The UNESCO World Heritage Centre defines world heritage as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.” Accordingly, the organization applies that “world heritage” designation to an exclusive selection of cultural and natural treasure
s around the globe, such as East Africa’s Serengeti, the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. <br><br>Established in November 1972, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre named a list of 12 UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1978. Those early picks included Mesa Verde National Park and Yellowstone National Park in the United States; the city of Quito and the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador; Simien National Park and the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia; Aachen Cathedral in Germany; the historic center of Krakow and the Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines in Poland; the Island of Gorée in Senegal; and L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site and Nahanni National Park Reserve in Canada. <br><br>Since then, 193 member states have ratified this mission of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, which “seeks to encourage the identification, protection, and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” The World Heritage site count has now ballooned to include more than a thousand natural and cultural sites worldwide. With 54 sites, Italy is the country with the most cultural property, followed closely by China, with 52 such designations. To earn a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list, a site “must be of outstanding universal value” and meet one out of 10 selection criteria, which the organization regularly revises as the World Heritage concept evolves with the times. <br><br>Some of the most visited UNESCO World Heritage sites see millions of visitors a year and are mainstays on many travelers’ bucket lists, like the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal in India. Others, like the Ningaloo Coast of Australia and Vilnius Historic Center in Lithuania, fly more under the radar—and are definitely worth looking into for some off-the-beaten-path travel inspiration.