What springs to mind when you think of the Top 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites? Is it outstanding natural beauty, historical significance steeped in the sands of time? Or magnificent manmade structures that defy engineering and ingenuity?
It’s all of them – and there are over 1000 UNESCO World Heritage Sites across the globe, which have been awarded official status and protection by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, from the historic city of Vienna in Austria to the iconic Sydney Opera House in Australia.
All are a mix of cultural and natural sites, but rather worryingly, there are some 54 that are now on the ‘in danger’ list due to threats not only from war and conflict but from natural disasters and high-rise urban development.
Top 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Over my travelling years, I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to have visited several UNESCO World Heritage Sites – and I will continue to do so before some of these awe-inspiring destinations cease to exist. So perhaps there’s even more reason now to visit these beautiful world heritage hotspots before it’s too late. It’s been a tough job narrowing them all down, but here – in no particular order – are my Top 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites you have to visit.
The Jurassic Coast, Dorset
The UK has over 30 different UNESCO sites, so you can explore a great number of them without even having to leave the country. A recent favourite is the Jurassic Coast in Dorset which spans over 95 miles of coastline and stretches from Exmouth in Devon all the way to Studland Bay in Dorset. There are plenty of opportunities to learn about 185 million years of geological history and with it, fascinating tales from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, as we discovered when we went fossil hunting in Charmouth. Dorset itself not only has a wonderful array of beach towns including Lyme Regis and Weymouth, but tons of family-friendly attractions, castles and gardens, as well as sweeping scenery steeped in ancient history.
Teide National Park, Tenerife
While the Canarian Island of Tenerife is well-known for its warm all-year-round climate and beach resorts, head inland and you’ll discover a spectacular volcanic landscape and a world of alien-rock formations. Teide National Park covers an awe-inspiring 47,000 acres, but it also has Spain’s highest peak and the tenth largest volcano in the world, Mount Teide. You don’t have to climb to the summit of this dormant volcano to appreciate the views – we chose the easier option of the cable car which glides you 3555m above sea level. Meanwhile, if you have a car [which is the easiest option to get to Teide], just driving around will offer you a different perspective of the scenery and you may even come across Los Roques de Garcia – the famous jutting rock formations that were once featured on 1000 pesetas bank notes back in the 1970s.
The Great Wall, China
Probably one of the more famous UNESCO World Heritage sites as well as a Wonder of the World, The Great Wall of China is a masterpiece in engineering and the sheer scale and ingenuity of the fortification built over 5,000 miles is worth the travel and expense to experience. Granted, there are lots of other tourists who also want to walk on these stones of time, however, there are several sections in and around Beijing that are easily accessible including Mutianyu, where we visited. And, while it was painful to rise before the sun in order to avoid the crowds, it was so worth it. We had at least an hour to ourselves and walked up and down marvelling at the fortresses and watchtowers, as well as the surrounding countryside.
The Lake District, Cumbria
There’s no denying the epic beauty of the Lake District National Park. And it’s no surprise that poets, artists and writers such as William Wordsworth, LS Lowry and Beatrix Potter were so inspired by the natural wonder of this dramatic landscape. We fell in love with Cumbria and the region – with gasp-inducing epic vistas at every turn. From mountain passes and quaint villages to the deafening waterfalls and the lakes themselves – there are 16 of them in total and all very different. Our particular favourites include Coniston Water, Wastwater and Buttermere.
Hoi Ann, Vietnam
One of my happiest memories of travelling through Vietnam was my stay in Hoi Ann. I was reluctant to leave the storybook setting of this ancient town. Many hours were spent wandering the canals and browsing outside the wooden Chinese shophouses. What is so unique is the fact this former pots historic past which combines a melting-pot of different cultures from temples to colourful French colonial buildings, ornate Vietnamese houses and the iconic Japanese Bridge with its pagoda. I also took at cycle tour into the neighbouring villages and rice paddy fields. Not to be missed are the colourful lanterns at night.
Macchu Picchu, Peru
The Incan citadel situated high up in the Andes is another iconic and widely photographed UNESCO World Heritage Site. And for good reason. Academics are still trying to uncover the mysteries of this complex maze of palaces and plazas, temples and homes that may have been built as a ceremonial site or a military stronghold. I shunned the train, preferring to take a four-day trek on the Inca Trail up the Sun Gate, where I was blown away to watch the sunrise over Macchu Picchu. It was worth the physical toil and the body aches to get to this point. And the sense of achievement I felt was overwhelming. The Inca Trail sees some 75,000 visitors a year now and is heavily regulated – and only escorted tours are allowed.
Although this medieval city is much smaller than it’s adjoining Florence, their ancient rivalry is still prevalent today much illustrated on my recent visit to Tuscany after our Sienese tour guide made a quip about her neighbours. There is evidence all around Siena that points to its chequered history from the horse rings attached to the ancient walls, to emblems of different animals which link to the 17 different districts or contradas – who battle out annually in the world-famous Palio horse race. I’ve been to Siena several times and never tire of wandering the winding cobbled streets into the Piazza del Campo and past the magnificent cathedral. Not only do you get a sense of being thrown back in time, but the view of the whole city from the top of the hill puts you in no doubt why Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Taj Mahal, India
Surrounding an iconic structure of the Taj Mahal is a bustling, smoggy city, full of noise, colour and people. The tomb built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of this third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, sits in the middle Agra and while its surroundings are less captivating, the Yamuna River and the sparkling white marble structure is truly breathtaking particularly if you go before the crowds at sunrise and watch the breaking dawn reflect against it.
I was fascinated by the myth that Shah Jahan planned a mausoleum to be built in black marble as a Black Taj Mahal across the river – and I spent several minutes trying to see the blackened remains where the moonlight garden is now situated but there are many theories which dispel this myth. I do like the legend, though – there’s something mystical about it.
Þingvellir National Park, Iceland
If you head to Reykjavik in Iceland, then no doubt you’ll be wanting to take a trip on the Golden Circle comprising of Þingvellir National Park, Gulfoss and Geyser. While there are many tour groups operating this excursion, we opted to drive ourselves and found it a much more relaxed affair. And the reason I’ve added Þingvellir National Park to my Top 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites list is that in the depths of winter, it feels like you’re on another planet.
When the Vikings arrived in the 10th century, they chose Þingvellir as the site for their meeting place of Althingi, the world’s oldest parliament. It is here that lies the remains of an old church and stone shelters. History aside, it’s the landscape that is compelling. The sparkling white snow covering the lava fields and lake Thingvallavatn is surreal. Meanwhile, just walking amongst the jutting rocks is an experience in itself.
Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park, Australia
Although there are many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Australia including the Great Barrier Reef, there was something quite emotionally stirring after I spent three days camping out and exploring Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Not only are the vibrant red dome rocks and formations mesmerising, nature really is upon you and a force to be reckoned with. Which is why the aboriginals hold this area so sacred. Uluru itself is a sight to behold – standing at 348m high and dating back 500million years, I was fortunate to watch the sunrise over this sandstone monolith. Sleeping in a swag bag under the stars was something I will always remember. Never have I seen such a breathtaking night sky – and felt like I was the only person on earth.
What would be in your Top 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites?