The amazing man-made structures and natural landscapes that comprise the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites are awe-inspiring, and now there are more of them than ever. This year, the World Heritage Committee added 26 inscriptions to the list, bringing more sites of cultural, natural, and historical importance under the protection of the United Nations. While all of these sites are significant, we’ve highlighted 10 of the best that are easily accessible and worth a visit on your next vacation.
1. Pergamon and its Multi-Layered Cultural Landscape
Where: Bergama, Turkey
Dating back as far as the fourth century B.C. (and perhaps farther), the city of Pergamon has a long history of changing hands, ruled at various points by the Greeks, the Persians, and the Romans. Pergamon was an important cultural center during the Hellenistic Attalid Dynasty and was the capital of the empire from 281-133 B.C. The Library of Pergamon (whose ruins can still be seen today) was one of the greatest libraries in the world, said to have had almost 200,000 volumes according to Plutarch. Though the Great Altar of Pergamon is now housed in a museum in Berlin, many of the ruins can still be seen today in their original location. Temples, theaters, gymnasiums, and other ancient buildings remain on the acropolis that stands above the modern town of Bergama.
2. Carolingian Westwork and Civitas Corvey
Where: Hoxter, Germany
The Westwork (part of the Imperial Abbey of Corvey) dates back to the Carolingian era, a period of medieval rule by the Franks during the ninth century. The abbey was founded as a Benedictine monastery by two of Charlemagne’s cousins in 815 A.D. Reconstructed on its current site seven years later, the monastery later became home to a mint and occupied an important economic and cultural spot along the Hellweg, the medieval trading routes through what is now Germany. During the Reformation, the abbey remained Catholic on the border of the Protestant Brunswick state and, many years later, was secularized under Napoleon. Today it is owned by a member of the Hohenlohe German dynasty, but is still open to the public, allowing visitors to enjoy this vestige of Carolingian design.
3. Stevns Klint
Where: Store Heddinge, Denmark
Located on the southeastern edge of Zealand, Stevns Klint is an important geological marker. The area stretches for almost 10 miles and parts of the white chalk cliff date back 72 million years. But the real attraction of this site is the thin layer of dark clay behind the white chalky exterior—evidence of the Chicxulub meteorite that hit the Earth roughly 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Period, wiping out nearly half of all life on the planet and perhaps most notably, the dinosaur population. Remnants of an ash cloud can be seen in this area, as the point of impact was thousands of miles away off the coast of Mexico. The bryozoa chalk that makes up the cliff is highly shock resistant, even to nuclear weapons, ensuring that the cliff has been well preserved over millions of years.
Where: Gujarat, India
Rani-ki-Vav (the Queen’s Stepwell) was built in honor of Bhimdev I, a ruler of the Solanki dynasty in western India, by his widowed wife in 1050 A.D. The stepwell was built to look like an inverted temple, with seven levels descending downward and culminating in a pool at the bottom. One of the largest remaining stepwells of its type, the Rani-ki-Vav stands as an important example of the stepwells built in India beginning in the third millennium B.C., which came to be architectural marvels as much as they were water resources. The intricate carvings along the walls of the stepwell and the nearly 2,000 statues demonstrate incredible craftsmanship and are emblematic of the Maru-Gurjara style.
5. Okavango Delta
The inland delta in northwestern Botswana has long been a popular safari destination, and its unique geographic features make it an immensely important ecological site. The permanent marshland is one of the very few deltas in the world that does not flow into an ocean or sea, and the flooding that occurs during the dry season creates a unique synchronization between the environment and the plants and wildlife that live in the area. The Okavango Delta is home to countless animal species (400 species of birds alone inhabit the area) and it is one of the few remaining places where the endangered African Wild Dog can still be seen in abundance. Five distinct ethnic groups also occupy the Delta, nearly all of which still practice traditional subsistence farming, hunting, and fishing lifestyles.
6. Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex
Where: Ninh Binh, Vietnam
Listed as both a natural and a cultural property, the Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex is located on the southern edge of the Red River delta southeast of Hanoi. The geography of this area is truly stunning, with limestone karsts rising almost vertically out of the water, and an extensive cave system dominates the area, comprised of both inactive and active “living” caves. Though now flooded most of the year, these caves were once inhabited by humans during prehistoric times, and excavations in the area have revealed evidence of human presence dating back as far as 20,000 B.C. Additionally, hundreds of pagodas, temples, and shrines in the area detail Trang An’s storied history, most notably the Vu Lam Palace, built during the 13th and 14th centuries to defend against the Chinese invasion.
Where: Seoul, South Korea
In many places, the Namhansanseong fortress resembles the Great Wall of China, and the 1300-year-old structure served the same purpose for various Korean kingdoms throughout history. The earliest construction on Namhansanseong began in 672 when a fortress was erected on the side of Namhan Mountain as a means of defense against the Chinese. The building was maintained by successive rulers for hundreds of years until it was greatly expanded in the 17th century in anticipation of Manchu invasions. During this time, it was used as a temporary capital by the Joseon Dynasty (who ruled the area for five centuries) while the region was under attack. Ancient architectural techniques, as well as modern modifications developed in response to the introduction of gunpowder, can be seen in this stunning structure.
8. Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System
Where: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru
A truly astounding feat, the Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System stretches almost 19,000 miles along the western edge of South America. Built by the Incas over several hundred years, the road network is in impeccable condition today; travelers still hike from villages along the Urubamba River to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail, a well-known 26-mile stretch of the Andean Road System built more than 500 years ago. The road system was the lifeline of the Incan Empire and traverses some of the most extreme geography on the continent, crossing deserts and rainforests and reaching an elevation of almost 20,000 feet in the Andes. In addition to the impeccable craftsmanship seen in the construction the Qhapaq Ñan, the network also provides a window into Incan culture.
9. Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato
Where: Piedmont, Italy
Located in northern Italy near the French border, the vineyard landscape of Piedmont not only produces world-class wines, but is also the seat of important Italian history. In addition to five distinct wine growing regions, the Castle of Cavour, dating back to the 13th century, has also been included under the UNESCO listing. The development of important winegrowing processes and the presence of vine pollen from the fifth century B.C. have made this part of Italian wine country particularly significant. Monferrato was a key holding of the Holy Roman Empire during the 16th century before it came under the control of the Duchy of Savoy in the early 18th century. In addition to its internationally renowned wines, the Langhe region is also known for its white truffles.
10. Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor
Where: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan
Arguably one of the most important trade routes in history, the Silk Road is an immense network stretching across Asia into Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. The Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor of the Silk Road network connects what was once the capital of the Han and Tang Dynasties to the Zhetysu Region in Central Asia, constructed beginning in the second century B.C. and in continuous use until the 16th century. Along the more than 3,000 miles of road designated as a UNESCO Site are 33 historical structures that have been included in the listing, including palaces, temples, lookout towers, tombs, and parts of the Great Wall (another UNESCO World Heritage Site).