Destination Immersion

The Coolest UNESCO World Heritage Sites Around the World

Tuesday, July 23, 2019
By Azamara

Why do you travel?

To see natural landscapes that will make your jaw drop. To witness historic ruins that have been miraculously preserved. To contemplate cultures and traditions outside of your own. To catch the last glimpses of civilizations that have nearly disappeared.

These are just a few of the most compelling reasons to pack a suitcase and go. They’re also examples of what a UNESCO Heritage Site can be.

What does it take to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

So, how does a place get to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site? The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization decides.

Countries who’ve ratified UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage can nominate candidates for the honor. The cultural and/or natural sites must be considered to be of outstanding universal value, and meet at least one out of ten items from the selection criteria. Some of the criteria that many UNESCO sites around the world have met are sites that: represent a masterpiece of creative genius, bear a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or civilization, and contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

How many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are there?

There are currently 1,092 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (you can see the whole list here) spanning 167 countries. Italy holds the record for the most World Heritage Sites, at 54. You may have heard of a few of them—the entire city of Venice and it’s lagoon, the archaeological areas of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata, and the historic center of Florence are just three.

With so many incredible sites, it can be near impossible to choose where to visit. Read on to discover the incredible ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you will want to plan your next trip around!

Biodiversity and Culture in Ibiza

The turquoise waters of the Ibiza coastline.

This popular Spanish island may be famous for its delectable gastronomy, beautiful beaches, and exciting nightlife, but Ibiza’s culture is just as captivating. This site was designated because of its marine ecosystems, Phoenician ruins, and fortified acropolis.

Ibiza was known as Ebysos during Phoenician times and served as a very important harbor in the Mediterranean. History buff? Head to the archaeological site of Sa Caleta where you can learn all about the first settlers of Ibiza. Follow it up with a journey to Puig des Molins, an ancient cemetery that dates back to 600 BC.

If you’re a nature lover, you’ll marvel at the marine ecosystem along the shoreline of the islands. Its noteworthy for its well-preserved Posidonia Oceanica, a kind of seagrass that plays a crucial role in maintaining the ecosystem and ensuring high quality of the waters in the coves. Finally, a trip to the 16th century fortified “old town” is a must with breathtaking views across the port of La Marina.

After strolling through the old town, you can treat yourself to a relaxing visit to one of Ibiza’s famous holistic spas. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting on a Saturday, the market in Las Dalias is one of the greatest points of cultural exchange on the island, creating a meeting point for painters, sculptures, craftsmen and designers from all over the world!

Browse our upcoming cruises to Ibiza and discover a new side to this incredible island!

Old Havana’s Fortification System

Currently a busy metropolis and top beach destination, you might be surprised to know that Havana was once a famous stopping point for Spanish ships on their sail to cross between the New and Old World.

The city was founded by the Spanish in 1519 and by the 17th century, it had become one of the Caribbean’s main centers for shipbuilding. Regular attacks by buccaneers, pirates, and French corsairs prompted the Spaniards to begin fortifying the city. The UNESCO World Heritage Site consists of the old city center - sometimes known as Habana Vieja, 18 incredible fortifications along the coast and the harbor, and the 19th-century extensions.

One of the most interesting sights is the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, one of the oldest existing colonial fortresses in the Americas. Considered an engineering marvel, it was the first fortress built to guard the city of Havana. The fortress was later adopted by Juan de Tejeda as the residence of the Governor of Havana.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza fortress in Havana, Cuba.

A modern-day stroll through Havana will still find Spanish colonial structures, Baroque churches, and buildings in Neoclassic style filling the narrow streets and alleyways. Immerse yourself further in the city’s culture by enjoying an authentic Cuban lunch at a local paladar with roast pork and congrí rice. Finish the day with a stroll through San José Artisans’ Market to truly get a glimpse of the local lifestyle.

Transport yourself to a time when pirates ruled the seas with a voyage that stops in the historic Havana. Browse itinerary options to start planning your adventure.

The “Lost City” of Petra in Jordan

The "Lost City" of Petra in Jordan.

Petra, once the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom, is often known as the ‘Lost City’ of Jordan. This now-abandoned city was once a thriving trade center, containing rich tombs and giant temples carved into the pink sandstone cliffs. Its location, between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, made it an important crossroads between Arabia, Egypt, and Syria-Phoenicia.

This vast archaeological site dates back to around 300 B.C and sits in Jordan’s southwestern desert. Petra is half-built, half-carved into the rock, and is surrounded by mountains riddled with passages and gorges. It is one of the world’s richest and largest archaeological sites and is set in a breathtaking red sandstone landscape. It’s also one of the Seven Wonders of the New World.

Visit this historic, uninhabited city to explore the lost lifestyle of the ancient Nabatean tribe and marvel at their innovative networks of water capture, storage, transport, and irrigation systems. You’ll see varying blends of Nabatean and Greco-Roman architectural styles within the tombs due to Rome’s formal possession of Petra in 106 AD. After this takeover, the city’s importance in international trade began to fade and aided by earthquakes and sea trade routes, the city was slowly abandoned and looted for treasure.

Browse our upcoming cruises to Jordan and see for yourself why “wow” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Antwerp’s Museum Plantin-Moretus

Historic buildings and a church tower in Antwerp, Belgium.

Calling all word nerds! The Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp is the only surviving printing workshop and publishing house from the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Along with Paris and Venice, Antwerp was one of the leading cities of early European printing.

This historic house is named after the greatest printer-publisher of the second half of the 16th century, Christophe Plantin, and his son-in-law, Jan Moretus I, who took over the company after Plantin’s passing. The house is associated with the invention and spread of typography.

The building itself has stood the test of time, staying active and within the family until 1867 when it was sold to the city of Antwerp. It now serves as a unique museum, containing a large collection of vintage printing equipment and works of art, an extensive library, and invaluable archives. Its richly decorated interior will leave you feeling as though time stands still within the walls. You’ll be transported to another era while you enjoy a piece of history viewing the two oldest surviving printing presses in the world, among other incredible artifacts. Museum Plantin-Moretus is currently the only museum on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

After your trip back in time, wander around the corner from the museum and find yourself in a modern-day delight, the Günther Watté Chocolate shop to taste the melt in your mouth morsels and see for yourself why Belgium is known for its chocolate. Grab a bag of pralines for the trip home, although we doubt they’ll even make it to the ship!

Browse our itineraries that stop in Antwerp to see this unique and quirky UNESCO site for yourself, and to get your fill of that delicious cocoa!

The Grand Canal in China

Old houses along the water in Fenghuang county in Hunan, China.

The pure vastness of this canal will leave any visitor breathless, not to mention yearning for a float down its historic waters. The Grand Canal is so massive that it passes through 27 cities in eight of China’s present-day provinces. It runs all the way from the capital city of Beijing in the north to the Zhejiang Province in the south.

The canal was constructed in sections beginning in the 5th Century BC. It became the world’s largest and most extensive civil engineering project prior to the Industrial Revolution and formed the backbone of the Empire’s inland communications system. It was used for the transport of grain and strategic raw materials, and for the taxation and control of traffic. The Grand Canal also served as a means of transportation for troops.

During the Yuan Dynasty, the canal grew beyond imagination. It was expanded to include more than 1,700 km of artificial waterways, as it still does today. These waterways link five of the most important river basins in China, including the Yellow River and the Yangtze. The Grand Canal has played an important role in ensuring the economic prosperity and stability of China over the ages, earning its title as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and its spot on our bucket list!

If you take a ride down the canal in Beijing keep an eye out for other cultural sites like the Baifu Spring Culture Relic protection site, on the east slope of the Donglong Mountain. It’s also known as the Dragon Spring, because of the nine decorative dragon heads adorning the waters edge!

If you’d love to float down the Grand Canal on your next trip, check out our voyages that stop in Beijing.

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro in Santiago de Cuba

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca in Santiago de Cuba.

Not only is the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca a piece of historic art in itself, the views surrounding it are just as spectacular! The jaw-dropping scene from the upper terrace of the castle takes in the velvety green forest of Santiago de Cuba’s coastline backed by the Sierra Maestra.

Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca is a multi-level stone fortress built into the rocky headland of Santiago de Cuba. It has guarded the entrance to Santiago de Cuba Bay since 1638. This exceptional fortress and its associated defensive works were created to protect the province during the intense commercial and political rivalries that tormented the Caribbean during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The design of the fortification was based on Italian and Renaissance architecture. The fortress was built into the steep cliffs in a progression of terraces, one above another, linked by a series of stairways. The different levels each served a specific purpose. The lowest level just above high-water mark served as a fortified gun platform, powder magazine, command building and guard post. The complex of magazines, bastions, and batteries is one of the most complete and well-preserved Spanish-American defense fortifications.

After visiting the fort, the nearby restaurant El Morro can provide a new view of the fortress, as well as a delicious, authentic local meal. Share some bean soup and an array of tapas served family style between friends! The perfect way to end a visit to this cultural site.

Browse our itineraries to find your perfect vacation with a stop in Santiago de Cuba to marvel at this UNESCO site for yourself.

Beijing’s Peking Man Site

A visit to the Peking Man Site at Zhoukoudian will pique the interest of any curious mind. It’s a must-see when taking in the rich history around Beijing and provides an exceptional opportunity for visitors to explore the primitive life of human ancestors.

Over 500,000 years ago during the Middle Pleistocene era, the caves in this area were home to early species of Asian hominids, including one of the first species of homo erectus, meaning “upright man”. The site is located 42 km southwest of Beijing and was discovered in 1921 by the Swedish geologist J. G. Anderson. It is home to the fossils and cultural remains of Homo erectus pekinensis - known as the Peking Man - who lived 700,000 to 200,000 years ago. It is also home to fossils and relics of archaic Homo sapiens of about 200,000–100,000 years ago and Homo sapiens sapiens dating back to 30,000 years ago. That’s a lot of history!

Around 100,000 objects have been found at the site, including rough chipped stone tools, heat-affected stones, bones, fossilized grains, and ash deposits. You can spend a few hours, or an entire day at this site depending on how much you want to explore. You can see the three main caves: the Peking Man Cave, the New Cave, and the Upper Cave, as well as the Gezitang Hall and the Zhoukoudian Site Museum. The museum presently has more than 600 collections of cultural relics. The site is an essential reminder of the prehistoric human societies of the Asian continent and considered a testament to the process of evolution. It was added to the UNESCO List in 1987 and is still an important site for Chinese archaeology today.

If your visit leaves you curious about caves, you’re in the perfect place! Take a cable car up to the Shangfanshan Yunshui Karst Cave and enjoy the breathtaking views of the park.

Browse our voyages to start planning your adventure to the Peking Man site in Beijing.

The Urban Historic Center of Cienfuegos

A classic car in Cienfuegos, Cuba.

One of the most elegant and prosperous Cuban cities you can visit, Cienfuegos is worth a visit both as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an eclectic town to explore.

The Urban Historic Center of Cienfuegos is the best extant example of 19th-century urban planning principles in the Americas. It was founded in 1819 in the Spanish territory but was initially settled by immigrants of French origin. It was first developed in the neoclassical style, as it was situated on the Caribbean coast of southern-central Cuba. Cienfuegos was at the heart of the country’s sugar cane, mango, tobacco, and coffee production, and became an essential trading place for these products. The town later transitioned to become much more diverse, but still retained a harmonious overall townscape.

While there, take in public Cuban music and dance performances, and stand in awe of the incredible architecture surrounding the main public square, Parque José Marti. The square contains a band shell, the Worker’s Arch and fountains, and is surrounded by monumental buildings like the Cathedral, City Hall, and Theatre.

Other buildings of interest include the San Lorenzo School, The Ferrer Palace, and some quirky residential houses.

Visit this UNESCO site on one of our voyages and find out why this Cuban city is the “Paris of Cuba”. Browse itineraries to Cienfuegos now!

Puerto Rico’s La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site

Old San Juan in Puerto Rico.

Lose yourself in the charming atmosphere of Old San Juan and explore the city’s long military history. Once you pass the incredibly preserved sections of old city walls, you’ll be greeted with rolling green hills topped with historic architecture.

La Fortaleza, the most prominent of San Juan’s many fortresses, was founded in the early 16th century and considerably remodeled in later centuries. It reflects developments in military architecture during its transformation over the centuries as a fortress, an arsenal, a prison, and residence of the Governor-General. Today it serves as the residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico.

Later built but no less magnificent fortifications include Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristóbal, San Juan de la Cruz (El Cañuelo), and a large portion of the original San Juan City Wall. These were built between the 16th and 20th centuries to protect the city and the Bay of San Juan.

San Cristóbal offers great views of the city and is laced with tunnels and batteries to discover. Across town, El Morro's hilltop position provides incredible views of the Caribbean crashing into the rocks below, a perfect example of its defensive importance. These fortifications are all wonderful examples of the historic methods of construction used in military architecture over this time period, adapting European designs and techniques to the special conditions of the Caribbean port cities. UNESCO also recognizes the significant role it played during the Spanish colonization of the region.

Browse our voyages to San Juan and get lost among the well-preserved historic architecture at La Fortaleza.

The Architecture of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona

Park Guell in Barcelona.

One of the most unique and breathtaking cities in Spain, Barcelona and its surrounding areas are home to the largest concentration of Antoni Gaudi’s architectural works. Landmarks and buildings like the Park Güell, the Palau Güell, the Casa Milà-La Pedrera, the Casa Vicens, the Sagrada Família, the Casa Batlló, and the Crypt of the Colònia Güell, all representing the architect’s personal style.

Gaudi’s works bring visitors to the city year after year, and they never disappoint. Each one is a testament to his exceptional contributions to the development of architecture and construction technology in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Gaudi can be regarded as the most representative and outstanding of the Modernista architects, with his truly unique style. Located just off Las Ramblas, the luxurious Palau Güell is one of the earliest works of Antoni Gaudí, and the building was the home of the Güell i López family until they moved to Park Güell. Palau Güell is built with stone coated with marble and decorated with hand-carved wood and iron. Although this is a lesser-known Gaudí landmark, it is most certainly worth visiting when in Barcelona. Additionally, the surrounding Raval area is renowned for its restaurant scene, so you can grab a bite to eat after a long day of exploring Gaudí’s infamous work!

A morning at Palau Güell is perfectly followed by a trip to Park Güell, which offers a serene escape from the bustling city center as well as an in-depth look at Gaudi’s signature styles. Take note of the exciting spectrum of colored mosaics and unusually shaped rooftops. Don’t leave without a picture of El Drac, the magnificent multi-colored salamander monument displayed at the entrance of the park.

While you’re in the city, check two more UNESCO Heritage Sites off of your list with Barcelona’s two non-Gaudi related designated sites: Palau de la Musica Catalana and Hospital de La Santa Creu i de Sant Pau.

Browse our itineraries to find a Gaudi filled trip and check nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites off of your bucket list at once in Barcelona.

UNESCO? You Know So.

These UNESCO World Heritage Sites are perfect for adding to your dream destination lists, but just dreaming about them isn’t enough! Each site has a unique je ne sais quoi that you can only understand once you’ve seen it for yourself. Which one will you visit first? Start planning your journey now.

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