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the monasteries of Meteora sitting on top of a rock cliff in Greece
Travel tips

UNESCO World Heritage Sites you can visit when you book a guided tour

Nov 30, 2022 by Emily Houston

Maybe you’ve heard the term UNESCO World Heritage Sites tossed around when referring to prolific places across the globe, but what exactly are they? Well, let’s go in-depth on the power this buzzworthy title holds and how famous places around the world earn the designation.

We’re answering, “What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and how many are there?” while giving you a beginner’s guide to popular UNESCO sites you can visit on our guided tours.

What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

UNESCO is an acronym for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which was founded in 1945. Each year, this global body selects new sites across the globe to earn UNESCO status. That place, or intangible art form, is deemed to have cultural or natural importance to people across the world and should be protected for future generations.

How many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are there?

As of late-2022, there are 1,154 World Heritage properties. 897 are cultural sites, 218 are natural sites, 39 are a combination of the two, referred to as mixed. To earn UNESCO status, governments must nominate sites in their country. Experts examine the site and members of the UNESCO committee vote on whether it should be added to the list. This means the official number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites is always changing.

Cultural UNESCO heritage sites

These sites represent the power of human ingenuity across centuries and borders. From ancient ruins to archaeological wonders, these places will take your breath away.

waterfall at thingvellir national park in iceland

Thingvellir National Park in Iceland

Head east of Reykjavik and you’ll land in, arguably, Iceland’s most iconic UNESCO World Heritage Site: Thingvellir National Park. It sits in a rift valley and is home to remnants of the country’s deep cultural heritage. Here, the Althing, an open-air governmental assembly, was established in 930 and continued to meet until 1798.

The founding of the Althing provided an opportunity for chieftains all over the country to rule together. This rich history helped Thingvellir earn a spot on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2004—a full 1,000 years after it was recorded as the site of the Icelandic parliament.

Browse our Iceland tours

buddhist sculpture and castle structure in ayutthaya thailand

Historic City of Ayutthaya in Thailand

An hour outside of Bangkok is Ayutthaya, the second royal capital of the Kingdom of Siam. This city was the heartbeat of the kingdom before the Burmese army attacked and destroyed it in 1767. The capital later moved to present-day Bangkok, but the sprawling ruins of the old capital remain. It earned a place on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1991 and continues to beckon travelers who visit Thailand.

The pagodas and temples you’ll see here are much more rustic than the opulent, gilded ones at say, the Grand Palace in Bangkok, but that doesn’t diminish their impact. In fact, it makes it one of the must-visit hidden gems in Thailand.

isolated view of the pyramids of egypt

The Pyramid Fields in Egypt

When it comes to fun facts about the Pyramids of Giza, some savvy travelers may know that it’s one of the new seven wonders of the world (and the only original wonder still in existence). And once you know this, it’s not hard to see why it’s one of the most acclaimed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One fun fact you may not know is that the entire pyramid field, which stretches from Giza to Dashur and was part of the ancient capital of Memphis, is on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.

Since the Pyramids are one of the most famous places in the world, you’ll find plenty of visitors year-round, but especially in the winter. We suggest heading to Egypt in the fall to beat the throngs of travelers in December through March. Be sure to check out our Egypt & the Nile Travel Guide for more insider tips.

Natural UNESCO sites

Whether they’re spotlighting biodiversity or natural phenomena, the places on this UNESCO World Heritage list show how varied and beautiful Earth is. So, grab your underwater camera, hiking shoes, and any other outdoor gear—we’re off to explore these natural wonders.

Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia

Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia

If we have to pick one word describe the waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park, we’re going to follow suit with staffer Amanda and say “otherworldly.” The delicate cataracts, which pour from lush greenery and tumble from terrace to terrace across the park’s 16 picturesque lakes, are truly striking.

Swimming is prohibited in these vibrant turquoise waters to protect the landscape from erosion, and to keep the water healthier for wildlife. Check out our Plitvice falls guide to one of our favorite places to visit in Croatia, which also happens to be one of the world’s top UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Check out our Croatia tours

sea lion basking in the sun in galapagos islands ecuador

Galápagos Islands in Ecuador

When it comes to UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it makes perfect sense that the place that Charles Darwin based his theory of evolution off of made the list. The Galápagos Islands are located roughly 600 miles off Ecuador’s coast and are some one of the most famous places in the world to go for wildlife viewing.

“I brought an underwater camera so I was able to get amazing shots of the aquatic animals,” said traveler Erica in our Ecuador Travel Guide. “It was a wildlife photographer’s heaven. I photographed sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, whitetip reef sharks, Nazca boobies, flightless cormorants, swallow-tailed gulls, parrotfish, albatross, brown noddy terns, pelicans, Frigate birds, penguins, huge yellowtailed surgeonfish, and various finches.”

melting lava at the volcanoes national park in hawaii

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in the U.S.

Two of the most active volcanoes in the world are found inside this national park on the Big Island of Hawaii. The unique landscape and geological history of the volcanoes earned this site a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list. “There are big clearings where trees can’t grow because the ground is too hot, and the landscape is very craggy from the lava flows,” said traveler Haley.

Take advice from our Hawaii Travel Guide and travel responsibly while here, and on trips to any UNESCO heritage sites. Rocks are sacred in Hawaiian culture, and it’s not only disrespectful and potentially harmful to disrupt the natural landscape by removing them, but it’s also culturally insensitive. So while the lava-scorned rocks may seem like a good souvenir, opt to respect the locals’ beliefs and connection to the land by snapping a picture instead.

Visit UNESCO sites on these tours

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Mixed UNESCO heritage sites

Like the name suggests, mixed sites feature elements of both cultural and natural importance. As of late-2022, there are 39 of these sites on this list—here are three of the top ones you can visit when you book a guided tour.

looking through structural window onto machu picchu peru

Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu in Peru

Learning that Machu Pichu is on the iconic list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites makes perfect sense once you dig into the history of this ancient citadel, which is one of the most famous places in the world. It was built around 1450, but only Peruvians knew of Machu Picchu’s existence until American explorer Hiram Bingham came across it in 1911. The site is shrouded in mystery and lore, which you’ll hear all about while on tour.

Since gaining global recognition over the last 100 years, the Peruvian government has worked to protect the grounds. Only 2,500 visitors are allowed in each day and every ticket has a timed entry slot printed on it. While this may be one of the main things to know about Machu Picchu, you won’t have to think about it when you go guided instead of traveling independently, since your Tour Director will handle all the logistics.

Learn about our Machu Picchu tours

sunset at uluru in australia

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia

The Aborigines of Australia have worshipped the monolithic Uluru for more than 22,000 years. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the source of their creation story. In many photos, Uluru often gives off a rusy orange hue. But, depending on the time of day and how the light hits the monolith, it may also shift to a shade of red, gray, or purple.

If you’re looking for a unique vantage point, opt to add the Uluru Scenic Plane Ride excursion. You’ll have a window seat during the 24-minute flight to soak in the bird’s-eye views as you travel over the Outback.

monasteries built into cliff sides in meteora greece

Meteora Monasteries in Greece

If you’re curious about the Eastern Orthodox faith—and aren’t afraid of heights!—then make your way up the UNESCO-listed Meteora Monasteries. Perched on 1,000-foot-high sandstone peaks, they’re some of the most famous places around the world to visit on a faith-based tour.

“Eastern Orthodox monks have lived on the pinnacles off and on since the 11th century,” said staffer Tom when talking about unique places to visit in Greece. “Travelers will meet with a local nun, monk, or priest for a chat about the traditions and faith of Eastern Orthodox Christianity on tour. This is a unique opportunity to hear from a member of the faith who will have intimate knowledge of the site’s history.”

Intangible UNESCO list

So much of what we cherish about the world can’t be distilled down to a single place or monument. That’s where the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list comes in. It highlights traditions, as opposed to physical UNESO heritage sites. Here are some of the ways you’ll experience them on tour.

two flamenco dancers dacing at plaza de espana seville spain

Flamenco in Spain

Flamenco is a unique and colorful Andalusian expression that combines guitar playing, singing, clapping, and dancing. UNESCO declared flamenco to be one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and, on many of our Spain tours, you’ll get a taste of this one-of-a-kind art form.

Follow advice from our Southern Spain Travel Guide and opt to go to a flamenco show in the Andalusia region. It’s the birthplace of the art form, and you’ll have the most authentic experience here. On our Southern Spain tour you can add the Granada Flamenco Show excursion to attend a performance in the caves of Sacromonte, a traditional neighborhood in the hills above Granada.

Watch flamenco on our Spain tours

man holding a truffle in italy

Truffle hunting in Italy

The process of hunting and removing truffles from the nutrient dense soil in Northern Italy is nothing short of an art. Truffles grow in harmony with the surrounding trees. Harvest season for Alba white truffles (the primo type) occurs from September 21–January 31. Only harvesters with a deep knowledge of where and when to look for these fungi can carry on this centuries-old practice.

That rich understanding of this Italian art form has earned it a place on the UNESCO heritage list. Travel on our Food & Wine: Piedmont & Tuscany with America’s Test Kitchen to truffle hunt with Trifolau siblings Natale and Giorgio, as well as their dog Lizzy. Before you hit the road, you can brush up on the background of this tasty tuber by reading our insider’s guide to Italian truffle hunting.

two men on guitars in portugal

Fado in Portugal

Derived from the Latin word fatum—meaning “prophecy” or “fate”—fado is Portugal’s national musical treasure. Fado’s traditional theme is saudade, a word that doesn’t quite translate to English but conveys a sense of both nostalgia and longing.

“Fado is sung so dramatically that even if you don’t understand Portuguese, it’s easy to understand the emotion behind the song,” said traveler Chadner in our solo traveler’s guide to Portugal. On many of our Portugal tours, you’ll have the chance to spend an evening at a tavern in Lisbon listening to fado. Or, opt to head out on your own to hear the music that claimed a spot on the prestigious UNESCO heritage list. “You’ll find many bars around Lisbon that will give you a free fado show as long as you have a drink in your hand,” said staffer Gustavo in our Lisbon Travel Guide.

Visit all of these UNESCO World Heritage Sites (and more!) when you go travel with us on one of our tours.

About the author | Emily Houston
Emily loves the simple travel moments—like watching hours pass by in minutes while sharing a meal and a laugh (or many) with her friends and family. Outside the office, you'll find Emily listening to anything and everything John Mayer, attempting to cook a New York Times recipe, or dreaming up her next trip.

See UNESCO sites on these tours

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views of the aegean sea from the greek islands with white buildings in the foreground views of the aegean sea from the greek islands with white buildings in the foreground
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