UNESCO World Heritage Sites to Add to Your Bucket List
Of the 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites across 167 countries, only a few get all the attention. True, the superstars are some of the most beautiful and iconic landmarks in the world, from India’s magnificent Taj Mahal to Machu Picchu in Peru. But it’d be unwise to focus only on the most popular destinations, when there are so many other marvelous sites to be explored.
Across the globe, under-the-radar finds promise spectacular scenery and historical resonance. And because few crowds make the trek to visit them, you can enjoy their splendor in peace.
The following 15 sites have been recognized by UNESCO for their cultural and natural significance — and there’s a good chance you’ve never heard of a single one.
Wadi Al-Hitan (Whale Valley) National Park, Egypt
Whale relics in the desert might sound impossible, but at Wadi Al-Hitan, you’ll find just that.
Located in the Western Desert of Egypt, 100 miles southwest of Cairo, this paleontological site consists of fossil remains of one of the earliest and now extinct sub-orders of whale — the Archaeoceti, a primitive whale with a long skull, large carnivorous teeth and, amazingly, hind limbs. The order flourished during the Eocene epoch 33 to 56 million years ago, before transitioning from land to sea.
This open-air museum is at once a natural wonder and a fascinating education.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia
This park is best known for its pair of natural wonders: dusty-hued Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), which rises 1,142 feet above expansive sandy plains; and Kata Tjuta, a group of towering domed rock formations.
The site — one of a small number of places on the UNESCO list to tout a dual listing for both its geological and cultural significance — highlights the relationship between the natural environment and the Anangu Aboriginal people, who still own and live in the park.
Uluru’s sandstone walls are memorably adorned with Aboriginal art depicting wildlife found in the area — kangaroos, frogs and turtles. On your visit, make sure to also witness inma (traditional song and dance) and to learn about Anangu history via traditional stories.
Tsingy De Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, Madagascar
The landscape of Tsingy De Bemaraha is otherworldly. Spanning over 2.4 square miles, the incredible stone forest features sharp-edged rocks that rise up 200 feet. “Tsingy” translates to “where one cannot walk barefoot,” and even with shoes it can prove to be a bit challenging to traverse the jagged terrain here.
The region was bestowed with UNESCO World Heritage status in 1990 for its value in preserving the habitat of lemurs and birds; in the surrounding forests and mangroves, over 100 species of birds and 11 types of lemurs reside.
Within the National Park, there are ladders and bridges arranged for access, and ropes and climbing equipment come in handy to scale the spiked towers.
Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, Japan
Surrounded by the rugged mountains of the Chubu region in the Shogawa River Valley, the villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama have remained isolated, with only limited access to the outside world. Historically, people here have lived on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms.
The villages are memorably home to gassho-style farm houses with roofs that resemble the hands of Buddhist monks in prayer (in English, “gassho” translates to “act of prayer”). The architecture is suited to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow the region gets during winter.
Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are accessible by public transportation from bigger cities or by car. The best time to visit is during cherry-blossom season.
Leshan Giant Buddha, China
The Great Wall of China is by far the country’s most popular UNESCO site, but the place where Buddhism was first established in China is also well worth making the trek to see.
Located in the southern Sichuan province, the cloud-shrouded Mount Emei Scenic Area, including the Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area, is considered one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the country, with over 90 stone carvings and shrines set within a sub-tropical forest.
The Giant Maitreya Buddha, carved on the hillside of Xijuo Peak at the convergence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers, stands 233 feet tall (10 stories high), making it the largest stone Buddha in the world. It’s predicted to be 1,300 years old and is admired for its sheer size and architectural craftsmanship.
Monte Albán, Mexico
Oaxaca in Southern Mexico is a typical 16th-century Spanish colonial town with a lively zocalo (central square), cathedral and buildings standing in a grid pattern.
A short distance from the city center is the hilltop archaeological site of Monte Albán, meaning “White Mountain,” one of Mexico’s most well-preserved ruins. The complex thrived for over 1,500 years under the Zapotec, Mixtec and Olmec peoples.
Walk among the restored temples, pyramids, artificial mounds and ball-game courts overlooking the lush valleys below. The Main Plaza takes your breath away, with two large platforms reachable by colossal staircases. Excavated artifacts and concrete slabs with hieroglyphics and carvings are also found throughout the area.
St Kilda, Scotland
The small volcanic archipelago of St Kilda, off the west coast of Scotland, is simply breathtaking. The uninhabited islands of Hirta, Dun, Soay and Boreray make up Scotland’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, and feature the UK’s highest sea cliffs.
Although currently unoccupied by humans, the islands were inhabited for 4,000 years, and feature the remains of dwellings and drystone storage structures.
During breeding season, the islands host the largest seabird colony in the north-east Atlantic, attracting birds like puffins, northern gannets and fulmars. Underwater, find a kaleidoscope of color and abundant marine life in the caves and reefs.
These far-flung settlements of the British Isles are often unreachable due to storms for weeks or months, but when the sun is shining, they make for a great day trip from the Western Isles.
Mistaken Point of Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada
Mistaken Point first gained notoriety because of how difficult it is to navigating the waters around it. Today, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site worth the trip for checking out fossils.
Located at the southernmost tip of Newfoundland in Canada, these wind- and wave-swept coastal cliffs span 10 miles and have been submerged underwater for millions of years. The exposed rocks have unearthed some of the oldest fossils of complex multicellular life found on Earth, dating back to the middle Ediacaran Period (580 to 560 million years ago). Thousands of these fossils illustrate a milestone in the history of life, where complex organisms first came into being.
The only way to get to Mistaken Point is on a guided hiking tour via a moderately difficult trail from the Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre.
Ellora Caves, India
Out of India’s many cultural and natural heritage sites, travelers often frequent only a few, missing some incredible sites a bit off the beaten path.
The Ellora caves, located in Maharashtra in western India, bring ancient India to life. The complex of 34 “caves” carved into the side of basalt Charanandri hills were built between the 6th and 10th centuries. They consist of Buddhist, Jain and Hindu temples, demonstrating the religious harmony the region experienced over the years.
While the Buddhist temples are simple in design, the Hindu caves are splendid and orante. The Kailasa Temple, named after the Himalayan abode of Lord Shiva, is considered the world’s oldest single-rock-carved, multi-storied temple complex. Built downward from a basalt slope, this astonishing temple boasts carved monolithic pillars, plus sculptures of various deities and scenes from Hindu mythology.
The Albula Bernina Railway, Switzerland
Crossing the Swiss Alps, the Rhaetian Railway is one of the most spectacular train routes in Europe, dating back to the early 1900s and bringing together the two lines of Albula and Bernina.
This UNESCO World Heritage route traverses mountainous terrain, through 20 towns over 80 miles, climbing more than 3,281 feet as it goes from Tirano in Italy to Switzerland’s Thusis. It features jaw-dropping structures — including tunnels, bridges and viaducts — across bucolic valleys, providing incredible vistas, especially when it reaches the Montebello Curve near the Morteratsch glacier.
The railway originally linked the outside world with isolated mountain communities. Today it attracts visitors to admire its engineering, not to mention the jaw-dropping Alpine landscapes near the ski resorts of St. Moritz and Davos.
Chan Chan, Peru
While everyone is heading to Machu Picchu, take the path less traveled to Chan Chan, where you will be rewarded with the sight of the remains of the largest pre-Columbian city in the Americas.
Situated in northwest Peru near Trujillo, this former capital of the Chimu Kingdom was in its heyday between 900 and 1470 AD, before being conquered by the Incas. The nine-square mile ancient metropolis boasts a maze of passageways and streets, adobe walls of nine rectangular “Palaces” with their own temples, and gardens irrigated by an intricate system that was later adopted by the Incas.
As many as 60,000 people were estimated to have lived here. Touring the site takes 3-4 hours, and it’s best to hire a guide to make the most of your experience.
Volcanoes of Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia
Located in Russia’s far east, the Kamchatka Peninsula is a remote wilderness area with the highest density of active volcanoes on the planet — of its 300 volcanoes, 30 of them remain active.
Flanked by the Sea of Okhotsk and the Pacific Ocean, the 780-mile peninsula, part of the Pacific Ring of Fire, is rich with thermal and mineral springs, boreal forests and glaciers that continue to carve its dramatic landscape. Kamchatka also has the world's highest concentration of salmon, Steller’s Sea eagles and brown bears. And it is one of the last places to see the majestic brown bears in their natural habitat.
In the town of Esso, indigenous people watch over large herds of reindeer. The surrounding seas are great for witnessing seabird colonies, orcas and humpback whales. Most of Kamchatka was closed off until the 1990s, and a special permit is now needed to explore its wonders.
Sub-Antarctic Islands, New Zealand
The Sub-Antarctic islands off the coast of New Zealand have earned their nickname “the Galápagos of the Southern Ocean” for good reason — like that more famous destination, they are teeming with diverse, endemic wildlife.
Interested in bird-watching? The primitive isles are home to yellow-eyed and erect-crested penguins, petrels, red-crowned parakeets and several species of albatross. Intrigued by marine life? More than 95 percent of the New Zealand sea lion (Hooker’s sea lion) population is found here, and the southern right whale breeds in the marine environment. Is foliage your passion? Spring sees an explosion of color with giant perennial “megaherbs” featuring large leaves and colorful flowers.
Tourism to this lost world is restricted, but a special license, often acquired by cruise operators, will get you to this slice of untouched paradise.
Historic Centre of Cordoba, Spain
Come face-to-face with Spain’s fascinating history in the city of Cordoba in Andalusia, which has four World Heritage sites.
The most prominent is the Great Mosque-Cathedral, which powerfully symbolizes the religious changes Cordoba experienced over the centuries. Built in the 7th century by the Moors, the ornate building was once the second biggest mosque in the world, after the Holy Mosque in Mecca. It was later converted into a Roman Catholic church in the 13th century.
Marvel at the gold prayer hall, the giant arches and 856 columns made of jasper, onyx, marble and granite. The octagonal dome above the prayer hall still remains, and features interlaced arches decorated with vibrant mosaics and Arabic inscriptions. The baroque-style high altar sits underneath a gothic ceiling, with Renaissance walls that blend seamlessly into the Islamic arches.
Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve, Maldives
Located in the central-western part of the Maldives, the Baa Atoll Biosphere Reserve consists of 75 coral islands, with surrounding aquamarine waters that support one of the largest groups of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean. It acts as a pathway for planktonic larvae, attracting hundreds of manta rays and whale sharks. Watching the feeding frenzies of the manta rays in particular, with their wing-like pectoral fins bumping into one another, is an experience to remember.
Baa Atoll, with help from the Maldivian government and UNESCO, strives toward sustainable tourism so as to not put undue pressure on the reef species.