These stairways are heaven!
Some outdoor stairways are bejeweled with thousands of mosaics, murals, folk art, animals both real and fictional, striking patterns or wild colors. True works of art, these staircases transform the simple act of walking uphill into a thing of beauty and are well worth seeking out. From Italy, California, Thailand to Romania, here are some of our favorites.
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Scala di Santa Maria del Monte
WHERE: Caltagirone, Sicily
It’s a wonder to behold: ceramic tiles in unique patterns in each row adorn the stairs leading up to a church, alternating between floral, geometric, and figurative motifs, mostly blue, green, yellow, and white. Design influences from Sicily’s history of Arab, Norman, Spanish, and Greek rule and styles from the 10th to 20th centuries, from Renaissance and Baroque to contemporary appear in different sections. But in the spring, it ramps up its beauty: hundreds of flower pots and potted plants are arranged in a mural for the whole month of May, a nod to Italy’s “flower carpet” traditions. Mural stair designs can range from a flower vase, giant flower to events. In 2021, the flower pot mural displayed poet Dante Alighieri’s profile and “700,” honoring the 700th anniversary of his death. A pink bicycle mural in 2017 marked the end of the Giro d’Italia bike tour in the town. On some summer nights, the stairway is magical, illuminated by hundreds of flickering colored lanterns. The lanterns, paper cylinders with wicks in olive oil-filled terracotta bowls, appear on July 24-25, honoring St. James, the town’s patron saint, and August 14-15, the Virgin Mary. About an hour south of Catania, or a bit more north of Syracuse, Caltagirone has a ceramics tradition 7,000 years old and belongs to an association of Italy’s ceramic cities.
Naga Steps, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple
WHERE: Chiang Mai, Thailand
An ornate mosaic of a sacred serpent slithers down each side of the stairway that ascends to this hilltop Buddhist temple in northern Thailand. Sure, you can take a tram to the temple entrance to avoid climbing 306 steps, but it’s a shame to miss the stairs, a marvel from the gaping-mouth serpents at the bottom to their tails at the top. Sculptures of serpents, called nagas, often adorn stair rails and roofs of Thai Buddhist temples, because a naga once guarded the Buddha during his meditation in northern India. About 10 miles from Chiang Mai, the opulently decorated temple’s location was chosen by the King’s sacred white elephant centuries ago. He climbed to the top of the hill, trumpeted three times, walked in circles three times, then knelt. Savor the panoramic view of Chiang Mai and forests at the top on a sunny day.
WHERE: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
A riot of vivid colors and wildly different patterns adorn over 2,000 tiles on this stairway linking the Santa Teresa and Lapa districts. Jorge Selaron, an artist from Chile, created the artwork, entirely self-funded, as a thank-you to his adopted country. Featuring the colors of Brazil’s flag (yellow, green, and blue), flanked by walls of red tiles (his favorite color), the staircase consists of tiles Selaron bought in antique shops, scavenged from streets or that were donated by supporters. Starting out by transforming the decrepit steps outside his home next to the stairs, he then tackled the remaining 215 steps, and ultimately installed tiles from over 60 countries. For fun, find the tile with a photograph of the mustached artist (hint: it’s on a wall). Rapper Snoop Dogg featured the stairs in his music video for Beautiful, a love letter to Rio.
16th Avenue Tiled Steps
WHERE: San Francisco, California
This masterpiece of over 75,000 mosaic tiles, mirrors, and stained glass fragments depicts the sea, earth, sky, flowers, and marine creatures in murals in a rainbow of colors. Just one of a dozen mosaic stairways in San Francisco, it was inspired by both Rio’s Selaron Steps and Caltagirone’s Scala. The crown jewel of Golden Gate Heights in the Sunset, a low-rise district of small pastel houses in the city’s west, the 163-step stairway commands awe-inspiring views of the Pacific Ocean on sunny days. When it opened in 2005, Chinese lion dancers raced up the steps, a Vietnamese dance company performed, the Mayor of Caltagirone cut the ribbon, and the president of the Sicilian American Association and Italian Cultural Institute officials attended in the multi-cultural city. Artists Colette Crutcher and Aileen Barr, who designed the stairs, assisted by over 200 neighborhood volunteers, also created the Hidden Garden Steps two blocks away. Few stairways have websites: this one does.
Stairway, Sejong Center
WHERE: Seoul, Korea
A surprise mural always awaits you on the steps of Sejong Center, a performing arts complex for both Western and Asian theater and music in the South Korean capital. Previously, a fashionable young woman in magenta and black, clad in Korea’s national costume, called a hanbok (a vividly-colored two-piece outfit consisting of a wrapped top and long, full high-waist skirt) greeted visitors. Colorful murals promoting shows have adorned the outdoor stairway of the multi-building complex in recent years.
WHERE: Targu Mures, Romania
The national costume and peasant carpets of Transylvania inspired the red, black, and white geometric motifs in this painted stairway, rendered as digital pixels, which links Revolution Street (Strada Revolutiei) with Park of the Medieval Fortress (Parcul Cetatii Medievale). Painted by local art students and volunteers, the stairs are named for Prince Rakoczi, who led the Magyar revolution against the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Habsburg rulers in the 18th century. This city is in Transylvania, surrounded by the Carpathian mountains, called the Land of Dracula because Bram Stoker’s Dracula was inspired by a ruthless 15th-century prince and local vampire folklore. The castle that legend connects with Prince Vlad the Impaler (or Vlad Dracul–the Romanian word for “dragon;” his father belonged to the Order of the Dragon) is in Bran, 125 miles away.
WHERE: Tehran, Iran
Pink roses in a ceramic mural adorn a stairway in Iran’s capital on Valiasr Street, its longest street. Part of a local beautification project commissioned by the city, the seven-color mural is by artist Kamyar Sadeghi. The national flower of Iran, the rose has been praised in Persian literature and poetry, and rosewater has flavored desserts from rice pudding to ice cream and served as a health remedy and as perfume for centuries. The 14th-century poet Hafez asked, “How did the rose ever open its heart and give to this world all its beauty?”
Stairs to See Stars
WHERE: Gamcheon Cultural Village, South Korea
Paintings and tile mosaics of salamanders, butterflies, local flowers, and human figures decorate 148 steps in this art-splashed district in Busan, South Korea’s second-biggest city, a major port. Pastel houses painted pink, peach, aqua, and yellow and narrow alleys spill over a hillside in Gamcheon, a district reborn with public art in a project called “Dreaming of Machu Picchu in Busan” from the government’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. It’s also nicknamed “Korea’s Santorini,” but neither moniker really fits: the Cubist-like block houses aren’t stark white, nor is it the ruins of a lost civilization. Nearby, a set of stairs at a steep 45-degree angle, the 168 Steps, depicts the Gamcheon cityscape of small colorful houses. The monorail next to it (at a 33-degree incline) features a panorama of Busan’s port way below.
WHERE: Beirut, Lebanon
A different geometric two-color pattern is painted on each horizontal row in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district on the Daraj el-Beera stairs. Also called Paint Up V. 5, it’s just one street artwork from an artists’ collective, Dihzahyners, which has brightened Beirut by painting a dozen stairways and parks in vivid colors in triangle, zigzag, pixel, and striped designs (not to mention piano keys in purple, yellow, red, and other hues and stairs in soft lavenders and blues). Its mission: to lift people’s moods, make them proud of their community and feel “happy and refreshed” when climbing old stairways in Beirut, says Lana Chukri, who co-founded the collective in 2012 with another recent graduate of Lebanon American University, Jubran Elias. After getting permission from the city and neighbors, and partnering with Colortex, a paint and wallpaper company, Dihzahyners (the name borrows from the word “designers” and “dhan,” Arabic for paint) posts its public paint events on social media and welcomes newcomers. See their stairways here.
Dragon Stairs, Parc Guell
WHERE: Barcelona, Spain
In Antoni Gaudi’s wildly imaginative fantasy park, a large blue mosaic sculpture of a salamander sits amid the double stairway (nicknamed the “Dragon Stairs” by those not up on their reptiles) leading up to the Hall of Columns. The whimsical master of Barcelona’s variant of Art Nouveau, fond of irregular-shaped mosaic pieces and swirls of color, Gaudi spent 14 years working on this structure (his most demanding project since La Sagrada Familia) on the edge of Gracia, a Barcelona suburb. He even lived in Parc Guell for a while: The house is now a museum displaying furnishings he created for other projects.
Stairs, Marques de Pombal Palace
WHERE: Oeiras, Portugal
A majestic stone outdoor stairway decorated with azulejo murals in blue and white stands at this 18th century Rococo and Baroque palace in greater Lisbon, once the home of the Marques de Pombal, who re-designed Lisbon after much of it was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake. Its interior is so filled with azulejo wall murals of 18th-century life–from sipping tea, coffee, and chocolate to playing card games–ornate ceilings, statues, and paintings, you don’t miss the lack of furniture. Learn about the fascinating history of azulejos, the hand-painted ceramic tiles the Moors brought during their conquest of Portugal and Spain, and how they evolved into a beloved craft that covers entire walls, floors, ceilings, building facades, and interiors of palaces, churches, villas, and train stations, at Lisbon’s National Tile Museum. Or, view an 80-minute tour of its highlights on the museum’s app.
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
This painted stairway of big red hearts and rows of blue, pink, green, and yellow is in Silver Lake, a district east of central Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard, its main street. It’s one of over 60 concrete stairways in Silver Lake, built in the early 20th century to link houses uphill from trolley steps before L.A. was a city of cars (yes, imagine). Its 177 steps are in three sections: 40 steps flanked by palm trees and plants up to Larissa Drive, 59 more steps across the street, then 78 steps across the street. City approval for this and the Piano Stairs nearby came after both were painted in the dead of night.
York Street Steps
WHERE: Ottawa, Canada
Birds of a Feather, a colorful mural of birds, adorns this stairway in ByWard Market, the main dining, shopping, arts, and entertainment district in Ottawa, Ontario. It symbolizes the concept “Singular Plurality,” the slogan of Canada’s Guest of Honor presence at Germany’s Frankfurt Book Fair. It will be replaced with another artwork in March 2022. Interestingly, it’s made of graphic film, and so easily replaceable. Part of the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Art in the Capital program, which showcases public art by Canadian artists in temporary installations and exhibits in Ottawa and Gatineau, the design was chosen in a national annual competition for young and emerging artists age 18-35. A striking mural of a wolf on the stairs of Ottawa’s Plaza Bridge, installed through the program in 2012, is Unity, was replaced with a mural of houses, which gradually increase in number from one at the bottom to many.
WHERE: Valparaiso, Chile
Painted to look like piano keys (which, sadly, don’t play a tune when trod), this 29-step stairway is located, suitably enough, on Beethoven Street, across from Alecon Fine Hostel. The gritty port city built on steep hillsides packed with colorful houses, where funiculars take you to higher elevations with panoramic views of the bay is considered the street art capital of Chile, and one of the major ones in South America. “How absurd you are. You haven’t combed your hair, you’ve never had time to get dressed. Life has always surprised you,” Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said of Valparaiso, where one of his three homes, La Sebastiana, is located (all filled with his astonishing collections of souvenirs of all kinds). Truly putting the “free” in graffiti, Valpo Street Art offers free tours.
WHERE: Belgrade, Serbia
A painted flat-weave kilim in a geometric pattern, mostly red, from the town of Pirot in southeast Serbia, near Bulgaria, adorns this stairway in downtown Belgrade, the capital. It’s near Manak’s House, a museum whose superb collection of over 2,600 carpets, costumes, jewelry, and textiles from former Yugoslavian states is part of the Ethnographic Museum. A symbol of Serbia for centuries and honored on its intangible cultural treasures list, the Pirot carpet was re-introduced for state ceremonies in 2011.