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UNESCO World Heritage Sites

By Viator, February 2012

Every country has its own significant natural, cultural, and historical sites, and with over 900 UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world, it’s hard to find a favorite. To help you choose, here’s a selection our favorites, broken down by continent.

Australia & New Zealand

Australia is best known as the home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, the Great Barrier Reef, a breathtaking expanse of coral reefs and white sand cays stretching over 344,400 square kilometers, but it’s also sprinkled with natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In the northern territory, Kakadu National Park is famed for its alligator infested waters and aboriginal rock art galleries and the East coast’s Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world, unique for its rainforest covered sand dunes and pristine beaches. At the heart of the country’s vast outback is the sacred aboriginal mount of Uluru, or Ayers Rock, the iconic red sandstone monolith that has become one of the country’s biggest tourist attractions.

Those looking to explore the wilderness will find plenty of interest in the rugged plateaus and koala-filled Eucalyptus forests of the Greater Blue Mountains Area or the vast nature reservations on the southernmost island of Tasmania home to some of the world’s last remaining stretches of temperate rainforest. Alternatively, head across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand, where the scenic volcanic plateau of the Tongariro National Park harbors one of the country’s most popular hikes – the dramatic Tongariro Alpine crossing – or visit the nature reserve of Macquarie Island, marooned between Tasmania and New Zealand, where penguin colonies inhabit the rocky shoreline.

The continent is also home to several cultural sites, including the inimitable Sydney Opera House, the country’s most innovative architectural work, designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon and the Australian Convict Sites, a harrowing tribute to the 166,000 men, women and children condemned to Australia by the British justice system between 1787 and 1868.

Europe

Some of the world’s most unique UNESCO historic sites lie in Europe, from the mysterious prehistoric stones of Stonehenge in the England to the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in Italy. Other popular sites include the Acropolis, an ancient Greek citadel looming over the city of Athens and home to the famous Parthenon; the fairytale Pena Palace of Sintra in Portugal, an exquisite example of 19th century Romanticism; and the remarkable red-brick fortress of Alhambra in Spain. France is also home to a number of celebrated architectural sites including the grand royal Palace of Versailles and the world famous Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.

Many European cites have also been inscribed on the World Heritage list, with our favorites including the historic center of Salzburg in Austria, the birthplace of Mozart and famous for its hilltop fortress, and the romantic capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, home to some of the continent’s most beautiful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture.

Those looking to escape the bustling cities, will find some of the world’s most spectacular natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites lie in Europe too. Visit Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park where 16 vast lakes provide a tranquil backdrop for hiking; take a train ride through the picturesque Lavaux Vineyard Terraces in Switzerland and sample the local wines along the way; or marvel at the geological wonders in Iceland’s Þingvellir National Park, a breathtaking volcanic landscape formed by the meeting of the Eurasian and the Mid Atlantic tectonic plates.

Middle East

The Middle East is well known for its ancient attractions, many believed to be the oldest in the world. Egypt’s iconic Pyramids, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, are at the top of every traveler’s bucket list, including the 147-meter high Great Pyramid of Giza, but equally impressive are the sacred temples of Abu Simbel, built for Pharaoah Ramses II back in 1257 BC. The ancient desert fortress of Masada in Israel, boasts an imposing cliff-top location and across the Dead Sea the rock-carved city of Petra in Jordan is celebrated for its exceptional architecture dating back to prehistoric times. Also in Jordan is the natural site of Wadi Rum, a spectacular desert valley evocatively dubbed the Valley of the Moon. The Middle East is also full of important religious sites, most notably the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the holy city of Jerusalem, where pilgrims flock to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the famous Wailing Wall.

Turkey is another historical hotspot, with a myriad of distinctive sites including the otherworldly volcanic landscape and fairy chimneys of Cappadocia and the topographical marvel of Pamukkale, a mountain of white limestone tiers bubbling with natural hot springs. Don’t miss a trip to the Archeological Site of Troy either - the site of the legendary Greek Trojan War.

Further afield, Oman’s Land of Frankincense is a forest of rare Frankincense trees poised on the ancient Insense trail, and the atmospheric Medina of Marrakesh in Morocco is a vibrant hub of Arabic culture.

Asia

In the great expanse of Asia, there are numerous world-famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the remains of the magnificent capital of the Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the inimitable white marble Taj Mahal in India, widely regarded as the world’s most beautiful work of architecture. China is home to several striking historic monuments, including the epic World Wonder of the Great Wall, an ancient fortification stretching thousands of kilometers across the country, and the imperial palace known as the Forbidden City, Beijing’s most iconic sight. Another world renowned site is Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, a popular pilgrimage site containing an incredible 6 UNESCO World Heritage sites and encircled by the majestic Himalayas. In Japan, exploring the historic temples and castles of Kyoto is one of the most popular tourist pastimes, and the poignant Hiroshima Peace Memorial is an evocative tribute to the victims of the World War II atomic bombing.

In South East Asia, the ancient Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya in Thailand is one of the country’s most prominent historic sites and in neighboring Laos the cultural capital of Luang Prabang is one of the continent’s most enchanting cities, with its delightful fusion of European colonial and traditional Lao architecture. Further south, the Cultural Landscape of Bali also made the UNESCO list, an idyllic stretch of terraced rice paddies and water temples fed by a unique 9th century canal system and including the grand Royal Temple of Pura Taman Ayun. Finally, nature lovers shouldn’t miss a hike in Sri Lanka’s Sinharaja Forest Reserve, home to a diverse array of wildlife and swaths of dense rainforest.

Mexico

Unsurprisingly, the country with the most UNESCO Sites in the Americas is Mexico, and its famous temples and ruins make up most of the list for the Central American country. The pre-Columbian Chichen Izta and the classical period Uxmal are two of the most visited ancient Mayan cities, both found in Yucatán. Another prominent site is the 9th century Mayan settlement of El Tajin in Veracruz, with its grand 'Pyramid of the Niches’. Many of Mexico historic city centers are also inscribed on the World Heritage list, including the capital of Mexico City, with its blend of ancient Aztec and colonial Spanish architecture; Oaxaca, including the nearby Archaeological Site of Monte Albán and Zacatecas, including its splendid 19th century Baroque cathedral.
The biosphere reserve of Sian Ka'an, with its wildlife teeming wetlands and glistening lagoons, tops the list of scenic destinations, along with the fascinating Agave Landscape of Tequila – a working landscape of blue agave fields that fuel the country’s legendary tequila distilleries. Alternatively, head to the Gulf of California Islands where dramatic coastal cliffs, sandy beaches and crashing waves make the perfect holiday destination.

South America

South America is bursting with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, both natural and historical. The vast tropical terrains of Brazil include the northern expanse of the Amazon Basin, an incredible 1.4 billion acres that makes up around half of the world’s remaining rainforest, and the dramatic waterfalls of Iguaçu National Park straddle the border between Brazil and Argentina, with 275 cascades stretching over twice the width of North America’s Niagara Falls. The unique setting of Rio de Janeiro is another of Brazil’s most famous destinations, a heritage listed natural site that includes the famous Christ the Redeemer statue atop the towering Corcovado mountain and the sweeping beaches of Copacabana.
 
In neighboring Argentina, the rugged mountain passes and glittering glacial lakes of the Los Glaciares National Park is the perfect introduction to the icy wilderness of Argentine Patagonia, and the charming colonial town of Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay makes a popular day trip from Buenos Aires, with regular ferries crossing the historic Rio de la Plata. Another colonial port enlisted on the heritage list is Valparaiso in Chile, an important late 19th century fishing port characterized by its brightly painted buildings sprawling along the steep coastal cliffs.

Traveling westward, the mountaintop Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru has become the focal point of one of the world’s most renowned hikes, the aptly named Inca Trail, and the mysterious Nazca Lines, a series of giant geoglyphs etched into the surface of the Nazca Desert, continue to mystify historians and tourists alike. Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands are another one of South America’s natural wonders, an archipelago populated with such diverse plant and life forms that it inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, but the country’s capital Quito is also a recognized cultural site, with its beautifully preserved historic center. At the northernmost tip of the continent, Colombia’s Coffee Landscape also gets a nod from UNESCO, an important part of the region’s cultural heritage, as well as the heart of the country’s export trade.

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