The best buildings in the world combine outstanding architecture with clever use of materials and the all-important right location. And when you throw a building's history and original purpose into the mix, things get even more interesting. The world's most famous buildings have influenced creatives from across the globe, and anyone who's in the least bit creative cannot fail to be inspired by them.
Architectural designs record details of specific moments in time, much like a photograph, and so can tell us a lot about the period in which they were built. But unlike photos, physical structures go on to evolve and have a life of their own, becoming a central and functional part of countless people's lives for hundreds, if not thousands, of years after they were built. Many of the buildings below have also changed a lot physically over the years, and have been torn down and reconstructed according to the taste (and sometimes the whims) of people.
Here, we've picked what we think are the most impressive famous building designs from around the world – we hope you draw some inspiration from each of them.
01. Milwaukee Art Museum, Wisconsin
The Milwaukee Art Museum is an architectural landmark, comprised of three buildings. The War Memorial Center (1957) was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen; the Kahler Building (1975) by David Kahler; and the Quadracci Pavilion (2001) was created by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Overlooking Lake Michigan, it’s linked directly to Wisconsin Avenue via a cable-stay footbridge. Pedestrians can cross Lincoln Memorial Drive on the bridge and continue into the pavilion, while drivers enter via an underground vaulted parking garage where pairs of canted concrete columns form a skeleton-like series of elements shaped like the letter ‘V’.
02. Forbidden City, Beijing
Less a famous building and more a series of famous buildings – 980, to be precise, constructed between 1406AD to 1420AD – the Forbidden City was home to Emperors from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty, making it the political centre of China for half a millennium.
The former imperial palace is now home to the Palace Museum, and was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987. The Forbidden City is listed by UNESCO as the largest collection of preserved ancient wooden structures in the world, and has seen an average of 16 million visitors every year since 2016 – that's an average of 40,000 visitors per day.
03. The Dancing House, Prague
Nicknamed The Dancing House, Prague’s Nationale-Nederlanden building was designed by Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić and Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry.
The deconstructivist – or new-baroque – architecture forms an unusual dancing shape thanks to 99 concrete panels, each a different shape and dimension. It’s proved so popular that the building now features on a gold 2,000 Czech koruna coin issued by the Czech National Bank.
04. Great Mosque of Djenné, Djenné
This mosque in Mali is one of the most famous buildings in Africa. It is thought that a mosque has existed on this site since the 1200s, and the current structure was rebuilt in 1907. Whether or not the mosque's current structure was influenced by French architecture (Mali became independent from France in 1906) has been subject to debate.
The building is made of earth bricks that have been dried in the sun, mortar made of sand and earth bricks, and a plaster that gives it its smooth surface. Once a year, the people of Djenné have a festival and work together to do any necessary repair work to the mosque. The mosque is so important in Mali that it features on the country's coat of arms.
05. Lotus Temple, New Dehli
The Lotus Temple is a Bahá'í House of Worship in New Delhi consisting of 27 structures resembling petals of the lotus flower that open onto a central hall around 40m high. It has nine sides, nine doors, and can accommodate 2,500 people. Its surface is made of white marble from Mount Pentelicus in Greece, the same marble used to build the Parthenon.
Since its completion in 1986 it has become one of the most visited buildings in the world, attracting over 100 million people.
06. Himeji Castle, Himeji
Himeji Castle is a spectacular Japanese castle located near Kyoto. It's over 400 years old and hasn't been damaged by war or any natural disasters, and is made up of over 80 buildings, which are all connected together by gates and winding paths.
This building is a marvel in itself, and is often called White Egret or White Heron Castle because of its white elegant exterior. It's also said to resemble a bird taking flight.
07. Cologne Cathedral, Cologne
Cologne Cathedral is a High Gothic five-aisled basilica, the construction of which began in 1248 and stopped in 1473, before the building was complete. Work did not resume until the 1800s, and it was finally finished in 1880. Later work follows the original medieval plan faithfully.
It is renowned as a Gothic masterpiece and houses many works of art as well as the Shrine of the Three Kings, which is traditionally believed to hold the remains of the Three Kings.
08. Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem
A masterpiece of Islamic architecture, the Dome of the Rock is a 7th century building, located in Jerusalem. Built by Caliph Abd al-Malik between 687 and 691, the octagonal plan and the rotunda dome of wood are of Byzantine design. The Persian tiles on the exterior were added by Suleiman I in 1561; the interior decoration was added to later with marble, mosaic and faience.
The oldest extant Islamic monument, the Dome of the Rock has served as a model for architecture and other artistic endeavors for over a millennium.
09. La Pedrera, Barcelona
Nested among the urban streets of Barcelona are some unusual and beautiful buildings by infamous architect Antoni Gaudi. His unique approach to the Art Nouveau movement generated some of the most creative buildings the world have ever seen. And La Pedrera is no exception.
One of the most imaginative houses in the history of architecture, this is more sculpture than building. The façade is a varied and harmonious mass of undulating stone that, along with its forged iron balconies, explores the irregularities of the natural world. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognised this building as World Heritage in 1984.
10. St Paul's Cathedral, London
London's most iconic building, St Paul's Cathedral, was designed by English architect Sir Christopher Wren. Sitting at the top of Ludgate Hill, the highest point in the City of London, its famous dome is one of the world's largest, measuring nearly 112 metres high.
The original church on the site was founded in the year 604AD. Work on the present English Baroque church began in the 17th Century by Christopher Wren as part of a major rebuilding program after the Great Fire of London.
Wren started working on St Paul's in 1666, his designs for the cathedral taking nine years to complete and the actual construction taking a further 35 years. St Paul's has played an integral part of London life ever since – as a domineering element in the city's skyline, as a centre for tourism and religious worship, and most recently as a focal point for anticapitalist protests.
11. Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur
Standing at 451.9 metres-tall, the Petronas Towers are twin skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The buildings, which held the title of tallest in the world between 1998-2004, are an iconic landmark of the capital city.
The distinctive postmodern style was created by architects Cesar Pelli and Achmad Murdijat, engineer Deejay Cerico and designer Dominic Saibo under the consultancy of JC Guinto.
12. The White House, Washington
Irish architect James Hoban was the man behind the design of the White House. In 1792 Hoban submitted a plan for the presidential mansion and subsequently got the commission to build the White House. Construction began in 1793 and was completed in 1801. The mansion, which has been home to every US leader since the country's second president John Adams, is made from white-painted Aquia sandstone.
13. Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is one of the most remarkable architectural structures in Europe. Most famous for its tilt, the tower began to lean during construction after soft ground on one side was unable to properly support the structure's weight.
Building work on the tower began in 1173 and went on for over a whopping 199 years. There has been much controversy surrounding the true identity of the architect behind the tower – the design was originally attributed to artist Bonnano Pisano but studies have also implicated architect Diotisalvi.
14. The Kaaba, Mecca
The Kaaba, meaning cube in Arabic, is a square building located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. A most sacred place in Islam, the Kabba is elegantly draped in a silk and cotton veil. Every year millions of Muslims travel to the Kabba for the hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.
The small square building is about 45 feet high and its walls are a metre wide, with its total size occupying roughly 627 square feet.
15. The Shard, London
Also referred to as the shard of glass, The Shard is an 95-storey skyscraper, which sits in the heart of London. Construction began in 2009 and was completed three years later in 2012, making it Western Europe's tallest building.
Designed by architect Renzo Piano, The Shard is the second tallest free standing structure in the UK. It's exterior boasts 11,000 glass panels – that's equivalent in area to eight Wembley football pitches or two-and-a-half Trafalgar Squares.
The building was developed to have multiple uses, described on the website as a 'vertical city where people can live, work and relax'. This motto was clearly taken on board by a fox, nicknamed Romeo, that was found on the 72nd floor towards the end of construction.
16. Las Lajas Sanctuary, Nariño
This church is built inside a canyon and connects one side of it to the other, if that isn't impressive, we don't know what is. This gothic-looking church is in Southern Colombia, the site where a woman and her daughter reportedly saw an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1754, which made the previously deaf and mute daughter able to speak.
Since then, various shrines have been built, and the current construction was created between 1916-1949.
17. St Basil's Cathedral, Moscow
No, we haven't included a piece of Disneyland architecture on our list. This garish, candy coloured cathedral is in fact Moscow's most visited tourist attraction. The famous landmark, shaped to resemble the flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, is located just outside the Kremlin gates and marks the geometric centre of the city.
Built between 1555 and 1561, the cathedral was erected during the reign of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible). Little is known about the building's architect Postnik Yakovlev, but he was clearly a fan of onion domes, sharp spikes and polygonal towers.
18. Empire State Building, New York
We couldn't put together a list of world-famous buildings without including this grand Art Deco skyscraper. Once the tallest building in the world, construction began on the Empire State building on St Patrick's Day 1930 and was completed just 410 days later.
The building was designed by William F Lamb of architectural firm Shreve, Lamb and Harmon. It was declared by the American Society of Civil Engineers to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and is known around the world as an icon of New York City.
19. Lloyd's Building, London
This futuristic building looks like it belongs in a sci-fi movie rather than Lime Street in London. The award-winning Lloyd's building (also known as the Inside-Out building) is an iconic architectural landmark and one of the most recognisable constructions on the London skyline.
Architects Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners were behind the innovative design, which has its services – including water pipes and staircases – on the outside. Built between 1978 and 1986, the building also features 12 exterior lifts, which were the first of their kind in the UK.
20. Colosseum, Rome
This elliptical amphitheatre in the centre of Rome is considered as one of the greatest architectural feats achieved by the Ancient Romans. The stadium was capable of seating at least 50,000 spectators and used mainly for gladiatorial games.
Construction – mainly using concrete and stone – began around 72AD and finished in 80AD. The design and shape of the Colosseum has been the inspiration for many modern day stadiums. Today it is one of Rome's most popular tourist attractions, attracting thousands of visitors each year.
21. Taj Mahal, Agra
Recognised as 'the jewel of Muslim art in India', the Taj Mahal was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Often mistaken as a palace, this famous landmark was actually built as a tomb for the Emperor's wife after she died giving birth to their 14th child.
The Taj Mahal is regarded as one of the finest examples of Mughal architecture – an amalgamation of Persian, Turkish and Indian styles. Construction on the mausoleum began in 1632 and was completed in 1643. The surrounding buildings and gardens took around five more years to finish.
22. Chrysler Building, New York
In the early part of the 20th Century, people everywhere were in a race to build the tallest building. At the time, this gorgeous Art Deco skyscraper was almost outdone by the Bank of Manhattan but its spire (which was constructed in secret) enabled it to take the title of 'tallest building in the world' in 1930.
It didn't last long though. Just a year later the Empire State Building was erected. Designed by architect William Van Alen, the skyscraper was commissioned by car manufacturer Walter P Chrysler, hence its name.
23. Sydney Opera House, Sydney
The Sydney Opera House is widely regarded as one of the greatest architectural works of the 20th century. The innovative design came from architect Jørn Utzon, who was relatively unknown until January 29, 1957 when his entry to the 'International competition for a national opera house at Bennelong Point, Sydney' was announced the winner.
The beautiful building comprises of three groups of interlocking shells, which cover two main performance halls and a restaurant. A masterpiece of modern architecture, the opera house has become an iconic symbol of both Sydney and the Australian nation.
24. Space Needle, Seattle
The futuristic Space Needle in Seattle, Washington was built for the 1962 World's fair. The famous landmark stands at 184m high and 42m wide at its widest point.
The design was a collaborative effort between architects Edward E Carlson and John Graham. Not only is the architecture a marvel to look at but it's a solid structure too – it was built to survive wind velocities of 200mph and earthquakes of up to 9.1 magnitudes.
25. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul
Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum, Hagia Sophia is an architectural masterpiece. A perfect example of Byzantine architecture, Hagia Sophia is located in Istanbul, Turkey.
The building was originally constructed between 532AD and 537AD and due to many factors, including being burned down in riots and earthquakes, the ancient cathedral has been rebuilt many times since. Despite this, Hagia Sophia is widely recognised as one of the great buildings of the world. The building also features in the opening scenes of the Bond film, Skyfall.
26. Buckingham Palace, London
Originally known as Buckingham House, George III bought the property in 1735 when the mansion was little more than a red brick house. Since then, various architects have worked on the building to make it what it is today, including John Nash and Edmund Blore.
The palace also had to undergo extensive work after being bombed no less than nine times during World War II. However, it's still very much in operation, and is one of the few working royal palaces remaining in the world today.
27. Fallingwater, Pennsylvania
Designed by famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1934, Fallingwater is quite possibly the most famous private residence in the world. But why? Well, the unique design makes it look like the house stretches out over a 30ft waterfall, with no solid ground beneath it.
This isn't the case, obviously, but the innovative design captured everyone's attention when it was finalised in 1939. It became famous instantly and is now a natural historic landmark. It's so cool you can even get a Lego version!
28. Pantheon, Rome
Rome is home to many amazing buildings, and the Pantheon is no exception. And, like the city itself, it was not built in a day. Destroyed twice and rebuilt each time, the building started as a rectangular structure, which, over time, evolved into the gorgeous dome building seen today.
An inspiration to architects all over the world, the Pantheon roof remains the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. There is much debate between historians over which emperor and architects were responsible for the Pantheon's design although it is known that this 'Temple of the Gods' was built around 126AD.
29. Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao
The Guggenheim museum Bilbao is one of the most admired works of contemporary architecture. Canadian-born American architect Frank Gehry created the unique concept after winning an architectural competition to design the building.
Since the museum doors opened in 1997, it has been hailed one of the most important buildings of the 20th century. Two decades after it was built, the museum welcomes around a million visitors a year.
30. Burj Khalifa, Dubai
Last on our list – but by no means the least – is the world's tallest building Burj Khalifa. The mammoth skyscraper and magnificent centerpiece of Downtown Dubai stands at a whopping 828.9 metres high.
Construction began on the 160-floor building in 2004 with its doors opening six years later in 2010. The task of creating the world's tallest manmade structure was awarded to the Chicago office of American architectural and engineering firm Skidmore, Owings and Merril LLP.