The world is a big, wonderful place and deciding where to go next can feel like a challenging (though exciting!) project. Fortunately, UNESCO has done some of the legwork for you with its list of World Heritage sites: a collection of landmarks around the world that have been chosen for their deep cultural and historical significance to humanity. The World Heritage List features more than 1,000 sites, so we’ve narrowed it down for you by highlighting our favourites. Some are accessible enough that you could visit next month; while others are once-in-a-lifetime trips that are well worth the journey.
Serengeti National Park
The Serengeti ranks as one of the world’s most-famous national parks, but we think it also deserves top billing as a UNESCO site. One of the oldest ecosystems in existence, the fundamental characteristics of the Serengeti’s vegetation and wildlife have only seen minimal changes over the last million years.
Encompassing 1.5 million hectares of savannah, Serengeti National Park is home to an incredible amount of biodiversity and the largest animal migration in the world. Every year millions of grazing mammals, including wildebeest, gazelles and zebras, travel a 1,000-kilometre circular route in search of watering holes. The herbivores are followed by their predators – lions, cheetahs, leopards, hyenas and wild dogs.
Visit during June or July – it’s peak dry season and you’ll have the best shot at seeing wildlife, including the migration. There are a number of tour and safari options to guide you through this natural wonder, but we say spring for a hot-air balloon ride and take in the animal kingdom in all its glory from above.
Breathtaking is how we would describe the stunning vistas surrounding this island commune in Normandy, France. From a distance it would appear as if the eighth century castle is seamlessly floating above the Couesnon River. Nearly 3 million people per year take the pilgrimage to one of France’s most prominent heritage sites, many walking barefoot on the clay sands of the bay to get to the island city. Until recently, guests were at the mercy of tide levels and needed to carefully time their visit to the island. In 2014, a bridge was constructed to help visitors access the island with more ease.
Once inside, the maritime museum gives a great introduction to the island’s surroundings and its rich history going back to the sixth and seventh centuries. Take a walk up along the ramparts to the western terrace, Terrasse de l’Ouest, where you’ll be rewarded with serene views of coastal Normandy.
If you’re feeling adventurous, put on your hiking shoes and take the cobblestone path to “La Merveille”, the medieval Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel perched 500 feet above sea level. Make your way up floor-by-floor through the cloisters and the church for close encounters with monastic and Gothic-style architecture going back to the 10th century. Before you leave, walk through the Grand Rue for souvenirs or a bite to eat.
With a peak elevation of 1,864 metres, the famed yellow mountain is one of China’s many wonders. Despite not being one of the country’s tallest mountains, Huangshan’s natural beauty has been the subject of Chinese art, poetry and literature since the eighth century. With its towering granite peaks dotted with bending pine trees and covered by a shroud of mist, there’s a reason why this spectacular landscape is a tourist favourite.
Depending on your climbing ability, you can take either the western or eastern trail to reach the summit. The western steps are known for their spectacular views and landmarks like Lotus Peak, while the eastern steps are much easier for beginners. Even though each hike takes from two to six hours, the views from the summit and from along the trail make it well worth the trek.
After climbing all those stairs on the way up, you can give yourself a break on the way down by taking a cable lift down – the views are jaw-droppingly gorgeous.
This six-square-kilometre complex of ancient temples, pyramids, arcades and other stone structures is easily the most thoroughly restored and famous Mayan site remaining in Central America. Chichen-Itza was the heart of the Mayan empire, thriving as a centre for religion and urban activity from around 300 CE to 925 CE. It offers engaging insight into this remarkable civilization, along with a hint of mystery (the complex was abandoned in the 15th century CE for unknown reasons).
The most iconic structure within the complex (and the photo of it you’ve likely seen most often) is El Castillo. At 25 metres high, it’s the most prominent structure in Chichen-Itza. The stairways running up the four sides of the temple have 91 steps each, which, combined with the platform, add up to the number 365 to represent the number of days in the solar year. The temple is also aligned so a snake-like optical illusion appears on the side of the pyramid on the spring and fall equinoxes. This one is by no means an undiscovered site, so it’s best to visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. There’s also a light show you can catch in the evening (if you’re into that kind of thing).
West Norwegian Fjords
Few things in this world are as epic as a fjord. Characterized by a narrow inlet bordered by dramatic cliffs, they were formed when glaciers retreated, carving out a deep rift that filled with sea water. They’re basically valleys that have levelled up to their ultimate form.
In southwestern Norway, Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord are two of the world’s deepest and longest fjords. Reaching 500 metres below sea level and rising 1,400 metres above the Norwegian Sea, they’ve earned their spot on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. Free-flowing rivers and waterfalls decorate the already spectacular crystalline rock walls of the West Norwegian Fjords, which range from 250 metres in width at their most narrow, to 2.5 km at their widest points.
Taking on the West Norwegian fjords solo is not for the faint of heart. For a guided journey, consider taking a sightseeing cruise on either the Geirangerfjord or Nærøyfjord. But why stop there when you could kayak on the Geirangerfjord, get up close on a fjord safari by rigid inflatable boat or hike up to Skageflå, an abandoned mountain farm with incredible views?
Le Morne Brabant
Situated 1,132 km off the coast of Madagascar, Mauritius is an island nation known for its remarkable natural beauty and for being the original home of the dodo bird before its extinction in the 1660s.
One of the most visited sites on the island is Le Morne Brabant peninsula, known for the ‘underwater waterfall’ effect created by sand being driven off a high coastal shelf, which gives the illusion of falling water.
Hiking to the top of the mountain is a must. Beginners will find the majority of the trail easy to climb, although you will eventually reach a sign that warns that only experienced climbers should go beyond that point. You can continue past this sign for a few kilometres without any issues, but you will reach a point where you’ll have to free climb without any support, which is where having climbing experience (or, at the very least, really good balance) definitely comes in handy.
After your climb, we recommend treating yourself to a helicopter tour for some truly sensational overhead views.
Though there is no shortage of UNESCO sites on the subcontinent (India has 38), Rani-ki-Vav, located on the banks of the Saraswati River, should be pretty high on your bucket list. What appears to be an underground museum, was actually built by widowed Queen Udayamati as a memorial to King Bhimdev I in the 11th century CE.
Rani-ki-Vav (the Queen’s Stepwell) was created as a functional and religious structure and is considered to be one of the best and largest examples of the stepwell architecture in Gujarat. The inverted temple, only rediscovered in the 1940s and then excavated and restored in the 1980s, is made up of seven levels of stairs and 500 religious and mythological sculptures.
You’ll need a couple of hours to properly soak in all the intricate carvings, but it’s definitely worth the three-hour drive from Ahmedabad to see one of the world’s most ornate and beautiful wells.
The structure may be over 900 years old, but Rani-ki-Vav continues to inspire modern architects. The Vessel, a new Manhattan landmark made up of 80 landings and 154 interconnected stair flights, is said to be inspired by India’s stepwells.
Abu Simbel Temples
From the Sphinx to the Great Pyramid of Giza, Egypt is home to countless cultural heritage sites that allow us to travel back in time. Arguably two of the most recognizable structures of Egyptian culture and history are the Abu Simbel Temples, located on the shore of Lake Nasser near the country’s southern edge, bordering Sudan. The 3,200-year-old temples are as awe-inspiring and otherwordly as the country’s other sites but the remote location makes them feel even more special.
To commemorate his victory over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh, Pharaoh Ramses II commissioned both temples, including their intricate carvings. The larger took nearly two decades to complete.
Originally, both temples sat side-by-side on the west bank of the Nile River. In 1967, they were carefully moved to avoid the flooding of the river caused by the building of the Aswan High Dam. This conservation effort was one of the original inspirations for the designation of UNESCO heritage sites.
Both temples are famous for housing age-old paintings and elaborate hieroglyphic carvings. The most striking element of this UNESCO site is the larger temple, which greets guests with four colossal statues that were carved into a mountainside.
Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, Hierapolis-Pamukkale is a natural site located in Denizli, a city found in southwestern Turkey. The site is famous for its travertine terraces, which are flabbergastingly beautiful tiered limestone formations deposited by mineral springs. Featuring white waterfalls that appear to be almost frozen in time, it’s easy to see how Pamukkale got its name, which means “cotton castle” in Turkish. So long as you remove your shoes, you’ll be granted full access to these calcium cliff bathing pools – just watch out for the guards who’ll blow whistles at you if you don’t play by the rules.
While other travertine terraces exist around the world (the U.S., Guatemala and Iran have their own versions of this geological wonder), Pamukkale is unique for its dream location adjacent to Hierapolis, an ancient city located on hot springs that’s been used as a spa since the second century BCE. Explore the amazingly well-preserved amphitheatre, Temple of Apollo and necropolis in this ancient Greco-Roman city before soaking your tired muscles in Cleopatra’s pool; a thermal bath (at 36 C) fed by the same hot springs as Pamukkale that’s surrounded by a lush garden.
The Kremlin and Red Square
Together, the Kremlin and Red Square form what is easily Russia’s most recognizable landmark, shiver-inducing for both its architectural beauty and associations with Russia’s rich (and often sinister) history. Originally erected as a wooden fort in the 12th century, the Kremlin has been the centre of Russia’s power for hundreds of years and remains the official residence of the President of Russia.
The Kremlin’s Cathedral Square is home to the city’s most important churches, including the Assumption Cathedral, which once hosted the coronations and weddings of princes, tsars and emperors; and the Cathedral of the Archangel which is the burial site of many Russian rulers.
Red Square is east of the Kremlin and surrounded by the red wall after which it’s named. Here, you’ll find yet more significant and beautiful buildings, including the 16th-century St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of Russia’s most stunning Orthodox monuments. The square looks particularly spellbinding at night when it’s illuminated by floodlights.