The Brilliance of Sunrise
Sunrise and sunset are often accorded the same reverence in literature and song, but on Instagram it’s a different story. A quick search of the #sunset tag shows 300 million posts and a search of the #sunrise tag shows 1/4 that many. The reason: far more people are awake for the sunset than sunrise.
My advice: wake up early! When you’re traveling, get up at daybreak and head out – and not only when you’re jet-lagged.
What you’ll find:
- Amazing light for photography, with soft shadows and red/orange hues. Plus the light is coming from a different direction than the sunset light, so your photos won’t look the same as everyone else’s.
- Fewer tourists.
- A sense of peace.
- A unique view of a destination coming alive.
Of course there are exceptions – those places that everyone wants to see at sunrise, like Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat and the Taj Mahal. Get up early there as well! But make an effort to find a unique vantage point away from the crowds.
Some of my favorite sunrise experiences around the world:
I’ve spent several nights on different trips camping in the desert in India, near Jaisalmer and Pushkar. It’s magical to wake up early, head away from camp and photograph the sunrise. Although I’ve typically travelled to Rajasthan for festivals, it’s the solitude in the desert that keeps drawing me back.
In Barbados, horse jockeys and owners bring their horses down to the ocean every morning as the salt water relaxes the horses’ muscles. I was staying at the nearby Hilton and walked over to the beach to watch the procession. Before long I was in the water! So much fun, and there were virtually no other tourists around.
Every morning that I was in Havana I headed out early and explored a different part of the city. One morning when it was still dark I came across a man getting out of old American car, perfectly lit, and I won Conde Nast Traveler’s Photo of the Year award for the shot. But my favorite Havana morning shot is this one – a man in a pedicab kissing his girlfriend (or possibly wife) good night as he was dropping her off at 6am.
Lloret de Mar, Spain
Lloret de Mar is a beach destination for European tourists. It’s pretty, but not overly interesting. So when I was in town for a travel conference, I arranged with the tourist board to meet up with a local photographer for the sunrise. The photographer, a helicopter pilot who had the day off, picked me up in the dark and drove me to the public beach. We parked and hiked around the bay to this spot – Cala Dels Frares. As my luggage was delayed, I was still wearing the same clothes I had worn on the flight over, and I didn’t have my tripod. But none of that mattered once we settled in and watched the sky slowly get lighter. I put my camera on a rock to take some longer exposure shots, including this one, but really I just enjoyed the moment. How often do you get to hang out at sunrise with a Spanish pilot in a secluded bay?
Bagan, Burma (Myanmar)
I had originally wanted to see the sun rise over the temples of Bagan from a hot air balloon, but the flights that morning were cancelled due to weather. Sitting atop Shwesandaw Pagoda wasn’t a bad backup option at all. It was just as magical and spectacular as it looks like in photos.
Florence is my favorite city in the world. The city center is amazing, but it gets crowded in the middle of the day. So I walk around at sunrise every day – it’s always magical having the art, history and architecture almost to myself! Sometimes I’m even able to convince my kids to join me. And last year when I needed photos taken for a campaign with Unbound Merino, I suggested a sunrise shoot to the photographer and I love the photos.
Just like in Florence, Copenhagen gets crowded during the day, especially in areas like Nyhavn. So wake up early and walk around before there are other people out and before the canals have any traffic at all. The reflections are amazing!
There were over a hundred people in front of me waiting in the dark to enter the Taj Mahal. But you don’t have to be first – just the fastest. I moved quickly through the gate and took several photos of the famous view/reflection without anyone else in them. Then, once others caught up, I went around to the mosque and photographed inside and out as the sun came up. The only other person around was this caretaker, adding a perfect human element to the hard stone and soft light.
Arches National Park, Utah
Arches National Park is one of the nation’s most popular, and it gets crowded as early as 8am. So go for sunrise! You can see a lot of the best arches early, and then leave the park right when everyone else is arriving. Plus the early morning morning light is spectacular.
Arba Minch, Ethiopia
The Paradise Lodge in Arba Minch has an amazing view of the Great Rift Valley, Lake Chamo and Lake Abaya (pictured). It was gorgeous at sunset, so I set my alarm to wake up early and explore at sunrise. The only other person awake? This security guard, who moved right after I took the picture so that the rest of my photos would be people-free. Yet it was the shot with him in it that I liked best. Absolutely silent and peaceful.
Oia, Santorini is amazing, but not during the day when cruise ships are in port, and not in the evening when people crowd the sunset viewing platforms to get the same photos as, well, everyone else. So wake up early and walk around at sunrise. Feels so much more magical than at sunset!
Seven Magic Mountains, Nevada
The Seven Magic Mountains art exhibit outside Las Vegas is far cooler than you would think it is based on photos, but it’s not fun if it’s crowded. We always stop early in the morning, and there’s typically no one else around.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Twice now I’ve spent the night on junks in Ha Long Bay. Each of those stays was only one night, so it would have been a shame to sleep in. This photo was taken half an hour before the sun appeared. It was magical, sitting back in a deckchair and watching the colors slowly change until the sun was well above the horizon.
Red Sand Dunes, Saudi
I’ve had so many amazing sunrise experiences in deserts around the world. I posted about Rajasthan above and want to include Saudi too – since Saudi isn’t a major tourist destination yet, the odds of seeing anyone else are even less. There was no one at the Red Sand Dunes when we went. Amazing!
Like Florence, Venice is packed with tourists during the day, especially during the summer. By far the best way to truly experience the city, and get a feel for the history and architecture, is to walk around before sunrise.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina
Usually when I’m traveling one-on-one with my kids, I don’t try to head out at sunrise. I made an exception at Iguazu Falls. My six-year-old and I were staying at the Sheraton inside the park. The best thing about staying at the Sheraton, other than this view of the waterfalls from our room, was having full access to the falls before and after the day-tripping visitors were there. We headed out right after I took this photo, a little before sunrise, and went straight for Salto Bossetti, where we could get up close and soaking wet with no one else around. It was one of the highlights of our trip, and it was far more memorable than being in the same spot the day before surrounded by tourists.
Cappadocia at sunrise has become cliched, with all of the Instagram posts of girls in flowing dresses sitting in front of huge breakfast spreads on rooftops as balloons drift by (with extra balloons PhotoShopped in). It’s so not necessary to set up fake breakfasts and pose! Just walk around at sunrise and marvel at the hundreds of balloons around you. Absolutely magical.
One of my favorite mornings of exploration ever! Zhaoxing, in China’s Guizhou province, was super interesting architecturally during the day, and it was even better at sunrise – mystical and etherial with low clouds passing through and the light changing by the minute. So glad I didn’t sleep in!
Varanasi is India’s spiritual capital, and it’s impossible to spend time there without being moved. I sat with the pilgrims coming to the Ganges to cleanse themselves. I watched as people carried the bodies of their loved ones to ghats and placed them onto large fires, sending the bodies back to the earth. And everywhere I went, I saw the Hindu holy men known as Sadhus. While it’s perfectly acceptable to speak with them during the day, spending time with them at sunrise was a far more spiritual experience.
St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada
I traveled to St. John’s at least once a year for over a decade for work. Even when I was jet lagged, my favorite thing to do was to head out of my hotel very early, walk around St. John’s Harbor and hike up Signal Hill to watch the sunrise. It was always beautiful, and the crisp air helped to wake me up!
Several times now I’ve watched the sunrise at Gadsisar Lake in Jaisalmer. While it’s a beautiful location, with the surrounding temples reflected in the late, I’ve never loved my photos. They’re lacking…life. I far prefer to walk the short distance into town to see the locals and cows starting to funnel into the streets. Jaisalmer fills up during the day with visitors, so it’s special to be able to experience it without another tourist in sight.
In Palawan we jumped into kayaks as often as we could, including before sunrise so that we could reach this amazing lagoon just as the sun came up. A magical morning!
So wake up early and explore! I promise you’ll be rewarded with a more intimate connection to your destination.
What’s the most magical experience you’ve had exploring a destination early?