I’ve been exceedingly blessed in my travels. Getting to travel at all is a privilege, but when I first had the idea for this blog post and started thinking over all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I had been lucky enough to witness, I was amazed!
Out of the nearly 20 I have experienced firsthand, I’ve narrowed it down to 10 of the most breathtaking sites (no easy task!). Some are natural, some are cultural, but they’re all significant and worth a visit!
Tyler, what even is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Great question! UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. According to its website, in order to be included on the World Heritage List, a site “must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria.”
These criteria range from representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius” to bearing “exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared” or simply containing “superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty.” (I’m swooning over all those superlative descriptors.)
Checking to see if there will be any UNESCO World Heritage Sites near us is always one of my first steps for planning trips because I’ve never been disappointed by them. When you begin planning your next big excursion, I hope you’ll consider visiting one of the following sites:
1.Palace of Versailles
I’d wanted to visit Versailles since I was a little girl and read The Royal Diaries book on Marie Antoinette. Did you know that she was less educated than Elizabeth I (even though Liz was never supposed to be queen and Marie always was) and she married her husband by proxy (aka walked down the aisle with her brother)?
Anywho, I had a lot of expectations about the beloved palace of some of the most frivolous, decadent, image-focused monarchs in history. Versailles surpassed every single one of them! Not only are there beautiful rooms done up in the style of centuries past, but there’s a lot of history to be learned. Oh, and the Hall of Mirrors is absolutely enchanting.
We visited in December during our honeymoon, so the gardens were basically nonexistent. But that just means we have a great excuse to go back someday! Check out even more to do in Paris in my full blog post.
2. St. George’s d’Elmina Castle
Built in 1482, Elmina Castle is one of the oldest buildings built by Europeans that sits outside of Europe. The town itself is believed to be the place where Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans first made contact. It’s a beautiful castle settled along a beach with gorgeous sea views, but the real reason to visit is to learn about the African slave trade and the horrors that took place over three centuries.
We took a truly harrowing tour that detailed the time slaves would spend in the castle before being shipped off to a place off the triangle trade. As you can imagine, the conditions were horrifying, and that was just the beginning of the horrors for them.
I’m not going to lie; it’s a difficult thing to face. But I think we owe it to all those who suffered to look our terrible history in the face and promise ourselves that it will never happen again. Not on our watch.
3. Sceilg Mhichíl (Skellig Michael)
If you’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you’ve seen a bit of Skellig Michael. When I visited this ancient monastic site during my study abroad trip to Ireland, I didn’t see Jedi or Banthas, but I did experience hundreds of rough-hewn steps and Puffins!
Skellig Michael is about a thirty-minute boat ride from the western coast of Ireland, but it’s worth it to see the huts of early Christian monks and imagine what their lives would have resembled a thousand years ago. It is truly to think that people lived on a giant rock in the middle of the ocean for months at a time. It’s not an easy climb, so these were not the stooped, blind monks of Romance novels.
It would be pretty treacherous in inclement weather, so they only do rides out to Skellig Michael during certain months. Be sure to book your passage ahead of time, and you will not be disappointed!
4. Cinque Terre
I got to visit Cinque Terre during my college choir’s trip to Italy. We visited four different UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Rome, Florence, Venice), but I decided Cinque Terre was my favorite because it encompassed everything I loved about Italy: beautiful architecture, friendly people, amazing food and stunning nature.
Cinque Terre means “Five Earths,” and there are five villages in total. Though I suppose hillside towns is more apt a description than villages. You boat from one to the next in little ferries, and it’s the perfect way to spend a day!
During our few hours, we shopped in quaint shops, sunbathed on the beach, ate phenomenal seafood, and basked in the sea breeze from the top of a ferry. It was truly a magical experience.
5. Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara
It was nearly impossible to decide between the sites we saw in Japan. (Luckily, you don’t have to because my full travel guide is right here). Along with Nara, I would also seriously recommend Mount Fuji, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, and the historic monuments in Kyoto. But Nara was my absolute favorite city, and the ancient monuments were truly something else.
We walked through different parts of the city, which was Japan’s capital in the 700s, and I loved randomly stumbling upon shrines and gates and monuments. Plus you can’t beat the semi-domesticated deer who will come up and eat a cracker out of the palm of your hand. No joke, that is what you have to look forward to in Nara. Any visit to Japan is incomplete without a day here!
6. Chichén Itzá
This site was the most recent for me: Spencer’s parents indulged me and took a two-hour bus ride from Cozumel on our cruise last summer. I always loved learning about ancient civilizations and their marvels in school, and Chichén Itzá had been on my bucket list for quite some time.
It did not disappoint! Our tour guide was fantastic, and we learned so much about the Mayan people and what we can infer about their culture from the things they left behind. One thing that might not be apparent from pictures of the main monument (and I am so guilty of this, too) is that there’s a lot more to see. It’s an entire pre-Columbian site, including smaller structures, a “court” for a ritualistic ball game, and even a cenote, a natural sinkhole.
We had about two hours to explore while on our shore excursion, but I could have spent half the day staring up at the pyramid and imagining all the people who had done the same.
This little town is only a 30-minute train ride from Lisbon, and if you have the opportunity, you must go! Do what my friends and I did, and get completely lost on a trail up to the higher levels of the city, then explore one of the beautiful castles.
Sintra is home to many palaces, and we chose the Moorish Castle, which was the least colorful of the buildings but the oldest. No matter which you choose, you can’t go wrong in Sintra because the views are spectacular and there’s so much history. In true European fashion, there are no guardrails anywhere, and you feel like you could fall right over the side and into Sintra proper. But that’s just part of the adventure, am I right?
8. Tower of London
Spencer and I first visited this iconic site while on our honeymoon (and I also included it in my guide to London) because 1. I’d always wanted to visit and 2. it was included on the London Pass. And then, we went back with my family when we saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and it was even better.
I say this because it’s great to visit the Tower, walk through the exhibits, freak out over the huge ass ravens, and marvel over the Crown Jewels. But it’s fantastic to do all those things and take a walking tour with one of the Yeoman Warders. Our tour guide was hilarious (not even joking, I still follow him on Twitter), and he was able to give us such great insight into the different people who have inhabited the Tower, both willing and unwilling, over the years.
Shout out to Anne Boleyn who lost her head there and also to the polar bear who was gifted to the monarchy and set up in the Tower (because what else do you do with a polar bear in the middle of London?).
United States of America
9. Grand Canyon National Park
Oh gosh. What words can I possibly use to even begin to do justice to the Grand Canyon? When you first walk up to the edge of it, it feels like you’re staring at something created in CGI, and that’s pretty much the most worthy praise I can give it.
The scale of the canyon is unfathomable. You can literally take buses to different overlook areas. That is how big we’re talking! The truly daring can hike down into the canyon and spend actual days exploring the trails. Or you can be a total bad ass and ride a donkey down. We did neither because we didn’t really have the time, but it’s certainly worth looking into if you’re going to be in the area.
I honestly think that’s all I can say about the Grand Canyon: it’s huge, it’s awe-inspiring, and you won’t even believe it’s real as you look upon it with your own two eyes. Certainly worth a trip.
10. Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
It’s amazing to think this was the very first UNESCO World Heritage Site that I visited. I turned 17 on this trip to Hawaii with my family, and I cannot wait to tell now 20-year-old brother that this photo of him is on the Internet.
I remember having such an incredible time at the volcano site because we arrived at dusk and were able to watch the active site come to life as it got darker. You could see the glow off the lava (from a very long, safe distance) and watch the steam rise from the fissure. Then we felt our way back to the car through the darkness, and I obviously came away with the world heritage site bug.
That’s right, I chose 10 of them, but it’s still too few. Here are the honorable mentions that would’ve been on my main list except I had to at least look like I was limiting myself.
Edinburgh: It’s odd to me that a city has a place on the UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, if I had to choose a city that warranted a spot, Edinburgh would be at the top of my personal list. It’s the perfect blend of historic, artsy, and something all its own. I would 100% recommend a trip to Edinburgh Castle and a hike up Arthur’s Seat.
Hiroshima Peace Memorial: Located right near the building that sat at the epicenter of the atomic bomb, the peace memorial includes an eternal flame, a reflecting pool, and a beautiful exhibit featuring hundreds of paper cranes folded by children around Japan. If you’re at the memorial, it’s worth it to take a two-minute walk to the peace museum and learn more about the atomic bombs, so we can keep anything like it from happening again.
Belém Tower: This impressive tower sits at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in Lisbon, and it is a site to behold. It’s a medieval tower that’s served as a fortress and is just a truly beautiful building with the kind of embellishments and detailing you would expect to find on a castle. Fun fact: If you’re close enough to visit the tower, you’re close enough to enjoy pastéis de Belém, the best custard treats you’ll ever have in your life.
What UNESCO World Heritage Sites would you most like to visit? Are they on my list, or are they ones I should check out, too?
P.S. If you’re into these UNESCO World Heritage Sites, you might be interested to read about other unique travel experiences I’ve had.