From San Francisco to Venice and from the Kwai to the Zambezi, Sarah Barrell chooses 12 crossings you won't forget

1 Golden Gate

Spanning the best part of a mile of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate has been named by the American Society of Civil Engineers one of the seven wonders of the modern world. This iconic bridge has even spawned its own official colour, "Golden Gate Bridge International Orange", gaining its celebrated rosy hue thanks to a fierce argument between bridge engineers and the US navy. The colour was a compromise between conventional black or silver and, as the navy was said to have preferred, yellow with black stripes, for reasons of visibility in foggy weather. An estimated nine million people visit the bridge each year, not including the thousands who run out and back across it in the annual US Half Marathon. It attracts vast numbers of runners, bikers and bladers. Magnificent views of the bridge are afforded from Golden Gate Park. Comprising more than 1,000 acres of green space, this former wild expanse of sand is home to a million trees and a herd of bison.

2 Sydney Harbour

Affectionately known as "the coat-hanger", Sydney Harbour Bridge opened in 1932 with a central arch soaring 134 metres above sea level, giving a 49-metre clearance for ships. It isthe world's widest steel arch bridge. Many of its steel parts were prefabricated in Middlesbrough, though Australians will tell you that it was they who made the six million rivets that hold the bridge together. Nowadays the savvy tourist doesn't just cross the bridge so much as climb it. The "harbour climb" has become a rite of passage for everyone from backpackers to incentive- training businessmen. Issued with gloves, a helmet, fleece and safety harness, participants tightrope walk along 1,500 metres of precipitous catwalks, ladders and arches, all the way from one side of the bay to the other. The oldest person to take the vertiginous stroll was a 100-year-old Australian woman, following the lead of such starry feet as Kylie Minogue, Matt Damon and Sarah Ferguson.

3 Oresund Link

Since it opened in 2000, it has held the world title for the longest bridge to carry both trains and motor traffic. The first link between Sweden and Denmark since the Ice Age, which took five years to build, is named after the strait that it spans. The road and rail link, which combines 17km of bridges and tunnels, the main stretch arching for 7.8km between Copenhagen and the southern Swedish town of Malmo, has brought huge benefits to the region. This has perhaps been seen most in Malmo. This former industrial backwater pegs itself as the economic and tourism gateway to the burgeoning Baltic region. The bridge opened with thousands of runners, walkers, bladers and bikers making the first crossing in something of a "pre-claim the streets festival". Today the bridge is reserved for conventional traffic. You can now drive from the southern tip of continental Europe to the Arctic Circle. Should you want to.

4 Bridge on the River Kwai

Yes it exists. And not just on celluloid. And yes, lots of tourists make a significant detour from Bangkok to visit this otherwise rather bland area in west-central Thailand. The nearby town of Kanchanaburi has become a centre for war- remembrance tourism, thanks to the bridge and the nearby cemetery, resting place for 7,000 Allied prisoners of war (many of whom died while building the structure and "Death Railway" that crossed it). Witness the multitudes whistling "Colonel Bogey's March" as they make the crossing. The bridge looks nothing like the bamboo and wood structure featured in the 1957 movie staring William Holden and Alec Guinness. Just like in the film, the original was blown up -not by Holden but by aerial bombing. It was rebuilt in concrete and steel. Rather more attractive are the floating guesthouses and restaurants that have sprung up to cater to the tourists.

5 Old Bridge, Mostar

The 16th-century bridge at Mostar in Bosnia Herzegovina was blown up in 1993 during fighting in the Bosnian war. It reopened with grand festivities in July, its restoration seen as symbolic of the healing between the Muslims and Croats who live either side of it. More than £7m has been spent rebuilding the single-arch structure and surrounding buildings. Striding across the Neretva river, spanning the deep gorge between Christian Croatia and Muslim Bosnia, the Stari Most, or Old Bridge, has been reconstructed using the same methods and materials that the original Turkish architects employed nearly 500 years ago. Pieces of the original stone structure of what is perhaps one of the world's most beautiful bridges have been retrieved from the riverbed and placed on the banks as a memorial sculpture. In summer members of the diving club of Mostar put on an impressive show of feet- first and head-first jumps from the bridge, plunging 21 metres into the river, a tradition that dates back more than 400 years.

6 Bridge of Sighs

Venice has the most bridges in the world (Pittsburg, rather surprisingly, comes second). The Bridge of Sighs is the most renowned, and has been copied in at least a dozen places, including Las Vegas and St John's College, Cambridge. The "Ponte dei Sospiri" was built in 1600, by Antonio Contino, as a link from the inquisitor's room in the Doge's Palace across the Rio di Palazzo to the city's main prison. The bridge took its name from the sounds made by condemned prisoners as they took their last glimpse of the lagoon, the nearby island of San Giorgio, and freedom. For views most in keeping with such a creepy past, come to Venice in the dead of winter when mist hangs over the canals. Alternatively, come during pre-Lenten Carnival when Renaissance Venice is recreated with costumed street festivals and masked balls. But be prepared to share your sighs with others.

7 Clifton Suspension

Bridge-building, a field in which Britain has led the world, is perhaps personified by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His most famous creation, the Clifton Suspension Bridge, was built against the advice of Thomas Telford, whose Menai suspension bridge had almost been destroyed by crosswinds. Brunel was only 24 years old when he won the commission to build the bridge spanning the Avon Gorge, his first major project. The foundation stone was laid in 1831 but, with the project beset by constant financial problems, the structure was not completed until 1864, after Brunel's death. It was meant for light, horse-drawn traffic but meets the demands of 21st-century commuter traffic, with 12,000 motor vehicles using it each day. To commemorate the bicentenary of Brunel's birth, in 2006, there are plans for an artfully designed lighting system to permanently illuminate the bridge. The local tourist office organises architectural tours. But perhaps the most spectacular time to cross the Avon here is during Bristol's annual Hot Air Balloon Fiesta, which takes place in Ashton Court park at the western end of the bridge, in the second week of August.

8 Pont Neuf

Pont Neuf is perhaps the most romantic of the Seine's celebrated spans. The first of the Paris "modern" bridges, Pont Neuf ("new bridge") is now the oldest bridge on the Seine. Built as a royal link between the Louvre, the Saint-Germain Abbey and the Left Bank, in recent times it has been the centrepiece of more anarchic bits of history. Artistic endeavours inspired by the bridge have included, in 1985, the artists Christo & Jeanne-Claude wrapping it in 40,876 square metres of woven polyamide fabric. Then there was the 1991 film Les Amants du Pont Neuf, which featured what has to be the greatest use of fireworks in film, when the lovers steal a speedboat to race under the bridge during celebrations for the French bicentennial. You can relive the scene on Bastille Day, when Pont Neuf is at the centre of Paris's grand 14 July fireworks display.

9 Akashi- Kaikyo

Completed in 1998, the Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge, connecting Kobe on the Japanese mainland with Awaji Island, is a huge three-span cable-stayed bridge some 3,910 metres in length. It is the longest suspension bridge in the world. It would take four Brooklyn Bridges (see below) to span the same distance. There are bridges that cover longer distances, especially in the cable-stayed category, but the general rule in judging record-breaking bridges is to consider the longest span, or the longest point-to-point connection without a pier. Thanks to this and another six bridges, the islands dotted around this exotic almost-inland sea are now all linked by road - a jaunt that has become increasingly popular with Japanese tourists. Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge is lit up every day from sunset to 11pm, the dramatic illuminations giving the bridge its nickname, Pearl Bridge.

10 Brooklyn Bridge

Of all Manhattan's bridges this is perhaps the most celebrated. James Brown sung about it (as in "take me to the bridge: Brooklyn Bridge!") and Georgia O'Keeffe painted it just before she left New York for Santa Fe. However, it's a wonder that it spans Manhattan's East River at all. The early history of the bridge was fraught with disaster - it opened in 1883, 81 years after its inception. Its first engineer, John A Roebling, was killed in a construction accident. His son, Washington Roebling, took over, only to become an invalid after another accident, then directing construction from his bed. A total of 27 men died on site. A century later the bridge is considered a thing of beauty by both commuters and tourists. Hiring bikes to cycle the span has become popular, a practice that looks set to boom with the creation of the Brooklyn Bridge Park. Mayor Bloomberg gave the go-ahead in 2002 to create a waterfront parkway around the bridge that should do for Brooklyn's shore what the Hudson River Park (Battery Park's new esplanade) did for Manhattan's Lower West Side. The less active can appreciate these elegant arches during the Brooklyn Bridge Park Summer Film Series, a six-week free festival showing films about Brooklyn or featuring Brooklyn actors and directors. It takes place on a screen under the bridge.

11 Charles Bridge

One of the world's most beleaguered but tourist-beloved bridges, Prague's tourist hot spot was built in 1357 - a date chosen, according to legend, because it was auspicious. Despite this, it has regularly been battered by wars and a catalogue of natural disasters. The bridge, commissioned by the Czech king and Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV, is said to have been built with egg yolks mixed in with the concrete. This unusual method of construction must have had some merit because in 2002 this Gothic structure, battle-scarred and the oldest stone bridge in central Europe, survived some of the worst floods Prague had ever experienced. In an effort to protect it, the bridge has been declared a pedestrian zone. That said, the sheer weight of tourist traffic, buskers, portrait painters and the obligatory Peruvian panpipers is sure to eventually send fatal shock waves into its foundations.

12 The Great Zambezi

The erection of this great steel arch across the Zambezi gorge, just below the Victoria Falls, supplied a crucial link in the fantastical Cape to Cairo railway project. Besides being one of the loftiest bridges, it has one of the best vantage points for falls. They are divided by the daredevil bridge, which its designer, Cecil Rhodes, never lived to see. The railway, one of Rhodes's many colonialist dreams, would, he hoped, "civilise" the entire African continent. He died in South Africa before the project came to fruition; but the remnants of his tracks are in use today.