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Our top 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites

by Martha Hales

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UNESCO - the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation - is an international body with many functions, but is perhaps best known for safeguarding world heritage. Numbering more than 1,000 the current list of World Heritage Sites encompasses locations across the globe, all of which have been inscribed to the list for their intrinsic value to our shared heritage. More than 65% of the listings are cultural - like the Taj Mahal or the staggering ruins of Machu Picchu - with the remainder natural or mixed natural and cultural such as the Galapagos Islands or Rio de Janeiro and its surrounding landscape. Here, we’ve gathered together our top 25 UNESCO World Heritage sites that we think should be on your travel bucket list.

1. Kyoto, Japan

The heart of Japanese culture for more than one thousand years, Kyoto reveals its ancient secrets as you wander lanes flanked by wooden houses. Enjoy the tranquillity of a traditional Japanese garden, and marvel at the serenity of the many shrines that characterise the city.

Daigo-ji Temple in Kyoto, Japan

2. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

These are breathtaking ruined temples which were built on an epic scale between the 9th and 15th centuries when Angkor was the Khmer capital. Intricately carved stonework differs from one structure to the next, displaying the impressive artistry and cultural wealth of the Khmer.

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

3. Petra, Jordan

This immensely atmospheric ancient Nabatean city is carved into sandstone cliffs and gorges at an important caravan crossroads mid-way between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. The lofty Monastery and the imposing Treasury are the most famous monuments in the ‘rose city’ of Jordan.

candlelit Petra in Jordan at night

4. The Galapagos Islands, Ecuador

Nineteen isolated islands - which are relatively young, geologically speaking - offer an unrivalled opportunity to see evolution up close. Many unique species inhabit these islands and the surrounding marine reserve, making this is one of the most pristine environments on the planet.

The Galapagos Islands of Ecuador

5. Iguazu Falls, Argentina and Brazil

At nearly three kilometres across, with up to 13,000 cubic metres of water thundering over approximately 300 separate waterfalls, Iguazu is the largest system of falling water in the world located on the border of Brazil and Argentina and surrounded by lush rainforest.

The Iguazu Falls of Brazil and Argentina

6. Taj Mahal, India

Instantly recognisable, this powerful tribute to the Shah Jahan’s greatest love is both deceptively old and unusually harmonious. Seen in the soft light of dawn or dusk, this riverside masterpiece is a stunning sight to behold, and one of India’s most memorable monuments.

The Taj Mahal at dawn

7. Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia

Rugged and raw landscapes greet you when you arrive in this elemental region. Electric blue glaciers edge into vast lakes surrounded by soaring mountains, showcasing some of nature’s most dramatic scenery, perfect for a thrilling Patagonian adventure.

Los Glaciares National Park, Patagonia (Argentina)

8. Machu Picchu, Peru

A lost Inca city sits high on a bluff among forested mountain peaks, one of the most amazing settings for an archaeological site anywhere. Follow the famous Inca trail and arrive to take in the breathtaking panorama of the terraces and monuments of the ruined city.

UNESCO site of Machu Picchu in Peru

9. Serengeti National Park, Tanzania

Picture classic African scenes of vast grasslands grazed by big game who are in turn stalked by big cats abound in the Serengeti. This area is made up of over a million hectares of protected plains and is the backdrop to one of nature’s most compelling spectacles. Every year vast herds of ungulates undertake the Great Migration through the Serengeti in search of fresh pasture, a dramatic journey fraught with risk.

cheetah family in the Serengeti, Tanzania

10. Agra Fort, India

Enclosed by the imposing walls of the Red Fort - as Agra Fort is known - there are numerous beautiful palaces and mosques as well as monumental gardens. This was the imperial city of the Mughal emperors and was constructed in a sumptuous style in the 16th century.

Gate of the Red Fort in Agra

11. Rock fortress of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

King Kassapa decided in the 5th century that this easily defended outcrop of rock would make the perfect site for his new capital. He built his palace and dependent buildings on the top, and decorated the surrounding cliffs with sculptures and frescoes.

Rock fortress of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka

12. The Forbidden City, China

One of the main highlights of Beijing is the collection of ancient palaces, places of worship and assorted other buildings and gardens that make up the imperial headquarters of the Ming and Qing dynasties. For over 500 years this was the seat of their power and the elaborate art and artefacts bear testimony to their wealth and heritage.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, China

13. Medina of Marrakesh, Morocco

Characterised by narrow twisting lanes brimful with souks, ornate palaces and mosques, the medina of Marrakech is intoxicating. Important examples of Almoravid and later Islamic architecture together with its theatrical street life give the city its unique and exotic appeal.

The medina of Marrakech, Morocco

14. Hoi An, Vietnam

Although much of the commerce in Hoi An today involves tourism rather than the import and export which traditionally sustained it, the sense of history in the old town is palpable. Influences from across Asia and beyond can be spotted in the architecture and layout of this beautiful old port.

Hoi An Vietnam

15. The Great Wall of China

Construction of this immense fortification, now over 20,000 kilometres long, was begun as early as the 7th century BC, but much of the wall was completed under the Ming dynasty in the 14th to 17th centuries. It is one of the most recognisable ancient man-made structures in the world and is even visible from space.

The Great Wall of China in Autumn

16. Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Hiroshima, Japan

Miyajima island near Hiroshima is a scenic delight, not least for its famous Shinto shrine with its iconic ‘floating’ Tori gate which stands with its feet in the sea, creating a beautiful and serene image of Japan. There has been a shrine on this site since at least the 6th century, and the current monuments date from the 12th century.

Itsukushima floating Shinto shrine near Hiroshima

17. Hampi, India

Reaching its heyday in the 14th to early 16th centuries, Hampi was once a prosperous and extensive city, capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom. It contains several important places of worship which are still in use today, but the wider city remains abandoned after it was ransacked in 1565.

Lotus Mahal, Hampi, India

18. The Pantanal, Brazil

A hugely important wetland site boasting a high density of species of flora and fauna, the Pantanal is one of the most extensive freshwater wetland ecosystems globally. It is known for its unique birdlife and impressive jaguar population.

Jaguar hunting in the Pantanal, Brazil

19. The Kremlin and Red Square, Russia

This iconic public square in the centre of Moscow is surrounded by some of Russia’s most important monuments. Among them, the Kremlin is of great historical significance, and the multi coloured, multi domed St Basil’s basilica is the defining image of Moscow.

Saint Basil's Cathedral, Moscow

20. Prambanan Temple, Indonesia

Just outside Yogyakarta, Central Java, this complex of towering temples with carved external walls and a tapered, pointed shape are as beautiful as they are mysterious. The site dates from the 9th century, and is one of the largest Hindu temples in South East Asia.

Prambanan Temple, Indonesia

21. The Silk Road - China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan

The extensive network of routes, roads and paths that constitute the Silk Route cover huge distances, linking many parts of China with regions further west. The routes were a defining feature of global trade for more than a millennium, and facilitated the exchange of ideologies, cultures, beliefs and goods.

Samarkand, Uzbekistan area of the Silk Route

22. Leshan Giant Buddha, China

Standing at just over 70 metres tall, the Leshan Buddha is the world’s highest, cut into the scenic Mount Emei in Sichuan province. It sits among several other temples and Buddhist monuments which together make this one of the holiest Buddhist sites anywhere.

Leshan Giant Buddha, China

23. Ellora Caves, India

A high cliff of fine textured basalt in Maharashtra has been sculpted and chiselled away over the centuries (notably the 6th to 10th) to form a complex of incredibly ornate monasteries and temples. The magnificent structures demonstrate the multi-faith nature of Indian society, with many Hindu, Jain and Buddhist sites all located together at Ellora.

Ellora Caves, India

24. Easter Island, Chile

The original inhabitants of Easter Island were Polynesian, and the culture they established on ‘Rapa Nui’ has left a unique and enduring legacy: giant stone figures with stylised faces dot the island in tribute to deceased community members.

The giant stone figures of Easter Island

25. Qhapaq Ñan, South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru)

Crisscrossing large - and often inhospitable - regions of South America, the Qhapaq Ñan is a mega-network of routes linking key points in the Inca empire. The trans Andean routes were used primarily for trade and defence, but also for relaying information and ideas throughout the continent.

Ancient Qhapaq Nan trail in Bolivia, South America

Make it happen

All that wonderful culture and nature is out there, combining to create our shared global heritage. It’s easy to plan a trip to see one or more of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites for yourself with the help of our handpicked local experts. Click on the links above to find out more about all these incredible destinations. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.

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