then scooped out every night and donated to charities that seek to feed the homeless of Rome.
15. The Statue of Liberty: Despite the belief that Lady Liberty was a gift from France, the U.S. actually had to pay for most of its construction. Additionally, Boston and Philadelphia originally petitioned to host the statue, though in the end, New York won out.
16. The Colosseum: Constructed over ten years, Rome’s famous Colosseum could hold 50,000 spectators in its heyday. This seating capacity probably came in handy, as some festivals and events could last up to 100 days at a time!
17. Buckingham Palace: Originally, Buckingham Palace was known as Buckingham House, the home of the first Duke of Buckingham John Sheffield. It wasn’t until Queen Victoria assumed the throne in 1837 that the house became the official royal residence.
18. Burj Khalifa: The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa is three times as tall as the Eiffel Tower. If its pieces were laid end to end, the tower could stretch more than a quarter of the way around the globe.
19. Sydney Opera House: Jørn Utzon, the Danish architect that proposed the opera house’s current design, originally had his blueprint rejected three times. It wasn’t until renown American architect Eero Saarinen praised the design that it was ultimately selected.
20. The White House: To date, ten people have died in the White House, including presidents William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. Unfortunately, some of them decided to stick around…
The White House Historical Society
21. Carhenge (Alliance, Nebraska): Who needs to travel to the United Kingdom to see the mysteriously stacked stones of Stonehenge when you can take a drive through the Great Plains and see cars spray-painted to look like sandstone?
Brian W. Schaller / Wikimedia
22. The Wave (Coconino County, Arizona): Nestled between Arizona and Utah, the sandstone formation allures hikers and photographers from all over the planet. Because of its fragility, however, hikers must be granted a permit to access it.
23. Republic of Molossia (Dayton, Nevada): Though declared a micronation by founder Kevin Baugh, the republic isn’t recognized by the United Nations. Still, Supreme Leader Kevin gives the United States “foreign aid” (otherwise known as property taxes).
Franco Sacchi / YouTube
24. Joyxee Island (Isla Mujeres, Mexico): An island made up of about 100,000 bottles floats just off the coast of Cancún, and for just $25 per night, you can rent it out on AirBnB. The Mexican government recognizes the 82-foot island as an Eco Boat.
Soul de Isla Mujeres
25. Winchester Mystery House (San Jose, California): Those killed by Winchester rifles allegedly haunt the mansion once owned by the widow of firearm’s magnate William Winchester. Architectural anomalies, like staircases to nowhere, fill the house.
26. Centralia (Centralia, Pennsylvania): A 1962 coal mine fire cleared out this town, pushing the population to just seven people by 2013. Today, a graffiti-covered PA Route-61 cuts through the heart of the ghost town.
27. Thor’s Well (Cape Perpetua, Oregon): Often referred to as the Drainpipe of the Pacific, the 20-foot sinkhole located just off the Oregon coast looks like it’s draining the sea. (Don’t worry—it’s not!) Still, it provides perfect photo opportunities for those brave enough to venture near it.
28. Prada Art Installation (Marfa, Texas): Does anything say Texas quite like a $120,000 “pop architectural land art project” of a designer Italian shoe store? Maybe. But you won’t find anything like this anywhere else in North America.
29. The Desert of Maine (Freeport, Maine): The flat sands of America’s northeastern-most state beckon those who’ve already stuffed themselves to bursting with lobster. Though not a true desert, the 40 acres of glacial silt is close to the real thing.
Patty Wight / MPBN
30. Cadillac Ranch (Amarillo, Texas): Ten Cadillacs half-buried off Route 66 comprise this Texas art project. It not only welcomes vandalism and drive-by paint jobs from visitors, but it encourages anyone to add a touch of paint.
31. Devils Tower (Crook County, Wyoming): President Theodore Roosevelt declared this Bear Lodge Mountains butte a national monument in 1906. According to the Kiowa and Lakota tribes, the strange structure formed to save two girls from a bear attack.
Chuck Sutherland / Flickr
32. Mill Ends Park (Portland, Oregon): Officially recognized as the smallest park in the world, Mill Ends sits in a median once intended to house a light pole. When bureaucrats nixed the pole, a local journalist planted flowers and dubbed it a park.
33. M-185 (Mackinac Island, Michigan): Michigan banned motor vehicles from this eight-mile stretch of road that wraps around the popular tourist island in Lake Huron. The law was passed in 1898 after a doctor’s car scared some horses and people complained.
34. Eiffel Tower (Paris, Texas): If you want to see the Eiffel Tower, the City of Lights might be calling your name—but a city two hours outside Dallas might be calling out, too. And this Eiffel Tower has a cowboy hat on top!
35. Monowi (Monowi, Nebraska): As of the 2010 census, just one person called the .21-square-mile city home. The lone occupant? A 76-and-a-half-year-old woman living alone. The village peaked in 1930 with a population of 150.
Ghosts of North America
36. The World’s Tallest Thermometer (Baker, California): A town most people only pass through on their way to Las Vegas, Baker boasts a 134-foot functioning thermometer built to commemorate 1913’s record-breaking 134 degree Fahrenheit day in Death Valley.
Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times
37. U Thant Island (New York, New York): A group called Peace Meditation at the United Nations named Manhattan’s smallest island (2,000-square feet) after the Burmese former United Nations Secretary General. It acts as a sanctuary for migrating birds.
38. Newby-McMahon Building (Wichita Falls, Texas): After a nearby oil boom, J.D. McMahon collected investments for a skyscraper to house the influx of people. He swindled the investors, however, when he built the world’s tiniest skyscraper—just 480 inches (40 feet) tall—and pocketed the rest of the money.
Michael Barera / Wikimedia
39. Musical Roads (Tijeras, New Mexico): Musical roads scattered throughout America utilize rumble strips to produce audible vibrations—songs! Roll down your window on this road in Tijeras, and you’ll hear “America the Beautiful.”
40. Fenelon Place Elevator (Dubuque, Iowa): Claimed as the shortest and steepest railroad on the planet, this 189-foot incline railway brings travelers to observation decks where they can glimpse stunning views of downtown Dubuque.
41. Skinny House (Boston, Massachusetts): Just 10 feet at its widest, Boston’s Skinny House was born out of spite. One report suggests the city’s narrowest house was built to cut off light to a building with a “hostile neighbor.”
42. Gregson Street Overpass (Durham, North Carolina): Trucks, SUVs, and tall people wearing tall hats, beware: the tiny, 11-foot, eight-inch bridge nicknamed “The Can Opener” collects—on average—one truck scalp per month.
Washuotaku / Wikimedia
43. Point Roberts (Point Roberts, Washington): You have to travel through 25 miles of Canada to get to this United States city, which was created when the U.K. and the U.S. determined the 49th parallel would form the border between the countries. But they overlooked the southernmost tip of the Tsawwassen Peninsula!
44. Sam Kee Building (Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada): Too stubborn to sell his lot of land after the city expropriated 24 feet of his property, Sam Kee built the world’s shallowest commercial building—just five feet deep on the bottom floor.
Can Pac Swire / Flickr
45. Grave of Mary Ellis (New Brunswick, New Jersey): A local spinster died in 1828 and was buried in a site that eventually became the parking lot for an AMC movie theater. The grave is probably more interesting than most movies playing at the theater, to be honest.
Find a Grave
46. Moonlight Towers (Austin, Texas): Before the streetlight boom of the 20th century, cities posted arc-lamps way up in these towers to illuminate multiple blocks at once. Though all but eliminated from North America, Austin still boasts a few 165-foot towers.
47. Bubblegum Alley (San Luis Obispo, California): A piece of chewed gum stuck to a wall may not be your interpretation of sightseeing, but what about thousands of pieces of chewed gum stuck to over 2,000-square-feet of alleyway walls?
Jets Like Taxis
48. Jerimoth Hill (Foster, Rhode Island): At 812 feet high, this rock slab is the highest peak in all of Rhode Island. Hikers who “braved” the .3-mile trail with a 10-foot elevation gain to reach the peak often stack stones on top to make the point that much higher.
49. Magentic Hill (Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada): Thanks to the rising and falling terrain and an obstructed horizon, this road produces an optical illusion making it appear as though cars traveling downhill are actually going uphill.
50. Republic of Indian Stream (Pittsburg, New Hampshire): From 1832 to 1835, elected government officials of this unrecognized constitutional republic served 300 citizens. The republic formed due to an ambiguous boundary between the U.S. and Canada.
New Hampshire Public Radio
51. Clinton Road (West Milford, New Jersey): Besides being home to the country’s longest traffic light—a horrendous burden, really—this infamous road has been the setting for numerous alleged ghost sightings, witches, and creatures.