While I’m not obsessive about it, I do enjoy visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites whenever possible. In case you’re not familiar with them, in 1972 the UN, through the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, began recognizing important sites around the world that they consider vital in order to maintain the cultural and natural heritage we have all inherited. We all know the big ones, but why I especially love visiting these sites is because most of them I wouldn’t know about if it weren’t for their UNESCO designation. I’ve discovered a lot of little known, off the beaten path sites that turned out to be fascinating, fun places to explore. There are more than 1,000 sites around the world and although I’ve only been to 100, I decided to go through my notes and share a few of the ones that although you may not know them, you should definitely add them to your must-visit list.
1. Crespi d’Adda, Italy
Located near Milan and Bergamo in Northern Italy, I was surprised by this small, planned city in nearly every way. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, industrialists around the world created what became known as ‘company towns.’ These small communities centered around a particular company gave workers everything they needed, from housing to stores and even cemeteries. Many of these towns were nothing but a way for the company owners to further control their workers, keeping them under their proverbial heels, but some became enlightened examples of proper labor management. Crespi d’Adda is one such enlightened community and instead of seeking to subjugate their employees, the town was created to provide them with a better quality of life. This small town is on the UNESCO list because it still exists mostly intact and looks like it did nearly a century ago. While the company has long since shuttered, people still call this town home and walking through the planned community it’s easy to imagine the well-ordered life that once existed here. Crespi d’Adda is easy to reach from Bergamo and if 20th century history is your thing, then this is a must visit site.
2. Cape Floral Region Protected Area, South Africa
One of my favorite countries in the world, the beauty of South Africa is diverse and even opulent at times. The areas near Cape Town though have a secret, the rich floral region is amongst the most diverse in the world. From the scraggly fynbos to the yearly explosion of wildflowers, the ecology here is unlike anything else on the planet. A fact to consider, this area accounts for just 0.5% of the area of Africa but is home to nearly 20% of the continent’s flora. That’s an amazing level of diversity and makes exploring this region a beautiful experience. One of the best ways to get out amongst the fields is by taking a wildflower safari like the one offered at the Grootbos Resort in Hermanus. Expert naturalists take guests out in a safari truck to experience the natural side of the area for a once in a lifetime experience. Even if you’re like me and have a marginal interest in such things, the shocking beauty of the region simply can’t be denied.
3. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Canada
Canada does a great job in relating the stories and experiences of the continent’s original inhabitants, perhaps best seen at Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump. The name tells it all really, the cliffs at this site were used for thousands of years by the local tribes as a way to efficiently kill and then harvest entire herds of buffalo. In turn the meat and skins of the animals helped them survive, sometimes for years at a time. Because the site was used for more than 6,000 years, the site has revealed a lot of information about the area’s prehistory and even today there are still secrets waiting to be discovered. The visitor’s center is one of the best I’ve seen and the museum is a fascinating look at the local First Nations Peoples and what their lives were like before and after the arrival of European settlers.
4. Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park
Although it may be hard to tear yourself away from the near-perfect beaches, when you visit St. Kitts be sure to include a visit to the island’s UNESCO site, Brimstone. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, Brimstone is one of the best preserved examples of British engineering in the Caribbean and is a testimony to the power and influence of the European powers in the Caribbean. Aside from its historical importance, visiting the old fort is a beautiful experience in its own right. St. Kitts is an almost impossibly lush island and from high atop Brimstone hill you can see huge swathes of the verdant green island, from the coasts to the mountains. Sitting atop the mighty fortress and admiring the views was my favorite experience on St. Kitts and it shouldn’t be missed if you find yourself on this otherwise tranquil island.
5. Historic City of Trogir, Croatia
Croatia is no stranger to UNESCO sites, but while many folks visit their more popular ones, the small town of Trogir is sometimes overlooked. Not far from the coastal tourism powerhouse city of Split, Trogir is another Croatian town that seems to have forgotten which century it’s supposed to be in, the best kind of town in my opinion. A beautiful summer day, the medieval core of the town was buzzing with tourists the day I visited, there for the sights of course, but also some shopping and delicious food. I was reminded of Venice, not in style, but substance. It’s also impossibly old, which is why UNESCO decided to recognize it. People have called these same streets home since the Greeks; unlike many other cities, people have lived there continuously since the Hellenistic period. Think about how long that is for a moment and you too will be stunned by this beautiful, coastal retreat.
6. Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes
Trust me, this is better than it sounds. Tucked away in the Alps bordering Switzerland and Italy is one of the most beautiful scenic train journeys in the world – the Bernina Express. Starting in Tirano, Italy and finishing in Chur, Switzerland, the journey takes passengers through some of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous landscapes in the world. It wasn’t the beauty that piqued the interest of UNESCO though, it was the engineering involved with creating this industrial masterpiece. The two railways include 42 tunnels and 144 viaducts and bridges, impressive given the snowy, mountainous terrain the train journeys through. The train didn’t start out as a tourist experience though, it had real importance in linking small, isolated communities with the rest of the world. Thankfully, these villages are still isolated and their beauty has been well preserved through the decades.
7. Episcopal City of Albi, France
Located in the heart of the incredibly green rolling hills of the Tarn region of France, Albi is an absolute treasure. I’m a history fan, and I loved learning more about the tragic history of the Cathars, which culminated in and around Albi more than eight hundred years ago. But on the lighter side, Albi was also the birthplace of Toulouse-Lautrec, the famed French artist of the 19th century. The Toulouse-Lautrec museum conveniently located in the heart of Albi has just been renovated and it is a masterpiece of modern design and museum management. I truly enjoyed roaming the galleries admiring the impressive display of Toulouse-Lautrec works. No matter what you decide to do in Albi, I know you’ll enjoy wandering its streets as much as I did.
What are some UNESCO World Heritage Sites you’ve visited that we may not know a lot about?