Five UNESCO World Heritage Sites Everyone Should Visit

  • Göreme
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Machu Picchu
  • Galapagos Islands
  • Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designates and negotiates protection for sites of cultural, scientific, and natural significance. Worldwide, there are more than a thousand of these unique places, some of which are critically endangered by political strife, conflict or business interests. And while the types of site that should go on any traveler’s bucket list will depend on what they value most deeply, there are some sites that should be seen by everyone.

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1. Göreme

Situated in the center of the Anatolian Plateau, this is officially designated as a national park in Turkey. Known for its fantastical natural rock formations, called hoodoos or “fairy chimneys,” the site encompasses Cappadocia, several sites of archaeological importance, and the fascinating subterranean cities of Derinkuyu and Kaymaklı. Cappadocia assumes profound ethnological importance, with Anchorite monastic settlements dating to the 4th century CE and beautiful examples of post-iconoclastic Byzantine artwork. While early Byzantine Christian communities cluster thickly in the volcanic landscape, the subterranean cities exhibit much earlier occupation of the region, lending it archaeological interest and allowing scholars to render a more vividly detailed timeline of human movements within the area.

2. Yosemite National Park

The magnificent rock formations and achingly beautiful vistas have attracted people for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence indicates intricate settlement patterns of the Southern Sierra Miwok and other, later peoples to the region. The earliest inhabitants gathered plant materials and hunted the vibrant landscape with atlatls and spears, moving smoothly with the seasons. The area claimed the attention of later Euro-American populations, including parties with religious affiliations who were awestruck by the scope of the landscape and the overwhelming abundance of its resources, seekers of wealth during the 19th-century gold rush, and naturalists such as John Muir. It was designated as one of the first National Parks to preserve its beauty and natural resources. Today, it remains one of the most significant examples of this preservation effort.

3. Machu Picchu

According to the UNESCO website, this site is located on the eastern margins of the Andes mountains at an elevation of 2, 430 meters above sea level. For the adventurous at heart, this is one of those lifetime journeys, which permits an appreciation of the intense biodiversity and cultural value of the area. Machu Picchu represents one of the significant architectural and social achievements of the Inca Empire, a culture that flourished immediately prior to the Spanish colonization of the area. While only rediscovered by Western explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, research indicates that this complex of more than 200 stone structures served ritual, social, and astronomical purposes. The intensive agriculture practiced by the Incas is evident in the proliferation of terraces, which permitted the growth of crops on a large scale not otherwise permitted by the terrain.

4. Galapagos Islands

This archipelago of 19 islands rests more than 1,000 kilometers off the coast of South American and forms the setting for some of the most important scientific advances in Western history. While their protected status restricts visitation and prevents development, each year, both scientists and advocates of ecological preservation come to learn from this rare biome. The archipelago is situated at a critical nexus, providing shelter, rest, and breeding opportunities for a number of migratory species. The confluence of three oceanic currents brings animal populations from all over the Pacific and offers a unique opportunity for biologists to study the habits of a rich array of marine species.

5. Temple of Apollo Epicurius at Bassae

While Greece is a country filled to the brim with UNESCO heritage sites that will inspire wonder, satisfy curiosity, and fulfill more than a few bucket list wishes, the temple at Bassae is unique for several reasons. First, the architectural style indicates a transition from the Archaic to the Doric, which is correspondent to a significant period in history. Second, while it was dedicated to Apollo, the god of healing and the sun, in the midst of the 5th century B.C.E., the precinct was abandoned only a few centuries into the common era and remained mostly undisturbed for 1700 years. That means that, unlike the more popular and well-known structures, such as the Acropolis, the original edifice remains much as it was, providing visitors with a unique experience of the architectural and spatial sensibilities of an ancient people.

While there are so many places to see in this world, and so many experiences to enjoy, this list is an excellent place to start. UNESCO does work with various countries and state entities in order to preserve the natural, scholarly, and cultural value each of these places has to offer, but nothing is immutable. Make a bucket list of UNESCO world heritage sites of your very own and experience the wonders of this world.