A treasure trove of history, culture and natural wonders, the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Heritage sites strive to protect the truly magnificent wonders of our planet. More than 850 sites are honored with this designation and the belief that they “belong to all the peoples of the world.”
The Great Barrier Reef, filled with millions of exotic and rare species of marine life, belongs to all — as well as the proud Statue of Liberty, which has welcomed innumerable new citizens at the gateway to New York City. With such treasures belonging to everyone, it’s time to begin exploring!
Consider Road Scholar’s list of our 10 favorite UNESCO World Heritage sites before embarking on your own journey, and create your own personal list of favorites. What's more, you can explore UNESCO sites on more than 50 Road Scholar learning adventures!
American conservationist John Muir once said of Yosemite, “It is by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” With more than 1,100 square miles of designated wilderness, Yosemite National Park is indeed one of the grandest examples of biodiversity. Black bears, bobcats, spotted owls and the white-tailed hare are only a handful of the species that make Yosemite their home, thriving in the forests, valleys and mountains that make up this magnificent park.
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1984, the natural wonders of Yosemite can be explored as you journey along the park’s 800 miles of designated trails. Giant sequoias, the majestic Yosemite Falls and U-shaped valleys are only a few of the many reasons to add Yosemite National Park to your list of World Heritage Sites to visit.
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Blue-footed boobies hopping from rock to rock, sea turtles making their way from ocean to sandy beach and sea lions frolicking in the waves along the coast — such natural beauty can only be found in the idyllic Galápagos Islands. More than 100 years ago, this archipelago of volcanic islands served as an important research station for Charles Darwin and contributed heavily to his theories of evolution. Today, this World Heritage Site is heavily protected and includes a marine reserve that is second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef.
When planning a trip to these incredible islands, visitors might consider extending their visit to South America in order to take in the majestic and sacred sights of the Incan settlement Machu Picchu — another prominent location on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
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An exquisite example of Palladian architecture, President Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello reflects the fascinating character of its owner and creator. As a politician, writer, scientist, architect, archaeologist and philosopher, Jefferson’s many interests were reflected in the design of this exquisite home, its gardens, as well as in the accents with which the home was furnished.
Though designed by Jefferson himself, Monticello was constructed primarily through the use of slave labor — a complication in the life of a man who was both the author of the Declaration of Independence and a slave owner. Today, this World Heritage Site allows visitors an intimate look into the third president’s daily life, as well as the humble beginnings of the nation.
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The dragon-like winding fortification stretches 4,163 miles from east to west of China, creating the world’s largest military structure: the Great Wall of China. Also one of the wonders of the world, the Great Wall was built and maintained during the course of three dynasties — from the sixth through the 16th centuries — in an effort to defend against enemy attacks.
This magnificent architectural feat made from earth and stone has stood for more than 2,000 years, a monument to the early engineering genius and complex history of China. Though some parts of the Great Wall have crumbled through the years, this World Heritage Site remains one of the most visited landmarks in China each year.
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More than 1,500 years ago, the Anasazi — a tribe of ancient Pueblo people — made their homes in cliff dwellings and mesa-top pueblos throughout the hills of Colorado. Farming terraces, dams and reservoirs were also built by the Pueblos, providing their communities with noteworthy technology. Large forests of juniper and piñon trees gave the area the appearance of a green table, a description later translated into Spanish as mesa verde.
Centuries later, Mesa Verde National Park protects more than 4,700 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings. A supreme example of the early societies that once thrived in North America, the park was designated a World Heritage Site in 1978.
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As the city that holds the tomb of Jesus Christ and the sacred place where Mohammed ascended into heaven, the Old City of Jerusalem is critically important in the history of the world’s major religions. Today, the city is divided into four quarters — the Christian Quarter, the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter and the Armenian Quarter — and is listed as one of the World Heritage Sites in danger.
Sites of religious significance include Temple Mount — where Abraham was ready to slay his son, Isaac, as a religious sacrifice — the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Western Wall, al-Aqsa Mosque and many more. A pilgrimage to the Old City of Jerusalem will reveal a modern look into a city steeped with history, religion and heritage.
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The French explorer Champlain founded this fortified colonial city in 1608, and served as the capital of New France in the late 18th century. Today it remains the only walled city north of Mexico. Visit to see the preserved ramparts, bastions and gates that surround this 17th-century city. Explore the churches and convents of the Upper Town and learn about the French colonial history embedded in Old Québec’s architecture, language, life and identity.
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Astronauts in space can clearly identify the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living structure on Earth. Located off the coast of northeastern Australia, the reef is formed from more than 400 kinds of corals and is home to more than 1,500 species of fish, 5,000 species of mollusk and 500 species of seaweed. In addition, an innumerable number of whales, sharks, reptiles, porpoises and sea snakes inhabit the reef, while the reef’s islands provide a home for hundreds of shorebirds and additional reptiles.
The magnificent ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef attracts and maintains a habitat for many endangered species, including the green sea turtle. Snorkel, swim or photograph this incredible reef — however you choose to explore, it is certainly a World Heritage Site to add to your life list.
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“Give me your tired, your poor,Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
— Excerpt from “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus
Both the subject of poetry and a symbol of hope, the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World has welcomed visitors and immigrants to the shores of the United States since 1886. This gift to the people of America from the citizens of France required an unprecedented collaboration between the two countries in order to erect the 305-foot copper statue on Liberty Island. Intended to act as a lighthouse — both literally and symbolically — this World Heritage Site continues to act as an ambassador to freedom and as a symbol of the “American Dream.”
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The red sandstone fortress of Agra required that more than 1.5 million builders work for eight years in order to reach its completion in 1573. Walls that reach 70 feet high, majestic gates and luxurious palace accommodations were instructed to be built by Akbar, the ruler of the Mughal Empire. The construction was such that the fortress has maintained its exquisite beauty to this day, and continues to be utilized as barracks for the Indian army.
While exploring the wonders of Agra Fort, visitors may wish to extend their journey to the Taj Mahal, a monument built by Akbar’s grandson, Shah Jahan, in honor of his beloved wife. Be aware that both of these World Heritage Sites may overwhelm visitors with their magnitude, stunning displays of architecture and enchanting history.
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Explore UNESCO sites on more than 50 Road Scholar learning adventures!
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