12 Must-Visit Historical Sites Around the World

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.

13 Must-Visit Historical Places Around the World

The 450-foot-tall Great Pyramid at Giza is made of an estimated 2.3 million blocks of stone cut by hand.

Photo by Mustafah Abdulaziz

Certain sites capture the world’s imagination not only because of their beauty and the human ingenuity they exemplify but also because of their unique window into the past. These 13 UNESCO-protected spots, including many of the New Seven Wonders of the World, are among the most sought-after tourist attractions around the globe.

Whenever you visit a new place, you should take special care to carry out what you bring in, stick to assigned trails, and leave the environment better than you found it (even if that means grabbing trash another visitor left behind). But this rule is particularly important when it comes to these protected spaces. Many are vulnerable for a whole list of reasons, including climate impact and fragility due to very old age. Treading carefully and showing respect will ensure that these life-changing places remain for as many generations as possible.

All right, now on to the list. And don’t worry: You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate these great, historical places around the world.

The yellow, red, blue, and lavender National Palace of Sintra outside of Lisbon

What kid wouldn’t love a real-life castle that is as colorful as Sintra just outside of Lisbon?

Photo by Shutterstock

1. Cultural Landscape of Sintra

Sintra, Portugal

You probably assume Sintra is on this list for the fairy-tale–inspiring National Palace of Sintra overlooking the city—but that’s only part of it. The city is home to some of the best (and first) examples of Romantic architecture anywhere in the world. The castle at the top of the hill once served as a monastery before Ferdinand II repurposed it as a castle mixing Moorish, Egyptian, Renaissance, and Gothic architectural and design elements. Also very notable is the maze of parks and gardens, which blend local and non-native plant species. You’ll never know what to expect next, whether it’s an intricate wall of azulejos (locally made tiles), a set of mock ruins tucked among the landscaping, or a massive dome overhead.

How to visit

Sintra is easy to reach from Lisbon—two trains make the one-hour journey every day. The most popular route is to take the train from the Rossio Station to the Sintra Station. It’s not recommended to explore the city by car; many of the roads are very narrow and not built for modern transportation, and parking in the surrounding area can be tough during tourist high season (May through October).

El Castillo, a stone pyramid at Chichén Itzá in Mexico, set among green grass, with tourists walking around

Chichén Itzá is located in close proximity to two cenotes (deep limestone sinkholes that expose groundwater).

Photo by Filip Gielda/Unsplash

2. Chichén Itzá

Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico

Chichén Itzá, a complex of pre-Columbian ruins on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, thrived as one of the largest Mayan cities from 400 C.E. to the 1400s. It’s thought to have had the most diverse population in the Mayan world due to the variety of Mesoamerican architectural styles on-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 one of the most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage sites.

How to visit

Chichén Itzá is a three-hour drive from Cancún and about 30 minutes from Valladolid. Tickets to Chichén Itzá can be purchased on-site. Entry costs approximately $36 for adults; entry for children 12 and under is free. The 16th-century colonial city has a baroque cathedral and a variety of accommodation options, from hotels with cenotes to the Coqui Coqui guesthouse and perfumery.

The pink facade of Jaipur's magnificent Hawa Mahal palace, with rows of ornate windows and decorative rooftops

Jaipur’s magnificent Hawa Mahal palace was built in 1799 by a maharaja.

Photo by Annie Spratt/Unsplash

3. Jaipur City

Jaipur, India

The walled city of Jaipur is eye-catching for many reasons. At the top of the list is its rosy hue—the entire town was painted pink to welcome King Edward VII (then Prince Albert) in 1876, as pink was a color associated with hospitality. The prince supposedly deemed Jaipur the “Pink City,” and it stuck. In 1877, Maharaja Ram Singh took it a step further by passing a law ordering all future buildings to have the same pink exterior, from temples to private residences. Jaipur was the first planned city in India, known for its grid design and symmetrical buildings with even patterns and rows of chhatri (elevated domes sitting atop buildings).

How to visit

It’s easy to get to Jaipur by train, car, or airplane from major cities in India. Jaipur is part of the Golden Triangle, a route that also includes New Delhi and Agra. You need at least a week to enjoy all that the Golden Triangle cities have to offer.

Aerial view of a sea of clouds at Machu Picchu, an ancient stone complex set into the Peruvian mountains

Rainy season is no joke at Machu Picchu—plan accordingly.

Photo by Stock for you/Shutterstock

4. Machu Picchu

Located in the Peruvian Andes at nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu cascades down a dramatic mountain spine surrounded by the Sacred Valley’s jagged peaks. Millions of visitors flock to this UNESCO World Heritage site each year to see the terraces and classical dry-stone buildings of the citadel. While it is recognized as one of the top historic, World Heritage sites, Machu Picchu had a short life span. It was built by the Incas around 1450 but abandoned a century later during the Spanish conquest.

How to visit

You can reach Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu, by train from Cusco. Inca Rail, PeruRail, and the more luxurious Belmond Hiram Bingham train have daily service between the two destinations; the journey takes more than three hours. The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is a four-minute walk from the train station and looks like a village with terraced gardens, stone pathways, and guest rooms in adobe casitas.

Another way to visit Machu Picchu is to go on a guided hike of the famous Inca Trail, which can be booked through various tour operators in Cusco. Entry tickets cost approximately $23 for adults and $20 for students and must be purchased in advance for a specific date and time slot.

A person dressed in a monk's traditional orange robes stands beneath a massive tree whose roots have grown over a stone temple at Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is one of the world’s largest religious monuments, with five iconic towers that represent the five peaks of Mount Meru, a sacred mountain in Hindu mythology.

Photo by Shutterstock

5. Angkor Wat

Siem Reap, Cambodia

With its wide moat and drip sand castle-like towers, Angkor Wat is one of the most scenic World Heritage sites and recognizable religious structures. King Suryavarman II, ruler of Southeast Asia’s former Khmer Empire, directed the construction during the 12th century. The Hindu temple complex, a network of stone temples decorated with intricate carvings of devatas (Hindu deities), is even more impressive when you consider it’s just one of the attractions at the UNESCO-designated Angkor Archaeological Park. Spread across approximately 400 acres in northwestern Cambodia, the complex has many other architecturally significant jungle-intertwined ruins and temples, including a temple featured in Angelina Jolie’s 2001Tomb Raider film, as well as inhabited villages.

How to visit

The park entrance is approximately three miles north of the center of Siem Reap. A convenient way to visit Angkor Wat is to hire a tuk-tuk driver for about $20 a day. Visitors can buy tickets at the main entrance to the temple. One-day passes cost approximately $37 for adults; entry for children 12 and under is free.

There are many affordable hotels in Siem Reap, but book a safari-style tent at The Beige (where even the floating forest pool has views of the World Heritage site) for a slight splurge.

The sandstone facade of Petra, with camels in front of it

The ancient city of Petra is just one of many notable historic sites across Jordan.

Courtesy of Visit Jordan

6. Petra

Wadi Musa, Jordan
During its zenith, Petra, Jordan’s most famous archaeological site, was a bustling commerce center where citizens traded Arabian incense, Chinese silks, and Indian spices. Nabateans built the ancient city in the country’s southwestern desert in 400 B.C.E., but it was unknown to the Western world until the 1800s. Accessed via a narrow canyon and with towering temples and tombs carved into pink sandstone cliffs (earning it the name “The Red Rose City”), it feels otherworldly. Perhaps that’s why Petra’s treasury stood in for the temple housing the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

How to visit
This UNESCO World Heritage site is 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.

The stone monoliths of Stonehenge standing on green grass on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire in southwest England

The somewhat mysterious Stonehenge monument is located on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire in southwest England.

Photo by M.J. Parker/Shutterstock

7. Stonehenge

Wiltshire, United Kingdom

While experts agree that Stonehenge, a circle of stone megaliths in the English countryside, dates to 2500 B.C.E., the reason for its creation remains mysterious. Some archaeologists think ancient Britons built it for religious ceremonies, while others believe the structures were used to study the movements of the sun and the moon. Either way, the construction was an engineering feat. (To shape Stonehenge’s megalithic structures, workers hammered wooden wedges into cracks in the stone and then used rope to pull each mass upright.)

How to visit

Travelers can take a 2.5-hour train ride from London or an hour-long trip from Bath to get to Stonehenge. From the Wiltshire visitor center, a free shuttle bus makes frequent trips to the ruins. Tickets purchased in advance cost approximately $33 for adults and $20 for children. Tickets purchased on-site cost slightly more.

Crowds of people stand around the Parthenon on a sunny day

The Parthenon was built from limestone and Pentelic marble.

Photo by Pamela Loreto Perez/Shutterstock

8. The Parthenon

Athens, Greece
Perched atop a rocky outcrop known as the Acropolis, in Athens, this classical and partly intact 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. At the foot of the hill, the Acropolis Museum showcases the Parthenon frieze (although some sections are still controversially on display at London’s British Museum), artifacts discovered on the Acropolis, and even the remains of an ancient neighborhood uncovered during the museum’s construction.

How to visit

Located in the center of Athens, the Parthenon is easy to visit thanks to metro and city bus stops nearby. The nearest metro stop is Acropoli. Tickets to the Acropolis can be purchased online or at the entrance. During high season, tickets to the Acropolis cost approximately $35 for adults and half that during the winter; entry is roughly $11 for students with ID.

The Great Wall of China cuts through green-topped trees on hilly terrain.

Many sections of the Great Wall of China were constructed during the Ming Dynasty between 1368 and 1644.

Photo by Hung Chung Chih/Shutterstock

9. The Great Wall of China

It took more than 2,500 years to build the Great Wall, China’s most recognizable symbol, which snakes through the northern part of the country 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. Most tourists explore a section or two of the stone-and-brick fortification; it would take approximately 177 days of nonstop walking to see the entire wall.

How to visit

Frequently visited sections of the wall include Mutianyu and Jinshanling. The former is a 90-minute drive from Beijing and an easy day trip; the latter takes twice as long to reach but is one of the wall’s most well-preserved sections and is popular with hikers. Each section of the wall requires its own entry ticket. The cost is typically about $6 to $8, although prices vary.

A frontal view of the Taj Mahal and its reflecting pool in Agra, India

The Taj Mahal was built on the banks of the River Yamuna on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth.

Photo by age fotostock

10. Taj Mahal

Agra, India

The perfectly symmetrical Taj Mahal features a 240-foot-tall central dome and an exterior with inlaid 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 craftsmen from 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 this World Heritage site can explore the grounds’ vast garden featuring long reflecting pools of water and a red sandstone gate.

How to visit

Most people visit the Taj Mahal on a day trip from Delhi. There are many high-speed trains to Agra from Delhi, Varanasi, and cities across northern India’s Rajasthan state. Tickets cost approximately $13 for adults; entry for children 15 and younger is free.

Several moai, or carved busts, stand on a green hill on Chile's Easter Island.

Dutch explorers gave Easter Island its name in 1722 after spotting the landmass on Easter Sunday, but the Indigenous name is Rapa Nui.

Photo by Thomas Griggs/Unsplash

11. Easter Island

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, or 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 one day they may disappear.

How to visit

Latam operates two daily flights from Santiago de Chile to Hanga Roa, Easter Island’s capital. The trip takes about 5.5 hours. The entrance fee to Rapa Nui National Park is $80 for adults, $40 for children.

A close-up of a camel wearing a rope harness and saddle, with Egyptian pyramids in the background

Egypt’s pyramids are one of the most iconic—and enduring—destinations in the world.

Photo by Lyndsey Matthews

12. The Pyramids at Giza

Cairo, Egypt
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. Pharaoh Menkaure built the third and final temple. Each massive pyramid is part of a larger tomb complex that includes a palace, temples, and other features.

How to visit

The pyramids are located on the Giza Plateau, about 11 miles southwest of Cairo. There isn’t an easy way to get there using public transportation, so travelers typically take a taxi, use Uber, or hire a car and driver. A few hotels like the posh Marriott Mena House are within walking distance of the pyramids. (Tickets cost approximately $17 per person.)

This article was originally published in May 2019 and was updated in March 7 2024 with new information. Erika Owens contributed to the reporting of this story.

Casey Hatfield-Chiotti is a former television news reporter whose passion for food and travel has taken her from the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro to the cobblestone streets of Paris’s Marais neighborhood, where she lived for two years. Casey’s been known to plan an entire trip around a destination restaurant and regularly sniffs out bakeries like a bloodhound. In addition to AFAR, the multimedia journalist’s work has been featured in the New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Sunset, Robb Report, Departures, Bon Appétit, and Modern Luxury. Her family travel-focused website travelproper.com launched in 2009.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR