Courtesy of Cancun CVB
Cancun's Underwater Museum, the world's largest, opened three miles offshore in 2010 with hundreds of sunken life-size human figures.
updated 5/13/2011 9:33:59 AM ET 2011-05-13T13:33:59

As you snorkel past coral reefs and angelfish in the warm, shallow waters of the Caribbean Sea, you suddenly come across an eerily beautiful tableau: hundreds of life-size human sculptures. No, this isn’t loot from some sunken pirate ship. It’s the world’s largest underwater museum.

Slideshow: World's coolest new tourist attractions

This ingenious twist on Cancún’s popular dive tourism shows that tourism sights get bolder and more innovative each year, often thanks to the involvement of big-name architects, artists and designers. As destinations vie to create their own “Bilbao Effect,” tourists are getting savvier about what to see and what to skip. It takes more than tall buildings and new museums to titillate today’s tourist.

Take 11 11 Lincoln Road, for example. The word “garage” doesn’t begin to do it justice. Dreamt up by Swiss "starchitects" Herzog & de Meuron, it’s better described as a modernist, open-air “parking sculpture.” The eye-catching mixed-use venue has become Miami’s it-spot for dinner parties and events while its hip shops, restaurants and public art lure daytime crowds.

Another traditional, everyday space — the plaza — has been radically made over in Seville. Architect Jürgen Mayer’s trippy, fantastical design for the Plaza de la Encarnacíon looks like something out of Alice in Wonderland. The undulating blonde timber structures have a honeycomb roof that shelters a marketplace, bars, and archaeological exhibits. It gives both locals and tourists a new reason to explore Seville’s medieval center and corresponds to a greater design awareness.

“More and more nondesigners are scoping out architectural destinations,” says Ben Prosky, assistant dean of communications at Harvard Graduate School of Design and co-founder of, a Facebook of sorts for architects. “We see this played out every day on Architizer — architects post their buildings on their profiles, and visitors to the website scan these profiles to look for unusual buildings or installations that they might not otherwise find in a guidebook.”

Even as the Web has increased the visibility of these cool new sights, there’s still no substitute for seeing the real thing in person.

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