Moai statues on Rapa Nui (Graeme Green)

15 of the world’s most incredible UNESCO sites – and why you should visit them

10th July 2017

UNESCO sites celebrate and protect humanity's and Mother Nature’s greatest achievements. Travel bloggers, including The Planet D and Wandering Earl, select the 15 that have to be seen to be believed…

Graeme Green

(Sites listed in no particular order. Numbers don’t equate to rankings.)


1: Persepolis, Iran

Audrey Scott (Uncornered Market)

Bas-relief carvings, Persepolis (Dreamstime)

Persepolis, the 2,500 year-old capital of the Achaemenid Empire, located outside Shiraz, Iran is our favourite UNESCO site. What makes this place incredible is the combination of the vast scale of stone statues and columns together with the intricateness of the carvings.

Along the grand staircase that leads to the Apadana Palace you find the relief of the 23 subject states of the Achaemenid Empire. Even 2,500 years later you can still make out every curl in a beard, eyelash on a camel and softened skin of soldiers holding hands.

Even more remarkable is the story of how the Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great, was the first to record mentions of human rights, tolerance and racial equality in writing in the Babylon Cylinder (539 BC). Over two millennia later the world is still trying to live up to these ideals.


2: Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Robson Cadore (Love & Road)

Angkor Wat (Dreamstime)

Angkor Wat is magical. When you find yourself surrounded by the ancient temples, the huge trees and monks passing by, it’s like being in a movie. Everything is so unique and mysterious. The architecture, rock carvings, gates and lakes were all designed with a purpose that goes beyond our understanding. There is so much history and so much faith in that place that it’s hard to walk around and not feel it.

Travel to Cambodia is a great adventure, but Angkor Wat complex is an experience in itself. No other UNESCO Heritage Site has been so intriguing and magical to us.

No one can say they visited Cambodia and learned about Khmer Culture without spending at least two days in the area, visiting all the magnificent temples in the complex.


3: Ait Benhaddou, Morocco

Joao Leitao (Nomad Revelations)

Ait Benhaddou (Dreamstime)

A UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s appeared in many films, including Gladiator, Lawrence of Arabia and more recently the Game of Thrones TV series, Aït Benhaddou, near Ouarzazate, is a fortified village in the High Atlas Ounila Valley, along the former Sahara-Marrakech caravan route.

A wonderfully preserved, extraordinary example of Moroccan earthen clay architecture, its pre-Saharan ksar walls encompass diverse dwelling places, a public square and mosque, work areas, a fortification, a caravansary, a sanctuary, two cemeteries and half a dozen Kasbahs.

Perfectly adapted to climatic conditions, the complex invitingly harmonises both its natural and social environments.


4: Taj Mahal, India

Claudia Tavani (My Adventures Across the World)

Taj Mahal sunset (Dreamstime)

There is little doubt that the Taj Mahal is one of the UNESCO sites that everyone should visit and that it is one of the best places to visit in India. The site, in Agra, can be really crowded, but I was so focused on its beauty when I visited that I didn’t even take notice of the multitudes of tourists around me.

My tip to best enjoy the Taj Mahal is to plan to be on the site at around 3pm and to stay until sunset time, when the light becomes simply magic.

Also, don’t forget to look behind you when standing on the terrace of the main building. The view of the entrance with the beautifully kept gardens leading to the Taj is incredible.


5: Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve, Canada

Tracey Nesbitt (Solo Traveller)

Sunrise on the Bay of Fundy (Dreamstime)

One of my favourite UNESCO sites is not a historical area or an architectural gem, but an ecosystem. Canada’s Southwest Nova Biosphere Reserve in Nova Scotia spans 1.5 million hectares, including the Tobeatic Wilderness Area and Kejimkujik National Park.

The Biosphere Reserve supports sustainable development while honouring and protecting natural and cultural heritage. Here, you can enjoy whale watching on the Bay of Fundy or join a naturalist to forage for wild edibles in the forest. 

You can experience the highest and lowest tides in the world, discover the history and culture of the Mi’kmaw people, and gaze at the stars from one of the best places for astronomical observations in North America.


6: The Duomo, Italy

Alex (Swedish Nomad)

The Duomo at twilight (Dreamstime)

Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country in the world. The Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as Florence Cathedral or the Duomo, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site back in 1982. It’s the main church of Florence and a must-see for anyone who visits the city.

When I first stood in front of this cathedral complex, I was in awe, and I still am. The details are priceless, and the Duomo almost feels unreal, even though you see it with your own eyes.

Unfortunately, they don't make masterpieces like this anymore. It's probably the most detailed church I've ever seen. This church is both one of my favourite buildings, as well as a favourite photo spot. Go early in the morning, when there are no tourists. It's really something special.


7: Borobudur, Indonesia

Anna Phipps (Global Gallivanting) 

Borobudur (Dreamstime)

The magnificent Borobudur, near Yogakarta in Java, Indonesia, is the largest Buddhist monument in the world and one of the most majestic, impressive and inspiring places I've ever seen. 

Borobudur dates back to the ninth century and represents a giant mandala (spiritual symbol). For me, the most interesting part about Borobudur is that as you explore up through the many levels of this massive structure, you are taken on an educational journey of the Buddhist path enlightenment through the thousands of intricately detailed relief panels and over 500 Buddha statues. It’s like the structure is a massive Buddhist textbook.

The best time to see Borobudur is at sunrise when the views from the top over the Buddha statues to the surrounding countryside and the Merapi volcano are at their most magical.


8: Machu Picchu, Peru

Stefan Arestis (Nomadic Boys)

Machu Picchu (Dreamstime)

Machu Picchu in Peru definitely ranks as one of the most impressive places we’ve ever seen in our travels. The famous Inca site is 2,430 metres (7,970 feet) above sea level. The name Machu Picchu means ‘old mountain’ in the Quechua language and was initially built in around 1450 at the climax of the Inca Empire.

It was then abandoned in 1572 when the Spanish invaded, until 1911 when it was discovered by the American explorer Hiram Bingham.

To really get a feel of what the Sacred Valley and the Inca culture is all about, the Inca Trail is a must. This is the famous route of pilgrimage the Incas used to take to reach Machu Picchu.


9: Phong Nha-Ke Bang, Vietnam

Jarryd Salem (NOMADasaurus)

Beams of light in Phong Nha-Ke Bang caves (NOMADasaurus)

Located in the dense jungles of Central Vietnam and nudging the border of Laos is the magnificent Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has been nicknamed the ‘Cave Kingdom’, thanks to its unbelievable cavern network that is sprawled throughout the terrain.

These aren’t any ordinary caves, but actually some of the largest ever discovered. Hang Son Doong is now known as ‘the world’s largest cave’ and more people have stood on the summit of Everest than have seen the inside of its chambers.

With the majority of Phong Nha still unexplored due to its impenetrable forest and unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam/American War, speilogists believe an even bigger cave may still be hidden under the surface.


10: The Old City of Sana'a, Yemen

Derek Baron (Wandering Earl)

Old City of Sana'a (Dreamstime)

As soon as I stepped through the main gate that leads into this unique historical centre, I was transported into a city unlike any other I'd ever seen.

With hundreds of 700-year-old ‘skyscrapers’ dotting the skyline, all made from mud, stone and simple bricks, thousands of winding lanes to explore and plenty of ancient markets to check out, I wandered around in complete awe the entire time.

While it's not a safe destination to visit now unfortunately, hopefully it will become safe once again so that more people can experience one of the most magical old cities on the planet.


11: Rapa Nui, Chile 

Juno Kim (Runaway Juno)

Moai statues on Rapa Nui (Runaway Juno)

When I landed in Rapa Nui, also known as Easter Island, it felt like I stepped into the centre of the universe. This remote island is certainly spiritually charged.

Easter Island is famous for the monumental statues called moai, a spiritual being created by early Rapa Nui people. When the carved stone or wooden objects are properly fashioned, they believed that the objects could be charged by mana, a magical spiritual essence.

It's amazing how much we don’t know about our past, even if it’s considerably recent. Moai statues are believed to have been made between 1250 and 1400 AD. Although there have been a lot of studies, the exact story behind these magnificent statues is still not clear. With or without the facts, however, these statues speak in silence. Visit the ahus (moai platform) to feel the energy, most famously Ahu Tongariki, or ‘the Fifteen’. 

Walking to the top of three main extinct volcanoes is also a great way to get to know the life of the island.  


12: Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

Matt Stabile (The Expeditioner)

Sigiriya rock fortress (Dreamstime)

Visiting the ancient city of Sigiriya, located in the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka, is an unforgettable experience. The royal complex, the ruins of the old capital, built by King Kassapa and dating back to the 5th Century AD sits at the top of a massive flat rock that is accessible by foot.

It became a UNESCO site back in 1982. A day spent here is an adventure in itself, and provides for an opportunity to take some of the best photos of your life.


13: Evora, Portugal

Emma Higgins (Gotta Keep Movin’)

Evora town and cathedral (Dreamstime)

Evora in Portugal is a pretty mega UNESCO site and entire Old Town. Also known as Portugal’s Museum City, Evora in the central Alentejo region has a monument, landmark or trace of centuries-old life around every corner.

There are remnants of Roman times here, most notably the Temple of Diana, which is regarded as one of the best-preserved Roman ruins on the Iberian Peninsula.

During the 15th century Evora was also the home of Portugal’s kings, and, as the years have gone by, the city still retains its sense of grandeur, with palaces and convents dotted through town.

A popular university breathes fresh life into the city today, making it one of the most exciting to visit in Portugal.


14: Lunenburg, Canada

Debra Corbeil (The Planet D)

Lunenburg (The Planet D)

Our favourite UNESCO World Heritage site is Old Town Lunenburg in Nova Scotia, Canada. Lunenburg is one the most picturesque communities in the country.

Established in 1753, the Old Town has remained completely intact. Known for its colourful houses, Lunenburg is a photographer’s dream. But it also has a strong fishing heritage. You can learn about the industry that built this town at the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic on the waterfront and tour Nova Scotia’s sailing ambassador, a replica of the undefeated racing schooner The Blue Nose.


15: Brimstone Hill, St Kitts

Charli Moore (Wanderlusters)

Brimstone Hill fortress (Wanderlusters)

One of the Caribbean’s most notable UNESCO sites, Brimstone Hill sits high above St Kitts’ north west coast and offers panoramic views of forested mountain peaks and neighbouring Dutch, English and French islands.

Abandoned by British forces in the mid-ninetieth century after a colourful history of battles, sieges and surrenders, the structure now stands as a testament to the British engineers whose imagination conceived its hillside design, and the African slaves who realised its construction.

Open to the public everyday (except Christmas Day and Good Friday), its island views and captivating museum displays are a must for anyone visiting the island.


Main image: The 15 on Rapa Nui (Graeme Green)

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Key Facts

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    Vietnam travel guide, including map of Vietnam, top Vietnam travel experiences, tips for travel in Vietnam, plus where go and what to do in Vietnam

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