According to the Britannica definition, a World Heritage site is “any of the various areas or objects inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. The sites are said to have “Outstanding Universal Value.”
The UNESCO World Heritage sites can be anything from entire cities or parts of cities to specific monuments, natural landscapes and more. As of July 2021 there were a total of 1,154 World Heritage sites, of which 897 were cultural, 218 were natural and 39 were mixed sites.
The selection is as diverse as it is large. While I’m trying my best to pick some of my favorites for this list, I have to admit I’ve given up trying to figure out and counting how many I’ve seen so far. And there are so many that I’m dying to see, like Machu Picchu and the Grand Canyon, that I’ve always wanted to see but haven’t gotten to yet. Then there are some that are so popular, like the entire city of Rome and landmarks like the Tower of London, Westminster Palace and the Statue of Liberty, that despite their special value, I’ve crossed them off my personal list.
The result is a multifaceted leap across the globe, spanning monuments and cities, sites large and small. I’ve picked these as my favorites to share with you for a variety of reasons.
How many of my personal favorites have you seen? And do you agree with me?
1. The Great Wall
This one really blew my mind, if you’ll pardon the expression. On a mountaintop an hour outside of the hypermodern city of Beijing, standing on stones put together hundreds and thousands of years ago, the sight of the continuous structure bobbing back and forth at impossible angles along steep mountain ridges to the horizon is on my sides something i will never forget.
No, it’s not true that the Great Wall of China can be seen from space with the naked eye, but this man-made structure, officially more than 13,000 miles long, is an architectural feat so amazing it might as well be believed .
2. Forbidden City
The Forbidden City has this magical appeal, probably partly because of the word “forbidden,” which makes you feel truly privileged to be able to get a closer look at this massive, roughly 9,000-room complex that housed 24 emperors — and you really are privileged. This ancient complex adds another perspective to the often amazing city of Beijing, and it is one of the sights I most want to return to as there is so much to see that even with a long guided tour you feel like you are missing out on so much. Next time I’ll skip the guides and just take a full day to explore, get lost and snoop around.
3. Taj Mahal
I traveled on the Palace on Wheels, one of the greatest train journeys in the world that gave its passengers early access to the grounds of the Taj Mahal. I’m not usually at my best at 6am, but stepping into the tranquil grounds with this stunningly beautiful, delicate and shimmering building at the end of the walkway is a sight I’ll never forget. It was chilly in early December and entering the mausoleum was really cold underfoot – but what a treat. Aside from the hustle and bustle of India, this is an escape that feels miles away from it all.
4. The Great Pyramids of Giza
I have to admit that when I first visited the Pyramids of Giza I was less than impressed. It might have been my guide talking non-stop and driving me insane, it might have been the shock of seeing the Cairo suburbs so surprisingly close to the gigantic monuments, or it might have been the realization that I wasn’t even could climb to the top if I could – because every step was taller than me.
However, the next time I came I stayed at the lovely Mena House Hotel overlooking the large triangular shapes at the end of the garden and visited without a guide. Instead I explored, stood up, looked up, petted the camels and soaked up the atmosphere. And you know what? The pyramids are really amazing.
5. The banks of the Seine
This is said to be the most visited UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world, but I wonder how many of its visitors know that the banks of the Seine where they stroll crepe in hand are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Having lived in Paris for 6 years and walked the Seine countless times, I only found out that the beautiful quays and banks dotted with little cafe trucks and benches were deemed worthy of being added to the illustrious list when I’ve written about the Seine and its many worthwhile stops.
6. The City of Bath
I lived and even got married in the spa town of Bath after graduating from university and have loved it ever since. I read through the novels of Jane Austen (the author was a former Bath resident) and explored the city’s historic sites. Even today, so many years later, I still stop by from time to time, because the city is not only great for shopping and has great restaurants. Strolling along the Royal Crescent, through the Circus or in the Sydney Gardens feels like stepping back in history, which is proven in the historical romp Bridgeton was filmed here. Just exchange the wagons for carriages, et voilathe historical setting is authentic.
7. The city of Istanbul
Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world; It’s bustling, has so much history around every corner and has such an atmosphere that can’t be found anywhere else. There are four UNESCO sites in Istanbul, but these are entire areas, like the Sultanahmet Archaeological Park, which includes Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome of Constantine, Hagia Irene and Little Hagia Sophia and everything in between. Therefore, in general, the entire city is considered a UNESCO site. Modern life goes hand in hand with ancient history here, and it works so well.
8. The Venice Lagoon
Venice and its Lagoon is one of those rare places in the world where your entire idea of what a city and life in and around it should be like is turned upside down. Canals instead of roads? Boats instead of cars? A floating city and islands so unusual whether covered in bright colorful houses, dedicated to glass making or just a graveyard make for a truly magical destination. When I first visited Venice I really didn’t want to like it just because everyone was raving about it, but I failed miserably. What’s not to love, especially now that the ugly cruise lines have been banned?
Having lived near Stonehenge for years I never went to see it for some reason. It barely registered for me. It took me several international moves and a visit to England before I finally decided to queue. As with Venice, I didn’t want to like it because it’s such a touristy place, but when I arrived early in the day, the light was still getting brighter, I was enchanted at first sight. I’m not a druid, and I don’t care that much about the summer solstice either, but I swear I took a much deeper breath than I ever had before and was drawn into the sheer history and age of this monument – so much so that I immediately visited Avebury too.
10. Saint-Sophia Cathedral
This was one of the most enchanting moments in my long history of world travel. It was a winter Sunday morning, Kyiv was blanketed in freshly fallen and still pristine white snow, and I was about to start ringing bells on St. I stood spellbound as I watched people come and enter to attend the Sunday morning service. The delicate melody of the bells, the snow, the light and the worshipers walking past me, all in this stunning setting in front of the beautiful church, made this a worthy contender for one of the most beautiful UNESCO sites.
11. Sydney Opera House
And here’s the most modern of them all, the relatively young Sydney Opera House. Built between the late 1950s and 1970s, this iconic music venue deserves to be included in my personal list because I think it’s not just a great piece of architecture, but a shining example of how man-made is good with nature is worked. The Opera House wouldn’t have been half as impressive if it weren’t situated in front of Sydney’s stunning natural harbour, which makes for a symbiosis of beautiful sights.
For more information on UNESCO World Heritage sites, also check out some of the newest sites and sites along the Danube.