Enter the Royal Palace’s Mirror Room in Brussels and your gaze sweeps past the gilded walls right up to its emerald-green ceiling. And while the iridescent shimmer may look like it’s emanating from precious gems, you’re actually staring at more than one million Thai jewel-beetle shells. Belgian artist Jan Fabre oversaw a team of 29 who hand-glued each shell to the ceiling over three months in 2002.
As their painstaking handiwork illustrates, art isn’t confined to museum or palace walls, and ceilings are a blank canvas for more than religious frescoes; the world’s coolest ceilings will defy your expectations. They can turn up in the unholiest of places, such as Las Vegas, where the 18-foot ceiling above the lobby check-in counters at the Bellagio blooms with more than 2,000 flowers in a rainbow of colors thanks to glass sculptor Dale Chihuly.
“Decorations establish the ceiling as a ‘fifth wall,’ something detached from our earthly realm,” says Amanda Scotese, who worked as a tour guide in Italy with Rick Steves for nearly a decade and now runs Chicago Detours, a tour company. “The effect of the act of craning your neck back is that as we contort our bodies into that uncomfortable position, we know that we are experiencing something out of the ordinary.”
That was the intention of artists who have historically used ceilings as an inspirational, instructional representation of the heavens. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in Rome is the most famous example. Yet nearby, within the Church of St. Ignazio, the Baroque painter Andrea Pozzo created the illusion of a dome with his trompe l’oeil fresco. It’s a cool, 3-D–like effect that you can appreciate without being elbowed by hordes of other onlookers—a welcome benefit that you won’t always find when viewing the world’s coolest ceilings.
“Putting an elaborate ceiling in a room is a bit like lining the inside of a jewelry box or wallpapering a closet,” says Kelsey Keith, editor-in-chief of Architizer magazine. “It’s unexpected, inventive, and slightly secretive.”
So keep your eyes peeled for the world’s coolest ceilings—with this much beauty, you won’t even notice if your neck hurts.