The archetype of a mythical lost world, the sunken City of Atlantis was conjured up by none other than Plato himself in two of his dialogues. Some even mocked him for the grandiosity he attributed to the Bronze Age continent (one of his contemporaries, Theopompus, even thought up another fictional island, Meropis, as a parody of Atlantis). The Greek philosopher and expert on the human condition sketched a highly sophisticated civilisation made up of several concentric islands, founded by demigods and rich in exotic fauna and flora. Plato also described the nation’s downfall. When its people got a tad too hubristic, the ocean swallowed the land whole, though that doesn’t prevent it from having a prominent hold over mankind’s imagination to this day.
Of all the enchanting places on this list, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon’s existence is the one in which humans have put the most stock. After all, Herodotus categorised it as one of his classic Seven Wonders of the World, and multiple Classical authors have painted a picture of an awe-inducing oasis of splendid height boasting floating terraces, cascading streams and lush exotic greenery everywhere.
However, endless digs around its suspected location near the royal palace of Babylon have left archaeologists empty-handed time and again, sowing doubt about whether the most mythical of all World Wonders was anything more than a beautiful vintage story perpetuated by the Greeks and Romans. Historians haven’t given up the fight just yet, considering other locations and other forms the gardens might have taken (for example, a collection of gorgeous rooftop gardens), but until these theories are grounded in evidence, the Hanging Gardens will float somewhere between fable and fiction.
Merriam-Webster defines Shangri-La as a synonym of Utopia: ‘a remote beautiful imaginary place where life approaches perfection’. From the mind of Brit James Hilton, the term first entered public consciousness in his novel Lost Horizon as a reimagining of an ancient fictional paradise: Tibet’s Shambala Kingdom. Though thought to be the birthplace of Vishnu’s final reincarnation by Hindus, legends and mentions of this joyful paradise in the form of a Himalayan valley separated from the known world were around long before this organised religion. Hilton’s book popularised the myth in the West by having the hero of his tale find ultimate joy and fulfilment among the wise, immortal beings of Shangri-La.
A mythic world connected to Buddhist belief and hiding in the core of the earth instead of on its roof, Agartha is supposed to house a superb, wise civilisation. Flowing together as these legends often do, some say that Shangri-La or Shambala is actually its capital. Theories of different possible access points to this tranquil, subterranean continent abound, from the South and North Poles to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave or the Himalayan mountains.
A particularly alluring vision in Celtic mythology is the supernatural land of Tír na nÓg (‘The Land of Ever Young’). With its possible location off of Ireland’s west coast, this place – where five days equal three earthly years – is only ever seen by a lucky few. Drowning in Old Irish names such as Tíg Tairngire (‘Land of Promise’) and Mag Mell (‘Plain of Delight’), this lush dwelling’s trees, flowers and hills remain green year-round. No wonder its inhabitants never feel sad. And if you thought the mortal Irish were a friendly folk, wait until you meet the Tuatha Dé Danann, a mythic Celtic people who many believe have evolved into the Fae or Fairies that Ireland is so fond of. You’ll need their invitation to live with them in Tír na nÓg and drink from their crystal glasses and listen to the plucking of golden harps.
Oh, how European gold rushers have salivated over and pined after El Dorado. The myth of this solid gold city rumoured to be hidden somewhere deep in South America drove many 16th- and 17th-century explorers, including Elisabeth I devotee Sir Walter Raleigh, to one unfruitful expedition after the next. Of course, the appeal of a land so prosperous that even the King is covered in gold dust can’t help but cause visions of one’s own version of Scrooge McDuck’s daily money swim.
First popping up in writing in a 1250 medieval text and 12th-century oral accounts before that, the abundance of life in whimsical Cockaigne – where various types of cheese rain from the sky and wine flows in streams down an idyllic land – hasn’t been forgotten. Even with our lives now hundreds of times more comfortable than that of a medieval peasant (who you can imagine could do with a little daydreaming of a land like Cockaigne while ploughing through muddy fields), we still know about the most widespread idea of Utopia eight centuries ago. It was a place where geese roasted themselves, and roofs were made of bacon. It was also where sexual freedom outdid the 70s, and sleeping was a well-paid job.
According to Norse mythology, Álfheimr is where the light-elves live, way up in the highest echelons of the world. It’s part of the ‘Nine Worlds’ that give sense to the universe. While some are burning hot places overflowing with lava or permanently clouded in mist, Álfheimr is a fertile place filled with the light and warmth of the elves, gracious demigods who are ‘fairer to look upon than the sun’ – as described by a 12th-century prose poet.
In a well-known Japanese folktale, a young fisherman rescues a turtle from a group of mean-spirited kids, and his reward for his brave act is a trip to the underwater Dragon Palace, or Ryūgū-jō. By holding onto the turtle’s back, he reaches a royal mansion made either of red and white coral or crystal (depending on who is telling the story). The home of the Dragon King and the beautiful Dragon Princess has a different season on each side, with springtime cherry blossoms visible from the east windows and summertime sunflowers from the south. To get a glimpse of the aquatic splendour that the Ryūgū-jō holds, the Japanese believe that one has to find a rare Rumphius’ slit shell and observe its pearly interior.
Only the cream of the crop makes it into Elysium or the Elysian Fields (later also referred to as the Fortunate Isles, or the Isles of the Blessed). The ancient Greeks’ version of heaven was deemed by Homer as ‘a place of perfect happiness’, sitting on the edge of the earth with a soft breeze blowing over from mythic river Oceanus. While immoral souls were sent to perish in Hades’ underworld, the most virtuous and heroic of mankind – the so-called ‘deserving dead’ – were selected to live in a land where ‘there falls not rain, nor hail, nor snow’ (Homer in the Odyssey), and where idyllic meadows provided eternal hunting joy and plump, golden fruits.
A direct neighbour to Álfheimr up in the heavens and another one of the ‘Nine Worlds’ is Asgard, home of the warrior gods or Aesir. Ruled over by Odin and his Queen Frigg, it’s connected to the land of mortal humans, Midgard, via a rainbow bridge. Behind its towering stone walls lies not just Valhalla, Odin’s fabulous hall where the greatest warriors gather, but several other gold and silver mansions for each God and Goddess to call their own. Described in medieval texts as a land of abundance in every way, its inhabitants are more powerful and talented than any other. It’s in many ways the Norse equivalent to the Greeks’ Mount Olympus, with both deity populations frequently getting rowdy on honey-based spirits (mead and ambrosia respectively).
Most recently seen as Gal Gadot’s lush paradise home in 2017’s Wonder Woman, the legend of the Amazons’ island nation has been around a lot longer than she has. Reliably an enchanted city-state and mostly man-free zone, Themyscira is a nation of fierce female warriors, visited in Greek mythology by Heracles, Theseus and Zeus, among others. Imaginings of this paradise have changed plenty over the ages, with the current depiction by Marvel showing a slightly futuristic, blue-watered wonderland.
In the realm of Arthurian legend and Celtic myth, Avalon (‘Isle of Apples’) was considered the ultimate safe haven. After first extracting his sword Excalibur on the island as a young lad, this is where King Arthur was nourished back to health after his near-lethal battle with Mordred. In the earliest sources, it’s described as a land of plenty, where wild apple trees and vineyards grow of their own accord no matter what the season and British knights gather around their king to live in peace.
If Avalon is King Arthur’s pastoral sojourn, Camelot was his dynamic masterpiece. In conjunction with its revered ruler, the stories of his court and the chivalrous men populating it have become timeless. Filled with jovial jousting tournaments on its grassy hills, happy kids scampering around, wealthy merchants, grand architecture and a hint of mysticism, the lavish castle city has captivated the imaginations of romantic souls everywhere since its glorious descriptions in (mainly French) Middle Ages prose.
Somewhere in the vast Libyan desert to the west of Egypt’s Nile River, in one of the world’s driest, most unforgiving parts, there’s said to be a ‘Shining City’. Zerzura, a white-washed oasis in the mode of the ancient Egyptian cities, formed an especially alluring subject of conversation among Arabians during the first decades of the previous century when even nomads had no clear image of how every part of the Sahara fit together. The elusive dwelling, full of palm trees, wells, treasure and a sleeping king and queen, is guarded by giants in some accounts and boasts a gate with a striking bird carved into it by others.