While I never make it the focus of my travels, if there’s an opportunity for me to visit a new UNESCO World Heritage Site, I always make sure I stop. In 1972 the UN, through the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, began recognizing important sites around the world that they consider vital in order to maintain the cultural and natural heritage we have all inherited. Even though I haven’t even scratched the surface of visiting the more than 1,000 sites in every corner of the planet, I have been to quite a few and think every traveler should make a point to visit them if they can. To show the width and breadth of this amazing collection of sites, today I want to share some that while impressive, mostly fly under the tourism radar and hopefully in the process this list will encourage your own UNESCO themed visits in the future.
Monticello and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, USA
The US doesn’t have nearly as many cultural UNESCO sites as other countries around the world, but there is a special one in my home state of Virginia – Monticello. At first it may seem strange that of all the historic buildings around the country, particularly those associated with the founding of the Republic, that this small site in Charlottesville, Virginia should have been named to the all important UNESCO list. Even though it may not appear so, these are actually two of the most important structures in the country. Thomas Jefferson is known for a lot of things. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, diplomat, statesman, Vice President and ultimately President of the United States. And yet, in spite of these impressive accomplishments, Jefferson was most proud of his work in Charlottesville, Virginia. Monticello and UVA are more than just pretty buildings, they are at the very heart of the American experience. They are the physical embodiment of Thomas Jefferson, without whom the United States could not have existed. More than just a living testimony to Jefferson, they symbolize the unique American ability to build on the old and make it into something entirely new and different. These qualities, as shown through the life and times of Jefferson, have helped shape the world as we know it.
Shark Bay, Western Australia
Located in the wilds of Western Australia, the Shark Bay UNESCO World Heritage region may seem remote, but it’s well worth the effort to visit this remarkable area. Located near the popular beach resort Monkey Mia, Shark Bay is a popular place to explore either on your own or on a Jeep Safari. The striking red sand meets the azure waters of the Indian Ocean in a contrast that will take your breath away, but that’s not why it’s on the UNESCO list. It’s there thanks to its incredible flora and fauna, but especially the stromatolites at Hamelin Bay. Stromatolites are the oldest life form on the planet and the only place on the earth accessible enough for people to visit these prehistoric creatures is in the Shark Bay region. Aside from the prehistoric beginnings to life on earth, it’s just a fun place to visit, spending a few days to explore as one of the few tourists around.
Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks
One of my favorite places on the planet to visit, the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks possess a kind of natural beauty that’s both rare and intensely special. I always love every second of visiting these parks, not only thanks to the sweeping mountain views and unexpected moments of travel joy, but for how very accessible they are. One of the best experiences I have enjoyed was driving on the Icefields Parkways through Jasper National Park and making my own little personal discovery. The 75-year old Icefields Parkway that runs through both Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta, Canada, is one of the most scenic drives you’ll find anywhere in the world. Along this scenic drive through the Rockies are any number of stop-offs for great day hikes, but what must be the best of these walks through the woods is the Valley of the Five Lakes. To really do it justice takes about 2-3 hours, but tight on time I managed to essentially run the trail in just an hour and a half, marveling at the sights along the way. There are indeed five different lakes featured, each as brilliant a shade of greenish-blue as you’ll ever find in nature. These emerald colored lakes, while all slightly different from each other, get their unique coloring from the rock dust fed by the nearby glaciers. The total effect is a hike through wonderland and a private, solitary experience that I know I’ll treasure for years to come.
Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast, Northern Ireland
This is a natural wonder that I’ve wanted to see in person for decades, and even as I stood there amongst the basalt columns I couldn’t believe that I was actually there. Northern Ireland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Giant’s Causeway attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world every year, and with good reason. Formed over 60 million years ago when molten lava cooled suddenly on contact with water, the Giant’s Causeway is an otherworldly landscape of bizarrely shaped columns that have played an important part in local folklore for as long as people have called the coast home. It’s a gorgeous area, and walking down to the columns themselves was a fantastic way to appreciate the beauty surrounding this natural wonder.
Historic Town of St George and Related Fortifications, Bermuda
I added this UNESCO World Heritage Site not because the town itself is little known – thousands visit every year – but because most people don’t realize that it is a UNESCO recognized site. I love colonial history but the islands of both the North Atlantic and the Caribbean have an importance in this period of history that I sometimes forget. Founded in 1612, the Town of St. George is an amazing example of the earliest English urban settlement in the New World. As an American, I naturally always think of Virginia when I think of that time period, but Bermuda and St. George in particular played an important role in what is our shared history. It’s on the UNESCO Sites list not just because of this history, but because of the preserved look and feel of the town, a place that has an outstanding universal value to world history.
Megalithic Temples of Malta
The Mediterranean island of Malta is today mostly known as a great place to enjoy some time in the warm sun. But the island also has an impressive history and it’s that history which drew me to Malta in the first place. The island nation’s history though extends much further back than most people realize, and it’s this ancient history that earned the megalithic temples a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Seven megalithic temples found both on Malta and Gozo are UNESCO World Heritage Sites and in my personal opinion they are not to be missed. More than 5,500 years old, the temples are some of the oldest surviving religious buildings in the world and just standing there in front of the entrance to these Bronze Age marvels is an experience almost like none other. My brain struggled to grapple with the crushing weight of history that this site has witnessed, from important ceremonies at the dawn of Western Civilization to events we will never fully comprehend. More than just an important historical site, the temple complex has a certain beauty in its own right. Looking around and gazing across the nearby valleys, you can immediately see why this spot was so important to our ancient cousins and you feel like the latest iteration in a remarkable chain of continuous reverence.
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