Aug. 23, 2012 at 2:34 PM ET
Bridges have always held a place in our collective history. Whether symbolizing escapes to new frontiers or the intrinsic connection between old and new, these architectural marvels are captivating. Some seem to defy nature by spanning treacherous waterways or deep canyons; others defy the human condition by connecting cities in conflict over territory or ideology. Other bridges are romantic constructions, paying homage to art and beauty as much as form and function.
The Brooklyn Bridge, the iconic symbol that connects lower Manhattan to Brooklyn over the East River, incorporates several of these criteria. City engineers in the 1800s were faced with a formidable challenge: designing a bridge to span one of the era’s busiest and roughest stretches of saltwater. As historical author David McCullough relates in "The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge," his 615-page account of its construction: “If there is to be a bridge,” wrote one man, “it must take one grand flying leap from shore to shore over the masts of the ships. There can be no piers or drawbridge. There must be only one great arch all the way across. Surely this must be a wonderful bridge.” Today, the Brooklyn Bridge is part of the cultural fabric of New York—few could imagine the cityscape without it.
Each of the magnificent bridges on this list comes with its own story. According to lore, Ponte dei Sospiri in Venice offered a final glimpse of freedom to prisoners on their way to execution. The lovely Khaju Bridge in Iran was both a respite for lovers and a getaway for the shah. And in Singapore, the newly constructed Helix Bridge looks to the future of bridge building, with aesthetics, engineering and imagination integrated into its high-tech double-helix design.
Whether motivating the planning of an adventure or simply brightening a commute, these wonders of the world are well worth crossing.
Tower Bridge in London
London’s 272-foot, dual-bascule bridge began as an architectural conundrum. As the East End of the capital city became more densely populated in the 19th century, the city needed a new crossing structure downstream of the London Bridge, but could not afford to disrupt river traffic in the process. The solution? A bridge that could raise and lower to allow river traffic to pass. It took more than 50 design submissions, eight years, five major contractors and 432 construction workers, but by 1894 the Tower Bridge was finally completed. The finished product was an architectural marvel—at the time the largest and most sophisticated bascule bridge ever built, which powered its 1,100-ton decks with steam hydraulics. Impressive engineering by day, yes, but the bridge is even more spectacular at night, aglow with floodlights illuminating its fairy-tale turrets.
Tower Bridge Rd.; 44-20/7403-3761; towerbridge.org.uk
Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco
Completed in 1937, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is perhaps the Golden State’s most majestic and iconic landmark—it appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in 1975—attracting more than 10 million visitors a year. The 4,200-foot bridge spans the picturesque Golden Gate Strait and is painted International Orange, a vivid hue chosen so that the arch could be seen through San Francisco’s ever-present fog. The Golden Gate has cropped up in various films, including "The Maltese Falcon," and has inspired countless writers, including James D. Strauss, who wrote in his 1937 homage: “My arms are flung across the deep, / Into the clouds my towers soar, / And where the waters never sleep, / I guard the California shore.”
Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy
Naturally, the tallest and oldest bridge in Florence is steeped in history. The Medieval stone-and-wood Ponte Vecchio crosses the Arno River at its narrowest point and is lined with overhanging shops. Butchers occupied the bridge until the 16th century, when the duke of Florence and Tuscany complained about the smell; the butchers were out, and the gold and silversmiths (who remain on the bridge to this day) were in. Later on, the ancient structure’s legendary reputation would be its savior. In 1944, the Nazis ignored orders to destroy all the bridges in Florence, apparently deciding the Ponte Vecchio was too beautiful to decimate. They blew up the ancient buildings on each end of the bridge instead.
Via dè Guicciardini; 39-055/287-797.
Khaju Bridge in Isfahan, Iran
Isfahan is one of the oldest cities in Iran, and in its heyday it was one of the most elegant. Equally lovely is the charming Khaju Bridge over the Zayandeh River, constructed in 1650 by Shah Abbas the Great, who built many of the city’s famous mosques and palaces. The 24-arch bridge quickly became both a romantic escape—a place for hide-and-seek or a cover for lovers—and a practical addition. Because the brick bridge is atop a dam, its sliding gates allow it to raise the river’s water level to irrigate the fields. Even the shah was captivated: He had rooms within the bridge repainted and tiled so he and his court could use it as a retreat.
Puente del Alamillo, Seville, Spain
Though many of the bridges on this list are ancient, modern marvels can be equally breathtaking. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava designed Seville’s Puente del Alamillo for Expo ’92, a world’s fair–like exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. The striking 13-cable-stayed bridge extends 466 feet into the air, cascading downward as it stretches across the Guadalquivir River, which connects the old quarter of Seville with La Cartuja Island, where Columbus lived while he planned his voyage across the Atlantic.
Located just north of Seville’s historic center.
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