It looks like any old roller coaster, with curves and heart-stopping loops. But instead of zooming by, people are walking—on inclines fitted with steps. This creation in Germany’s Rhine Valley is an interactive sculpture, but it’s also one of the world’s most unique staircases.
While staircases are fundamentally a means to get from one point to another, they become cool—and worth seeking out—when the form is made at least as important as the function. Whether in shops, museums, or the great outdoors, the staircases we’ve found are inspiring works of public art and provide interesting perspective on a destination.
So the next time you travel, skip the elevator and take the stairs. We bet you’ll be so amazed by the world’s coolest staircases you won’t notice you’re getting a workout.
Tiger & Turtle – Magic Mountain,
It looks like a standard roller coaster from a distance, but upon closer inspection, you’ll be faced with an ingenious staircase stretched through all kinds of curves. German artists Heike Mutter and Ulrich Genth made this interactive sculpture, unveiled in late 2011, so that visitors could explore the 249 steps both at day, taking in views high above the Rhine, and at night with LED lights on the handrails illuminating the staircase. If you’re wondering how to climb around the loop, well, you can’t. It’s closed off by a barrier.
Opened in 1906, Lello is one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores, thanks largely to its centerpiece: this glossy red staircase with carved wooden banisters that leads up to a glass atrium. The stairs are just as beautiful from underneath, with carved leaflike flourishes and the same bluish-green and gold paint as the ceiling above it. Look for lovely neo-Gothic and Art Deco elements to the rest of the shop as you browse.
Melk Abbey Staircase
You may recognize this mazelike Benedictine abbey overlooking the Danube River as inspiration for Umberto Eco’s popular novelThe Name of the Rose. It’s full of architectural flourishes like this Rococo-style spiral staircase—best viewed from underneath to catch a glimpse of the pink-and-gold painted underside. While the staircase leads to other rooms of the library, they aren’t open to the public.
Heaven’s Gate Mountain,
Zhangjiajie City, China
You’ll climb 999 grueling steps to an opening in the mountains considered to be the door to heaven. A cliff collapsed years ago, leaving this more-than-400-foot-tall hole. The number 999 was selected as lucky since the number 9 has the same pronunciation as the word that means “eternal,” or “perpetual,” in Mandarin—which may seem cruelly appropriate to those who attempt the climb. Just to get to the base of the staircase, visitors must first take a cable car that climbs 4,000 feet or a bus along a mountain road so winding it’s been compared to a dragon’s back.
This small village outside the northern city ofJaipur has a concentration of distinctive step wells called baoris, developed for collecting rainwater. Chand Baori is one of the deepest and largest of these wells, with some 3,500 steps that descend 13 stories deep. While it is possible to see down all 13 flights, it isn’t currently used as a well as the bottom few stories are gated off. Dating from around the ninth century, this step well is located in front of the medieval Harshat Mata Temple.
Cedar Creek Treehouse “Stairway to Heaven,”
Mount Rainier, WA
If you’re afraid of heights, this staircase is definitely not for you. The “Stairway to Heaven” begins at the base of a fir tree and spirals round and round, reaching 82 feet into the sky. Climbers arrive and face another challenge: a rainbow-colored suspension bridge that stretches 43 feet over the forest floor. It’s the only way to reach the Treehouse Observatory, which provides expansive views of Mount Rainier and the Nisqually Valley. Guided tours cost $80 for two people; make a weekend of it and book the Cedar Creek Treehouse ($300 a night, observatory tour included), which is 50 feet up a nearby tree.
16th Avenue Mosaic Staircase,
San Francisco, CA
There are 163 mosaic panels—one for each step—that make up this staircase at 16th Avenue and Moraga in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Heights neighborhood. The panels begin depicting the ocean and, by the time you reach the highest step, you’re in the sky with the birds. Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher designed the thematic mosaics and enlisted the help of community members. After several years of work and fundraising, the stairs were completed in 2005.
Tulip Stairs,Greenwich, England
The Queen’s House in Greenwich features the first geometric self-supporting spiral staircase in Great Britain—commissioned back in 1616. The intricate flowers in the wrought-iron balustrade inspired the name Tulip Stairs (although, technically, the stylized blossoms are said to be fleurs-de-lis). In 1966, the Tulip Stairs were the site of Reverend R. W. Hardy’s ghost photograph, which shows a shrouded figure ascending the staircase.
The Gray, Milan, Italy
Florentine architect Guido Ciompi came up with distinctive flourishes for each of the 21 rooms and suites at this boutique hotel in central Milan. One of the most spectacular results is a sprawling duplex suite connected by this floating stairway with futuristic wooden steps that resemble hollowed boxes. Wenge wood floors, ebony furniture, animal-print fabrics, and suspended beds only add to the hotel’s design pedigree.
Museum of Islamic Art,
Opened in 2008 on a man-made island in Doha Bay, this I. M. Pei–designed building houses a 4,500-work collection of some of the world’s greatest Islamic art—and happens to have this grand double staircase. Located underneath the geometric dome in the main entryway, its most unique feature is the steps cut into its underside, which create the illusion of an upside-down staircase.