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Our Top 20 ‘Must-See’ Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Posted by Tim Roberts on Apr 30, 2024 9:43:00 AM
Our Top 20 ‘Must-See’ Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites

A couple walking towards Petra, Jordan, one of the world's most famous UNESCO sites

While there are many amazing locations throughout the world, some have a level of incredible beauty and historical significance such that they demand to be protected and preserved. These are known as UNESCO World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. These sites offer excellent aesthetic and educational value (particular favorites for world-schooling and lifelong learning) and are a great way to learn about history through travel

There are essentially two different types of UNESCO World Heritage sites:


Natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites

This is a collection of the world's superb natural landscapes and national parks deemed to have outstanding universal value and warrant conservation. Examples are the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks, the Dresden Elbe Valley, and abundant wildlife reserves such as the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites

These are typically man-made sites that have been granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status for their outstanding value. In this blog post, we’ll cover our top twenty picks for the ‘must-see’ cultural UNESCO World Heritage sites.


The Best Cultural World Heritage Sites

1. Historic Center of Córdoba - Spain

UNESCO World Heritage site and historic city of Cordoba, Spain

Córdoba, in the Andalucía region of Southern Spain, is one of those impossibly beautiful cities, especially the historic center. What makes Córdoba so special is the mixture of diverse architectural styles which include Roman, Moorish and Spanish influence. Like much of Andalucía, the Moors from Northern Africa once ruled Córdoba, which was founded by the Romans, and both styles are evident in the ancient center.

You can see where all the different cultural groups left their mark over thousands of years of occupation. These include Christians, Romans, Visigoths, Jews, and Muslims. For example, you can recognize the distinct Roman arches used in the construction of the aptly named Roman Bridge of Cordoba (pictured). The other standouts are the Great Mosque, AIcázar de los Reyes Cristianos and the San Basilio quarter.

How to get there: Córdoba is served by Sevilla Airport, from which you will need to arrange a transfer or catch a 45-minute train. Alternatively, Córdoba is part of the national high-speed rail network and you can catch a train from Madrid in under 2 hours.


2. Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu - Peru

One of the most famous UNESCO world heritage sites, Machu Picchu of Peru

Machu Picchu is one of the more famous UNESCO World Heritage sites on this list, and the Inca trail leading to it is one of the world's best multi-day hikes. The ancient Incan site sits atop a tropical mountain at 2,430 meters above sea level. It has been fairly well-preserved considering how old it is and how many tourists visit daily.


For those wishing to tick this one off the bucket list, it's important to acclimatize yourself in Cusco before hiking up to prevent altitude sickness, which will stop you in your tracks. Local porters are on hand to carry all your belongings and camping gear, as well as prepare and cook your meals for you on the way up.

How to get there: Fly to Cusco via Lima. For a more gradual acclimatization, there are bus services from Lima to Cusco.


3. Genbaku Dome, Hiroshima - Japan


One of the darker tourism sites on this list, Genbaku Dome (also known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial), is the only structure remaining in the area where the atomic bomb hit the city. As a result, it now stands as a poignant symbol of resilience and peace and achieved UNESCO World Heritage status in 1996. This haunting structure is preserved in its skeletal form and serves as a powerful reminder of the devastating impact of war and the urgent need for global peace.

How to get there: Catch the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo which will take four hours. Alternatively, you can fly directly to Hiroshima International Airport.


4. Old City of Dubrovnik - Croatia

UNESCO listed Old town of Dubrovnik surrounded by turquoise waters and rocks

The Old City of Dubrovnik, located on the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia, has been through a lot yet still stands. It was damaged by a large earthquake in 1667 and then damaged again by armed conflict in the 1990s. Thankfully, much of its gothic center remains, and UNESCO is coordinating a major restoration program to further preserve its palaces, fountains, churches and monasteries with their renaissance and baroque styles.

Such is the medieval aesthetic of Dubrovnik that it has served as the backdrop in many film and television shows, including one of the most popular of all, Game of Thrones. For GoT fans, you can now do Game of Thrones tours in Dubrovnik.

How to get there: Fly to Dubrovnik International Airport.


5. The Taj Mahal - India

A beautiful Indian woman standing in an archway with One of the most famous UNESCO sites the Taj Mahal in the background

Another famous one, The Taj Mahal, is considered one of the architectural wonders of the world. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, the Taj Mahal stands as an unrivaled testament to love and architectural brilliance. Nestled on the banks of the Yamuna River in Agra, India, this ivory-white marvel was commissioned by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal. The symmetrical beauty of its domes and minarets, accented by the intricate marble inlays and reflecting pools, captures the imagination of all who behold it.

How to get there: Take a domestic flight to Agra. The closest international airport is Delhi, where you can arrange day trips.


6. Temple of Preah Vihear - Cambodia

Ancient ruins of UNESCO site Temple of Preah Vihear -

If you were expecting Angkor Wat to represent Cambodia, we don't blame you. But we like to mix things up here and this lesser-known gem is equally fascinating, if not more so. Preah Vihear is an ancient temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, sitting atop a cliff in Northern Cambodia. As such, it boasts breathtaking, panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Due to its remote location, the site has been well-preserved, with its intricate carvings and imposing structure reflecting the Khmer architectural brilliance of the 11th and 12th centuries.

The center of an ownership dispute with Thailand being so close to the border, Preah Vihear was ruled by the UN court in 2013 as belonging to Cambodia, ordering that all Thai military guarding the temple must withdraw. (Today when you visit you may see the Cambodian military surrounding their cultural heritage site.)

How to get there: Fly to Siem Reap (home to Angkor Wat, also UNESCO, so you can tick that box too). From there, you need to organize transport or a tour via Along Veng.


7. Old Havana - Cuba

A tropical courtyard in UNESCO world heritage site old town Havana, Cuba

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982, Old Havana is a living tapestry of history, culture, and architectural splendor. Located in the heart of the Cuban capital, Havana, this well-preserved colonial city is a captivating blend of Spanish colonial, Moorish, neoclassical, and Art Deco styles.

It is such a treat just to stroll through the cobbled streets of Old Havana, marveling at its vibrant plazas, colorful facades, and historic landmarks like the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. To complement this, you have the colorful Cuban classic cars lining the roads. Just throw on a Canotier hat and spark up a Cuban cigar to complete the picture!

How to get there: Fly to José Martí International Airport, Havana.


8. Historic Center of Rome - Italy

UNESCO listed historical center of Rome used to also be the center of the Roman Empire

Arguably the most famous site on the list, it's no surprise that the center of the Roman Empire is on the official World Heritage list. According to legend, it was founded by Romulus and Remus in 753 BC and also became the capital of the Christian world during the 4th Century. While most people know of the Roman Colosseum, there are several other world heritage properties there, including the Pantheon, the Column of Marcus Aurelius and the Mausoleum of Augustus, to name but a few. For anyone interested in the ancient history of the Western World, the historic sites of Rome need to be visited at least once in your lifetime.

How to get there: Fly to Rome.


9. The Great Wall - China

One of the most famous UNESCO structures the Great Wall of China

What Rome is to the Western world, the Great Wall of China is to the East. A monumental achievement, the Great Wall first began construction in 220 B.C. under emperor Qin Shi Huang in an attempt to keep invasions from the north at bay. Construction continued right through to the 17th century A.D. with a total length of 20,000 km (Approx. 12,427 miles)! Unsurprisingly, the World Heritage Convention listed the Great Wall UNESCO in 1987.

How to get there: Fly to Beijing. One of the best walks along the Great Wall is at Badaling because of its close proximity to Beijing and the section of the wall is still in good condition. You can organize transfers or tours from Beijing.


10. Chichen Itza - Mexico

Wonder of the world and UNESCO site Chichen Itza Mayan pyramid of Mexico

Not only is Chichen Itza UNESCO World Heritage, but it is also one of the new seven natural wonders of the world. This writer was lucky enough to visit recently, and it did not disappoint. Built sometime between the 9th and 12th centuries, Chichen Itza was home to an ancient Mayan civilization and consists of a vast archaeological site of pyramids, villages and even an observatory. (The Mayans were experts at studying the lunar cycles, astronomy and astrology, creating the second most accurate lunar calendar behind NASA… pretty impressive!)

The most famous landmark in Chichen Itza is El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kukulcan, an impressive Mesoamerican step-pyramid that dominates the site on Mexico's Yucatán.

How to get there: Fly to Cancún International Airport. We suggest booking a tour to get a guided, expert knowledge of the site. Several tours also include visiting a village of direct descendants of the Mayans, who can provide eerily accurate astrology readings, as well as swimming in local cenotes (which is highly recommended).

11. Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela - Ethiopia

Looking through a gap in the rocks at an Ethiopian couple in front of UNESCO world heritage listed Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela

Ethiopia has a long and rich history with some fascinating archaeological sites, though we would argue that none are more intriguing than the group of eleven churches that were hewn out of rock in Lalibela to create a “new Jerusalem”. Located in a mountainous region in the center of Ethiopia, these are medieval churches from the late 12th - early 13th century that were carved from monolithic blocks of rock. The site was granted the World Heritage emblem in 1978 for its outstanding universal value.

How to get there: Fly to Lalibela via Addis Ababa. From there, book a transfer or tour to take you the 23 km to the world heritage sites.

12. Ancient City of Sigiriya - Sri Lanka

Aerial shot of UNESCO World heritage site Ancient City of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka

The diversity of these ancient villages found in all corners of the globe never ceases to amaze us. Sigiriya was once the capital of Sri Lanka, built under King Kassapa I between 477 - 95. Its location makes for a not-too-strenuous hike, perched atop a granite peak 180 m high in the middle of the Sri Lankan jungle. What's more, the government has installed staircases attached to the side of the granite cliffs to enable visitors to climb the rock to this spectacular cultural and natural heritage site.

How to get there: Fly to Colombo. Catch a train from Colombo Fort to Habarana. Take a taxi to reach Sigiriya.


13. Pyramids of Giza - Egypt

Ancient pyramids of Giza

The ancient pyramids of Giza make up one of the most awe-inspiring and thought-provoking UNESCO World Heritage sites and have been standing for thousands of years. This is largely due to them not only being one of the architectural wonders of the world but being constructed in such an incredibly precise manner, the specifics of which remain a mystery to this day (even with modern advanced technology, scientists and engineering experts have claimed they could not be built today). There has been no shortage of theories, ranging from rope, logs and pulley systems to alien involvement. The latest theory involves the discovery of an ancient waterway branching off the River Nile and flowing to the extraordinary site at Giza.

How to get there: Fly to Cairo.


14. Rio de Janeiro, Carioca Landscapes Between the Mountain and the Sea - Brazil


How about a whole city for UNESCO world heritage? (Well, not quite, but more the part of Rio de Janeiro we know between the mountains and the sea). Rio is celebrated for its unique urban setting amongst the surrounding natural elements. These include the Tijuca National Park, Copacabana Beach and Corcovado Mountain, home of the famous Christ the Redeemer statue. The spectacular city has long inspired many artists, musicians and filmmakers.

How to get there: Fly to Rio de Janeiro.


15. Bagan - Myanmar


Bagan, a UNESCO Site since 2019, unfolds like a mesmerizing open-air museum on the banks of the Ayeyarwady River in Myanmar. Renowned for its vast archaeological complex of ancient temples, stupas, and pagodas, Bagan encapsulates the rich cultural and religious history of Myanmar's Bagan civilization (11th -13th centuries CE). The best time to visit Bagan is sunrise or sunset, although you will avoid the crowds more at sunrise. Witnessing the seven components of Bagan during magic hour, which includes monasteries, temples and stupas, is a sight to behold.

How to get there: Fly to Mandalay International Airport. Connect with a short 20-minute flight to Nyaung-U.


16. Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou - Morocco

UNESCO ancient ruins of Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou in Morocco

The Ksar of Ait-Ben-Haddou has been a UNESCO World Cultural Site since 1987. The ancient buildings emerge like a captivating sandcastle from the red-golden deserts of Morocco. This ancient fortified village, nestled along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech, is a masterpiece of earthen architecture. What makes it even more spectacular is its desert oasis location, surrounded by a palm forest and with a river running through the site. The location caught the public eye even more when it was used as a set in Game of Thrones, and as a result of that franchise being among the highly-popular works of television and films that make you want to travel the world, many desert tours there have emerged since.

How to get there: Fly to Marrakech. While there are public transport options, we suggest organizing a guided tour from there.


17. City of Quito - Ecuador

The cityscape of UNESCO listed old town of Quito with mountains in the background, Ecuador

What's unique about Quito, the capital of Ecuador, is that it was founded in the 16th Century on the ruins of an ancient Incan city. While the ruins are sadly no longer visible, the Spanish colonial city and its historical center are one of the best-preserved (if not the best) in the whole of Latin America. The interiors of their famous sites such as the Church and Jesuit College of La Compañía and monasteries of Santo Domingo and San Francisco are known for the art form called the Baroque School of Quito. This is a rich fusion of Spanish, Moorish, Flemish, Italian and indigenous art that you will find nowhere else in the world.

How to get there: Fly to Quito.


18. Acropolis of Athens - Greece

Sweeping view of Athens with UNESCO listed Acropolis

The Acropolis of Athens, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, stands as an enduring symbol of classical Greek civilization and the pinnacle of ancient architectural achievement. Perched atop a rocky outcrop, this iconic citadel showcases the majestic Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena. Its timeless columns, statues, and temples tell a story of ancient wisdom, artistic brilliance, and the birth of democracy. The Acropolis remains not just a historic site but a testament to the enduring legacy of Greece and its profound impact on the world's cultural heritage.

How to get there: Fly to Athens.


19. Historic Center of Prague - Czech Republic

UNESCO world heritage listed  Historic Center of Prague , river and bridges

Prague is one of the most beautiful European cities when it comes to architecture, and there's no better place to appreciate this than its historical center. But there's more than just Old Town. You can see how the city's architecture has evolved from the 11th to the 18th century through Lesser Town and New Town. There are so many incredible monuments to see including Charles Bridge, Hradcany Castle and St Vitus Cathedral, to name but a few.

How to get there: Fly to Prague.


20. Rapa Nui National Park - Easter Island (Chile)


Rapa Nui is the indigenous name for Easter Island, an isolated island in the Chilean territory of the southeast Pacific that is the most remote inhabited island in the world. The National Park Service protects the island due to its unique cultural heritage in the form of ancient statues that line the landscape. These large stone sculptures are known as moai, created by the indigenous Polynesians who settled here in 300 A.D. It is estimated there are more than 900 moai dotting the landscape of Rapa Nui

How to get there: Fly to Santiago, Chile. Here, you can catch the only flights serving Easter Island. Alternatively, various round-the-world cruises dock at the island.


Have you been to any of these sites? Which one was your favorite? Which one(s) top your current bucket list? Comment below!

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