UNESCO World Heritage Sites are a travel obsession of mine.
For me, they represent the greatest ‘must-visit’ list ever created. Places protected, for the future of humankind, due to their outstanding historical, natural or cultural features.
It doesn’t get much better than that.
I’ve taken a four-hour bus ride to get to the Plain of Jars before it had even officially qualified, dragged unwitting relatives to sites under the guise of an ‘enjoyable day-trip’, packed up my little family on a holiday just to visit Budj Bim (actually that’s happened twice just in the last year, with our trip up to Mildura), and even changed the location of my Covid jab so I could see the inside of the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne.
It’s fair to see, when it comes to UNESCO Heritage Sites, I’m committed.
So, here I present to you, my personal top 10 list of the best UNESCO Heritage Sites I’ve visited.
I will update it and expand it as I visit more – and believe me, there will be more!
Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay (France)
I started young as a UNESCO addict, without even realising it.
Mont St Michel was visited on family holidays when I was very small, but I still have memories of crossing the tide-dependant road over to the town, and feeling like I was in a real-life Disney movie.
Historic Centre of Florence (Italy)
I could just as easily have put the Historic Centre of Rome on this list, but something about Florence gave it an edge.
Maybe the huge Duomo, maybe the stories of secretive corridors that sneak through the city, maybe the incredible Statue of David, or maybe because I had the best pizza I’ve ever eating sitting on the edge of one of the squares.
Whatever it was, it’s a very special place.
Old Bridge Area of the Old City of Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
This was probably the most unexpected place on this list.
We were taking a road-trip down through Croatia, and I realised that we could visit both the Medieval Stecci and the Mostar Bridge with only a ‘slight’ detour from the coast (another example of my UNESCO-chasing weaknesses).
And the parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina we saw, turned out to be unlike anything we expected, with the old town of Mostar a real gem of a destination.
Megalithic Temples of Malta (Malta)
UNESCO sites should create a sense of awe and wonder, but very few have had such a big impact on me.
UNESCO states that these temples are the ‘oldest free standing monuments on earth’. They have been dated to over 5,500 years old – that makes them older than the Pyramids in Egypt and Stonehenge.
I found it almost impossible to comprehend that we were standing in buildings that had been created 10x as long ago as Machu Picchu!
Plitvice Lakes National Park (Croatia)
The most turquoise water I’ve ever seen, hazy boardwalks cutting paths between lakes, lazy waterfalls and even the occasional bear.
Plitvice Lakes is a little off the usual Dalmatian Coast tourist trail in Croatia, but it rewards those who make the effort to get there.
Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)
I visited Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwean sides in my early teens, and it is still etched in my memory.
We heard it, long before we saw it, and I remember being amazed at how much it changed the landscape. As we approached, the dust was replaced by a lush forest, filled with birds and animals unique to the local area.
And then, there it was. More water than I could ever imagine, blasting its way into the carved out hollows below.
Tasmanian Wilderness (Australia)
Don’t just take my word for it on this list, the Tasmanian Wilderness is actually the joint top most qualified UNESCO site in the world, qualifying on seven of the nine possible criteria, equal only with Mount Taishan in China.
It is a huge area, with many parts you can visit, but its headline play is the astonishing Gordon River Cruise.
The beginning feels like any other boat trip. Jump on, leave the small town of Strahan and head across a beautiful, but not overly memorable bay.
But this is all part of the ploy, to under promise at the start, only to over deliver later on.
Once through the mouth of the Gordon River, everything changes. The boat switches to ‘whisper-quiet’ mode, and the first thought on viewing the view is that they must have activated a wormhole through to the Amazon.
It is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, the rainforest is deep, green, lush and misty, the river entices the boat towards every bend, and the silence of the vessel means every bird call, creaking trunk and falling vine can be heard.
Megalithic Jar Sites in Xiengkhuang – Plain of Jars (Laos)
Technically, I’ve not actually visited this UNESCO site.
To show my level of obsession, we actually went in 2017, a year before it made the list. This wasn’t luck, I knew it was on the tentative list and looked likely to get approved soon. Geek.
It was well worth the uncomfortable bus trip though.
Having only recently been cleared of the bombs left after the Vietnam War, the Plain of Jars still feels almost undiscovered. There are no barriers or attendants here, you can walk right up to the mysterious stone jars, touch them, have a selfie with them, even get in them if you were so inclined.
There are thousands of them scattered around the landscape to discover, with still no widely agreed theory as to what their purpose was. It’s like being the star of your own Indiana Jones adventure!
Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu (Peru)
Machu Picchu still doesn’t feel quite real to me, despite the hundreds of photos I have proving its existence.
Shielded by the clouds on top of a remote hill, the first view we got was the classic view from above over the ancient village. Tired from days of hiking, and feeling sick from the altitude, we felt like explorers who’d earned the reward of this (literally!) breathtaking scene.
The Temples of Angkor (Cambodia)
A predictable top choice, but utterly deserved.
Despite having seen a thousand photos of this place before arriving, it was not what I expected.
Firstly, it’s massive. The temple complexes stretch over (how wide an area?), and are immensely varied in their construction.
Secondly, the details. The bas-reliefs, the tool marks on the brickwork, the lakes, the smells. It’s impossible to experience this unless you’ve been.
Thirdly, it will always hold a special place in my heart, as we visited as part of our three-month sabbatical around Southeast Asia, and met my father there for his 60th birthday.
This will be a very hard place to knock off the top of the list, but I’ll keep trying!
If you are also interested in UNESCO sites, see my complete list of the places I’ve visited, with links to articles about those sites.
I’d also suggest visiting the fantastic worldheritagesite.org, which I think is the best resource on UNESCO Heritage Sites.
Also, download the World Heritage app, where you can keep track of the sites you’ve visited, and browse by country or map to ruthlessly plan your next adventure around how many UNESCO sites you can squeeze in (ok, maybe that’s just me!).
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