Must-Visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites

UNESCO was created in 1945 as a means to help ensure the preservation of our natural, cultural, and intellectual heritage. Of the more than 1,000 awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage sites, these should be at the top of your list.

Dharmapuri, Forest Colony, Tajganj, Agra, Uttar Pradesh 282001, India
The Taj Mahal is referred to as “the jewel of Muslim art in India,” by UNESCO in its listing on the World Heritage Site registry. The Mughal ruler Shah Jahan had the truly magnificent white marble mausoleum built in 1632–1648, in memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. For its construction, artisans from all over the empire, Central Asia, Iran, were summoned and the final result of their stonework, calligraphy, carvings, gardening, woodwork, and soaring domes remains one of the universally admired masterpieces of world heritage. Allot ample time to tour the site—besides the mausoleum, there is a mosque, a guest house, cloisters, courtyards, gates, and vast gardens. In addition to being stunningly beautiful from afar, the iconic site is evocatively romantic and up-close, the intricate details in its architecture, ornamentation, and history, are revealed.
Prinsengracht, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Beyond tulips, windmills, and weed, Amsterdam’s global image is entwined with water. The Canal Ring (Grachtengordel) is made up of 165 fluid channels developed during the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age. In the ensuing years, the water network has supported maritime trade while evolving into a centerpiece of one of the world’s most recognizable urban landscapes. In 2013, on its 400th birthday, UNESCO added the Grachtengordel to its list of World Heritage sites. Today the Canal Ring is both a historic transportation system and a stunning backdrop for local festivals and celebrations. The canals, notably Prinsengracht, are packed with partygoers on annual festivals like King’s Day (formerly Queen’s Day), in April, as well as Gay Pride and Grachtenfestival in August. Canal cruises offer an excellent introduction to city sights and are a great way to see Amsterdam.
Praça do Império 1400-206 Lisboa, 1400-206 Lisboa, Portugal
Jerónimos Monastery, also known as the Hieronymites Monastery, or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Portuguese, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Lisbon. This stunning building took 100 years to build and it’s no wonder once you experience the level of detail for yourself. I could have spent an entire day there, with my camera, photographing the stunning architecture. The archways surrounding the inner courtyard look like something from a fairy tale.
Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia
Crowds may swarm upon it daily from sunrise onwards, but exposure hasn’t dulled the impact of the largest religious monument in the world. Commissioned by King Suryavarman II in the 12th century as the centerpiece of the mighty Khmer empire, the structure is inspired by Hindu sacred design and is estimated to have taken around 30 years to build. The biggest surprise upon visiting might be learning that the vast complex of spires, moats, frescoes, cloisters, and balustrades was constructed in such speedy fashion. You won’t be alone while witnessing it, but sunrise over the iconic temple remains one of the essential experiences in Southeast Asia. A return in the afternoon when the camera-toting hordes have dispersed is also advisable.
Bahnhofpl. 1, 7000 Chur, Switzerland
I didn’t even realize that the Bernina Express scenic train journey was on the UNESCO World Heritage list until I arrived at the small northern Italian town of Tirano to start the trip. There are several different routes from which travelers may chose, but that day I took a one-way trip from Tirano to the Swiss mountain town of Chur. It was the middle of winter and I was excited to see the famous snow-covered Alps in person. Images of Maria from the Sound of Music kept running through my head as the train slowly pulled out of the small station. The journey is a scenic one and the train cars have been designed to maximize the amazing views. The windows are extra large and there is more than enough room between seats to allow for even the most ardent shutterbug. Our trip took about four hours, during which time we passed through narrow valleys and swept past mountain villages that looked like they were plucked out of a model train set. The unique and stunning scenery I was lucky enough to witness proved to me why UNESCO very smartly placed this journey on their important list. Tirano is easy to reach from Milan and there are many different train routes available including trips to St. Moritz and Davos.
Carretera Federal 180 Km. 120
A brilliant work of architecture and astronomy, the Pyramid of Kukulkán at Chichén Itzá is so precisely engineered that on the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun casts shadows that slither like snakes and seem to descend the structure’s stairways. Said to represent the plumed-serpent deity Kukulkán, the shadows return to earth twice yearly to drink from sacred sinkholes known as cenotes. Today the phenomenon attracts thousands to the already crowded archaeological site, but almost-identical light-play can be seen the day before, alongside a mere fraction of the visitors.
Lasseter Hwy, Uluru NT 0872, Australia
Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock as many know it, is one of the most recognized landmarks anywhere in the world. This strange giant rock in the middle of the Australian Outback has long kindled imaginations, going back millennia. It may be an important tourist site today, but it also holds immense cultural value for the original inhabitants of the area, something I learned all about on the very unique Anangu Tour of Uluru. In the Pitjantjatjara language, anangu means person or human being, and the tours are designed to teach newcomers about the native peoples. The tours are given in the Pitjantjatjara language, with interpreters translating for the guides. It’s not that the guide didn’t know English, he certainly did, it’s that they want visitors to hear the nuances of a language most of us have never before encountered. The walk around the rock was an enlightening experience, learning all about traditional culture and the extreme importance Uluru holds in the Tjukurpa or Dream Time. Tjukurpa is Aboriginal law, culture, history, and their worldview all bundled into one. It is expansive, impossibly ancient and much of it is shrouded in mystery, transmitted only to certain people at particular times in their lives. To be a part of that was a humbling experience. Sadly this tour is no longer run but a new tour offered is very similar and offers many of the same features of the original Anangu experience: The Rising Sun tour booking information is below.
Athens 105 58, Greece
You can’t miss the Parthenon, the majestic ruin towering above Athens. Originally painted in vivid hues, this feat of architecture, engineering, and artistry is still as awe-inspiring as it was almost 2,500 years ago. Le Corbusier, pioneer of modernism, called it the most “ruthlessly flawless” monument in the world. Hold on to your admission ticket: It’s valid for several other archaeological sites on the slopes surrounding the Acropolis, including the Agora and theater of Dionysus.

Misiones Province, Argentina
Certain things in life are simply impossible to adequately capture in a mere photograph. Iguazú Falls is definitely one of them, and above is my best effort to convey the epic expanse of ‘The Devil’s Throat.’ Situated on the border of Brazil and Argentina, the falls are the watery dividing line between the two countries at this exact point. I accessed the falls from the Argentinian side, via Iguazú National Park and took a mini train (the Rainforest Ecological Train, to be exact), some trails, and more than a few catwalks to reach this particular vantage point. Unlike some falls in the US and Canada, in the southern hemisphere you can get dangerously close to the roaring waters of these grand spectacles. The sound is deafening, the spray is enticing, and the visuals are simply amazing. As I stood there, trying to take it all in, all I could do was feel my heart pounding as I stared into the mouth of the devil. Most depictions of Lucifer entail horns, a tail and copious amounts of fire meant to terrify all who are witness to his power. I can assure you, though made of mere cliffs and water, THIS devil could douse any other devil and never look back.
Beijing, China
The Great Wall of China runs more than 21,000 kilometers (over 13,000 miles), not as one continuous wall but rather as fortified wall sections. Some of the sections date back more than 2,500 years, though only 8.2 percent of the existing wall is original. The Mutianyu Great Wall is one of the more accessible portions. Hike (because that is what you’ll be doing, even on the wall itself) up the Great Wall, then slide down the side of the mountain on a toboggan. Alternatively, explore the Simatai Great Wall, which retains a more authentic feel—save, of course, for the fake water town at the bottom. Even more remote is the Jiankou section, which is largely unrestored, so book with an experienced group like Beijing Hikers or Wild Great Wall.
Croatia’s oldest and biggest national park, Plitvice is a four-season playground known for its pristine forests, stunning waterfalls, and dozens of turquoise lakes. To see it all, trek along the wooden pathways that twist through bright-green vegetation and past water rushing down limestone and dolomite rock. Along the way, keep an eye out for the park’s signature blue butterflies and the trout that populate the shallow waters. Though you’re unlikely to encounter them, protected species like brown bears, gray wolves, and Eurasian lynx also roam the forests around Plitvice. If you need more than one day to explore, overnight at one of the many nearby lodgings such as Bear’s Log, with cozy wooden interiors, an outdoor Jacuzzi, and terraces overlooking the verdant landscape.
50170 Mont Saint-Michel, France
It’s safe to say there’s nothing in the world quite like this magical island, topped by a medieval monastery that rises out of the bay like a heavenly apparition. It’s said that, early in the 8th century, a bishop in nearby Avranches was visited by the archangel Michael, who told him to build a church atop an island out to sea. From 966 onward, the dukes of Normandy, supported by French kings, oversaw the development of a major Benedictine abbey on Mont St-Michel. Massive buildings were added throughout the Medieval period, and the abbey became a renowned center of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds in Europe. To access this UNESCO World Heritage site, you must park in an off-site lot and take a shuttle or walk over a footbridge. Recent improvements have made the process much easier, but you should expect crowds in most seasons, as Mont St-Michel is the third most-visited monument in France. After touring the abbey, head to La Mère Poulard restaurant for the signature omelets and butter cookies. There are also several hotels on the island, though most visitors tend to spend the night elsewhere.
Vrijdagmarkt 22-23, 2000 Antwerpen, Belgium
I’ll be the first to admit, a museum of printing didn’t sound terribly exciting to me, at first. Antwerp Belgium’s Plantin-Moretus Museum certainly changed my mind. This is the only museum on the UNESCO World Heritage list and the recognition is well deserved. The museum is housed in the 16th century home of Antwerp’s first printing company. The house itself is stunning, and the ancient printing presses (some are the oldest still in working order) are fascinating. The star of the museum’s collection, however, is the family’s personal collection of books and archives. The library includes an early Gutenberg Bible, the first Dutch dictionary, one of the world’s first atlases, and many other treasures. If you are a book lover, interested in social history, art, design or architecture, don’t pass up the Plantin-Moretus museum. More Info:
1000 Brussels, Belgium
The Grand Place in Brussels is the magnificent main square in Brussels. The square is the main tourist attraction in Brussels and is surrounded by numerous cafes and shops. Most of the buildings were constructed in the late 17th century, although market activity in the square dates back to the 12th Century. It’s a great place to hang out, grab a coffee or a liege waffle, and people watch.
I found Kroměříž when it was almost too late. I had been living in another small city in the Czech Republic for 15 months and, as soon as I realized I really would be leaving, panic set in and I started looking for a new place to settle. That’s how I found myself in love with the small town of Kroměříž. I went alone, walking its streets and parks, photographing Art Nouveau residences, stealing a listen as monks sang in the cathedral, testing out cafes, and taking in the views of the gardens from the palace tower. In the end, I couldn’t stay more than a couple of days, but the unspoiled beauty and quiet of this town stayed with me, like an unrequited love. The Kroměříž palace and gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They reflect the style of a perfect Baroque garden and played an important role in the establishment of this formal garden style in central Europe. Opening hours vary by month (link to the palace and garden’s official website is below).
Via S. Giovanni Vecchio, 89, 75100 Matera MT, Italy
I’m not one to skip breakfast, especially in Italy, where thoughts of cappuccino, pastries, and local ham tend to rouse me early from slumber. But on my first morning at the Hotel Sant’Angelo, in the old quarter of Matera, I was having a hard time dragging myself from the creature comforts of my cave. Staying in a cave, it turns out, can be surprisingly pleasant. There was just one small window high overhead, but the room and adjoining bath were in no way dank—a testament to the natural ventilation that keeps the caves cool and comfortable. The wavy contours of the white tufa-rock walls conjured a feeling of being enveloped in some primordial womb. Yet there were modern amenities: luxurious linens, Internet service, a telephone. Fred Flintstone never had it this good. I might have snoozed until noon, were it not for an impatient mate eager to see the sights. We had arrived in the village the previous night after a long drive across the treeless plains of the Basilicata region, located at the instep of Italy’s boot. Matera is an enchanted world of Stone Age splendor. Known as the sassi (Italian for stones), the bisque-colored hilltop cave homes comprise one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth, according to UNESCO. The caves have provided shelter for more than 7,000 years. A millennium ago, shepherds inhabited them and carved churches into the rock; during the Renaissance, the area prospered and elaborate buildings were carved out, the excess tufa sculpted into ornate facades. By the early 1900s, the sassi had fallen into neglect. Families and their animals crowded into the caves for warmth, and disease was rampant. When writer Carlo Levi brought this tragic state of affairs to light with his 1945 book Christ Stopped At Eboli, the Italian authorities moved residents en masse to modern housing—leaving the sassi abandoned, save for the occasional crew brought by film makers (Pier Paolo Pasolini and Mel Gibson among them) in search of a biblical-looking backdrop. It was only in the 1990s that the Italian government encouraged people to move back. Residents revamped the cave dwellings as homes, restaurants, and inns. When the Sant’Angelo opened in 2004, it was the area’s first luxury hotel. The 19 cave rooms are sparsely but tastefully appointed with rustic wooden furniture. Some carved decorations—crosses, hearts, an owl—date back hundreds of years. Fossilized shells embedded in the walls reveal that the region once lay underwater. Eventually, my fiancé and I did emerge from our cave to wander the town’s ancient alleys. A local guide named Dora Cappiello took us into some of the 150 chiese rupestri (rock churches), where she pointed out wine troughs and frescoes of San Nicola, the patron saint of local shepherds. We also visited a cave dwelling that had been restored to resemble its state when the caves were equal parts manger and living space.
Simple, delicious meals punctuated our explorations. The curvy walls of Baccanti, a cave restaurant, created a private nook where we feasted on silky pappardelle pasta with a cinghiale (wild boar) ragu, accompanied by a dry, fruity red aglianico from the nearby Vulture wine region. Tired and sated after a full day, we headed back to our cave—on moonless nights, a flashlight or trail of bread crumbs is advised for the stumble back to the hotel—where the promise of a deep, sound night’s sleep awaited. —Amy Cortese Hotel Sant’Angelo, 39/0835-314010, from $211 for a double. This appeared in the March/April 2010 issue.
November is a great time to visit the falls. When the water is not at its peak, you can travel to Livingstone Island. The island offers epic views that you won’t get from anywhere else along this UNESCO World Heritage Site. After a little hike and swim, guides take you to the edge of the falls where you can look down into Devil’s Pool.
Bilal Eroğlu Caddesi, Mezarlık Sk. No:8, 50180 Göreme/Nevşehir Merkez/Nevşehir, Turkey
If you only get to ride in a hot air balloon once in your life, do it over Cappadocia, Turkey. Amazing. Cappadocia is surreal when seen from any angle. The region is peppered with strange pointy stone spires that rise up toward the sky, in pastel colors and lacy cutouts. The columns are spectacular when viewed from the ground. But, floating in the wicker basket of a hot air balloon, looking across Cappadocia’s landscape, is otherworldly. The balloons are launched before dawn so that you are well underway before the sun’s rays begin to lick the mountains. When that golden orb eventually breaks onto the scene, the sight is breathtaking. In this photo, I caught the sun shining through a nearby balloon. Any photographer worth her salt is pumping adrenaline, furiously snapping pictures as fast as the camera can stand it.
Devisinghpura, Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan 302001, India
Rising from a rocky hillside 11 kilometers (almost 7 miles) northeast of Jaipur, Amber’s formidable fortress was financed with war booty when it was built by Maharaja Man Singh in 1592. More palace than fort, the magnificent edifice testifies to the opulence of its glory days with gold sandstone and white marble ramparts surrounding luxurious royal apartments appointed with intricate mosaics and relief panels, frescoed arches, and mirrored ceilings. The historic structure offers insight into the lifestyle of the 16th-century maharajas. In the secluded women’s quarters surrounding the fourth courtyard in the palace, the rooms are designed to facilitate the Maharaja’s discreet nocturnal visits to royal wives and concubines.
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