What to see, when there is so much to see and so little time to see it?
As you might know by now, I will travel far for interesting culture, and I also work at a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so naturally I had to make a list. I’m a fan of the classics, because this means many people throughout history thought this was worth while. (This also goes for books!)
On this list, I’ve only included cultural sites and only outside Europe. For European sites, read Top 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe!
TOP 10 SITES &
WHAT NOT TO MISS
1 ANGKOR, CAMBODIA
A JUNGLE EMPIRE
Angkor is the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor is an ancient city, and home to the temple of Angkor Wat among many others. This is the most overwhelming and awe-inspiring place I’ve been. And it usurped the throne from The Great Wall as the best UNESCO site in the world.
The fact that the temples of Angkor are not one of New 7 Wonders of the World demands a recount! A lost city found in the Cambodian jungle, that turned out to be a huge empire. Where the banyan tress still claim most of the area and the monkeys roam free. It is just like you are Lara Croft! But make sure to have enough time for this 400 km2 area.
Indulge in ancient ruins in a jungle empire! Angkor is a must-see!
DON’T MISS: Just sitting out in the jungle and listening to the sounds of monks meditating…You know: the sound of silence.
2 TEOTIHUACÁN, MEXICO
OFFERINGS & ASTRONOMY
Climb both the Pyramid of the Sun as well as the Moon to marvel at the astronomical precision of the city-grid. It was capital in the probably largest meso-maerican empire with up to 200.000 inhabitants. And that’s almost 2000 years ago – before Angkor.
Make sure to read up on the old gods, so you can recognize the important feathered serpent – kind of identical to the later Aztec Quetzalcoatl. Human sacrifices were done here, like in many other temples throughout Mexico.
The area is know for producing a lot of obsidian artifacts – in Danish known as volcanic glass. I bought a necklace with an obsidian stone from this guy, who was too old and tired to hassle us. So of course I chose him. The chain was rubbish, but I like the stone and it remind of the old guy.
DON’T MISS: Enter the Palace of the Jaguars and seeing the fantastic murals of… Jaguars. Check out the one where the jaguar is blowing a conch. It’s probably a symbol of war, since conch shells were trumpeted before armies went into battle.
3 ANCIENT THEBES, EGYPT
PHARAOHS & GODS
Ancient Thebes is located next to today’s Luxor in Egypt. The famous Valley of the Kings became the burial site of the pharaohs after the pyramids in Giza and also the main place of worship of all the many gods. The temples and burial sites cover a small area, but it so densely packed, that you can easily spend a week here. You have to pay extra to visit larger tombs like Ramses III, but it’s soooo worth it.
Just like in Mexico it pays off to to know a little not only about the gods, but also about the animals and the symbols of fertility, life, death and so on. Watch out – it’s like school. It also pays off to carry some small change for tipping – bakshees – for the guards.
Read more in The best temples & tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs!
DON’T MISS: Also to see the not so touristy tombs of the noblemen. For instance the tomb of the scribe Menna with a scene of his heart being weighed.
4 THE FORBIDDEN CITY, CHINA
NOT THE PEOPLE’S PLACE
The forbidden city is the largest imperial palace in the world! This imperial city in China’s capital Beijing was off limits to everyone but the emperor and his entourage of empresses, concubines, soldiers and waiters. Some are still closed for visitors, so maybe there’s an emperor left somewhere… 24 Chinese emperors lived here. The last one as late as 1912!
The palace grid adheres to feng-shui and faces south to honour the sun (not unlike Teotihuacán). China being the Middle Kingdom, of course the imperiaal city is the center of the world. As you can see on the date-stamp of the analogue-scanned pictures – it’s been a while, but I’m hoping to go back someday and take some better pictures.
DON’T MISS: Seeing the Dragon Throne in the Hall of Supreme Harmony. The throne is richly decorated with dragons (of course – since dragons are cool) on top of 7 steps (7 being harmony).
5 GREAT ZIMBABWE, ZIMBABWE
Not surprisingly this site is in Zimbabwe, and the country is named after it. A bird figurine found at the site has become the symbol of Zimbabwe adorning both the flag and currency. Great Zimbabwe was the capital of the Queen of Sheba! “Zimbabwe” means something like “stone houses”, and it’s primarily stones.
The Great Zimbabwe National Monument is so spectacular many European experts didn’t believe, it was created by Africans. All the way up until the 1970s! Maybe they still don’t because we were the only ones visiting in 2009.
DON’T MISS: The small exhibit showing one of the soapstone carved birds and other artefacts.
6 THE GREAT WALL, CHINA
THE WALL IN THE NORTH
I know The Great Wall is the second site in China, but actually I could make a list for China alone. It’s the country with most sites. The Middle Kingdom has so much interesting history from back when some of us were just dreaming of becoming vikings one day. You might think it should be higher up the list, but some of the other monuments tell a more differentiated story, so… sorry wall. But of course, it’s on the list. Seeing it for the first time and standing on it is what made me a traveller.
Try visit some of the least accessible parts (or go back to 1999, when there were no tourists).
DON’T MISS: Seeing the wall from afar – and not only from on top of it – to better grasp the size and scale.
7 PETRA, JORDAN
ROMANS & CAMELS
Imagine in Roman times traversing the Arabian desert for weeks or travelling the Silk Route with camels packed with goods hoping not to be attacked, and then finally arriving at a splendid town. The ancient Nabatean city of Petra in Jordan is just as great as it looks. It’s a vast area and not just iconic socalled treasury seen in Indiana Jones, but has several structures including a theatre and burial sites.
But okay, it’s because of the Indiana Jones scene, that it’s on my list. And this is actually one of the 7 wonders. Which I’m fine with.
Want a cultural adventure? Petra is Indiana Jones (Jr) worthy!
DON’T MISS: The rest of the site and not just the first treasury. It’s huge!
8 LUANG PRABANG,
GOLD & FRENCHMEN
This golden city is located in Lao People’s Deomcratic Republic. I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful Luang Prabang is. But what makes it a World Heritage site is not just because of the old traditional temples, but also the colonial buildings and the two cultures together in one place. And you get French bread everywhere.
Take your time to chill, watch the monks, eat baguette with omelette and watch the river.
DON’T MISS: Eating a whole fish freh from the grill! Okay, I actually didn’t try. Not to happy about fish.
9 KSAR OF AIT-BEN-HADDOU, MOROCCO
A very large sandcastle? Kind of. “Ksar” means fortified city and inside you find socalled “kasbahs”; the square small windowed buildings are the traditional way of building houses. What baffled me is that it’s pre-Saharan! Pre-Saharan! The light brown city was here before the Sahara desert. The area was a hot spot, and it became wealthy enough to built this massive city due to its location along the gold, ivory and salt caravan route (throughout most of human civilization salt has been extremely valuable.) And where there is trade, there’s money.
In some ways, it is kind of boring. In other ways, it’s magical. I choose magical because it was a great trip to Morocco in general. Of course this place has been used as a filming locations for Gladiator and many more.
For more of Morocco: Mint tea, storks & palaces in Marrakech.
DON’T MISS: Noticing that people actually live here. (Every ksar, we visited in Morocco had livestock inside.)
10 TRINIDAD, CUBA
SUGAR & SLAVETRADE
Trinidad and the Valley de los Ingenios in Cuba are actually 2 sights, and they are primarily on the list, because they are beautiful and important testimonies of the slave-industry.
Trinidad is a beautiful city founded in early 16th century and in 18th- and 19th century with interesting colonial buildings (and great drinks). It flourished from sugartrade, and the work was carried out in Valle de los Ingenios or Valley of the Sugar Mills. The lush hills were home to 50 sugar mills and at one point 11.000 slaves. The main house is very well preserved, but the best sight is the tower. Climb the watchtower for extraordinary views, which was used to keep an eye on the enslaved people. Not many sugarcanes are left. Maybe this site will not be on my one day updated list…
When going to Cuba anyway, also head for another UNESCO site and the forgotten splendour of colonial Cienfuegos!
DON’T MISS: Taking the old (now tourist) train the 12 km to the valley. Look how happy I am – it was a dream come true. And finish the day with a canchánchara.
A World Heritage site is a place or a monument named by UNESCO as important heritage – not only for the specific country – but for the whole world. It’s an important part of our shared history! There are 869 (for now) cultural World Heritage sites in the world named by UNESCO and more than a 1000 including the natural sites.
See the complete list of UNESCO sites here.
Do you agree?
I’ve tried to track how many World Heritage sites I’ve seen, and it amounts to about 129 by now. So this list is missing all of the fantastic places I haven’t been (- yet!). I hope to see Macchu Picchu, Ilulisat, the Pyramids of Giza, Taj Mahal and so on.
What’s your favourite World Heritage site?