I don’t normally make it the focus of my travels, if there’s an opportunity for me to visit a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I always make sure I stop. 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. Even though I haven’t even scratched the surface of visiting the more than 1,000 sites in every corner of the planet, I have been to quite a few and think every traveler should make a point to visit them if they can. To show the width and breadth of this amazing collection of sites, today I want to share some that while impressive, mostly fly under the tourism radar and hopefully in the process this list will encourage your own UNESCO themed visits in the future.
This year I’m working with Allianz Travel Insurance to share my thoughts about travel, what makes me happy when I explore the world and why I even travel in the first place. This post is done in partnership with them and I’m excited for the opportunity to share some fun spots to add to your travel bucket list.
The Jantar Mantar – India
The old town of Jaipur wasn’t just where my guide and I started the day, it’s where most tourists to this popular spot along the Golden Triangle begin. It’s here where the city’s most famous and important landmarks still stand, including the massive City Palace and the remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Jantar Mantar. This site fascinated me perhaps the most, due not only to its size but its purpose. The Jantar Mantar is a collection of 19 larger than life astronomical instruments built in the early 1700s, including the world’s largest stone sundial. These surprisingly precise instruments were built in order to best calculate the movement of the earth and the heavens, so that advisors to the ruler could provide the most accurate astrological advice possible. It’s a remarkable achievement, even more so that it remains intact today, practically adjacent to the equally fascinating City Palace.
Town of Bamberg – Germany
Maybe it was the bright sunshiny day, or maybe it was the city’s famous smoked beer, but whatever did it, I totally and completely fell in love with Bamberg. It probably sounds repetitive, but Bamberg too has an ancient history, and it too is recognized by UNESCO for its beauty and incredibly intact medieval old town. It’s also so colorful, much more so than I would have thought and with picture-perfect views along the river it was an afternoon I know I’ll never forget. The city’s Christmas markets of course only add to this festive feeling, from smaller ones around town to the massive central Christmas market in Maximiliansplatz.
Shark Bay – Australia
Located in the wilds of Western Australia, the Shark Bay UNESCO World Heritage region may seem remote, but it’s well worth the effort to visit this remarkable area. Located near the popular beach resort Monkey Mia, Shark Bay is a popular place to explore either on your own or on a Jeep Safari. The striking red sand meets the azure waters of the Indian Ocean in a contrast that will take your breath away, but that’s not why it’s on the UNESCO list. It’s there thanks to its incredible flora and fauna, but especially the stromatolites at Hamelin Bay. Stromatolites are the oldest life form on the planet and the only place on the earth accessible enough for people to visit these prehistoric creatures is in the Shark Bay region. Aside from the prehistoric beginnings to life on earth, it’s just a fun place to visit, spending a few days to explore as one of the few tourists around.
Sabbioneta – Italy
Not far from the bustling city of Mantua is a far different town, one that when I visited was oddly quiet but captivating thanks to the unique lines and angles of the architecture and public spaces. I was in Sabbioneta, an early example of urban planning from the 15th century. More fortress than town, Sabbioneta was built by the powerful Gonzagas and the thick city walls and ramparts are all still completely intact. It was more than the defenses that interested me though, the grid pattern of the streets and the impressive squares and monuments are all what drew my attention almost immediately. Meant to impress, the Duke’s palace, the theater, churches and more are all on a scale and designed with a level of beauty that may have been representative of the era, but which are rare to find today. I wouldn’t recommend spending a lot of time there, but if you’re in Mantua definitely spend an afternoon or even a day exploring the strange little town of Sabbioneta.
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.
Rock Art of Alta – Norway
Located deep in the heart of Norway’s Arctic Circle, the small town of Alta is known for a lot of things, but not necessarily the site that put it on the UNESCO map. I was in Alta to see the Northern Lights, go sledding with huskies and a whole host of other wintertime activities. A pleasant bonus though was discovering the town’s not as famous but just as important rock art. The rock carvings in Alta go back as far as 4,200 BC and show a variety of scenes sharing the lives of ancient hunter-gatherers with us today. They were only discovered in the 1970s, but since then several of the sites have been converted into an open-air museum, preserving these prehistoric treasures for future generations. Sadly, I only got as far as the visitor’s center because during the winter the art is covered by snow. But during the summer months, thousands trek here to see the rock art and to explore the many hiking and biking trails around them.
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.