Cultural travel and UNESCO World Heritage Sites go hand in hand. Some of the world’s most iconic landmarks are World Heritage Sites, from the Taj Mahal in India to the Giza Pyramids in Egypt and the Athens Acropolis in Greece. In total, there are more than 1,000 World Heritage Sites around the world. Every year, more are being added to the list. Italy has the most, with 58, closely followed by China, Germany, and France. With so many UNESCO sites on the list, there are a few obscure ones that you’ve probably not heard of. So, to help you pick your next travel destination, here’s our list of eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites you’ve never heard of, but should definitely visit when you have the chance.
1. Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
Iceland isn’t short of dramatic landscapes, and Thingvellir National Park falls into this category. It’s the site of a rugged rift valley and home to the largest natural lake in Iceland, Lake Thingvallavatn. However, the main reason that Thingvellir National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site is that it was home to the Althing. This was an open-air assembly that represented the entire island from around 930 AD all the way until 1798! For two weeks every year, islanders would meet at the Althing to set laws and settle disputes within the country. There are ancient remains of the Althing itself, and evidence of agricultural use dating back to the 1700s.
Visit Thingvellir National Park on our 8-day Iceland Circle group tour.
2. Historic City of Ayutthaya, Thailand
Noted for its incredible prang towers and giant Buddhist monasteries, Ayutthaya was founded in around 1350 and became the second capital of Siam (now Thailand). It was a global centre of commerce and diplomacy, and one of the biggest cities of its time. That was until its destruction by the Burmese in the 18th century. Despite this, much of the city’s architecture remains intact. And it is easy to get an impression of the wonder of the city when you visit. Located just an hour and a half drive from Bangkok, Ayutthaya is easy to reach and deserves its place on our list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites that you’ve never heard of but simply have to visit if you get the chance!
Our 11-day Saigon to Bangkok group tour ends in the Thai capital – why not bolt on a visit to Ayutthaya?
3. My Son Sanctuary, Hoi An, Vietnam
An easy day trip for anyone spending some time in Hoi An, Vietnam, the My Son Sanctuary is what remains of the former capital of the Champa Kingdom, which developed between the 4th and 13th centuries. Surrounded by a ring of mountains and dense forest, with chirping birds and historic mossy temples, it’s one of the most scenic UNESCO sites on this list. 20 temples remain from the 60 or so originals, and carvings of gods and other symbols remain visible. My Son was also hit by a lot of American bombing during the Vietnam War, destroying some of the temples. The site is a poignant reminder of this conflict too, another important reason to visit.
Join an optional visit to My Son during a free day on our 10-day Very Vietnam tour.
4. Historic Centre of the city of Arequipa, Peru
Built using white volcanic sillar rock and sitting in the shadow of three volcanoes, Arequipa’s historic city centre is a blend of local and colonial European building techniques and styles. There’s lots of Baroque architecture, pretty squares and impressive city walls. And rumours abound that a dragon resides under the main square. The Monasterio de Santa Catalina is a must-see religious citadel and visitors will also want to delve into Arequipa’s cuisine; the city is something of a culinary capital in Peru. Oh, and it gets more than 300 days of sun per year.
Travel to Arequipa by train on our private Luxury Peru & Andean Explorer 12-day tour.
5. Mountain Railways of India
Three distinct railways form the Mountain Railways of India. They are the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, and the Kalka Shimla Railway. All were built during colonialism in the 1800s and all three remain operational. All boast incredible engineering and impressive views for those who choose to travel along the routes. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is the most famous of the three, winding for 88km through spectacular Himalayan scenery to Darjeeling.
Ride the Kalka Shimla Railway on our 11-day Taj & Raj India group tour.
6. Jeju Volcanic Island & Lava Tubes, South Korea
Lying 130km off the coast of South Korea (and reachable by ferry or plane), Jeju is a volcanic island, home to a dormant volcano that also happens to be the highest peak in South Korea – Mount Halla. Millenia of volcanic activity has created all sorts of natural phenomena. Caves, volcanic lakes, waterfalls, and the UNESCO-listed lava tubes where magma once flowed all offer good reasons to visit. Caving below the ground and hiking above ground to Sunrise Peak in the east of the island are both recommended. Jeju is a fair way off the beaten path, but it’s South Korea’s hidden gem, and well worth a visit.
Take in Seoul, the DMZ, Busan, and Jeju on our 9-day Seoul Searching & Jeju private tour of South Korea.
7. Surtsey, Iceland
Surtsey is, for want of a better term, a baby island. It was formed by volcanic eruptions off the coast of Iceland from 1963 to 1967. And it’s some of the youngest land to be found anywhere on the planet. Protected from birth, humanity has been able to watch a barren volcanic land slowly come to life, in much the same way as our countries and continents evolved over millions of years.
Surtsey is a case study in the colonization of new land by plant and animal life. And even now, just over 60 years after its violent birth, Surtsey is home to 60 plant species, countless moulds, bacteria, lichens, and even 335 species of invertebrate. Nearly 90 species of bird live, breed or feed on the island. Visitors are not allowed on Surtsey to protect its environment. But it can be seen from afar on boat trips off Iceland’s coast.
8. Aigai, Greece
Known today as Vergina, Aigai was the first capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia, in modern-day northern Greece. Architecture and ruins date back to the 11th century BC. And one of the royal tombs at the site is that of Philip II, who went on to conquer all of Greece. The burial ground is home to more than 300 tombs in all. And there’s an impressive palace with well-preserved mosaics and stuccoes. For fans of classical Greek history, Aigai is an off-the-beaten-track destination, easily reached from the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Our range of group tours take in many of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in each of our destinations. And if you would like to visit somewhere that’s not in our itineraries, you can always book a bespoke Tailor-made tour with us instead! Where else should we have featured on our list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites you’ve never heard of? Let us know in the comments!