Since it first took flight in 1783, the hot-air balloon has been one of the most unique ways to see the world’s spectacular settings from above. Whether you’re gliding over the stupas in Bagan, marveling at the idyllic Lake District in England, or taking in the arid landscape of Sedona, a balloon ride, the oldest form of aerial transportation, is sure to be the highlight of any trip. True aficionados should visit the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October, but there are plenty of breathtaking rides to be taken around the world throughout the year. Little romance remains in air travel these days, but take to the skies on one of these hot-air balloon journeys to recapture the magic of flying.—Abbey Chase
The craggy landscape of Cappadocia in central Turkey was home to a bustling trade industry more than 4,000 years ago, and its “fairy chimney” rock formations have continued to fascinate visitors ever since. Wind and water erosion plus eruptions from nearby active volcanoes have contributed to the area’s prehistoric appearance, which is best enjoyed from above. Take a balloon out of the town of Goreme and watch the sunrise while floating through the region’s rugged valleys.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Cappadocia Travel Guide
Sedona’s glowing red sandstone forms the perfect backdrop to a sunrise glide over the wide, arid expanse. The Sonoran Desert is home to the only population of jaguars in the United States, and as you glide at lower altitudes, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of some of the area’s unique wildlife. Red Rock Balloons lifts off along Dry Creek Road just outside Sedona, positioning you perfectly for a flight over the Seven Canyons area.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Sedona Travel Guide
Known for its high concentration of Buddhist temples and stupas, Bagan boasts a wide, flat landscape dotted with thousands of glittering spires. Dating back as far as the ninth century, many of the temples today have suffered significant erosion damage, exposing the brick structural blocks and revealing a spectacular rusty red color. Balloons over Bagan offers one of the most stunning rides over the landscape, taking guests above the temples of Bagan and past nearby villages. As there is no designated landing spot, you never know where in the stunning environs your journey will end.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Myanmar Travel Guide
Napa Valley, California
While many of Napa’s delights are best enjoyed on the ground with a glass in hand, a view from above offers another great way to experience California’s famous valley. If you set out from Yountville, you’ll be afforded views of Mount St. Helena and the Mayacamas Mountains, with sweeping vineyards in the foreground; in the right weather conditions, you’ll even be able to see the San Francisco skyline in the distance. Many balloon companies offer brunch and wine-tasting packages with their rides to cap off the aerial adventure.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Napa Valley Travel Guide
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Tanzania’s most famous national park sees the migration of hundreds of thousands of wildebeests, zebras, and gazelles every year, the ultimate African safari experience. While it would be impossible to see the entirety of the enormous, 5,700-square-mile park, take to the skies for a hot-air balloon safari to see the expansive plains of this UNESCO World Heritage Site stretch out before you. Serengeti Balloon Safaris offers sunrise tours with a breakfast served in the bush to follow your ride.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Tanzania Travel Guide
Loire Valley, France
The Edenic valley in the French heartland is best known for its collection of stunning châteaux, but the picturesque villages, sweeping greenery, and winding river define the region as much as its stately residences. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Loire Valley is only two hours south of Paris, making it an easy side trip from the city. The spring and summer months see the region in full bloom, making it the optimal time for a sunrise or sunset ride over the bucolic landscape.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Loire Valley Travel Guide
Queenstown, New Zealand
Nestled along the shores of Queenstown Bay, Queenstown does not lack in dramatic scenery, with stunning views of The Remarkables mountain range rising in the distance above the cerulean waters of Lake Wakatipu. The area, perhaps best known as the filming location of The Hobbit, opens up spectacularly before you once you climb aboard a hot-air balloon. Sunrise Balloon Adventures takes you through the valleys between Queenstown and Arrowtown, where you’ll see some of New Zealand’s most breathtaking natural landscapes as well as its world-famous golf courses.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Queenstown Travel Guide
If you can pry yourself away from the world-famous slopes in Gstaad, you’ll find that the mountains are equally impressive from the air. Flights out of Gstaad offer 360-degree views of surrounding Berner Oberland, as well as a bird’s-eye view of the mountain towns dotted across the hillsides. Alpine Ballooning offers rides during both winter and summer seasons, and visitors looking for the ultimate ballooning experience should head to Gstaad during the Festival International de Ballons, Chateau-d’Oex in January to watch the spectacle.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Gstaad Travel Guide
The limestone karst formations near Yangshuo and Guilin draw visitors from all over the world, offering an otherworldly landscape along the Li River that has been immortalized in everything from traditional Chinese paintings to Star Wars. Most choose to experience the region by boat, but consider a hot air balloon ride as a great alternative for avoiding the crowds. Untethered flights soar to as high as 4,900 feet and take you through the karst peaks and surrounding farmland, while tethered flights, gaining an altitude of only about 300 feet, offer an equally appealing option for those looking to stay closer to the ground.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Yangshuo Travel Guide
Magalies River Valley, South Africa
Located between Pretoria and Johannesburg, the Magalies River Valley is a popular destination for boating, golf, and other outdoor activities in the verdant region surrounding the Hartbeespoort Dam. Bill Harrop’s Original Balloon Safaris is one of the premier operators in the region, taking off in Gauteng, an area known as the Cradle of Humankind. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, the area is home to some of the oldest fossils ever discovered, dating back 3.3 million years.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s South Africa Travel Guide
The ancient city of Teotihuacan, known as the City of the Gods, dates back as far as 300 B.C. and was at one point the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas. The city is best known for its enormous pyramids, which include temples to the moon, sun, and Quetzalcoatl, a Mesoamerican deity with the body of a snake, that have been excellently preserved over thousands of years. While the complex is easily explored on foot, a bird’s-eye view affords a stunning perspective of the massive structures. Rides lift off near Mexico City, 30 miles southwest of Teotihuacan.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Teotihuacan Travel Guide
Monument Valley, Utah
Nothing quite embodies the quintessential American Wild West as much as the stark sandstone buttes of Monument Valley, thanks to their appearances in iconic Western films starring John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, as well as in Thelma & Louise, Forrest Gump, and Windtalkers. Located along the Arizona–Utah border near the Four Corners, the area is crammed with stunning natural wonders, including deep gorges, sculpted rock formations, and windswept mesas. Glide over the famous landscape with Monument Valley Hot Air Balloon Rides, which includes an overnight stay in the area near the launch point.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Monument Valley Travel Guide
Letchworth State Park, New York
The Genesee River forms the centerpiece of this park in upstate New York, cutting a gorge through the landscape that produces Letchworth’s three main waterfalls. Known as the “Grand Canyon of the East,” Letchworth is best viewed from a balloon, as you drift through the gorge and over the park’s stomach-dropping waterfalls. The park hosts a balloon rally every year in May to celebrate the gorgeous scenery and the ballooning craft.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s New York Travel Guide
Yarra Valley, Australia
Perfect growing conditions make this area just outside Melbourne a wine and agricultural hub, its landscape teeming with vineyards, orchards, and farmland. As the sun rises, you’ll experience serenely floating over the expansive greenery with rolling hills extending in every direction. Global Ballooning Australia offers flights with a take-off point conveniently located at Rochford Winery. If you’re in nearby Melbourne, 35 miles southwest of Yarra Valley, Global Ballooning also offers rides over the city, a unique experience of gliding over a major metropolitan area.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Yarra Valley Travel Guide
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world and Cambodia’s most famous landmark. The temple complex was constructed in the early twelfth century, acting as the capital of the Khmer Empire, and the monument has been fantastically preserved for modern viewing. The entire site covers more than 500 acres, making a balloon trip well worth it for the stunning views of the landscape. Angkor Hot Air Balloon offers flights during sunrise and sunset, with views of Angkor Wat and Siem Reap.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Siem Reap Travel Guide
Lake Tahoe, California
The largest lake in the U.S. behind the Great Lakes, Lake Tahoe is the epicenter of year-round outdoor activity in the Sierra Nevada. For optimal views of the surrounding area, Lake Tahoe Balloons launches off the deck of the Tahoe Flyer, a U.S.C.G.-certified boat, making for a unique liftoff. On your ride, you’ll see Emerald Bay, Fallen Leaf Lake, Cascade Lake, and the Desolation Wilderness in the Eldorado National Forest, with views of Yosemite’s peaks visible on particularly clear days.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Lake Tahoe Travel Guide
Luxor and the nearby Valley of the Kings are two of the most historically rich regions in the world as the site of the ancient city of Thebes and famous temples and tombs along the West Bank Necropolis of the Nile. The Luxor Temple is one of the area’s most spectacular monuments, built more than 3,000 years ago and dedicated to the cult of Royal Ka. A balloon ride over the West Bank will take you past the Mortuary Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, carved into the cliffs at Deir el Bahari in honor of the first known female Pharaoh, as well as the Temples of Ramses II and III.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Luxor Travel Guide
Lake District, England
Inspiration to the likes of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Gray, England’s Lake District is one of the country’s most picturesque spots. The Lake District National Park is home to England’s tallest peak, Scafell Pike, as well pastoral mountain scenery and native English flora and fauna. Virgin Balloon Flights takes out of Newby Bridge along Lake Windermere, offering rides with panoramic views of the lush hillsides, idyllic towns, and puffing steam trains below.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Lake District Travel Guide
Wadi Rum, Jordan
The dramatically barren Wadi Rum has been inhabited since prehistoric times and is still home to the Zalabia Bedouin people, who lead various outdoor expeditions through the desolate landscape. The copper sanded expanse is dotted with jutting rock formations, including the famous “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” named after T.E. Lawrence’s autobiography. As you float over 280 square miles of desert, you’ll be able to take in all the sandstone and granite mountains and narrow canyons that hold millennia-old rock drawings.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Jordan Travel Guide
Colorado Springs, Colorado
A full view of Pikes Peak and a breath of fresh mountain air will greet you as you take to the skies over Colorado Springs, an hour-long drive south of the Mile High City. Adventures Out West will take you high enough to see 100 miles in any direction and low enough to see ranch land, as well as deer, coyotes, jackrabbits, and pronghorn antelopes. The company also offers rides in South Park, a convenient drive from many of the Front Range’s popular mountain towns.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodor’s Colorado Springs Travel Guide