18 Top World Heritage Sites
Top World Heritage Sites – For centuries or even millennia, some of the most impressive sites of antiquity were forgotten or hidden from the world, buried under forests, deserts or farmers’ fields worldwide.
Rumors of lost cities or accidental discoveries by people going about their daily lives have led to the incredible discovery that is open for the world to see today. Many of these have been designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Some of these great sites have been attracting tourists for hundreds of years and are still as fascinating as they were when they were first uncovered.
It may be a cliché to say that there has never been a better time to explore the greatest sites on the planet, but it is also true. While they are all important, some are arguably more impressive than others.
Explore ancient wonders with our list of the best World Heritage Sites.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Built-in lush, mountainous terrain above the Urubamba River, Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most stunning settings of any archaeological site.
This ancient city of the Incas disappears on the sides of the cliffs in the valley below, with steep steps, under steep walls on each side of the mountain.
These incredible ruins have been restored and are well maintained, giving visitors a good indication that the city was occupied during the 15th and 16th centuries.
Many people visit Peru for the sole purpose of seeing Machu Picchu, and a visit to the ruins can be an adventure in itself, depending on how travelers reach the site.
Adventurous souls can opt for a guided, multi-day hike and camping trip along the famous Inca Trail to reach the site or the easy option of reaching the ruins by bus from the small town of Aguas Calientes at the base of the hill, which most visitors get to by train from Cusco or the Sacred Valley.
Pyramids of Giza, Egypt
One of the most iconic landmarks in the world, the Pyramids of Giza, just outside Cairo, is a surreal sight rising from the barren desert landscape.
Standing guard nearby, and almost equally impressive, is the Sphinx, looking blankly at the ground.
The pyramids were built as tombs for the pharaohs, the largest of which were built between 2560 and 2540 BC.
To put their age in perspective, they were already over 2,600 years old when the Colosseum in Rome was built. Today, these colossal monuments are the only surviving members of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
For a memorable experience, take a sunset camel ride in front of the pyramids, which is one of the top things to do in Egypt.
Also, follow the internal tunnels in the Pyramid of Chephren or the Pyramid of Cheops, which are inside the burial chamber.
Thousands of ancient temples and stupas are spread endlessly across Bagan’s landscape, where the temple silhouette is a magical sight against the sky in the early morning or late afternoon.
The area is known for having the largest concentration of Buddhist temples in the world, many of which were built in the 1000s and 1100s when it was the capital of the pagan empire.
Some of these have been renovated, and others are little more than ruins. They also range in size and level of sophistication, creating an exciting mix of structures that will make visitors want to continue exploring the site.
You can tour the area on vintage bicycles, rent a horse and carriage, take an on-site hot air balloon ride, or hire a taxi. Each of these methods has its appeal.
- Angkor Wat, Cambodia
In a unique jungle setting, not far from Siem Reap city, Angkor Wat is known for being the largest religious monument in the world, but it is more than just the sheer size that makes the Angkor complex so interesting. The Khmers built the site in the 12th century, and the architecture is stunning.
The site features an exciting mix of excavated and unexcavated temples of varying sizes, shapes and states of decay.
Some buildings have a mysterious appearance as trees and roots swallow them up. The colossal stone carved faces are visible in all directions.
Extensive and intricate beys-reliefs line the walls and doorways. The crumbling pathways and steep stone stairs call for exploration.
Before its collapse in the 15th century, Angkor Wat was the largest city in the world. The complex is enormous, and you may be inclined to spend a few days on the site.
Great Wall of China
Covering some 6,000 kilometres as you weave through forests and mountains, the Great Wall of China is one of those undeniable bucket list sites that have long inspired great adventures.
This massive Wall, connecting the battleships and watchtowers, was built over the centuries, with the oldest sections dating back to the 7th century BC.
Today, you can choose to visit the Wall on a day trip from Beijing or tackle an entire section of it on organized, multi-day trips. Some parts of the Wall have been restored, while others are in great need of repair.
- Roman Colosseum, Italy
One of the most recognizable structures in the world, the Roman Colosseum is the largest building remaining from Roman times.
Its imposing presence in the city center of modern Rome is a testament to the city’s incredible history and achievements of the Roman Empire.
Visitors coming from the nearest subway stop or turning a corner and seeing it for the first time can’t help but be stunned by its massive presence.
Construction on the structure began in AD 72, and even today, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world.
The Italian government recently announced that the floor of the Colosseum, once the battlefield of brave gladiators, will be restored to its former glory.
This would allow the Colosseum to be used for cultural and other special events and visitors to imagine what it would be like to stand and watch the roaring crowds. This work is expected to be completed in 2023.
Acropolis of Athens, Greece
Perched on a hilltop above the city of Athens, the Acropolis stands as a proud monument to ancient Greece.
Dating between the 5th and 4th centuries BC and dominating the site, the Parthenon is the largest and most recognizable structure of the period and a symbol of the extensive history of this country.
Just steps away from modern-day Athens, the Acropolis is a mighty scene, gleaming in the Mediterranean sun during the day and lit up for dramatic effect at night.
It is an awe-inspiring sight for first-time visitors to the city and sets the stage for travelers to head to other parts of Greece. (Top World Heritage Sites)
- Stonehenge, England
This incredible prehistoric monument is one of the most visited attractions in the United Kingdom and certainly one of its most unique, attracting many visitors each year.
The monument is believed to have been erected between 3000–1500 BC. Still, there is no record of its origin or purpose, leading to all kinds of speculation and myths, some of which suggest religious or astronomical significance.
As a result, the Bronze Age ring of standing stones holds an almost mystical charm, especially around the summer and winter solstice, when the light from sunrise and sunset aligns with the stones. Located near downtown Salisbury, Stonehenge can be easily visited on a day trip from London.
Borobudur is one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world and certainly one of the most famous sites in Indonesia.
Nestled in lush, tropical surroundings, with mountains and volcanoes rising in the distance, the site is visually stunning and soothingly peaceful.
Located on the island of Java near Yogyakarta, this massive temple complex was constructed in the 700s.
Still, two to three hundred years later, the site was abandoned, possibly due to volcanic eruptions in the area, and relatively little for centuries. Not done.
The site was excavated by the British in the 1800s and later restored. Today, it is one of the most important tourist attractions in Indonesia.
Mesa Verde, USA
Mesa Verde is one of the most stunning archaeological sites in the United States and some of the best-preserved Indian ruins in North America.
The most impressive sites are rocky dwellings precariously tucked into the canyon walls. Still, the region has many ruins, including a forest-covered plateau.
Ancestral Puebloans have inhabited Colorado in this area for hundreds of years, living at the top of the plateau between the 6th and 12th centuries and then in rock houses until the late 13th century.
The drive up to the site is along a gently twisting road to the top of the mesa, where you can tour the sites on the plateau by car and see the pit houses and other ruins and the astonishing array of dwellings in the canyon walls.
Those who are up for a little physical challenge can take a guided tour through some cliff dwellings, climb the stairs, and explore the site in detail. (Top World Heritage Sites)
Terracotta Army, China
The Terracotta Army that guarded the first emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, is like no other archaeological site.
Tens of thousands of life-size warriors with unique faces have stood in rows since they were buried here in the 3rd century BC.
It is estimated that around 700,000 workers were involved in the construction of the site, which is believed to have been around 8,000 clay warriors.
The site remained undiscovered for millennia until a farmer was digging a well in the 1970s and uncovered the treasure.
Some sites have not been intentionally excavated, but you can’t help but be more than impressed by the considerable army standing before you. (Top World Heritage Sites)
A dramatic, narrow rock gorge allows entry into the ancient city of Petra, a stone city with dwellings built into sandstone walls.
The roots of this ancient capital city of the Nabataeans date back to the 4th or 5th century BC. Discovered by the West in the early 1800s, it is known as the “Rose City” for the color of the rock and the “Carved City” for no apparent reason.
Situated in a mountainous area with limited access, it occupies a strategic position on an important regional trade route. Today, Petra is the most important tourist attraction in Jordan. (Top World Heritage Sites)
Maya Ruins of Tikal, Guatemala
The ancient Mayan city of Tikal is one of Central America’s most significant archaeological sites. Located in northern Guatemala and surrounded by forest, the site includes more than 3,000 structures from a city that existed between 600 BC and 900 AD.
The foundations of ancient pyramids, temples, plazas and buildings reveal a complex society consisting of tens of thousands of people.
The site was rediscovered in the mid-1800s and opened to the public in the 1950s. Some sites have been restored, but work is ongoing, with some areas yet to be mapped or excavated.
The ruins are in Tikal National Park, a biosphere reserve protecting the forest and wildlife in the area. (Top World Heritage Sites)
Lascaux and Lascaux II, France
The Lascaux Cave in the Dordogne region of France contains extraordinary cave paintings, considered some of the finest in the world from the Palaeolithic period.
These detailed paintings dating back 17,000 years mainly depict animals believed to have lived here during that time.
The paintings were discovered in 1940 but were later rebuilt at an adjacent site called Lascaux II, 200 meters away, to prevent damage to the original site.
Meticulous care was taken in constructing Lascaux II to produce detailed reproductions of the original cave and paintings. (Top World Heritage Sites)
Chichen Itza, Mexico
In the flat jungle interior of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, within easy day-tripping distance of Cancun and the Maya Riviera, lies the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza.
This great city of the Maya was an important center from the 7th to the 13th centuries and, for a time, was the regional capital.
Today, it is one of the best-restored Maya sites in Mexico, offering a surprising glimpse into this culture. It is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Mexico.
The giant pyramid is the most recognizable symbol of Chichen Itza, but the site is much larger, with many ruins. (Top World Heritage Sites)
Leshan Giant Buddha, China
Carved out of a red sandstone rock wall, the Leshan Giant Buddha stands at 71 meters and is the tallest stone Buddha in the world.
Started by a single monk in AD 713 and completed 90 years later by his followers in AD 803, the statue overlooks the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers. It was built with the hope that it would provide calm waters for boats plying on this waterway.
It is said that “the mountain is a Buddha and the Buddha is a mountain” is attributed to this colossal statue. You can see the Leshan Giant Buddha very closely near the base or head, offering a different perspective. (Top World Heritage Sites)
Easter Island is a Chilean island in the South Pacific Ocean, famous for the giant sculptures, known as mois, that dot the landscape. Created by the Rapa Nui people, believed to have inhabited the island since the 12th century, hundreds of Moais are scattered around the island.
Some are partially fallen, while others stand upright; Some stand on ahu (stone platforms), and many remain in the quarry where they were made.
Ranging in size from one meter to 20 meters, each carving is unique and is believed to symbolize an ancestor. (Top World Heritage Sites)
Perhaps one of the more quirky World Heritage Sites, Cappadocia is a place of flowing rock formations and stone-covered fireplaces that beg to be photographed. Several structures are located in Monk Valley and Goreme. Consider taking one of the many hiking trails that allow you to get up close.
Nearby, in the village of Uchisar, and equally unusual, are ancient cave houses built by Bronze Age people about 5,000 years ago. Caves carved out of soft rock were later used by Christians to escape religious persecution.
One of the trip’s highlights is a sunrise hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia. Even if you don’t ride, the sight of the hordes of balloons rising over the crazy landscape is worth a photo or two.
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