Today: Top 10 most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the world
A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO World Heritage Sites were created to celebrate and safeguard the best and most unique places around the world. A World Heritage Site may signify a remarkable accomplishment of humanity, and serve as evidence of our intellectual history on the planet, or it might be a place of great natural or cultural beauty. Below are my 10 favorite UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world (the ones that impressed me the most during my travels around the world). There are currently over 1200 sites listed with UNESCO, so narrowing this list down to only 10 was mission impossible.
There is more information (with reviews & YouTube videos) below the slide show. What is your favorite UNESCO World Heritage Site? Leave a comment.
10. BOROBUDUR, JAVA, INDONESIA
Located in the heart of the Indonesian island of Java, Borobudur is the world’s largest and most beautiful Buddhist temple and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991. The temple consists of nine stacked platforms, six square and three circular, topped by a central dome and 72 Buddha statues, each seated inside a perforated stupa. Built in the 9th century during the reign of the Syailendra dynasty, the temple’s design in Gupta architecture reflects India’s influence on the region, yet there are enough indigenous scenes and elements incorporated to make Borobudur uniquely Indonesian. Set in the heart of the verdant Kedu Plain, the backdrop of mighty active volcanoes only enhances the sense of awe and drama. As well as being the single most popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, Borobudur remains an important place of worship and pilgrimage.
- Other accolades: Borobodur features in my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in Indonesia
9. BRUGES, BELGIUM
Bruges is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. The complete, historic center of Bruges has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, because it maintained its medieval character as it evolved over the centuries. Rich gothic architecture defines the town’s identity, reflecting its past as one the continent’s commercial and cultural capitals. Laden with exceptional medieval architecture and home to early Flemish painters, it is a city that has captured hearts for centuries. With the city center closed off to cars, all the stunning beauty and culture of Bruges can be easily explored on foot, although a boat ride along the quiet canals is something not to be missed. Because of its many canals (linking the city to the North Sea), Bruges is often called the “Venice of the North”, but it would be more appropriate to call Venice the “Bruges of the South”.
- Other accolades: Bruges features in my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in Belgium
8. CAPPADOCIA, TURKEY
Cappadocia, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1985, is one the world’s most spectacular landscapes, formed by layers of lava that volcanoes had spewed around 60 million years ago. The region, settled during the Paleolithic era for the first time, became the epitome of Christianity in the Roman period. The houses and churches carved into the rocks served as shelter as well as education and cultural centers for Christians who fled from the persecution of the Romans. The density of its rock-hewn cells, churches, troglodyte villages and subterranean cities within the rock formations make it one of the world’s most striking and largest cave-dwelling complexes. Nature enthusiasts may explore the exquisite natural landscape and behold the harmony of history and natural beauty by joining a balloon tour at sunrise.
7. GALAPAGOS ISLANDS, ECUADOR
The Galapagos Islands, situated in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 km (600 mi) from the Ecuadorian coast, remained a closely-guarded natural secret for millions of years. This archipelago and its immense marine reserve is known as the unique ‘living museum and showcase of evolution’. Its geographical location at the confluence of three ocean currents makes it one of the richest marine ecosystems in the world. Ongoing seismic and volcanic activity reflects the processes that formed the islands. These processes, together with the extreme isolation of the islands, led to the development of unusual plant and animal life – such as marine iguanas, flightless cormorants, giant tortoises, huge cacti, endemic trees and the many different subspecies of mockingbirds and finches – all of which inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection following his visit in 1835.
6. PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
The Czech capital is dubbed “the city of the thousand spires” because of its many historical monuments that have been beautifully preserved and date from practically every period in history. Built between the 11th and 18th centuries, the Old Town, the Lesser Town and the New Town speak of the great architectural and cultural influence enjoyed by this city since the Middle Ages. Prague’s most famous attraction are the bridges that cross the Vltava River, especially the amazingly elegant Charles Bridge, but the stunningly beautiful Old Town Square and Prague Castle are equally impressive. Add the cobblestone streets and atmospheric alleyways that zigzag through town, and you know that few other cities delight the senses as much as Prague. Even the most jaded traveler would have trouble resisting the charm of this prosperous, bustling and picturesque city.
- Other accolades: Prague features in my top 10 list of the world’s most beautiful cities
5. YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, USA
Yellowstone was established in 1872 as America’s first National Park – an idea that spread worldwide – to protect the majority of the earth’s geysers, as well as other thermal wonders that make up an otherworldly landscape composed of steam, bubble, and boiling mud. In 1978, just over one hundred years later, it was inscribed by UNESCO on the World Heritage list – the United States’ first World Heritage Site. Besides thermal features, Yellowstone’s vast wilderness includes mountain ranges, lakes, waterfalls and a deep canyon known as “the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone”. One of the main reasons for tourists to visit Yellowstone is to observe the stunning wildlife: grizzly and black bear, bison, bighorn sheep, elk and moose roam the plans and valleys. Unfortunately, you will have to share Yellowstone’s wonders with many other visitors, as millions of people visit Yellowstone annually.
- Other accolades: Yellowstone features in my top 10 list of the most beautiful national parks in the USA.
4. TAJ MAHAL, INDIA
Agra is an ancient city on the banks of the River Yamuna. It finds mention in the Mahabharata but gained importance as the capital of the Mughal Empire from 1556 – 1658. It is famous for its Mughal architecture and for being home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal – a marble monument of incredible elegance and architectural perfection. The Taj Mahal was built by the grief stricken emperor Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in commemoration of his favorite wife, Empress Mumtaz Mahal, who died in 1631 AD at the birth of her 14th child. After his death in 1666 AD, Shah Jahan was also buried beside his beloved wife in the Taj Mahal. The color of the monument’s translucent marble keeps changing from dawn to midnight giving it a magical aura in keeping with Shah Jahan’s vision that the tomb and garden should represent paradise on earth.
- Other accolades: The Taj Mahal features in my top 10 list of the best things to see & do in India.
3. DOLOMITES, ITALY
Draped across the high Alps, where Italy, Austria and Switzerland collide, the site of the Dolomites comprises a dramatic mountain range with 18 peaks that rise to above 3,000 m (10,000 ft). It features some of the most beautiful and breathtaking mountain landscapes anywhere in the world, with vertical walls, sheer cliffs and a high density of narrow, deep and long valleys. Characterized by dynamic processes with frequent landslides, floods and avalanches, the vast Dolomoti massifs have been eroded over the last 200 million years into a surreal and wonderful array of needles, towers and pinnacles. A World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2009, the Dolomites are a hiking paradise, with plenty of opportunities for day-walks on well-signposted trails in stunning scenery that are within average capabilities. Experienced hikers should consider one of the more strenuous multi-day treks.
- Other accolades: The Dolomites feature in my top 10 lists of the best things to see & do in Italy and the world’s best day hikes.
2. ANGKOR WAT, CAMBODIA
Angkor Wat, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992, is Asia’s most famous archeological site and the principle draw card to the Kingdom of Cambodia for many savvy tourists from around the globe. Angkor stood once at the center of the mighty Khmer empire (9th to 15th century) and grew to become the largest known pre-industrial settlement, spanning a site roughly equivalent to nowadays Paris. It was believed that the Khmer king had a divine role, and an appropriate temple had to be constructed by each king to consecrate the symbolic relationship between ruler and divinity. The site comprises dozens of iconic temples, including Angkor Wat itself (with its world-famous silhouette, best observed at sunrise); Bayon (a temple famous for its smiling, serene faces carved onto gigantic towers) and Ta Prohm (a magnificent temple ruin engulfed by the jungle). UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging program to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings.
- Other accolades: Angkor Wat features in my top 10 lists of the best things to see & do in Cambodia and the world’s best sunrise & sunset spots.
- Review: read here my review of my visit to Angkor Wat.
1. MACHU PICCHU, PERU
At the top of a mountain, enormous and imposing stone blocks joined without using mortar were combined to create one of the most important religious, political and cultural centers of the Inca empire: the mist-shrouded citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru. Revealed to the world in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, this Inca city is divided into two large sectors: the agricultural sector, with an extensive network of terraces; and the urban sector, with fine structures including the Sun Temple. The intensely green terraces and the imposing mountains surrounding the site combine to create a stunning landscape which surpasses visitors’ expectations. No matter how many times you have seen a photograph of the iconic Inca ruins, nothing prepares you for sense of awe that this magical place elicits in its Andes mountain setting, clinging as it does to rock and jungle. Embedded within a dramatic landscape at the meeting point between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon Basin, Machu Picchu has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.
- Other accolades: Machu Picchu features in my top 10 lists of the most amazing ruins and archaeological sites in the world, the world’s best destinations for culture, the world’s greatest train journeys, the most amazing places to visit in South America, and the world’s most iconic trekkings.