7 mins

20 of the best cultural UNESCO sites around the world

From rock-hewn cities to Welsh castles; mountaintop temples to island prisons, we celebrate the UNESCO-listed wonders that make the world a more cultured place...

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal (Dreamstime)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was born out of the horrors of the Second World War, with the remit of spreading peace.

The idea of designating and conserving World Heritage sites – places deemed of great import for their cultural, historical or scientific value – was ratified in 1972.

Just six years later, the first 12 were announced, ranging from Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands to Germany’s Aachen Cathedral.

Today, 1,073 sites have been listed and protected for posterity, with a new batch added each July. The variety is staggering. But the idea is that each one makes the world a more enriching, more fascinating, more united place.

Here are just some of the more remarkable cultural sites from around the globe…

1. Ancient Kyoto, Japan

The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan (Dreamstime)

The Golden Pavilion, Kinkaku-ji Temple, Kyoto, Japan (Dreamstime)

It was 150 years ago that Japan’s capital began to shift to Edo (modern-day Tokyo), but Kyoto – its imperial capital for over 1,000 years – remains the country’s cultural and spiritual heart.

Some 17 elements make up UNESCO’s Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto site, spanning the evolution of Japanese wooden architecture and landscape gardens from the tenth to the 17th centuries.

This collection includes the golden tiers of Kinkaku-ji, the Zen garden of Ryoan-ji and the towering pagoda of To-ji, Japan’s tallest. Spring visitors should head for the serene Ninna-ji, renowned for its late-blooming cherry trees, while the autumn colours are especially spectacular at the mountain-tucked Tenryu-ji.

Get there: Kyoto is around 2.5 hours by train from Tokyo. 

Why? Revel in the country's former capital

2. Lalibela, Ethiopia

Unique monolithic rock-hewn Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia

Unique monolithic rock-hewn Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia

The medieval rock-hewn churches of this ‘New Jerusalem’ in the highlands of Ethiopia were among the first 12 sites designated by UNESCO in 1978 – a nod to their splendour.

With the help of angels (allegedly), these sunken chapels were chiselled from monolithic blocks, with windows, floors, doors and decoration subsequently carved in.

Colonnaded Bet Medhane Alem, the biggest, is more than 11.5m high; some are only accessible via tunnels or ropes. Despite its age, Lalibela remains a place of devotion, alive with pilgrims, swirling incense and hypnotic chants. It’s like stepping back 900 years.

Get there: Lalibela is a 90-minute flight from Addis Ababa. 

Why? Find living faith buried in ancient architecture

3. Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia

Pre-Angkorian temple complex ruins, Sambor Prei Kuk, Kampong Thom, Cambodia (Dreamstime)

Pre-Angkorian temple complex ruins, Sambor Prei Kuk, Kampong Thom, Cambodia (Dreamstime)

Newly inscribed on the UNESCO list in 2017, the impressive, forest-cloaked complex of Sambor Prei Kuk comprises over 100 temples yet sees precious few visitors.

Predating Angkor, this archaeological site on the eastern bank of Tonle Sap lake was once capital of the Chenla Empire, which thrived in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, and helped inspire the Khmer-style architecture seen at Cambodia’s more famous UNESCO site.

Hire a guide, both for greater insight and protection again unexploded ordnance, and explore a quiet mix of still-standing temples, sandstone carvings and crumbling ruins that are slowly being swallowed by the jungle.

Get there: Sambor Prei Kuk is 30km north of Kampong Thom and 175km east of Angkor.

Why? Seek an 'alternative Angkor'

4. Robben Island, South Africa

African penguins on Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa (Dreamstime)

African penguins on Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa (Dreamstime)

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was born in the Eastern Cape village of Mvezo on 18 July 1918 but spent 18 years, from 1964 to 1982, incarcerated on this small outcrop just off Cape Town.

Robben Island is now a living museum, where a former prisoner-turned-guide will take you on a tour. Visit the old leper graveyard, the African penguin colony, the lime quarry where Mandela and the other inmates were forced to toil, and the Maximum Security Prison, where you can walk the corridors, ascend the watchtowers and finish your explorations at Mandela’s two-metre by three-metre cell.

Get there: Robben Island is roughly a 30-to-60-minute ferry ride from Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

Why? Sail out on Mandela's centenary

5. Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal (Dreamstime)

Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal (Dreamstime)

The devastating earthquake of April 2015 devastated UNESCO’s Kathmandu Valley site, with the Durbar Squares of Patan, Hanuman Dhoka (Kathmandu) and Bhaktapur almost completely destroyed.

But all’s not lost. UNESCO has proposed a plan to restore the whole site and repairs are beginning – museums have reopened and the cracks in Boudhanath’s vast stupa have been filled.

Though work is well behind schedule, the plan to ‘build back better’ should ensure that when the valley’s tiered temples and Buddhist shrines are finally restored, they’re still worthy of their World Heritage status.

Get there: Kathmandu is about a 12-hour flight from the UK, plus stopover.

Why? Support heritage that is slowly edging its way back from the brink

6. Rajasthan hill forts, India

Amer and Jaigarh Forts and Kesar Kyari Garden, Maotha Lake, Rajasthan, India (Dreamstime)

Amer and Jaigarh Forts and Kesar Kyari Garden, Maotha Lake, Rajasthan, India (Dreamstime)

The Rajput princes knew how to live. These rulers, who flourished in northern India from the eighth to the 18th centuries, built some truly magnificent fortresses, a handful of which were jointly recognised by UNESCO five years ago.

They are a varied sextet: Jaipur’s Amer Fort (pictured), desert-flung Jaisalmer Fort and Sawai Madhopur, which sits within tiger-prowled Ranthambhore National Park, are well-known on the tourist circuit. Lesser-visited are the riverside Gagron Fort, in the Jhalawar district, and Kumbhalgarh, near Udaipur, which has walls measuring 38km long.

Top pick, though, has to be the majestic Mewar fortress of Chittorgarh, an enormous clifftop cluster of gates, palaces, towers and temples comprising the country’s biggest walled complex.

Get there: Railways connect Jaipur, Udaipur and Chittorgarh.

Why? Explore six for the price of one flight

7. Skellig Michael, Republic of Ireland

Skelling Michael, Republic of Ireland (Dreamstime)

Skelling Michael, Republic of Ireland (Dreamstime)

Clinging onto a scatter of pyramidal rocks off the Irish coast, this Gaelic Christian monastic settlement is thought to have been founded in the sixth century.

Monks lived precipitously, moving between the hermitage, beehive-shaped huts and the man-made terraces via steep stone steps.

These remote islands was abandoned in the late 12th century, but soon became a pilgrimage site, first for Catholics, then for movie-lovers when it played the home of Luke Skywalker in the recent Star Wars films.

Get there: Skellig Michael is 12km off Portmagee, south-west Kerry; boat trips run to the islands.

Why? Take a trip to Luke Skywalker's home

8. Mesa Verde National Park, USA

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park, USA (Dreamstime)

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde National Park, USA (Dreamstime)

UNESCO designated its first batch of World Heritage sites in 1978, and this cluster of Ancestral Puebloan ruins in south-west Colorado was one of that original dozen.

The only US national park focused solely on archeology, Mesa Verde comprises a massive concentration of Native American dwellings built from the sixth to the 12th centuries on a verdant plateau, 2,600m above sea level.

Within the park, 4,400 sites have been recorded, ranging from simple pits and hollows to elaborate multi-storey cliff mansions with more than 100 rooms.

Get there: Mesa Verde is located off Route 160, 14km east of Cortez; it lies around 600km south-west of Denver.

Why? Admire American and UNESCO roots

9. Troy, Turkey

City walls in the ruins of Troy, Turkey (Dreamstime)

City walls in the ruins of Troy, Turkey (Dreamstime)

Turkey has declared 2018 the ‘Year of Troy’, in honour of the site’s entry onto the UNESCO list in 1998.

And quite right, too: the ancient Anatolian city is easily one of the world’s most famous archaeological treasures, founded in the third millennium BC by the Hittites and made a household name by Homer’s Iliad.

The ruins, rediscovered in the 1870s, are extensive, and span millennia of occupation. You can see the early defensive walls and later Greek and Roman temples; also, the surrounding plains are littered with human history, from prehistoric settlements and Ottoman bridges to monuments to the First World War Battle of Gallipoli. An incredible site.

Get there: Troy is a 45-minute minibus ride from the city of Çanakkale, which has an airport.

Why? Mark the 20th UNESCO anniversary of this incredible 5,000-year-old city

10. Petra, Jordan

Ancient Petra at night, Jordan (Dreamstime)

Ancient Petra at night, Jordan (Dreamstime)

Jordan has suffered by Middle Eastern association in recent years; the US government still urges travellers to ‘exercise increased caution’ here.

Visitor numbers are creeping up, but it remains a good time to see the country’s headline site minus the crowds. Petra, which was carved by the Nabataeans in the third century BC, is a wonder, and more extensive than many assume.

Spend time here, squeezing through the Siq, marvelling at the Treasury, climbing up to the monastery and exploring the old city. Or better still, combine with the new 650km Jordan Trail that winds the nation.

Get there: Petra is a 2.5-hour drive south of Amman; buses run to Wadi Musa (Petra’s gateway).

Why? For a huge heritage hit without the crowds

11. Old Havana, Cuba

Singing in the streets of Havana, Cuba (Dreamstime)

Singing in the streets of Havana, Cuba (Dreamstime)

Havana was founded in 1519 by the Spanish, so next year sees Cuba’s capital celebrating its 500th. However, years don’t pass in a regular way in this time-warp city, beloved for its dishevelled mansions, leafy plazas, salsa-swaying streets, vintage cars and general state of appealing disrepair.

Listed by UNESCO in 1982, Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is undergoing a long restoration to ensure it remains the most impressive historic city centre in the Caribbean.

Explore on foot, weaving between the five large plazas, the cathedral and out to the fortifications that protected this once-key port, including one of the largest colonial fortresses in the Americas.

Get there: Havana is around a ten-hour flight from the UK.

Why? To gear up for its big birthday

12. Churches of Chiloé, Chile

Wooden church at sunset, Chiloé Island, Chile (Dreamstime)

Wooden church at sunset, Chiloé Island, Chile (Dreamstime)

The Chiloé Archipelago, south of the Chilean Lake District, was once the preserve of the native Chono and Huilliche peoples; then came the Spanish conquistadores and, from the 17th century, Jesuits and then Franciscans, eager to convert the locals.

To that end, a ring of churches was constructed across the islands; today, 70 mission churches remain, 16 of them recognised by UNESCO for their wooden architecture and neat fusion of European and local traditions.

Plan a church-hop: highlights include the tri-towered sky-blue Tenaún and 53m-long Quinchao.

Get there: Chiloé Island is around two hours from Puerto Montt airport; buses run via the Chacao Channel ferry.

Why? For a resplendent religious circuit

13. Prague, Czech Republic

View from a tower window, Prague, Czech Republic (Dreamstime)

View from a tower window, Prague, Czech Republic (Dreamstime)

It’s a big year for Prague: 2018 marks both 100 years since Czechoslovakia’s formation and the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Divorce, when it split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Of course, this fairytale, riverside city, with its perfectly preserved, UNESCO-listed centre of medieval streets and Gothic houses, is good to visit at any time.

But this year sees it at its finest and there will also be special exhibitions at the castle in 2018, while the Old Town Square’s astronomical clock will finally emerge from under scaffolding in August, restored to its fully working, 15th-century glory.

Get there:  Prague is connected to many UK airports; flight time is from around two hours.

Why? See a spruced-up capital in a historic year

14. Gwynedd castles, Wales

Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey, Wales (Dreamstime)

Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey, Wales (Dreamstime)

After his invasion of North Wales was completed in 1283, Edward I embarked on the era’s most ambitious building project: a network of new castles, to secure the territory for the English crown.

With 2018 designated the Welsh Year of the Sea, it’s a good time to visit the four coastal bastions encompassed in UNESCO’s ‘Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd’. This includes beautifully symmetrical Beaumaris, rock-top Harlech, the beefily fortified town of Caernarfon and the well-preserved ramparts and turrets of Conwy.

Get there: Harlech and Conwy have mainline train stations. You can link all four by walking the Wales Coast Path (a stately 1,400km).

Why? Celebrate the coastal strongholds of Wales during the Year of the Sea

15. Ravenna, Italy

Ceiling mosaic of the Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (Dreamstime)

Ceiling mosaic of the Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy (Dreamstime)

Italy has more UNESCO sites than any other country, and the Emilia Romagna city of Ravenna, one-time capital of the Western Roman Empire, has eight of them, known as the ‘Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna’.

All date from the fifth and sixth centuries, and chief among them is the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, built for the sister of Emperor Honorius who made Ravenna the capital in 402 AD.

Austere outside, its interior is a kaleidoscope of rich, elegant mosaics, including a cupola sparkling with stars. Combine the sites with dips in the Adriatic and indulging in the fine regional cuisine and a glass of Sangiovese wine.

Get there: Ravenna is 70km from Bologna; trains and buses connect the two.

Why? Go mad for mosaics

16. Tsodilo Hills, Botswana

Sunset at Tsodilo Hills, Botswana (Dreamstime)

Sunset at Tsodilo Hills, Botswana (Dreamstime)

Safari buffs descend on Botswana for its wonderful wildlife. But less lauded is the country’s wealth of rock art.

The Tsodilo Hills have been dubbed the ‘Louvre of the Desert’ – over 4,500 paintings are clustered in a small patch of quartzite rocks in the Kalahari, in the country’s north-west.

San people view this as the site of first Creation, a place frequented by ancestral spirits, and have daubed the rocks with various figures, animals, shapes and geometric patterns. While some were painted as recently as the 19th century, others are thought to date back more than 20,000 years.

Get there: Tsodilo is a four-hour 4WD trip from the village of Shakawe, about 370km from Maun.

Why? See the highest rock art in the world

17. Caral-Supe, Peru

Ruins in Caral-Supe, Peru (Dreamstime)

Ruins in Caral-Supe, Peru (Dreamstime)

Fellow Peruvian UNESCO site Machu Picchu might get more of the plaudits and punters, but for historical heft, Caral-Supe wins hands down.

This sacred city, once capital of the Norte Chico peoples, is around 5,000 years old, making it the oldest centre of civilisation in the Americas.

Its ceremonial pyramids were in use 500 years before the Egyptians built those at Giza. Set on an arid desert terrace above the lush Supe Valley, the extensive site incorporates both public and private buildings, including circular sunken plazas, an amphitheatre and six large pyramidal structures; the largest, the Templo Mayor, measures 150m long and 28m high.

Get there: Caral-Supe is 200km north of Lima.

Why? To go back to where it all began 

18. Valletta, Malta

Sunrise view of St. Paul's Cathedral, Valletta, Malta (Dreamstime)

Sunrise view of St. Paul's Cathedral, Valletta, Malta (Dreamstime)

Strategically sited Malta has been ruled by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order of the Knights of St John.

Thus its diminutive capital Valletta, perched on a hill between two natural harbours, is a dense layer cake of monuments – according to UNESCO, ‘one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world’.

The best way to get a sense of the fortified city is aboard a dghajsa (traditional boat), then visit the Baroque dazzle of St John’s Co-Cathedral and the opulent Grand Master’s Palace, a centre of power from the 16th century on.

On top of that, this year sees Valletta named European Capital of Culture; check out all its upcoming events.

Get there: Valletta is connected to many UK airports; flight time is from around three hours.

Why? Embrace the European Capital of Culture

19. Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Mayan temple, Tikal National Park, Guatemala (Dreamstime)

Mayan temple, Tikal National Park, Guatemala (Dreamstime)

The Maya ruins at Tikal – and across the Petén region – are vast.

What’s more, research this year using LiDAR laser technology, which digitally removes the forest from aerial images, indicates the ruins are far more complex than first thought, revealing previously unknown structures and links between sites that were inhabited for 1,400 years from the 6th century BC.

This all adds to the ‘what else could be here?’ frisson as you roam a Maya metropolis of temples, squares and palaces.

Get there:  Tikal is around 75 minutes’ drive from the town of Flores.

 Why? For a tiny taste of Maya magnificence

20. Abu Simbel, Egypt

Great Temple, Abu Simbel, Egypt (Dreamstime)

Great Temple, Abu Simbel, Egypt (Dreamstime)

Rescuing the ancient Nubian temples of Abu Simbel from the rising Nile wasn’t just important for Egypt, it revolutionised the global approach to safeguarding heritage.

In 1968, the complex built for Ramses II in around 1260 BC was cut into 2,000 pieces and moved – brick by brick – to higher ground. Now it’s the headline act of a UNESCO site that includes other Nubian Monuments, such as the Sanctuary of Isis at Philae, and a powerful symbol of conservation.

Get there: Abu Simbel is 280km south of Aswan; 30 minutes by plane, about three hours by bus.

Why? Celebrate 50 years of salvation.

Check out more incredible UNESCO-listed sites around the world:

UNESCO's 18 new Biosphere Reserves

17 World Heritage wonders in South-East Asia

21 World Heritage wonders in Latin America

Our favourite new UNESCO World Heritage Sites

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