Discovering the most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites
UNESCO World Heritage Sites were created to celebrate and safeguard the most unique places around the world. Each of these cultural, historic, and natural treasures make our world a more interesting and enriching place.
Today, there are over 1,000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites across 167 countries. I perused this list to come up with the 25 best UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Map of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites
1. Taj Mahal, India
Constructed in 1643, the Taj Mahal is a dazzling display of Indo-Islamic architecture. This ivory marble structure was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a tomb for his wife. Today, it stands proudly and effervescently as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World!
How to get there: The Taj Mahal is a 2-3 hour train ride from Delhi.
2. Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat is a 12th-century temple complex. It was originally built as a Hindu temple before later becoming a Buddhist shrine. The ruins are camouflaged by trees and other shrubbery, giving it a special aura of mystique.
Over 400 acres (162 hectares) in size, Angkor Wat is among the largest religious monuments in the world.
How to get there: Angkor Wat (located in Siem Reap) is a 1-hour flight from Bangkok, Thailand.
3. Machu Picchu, Peru
Fortified atop the Andes Mountains, Machu Picchu is one of the most iconic structures in South America. This citadel was built in the 1400s under the Inca Empire, which dominated the region at the time. Today, Machu Picchu stands as a surviving testament of Incan architecture, astronomy, art, and religion.
The multi-day hike to get here is also an incredible experience. Machu Picchu has an elevation of 8,000 feet (2,400 m), so it’s advisable to spend a day or two acclimating yourself to the altitude in nearby Aguas Calientes.
How to get there: Machu Picchu is a short bus ride or hike from Aguas Calientes, a 3.5-hour train ride from Cuzco.
4. Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
The Ancient Pyramids of Giza were built around 2,500 B.C. This complex, made up of pyramids, rock tombs, and a sphinx, is one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.
These pyramids served as tombs for Pharaohs, who were mummified and buried with treasures to prepare them for the afterlife.
How to get there: The Pyramids of Giza are a short bus or taxi ride from Cairo.
5. Petra, Jordan
The ancient city of Petra was established over 2,300 years ago. It’s recognizable for its temples and tombs that are carved into rose-colored sandstone.
Petra is nestled between mountains, canyons, and river beds, extending over 100 square miles (264 square km).
How to get there: Petra is a 3-hour drive from Amman.
6. Great Wall of China
Spanning over 13,000 miles (22,000 km), the Great Wall of China is probably the most ambitious undertaking in human history.
Construction began in the 3rd century B.C. to protect the Chinese Empire from foreign invaders. However, the modern expansion of the Great Wall didn’t occur until the Ming Dynasty, which ruled between the 1300s-1600s. Today, this historic structure definitely merits a spot among the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world.
How to get there: The Great Wall of China is accessible from several cities and towns. One popular route is from Beijing to Badaling, a 40 mile (70 km) bus ride.
7. Historic Centre of Rome, Italy
According to mythology, Rome was founded by Romulus and Remus in 750 B.C. Rome was later the capital of the Roman Empire until its collapse in the 5th century A.D.
How to get there: Rome Fiumicino Airport is one of the largest airports in Europe. I recommend booking flights with Skyscanner to find the best deals.
8. Chichen Itza, Mexico
Three millennia after the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids of Giza, the Mayans built some impressive pyramids of their own. Chichen Itza—an ancient Mayan city on the Yucatan Peninsula—is among the best-preserved remnants of this mysterious empire. To this day, it’s still not clear what caused Mayans to desert their cities in 900 A.D.
How to get there: Chichen Itza is a 3-hour bus ride from Cancun.
9. Historic Centre of Florence, Italy
The historic center of Florence attracts millions of tourists a year, making it one of the most popular UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has an abundance of art and architecture dating back several centuries.
As you stroll down its quaint and colorful streets, you’ll discover many historical treasures, including the Florence Cathedral, Uffizi Gallery, and Palazzo Vecchio.
Today, Florence is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.
How to get there: Florence is a 1-hour flight or 1.5-hour train ride from Rome.
10. Yellowstone National Park, USA
Yellowstone is the world’s first national park. It’s home to diverse nature and wildlife, and a variety of exciting outdoor activities.
Inside this exotic park, you’ll find everything from dense forests and canyons to hot springs and geysers. You’ll also likely encounter grizzly bears, but hopefully from afar.
Yellowstone National Park is one of the most unique places in the US.
How to get there: Yellowstone National Park is a 1-hour drive from Jackson Hole Airport.
11. Leshan Giant Buddha, China
This 232-foot (71 m) tall Buddha statue was built between the 8th and 9th centuries. Carved out of red sandstone, it’s the largest stone buddha in the world.
Today, the Leshan Giant Buddha is a popular pilgrimage site for Buddhists and a bucket list destination for tourists.
How to get there: Leshan City is a 1-hour bullet-train ride from Chengdu, China.
12. Vatican City
Just 110 acres (44 hectares), Vatican City is the world’s smallest country. Though tiny in size, it’s mighty in terms of its historic and religious significance.
Vatican City is the home of the Pope, the spiritual head of the Catholic Church. It’s also the site of one of the world’s most magnificent churches, St. Peter’s Basilica. This Italian Renaissance church was built in the 1500s, and has undergone significant artistic renovations since then.
How to get there: Vatican City is adjacent to Rome. It’s less than a 20-minute subway ride from the Rome Termini Station.
13. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Rio de Janeiro is one of the more recent additions to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Surrounded by mountains and sea, Rio de Janeiro’s Carioca Landscapes have been a source of inspiration of artists, musicians, and urbanists for centuries.
The most recognizable symbol of Rio is undoubtedly the Christ the Redeemer statue. It was built in 1931 and stands nearly 100 feet tall. Other culturally significant sites include the Botanical Garden and the hills around Guanabara Bay.
How to get there: Rio de Janeiro is the second busiest airport in Brazil (after São Paulo) and the fourth busiest in South America. I recommend booking a flight with Skyscanner to uncover the best deals.
14. Paris, Banks of the Seine, France
Paris is home to a treasure trove of historic and cultural sites that straddle the River Seine. These precious sights include the Notre-Dame Cathedral, Palais de Louvre, and Eiffel Tower, to name a few.
The city’s rich history and culture make Paris one of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
How to get there: Paris is home to four airports, and is accessible from pretty much every continent. Check out my travel hacks article to learn how I’ve found roundtrip fares for under $250 from Boston.
15. Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
Located 620 miles (1,000 km) off the coast of South America, the Galápagos Islands are home to some of the world’s most unique wildlife.
Charles Darwin visited the Galápagos Islands in the mid-1800s, where he observed that each island had its own distinct wildlife. This scientific breakthrough, in part, paved the way to the Galápagos Islands’ status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How to get there: The Galápagos Islands is just under a 2-hour flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador.
16. Old City of Jerusalem, Israel
Jerusalem is considered one of the holiest cities for Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It’s chock-full of cultural and historic monuments dating back over a thousand years.
Top sights here include the Walls of Jerusalem and Dome of the Rock, a 7th century Islamic shrine. All three of the Abrahamic religions acknowledge that this shrine was the site of Abraham’s sacrifice.
Situated between the Dead Sea and Judaean Mountains, Jerusalem is one of the oldest and most intriguing cities in the world.
How to get there: Jerusalem is less than a 1-hour bus ride from Tel Aviv, Israel.
17. Forbidden City, China
Built in the early 1400s, the Forbidden City is a cultural gem in the heart of Beijing. It was used as an imperial palace complex during the Ming and Qing Dynasties.
The Forbidden City has 980 buildings, many of which are wooden and remarkably well preserved. It’s home to a vast collection of artifacts and artwork from centuries past.
How to get there: Beijing Capital International Airport is the busiest airport in Asia, with over 100,000,000 reported passengers in 2018. As such, you can get here from pretty much anywhere in the world.
18. Valletta, Malta
Just 1 kilometer long and 600 meters wide, Valletta is one of the smallest capital cities in the world. Despite its size, the city is jam-packed with ancient and medieval buildings inside its old city walls. Top sights include St. John’s Co-Cathedral and the Casa Rocca Piccola.
Valletta was once ruled by the Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs. As you walk down its quaint streets today, you’ll see several historic and cultural influences at play.
Last year, Valletta was named the European Capital of Culture.
How to get there: Valletta, Malta is a short flight from most major European airports.
19. Historic Centre of Prague, Czech Republic
Prague is a cultural and historic hub in the heart of central Europe. From its Old Town Square to its lesser known hidden gems, Prague’s historic center is one of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Other top sights in the Old Town include the Prague Castle and Charles Bridge, which date back to the 9th and 14th centuries, respectively.
For the budget-conscious traveler, Prague is also one of the cheapest cities in Europe.
How to get there: Prague is smack dab in the center of Europe, so it’s a convenient flight away from most places across the continent. It’s about a 5-hour bus ride north of Vienna.
20. Lalibela, Ethiopia
Lalibela was among the first 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites inscribed in 1978. This ancient town in Ethiopia is known for its 11 monolithic rock-hewn churches, which trace back to the 13th century.
After the Muslims conquered the “Old Jerusalem,” the Ethiopian king at the time named Lalibela the “New Jerusalem.” Christians were no longer allowed to make the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so Lalibela filled the void. To this day, Lalibela is a prized pilgrimage site for Ethiopian Christians.
How to get there: Lalibela is a 1-hour flight from Addis Ababa.
21. Kremlin and Red Square, Moscow
The Kremlin and adjoining Red Square make up the heart of Moscow. They’ve been at the center of Russia’s history and politics for over 700 years.
In addition to being a political center, the Kremlin is also home to many Russian Orthodox churches. Chief among them are the Cathedral of the Dormition, Church of the Annunciation, and Church of the Archangel. A stone’s throw away is St. Basil’s Cathedral, perhaps the most iconic structure in all of Russia.
How to get there: Red Square is less than an hour by bus, train, and car from Moscow’s Sheremetyevo International Airport.
22. Acropolis of Athens
The Acropolis of Athens is the heart and soul of the Greek capital. This ancient citadel stands atop a cliff overlooking the bustling city below.
Built during the 5th century B.C., the Acropolis is a complex of temples, monuments, and statues. It includes top sights such as the Parthenon, Temple of Athena Nike, and Odeon of Herodes Atticus.
How to get there: When you’re in Athens, look up and you won’t miss it.
23. Historic Centre of Bukhara, Uzbekistan
Situated along the historic Silk Road route, Bukhara is a city in Uzbekistan that’s over 2,000 years old. It contains 140 architectural treasures—including mosques, bazaars, and medressas— making it a hub of Islamic culture.
This ancient city hasn’t changed much since medieval times, and that’s precisely why it draws people from all over the world.
How to get there: Bukhara, and Uzbekistan in general, are definitely off the beaten path. The most convenient way to get here is by taking a flight from Moscow, which currently has services three days a week (Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday).
24. Mount Fuji, Japan
At over 12,380 feet (3,775 m) in elevation, Mount Fuji towers over the Japanese landscape below. It’s been a source of inspiration for writers, artists, and worshippers going back over a thousand years.
This snow-capped mountain is climbed by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year. As of 2013, Mount Fuji is deemed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due to its cultural and spiritual importance.
How to get there: Mount Fuji is just a 2-hour train ride from Tokyo.
25. Mesa Verde National Park, USA
Located in southwestern Colorado, Mesa Verde National Park is known for its well-preserved cliff dwellings dating back to 600 A.D. These dwellings belonged to the Ancestral Pueblo people, who were formerly (and incorrectly) called the Anasazi.
Archaeologists in Mesa Verde National Park have uncovered over 5,000 ancient artifacts and 600 cliff dwellings. They were mysteriously abandoned during around 1200 A.D., only to be rediscovered by cowboys in the late 19th century.
Here’s an interesting video covering Mesa Verde National Park:
How to get there: Mesa Verde National Park is a half-hour drive from Cortez, Colorado and an hour from Durango, Colorado.
Some of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites to visit in 2019
I hope you enjoyed browsing through my list of the 25 best UNESCO World Heritage Sites! There’s such a wide variety of them, so I encourage you to check out the official UNESCO World Heritage Site List to see them all. This list is revised each year, so I will do my best to update my short list based on what’s added or removed (only 2 sites have been delisted so far).
Which of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites have you visited? Let me know in the comments below!
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