By AFAR contributors
UNESCO was created in 1945 as a means to help ensure the preservation of our natural, cultural, and intellectual heritage. Of the nearly 1,000 awe-inspiring UNESCO World Heritage sites, the following places should be at the top of your list.
Taj Mahal, India
(Photo: LASZLO ILYES/Flickr)
The Taj Mahal is widely recognized as “the jewel of Muslim art” in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of world heritage. Make it a priority to spend an afternoon admiring the site because, beyond being stunningly beautiful from afar, up close the place is evocatively romantic and full of intricate details—in architecture, ornamentation, and history. Before going, read up on Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, who built the white marble mausoleum in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
Guests of the Leela Palace, New Deli should take their Day Trip to Agra—the hotel’s comfortable BMW sedan will take you from the hotel directly to the UNESCO site!
(Photo: Melissa Adams)
Beyond tulips and windmills, Amsterdam’s global image is entwined with water. The Canal Ring (Grachtengordel), composed of 165 fluid channels, was developed in Holland’s 17th-century Golden Age through drainage and reclamation of land that would otherwise be underwater. In the ensuing four centuries, it has supported maritime trade while evolving into one of the world’s most recognizable urban landscapes. In 2013, its 400th birthday, UNESCO added the Grachtengordel to its World Heritage List.
Today the Canal Ring is both a historic transportation network and a stunning backdrop for local festivals and celebrations. What was initially a geographic feature that enabled growth beyond Amsterdam’s fortified boundaries has evolved into a landmark lined with gabled mansions built during the height of Dutch maritime trade. The most famous rings of the belt—the Prinsengracht, Keizersgracht, Herengracht and Singel canals—form the concentric loop that gives that gives Amsterdam its half-moon shape.
The canals, notably Prinsengracht, are packed with floating and land-bound party-goers on annual festivals like King’s Day (formerly Queen’s Day) in April, plus Gay Pride and Grachtenfestival in August. Canal cruises offer an excellent introduction to city sights and are a great way to see Amsterdam by boat. Options include one-hour tours, hop-on-hop off-excursions, and romantic dinner cruises, offered in numerous languages by companies with departure points throughout the city.
Jerónimos Monastery, Portugal
(Photo: Alison Cornford-Matheson)
Jerónimos Monastery, also known as the Hieronymites Monastery, or Mosteiro dos Jerónimos in Portuguese, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Lisbon.
This stunning building took 100 years to build, and it’s no wonder once you experience the level of detail for yourself. I could have spent an entire day there, with my camera, photographing the stunning architecture.
The archways surrounding the inner courtyard look like something from a fairy tale.
(Photo: Flash Parker)
For some, Angkor Wat epitomizes the Cambodian travel experience. The ancient ruins at Angkor stand as one of mankind’s greatest engineering achievements, best experienced as day breaks – so long as you beat the tourist hordes to a good spot across the lake.
The Hill Forts of Rajasthan, India
(Photo: Sandhya Singh)
Jaipur is the capital and the largest city of India’s largest state, Rajasthan. The city stands at the foot of the sprawling 300-year-old hilltop Amber fort just on the outskirts of the city. Jaipur is also called the pink city due to its pink architecture. It is said that the city of Jaipur is the first planned urban city in India.
The Hill Forts were built by Raja Man Singh in 1600 AD and then completed by Raja Jai Singh in 18th century. Amber Fort is a major tourist attraction since the beginning.
Sheesh Mahal in Lahore Fort is the room of mirrors. It has the inlay work of mirror and it also reflects thousands of stars in the night.
Bernina Railway, Switzerland
(Photo: Matt Long)
I didn’t even realize that the Bernina Express scenic train journey was on the UNESCO World Heritage list (officially, it’s Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes) until I arrived at the small northern Italian town of Tirano to start the trip. There are several routes from which travelers may choose, but that day I took a one-way trip from Tirano to the Swiss mountain town of Chur.
It was the middle of winter and I was excited to see the famous snow-covered Alps in person. Images of Maria from the Sound of Music kept running through my head as the train slowly pulled out of the small station. The journey is a scenic one and the train cars have been designed to maximize the amazing views. The windows are extra large and there is more than enough room between seats to allow for even the most ardent shutterbug. Our trip took about four hours, during which time we passed through narrow valleys and swept past mountain villages that looked like they were plucked out of a model train set.
Tirano is easy to reach from Milan and there are many different train routes available including trips to St. Moritz and Davos.
Chichen Itza, Mexico
(Photo: Matt Long)
It was hot and humid, but it always seems to be hot and humid along Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I didn’t care though, it was the spring equinox and I was there to see one of the most amazing archaeoastronomical phenomena in the world, the Descent of the Feathered Serpent.
Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities and was built around the 9th century AD. It is also one of Mexico’s most visited tourist destinations and was granted World Heritage Site status in 1988. There are a lot of astronomical marvels at Chichen Itza, but one of the most exciting is the Descent of the Feathered Serpent. The central Pyramid of Kukulkan was built in such a way that on the equinoxes, a shadow play is created where a serpent head on the staircases transforms into a long through the shadows of the pyramid’s terraces.
While the shadow effect began at 4:10, it took an hour for the full sight to be realized. Just as the sun hit a certain spot and immediately before the heat turned my brain to mush, I looked up and saw it. There it was, a massive snake descending the ancient pyramid. The head was a statue at the base of the pyramid’s stairs and its back was comppsed of seven triangles created through shadow, an engineering feat that boggles the mind.
To see this amazing sight in person, plan your equinox trip well in advance as people from around the world travel to the ancient pyramid for their own mystical encounter.
Wadi Rum, Jordan
(Photo: Matt Long)
The Middle Eastern country of Jordan has a lot of ‘wow’ moments. Among all of them though, one of my favorite experiences was walking through the massive desert known as Wadi Rum.
Wadi Rum has been inhabited by Bedouins for generations, but the moon-like desert may best be known for a far more recent resident, T.E. Lawrence. Known in the West as Lawrence of Arabia the British officer used the canyons and mountains as his base of operations during the Arab Revolt of 1917–18. But the desert is about so much more than just its history.
My first experience with the stark landscape came on the back of a well-equipped Jeep, racing over the dunes. A red-and-white checkered Bedouin scarf covered my face to protect it from the flying sand, the sun beginning its slow decent behind the dunes. Suddenly the Jeep came to an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere. Following my guides up a dune I suddenly understood the reason for the impromptu rest stop. There in front of me the desert spread out in every direction, a shockingly beautiful scene. The desert isn’t impressive in spite of its majestic austerity, but because of it.
For the best experience, be sure to spend the night at a Bedouin camp and ask them for your own private tour of the desert.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia
(Photo: Matt Long)
Uluru, or Ayers Rock as many know it, is one of the most recognized landmarks anywhere in the world. This strange giant rock in the middle of the Australian Outback has long kindled imaginations, going back millennia. It may be an important tourist site today, but it also holds immense cultural value for the original inhabitants of the area, something I learned all about on the very unique Anangu Tour of Uluru.
In the Pitjantjatjara language, anangu means person or human being, and the tours are designed to teach newcomers about the native peoples. The tours are given in the Pitjantjatjara language, with interpreters translating for the guides. It’s not that the guide didn’t know English, but that they want visitors to hear the nuances of a language most of us have never before encountered.
The walk around the rock was an enlightening experience, learning all about traditional culture and the extreme importance Uluru holds in the Tjukurpa or Dream Time. Tjukurpa is Aboriginal law, culture, history, and their worldview all bundled into one. It is expansive, impossibly ancient and much of it is shrouded in mystery, transmitted only to certain people at particular times in their lives. To be a part of that was a humbling experience.
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