All is right with the world when you’re gazing down from the rooftop of Milan’s Duomo. That is, until you remember the steep marble stairs that got you there—and are your only way down.
Stairways can leave just as much of an impact on your memory as the places they lead you. Some are so eye-catching they look like they belong in an M.C. Escher painting, while other stairs are downright intimidating, especially when they stand between you and a site you flew half way across the world to experience.
In Peru, for instance, travelers need to tackle about 600 feet of slippery granite rocks carved into the mountainside to reach the Moon Temple at Machu Picchu. And at Yosemite National Park, you can’t take a selfie at the top of Half Dome without climbing a cable ladder up the rock face for more than 400 feet.
All it takes is a misstep for any old staircase to become treacherous (just ask Jennifer Lawrence), yet some standout for being especially scary. A set of stairs in Hawaii is so precariously perched that climbing is now illegal. In China, there’s a stairway with an age requirement. Other stairs are intimidating for more psychological reasons, such as the creaking noises made by the world’s longest wooden stairway in Norway, or the eerie atmosphere at “The Stairway to Hell,” part of an abandoned industrial complex in Japan.
Travelers with nerves of steel—and eager for bragging rights—follow these stairs because of what they find at the end, whether a sacred Hindu temple or the top of a spectacular waterfall. There’s nothing quite like the thrill of accomplishment that comes once you’ve taken that last step. Safely, that is.