Flights of stairs have been around for millennia. In fact, one of the oldest sets of steps, some 12,000 years old, was uncovered in Gobekli Tepe, in the Anatolian region of Turkey. Over the years, steps stopped being purely functional and became very much part of the architecture of a building, with their design just as important as the space they are built in or the landmarks they reach up to.
There are so many stunning staircases we all love, from the Spanish Steps in Rome to the stairs up the Lion Rock in Sri Lanka; the spiral staircase in the Vatican to the numerous stairs of Montmartre; the colorful 16th Avenue Tiled Staircase in San Francisco to the hive-like stairs of the Vessel in New York City; or the simple piano steps in Valparaiso. All are special. But here I have brought together some which might not be that famous and others that people might walk by without noticing, but I love them personally for some reason or other.
As with all these things, beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder. I hope that my choices inspire you to search some of these staircases out during your future travels!
1. Chand Baori, Abhaneri, India
This is, without a doubt, the most spectacular set of stairs in the world. It looks like a trompe l’oeil, a visual illusion, but it is very real. Chand Baori is a 16-story stairwell, with sets of 3,500 narrow steps in symmetrical perfection, all leading down to a freshwater well. Built by King Chand between 800 and 900 A.D., this is a massive space, and you discover a new interesting angle from every step. Absolutely mind-boggling, these truly are the stairs to end all stairs.
Pro Tip: Chand Baori lies within the triangle of Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal. When setting out on a Rajasthan tour or day trip to any of these, make sure it will actually stop here, because quite often tours don’t.
2. Gustave Moreau Museum, Paris, France
One of my favorite spiral staircases is not one of the biggest or even the most stunning, but to me, it is perfection, especially as it is found in an often overlooked museum in Paris. With the museum also being the former home of the painter, seeing the staircase is almost an afterthought, as the main attraction is the admittedly wonderful artwork by Gustave Moreau. Yet, this little piece of twirling perfection is just so picturesque that you forget about the artwork for a moment.
Pro Tip: While you are there, walk five minutes up the road to the Museum of the Romantics, another fabulous little museum off the beaten path, with a great cafe in the garden.
3. Livraria Lello, Porto, Portugal
I can never walk past a bookstore, and especially not a historic one set in an art nouveau building. Add a crimson staircase, and you are onto a winner. In Portugal’s second city, Porto, of wine fame, you can find the Livraria Lello, whose nearly organic-looking staircase is a real stunner. You could say the interior of the beautiful store is somewhat over-decorated, with the plaster details of the painted ceiling and the swirling, crimson-covered stairs, not to mention the actual ornate bookshelves, but no. In this case, more is definitely more.
Pro Tip: The bookstore is now so famous for its interior that they charge an entrance fee to curb overcrowding. But buy a book, and you get the fee refunded. It doesn’t get fairer than that.
4. Den Bell Tower, Antwerp, Belgium
This is a tricky one. It’s not an official sight in Antwerp, but an office building that houses various functions including council offices. The Den Bell Tower is part of the former National Bell Telephone Company, founded in 1877 by Graham Bell, which operated its foreign branch in Antwerp under the name Bell Telephone Manufacturing Company. The tower was added in 1956 and is 190 feet high. At the back of the tower is a wonderful staircase winding its way all the way up, not quite in a spiral but an awkward ellipse, which is flattened on one side, and which is hugely photogenic, especially when you look down from the top.
Pro Tip: You can ask at reception if you can have a look. They are aware of the architectural landmark they have within the building and are usually very accommodating. Take the lift up and walk down for great pictures.
5. San Juan De Gaztelugatxe, Spain
Roughly 14 miles north of Bilbao on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, lies a handful of small islands, one of which has a tiny monastery on it and is connected to its neighbor via a stone walkway with stairs dating back to the 11th century. It looks a little like a part of the Great Wall of China but is in fact part walkway, part stairs, with a manageable 230-odd steps. There is a legend that if you ring the bell in the church three times when you get there, you can make a wish.
The steps have reportedly featured in the popular TV series Game of Thrones, with the small island standing in for Dragonstone.
Pro Tip: This is a popular day trip from Bilbao, so come out of season, in spring or fall, and come early in the day. In summer it is solid with visitors, and in winter the monastery is closed.
6. Heal’s Furniture Store, London, England
Inside the Heal’s flagship furniture store on Tottenham Court Road in London, not far from the British Museum, you will find a spiral staircase adorned with perfect long lights hanging down in the middle all the way from the top, making it oh so photogenic. While there has been a Heal’s store on this road for more than 200 years, this particular building was built between 1914 and 1917. Cecil Brewer designed the staircase at the back of the store in 1916.
Pro Tip: As you ascend or descend the stairs, look out for the sleek art deco cat sculpture by French sculptor Chassagne. It is the shop’s mascot.
7. Landgericht, Halle, Germany
The district court building in the central German city of Halle is your typical, if pretty, turn of the century public building that you find on many German main squares. Walk in, though, and the colors and ornate architecture and decor take your breath away. The ceilings are painted and vaulted, doorways and walkways are arched, windows are stained glass, and apart from the odd column, not an inch has been left undecorated. As for the staircase, it is not only swerving elegantly, but it is painted, carved, and the banisters and railings are made from finely woven metalwork, giving an overall picture of true splendor.
Pro Tip: This is a court building, but you can visit every first Saturday of the month for a tour of the building.
8. Museum Of Islamic Art, Doha, Qatar
Designed by the late I.M. Pei, the architect mostly known for the glass pyramid outside the Louvre in Paris, the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is one of my favorite museums in the world. Not only does it exhibit beautiful art, but it’s also a building remarkable in all its simplicity. Step inside and the first thing you see is the grand staircase. Minimalist and plain, with two wings leading up, forming two halves of a ring. Topped by a round light, it is the polar opposite of the ornateness of Halle’s Landgericht, but no less impressive.
Pro Tip: If you like architecture, have a look at the nearby National Museum of Qatar, designed by Jean Nouvel in the shape of a desert rose, a mineral formation that resembles rose petals.
9. Art Gallery Of Ontario, Toronto, Canada
As you would expect from a renowned art gallery, the staircase inside the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto is just as worthy an exhibit as the art. The Frank Gehry-designed smooth, wood-clad staircase winds its way up from the second floor through the glass ceiling to the fifth floor, giving it the moniker Stairway to Heaven. And, as you cannot see the actual steps, it looks more like a sculpture than a useful stairwell.
Pro Tip: I love museum shops for their quirky gifts, and this one in the AGO is excellent. You can even order online if you can’t get there in person.
I hope this selection of my personal favorite staircases has inspired you! A bit of everything, from modern to old, from plain to ornate, from indoor to outdoor. Have you got a favorite?