12 Incredible UNESCO World Heritage Sites That Mix Nature and Culture

Cave art or beaches? Mountains or temples? Ancient ruins or volcanoes? You can enjoy both culture and nature at these remarkable sites.

Shallow pools of light blue water among petrified white rocks

The otherworldly appearance of Pamukkale, Türkiye, has made it popular on Instagram.

Photo by Nadezda/Shutterstock

Yes, all UNESCO World Heritage sites are special by definition. But only 39 of the more than 1,000 are mixed, meaning that they’re noted for both cultural and natural features. That’s fewer than 5 percent with this special status. Many are islands and/or mountains. A few are famous: Machu Picchu, Tikal, Cappadocia. And some are unexpected: Ibiza? It’s more than a party island. Australia and China tie for the most—four each. The one in the United States is not exactly on cruise ship itineraries; it’s almost as hard to spell as it is to get there: Papahānaumokuakea, an archipelago of small islands in Hawai‘i. Others inaccessible to tourists include Chiribiquete National Park, in Colombia, the world’s largest protected tropical rainforest.

Although several of these sites are very remote, that means they are also well preserved—and most are crowd free. Here are 12 of the most intriguing mixed World Heritage sites around the globe:

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

One of three national parks on the North Island, Togariro is also New Zealand’s oldest. Its nearly 200,000 acres (312 square miles) encompass alpine lakes and three active volcanoes. The 12-mile Tongariro Crossing hike, with views of Mount Tongariro and Mount Ngauruhoe volcanoes, is considered one of the world’s best day hikes, while the Tongariro Alpine Crossing of nearly 27 miles takes several days to hike. Also in the park: Mount Ruapehu, the country’s largest active volcano and the North Island’s high point at 9,177 feet. All three volcanoes have erupted in the past 50 years. For the Māori people, the park’s mountains are rich in mythology.

The Blue Mountains carpeted in greenery, with fog in background

The Blue Mountains offer more than coveted coffee beans.

Photo by John B Hewitt/Shutterstock

Blue and John Crow Mountains, Jamaica

Coffee cultists associate this Caribbean island’s Blue Mountains as the source of rare, pricey beans. But for UNESCO, these ranges, which form a national park, are notable for biodiversity (well over 1,200 species of flowering plants), endangered frogs and birds, and their history as a refuge for enslaved people. The rugged landscape provided the fugitives, the Maroons, with a suitable place to hide and develop a culture closely connected to mountain life. Visitors can tour a coffee factory and join a guided hiking trip.

A small rowboat with a few passengers passes through a cave, with forested hills in background

Cave boat tours are one way to explore this unusual landscape.

Photo by Marie Shark/Shutterstock

Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam

Forested limestone rock towers reach as high as 600 feet throughout this area, and there’s evidence that people long ago lived in the elevated caves here. Situated near a river delta, Trang An also includes a network of subterranean waterways, accessible to visitors by small-boat tours. Today, aside from villages, rice paddies, temples, and a few small tourist resorts, the landscape remains in its natural, dramatic condition—one of the reasons 2017’s Kong: Skull Island was filmed here.

Turquoise pools at Pamukkale in stacked rows of white stone

While Pamukkale gets the most attention, the ruins of nearby Herapolis are well worth seeing.

Photo by Suksamran1985/Shutterstock

Hierapolis-Pamukkale, Türkiye

Nothing new about hydrotherapy. Back around 130 B.C.E., the Greco-Roman town of Hierapolis (sacred city) was a spa destination, as it would remain for several centuries. One reason: the nearby thermal mineral waters of Pamukkale (cotton palace or cotton castle), with its bizarre landscape of terraced basins and petrified waterfalls. An extensive system of canals was built to bring the water not only to the baths but also to village residents and to fields for irrigation. The ancient amphitheater here, one of the best preserved in the world, was a venue for gladiator fights during its Roman era.

Half a dozen tall white birds standing in water at the Ses Salines natural wildlife reserve in Ibiza

Bird lovers flock to the Ses Salines natural wildlife reserve in Ibiza.

Photo by Wanderlust Media/Shutterstock

Ibiza, Spain

This island, hardly a secret vacation spot, has a reputation as a party place. But UNESCO recognized it for culture and biodiversity more than 20 years ago. Throughout history, various cultures have visited this Balearic isle, including the ancient Phoenicians, who had a colony here. Remains of their presence include a well-preserved necropolis. A highlight of Ibiza’s biodiversity is Ses Salines Natural Park, noted for its marine life; it’s ideal for watching flamingos and snorkeling.

Two giraffes roaming in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, with cloudy gray sky

Wildlife and fossil remains are among the attractions at this African World Heritage site.

Photo by Giuseppe D’Amico/Shutterstock

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania

Adjacent to famed Serengeti National Park, this natural/cultural site includes Olduvai Gorge, long an area of archaeological research that’s rich in fossil records of human ancestors. It also features the world’s largest unbroken volcanic crater and supports a wide range of wildlife, including major migrations of zebras, gazelles, and wildebeest. Semi-nomadic Maasai continue to use the land for cattle grazing.

Natural and Cultural Heritage of the Ohrid Region, Albania & North Macedonia

The natural aspect of this site, Lake Ohrid, straddles the border of these two countries, while the cultural part, the old town of Ohrid, is in North Macedonia. Both are far from well-trod paths, and together this scenic and historic spot includes Europe’s oldest lake as well as one of its oldest settlements of people. It’s also home to St. Panteleimon, the oldest Slav monastery, plus remains of Christian churches and basilicas from the 4th through 6th centuries noted for their mosaic floors. Extensive frescoes and more than 800 Byzantine-style icons in Ohrid date from the 11th through the 14th century. The geographic isolation also means the lake is a fine place for bird-watching.

Huge head of the Leshan Giant Buddha dwarfing row of people in background

Visitors are dwarfed by the Leshan Giant Buddha.

Photo by Efired/Shutterstock

Mount Emei Scenic Area, including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area, China

This mixed site combines two notable places a few hours’ drive apart. All of China’s mixed sites involve mountains, but only Leshan, near Emei in Sichuan, offers the world’s largest Buddha sculpture (233 feet tall) carved into a hillside. That’s fitting, since this is where Buddhism was introduced to China. The hills and cliffs also feature many historic temples. Evergreen forests and three rivers enhance the setting. As one of China’s four sacred Buddhist mountains, Emei has long been protected; the first Chinese Buddhist temple, dating from the 1st century C.E., tops its summit.

Aboriginal rock art in Kakadu National Park, with detailed white drawing of human figure

Aboriginal rock art is abundant in Kakadu National Park.

Photo by Miroslaw Skorka/Shutterstock

Kakadu National Park, Australia

Australia’s largest national park, located in a tropical stretch of the Northern Territory, encompasses portions of four river systems, waterfalls, wetlands, and steep cliffs and plateaus inaccessible to vehicles. Plus, the thousands of sites of rock art and cave paintings indicate people have lived here some 40,000 years, including Aboriginal people today. Crocodiles, wallabies, and flying foxes also live here, and a large and diverse bird population makes it a prime place for bird-watching. Crocodile Dundee featured Kakadu’s Gunlom plunge pool, popular with visitors.

A rock monument known as La Theiere (the Teapot) in Algeria, surrounded by rocky desert

The rock monument La Theiere (the Teapot) is one of many impressive sights in this Algerian spot.

Photo by imageBROKER.com/Shutterstock

Tassili n’Ajjer, Algeria

Nature and culture mix vividly at this site, which offers an impressive array of prehistoric cave art in a landscape of eroded sandstone pillars and arches in the desert. The engravings and paintings, rediscovered in the 20th century, include images of animals; they range over 10,000 years and show species that have long been extinct in the region, such as crocodiles and hippopotamus. They also depict how a society and the climate evolved.

Overhead view of two people in yellow jackets in a kayak, passing through narrow section of the Bloodvein River

The Bloodvein River, one of several in Pimachiowin Aki, gets its name from red rocks; some feature ancient drawings.

Photo by Dustin Silvey

Pimachiowin Aki, Canada

This site, “The Land That Gives Life,” is the traditional home of four Anishinaabeg First Nations communities. In this boreal forest rich with lakes and rivers in the provinces of Manitoba and Ontario, caribou, wolverines, moose, and other wildlife flourish. The local First Nations communities follow their long cultural tradition of “keeping the land,” a responsible stewardship that includes fishing and hunting, maintaining ancient and sacred spaces, and avoiding commercial development.

Overhead view of stone walls and small shelters (with grass roofs) in green field on St. Kilda

Walls and shelters on remote St. Kilda testify to its long habitation.

Photo by corlaffra/Shutterstock

St. Kilda, United Kingdom

Among nearly three dozen U.K. UNESCO sites, St. Kilda is the only mixed cultural-natural site; it’s also one of the most remote. Yet this small archipelago off Scotland’s west coast was inhabited for thousands of years. (No one lives there now, except for 1 million visiting seabirds and feral sheep.) The striking landscape results from the islands’ formation by a volcano. St. Kilda’s high sea cliffs and sea stacks experience some of the tallest waves and strongest winds in Europe.

This article was originally published in July 2021. It was updated in June 2024 with new information.

Pat Tompkins has written for Afar about movies, books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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