Today, there are more than 1,100 World Heritage Sites that recognize places of outstanding cultural, historical, and natural value around the world. But it all started with a group of 12 places, chosen in 1978 by UNESCO (which stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). The list of World Heritage Sites now spans some of the best-known and most-visited tourist sites on the planet — places like the Taj Mahal, Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Stonehenge, and the Statue of Liberty. Italy is currently home to 58 World Heritage Sites — more than any other country in the world — but many other places are under consideration to join the fold. Ready to explore the list? Dive into 20 of the most intriguing UNESCO World Heritage Sites around the world with these 20 facts you may not know.
Quito Was the First City to Be Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site
A select few cities and towns are so full of cultural experiences and landmarks that their entire area has been named a World Heritage Site. Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, is one such cultural treasure. Part of the first group to be named World Heritage Sites in 1978, the city was founded in the 16th century on Incan ruins, and it remains one of the best-preserved and least-altered historic cities in South America. The art and architecture of the “Baroque School of Quito” — with Spanish, Italian, Moorish, Flemish, and indigenous influences — is present in monasteries and churches across the city. The checkerboard cobblestone streets still preserve the original layout dating back to 1734, despite numerous earthquakes over the centuries.
China's Grand Canal Is the Oldest and Longest Canal in the World
Other countries might have more picturesque canals, but only China has the oldest and longest canal in the world. Construction on the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal began in the fifth century BCE and continued on and off for hundreds of years, until it connected two of China's most important waterways, the Yellow River and the Yangtze River. The canal's largest period of growth occurred in the sixth and seventh centuries, when the Sui dynasty linked several existing canals together. The system continued to expand under subsequent dynasties, becoming a critically important means of communication and transportation of goods, such as grains and rice. Still in use today, the canal spans more than 1,100 miles.
America's First National Park Was Also One of Its First UNESCO Sites
The list of the first 12 places to be named World Heritage Sites featured two locations in the United States: Yellowstone National Park (located in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana) and Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant designated Yellowstone National Park the country's first national park. Today, the park is famous for being home to approximately half of the world's geothermal sites, including the Old Faithful Geyser. Mesa Verde National Park, on the other hand, features 5,000 known archaeological sites, 600 of which are cliff dwellings made of sandstone and mud mortar. The park offers a glimpse into the lives of the Ancestral Pueblo people, who lived in the southwestern Colorado area for centuries.
Scotland's Capital Is Home to an Unfinished Replica of the Parthenon
Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh rebranded itself as the “Athens of the North” in the 18th century — even going so far to start construction in 1826 on a Scottish National Monument modeled after the Parthenon. Around this time, the Scottish Enlightenment took hold, fostering new ideas regarding politics, economics, science, and artistic pursuits. The University of Edinburgh also thrived during this epoch, and Edinburgh became a bustling commercial center similar to ancient Athens.
Proposed by the Highland Society in 1816, the National Monument was intended to commemorate Scottish military members who perished during the Napoleonic Wars. Novelist Sir Walter Scott was amongst those who rallied behind it, resulting in the foundation being laid in 1822. With an exterior mimicking the iconic Parthenon and an interior featuring a church and an underground catacomb reserved for the burial of significant Scottish figures, the ambitious memorial would come at a cost. And it turns out, the High Society was only able to secure about a third of the project’s estimate. After only three years, the incomplete twelve-pillar Parthenon lost its funds due to the combination of a disinterested public and the prioritization of other city projects. It now stands half-finished two centuries later.
The Ruins of the Largest Roman Temple Are in Modern-Day Lebanon
Situated in modern-day Lebanon, the ancient Phoenician city of Baalbek was later conquered by the Roman Empire. Here, you will find the ruins of the Roman Temple of Jupiter — the largest and most ornate temple in the history of the Roman Empire. The temple was dedicated during the reign of emperor Septimius Severus between 193 CE and 211 CE, and is part of a larger temple complex in Baalbek. After the Roman Empire fell, the complex remained a place of holy pilgrimage. It survived through Christian and Muslim rule until the rise of the Ottoman Empire, when the city was largely abandoned and left to crumble.
Peru's Lake Titicaca Is the Highest Navigable Lake in the World
The crystalline waters of Lake Titicaca aren't just notable for their location high in the Andes Mountains — at 12,500 feet above sea level, Lake Titicaca is the highest commercially navigable lake in the world, according to Guinness World Records. It’s also the largest freshwater lake in South America, covering about 3,200 square miles along the border between Peru and Bolivia. Lake Titicaca measures about 120 miles long and as much as 50 miles wide, and it has dozens of inhabited islands. The history of the lake is perhaps even more impressive than its scale — it’s estimated to be about 3 million years old and one of just 20 ancient lakes remaining on Earth. Archaeological discoveries suggest an expansive Incan settlement in the area.
Taos Pueblo Features the Oldest Continuously Inhabited Structures in the U.S.
The oral history of the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico and its people is still largely unknown, but ancient ruins indicate that the pueblo has existed for almost 1,000 years, and the main structures were most likely constructed between 1000 and 1450. The pueblo is the only living Native American community that is designated both as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a National Historic Landmark. Taos Pueblo is made entirely of adobe with walls that are several feet thick. The exteriors of the buildings are maintained through regular re-plastering with thin layers of mud, while interior walls are coated with thin layers of white earth to keep them clean and bright.
The Giant Stone Heads of Easter Island Have Bodies, Too
Tour Rapa Nui National Park on Easter Island — located 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile — and you’ll spot the famous moai. Built by the Indigenous Rapa Nui people sometime between 1400 and 16500 CE, the giant stone figures are believed to represent ancestral chiefs who protected the inhabitants of this 63-square-mile island in the Pacific centuries ago. At first, they appear to be giant heads, but upon closer inspection you’ll notice that their bodies exist — they're just sunken into the ground. Although their average height is only around 13 feet (bodies and heads included), many weigh more than 10 tons. The moai also almost always have their backs arranged toward the sea. Some experts think this is because the figures represent the first Polynesians to discover the island, so they were aligned to face their homeland. Others have noted that they line up with certain stars at the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes.
Al-Ahsa Oasis Is the World's Largest Oasis
No, it’s not a mirage — it’s Al-Ahsa Oasis, the world’s largest self-contained oasis, as recognized by Guinness World Records. Situated in southeastern Saudi Arabia about 40 miles inland from the Persian Gulf, the oasis (which comprises fertile land with a water source in the midst of a desert) is home to over 2.5 million palm trees spread across 32.9 square miles. Agriculture is resplendent all year in the fertile oasis, as the soil is fed by an underground aquifer of natural freshwater springs. Over 280 artesian springs irrigate the area, which is centered in the Al-Ahsa region. Recently becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2018, the oasis is one of two oases considered the most important on the Arabian Peninsula, the other being Al Ain, located on Saudi Arabia’s border with Oman.
London's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Feature the World's Largest Collection of Plants
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, are home to more than 50,000 native and exotic plants, trees, and flowers — the largest collection of living plants in the world. Encompassing 330 acres along the Thames River in southwest London, the gardens date back to 1759 and were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003 for their “significant and uninterrupted contribution to the study of plant diversity and economic botany.” Kew Gardens are also home to the world’s largest plant conservation program, known as the Millennium Seed Bank Project, founded in 1996.
There's a Great Wall of India, and It's the Second-Longest in the World
You’re probably familiar with the Great Wall of China, but did you know that there is also a Great Wall of India? The world’s second-longest continuous wall after China’s, Kumbhalgarh Wall extends for 22 miles around Kumbhalgarh Fort in northwest India, sandwiched between two peaks in the Aravalli mountain range. Nicknamed the Great Wall of India, Kumbhalgarh measures nearly 50 feet across at its widest section and dates back to the fort’s 16th-century construction. Along with five other forts in the area, Kumbhalgarh Fort is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While it’s an impressive sight to behold, the wall’s length is no match for the Great Wall of China, which measures a whopping 13,171 miles long.
The Citadel of Aleppo Is Considered the World's Oldest Castle
When you think of castles, medieval structures often come to mind. But there are some fortified structures that predate the Middle Ages by centuries, and one such ancient fortress is distinctively castle-like enough to be widely considered the oldest such structure remaining on the planet. It's the Citadel of Aleppo, a castle fort in the history-rich city of Aleppo, Syria. Use of the castle dates back to 3000 BCE, but much of the current structure was likely built during the Ayyubid dynasty in the 12th century. The fortress has weathered centuries of ups and downs (including some significant damage in the ongoing Syrian Civil War) but remains standing to this day. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986.
Vatican City Is the Only Country That Is Entirely a UNESCO World Heritage Site
Vatican City is the world’s smallest sovereign nation — the city-state is just 0.17 square miles in size and surrounded entirely by Rome, Italy. The entire country is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its outstanding cultural significance. At its center is St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest Catholic church in the world, which contains the tomb of the Apostle St. Peter. The permanent seat of the pope, Vatican City features an impressive collection of Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture, including Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and works by Raphael, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Caravaggio, to name a few.
The Pantanal Is the Largest Tropical Wetland Area in the World
The Pantanal region covers more than 70,000 square miles in three countries — Brazil, Bolivia, and Paraguay — and contains both national park land and areas protected as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Saturated with torrential rains, the Pantanal's enormous basin fills every year, draining slowly into the Paraguay River. The drainage results in pools filled with snails and fish, which draw in birds such as storks, egrets, and spoonbills, as well as bigger species including capuchin monkeys, jaguars, piranha, and green anacondas — the largest snakes on Earth. It's because of this that the Pantanal region has the highest concentration of wildlife in South America.
The Tower of Hercules Is the World's Oldest Lighthouse That Is Still Standing
Built around the second century CE, the Tower of Hercules is considered to be the world's oldest functioning lighthouse. It is located on the northwest coast of modern-day Spain, on a promontory overlooking the harbor of A Coruña. The tower itself rises approximately 190 feet above the sea to shine its light across the northern Atlantic Ocean. The Tower of Hercules is the only remaining lighthouse of Greco-Roman antiquity to have retained its structural integrity, and it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009.
The Indigenous Name of Victoria Falls Translates to "The Smoke That Thunders"
At the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe, about midway through the course of the Zambezi River, one of the world’s most spectacular waterfalls roars. Victoria Falls is more than a mile wide and drops 355 feet at its maximum, making it about twice as wide and deep as Niagara Falls. British explorer David Livingstone gave the falls their English name after he became the first European to see them in 1855. But the local Kalolo-Lozi people call the spot Mosi-oa-Tunya, or “The Smoke That Thunders,” because of the loud roar and large veil of iridescent mist the falls create. The mist can be seen more than a dozen miles away.
Jungfrau Is Home to Europe's Highest Post Office
Jungfraujoch is an ice-covered saddle that connects two high-altitude summits in the Bernese Alps: the Jungfrau and the Mönch. Nicknamed the “top of Europe,” the region is home to a number of record-holding attractions. In addition to Europe's highest train station and highest observatory, the Sphinx, you’ll also find the continent’s highest post office. The Jungfraujoch Postbüro sits at 11,332 feet above sea level and even has its own postal code: 3801. In 1993, the post office formed a partnership with Japan's highest post office, located on Mount Fuji, so visitors will see a retro Japanese postbox at Jungfraujoch to commemorate the alliance.
Socotra Is Home to the Rare Dragon's Blood Tree Found Nowhere Else on Earth
You’ll find the island of Socotra between the Guardafui Channel and the Arabian Sea, off the tip of the Horn of Africa. Controlled by neighboring Yemen, it is the largest of the four islands in the Socotra archipelago. The island is remote and otherworldly — up to a third of its plant life is found nowhere else on Earth. One of those rare plants is the umbrella-like dragon's blood tree, whose name comes from the dark red resin it secretes. The species has been used in medicine for centuries, and a dye made from its resin is thought to be responsible for the color of Stradivarius violins. About 60,000 people live on the 29-square-mile island, and the entire place is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Iceland Is Home to an Island That Was Created Only 60 Years Ago
In November 1963, a new island was born in the Atlantic Ocean, approximately 20 miles off the southern coast of Iceland. The island first appeared as the result of a volcanic eruption, and over the next few years it grew to have an area of one square mile. The name Surtsey was adopted in 1965 after the Icelandic government decided to name it after Surtur, the mythological fire god. The island has been a protected site since it formed, providing a rare environment free of human interference. It is now a research site for American and Icelandic biologists and geologists conducting a long-term joint project.
The Oldest Fossils of Multicellular Life on Earth Were Discovered at Mistaken Point
Mistaken Point got its curious name from the rocky coast and rough Atlantic waters surrounding the point in the southeastern corner of Newfoundland. Difficult to navigate, they produced more than 50 shipwrecks over the years. Today, however, Mistaken Point is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for another significant reason: The oldest fossils of multicellular life on Earth were discovered here. The fossils date back to the Ediacaran period, approximately 565 million years ago. Most are of rangeomorphs, a fern-like organism that grew up to six feet long. According to Scientific American, scientists believe the study of rangeomorphs may be key to understanding the evolution of life on Earth from single-celled blobs into biologically complex plants and animals.