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Photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz
The 450-foot-tall Great Pyramid at Giza is made of an estimated 2.3 million blocks of stone cut by hand.
If you’ll travel far and wide to be awed by a UNESCO World Heritage site, make sure you have these major attractions on your list.
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Certain sites capture the world’s imagination not only because of their beauty and the human ingenuity that they exemplify, but also because of the unique window into the past that each enduring location provides. These 10 UNESCO-protected spots, including many of the New Wonders of the World, are among the most sought-after attractions around the globe. You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate them.
Aguas Calientes, Peru
Located in the Peruvian Andes at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu cascades down a dramatic mountain spine surrounded by the jagged peaks of the Sacred Valley. Millions of visitors flock to this UNESCO World Heritage site each year to see the classical dry stone buildings of the citadel, which was built by the Incas around 1450 but abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest.
Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu, can be reached by train from Cusco. Inca Rail, Peru Rail, and the more luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train have daily service between the two destinations. Another popular way to reach the ruins is to embark on a guided hike of the popular Inca Trail, which can be booked through a variety of tour operators in Cusco. (Entry tickets cost approximately $45 for adults and $18 for students and must be purchased in advance for a specific date and time slot. Read more about Machu Picchu’s updated ticketing system.)
Siem Reap, Cambodia
King Suryavarman II, the one-time ruler of Southeast Asia’s former Khmer Empire, directed the construction of this Hindu temple complex during the 12th century. Spread across approximately 400 acres in northwestern Cambodia, the moat-encircled Angkor Wat complex consists of a network of stone temples decorated with intricate carvings of devatas (Hindu deities). The UNESCO-protected ruins of Angkor Archaeological Park, located 3.4 miles north of Siem Reap, include many remnants from the Khmer Empire, including forest villages that are still inhabited. (Tickets can be purchased at the main entrance to the temple. One-day passes cost approximately $37 for adults; entry for children 12 and under is free.)
Wadi Musa, Jordan
This ancient city in Jordan’s southwestern desert dates back to 400 B.C.E. During its zenith, Petra was a bustling commerce center where Arabian incense, Chinese silks, and Indian spices were often traded. Today, with its still-standing temples and tombs carved into pink sandstone cliffs, Petra is often referred to as the “Rose-Red City.” This UNESCO World Heritage site is located about 150 miles south of Jordan’s capital, Amman. Most visitors access Petra Archaeological Park through Wadi Musa, a nearby town with a handful of luxurious hotel offerings for travelers who make the trip to the rock wall crypts. (One-day tickets for visitors who spend at least a night in Jordan cost approximately $70 for adults; entry for children 12 and under is free.)
Wiltshire, United Kingdom
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Stonehenge dates back to 2500 B.C.E., but the reason for its creation remains mysterious. Some archaeologists believe that ancient Britons constructed the site for religious ceremonies. Some believe that the structures were used to study the movements of the sun and the moon. Either way, archaeologists agree that the construction of Stonehenge was an engineering feat. (To shape the megalithic structures, workers hammered wedges of wood into cracks in the stone and then used rope to pull each mass of stone upright.) Located in Wiltshire, southwest England, Stonehenge can be reached by train in 2.5 hours from London and an hour from Bath. From the Wiltshire visitor center, a free shuttle bus makes frequent trips to the ruins. (Tickets purchased in advance cost approximately $25 for adults and $15 for children. Tickets purchased onsite cost slightly more.)
Perched atop the Acropolis in Athens, this classical temple has presided over Greece’s capital city since the Athenian Empire was at the peak of its power. In 447 B.C.E., the Athenians constructed the Parthenon—dedicated to the goddess Athena—to celebrate their victory over Persian invaders. It has since served as a city treasury, a Christian church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and, after the Ottoman conquest, a mosque. Today, parts of the Parthenon are housed in London’s British Museum, but most of the structure is still located on the rocky outcrop in the center of Athens. (During summer, tickets to the Acropolis cost approximately $23 for adults; entry is approximately $11 for students with ID.)
It took more than 2,500 years to build the Great Wall, which snakes through the northern part of China for more than 13,000 miles. During the 8th century B.C.E., the Zhou dynasty–era state of Chu began construction on the wall to protect against foreign invaders. The fortification, made of stone and brick, has since become China’s most recognizable symbol. Most tourists explore only a section or two of the wall; it would take approximately 177 days of nonstop walking to see the entire remains. Frequently visited sections of the wall include Mutianyu and Jinshanling, which are both popular for hiking and are accessible via day trip from Beijing. (Each section of the wall requires its own entry ticket. The cost is typically around $6 to $8, although prices vary.)
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The perfectly symmetrical Taj Mahal features a 240-foot-tall central dome and an exterior inlaid with semiprecious stones. Widely considered the most beautiful existing example of Mughal architecture, the white marble mausoleum was erected between 1631 and 1648 after Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan ordered its construction to honor his late wife. (He tapped approximately 20,000 of the best craftsman from around Central Asia to complete the project.) Jahan intended to build a second mausoleum for himself, but the building never came to fruition. After he passed away in 1666, the emperor was buried next to his wife. Visitors to the Taj Majal in Agra can explore the grounds’ vast garden featuring long reflecting pools of water and a red sandstone gate. High-speed rail services to Agra operate from Delhi, Varanasi, and cities across northern India’s Rajasthan state. (Tickets cost approximately $19 for adults; entry for children 15 and younger is free.)
Located 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile, this remote island was named by 18th-century Dutch explorers who spotted the landmass on Easter Sunday. It’s famous for its approximately 1,000 mammoth statues, which the indigenous Polynesian inhabitants created from the 10th through 16th centuries to represent their ancestors. Rapa Nui National Park, which covers half of Easter Island, is the best place to see the carved figures, known as moai. There are about 400 moai at the ancient quarry Rano Raraku, including a 70-foot-tall statue that was never raised upright. The most famous site, Tongariki, features 15 moai beside the ocean. Made from a soft volcanic rock called tuff, the monuments are vulnerable to the elements, and archaeologists believe that one day the moai may disappear. LATAM operates two daily flights from Santiago to Hanga Roa, Easter Island’s capital. The trip takes about five and a half hours. (The entrance fee to Rapa Nui National Park is $80 for adults, $40 for children.)
The Pyramids at Giza arose during a construction frenzy from 2550 to 2490 B.C.E. Egyptian pharaohs believed they would become gods in the afterlife, so they filled these elaborate tombs with everything they would need in the next world, including jewelry, furniture, and sculptures of servants. Pharaoh Khufu ordered the building of the first and largest of the three structures, known as the Great Pyramid. His son Pharaoh Khafre built the second pyramid with a necropolis (burial place) that includes the Great Sphinx, a limestone sculpture of a mythical creature with the body of a lion and the head of a human. The third and final temple was built by Pharaoh Menkaure. Each massive pyramid is part of a larger tomb complex that includes a palace, temples, and other features. The pyramids are located on the Giza Plateau near Cairo. (Tickets cost approximately $10 per person.)
Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico
Chichén Itzá, a complex of pre-Columbian ruins on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, thrived as one of the largest Maya cities from 400 C.E. to the 1400s. It’s thought to have had the most diverse population in the Maya world due to the variety of Mesoamerican architectural styles found on the site. Chichén Itzá’s most famous structures include the Great Ball Court, the Temple of the Warriors, and El Castillo (also known as the Temple of Kukulkan), a step pyramid that towers over this UNESCO World Heritage site. Chichén Itzá is a three-hour drive from Cancún and about 30 minutes from Valladolid, a 16th-century colonial city with a baroque cathedral. (Tickets to Chichén Itzá can be purchased onsite. Entry costs approximately $25 for adults; entry for children 12 and under is free.)
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