The 13 Best Places to Hot Air Balloon in the USA, Europe and the World
The hot air balloon is the oldest form of flight technology, and humans have been taking these rides into the sky since the 1780s. With their bright colours and serene passage through the air, balloons have an otherworldly, ethereal quality. They evoke romantic images of the Orient and the pure excitement of travel in an age before the aeroplane.
If you want to feel free and unencumbered as you glide through the air, ballooning is the activity for you. Guided by the winds, hot air balloons allow passengers to soar far above the land, enjoying vast landscapes and panoramas from the safety of a giant basket. Skilled aeronauts can also navigate precariously close to the ground, skimming the treetops and providing a unique perspective on the terrain below.
Whatever your preference, a ride in a hot air balloon is an experience you’ll never forget. As those first giant flames leap high into the air, and the balloon takes off with a lurch, there is a surge of euphoria. There’s no precise way to steer, only ascension or descent, so relax and let the winds take you on a serendipitous journey.
We’ve put together a list of the best places around the world to experience this unique and unforgettable form of air travel. There’s no better way to see these beautiful places than by floating silently above them in the basket of a bright, colourful balloon.
1. Albuquerque, New Mexico
Albuquerque is arguably the world capital of hot air ballooning. Every autumn, thousands of ballooning aficionados descend on Albuquerque for the International Balloon Festival, the world’s biggest celebration of hot air ballooning. This global festival is best known for its ‘mass ascensions’ when hundreds of colourful balloons rise into the air at the same time. The festival provides a remarkable spectacle and is one of the world’s most photographed events. Make sure not to miss the dazzling evening ascensions, when glowing orbs fill the sky above Albuquerque.
The festival is also known for its extremely difficult and technical balloon navigating competitions, where experienced pilots compete against one another to prove themselves on the international stage. These tests of ballooning skill require pilots to complete an elaborate obstacle course, a supreme challenge in a vehicle that lacks accurate steering!
The biggest draw of the festival, however, is the magnificent landscape and climate of New Mexico itself. Here you can expect clear blue skies, calm winds, and mild temperatures, making this an ideal location to try your hand at ballooning. Just watch the spectacular vista of New Mexico stretch out beneath you as you ascend into the sky with hundreds of glittering hot air balloons.
2. Cappadocia, Turkey
Cappadocia is one of Turkey’s most beautiful and unusual regions. Covered in green vineyards, populated by stone villages carved into the mountainside, and littered with valleys of strange rocks, Cappadocia was made to be explored from the air. It’s no surprise that hot air ballooning is big business here, and in peak season you won’t be alone in taking to the skies.
Cappadocia’s geological history holds the key to its remarkable character. This rugged plateau in the Taurus Mountain region is characterised by vast expanses of soft, volcanic rocks that have been eroded into strange and wonderful shapes. The ‘fairy chimneys’ of Goreme National Park provide a forest of columns that cover the valley floor, interspersed by troglodyte cave dwellings. These homes, carved into the rock, date back to the early Middle Ages when they offered sanctuary for local residents during the tumultuous wars in the Byzantine and Islamic periods.
Hot air ballooning in Cappadocia is possible all year round, and the region is as beautiful in the blazing heat as it is with a light covering of snow. This romantic location is also a favourite place for couples to get engaged, so if you’re thinking of popping the question in the basket of a hot air balloon, consider heading to Turkey!
3. Napa Valley, California
Napa Valley is well known for its beautiful vineyards, but they are usually considered to be best enjoyed with two feet on the ground and a glass of fine Californian wine in one hand. However, increasingly, visitors to California are choosing to explore this remarkable region from the sky, looking down from the basket of a hot air balloon.
Napa Valley is home to over 400 vineyards, which supply wine-lovers with some of the world’s finest Cabernet Sauvignon. However, this lush region has more to offer than just wine, and today’s thrill-seekers are drawn to Napa Valley for the skydiving, ballooning, and other airborne activities guaranteed to provide a rush of adrenaline.
As you soar above the vineyards, expect to take in stunning views along the Californian coastline. With Mount St Helena and the Mayacamas Mountains in the distance, and San Francisco on the horizon, you’ll have the opportunity to see this beautiful corner of the United States in its full glory. Make sure you take a picnic of fine local produce, and of course, some fine local wine.
4. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
For the ultimate, once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon ride, try a dawn balloon safari in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. This spectacular reserve boasts an embarrassment of riches when it comes to wildlife, and you can expect to see a whole range of creatures from the safety of the air. Balloon safaris in the Serengeti often fly purposefully low to maximise the possibility of herd sightings, so you may even find yourself skimming the treetops in order to catch a glimpse of those rare breeds.
Herds of great, grey elephants meander through the reserve, hippos lounge in vast watering holes, and prides of lions stalk the plains, searching for their prey. If you are lucky, you may catch a herd of zebras, buffalo, or even the occasional giraffe. Balloons make for an excellent way to explore the Serengeti, as they can travel where terrestrial vehicles cannot. Jeep safaris must stick to the established routes and paths, but balloons can float wherever they like. Don’t miss this opportunity to see some of the planet’s rarest and most fascinating creatures.
5. Vilnius, Lithuania
There are very few European capitals that allow hot air ballooning over the city centre. However, the historic city of Vilnius, in Lithuania, offers visitors this rare treat. The historic Old Town of Vilnius is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a perfect treasure trove for those with an interest in European architecture. This beautiful city is a labyrinth of cobbled streets, parks, baroque churches, and neoclassical buildings, with historic buildings dating back to the medieval period.
Take to the air and enjoy a bird’s eye view of this magnificent baroque old town. Enjoy the Gothic delights of Saint Anne’s Cathedral, and the imposing stone tower atop Gediminas Hill. This is city sightseeing with a difference!
6. Bagan, Myanmar
The iconic landscape of Bagan, Myanmar, is rarely seen (or photographed) without a smattering of colourful hot air balloons rising above iconic temples. This lush, beautiful landscape boasts ideal conditions for ballooning, with ancient temples, profuse nature, and hazy, atmospheric conditions. Bagan is surely the hot air ballooning destination to rule them all.
The best time to go ballooning in Bagan is between October and April when the skies are clear, and there’s little chance of rain. During this time, visitors flock to Myanmar to catch a glimpse of the ancient stupas bathed in the warm light of the sunrise. Dawn brings a thick, dreamy haze that settles over the site like a blanket, providing an ideal photo opportunity.
Ballooning has become so popular in Bagan than the site has become synonymous with the image of bright balloons gliding over the ancient buildings. While the view is remarkable from the basket, it’s also worth staying on the ground just to photograph the sunrise as these stunning balloons rise into the air.
7. Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland
If you’re looking for perfect mountain scenery, covered in a fresh fall of white snow, head to Chateau d’Oex in the Swiss Alps in January. The spectacular vista can be enjoyed in style from the basket of a hot air balloon, and the crisp, cold winter mountain air will certainly get you in the festive mood.
At this time of year, you might also catch the International Hot Air Balloon Festival, a 9-day extravaganza when the mountain skies are filled with brightly coloured balloons. The festival has been running since 1979 and was the venue for the launch of the first attempt at a tour of the world in a hot air balloon in 1999. There is even a unique and quirky museum dedicated to the attempt. The highlight of the festival, however, is the night time ascension. The sight of hundreds of fiery orbs set against a snowy, white backdrop is a feast for the eyes.
8. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Covering an area of 500 acres, Angkor Wat is one of the world’s largest religious monument complexes. The grand scale of this vast site is matched by the intricate attention to detail found in the carved facades of its many temples. Built in the 12th century, the site is supposed to represent the earthly imitation of the home of the Hindu gods, Mount Meru. Cambodia’s kings wanted to build a monument to honour the gods and cement their own legacies as great rulers and god-kings, and so the vast complex of Angkor War was born.
The sheer size and scale of this site is best appreciated from the air, and it’s no surprise that hot air ballooning is a popular activity at Siem Reap, the gateway to the temple complex. The best time to take a balloon ride here is at sunset when the temples glow a rich, golden colour. Hot air balloon flights are restricted over the temple site itself, but don’t worry – you’ll have a perfect view of Angkor Wat. Choose between a fixed line ascension (where you stay floating in one spot), or a ride around the perimeter of the complex, where you’ll see the temples and Siem Reap in all their glory. Walking around Angkor Wat can be tiring – why not put your feet up and let the balloon do the hard work!
9. The Masai Mara Reserve, Kenya
Balloon safaris are fast becoming popular in parts of Africa, where the quiet, calm passage of the balloon often yields better animal-spotting opportunities than noisy jeeps on the ground. In the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, balloon safaris are increasingly seen as an ideal way to witness one of Africa’s annual spectacles: the Great Migration.
Between July and October, colossal herds of wildebeest move from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the greener pastures of the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. This annual event attracts larger carnivores, including many big cats, seeking to fill their bellies on the young and weak wildebeest at the edge of the herd. What better time to come on safari in the Masai Mara?
By far the best way to observe this thrilling sight is from the safety of a balloon, high in the sky. Here, you’ll have the best bird-eye view of the migrations, and really take in the epic scale of this mass movement across the plains of Tanzania and Kenya: a once-in-a-lifetime experience you won’t forget in a hurry.
10. Queenstown, New Zealand
Queenstown is New Zealand’s capital of adventure sports, and many visitors come here to try their hand at bungee jumping, sky-diving, or other adrenaline fuelled entertainments. However, if you’re after a more serene experience, this is an ideal venue to try a ride in a hot air balloon. Queenstown is best known internationally as the place where the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy was filmed, and a balloon ride offers a great way to explore some of the real-world locations that breathed life into Middle Earth.
Balloon rides in Queenstown traverse the beautiful valleys between Arrowtown and Queenstown, floating above some of the iconic filming locations for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Take in the vast rivers that provided the filming location for the Argonath, and the epic Mount Earnslaw in the distance, which was part of the backdrop for Isengard. Although this wonderful scenery has something for everyone, this is definitely a balloon ride for self-confessed Tolkien nerds!
11. Sossusvlei, Namibia
The Sossusvlei desert of Namibia is known for its glowing sand dunes that stretch in an endless sea of burnt orange, until the horizon. These colossal dunes surround a large, white, salt and clay pan, which sometimes forms a glassy surface, reflecting the stunning dunes that encircle it. The effect is of an alien landscape, characterised by harsh conditions and a constant fight for survival on the part of the creatures that live there.
Balloon safaris over the Sossusvlei desert offer a particular advantage if you want to see the so-called ‘fairy circles.’ These strange rings in the desert floor, where no vegetation seems able to grow, are best observed from the sky, as they create crater-like patches across the landscape. There’s no clear explanation for why these rings appear, but you’ll have plenty of time to marvel at them as you glide over the desert in the basket of a hot air balloon.
12. The Loire Valley, France
The Loire Valley is known for two things: vineyards and castles, and a ride in a hot air balloon offers the perfect way to take in this luscious, green landscape with all of its epic history. The Loire is known as one of France’s wildest rivers, as it has historically been allowed to take its natural course, instead of being dammed, banked and re-routed by man-made constructions. This means that it is home to a remarkable amount of biodiversity, and it regularly floods into the plains along its banks.
The natural development of the river has created perfect conditions for growing grapes, and the Loire region produces some of France’s finest wines. It’s also the site of some of the country’s most impressive castles, creating a perfect marriage between historic architecture and nature. Take to the sky and explore this beautiful corner of France from a balloon – as the French pioneered the early development of hot air balloon aviation, you’re sure to be in safe hands!
13. Monument Valley, Utah
Monument Valley is one of the most iconic sights of the Great American West and comprises a vast desert stretching across southeastern Utah. This land, sacred to the Navajo, is littered with epic rock formations, sculpted by natural forces from the sandstone rock of the region. These majestic monoliths can be seen at their finest from the basket of a hot air balloon. A trip across the valley will take your breath away, as you glide silently across the landscape made famous in countless Hollywood movies. This is surely one of America’s most impressive landscapes.
Wherever you choose to go, a ride in a hot air balloon guarantees you’ll have a very special experience. Sit back, relax, and allow the winds to carry you on your way!
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