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Top 10 Amazing UNESCO World Heritage Sites To Visit

What Is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Have you been lured into booking a tour or visiting a church, building, or city that has been advertised to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site? The question is, what exactly is a UNESCO World Heritage site and why should it matter?

The acronym “UNESCO” stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. This organization was formed after The 1972 Convention, which took place in Paris, which addressed the preservation of cultural sites and the conservation of nature.

What is the Purpose of UNESCO?

The purpose of UNESCO is to preserve and protect the natural and cultural heritage of the world. UNESCO defines heritage as “our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration”. 

This organization also has a fund to offer financial assistance to help protect these cultural and natural sites. This is especially crucial to those sites that UNESCO has included on it’s “List of World Heritage in Danger”

What are the qualifications for A UNESCO World Heritage Site?

Currently, as of the publication date of this article, there are 167 countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention and are members of UNESCO. This is a joint effort for the preservation of the heritage and the history of our world. 

UNESCO World Heritage Sites include monuments, architecture, inscriptions, archeological nature, buildings, and landscapes that have a universal significance in the world’s history, in world art, and in science. 

There are currently 1,121 World Heritage Sites. These include 869 cultural sites, 213 natural sites, and 39 which are a mixed combination of both natural and cultural. Fifty-three of these sites are on the list of sites that are in danger. 

Here is a list of the top 10 most amazing UNESCO World Heritage sites to visit!

Borobudur Temple Compounds

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991

Location:    Central Java, Indonesia

Description: Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. It was constructed somewhere between the 8th  and 9th centuries.  The temple has three tiers, which include several terraces, squares, and platforms that cover a space of 2500 meters. It is estimated that it took around 75 years to build this temple. 

Borobudur was abandoned and consumed by the jungle of Indonesia for centuries until it was discovered and restored by the British in the early 1800s. 

Best Time To Visit: The best time to visit is during the dry season which is between April and October. 

Getting There: The best way of getting to Borobudur Temple is from the city of Yogyakarta. You can spend a few days in this amazing city and take a day trip to Borobudur which is only about 45 minutes away from central Yogyakarta. You can also take a taxi which is approximately $16 or you can arrange a tour. 

Entrance: The entrance fee is $22. This site is open to the public between 6am-5pm

The Alhambra

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984

Location:       Granada, Andalusia, Spain

Description: The Alhambra is one of the last standing Moorish palaces, and was built in the 8th century. The Alhambra was originally created and occupied by the Moors who arrived from North Africa and ruled over Spain for over 700 years. During this period Spain lived under Muslim rule.

In 1492 the Spanish pushed out the last of the remaining Moors and took over The Alhambra. During this time part of the complex was destroyed to replace the Mosque with a church and to add chambers for the Spanish Royal Family.

Best Time To Visit: Andalusia Spain can be extremely hot during the summer months. The best time to visit is in the spring (April-June) and fall (late September-November). 

Getting There:  The Alhambra is located in the beautiful Medieval City of Granada. Granada is served by the Granada airport which is 20 minutes from the city center. 

Most people stay for a few days and enjoy this wonderful city. Granada also has a train station with trains arriving from major cities like Madrid. 

Entrance: The entrance fee is €14,85. Tickets can be purchased up to two years in advance. You can buy tickets up to two hours before visiting but due to the popularity of this site, you do want to purchase your tickets in advance. 

Pompeii

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997

Location:      Campania, Italy (near Naples)

Description: The archeological site of Pompeii are the remains of an ancient Roman city frozen in time. The ancient city of Pompeii sits at the bottom of the Mount Vesuvius volcano. This volcano erupted in 79 A.D. covering the entire city in a thick layer of volcanic ash.

Prior to this natural disaster, Pompeii was a thriving city. It was an upscale city that had a resort, paved streets, cafes, factories, and shops. 

When the volcano erupted, the majority of the city was evacuated, however, there were around 2000 people left in the city when the volcano poured through killing everyone left behind and burying the city of Pompeii.  

The city remained covered in ash until 1748 when excavation began and it was discovered that the volcanic gases and ash had preserved much of the town leaving the buildings and artifacts intact. You will even find preserved bodies and jars of food frozen in time.

Best To Visit: You can visit Pompeii any time of year, however, it is a popular tourist destination so if you want to avoid heavy crowds, it is best to visit during the off-season, which is between November and April. 

Getting There: Pompeii makes a great day trip from either the city of Naples or Sorrento. It’s about 25 minutes by high-speed train from Sorrento and approximately 40 minutes away from Naples. 

Entrance fee: The entrance fee is €11.00

Petra

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985

Location:    Petra, Jordon

Description: Petra is an ancient city that was occupied by the Arabian Kingdom of Nabataean around the 6th century BC.  The city is carved into the side of a mountain and is sometimes referred to as “the rose city” due to the color of the stone. 

This ancient caravan city sits between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. This location was important for passage and trade between the surrounding countries. 

Petra eventually fell into the control of the Roman Empire in around 106 A.D. Eventually, Petra’s importance dwindled due to an increase in sea-trade and an earthquake that devastated the city around 363 A.D.

The city of Petra was mostly forgotten until discovered by an explorer in 1812.

Best Time To Visit: The best time to visit is in the Fall & Spring when the temperature is moderate and there are fewer crowds. 

Getting There: The ancient city of Petra is only about a 20-minute walk from the center of town where there are plenty of Hotels. 

Historic City of Ayutthaya

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991

Location:      Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Thailand 

Description: The ancient city of Ayutthaya, founded in 1350, was the capital of Thailand until the year 1782 when the capital was moved to Bangkok. Ayutthaya is an island city surrounded by three rivers. 

At its peak, the city of Ayutthaya was a cosmopolitan city that housed hundreds of thousands of people. Over time this city has been occupied by 33 different kings. There are countless historical artifacts remaining from this era. 

There are over 425 archeological sites in Ayutthaya. 

Best Time To Visit:

Getting There: There is a direct train that leaves from the Hualamphong station in Bangkok that will take you directly to the city of Ayutthaya. There are hourly departures and the ride is approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours long.

Entrance fee: Entrance to the park is free, however, there is a price to enter some of the temples or sites in the park, ranging anywhere between 20 to 50 THB ($.66 to $1.65)

MACHU PICCHU

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983

Location: (50 miles northwest of Cuzco, Peru)

Description: Machu Picchu is where you will find the largest ruins of what remains of the Incan Empire. The Inca Empire ruled over pre-Colombian America from as early as the 13th century. 

Machu Picchu is an absolutely stunning sight, set between the Andes Mountains and the Amazon Basin. The Incan Empire was a civilized complex society. Machu Picchu is a great representation of the ingenuity of the Inca people. 

This site has stone canals, stairways, tombs, temples, and a complex water system running through the city to promote agriculture.

Best Time To Visit: This part of the country has a tropical climate and is separated by a wet and dry season. Most people visit during the dry season, which is December-March

Getting There: Most people who visit Machu Picchu stay in the city of Cusco ( also a UNESCO World Heritage site). 

A trip to Machu Picchu does take a bit of planning. There is no direct route there unless you book with a tour group. 

Most people take a bus from Cusco to Ollantaytambo (1 1/2 hrs). From Ollantaytambo, there is a train that will take you to Machu Picchu for about $70 (1/1/2hrs). It will take approximately 3hrs total to get there. 

There is also a direct train from Cusco to Machu Picchu which will cost $105 and will take 4hrs. 

Entrance: You must buy your tickets in advance! Tickets are not sold at the gate. Also, there is a limit of 2500 occupants per day. It’s best to purchase your tickets online in advance. The entrance fee is $48.

Angkor Wat

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1922

Location: Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia 

Description: Angkor Wat is a Buddhist temple complex and one of the most important archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Angkor Wat was built in the 12th century and although inactive it remains largely intact. This site covers over 400 acres and is probably the most popular tourist attraction in all of Southeast Asia.

The temple is a representation of Mount Meru (the home of the Gods) and has 5 towers that are designed to mimic the five peaks of the mountain. 

Best Time To Visit: This part of the country has a tropical climate and is separated by a wet and dry season. Most people visit during the dry season, which is December-March.

Getting There: AngkorWat is only around 20 minutes from the city center of Siem Reap. You can hire a tour guide, take a cab, motorbike, or hail a Tuk-tuk. 

Entrance Fee: 1-day pass is $37, 3-day pass is $62 and a 7-day pass is $72 

The Mezquita and City of Córdoba   

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985

Location: Córdoba, Spain

Description: The Mezquita was designated a UNESCO site originally, but there are so many historical sites in the city of Córdoba that the entire city was subsequently added to the list. 

This city was occupied by the great Moorish empire which occupied Spain for about 800 years between the 8th and 15th centuries. 

The city of Córdoba still maintains its Moorish architecture. There is a bridge with 16 arches on a Roman base separating the city. The palace of the Alcázar, which is a reason in itself to visit Córdoba was built in the 1360s. There are also several old monasteries and churches to visit.

At the center of this historical city is The Mezquita, one of the largest Mosques in the world. The Mosque was built in the 700s by the Moors and is one of the greatest representations of preserved Moorish architecture. It was converted to a Christian Cathedral in the 13th century and is now sometimes called the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba. 

Best Time To Visit: Córdoba Spain is in the Andalusia region of Spain. This area suffers from extreme heat during the summer months. If you want to avoid the heat try to avoid going June-August. Winter is mild so anytime between Late September and May is a nice good time to go. 

Getting There: The city of Córdoba is well connected. Córdoba has its own airport. There are also hi-speed trains arriving from major cities like Madrid and Barcelona. 

Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites

Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985

Location:    Cappadocia, Turkey

Description: Göreme National Park is a unique rugged landscape located in a volcanic region. The terrain consists of hills and valleys of rock called “tuff”. This rock was formed by the ash emitted from the volcanoes millions of years ago. Over the years erosion has turned the tuff into odd shapes of ovals, spirals, and cones. 

Within Göreme park you will find underground cities that were carved into the soft stone. There are over 40 complete cities and hundreds of homes. These were fully functioning cities that included ventilation shafts, kitchen areas, places to keep livestock, bedrooms, communal rooms, and water tanks. No one is exactly sure when the Rock Sites were created, but it is believed to be around the 13th century. 

Best Time To Visit: You can visit anytime but this is an open-air museum, so to avoid heat and overcrowding, visit during the shoulder season between April and June, or September to October when it is still warm and there are fewer crowds.

Getting There: Most people spend a few nights in Cappadocia when visiting this site. Göreme is a town located in the eastern part of the city and is easy to reach by walking or taking a taxi. 

Entrance Fee: The entrance fee is $3.25

Sintra

The Cultural Landscape of Sintra became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995

Location: Sintra, Portugal

Description: The town of Sintra is a whimsical wonderland. Sintra is a picturesque town located just a short distance away from Portugal’s capital of Lisbon.

The town of Sintra in itself is like a fairytale including forested mountains, hilly landscapes, parks, gardens, and several palaces and estates.

The major attraction of Sintra is the Pena Palace. This Moorish royal palace was abandoned until 1840 when King Ferdinand II restored it along with the damaged forest that surrounds the Palace. The Pena Palace was painted in bright hues of yellow and orange. 

A visit to Sintra requires a full day. In addition to Pena Palace, there is the Moorish Castle which was built in the 10th century, the Park and Palace of Monserrate, and the Regaleira Palace and Gardens. 

Best Time To Visit: Any time is fine, however the best time to visit is during shoulder season which is between October-November or March-May. This is a popular tourist destination and can become quite crowded, especially in August when most Europeans take their vacation. 

Getting There: Sintra is actually a municipality as well as a town so there are plenty of places to stay if you want to spend time here. 

Most people come to Sintra from Lisbon on a day trip. 

You can take Lisbon’s regional train (Comboios De Portugal) to Sintra from Lisbon. The ride is about 40 minutes and trains leave regularly from Lisbon to Sintra.

Entrance Fee: For Pena Palace and Park it’s €14 for one adult.

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