Whether you’re a traveler looking to fill an itinerary, or a local looking to better understand the place in which you live, UNESCO World Heritage Sites make for excellent attractions. There are currently 878 official sites throughout the world, and those of us in Canada, Mexico, and the United States are lucky enough to have several. Below, we’ve detailed 30 must-visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites in North America.
What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a region or landmark, either natural or manmade, which has important cultural, historical, or scientific significance. Sites much be nominated, and new places are chosen annually by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. UNESCO World Heritage Sites are legally protected by international treaties.
Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks
Provinces of Alberta and British Columbia
This must-visit UNESCO Heritage Site is actually multiple sites which collectively make up the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks. Included national parks are Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho, plus the provincial parks of Hamber, Mount Assiniboine, and Mount Robson. While traveling through the Canadian Rocky Mountains you’ll see stunning examples of mountain peaks, waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, canyons, and limestone caves. The Canadian Rockies are also home to the Burgess Shale fossil site, where some of the best known fossil remains of soft-bodied marine animals have been found.
Dinosaur Provincial Park
Nestled in the heart of the badlands in the province of Alberta is Dinosaur Provincial Park. As its name suggest, this must-visit UNESCO World Heritage Site is the place where some of the most important fossils ever to be found were discovered. Specifically, about 35 different dinosaur types dating back roughly 75 million years.
Gros Morne National Park
Island of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
Gros Morne National Park, located on the west coast of Newfoundland, received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in recognition of its “exceptional natural beauty.” The site is also a rare example of the process of continental drift, which has left deep ocean crust and a part of the Earth’s mantle exposed. Recent glacial events have contributed to the overall scenery of the park, which include alpine plateau, fjords, cliffs, waterfalls, glacial valleys, coastal lowland, and a number of pristine lakes.
Historic District of Old Quebec
Quebec City, Quebec
The city of Québec dates back to the early 1600s, when it was founded by the French explorer Champlain. Today, it is the only city in North America to have preserved its bastions, gates, ramparts, and other defensive works. This must-visit UNESCO World Heritage site consists of two parts: the Upper Town and the Lower Town. While the former is built high on a cliff and remains the center for religion and administration (plus various monuments), the latter is made up of the city’s oldest sections.
L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site
Great Northern Peninsula, Newfoundland and Labrador
Located right at the edge of the Great Northern Peninsula on Newfoundland is L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site, home to all that remains of an 11th-century Viking settlement. The remains are impressive, and consist of wood-framed peat-turf buildings that look similar to dwellings which have been found in Iceland and Norse Greenland. This must-visit place was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1978 because it is evidence of the first European presence in North America.
Island of Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
You’ll need a guide to get there, but a trip to the fossil site of Mistaken Point is worth the effort. Located at the southeastern tip of the island of Newfoundland, Mistaken Point consists of narrow rugged cliffs dating back to the Ediacaran Period, or to approximately 580-560 million years ago. The fossils found in these cliffs are some of the oldest known large fossils of anywhere in the world. They represent the appearance of large, biologically complex organisms after almost three billion years of micro-dominated evolution.
Old Town Lunenburg
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
The small coastal village of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia remains North America’s best surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement. Founded in 1753, Lunenburg hasn’t changed much in appearance. It has maintained its original layout, which was based on a rectangular grid pattern drawn up by planners in Britain. Much of Lunenburg’s preservation can be credited to its residents, who for centuries have safeguarded the wooden architecture of the many houses which date back to the 1700s.
Red Bay Basque Whaling Station
Red Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador
Red Bay was founded in the 1530s by Basque mariners who used Gran Baya, as they called it, as a base for hunting, butchering, and rendering whale fat. Today, the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station is a fascinating archaeological site and probably the best preserved history of the European whaling tradition. The must-visit UNESCO World Heritage Site includes the impressive remains of rendering ovens, wharves, living quarters, cooperages, a cemetery, and even some underwater remains of ships and whale bones.
Queen Charlotte Islands, British Columbia
The village of Ninstints, or Nans Dins, is situated on a small island located near the Queen Charlotte Islands, or Haida Gwaii. The site is home to the remains of the Haida people’s houses, memorial poles, and even a carved mortuary. The site was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it offers a unique glimpse into the Haida way of life, their art and oral traditions, and their relationship to both the land and sea.
Wood Buffalo National Park
Northwest Territories and Alberta
Wood Buffalo National Park, located in the north-central region of Canada, is home to the largest population of wild buffalo in North America. The park covers a whopping 44,807 square kilometers, and therefore boasts plenty more wildlife and nature to thrill an eager visitor. For example, the national park is a preferred nesting place for hundreds of whooping cranes each year.
Pre-Hispanic City and National Park of Palenque
The pre-Hispanic city of Palenque is one of the best existing examples of a Mayan sanctuary of the classical period. The city was at the height of power from about 500 to 700. Its influence extended throughout the region around the Usumacinta River. The remaining architecture at this must-visit UNESCO site is elegant and sophisticated. Don’t miss the myriad sculpted reliefs of various mythological themes located throughout the city. These fantastic art pieces reflect the creative genius of the Mayan people.
Pre-Hispanic City of Chichen-Itza
The sacred site of Chichen-Itza was once one of the most spectacular Mayan centers in the entire Yucatan peninsula. Its history spans nearly 1,000 years, as evidenced by the stone monuments and artistic works left there by the Maya and Toltec peoples. Several buildings have survived into the present. All are important architectural and cultural examples of Mayan-Toltec civilization. Highlights include Warriors’ Temple, El Caracol, and El Castillo.
Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan De Arista and San Martin De Las Piramides
Teotihuacan, which means “The place where the gods were created,” is an ancient holy city located just outside of Mexico City. Dating back to between the 1st and 7th centuries, Teotihuacan is characterized by its massive monuments which were built in a unique geometric pattern. These buildings include the Pyramid of the Sun, the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. This must-visit UNESCO Heritage Site is a wonderful example of Mesoamerican culture and influence.
Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco
From about 100 B.C. to 1300, the Baja California region known as Sierra de San Francisco was home to a mysterious group of people who left little more than one of the most impressive collections of rock paintings to be found anywhere in the world. Baja’s dry climate has ensured that these paintings of humans and various animal types have remained remarkably well preserved. The rock paintings impressive in size, number, and color. They also illustrate a sophisticated culture where humans shared an intimate relationship with their environment.
Cozumel et Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Quintana Roo
Situated on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula is Sian Ka’an, a biosphere reserve consisting of mangroves, marshes, tropical forests, and a large marine section which includes a barrier reef. All together, this reserve and must-visit UNESCO World Heritage site is an important habitat for a rich selection of flora and fauna, including more than 300 species of birds.
Cahokia Mounds State Historic Park
Perhaps it’s a surprising location, but Collinsville, Illinois, located just across the river from St. Louis, is the site of what was once the largest pre-Columbian settlement north of Mexico. Cahokia Mounds is thought to have been home to somewhere between 10-20,000 people during the Mississippian period, or 800-1400. Now a state historic park and must-visit UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cahokia Mounds is an impressive example of a complex chiefdom society. The site consists of approximately 120 mounds, including some satellite mound centers and outlying hamlets. The primary site is the Monks Mound (pictured). It’s the largest prehistoric earthwork in all of the Americas.
UNESCO has stepped in to protect the various New Mexico sites which were inhabited for more than 2,000 years by Pueblo people. Chaco Canyon is the primary site associated with the Pueblo. Between 850 and 1250, the canyon was a major center of ancestral Pueblo culture, especially when it came to ceremonies, trade, and political activity. Much of the distinctive architecture remains, and is truly unlike anything found anywhere else on Earth.
Everglades National Park
Everglades National Park satisfied three criterion when it received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1979. First, the limestone sea bed of the Everglades is “one of the most active areas of modern carbonate sedimentation.” The park is also home to a mix of wildlife found nowhere else in the country. These include dozens of types of flora, myriad bird species, manatees, alligators, crocodiles, and the Florida panther. Lastly, the Everglades is a unique example of “viable biological processes.” Its varieties of water, flora, and fauna make it an ideal habitat for a more than 20 rare, threatened, and endangered species.
Hawai’i Volcanos National Park
Mauna Loa and Kilauea, Hawai’i
Hawai’i Volcanos National Park consists of Mauna Loa and Kilauea, two of the most active volcanoes found anywhere in the world. Eruptions from these volcanoes have contributed to a landscape that is constantly changing, and the frequent lava flows have uncovered geological formations that scientists have called “surprising.” The national park is home to a number of endemic species, including a forest of giant ferns.
Two of the greatest documents ever written were signed in Independence Hall: the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the Constitution of the United States in 1787. Not only did the two documents solidify America as a place of freedom and democracy, they had an immense impact on lawmakers and citizens throughout the world.
La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Surrounding the city of San Juan is a series of defensive structures built between the 1500s and 1900s. The walls were meant to protect the Puerto Rican capital and the Bay of San Juan, both important strategic points in the Caribbean Sea. La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site received official UNESCO protection in 2016 in recognition of the fact that they “represent a fine display of European military architecture adapted to harbor sites on the American continent.”
Mammoth Cave National Park
Barren, Edmonson, and Hart Counties, Kentucky
Kentucky is home to Mammoth Cave National Park, the world’s largest network of natural caves and underground passageways. Nearly 400 miles of passageways have been discovered, though scientists seem to be sure they’ve only scratched the surface of what actually exists. Each cave and passageway is a characteristic example of limestone formations, and has become home to all kinds of flora and fauna, including some endangered species.
Mesa Verde National Park
Another UNESCO World Heritage Site which protects the remains of Pueblo Indian culture is Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. The park is home to one of the largest concentrations of Pueblo dwellings dating back to the 6th century (some dwellings here are more recent and date back to the 12th century). A whopping 4,400 individual sites exist throughout the park, including vast remains of villages and a 100-room dwelling carved right into the cliff.
Monticello and the University of Virginia
Both Monticello and the University of Virginia were built and founded by Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president and the author of the Declaration of Independence. While this fact alone would make these two sites worthy of UNESCO World Heritage status, the ties to Jefferson aren’t the only reason they’re protected. Jefferson was an accomplished architect of neoclassical buildings. Both his plantation home, which he named Monticello, and the famous domed building at the heart of his university are stunning examples of this talent. According to this site’s official UNESCO profile, “Jefferson’s use of an architectural vocabulary based upon classical antiquity symbolizes both the aspirations of the new American republic as the inheritor of European tradition and the cultural experimentation that could be expected as the country matured.”
Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point
West Carroll, Louisiana
Despite its name, which actually came from a 19th-century plantation located near this unique site, Monumental Earthworks of Poverty Point is actually a complex collection of five mounds and six semi-elliptical ridges. They’re separated by shallow depressions and a central plaza. This mysterious and slightly odd site belonged to a group of hunter-gatherers which existed between 1750 and 1150 B.C. The mounds became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014 as “a remarkable achievement in earthen construction in North America that was unsurpassed for at least 2,000 years.”
San Antonio Missions
San Antonio, Texas
The UNESCO-protected San Antonio Missions are a group of five mission complexes built by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century. The missions were built in an effort to colonize and evangelize the northernmost frontier of “New Spain.” The missions are impressive for their architecture, churches, and advanced water distribution systems. In 2015, the missions were given official World Heritage Site status in recognition of the missions’ “interweaving of Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures, illustrated by a variety of features, including the decorative elements of churches, which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous designs inspired by nature.”
Statue of Liberty
New York, New York
One of the most iconic monuments in the world, the Statue of Liberty was made in Paris by the French sculptor Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel. Given to the United States in 1886 to celebrate 100 years of American independence, the Statue continues to stand at the entrance of New York Harbor.
Located in a small tributary near the Rio Grande river is the Taos Pueblo, an adobe settlement built by the Pueblo Indian people sometime between the late 13th century and the early 14th century. This particular pueblo is one of many adobe settlements built in the area, and consists of multistory dwellings and ceremonial buildings. It received UNESCO World Heritage status in 1992, because exemplifies “a significant state in the history of urban, community, and cultural life and development in this region.”
Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho
Massive Yellowstone National Park spans nearly 3,500 square miles, and contains half of the world’s known geothermal features (more than 10,000). It’s also home to Earth’s highest largest collection of geysers, which totals about 300 or two-thirds of all geysers on the planet. Finally, Yellowstone has an important wildlife population which includes bison, wolves, grizzly bears, and wapitis.
Yosemite National Park
In the heart of California is one of the most famous and beautiful national parks in the world: Yosemite. Yosemite was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites partly because it “provides an excellent overview of all kinds of granite relief fashioned by glaciation.” Such an effect has led to an incredible selection of flora and fauna, myriad waterfalls, u-shaped valley, polished domes, cirque lakes, moraines, and “hanging” valleys.