Tours from the sky offer a rare perspective that puts ordinary human beings into the same league as birds, angels and Superman. Even the most recognizable landmarks can take on an exotic, surreal aura when seen from high above. But that is exactly why one travels—to break from routine, experience a different point of view, and to gain wisdom about the strange and unfamiliar aspects of life on earth.
Today, flightseeing tours are offered all over the globe. They can involve any type of aircraft that will transport visitors over, around and even through an attraction. Many remarkable locales are inaccessible any other way, which also makes an aerial journey a truly elite adventure.
Hop aboard a turboprop or hot air balloon where you’ll circle colossal ancient structures and soar over dramatic landscapes. A helicopter can even touch down and allow you to disembark where few living creatures have ever set foot before.
If time is of the essence, take a tour that lasts less than three hours. You can head home later that same day with just enough time to post envy-inducing Instagram photos, before falling asleep in the comfort of your own bed.
For the budget-conscious, these astounding journeys are limited only by the extravagance of the return tickets to your destination. The price of the actual tour itself is usually $150 to $400 USD per person. Here are 20 spectacular aerial trips that will allow you to witness what heavenly creatures see of our extraordinary little planet.
20 XLine, Dubai Marina
XLine is set in Dubai Marina, and it’s the world's longest urban zipline, measuring an entire kilometre in length. Fit for adrenaline junkies, it boasts an incline of 16 degrees, travelling at an average of 80 kph. The takeoff point is located at one of the tallest buildings in Dubai at 170 metres above ground level. Strapped into state-of-the-art safety equipment, it’s the closest you can get to experiencing the thrill of skydiving without fearing the crunch on impact. Nighttime views are eerily evocative of flying in a hovercraft through a sci-fi techno landscape of neon city lights. The new XLine has two lines so that couples can plunge side by side in a fear-induced high, if that’s your kind of thing. The cost is $177 USD per ride, with the option to purchase a video and photos of your wild experience so that you can upload it to your social network as soon as you’ve regained your mental faculties.
19 Lisse, Netherlands
Each spring, more than seven million tulips, daffodils and hyacinths create an abstract canvas of vibrant colours that stretch over 32 hectares of land in Lisse, a town that is located southwest of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. On the outskirts of the town is the popular Keukenhof Botanical Garden, along with the 17th-century Keukenhof Castle. Numerous pedestrian and bike paths also wind around flower fields in the country’s main tulip-growing region. Due to the proximity of Schiphol Airport, no balloon rides are available. However, 30-minute sightseeing flights in small passenger planes are available.
For about $161 USD, visitors are treated to a technical and historical briefing by the pilot before ascending 300 metres in the air above the colourful bulb fields.
A logbook magazine is also included in the price, which visitors can take home as a souvenir.
18 Lake Baikal, Russia
Formed over 25 million years ago, Lake Baikal in Russia is known as one of the world’s oldest geographical features. It’s also the deepest lake, plummeting as far as 1,642 metres and containing nearly one-fifth of the planet’s unfrozen fresh water. Few travellers make the journey in winter to Eastern Siberia, but those who do are treated to astounding vistas across pristine shards of turquoise ice and soaring mountain ranges. Known as “Nature Lake,” Lake Baikal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite some concerns of agricultural runoff, it’s pure enough to drink in most places. Moreover, it's so clear that you can gaze through 1 metre of solid ice into the dark blue void of the world’s deepest and most ancient lake. An aerial tour via helicopter will cost roughly $1500 USD for a group of four to six passengers. It lasts 2.5 hours and stops in nearby towns.
17 Curon, Italy
Curon Venosta is located in a valley of the Italian Alps, not far from the border of Switzerland and Austria. Its distinctive symbol is the ancient bell tower which pokes out of the waters of Lake Resia like a floating iceberg tip (as shown in the photo above). Originally built at the end of the 1300s, the bell tower was in fact, part of the original village. It was artificially flooded in 1949 during the construction of a hydroelectric plant which required merging of Lakes Resia and Curon. The old town of Curon Venosta, along with 163 houses and over 5 square kilometres of fruit farms, was unfortunately buried forever under 120 million cubic meters of freshwater.
During the winter, the lake freezes over so that visitors are able to walk up to the spire. In warmer weather, an aerial tour via a twin-engine aircraft can cost about $263 USD for a 1.5-hour tour through the Alps.
The view must be worth the price!
16 Lake Hillier, Australia
Ten times saltier than the ocean, Lake Hillier is a saline lake that is located off the south coast of Western Australia. It’s surrounded by eucalyptus and paperback trees. A long, thin shore divides the Southern Ocean from the lake. The reason for its bubble-gum pink colour is still not fully understood by scientists just yet, although most suspect that it’s due to the presence of the Dunaliella salina microalgae and red halophilic bacteria in the salt crusts. As of 2012, the lake is part of the protected area known as the Recherche Archipelago Nature Reserve. Its candy colour is less accentuated when viewed from the surface but it is very prominent from above. This, and the fact that it’s difficult to access by foot, makes aerial viewing a must for this lake. Lake Hillier is about 600 metres by 250 metres in size. A helicopter ride can cost about $256 USD for a 2-hour tour of the lake and its lush surrounding islands.
15 Eixample, Barcelona
The Eixample district of Barcelona represents the best of Catalan modernity. In 1855, civil engineer Ildefons Cerdà designed a geometric layout that would address the city’s need for growth with a focus on promoting leisure, health and social relationships. The goal of Eixample (the Catalan word for “expansion”) was optimizing space. Cerdà envisioned a grid-like pattern that would fill the area between the city walls and the surrounding towns. The upscale neighbourhood displays long avenues with perfectly aligned square blocks whose corners are trimmed to form crossroads that are airy and full of light.
A balloon ride over the district is about $195 USD, reaching a height of 3,000 feet and lasting one hour.
Flights include a bird’s-eye view of Antoni Gaudi’s brilliant architecture, concluding with a celebratory champagne toast and a signed flight certificate by the pilot.
14 Lake Natron, Tanzania
Lake Natron is a mineral-rich soda lake in northern Tanzania. When water evaporates during the dry season, salt levels increase and certain organisms begin to thrive such as cyanobacteria. The red pigment in the cyanobacteria produces the lake’s bizarre red and orange colors. As a shallow lake in a hot climate, temperatures can reach up to 41° C. The acidity of Lake Natron is so caustic it can burn the skin and eyes of animals that aren't adapted to it, which makes it the perfect spot for hundreds of thousands of flamingoes that gather to breed without fear of predators. The water's acidity comes from the sodium carbonate (a combination of sodium and acid) and other minerals that flow into the lake from the hot springs in the surrounding hills. It’s a thriving ecosystem of salt marshes, freshwater wetlands, wetland birds, tilapia and algae. The flamingos feed largely on the algae, which gives them their distinct pink hue. Islands on the lake are so inaccessible that observations can often only be made from an aircraft. The cost of flights by helicopter or Cessna can vary, but affordable rates can be negotiated during their low seasons, fall and spring. Their spring occurs during the month of August to the month of November, and it’s the best time to view the fantastic breeding spectacle of over a million flamingoes.
13 Bourtange, Netherlands
Fort Bourtange is an impressive star-shaped fort in the quaint village of Groningen, Netherlands. It was built in 1593 under the orders of William the Silent during the Eighty Years' War (the Dutch Revolt against Spain) and sits on the border with Germany. The fort served a simple goal: to prevent Spain from controlling the main supply line through the Bourtange swamps to Germany. Today it’s both an open-air museum and a living village with about 50 full-time residents. Traditional Dutch windmills, or seretens, can be seen dotting the fortress walls. Small wooden buildings overhang the moat which soldiers used as toilets.
While there are many walking tours available in and around the fortress, only a view from the sky can fully demonstrate the incredible symmetry and complexity of the medieval structure.
During the hot-air balloon festival known as the Ballon Fiësta Meerstad, many balloons in a variety of shapes and colours will rise into the air from Meerstad for a flight over the surrounding area. The cost is $185 USD for a flight with Westerwolde Ballooning based in nearby Ter Apel.
12 Blue Dragon River, Portugal
The Blue Dragon River, or Odeleite River, is a twisty, serpentine tributary in southern Portugal. Surrounded by contrasting dark coastlines, the neon blue water seems to pop out of the valley like a dragon springing to life. The flow of water originates in the mountains of the Serra de Caldeirao, giving fuel to myths and legends of the fantastical beast that inhabits the land. According to photographer Steve Richards who made famous its winding body and dazzling hues, “The blue colour is from the water reflecting the sky, and the white flecks are of course the clouds.” Charming white houses on the banks of the river add to the dragon’s beauty like soft scales. To see the river in all its beautiful mythological glory, hot-air balloon flights are available for about $233 USD which includes a 1-hour tour and a celebratory breakfast with bubbly.
11 Burning Man, Nevada
Burning Man is an annual gathering in the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada, approximately 161 km northeast of Reno. Held over a weekend at the end of August, the event is not so much a concert or festival as it is a community. The 70,000 citizens of the temporary Black Rock City are expected to collaborate, be inclusive, creative, connect and clean up after themselves. Like any other city, it has essential services including city planning, emergency, safety and sanitary services. This merging of freestyle play with functional pragmatism is visibly evident in its beautifully designed amphitheatre. For aerial views of the event, Black Rock City Municipal Airport exists for two weeks in August where charter flights land in the desert near the city. Alternatively, a collective of skydivers called Burning Sky bring aerial art to the event, and they offer observation rides called Firefly, which are absolutely free of charge. Tagalongs can sit in the pilot section of the plane and take in the incredible views as skydivers hurl through the air above the city.
10 Grand Canyon, Arizona
The immense Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, with its layered bands of red rock and artistic erosion, reveals millions of years of geological history. Measuring approximately 446 km long, up to 29 km wide and 1.6 km deep, this massive chasm is truly a natural wonder and a sight to behold. It was between 70 and 30 million years ago that plate tectonics uplifted the whole region, resulting in the high and relatively flat Colorado Plateau. Beginning just 5 to 6 million years ago, the Colorado River began to carve its way downward, deepening and widening the canyon along the way, with further erosion by tributary streams. Aerial tours by plane start at $125 USD and can go up to about $200 USD by helicopter. They last just under 1 hour and cover every major rock formation within the canyon.
9 Lencois Maranhenses, Brazil
The dunes are so blindingly white that the aptly named Lençóis Maranhenses literally means, “bedsheets of Maranhão,” since it’s located in Maranhão state in northeastern Brazil.
The vast desert landscape of rippled, white sand collects seasonal rainwater that forms emerald lagoons and mangrove swamps.
During the dry season of October and November, strong Atlantic winds push the sand inland, creating tall sculpted hills. From January to June, unremitting torrential rainstorms pool water into the valleys, creating thousands of pristine lagoons. By July, some reach over 90 metres long and 3 metres deep. When they link up with neighboring rivers, fish can sometimes be found to enter the temporary pools as their summertime residence. Visitors can join the fish for a pleasant swim as temperatures have been measured as high as 30° C. To experience the vast, mesmerizing patterns of undulating dunes, an aerial tour by plane is $85 USD and lasts 30 minutes over the entire national park.
8 Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park
The luminescent colours of the Grand Prismatic Spring in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, may seem otherworldly, but it’s yet another aesthetic oddity of our planet earth. Heat bubbles up from the core of the spring to 87°C, causing the centre to be sterile, and resulting in the deep blue colour intrinsic to water. Further from the centre, temperatures gradually cool to 63°C where heat-loving pigmented cyanobacteria thrive. The different colours indicate the various types of mini-ecosystems created by the slightly different temperatures. In these thermal gradients, microbial communities adapt and react to a specific temperature, producing bright greens, reds and yellows that change throughout the year.
At 113 metres in diameter and 37 metres in depth, Grand Prismatic is the largest hot spring in the United States and the third largest in the world. Though it’s accessible by foot, the encircling wooden boardwalk is hot to the touch, and the steam emits a pungent smell, making an aerial tour more favourable.
Operators give assurances that their helicopters are designed to be quieter than most and that pilots take great care to avoid disturbing wildlife or people on the ground. The cost starts at $59 USD for a few minutes to $600 USD per person in a group of five for 2.5 hours.
7 Central Park, New York City
The crisp rectangle of lush greenery amidst the spiky concrete jungle of Manhattan creates one of the world’s most unusual and stunning manmade aerial views. In 1857, the Central Park Commission selected the design of the Greensward Plan by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux for America’s first landscaped public park. An irregular terrain of swamps, bluffs and rocky outcroppings made some of the land undesirable for urban development. However, other areas were already inhabited, which sadly caused the displacement of 1,600 poor residents as well as a stable African-American settlement with three churches and a school. Today, the park symbolizes inclusivity and community, and is 3.41 square kilometres of paths, green meadows, bodies of water, woodlands and numerous attractions including a zoo and carriage rides. Helicopter tours over the city start at about $224 USD, offering close encounters with the crowns and spires of iconic skyscrapers as well the one and only, Statue of Liberty.
6 Yunnan, China
As stunning as Central Park’s linear geometry or Eixample’s symmetrical pattern, Yuanyang’s rice fields are magnificent in their irregular forms carved into the hillsides of southwestern China. The curved steps are layered in a patchwork of colours and textures, forming a unique mosaic of land sculpture that extends more than 114 square kilometres. The technique of developing fertile land on rugged mountain slopes was masterfully engineered by ancestors of the Hani ethnic minority 2,500 years ago. It was adopted all over China and Southeast Asia much later in the 14th century. The Yuanyang rice terraces have been officially acknowledged by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, which has helped the Hani people retain their unique culture and traditions. Observation platforms offer magical views and are accessible by bus. Helicopter rides are also available for groups at roughly $400 USD per person for a 30-minute trip from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province.
5 Rocky Mountains, British Columbia
The majestic Rocky Mountains are what formed 80 million to 55 million years ago when numerous plates began sliding underneath the North American plate. The resulting broad belt of mountains runs all the way down the western coast of North America from British Columbia to New Mexico for more than 4,800 km. Rather than a single, uninterrupted mountain chain though, it’s a series of more than 100 separate ranges. Since their initial formation, further tectonic activity and erosion by glaciers have sculpted the Rockies into dramatic peaks and valleys, deep river canyons, and vivid turquoise lakes.
The best way to view the mountains is to simply join them.
Epic tours that climb to the summits and glide back down to valleys and glaciers are $295 USD by helicopter and last about 30 minutes.
4 Eden Project, Cornwall
Giant white soap bubbles appear to nestle in a crater in the lush green countryside of England’s southwestern tip. The Eden Project in Cornwall sits in a former clay mine and consists of two bubble-like biomes that house waterfalls, birds, insects and one million plants. The flora represents 5,000 species from different climatic regions around the world. One biome simulates a rainforest and climbs up to 50 metres high, and the other simulates a Mediterranean climate with a maximum height of 30 metres. Their soft, pillow-y appearance comes from the hundreds of hexagonal and pentagonal plastic cells that are inflated and connected to form the biome walls. The geodesic form was chosen for both aesthetic appeal and strength. The angular elements of the dome are rigid, and they distribute stress evenly throughout the structure, making them capable of withstanding very heavy loads. The mission of The Eden Project is to promote biodiversity and the responsible usage of natural resources, leading towards a sustainable future for all inhabitants of our planet. A 30-minute helicopter tour covering all of Cornwall is $201 USD.
3 Nazca, Peru
The Nazca Lines have been shrouded in mystery since the 1930s when early commercial pilots first realized their vast expanse and deliberate designs. Located on a dry plateau in southern Peru, the geoglyphs were etched into desert sands by the Nazca people who flourished from A.D. 1 to 700. The etchings were made by removing 15 cm of rust-coloured pebbles from the iron oxide surface to reveal the chalky white sand below.
Over an area of roughly 10 by 4 kilometers in size, there are about 70 figures of animals and plants, as well as over 300 geometric designs such as trapezoids, rectangles, triangles and swirls.
Theories abound regarding the Nazca Lines' purpose, including its use as an astrological tool. It's largely believed to be associated with rituals of rain, which was highly valued in the arid region. Because there is so little rain, wind and erosion, the exposed designs have stayed intact for 500 to 2,000 years. To get an alien’s perspective, take a 30-minute Cessna flight over the famous geogylphs for just $102 USD.
2 Voh, New Caledonia
There is nothing more reassuring and emotionally uplifting than to witness nature reproduce the universal symbol of love. Voh is a commune in the North Province of New Caledonia, a tropical territory of France in the Pacific Ocean. The natural heart-shaped formation of vegetation covers roughly 4 hectares and is comprised mostly of mangroves over swampy marsh. The saline flats surrounding the mangrove sustain very little plant life which, from an aerial view, create the outlines of a perfect heart shape. It was made famous by French photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand in the 1990s, and the vegetation has since grown to fill in the central heart and unify the colour gradients. The island’s name was given by English explorer Captain Cook when he arrived in 1775, as the terrain reminded him of the Scottish highlands. Flights to Voh via amphibious ultralight aircraft cost about $361 for a 1-hour tour out of the capital, Noumea.
1 Cappadocia, Turkey
At the top of this competitive list is Cappadocia, the extraterrestrial landscape in the heart of Anatolia, Turkey. It features towering, narrow hills that rise out of the earth like stalagmites. 30 million years ago, three volcanoes frequently erupted, producing thick sediment of ash and mud. It eventually developed into soft tuff rock which was easily carved by wind and rain. Topped with harder basalt, many conical boulders were left behind atop the columns which resulted in the famous “fairy chimneys”. The ancient Cappadocians who lived there chiselled out their homes in the hills. During the Medieval era, Byzantine Christians took refuge in the hidden caves to escape the persecution of Romans and Muslims. Thus, the region is scattered with underground caverns, hilltop caves, ornate paintings, and even furniture sculpted out of the rock.
The fusion of natural forces and human interaction tell the fantastic history of this open-air museum, providing endless fascination for tourists, historians and scientists alike.
Hot-air balloon rides are plentiful in the area and are typically around $209 USD for a full hour.