According to the Britannica definition, a World Heritage Site is “any of various areas or objects inscribed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List. The sites are designated as having ‘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, with 897 of them cultural, 218 natural, and 39 mixed properties.
The choice is as varied as it is vast. While trying my best to choose some of my favorites for this list, I must admit giving up on trying to figure out and count how many I have seen to date. And there are so many I would absolutely love to see such as Machu Picchu and the Grand Canyon, which I have longed to see forever but have not yet managed. Then there are some which are so popular, such as the entire city of Rome and sights such as the Tower of London, Westminster Palace, and the Statue of Liberty, that I left them off my personal list despite their distinct value.
The result is an eclectic hop around the globe, which spans monuments and cities, small and large sites. I have picked these as my favorites for various reasons which I will share with you.
How many of my personal favorites have you seen? And do you agree with me?
1. The Great Wall
This one actually blew my mind, if you pardon the expression. Perched on a mountain top an hour outside of the hyper-modern city of Beijing, standing on stones assembled hundreds and thousands of years ago, the sight of the continuous structure undulating along steep mountain ridges at impossible angles all the way to the horizon on both sides of me is something I will never forget.
No, it is not true that you can see the Great Wall of China from space with the bare eye, but this man-made structure, all official 13,000+ miles of it, is such an amazing architectural feat that you may as well believe it.
2. Forbidden City
The Forbidden City has this magical allure, probably partially because of the word “forbidden,” which makes you feel like you are truly privileged to be able to have a closer look at this vast, roughly 9,000-room complex that housed 24 emperors — and you truly are privileged. This ancient complex adds another perspective to the often mind-boggling city of Beijing, and it is one of the sights I want to return to the most, as there is so much to see that even on a lengthy guided tour, you feel you miss out on so much. Next time, I will forgo the guides and just take an entire day to explore, get lost, and snoop around.
3. Taj Mahal
I was traveling on the Palace on Wheels, one of the world’s greatest train journeys, which allowed its passengers early entry into the grounds of the Taj Mahal. At 6 in the morning, I am not usually at my best, but entering the quiet grounds with this stunningly beautiful, delicate, and shimmering building at the end of the walkway is a sight I will never forget. It was chilly in early December, and entering the mausoleum was truly cold underfoot — but what a treat. Leaving the hustle and bustle of India outside, this is a sanctuary that feels a million miles away from everywhere.
4. The Great Pyramids Of Giza
I must admit that the first time I visited the Pyramids of Giza I was less than impressed. It might have been my guide, who talked incessantly and drove me nuts, it might have been the shock of seeing the Cairo suburbs so surprisingly close to the gigantic monuments, or may have been the realization that I could not climb to the top — even if I had been allowed to — because each step was taller than me.
The next time I came though, I stayed in the lovely Mena House Hotel with views across to the large triangle shapes at the bottom of the garden, and visited without a guide. Instead, I explored, stood, gazed up, petted the camels, and soaked up the atmosphere. And you know what? The pyramids are truly amazing.
5. The Banks Of The Seine
This is reportedly the most visited UNESCO World Heritage Site in the world, but I wonder just how many of its visitors know that the Banks of the Seine they are strolling along, crêpe in hand, are UNESCO-listed. I lived in Paris for 6 years and walked along the Seine countless times and only found out that the lovely quays and the banks dotted with small café trucks and benches have been deemed worthy of inclusion on the illustrious list when I wrote about the Seine and its many worthwhile stops.
6. The City Of Bath
Bath Spa, England
I lived in the spa town of Bath after finishing university and even got married there, and I have loved it ever since. I read my way through the Jane Austen novels (the author was a former resident of Bath) and explored the city’s historic locations. Even now, so many years later, I always pop in whenever I can, as the city is not only great for shopping and has superb restaurants. Walking along the Royal Crescent, through the Circus, or within Sydney Gardens feels like stepping back in history, something which has been proven when the historic romp Bridgerton was filmed here. Simply exchange the cars with carriages, et voila, the historic setting is authentic.
7. The City Of Istanbul
Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world; it is bustling, has so much history around every corner, and has such an atmosphere that is not found anywhere else. There are four UNESCO sites within Istanbul, but these are entire areas, such as the Sultanahmet Archaeological Park, which includes the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Hippodrome of Constantine, Hagia Irene, and Little Hagia Sophia, and everything in between them, so generally the entire city is deemed 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 are one of those rare places in the world where your whole concept of what a city and life in and around it should be like gets turned upside down. Canals instead of streets? Boats instead of cars? A floating city and islands that are so unusual, be they covered in bright, colorful houses, dedicated to the trade of glass manufacture, or even simply a cemetery, make for a truly magical destination. I so wanted to dislike Venice when I first visited, simply because everybody raves about it, but I failed miserably. What’s not to love, especially now that the ugly cruise ships have been banned?
Having lived for years near Stonehenge, for some reason, I never went to see it. It barely registered with me. It took several international moves and a visit back to England to make me finally decide to go and join the queue. Like with Venice, I wanted to dislike it because it is such a touristy place, but arriving during the first slot of the day, the light still brightening, I was enchanted at first sight. I am not a druid, nor does the summer solstice mean that much to me, but I swear I breathed in much more deeply than ever 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 global travel. It was a Sunday morning in winter, Kyiv was nestled under a blanket of freshly fallen and still pristine-white snow, and I was about to hurry past Saint-Sophia Cathedral but stopped for a quick picture of the beautiful blue and gold façade when the bells started ringing. I stood entranced as I watched as people came and entered to attend the Sunday morning service. The fine tune of the bells, the snow, the light, and the faithful walking past me, all in this stunning setting before the gorgeous church, made this a worthy contender for one of the most beautiful UNESCO sites.
11. Sydney Opera House
And here is the most modern of the lot, the relatively young Sydney Opera House. Built between the late 1950s and the 1970s, this iconic music venue deserves inclusion in my personal list because I think it is not only a great piece of architecture, but it is a shining example of man-made working well with nature. The opera house would not have been half as impressive if it wasn’t set against the stunning natural harbor of Sydney, resulting in a symbiosis of beautiful sights.