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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.
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 Seven New Wonders of the World, are among the most sought-after tourist attractions around the globe. You don’t have to be a history buff to appreciate these choice historical places.
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 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 World Heritage sites, Machu Picchu had a short lifespan. It was built by the Incas around 1450 but abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest.
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 over three hours. The Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel is a four-minute walk from the train station and feels 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 $45 for adults and $20 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
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 2001 Tomb Raider film, as well as inhabited villages.
The park entrance is approximately three miles north of the center of Siem Reap and a 10-minute drive from Siem Reap International Airport; many Asian airlines have flights in and out of REP. A convenient way to visit Angkor Wat is to hire a tuk-tuk driver to take you around for about $15 a day. 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. (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.)
Wadi Musa, Jordan
During its zenith, Petra, Jordan’s most famous archeological 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 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
While experts agree that Stonehenge, a circle of stone megaliths in the English countryside, dates back 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 wedges of wood into cracks in the stone and then used rope to pull each mass upright.)
Travelers can take a 2.5-hour train ride from London or an hourlong 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 $26 for adults and $15 for children. Tickets purchased onsite cost slightly more.)
Perched atop a rocky outcrop known as Acropolis hill 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 Acropolis, the Acropolis Museum showcases the Parthenon frieze (although some sections are still controversially on display at London’s British Museum), artifacts discovered on Acropolis hill, and even the remains of an ancient neighborhood uncovered during the museum’s construction.
Located in the center of Athens, the Parthenon is easy to visit with metro and city bus stops nearby. The nearest metro stop is Acropoli. Tickets can be purchased online or at the entrance. (During high season, tickets to the Acropolis cost approximately $23 for adults and half that during the winter; entry is roughly $11 for students with ID.)
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 only a section or two of the stone and brick fortification; it would take approximately 177 days of nonstop walking to see the entire wall.
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 around $6 to $8, although prices vary.)
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 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.
Most people visit the Taj Mahal on a day trip from Delhi. There are many high-speed trains to Agra from Delhi as well as 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, 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.
Latam operates two daily flights from Santiago 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.)
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.
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 $10 per person.)
Book Marriott Mena House now: From $259/night, expedia.com
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 one of the most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Chichén Itzá is a three-hour drive from Cancún and about 30 minutes from Valladolid. 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. (Tickets to Chichén Itzá can be purchased onsite. Entry costs approximately $26 for adults; entry for children 12 and under is free.)
This article was originally published in May 2019, and was updated in January 2022 with new information.
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