With around 1,200 sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, from natural wonders to cultural legends, choosing which ones to visit can be tricky.
UNESCO World Heritage sites are often beautiful or intriguing to look at – but they can also provide us with opportunities to learn about a country’s history and culture, and unearth sites we’ve never heard of. What’s more, there are lots of top travel deals on offer featuring these locations, so you might be able to grab yourself a bargain.
These unique landmarks can be anywhere in the world, but to make the cut, they need to be considered worthy of protection due to their ‘outstanding value to humanity’.
Those awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status range from cultural classics such as Machu Picchu, Petra, and the Taj Mahal to awe-inspiring natural sites like Yellowstone National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, and Ha Long Bay.
While visiting all 1,200 attractions would be challenging to say the least, we’ve pulled together a list of 14 of our favourites to help inspire your next adventure.
1. Machu Picchu, Peru
Lying at 7,000 feet in the magnificent Andes mountains in southern Peru, the mysterious Machu Picchu is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s made up of 150 buildings – which include sanctuaries, houses, baths, and temples – and 100 flights of stairs, carved individually from single slabs of stone.
Built by the Incas in the 15th century and later abandoned, this ancient archaeological gem was ‘lost’ until Yale Professor Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911. Was it a fortress, a Royal estate, or a ceremonial centre? No one really knows.
Marvel at Machu Picchu
2. Great Wall of China, China
Stretching over 20,000 kilometres across the captivating landscape of northern China, the Great Wall of China can be seen from space. This incredible fortified defence system – which took around 2,000 years to build by hand – reveals the story of the Chinese dynasties, from war and free trade to Barbarian nomads.
Some of the best stretches of wall lie close to Beijing. One of the most popular is Badaling because it’s the most complete and accessible, and has the best facilities. Meanwhile, Jinshanling is favoured by photographers and hikers, and Mutianyu snakes through the forest, making it a colourful sight in spring and autumn.
Walk along the Great Wall of China
3. Taj Mahal, India
This immense mausoleum in the Indian city of Agra is a masterpiece of Muslim architecture. It was built in the 17th century by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to honour his favourite wife, and he used the best craftsmen and artisans in the empire.
Made of ivory white marble, the Taj Mahal is perfectly symmetrical, and the reflecting pool perfectly echoes its arches, domes, and towering minarets. Meanwhile, the inside showcases a grand central chamber with exquisite marble inlay work and cenotaphs of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal – creating a spellbinding memorial of their eternal love.
Soak up the beauty of the Taj Mahal
4. Great Barrier Reef, Australia
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, The Great Barrier Reef on the coast of Queensland is the planet’s largest and most stunning coral reef system. It has over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 tiny islands.
This wonderland is home to a remarkable variety of marine life, including whales, dolphins, porpoises, 1,500 species of fish, and the prehistoric nautilus – which is a distant cousin of the squid. You can also snorkel or dive with turtles here and get up close and personal with the rare dugong (sea cow).
Witness the remarkable beauty of the Great Barrier Reef
5. Chichén Itzá, Mexico
Chichén Itzá is an extraordinary archaeological site located in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, which has been named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. This majestic city flourished from around the fifth century AD until its decline in the 13th century. It represents the remnants of an ancient and advanced Mayan civilisation.
Covering five square kilometres, you can explore the ancient ruins, including the iconic pyramid of El Castillo, and learn about Mayan history and culture. You can also witness the fascinating equinox phenomenon where a shadow resembling a serpent appears on the pyramid’s steps.
Marvel at Mayan civilisation in Mexico
6. Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Ha Long Bay, in northeast Vietnam, has been formed over 500 million years and looks like something out of a fairytale. Here, 1,600 uninhabited limestone islands and islets rise from the calm emerald sea to form a spectacular coastal landscape.
Visitors can immerse themselves in this dreamlike world in various ways. For example, a cruise or boat tour will offer incredible views of this otherworldly place, with opportunities to explore stunning caves and grottos along the way. You can also go swimming, kayaking, or hiking, enjoy fresh seafood, and get acquainted with the local culture by interacting with fishing communities.
Take a trip to the fairytale Ha Long Bay
7. Komodo National Park, Indonesia
If you want to take a walk on the wild side, why not visit Komodo National Park, which is home to around 6,000 giant Komodo dragons? The park is located in the centre of the Indonesian archipelago, between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores, and is the only place in the world where you can find these unique creatures.
At two to three metres long, they’re the largest lizards on earth, and the most deadly, with a venomous bite and shark-like teeth – so they’re best watched from a distance!
Discover the unique Komodo dragons
8. Giants Causeway, Ireland
A striking stretch of 40,000 neatly packed columns of hexagonal basalt rocks rising from the sea, The Giant’s Causeway is a world-famous geological wonder. Created by volcanic activity 50 million years ago, it has inspired myths and legends of giants striding over the sea to Scotland.
Owned by the National Trust, you can join a guided tour of this mysterious site, taking in must-see sights. This includes a rock in the shape of a boot – which was apparently lost when fleeing from the Scottish giant and is reputed to be a size 93.5! The magical Wishing Chair is also a sight to see: a natural throne formed from a perfectly arranged set of columns.
Stride in Giant’s footsteps on Northern Ireland’s coast
9. Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
The incredible Thingvellir National Park east of Reykjavík in Iceland is the only place on the planet where you can stand between the tectonic plates of two continents – North America and Europe. Dramatic fissures and rocky cliffs clearly show the divide, while waterfalls, crystal-clear lakes, and grass-covered lava fields only add to this site’s natural splendour.
Game of Thrones fans may fancy a hike through the huge Almannagja gorge, which was used in the series to portray the Gates of the Moon!
Stand between tectonic plates in Iceland
10. Rapa Nui National Park, Easter Island, Chile
Easter Island (also known as ‘Rapa Nui’ in Polynesian) is a remote volcanic island in the South Pacific Ocean. It’s famous for its mysterious and colossal stone statues called moai, created by the indigenous Rapa Nui people centuries ago.
Around 900 moai – some 20 metres high and weighing 80 tonnes – dot the island and are a testament to the island’s ancient civilisation and impressive sculpting skills. The island also offers other attractions, including volcanic landscapes, rugged coastlines, and archaeological sites, making it an unforgettable destination for travellers seeking cultural enrichment and adventure.
Marvel at the moai
11. Galapagos Islands, Ecuador
Known as the ‘greatest wildlife show on earth’, the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, are a wonderful wildlife experience like no other. Charles Darwin’s visit to this volcanic archipelago famously inspired his theories of evolution.
You don’t need to look hard for wildlife in this largely uninhabited protected national park – it’s everywhere and it’s fearless. Comical blue-footed boobies can be seen waddling about clumsily, while prehistoric-looking marine iguanas bask on lava and sea lions snooze on sandy beaches. Just be sure to have your camera at the ready!
Go to the Galapagos for wildlife
12. Cappadocia, Turkey
Cappadocia is a historical region in Central Anatolia, which is renowned for its fairy chimneys, cave dwellings, and ancient underground cities. Balloon rides are popular here as they offer outstanding views of the striking rock formations and valleys.
Cappadocia’s history dates back to ancient times when it was inhabited by Hittites and Persians. Later, it became a significant region in the Roman and Byzantine empires, witnessing the spread of Christianity. Its unique geological formations also served as hiding places for early Christians during the Roman persecutions, who created numerous rock-cut churches and monasteries.
Take a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia at sunrise
13. Yellowstone National Park, US
Yellowstone National Park is the first and oldest national park in the world, located primarily in the U.S. states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. It lies on a volcanic hot spot and is home to hot springs, mudpots, and around 300 geysers (the highest concentration on the planet!)
Top sights include the rainbow-coloured Grand Prismatic Spring – which gets its colours from the heat-loving microorganisms that live there – the majestic Yellowstone Falls, and diverse wildlife such as bison and elk. Here, you can also see Old Faith, arguably the most famous geyser in the world.
Travel to one of the planet’s most beautiful national parks
14. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Sigiriya, also known as ‘the Lion Rock’ and the eighth wonder of the world, is an ancient rock fortress in Sri Lanka. It was built in the fifth century AD by King Kasyapa and features impressive frescoes, well-preserved gardens, and the remnants of a royal palace on the summit.
Getting to the top of this mighty rock is a challenge – but worth it for the outstanding views. Starting at the foot of a 1200-step staircase, marked by huge stone lion paws, visitors can climb to a dizzying height of 349 metres. Though there are still plenty of beautiful terraced gardens to explore around the fortress if you’d rather stay at ground level!
Take a walk up Sigiriya in Sri Lanka
Whether you’ve always dreamed of taking a magical balloon ride over the rock cities of Cappadocia, seeing ‘the greatest wildlife show on earth’ on The Galapagos Islands, or marvelling at Mayan ruins in Mexico – visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site can offer a fabulous holiday.
We hope these ideas have helped give you some inspiration, and with around 1200 sites to choose from, you’re bound to discover one that appeals to you.
For more jaw-dropping travel ideas, you might want to check out our articles; 12 travel bucket list ideas and 14 spectacular countries to add to your travel wish list.
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Have you visited any of these places? Do you have any suggestions of other UNESCO World Heritage Sites worth visiting to share with our readers? We’d love to hear about your travel experiences and plans in the comments below.