Centuries ago, lighthouses were nothing more than hilltop beacon fires lit to guide mariners safely to port. As time passed, structures arose. Bonfires evolved into candles and oil lamps backed by mirrors. Scientists developed specialized compact lenses that could send light beams upwards of 35 miles across dark water. Today, more than 18,600 lighthouses dot our globe. Here are some of the most magnificent:
Lake Constance in Lindau, Germany
Constructed in 1856, this 108-foot-tall structure took the place of the Lindau port’s former light station, the Mangtrum Tower, which was built in 1230. Because it was erected before the invention of electricity, Lindau’s first lighthouse required its keeper to continuously stoke an open oil fire—while simultaneously manning both the bell and foghorn. Unique to this lighthouse is its giant clock, visible from most points in the city center.
Tower of Hercules
La Coruña, Spain
According to an ancient myth, the Roman god Hercules fought and killed the giant tyrant Geryon on the site where this lighthouse now stands. In celebration, Hercules buried the giant’s head and weapons and ordered a city to be built on top of them. Today, the UNESCO-listed Tower of Hercules—constructed at the end of the 1st century—is the oldest operational lighthouse in the world. It rises 180 feet from a headland in the northwest corner of Spain and shares its site with a sculpture park, the Iron Age archaeological site of Monte dos Bicos, and a Muslim cemetery.
Rubjerg Knude Lighthouse
If you’re planning to visit the Rubjerg Knude lighthouse on Jutland’s North Sea coast, you might want to do so before 2023. That is when scientists predict that shifting sand dunes and aggressive wave erosion will topple the tower into the sea. Though the lighthouse was originally built over 215 yards inland, the ocean and winds have eaten away at the coast so significantly—at a rate of around five feet per year—that the structure now sits only a handful of yards from the edge. This erosion began shortly after the tower’s construction in 1900. Despite efforts to combat the encroaching sand, the tower’s light was lit for the last time in 1968. A museum and coffee shop opened in the buildings at the base of the lighthouse when the tower closed. Unfortunately, both shut their doors in 2002 and have since been buried by the sands.
Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse
Known as the “lighthouse at the end of the world,” this pint-sized tower rises just 36 feet from a craggy rock in the Beagle Channel. It was built in 1920 less than six miles east of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Originally operated manually, its solar-powered light is now automated and remote controlled.
County Wexford, Ireland
As far back as the 5th century, monks lit a beacon fire on the tip of the Hook Peninsula to warn ships of the jagged rocks below. It would be 700 years before the second-oldest operational lighthouse in the world would come into existence. Monks continued to tend the light until the arrival of the first official keepers in the middle of the 17th century. The peninsula on which the lighthouse stands is no stranger to history, either. It is the basis of a common theory on the origin of the phrase, “By hook or by crook.” Military and political leader Oliver Cromwell is said to have vowed to take the city of Waterford by Hook, located on the east side of the Waterford Estuary, or by Crook—a town to the west of it.
From the early 13th century, Crete—then known as the Kingdom of Candia—was a colony of the Republic of Venice. Under the threat of Turkish invasion in the late 16th century, the Venetians constructed a bastion and lighthouse to guard the entrance to the Port of Chania. A chain could be connected from the base of the lighthouse to the Firka Fortress to “close” the harbor to enemy vessels. After centuries of neglect and various rebuilding efforts, today the lighthouse is no longer in operation. You can still visit the structure, but the minaret-like tower is closed to visitors.
Neist Point Lighthouse
Isle of Skye, Scotland
Located on the most westerly point of the Isle of Skye, the Neist Point Lighthouse affords surreal views of Moonen Bay. Due to its location, it is considered the best place on the island from which to spot marine life. First lit in 1909, the structure was so isolated that supplies had to be carried in via an aerial cableway. You can reach the lighthouse by foot in about 45 minutes along a scenic clifftop path. Be aware, however, that the trail gets very steep at points.
Andros Island, Greece
Perched atop an eroded rock spire off the coast of Andros, the Tourlitis Lighthouse resembles an otherworldly cinematic creation. The original structure was built in 1897 but tragically destroyed during WWII. A new tower took its place in the early 1990s, becoming Greece’s first automated lighthouse.
County Donegal, Ireland
Situated at the edge of Porsalon and Ballymastocker Bay, this iconic lighthouse is considered among the world’s most beautiful. It was first lit on St. Patrick’s Day in 1817, and is one of 12 that compose the Great Lighthouses of Ireland—a countrywide tourism initiative aimed at promoting the history and heritage of lighthouses.