20 of the world’s most beautiful World Heritage Sites
By Sarah Reid, for CNN Travel
April 29, 2013 — Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Scattered between the twisting roots of the Cambodian jungle, this site dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu contains the remains of Khmer Empire capitals dating from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Among the most famous of its 100-strong group of monuments is the Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the sculptural Bayon Temple. In 2000, Cambodian authorities allowed action flick “Tomb Raider” to be filmed at the site on the proviso that no guns would be fired.
2. Acropolis, Greece
Looming over the city of Athens, this ancient Grecian citadel was built in the 5th century BC and continually beautified throughout the years by the city’s well-moneyed citizens. Despite being attacked and pillaged by everyone from the Byzantines, who converted the temples into churches, to the Venetians, who later shelled the area, the site still stands to provide an important insight into Greek mythology.
3. Bagan, Myanmar
OK, so it’s still on the tentative list of sites to officially be brought into the UNESCO fold. But as Myanmar finally opens up to tourism, the importance of protecting its monuments is greater than ever. The capital city of the first Myanmar Kingdom, this enormous Buddhist complex on the Irrawaddy River contains more than 2,500 intricate monuments dating to the 10th century.
Among the first sites to be listed by UNESCO in the 1970s, this otherworldly archipelago located in the far reaches of the Pacific Ocean was described by British naturalist Charles Darwin as “a little world within itself.” On top of its bevy of endemic species that have remained unchanged for centuries, the island groups’ location at the confluence of three ocean currents also attracts a diverse array of marine life.
5. Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, Turkey
Sculpted by erosion, Göreme valley and its surroundings contain rock-hewn sanctuaries that provide unique evidence of Byzantine art in the post-Iconoclastic period. Within the rugged natural landscape in and around a small triangle formed by Ürgüp, Avanos and Nevsehir, ancient villages and underground towns dating to the 4th century can also be observed.
Composed of more than 3,000 individual reefs interspersed with more than 600 topical islands, the world’s most extensive coral reef system is so large it can be identified from space. While the region has been protected since 1981, a 2012 study found that the delicate ecosystem has lost more than half of its coral since 1985 due to a combination of factors including coral bleaching caused by climate change.
7. Hampi, India
Agra’s Taj Mahal is undoubtedly India’s most famous World Heritage Site, but few visitors can deny the magic of lesser-known Hampi. Attractively nestled between emerald banana plantations in eastern Karnataka, the enormous group of monuments that comprise the former capital of the last great Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagara date back to the 14th century. Highlights include the elephant stables, Kallina Ratha (Stone Chariot) and the towering Virupaksha Temple.
This spectacular semicircular waterfall that forms the border of Argentina and Brazil spans almost 300 meters in diameter and up to 80 meters in height. Home to an abundant array of wildlife from neon-winged butterflies to sly caiman, elusive jaguars and more curious coatis, the falls’ subtropical rainforest surroundings provide a serene backdrop to its cascading torrents of water.
Encompassing the largest ice mantle outside of Antarctica, this picturesque southern Patagonian park bordering Chile is one of the best places in the world to observe glacial activity. Its most famous ice mass is the cool blue Perito Mereno Glacier, from which giant icebergs can be observed crashing into the milky turquoise waters of Lake Argentino.
10. Machu Picchu, Peru
The sites that comprise Cusco’s Sacred City are spectacular in their own right, but nothing quite prepares a visitor for sunrise over the Incan city of Machu Picchu. At 2,430 meters above sea level, in the midst of a tropical mountain forest, the 15th-century settlement was among the few Inca sites that wasn’t plundered by Spanish invaders, and remains one of the world’s most-photographed sites to this day.
On a rocky islet on the coast of Normandy, this fortified village built in the shadow of a Gothic-style Benedictine abbey dedicated to the archangel St. Michael appears to float on the ocean if viewed from a particular angle at high tide. Despite its seemingly unstable sandbank foundations, the picturesque little village has survived since the 11th century.
Strategically positioned between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea, Petra acted as the capital of the Nabataean caravanning kingdom from around the 6th century BC. Later absorbed by the Roman Empire and finally abandoned in the 2nd century AD following a catastrophic earthquake that crippled its advanced water management system, the desert city carved from rose-red limestone remains one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.
Comprising the Pyramid fields from Giza to Dahshur, including the majestic Great Sphinx, the Old Kingdom of Egypt was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world in Hellenistic times, and remains the only inscription on the original list still in existence. Fantastically preserved, the dozens of tombs buried in the shadows of the famous pyramids have provided archaeologists a glimpse into one of the world’s most fascinating civilizations.
14. Rapa Nui, Chile
Easter Island, or Hanga Roa as it’s called in the local indigenous language, is the most remote inhabited island on the planet. Carved from solid basalt between the 13th and 16th centuries, the group of more than 800 massive stone monuments known as moai that are scattered across the volcanic landscape are the legacy of a Polynesian society who settled here around 300 AD.
Located in northern Tanzania and spilling into nearby Kenya, where the conservation area is known as the Masai Mara, this iconic savannah hosts the annual migration of 2 million wildebeest, zebra and gazelle followed by their predators, in search of pasture and water. The phenomenal natural spectacle is the largest remaining animal migration in the world.
16. Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Arguably the most breathtaking sight contained within the country’s so-called cultural triangle, this ancient Ceylon city has been inhabited since the 3rd century BC. Also known as Lion Mountain for the giant clawed feet carved into the granite alongside a staircase leading to the remains of a fortified palace built atop the 370-meter peak, the site also features a series of stunning frescoes and lashings of “Sigiri graffiti,” one of the most ancient texts in the Sinhalese language.
17. Tulum, Mexico
There are at least 30 Mayan ruins scattered throughout Mexico and Central America. From Chichen Itza to Palenque, Calakmul to Tikal, few are less than awe-inspiring. Idyllically situated on a rocky cliff facing the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans, managing to survive around 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico in the early 16th century.
18. Valletta, Malta
Ruled successively by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and the Order of the Knights of St. John, the latter of which was responsible for building the city in the 16th century, Valletta is one of the world’s rare urban inhabited sites that has been preserved near perfectly. Crammed into a tiny fortified peninsula, the site comprises 320 monuments, making it one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world.
19. Venice and its lagoon, Italy
Tipping the scales at a whopping 47, Italy boasts the most World Heritage Sites of any nation. Founded in the 5th century and spread over 118 small islands, Venice is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest buildings contain works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese. With gondola boats providing canal transport, Venice remains the world’s only pedestrian city.
For sheer diversity, Yellowstone National Park has to be among the United States’ best natural wonders. Contained within a 9,000-kilometer-squared chunk of Wyoming, the world’s first national park contains half of the globe’s known geothermal features, and is home to an equally impressive array of wildlife including grizzlies, wolves and bison.