People & Places
Capturing Beauty: Exploring the World's Most Photogenic Travel Destinations
May 04, 2023
Nearly eight years ago now, Adweek boldly asserted that Instagram was becoming the “modern-day travel agent.” In the intervening years, that prediction has gained even more traction.
According to the stats, roughly two-thirds of all social media users look to the apps to decide where to vacation – creating an atmosphere of micro-trends, travel influencers and location-based hysteria. Some destinations have started purpose-building attractions to capture Instagram tourism (see: the Museum of Ice Cream in NYC). Meanwhile, other destinations have had to cap daily visitors because of overdemand (see: Jackson Hole).
However you feel about the cottage industry surrounding social media tourism, you can’t deny that our phone cameras have become a significant element of modern travel. It’s a human impulse to want to document beauty when we see it; we want to capture it, so we can experience it over and over again. And we’re willing to pay the price of a long-haul flight for the privilege.
In this article, we’re throwing our two cents into the mix. As avid travelers, we at Unbound Merino have snapped our fair share of travel photos, and we’re excited to pass along the best of those snapshots. Some of the destinations below received their beauty from nature, while others earned their awe-inspiring “photogenicity” through centuries of human ingenuity and labor.
Even if you plan on unplugging and leaving your camera at home, you can’t go wrong with these vibrant, gorgeous, photogenic travel destinations.
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Croatia’s stretch of Adriatic Coast receives the lion’s share of tourists to the country, stepping in as a budget option for the Italian coast. But for our money, the best photo opportunity in Croatia is in Plitvice Lakes National Park, inland toward the Bosnian border.
It almost looks fake, like a Disneyland construction of a tropical grotto. But the emerald lakes, limestone karsts, waterfalls and watercourses, caves and meadow reliefs – they’re completely real. The UNESCO World Heritage site continues to fascinate scientists studying biodiversity. But most people that make the trek come with a phone camera in hand, ready to snap some of the most striking travel photos this side of the Mediterranean.
Santorini is one of those aforementioned destinations that had to cap its visitors due to overdemand (mostly cruise ship arrivals). Too many influencers and “influencees” landed on the diminutive Greek Island that the tourist infrastructure couldn’t support the weight.
But once your spot in the queue is up, you’ll immediately see why. In many ways, Santorini is the platonic ideal of a Greek Island. It’s what you imagine in your head when you think “Greek Island.” The sun-bleached white buildings capped with royal blue domes, fuchsia bougainvillea flowers spilling over the arbors and terraces, and the towns clinging to cliffs that overhang the crystal blue Aegean Sea.
Throughout history, poets and artists have drawn inspiration from Santorini. Your phone camera won’t do quite as good a job – but it will come close. It’s tough to take a bad travel photo of Santorini.
If you want the Greek island experience without the crowds, check out lesser-known islands like Naxos, Ithaka or Ios, which we list in our honeymoon travel destinations as top places to crash after “I do.”
Barcelona is practically synonymous with the architecture of Gaudi, an exponent of Catalan Modernism that transformed the city into a playful, neo-Gothic funhouse of warped lines, colorful tiles and flamboyant shapes. Of course, Barcelona is more than just Gaudi, but the city owes a debt of gratitude to his strange, beautiful vision.
Picture-takers to Spain’s second-largest city usually beeline it for the impressive Sagrada Familia, a towering cathedral that smashes together whimsical Art Nouveau and austere Gothic sensibilities. But that’s just the tip of the Gaudi iceberg.
Credit: bearfotos Via Freepik
Ring Road, Iceland
Ring Road isn’t a single destination (we know, it’s cheating). It’s the Route 1 motorway that encircles much of the country. You could do it in around 14 hours, but that would leave little time for stopping. And almost zero time to focus a camera.
Instead, we recommend spending around a week driving Iceland’s Ring Road. Along the way, you’ll find travel photo opportunities at the Eastfjords, northern mud spas, Arctic Coastway, Hraunfossar waterfalls cascade and Blue Lagoon. Depending on the season, you might even catch the green-blue streaks of nighttime Aurora Borealis. Each destination is majestic and photogenic in its own right.
Icelandic summers aren’t particularly warm, especially in the arctic north, so we recommend packing your Unbound base layer, complete with socks, underwear, women's tank tops and/or men's v-neck shirts.
Most itineraries to China focus on the bustling megalopolises like Shanghai, Beijing or Guangzhou. But beyond these sprawling megacities, you’ll find countless historic towns and attractions locked in time.
One of our favorites – and certainly one of the most photogenic – is Lijiang, in the southern Yunnan province. Like much of Yunnan (which shares a border with Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam), Lijiang is home to several ethnic minorities. And the stamp they leave on Lijiang is phenomenally idiosyncratic.
Walking through the old town, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve entered a time machine. The UNESCO Heritage Site is home to pristinely preserved Ming Dynasty houses, rambling streets, flowers and red lanterns, all girding a complex canal system. And the whole thing is surrounded by the Hengduan Mountains, an extension of the Tibetan Plateau.
It can be hard to decide what to photograph first. Check out this travel video for a taste of what Lijiang has to offer in the looks department.
Naoshima Island, Japan
Naoshima Island is noteworthy less for its natural beauty (though it is pretty) and more for its 20th Century makeover. Until the early 1990s, Naoshima was a collection of sleepy fishing villages. But then the artists moved in.
Now, the island is home to several contemporary art galleries (strikingly carved into the landscape), open-air sculptures and permanent installations. Influential pop artist Yayoi Kusama has several surreal installations (in her trademark “polka-dot” style) throughout the island, and the galleries host Monet paintings, Basquiat pieces, and several other notable works.
If you’re an art lover headed to Japan, with an itchy camera finger and a couple of free days, Naoshima does not disappoint.
On the best of days, Jaipur is a marvel to behold. The “Pink City” teems with rosy architecture, including forts, temples and palaces – the most famous of which is the Hawa Mahal (which looks like the Indian version of the Grand Budapest Hotel).
But if you can, aim to visit Jaipur in late March as the entirety of India celebrates the Holi Festival. During this Hindu festival of colors, people emerge from their homes to throw brightly colored powders at each other and smear one another’s faces in vivid paint – a celebration of emotional release and communal joie de vivre. As far as festivals go, it’s probably the world’s most photogenic.
If you aren’t traveling in early spring, feel free to check out our roundup of festivals around the world, many of which could have easily made this list.
Boracay is another destination that, sadly, had to cap its visitors due to overexposure. The once-sleepy Filipino island has become a not-so-secret secret among traveling influencers and selfie-ready vacationers.
Again, it’s so easy to see why! Boracay is the kind of tropical island you'd think only exists in postcards. You could swear the travel photos of it are oversaturated, brightened, or otherwise touched up in Photoshop. But no: that’s just how Boracay looks. Baby blue waters, perfectly white sand, swaying palm trees.
A recent New York Times article tackled whether Boracay, “one of the world’s best islands,” could “beat overtourism.” We certainly hope it can.
Cairns is gorgeous in and of itself. It has all the hallmarks of a photogenic destination: bright blue water, unspoilt white sand beaches, palms, pools and promenades. But all of that plays second fiddle to Cairns’ main attraction: It’s the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef.
Admittedly, this is a different kind of photogenic. It can be challenging as you snorkel to maneuver a phone (safely tucked in a waterproof pouch) at the right angle for a selfie. But here, selfies don’t matter. The marine landscape speaks for itself, brimming with technicolor life.
Responsible tourism is an imperative in the Great Barrier Reef. The ecosystem currently faces numerous stressors and existential threats. So make sure to book a responsible guided tour, and limit your interaction to photo-taking, resisting every urge to touch the reef’s magnificent beauty.
Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia
Sidi Bou Said is more than a budget Greek Island. Sure, it has several of the same charms – the sun-soaked terracotta, the palms and cobblestones, etc. But Tunisia’s premier beach destination has a distinctive North African flair and a livelier pace.
Moreover, Sidi Bou Said is a short hop from the remains of Ancient Carthage – one of the most affluent cities in the classical world, and a major hub for the Roman Empire. We aren’t sure how many influencers flock to destinations for travel photos of historical ruins. But to us, these crumbling slices of distant history are eminently photogenic.
Credit: angel.nt.111 Via Freepik
The Sahara Desert, Morocco
Why do beaches get all the attention? Where’s the love for an expansive, undulating stretch of golden-sand desert?
The Sahara Desert is an evocative and gorgeous part of North Africa. Its interplay between crested dunes, stark sunshine and blue sky is practically a painting already. When you add in the striking oasis villages, Bedouin camps and camel trains, it adds up to a remarkably photogenic environment for aesthetic travel pictures.
You can access the Sahara Desert from several countries (Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, etc.), but we’re listing Morocco here. Morocco's robust tourist infrastructure makes treks to the desert relatively straightforward.
Lake Louise, Canada
If Banff is the crown of the Canadian Rocky Mountains, then Lake Louise is the crown jewel. The pristine glacial lake, located within Banff National Park, has an almost alien turquoise color thanks to rock flour from glacier meltwater. It’s surrounded by imposing mountains, pine and spruce forest and a tasteful chateau overlooking the water.
On the walkway encircling the lake, you may have to compete with other tourists snapping travel photos. But it will be worth it.
Consider incorporating Lake Louise into a larger Banff trip. In the winter, the mountains offer up some fantastic skiing opportunities (the best in the world, according to some). And in the summer, visitors can hike those same mountains. Regardless of the season, pack some warm merino wool leggings for women or men's merino sweatpants to ward off the chilly breezes.
New Orleans, USA
On the spectrum between natural beauty and human-made audacity, New Orleans lands itself firmly in the latter camp. But the Big Easy remains one of the premier spots in the US for snapping aesthetic travel photos. The tourist-focused Bourbon Street is an intoxicating mixture of French colonial architecture and seedy neon signage. And its Bayou Bridges city park is Louisiana swampland at its most photogenic.
To blend in with the breezy, feel-good vibes, photograph yourself in one of our casual merino polos, which serve double duty as a sweat-wicking, breathable shirt to combat the high humidity.
Isla Contoy, Mexico
The last time we covered Isla Contoy was for our roundup of spring travel destinations, where we praised it as a counterpoint to Mexico’s “spring break fever” destinations.
But Isla Contoy has several things going for it. Like Boracay, the primary appeal here is the perfect beaches, perfect water and swaying palms. Like Cairns, Isla Contoy is also surrounded by reefs brimming with colorful marine life. Like New Orleans, the sleepy island can be a launchpad for raucous parties (it’s just a short boat ride to Cancun). And unlike several beach destinations on this list, it’s relatively easy to reach (for our North American readership). It’s the Goldilocks option for vacationers who want a travel photo, a relaxing experience, nature-focused activities and nightlife.
Photos aren’t the reason we travel. But we can’t kid ourselves, either – a great travel picture can help you feel like you’ve captured something rare and unrecoverable. It helps connect us to the beauty and sharply focused experiences in our lives.
Head to the destinations above because they’re gorgeous corners of the world. And if you happen to snap a few fantastic photos while there – all the better.