Considering its vast size, rich history and diverse cultures and cultural identity, it is little surprise that the Indian Subcontinent is home to countless UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While Bhutan is yet to make an appearance on their list, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka have numerous sites that have been inscribed on the list for their natural and cultural significance. Bearing the marks of numerous empires, rulers and with many notable remnants of colonialism still on show, these countries have fascinating histories that can be uncovered through their World Heritage sites. It would take quite the trip to cover all of the sites mentioned here in one trip, but you should be able to visit quite a few on your trip to India, Sri Lanka or Nepal.
10 Must-See UNESCO Sites on the Indian Subcontinent
World's greatest monument to love
The Taj Mahal, India
There is really only one place to start, isn't there? Probably the most famous building in the world, the Taj Mahal has to be the first up on this list. Originally built between 1631 and 1648, this magnificent mausoleum was constructed by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial to his beloved wife, who sadly died during childbirth. There is no denying that the Taj Mahal is breathtakingly beautiful. In fact, UNESCO themselves have called the Taj “the greatest architectural achievement in the whole range of Indo-Islamic architecture”, according to UNESCO. Yet, it is not just the building that should be admired. The surrounding gardens are equally admirable as is the much-photographed reflecting pool that unfurls before the marble structure. Situated in the hot, bustling city of Agra, those wishing to visit this site should plan their trip carefully as the midday heat and crowds can sometimes get unbearable.
Commissioned by Shan Jahan, the same man responsible for the construction of the Taj Mahal, the Red Fort was built in 1648 and acted as the residence of various Mughal emperors until 1857. It is known as the Red Fort because of its huge, intricately carved red sandstone walls. In addition to its function as a royal home, the building was also used as the political centre of the Mughal Empire and the site where many important events and critical decisions took place. Nowadays, the Red Fort is one of the most popular attractions in Delhi and is brought into the spotlight every year on Independence Day as the Prime Minister hoists the national flag and delivers a nationally broadcast speech. In the evenings, there is a sound and light show that takes place, teaching visitors the history of the Mughals in an original and entertaining way.
Nowhere else in Nepal can you see such a varied array of wildlife as in the Chitwan National Park. The reserve covers a total area of almost 1,000 square kilometres, encompassing a variety of terrain, including forest, marshland and grassland. Poaching used to be a huge problem in the park but in recent years the authorities have managed to reverse the losses and it is now home to a plethora of rare and incredible species. Bengal tigers, Asian elephants and Indian rhinoceros are just some of the species visitors can spot on safaris within the park boundaries. Just outside the park are a number of luxurious lodges where those who would like more than just one day of exploration can stay, getting a blissful night’s sleep after a day of trekking through the jungle. As recently as April 2021, it was reported that Nepal's rhino population has increased dramatically from 2015, with many of the individuals known to reside in Chitwan National Park, a great win for rhino conservation.
A site of pilgrimage for well over 2,000 years, Dambulla boasts the best and most famous cave temples in Sri Lanka. The white-washed facade of the complex is the first thing visitors will see of this famous landmark, the architecture of which is certainly worth a minute or two of quiet admiration. Once inside, you will be confronted by five dimly lit rooms, each containing numerous stupas and statues of Buddha. On the walls are many murals, often considered the most excellent expression of Sinhalese Buddhist art in existence. Overall, there are over 150 statues within these caves, the largest of which measures around 15m in length. It has also been uncovered that people once lived in these caves, as human skeletons have been excavated, some of which are around 2,700 years old.
Situated in the centre of Sri Lanka, Kandy is much more than just a pretty face. The city is steeped in history and culture and is home to the world famous Temple of the Tooth Relic, a holy building that is said to contain the tooth of Buddha and is one of the most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the world. The city has gone through a lot during its life span, including much turbulence at the hands of the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonialists. Nowadays, it is one of the main transportation hubs of the country and sees thousands of travellers every year. Part of the appeal of modern Kandy is that it is a big city but remains a calmer and more beautiful alternative to the chaotic frenzy of Colombo. Here, visitors can walk at a leisurely pace, take in the sights and sounds, and watch the glorious sunset.
There are seven reasons why the Kathmandu Valley is of such great cultural significance. The first three are the Durbar squares located in the three royal cities of Kathmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. Each of these squares contains numerous palaces, temples and monuments that despite the damage inflicted on the country by the earthquake that hit in April 2015, remain intact or are in the process of being rebuilt. Two more reasons are the Buddhist stupas of Swayambhu and Bauddhanath, which tower over the residents of Kathmandu in all their mystical glory. The final two reasons to visit the Kathmandu Valley are the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan. In addition to all of this architectural beauty is the sublime backdrop of the Himalayas.
If you are an ornithological enthusiast or just fancy a spot of bird-watching, the Keoladeo National Park is a dream destination. Once a duck-hunting reserve for the Maharajas of earlier days, this reserve now sees hundreds of different species of birds flock to its plains from East and Central Asia. There have even been sightings of the incredibly rare Siberian crane within its boundaries. UNESCO notes that one of the most prominent features of the wetland park is that it is “of international importance for migratory waterfowl”. Of course, no park would be complete without all manner of stunning flora to complement its fauna and Keoladeo is no exception with lush aquatic vegetation and tropical plants.
A fine example of a European-built fortified city, Galle sits on the southwest coast of Sri Lanka and is one of the country’s most popular destinations. The walled city contains a range of beautiful buildings exemplifying the best of Portuguese colonial architecture, fused with native styles. After the Portuguese occupation, the city was taken over by the Dutch and it was during this period that it really flourished thanks to the extensive development and fortification it underwent. Nowadays, Galle is transforming from a Bohemian epicentre into somewhat of a luxurious holiday destination. Snazzy boutiques and fancy eateries are popping up all over the place, as are stylish hotels and villas. Be sure to explore some of the old colonial administrative headquarters and ramparts if you want a dose of history before checking out the city’s glorious beaches.
Built in the 16th century by Emperor Akbar, Fatehpur Sikri was very briefly the capital of the Mughal Empire and encompasses a number of spectacular buildings. Most impressive of all the structures within the complex is the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques in India. Due to the unfortunate location of the city in an area that was said to suffer from a lack of water, the capital was abandoned after just 13 years in action. It is hard not to be captivated by the sight of the red sandstone buildings from the spacious courtyard, which stretches out through the main area of the complex. Nowadays, the Jama Masjid mosque is still in use and is well worth looking inside but be sure to be dressed appropriately when you do so and to be respectful and quiet.
Possibly the single most important destination in the Buddhist world, it is said that Lumbini is where Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) was born back in 623 BC. It has been a site of Buddhist pilgrimage for centuries and remains today the holiest site in Nepal and possibly in all of Asia. Nowadays, there is a large white-washed temple called the Maya Devi Temple, named after Queen Maya Devi, the mother of Buddha. There is also a holy pond, which is allegedly where Maya Devi bathed before giving birth to Buddha, and the Bodhi tree, an impressive plant covered in prayer flags. According to legend, this tree was the one under which Buddha sat when he achieved enlightenment. Perhaps the best thing about Lumbini is that despite its status as the birthplace of the single most important figure in Buddhism, it has a very relaxed and peaceful atmosphere, almost like a park, allowing people to enjoy the site in peace.
Top 5 less-visited UNESCO sites on the Subcontinent
Not all of the Indian Subcontinent's UNESCO sites receive the same level of attention and while the most popular have certainly earned their reputation, there are several sites that are equally as impressive yet don’t enjoy equal fame. These less-visited UNESCO sites are definitely worth a visit and can sometimes be even better than the big hitters because of the smaller crowds and lower entrance fees. If you fancy getting off the beaten track, here's a selection to get you inspired.
The final capital of the last Hindu Kingdom of Vijayanagar, Hampi boasts a whole ancient city’s worth of crumbling ruins. The structures date back to the 14th-16th centuries and are nestled within thick vegetation and swathes of jungle. Oozing with mystical charm, a trip to Hampi is a must for anyone looking to learn more about India’s fascinating history. Perhaps one of the best open-air museums in the world, Hampi is home to over 100 different ruins including the exquisitely carved Vijaya Vittala Temple and the Hemakuta Hill Temples, which afford fine views across Hampi. With a bit of imagination, a walk through the ruins and what were once busy city streets and bustling marketplaces, will bring to life the ancient kingdom. Visitors can easily spend anything from one to four days exploring this incredible region many nearby guesthouses to choose from.
Often overlooked in favour of the wildlife superstars of Yala and Udawalawe national parks, Sinharaja is a blissfully quiet forest reserve that plays a pivotal role in maintaining the delicate ecosystems on the island of Sri Lanka. Unlike other parks, the only way to explore Sinharaja is by foot and there are guides available to lead you along trails, pointing out the park’s remarkable flora and fauna as you go. Although the name of the park literally translates as 'lion king', the main animals to be found within the dense vegetation here are various different types of deer and monkey. Looking up, the sky and trees are filled with all kinds of birds; in fact around 95% of all of Sri Lanka’s endemic birds can be found within the Sinharaja Forest Reserve. Be aware that there are leeches in abundance here so be sure to take appropriate protection.
Impressive rock-cut temples
Elephanta Caves, India
Located on Elephanta Island, just off the coast of Mumbai, the Elephanta caves are a glorious example of Indian art that have been closely linked to the cult of Shiva. The island is only accessible by boat from the Gateway of India, which sits right on the edge of the water. The caves are believed to date back to the 6th century and were built by the Hindus but before that the island was a Buddhist centre and the remains of stupas have been excavated that date back to the 2nd century BC. Despite the damaged caused by the Portuguese soldiers who took control of Mumbai in the 16th century, the caves still display beautifully carved courtyards, halls, pillars and shrines. The elephant that once stood on the island and which gave the island its name is now in the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai.
Officially the highest national park in the world, Sagarmatha’s lowest point is 3,000m above sea level and the entire park is flanked by the dramatic Himalayan mountains. With Everest as a back drop it is no exaggeration to say that the scenery here is some of the most outstanding on the planet, making the trip worthwhile even if you don’t lay eyes on a single animal. However, if you have come in search of wildlife then you might be lucky enough to catch sight of the rare snow leopard or, more likely, black bear, lynx or jackal. Be aware that due to the park’s lofty location, altitude sickness is quite common so try not to physically exert yourself too much. It is also wise to plan your trip for either spring or autumn in order to avoid the summer rains and the heavy snowfall that comes with winter.
Chariots of fire
Konark Sun Temple, India
Situated in the northeast part of the country, the Konark Sun Temple is a Hindu place of worship that was built in 1255. The temple takes the form of a giant chariot and was believed to be ridden by the Sun God. Of particular note are the twelve pairs of exquisitely and intricately carved stone wheels that measure up to three metres in height. The temple has been carefully positioned to face East so that the first rays of sunlight each morning are cast upon its main entrance. Although part of the building is in ruins, it has been preserved to a great enough extent so as to give visitors a good idea of what it would have been like in its glory days. While the site has been recognised by UNESCO, its location away from many of the main travel destinations means that there are far fewer crowds here than in some of the more accessible sites.
Design your own UNESCO itinerary
We offer tailor-made holidays to India, Sri Lanka and Nepal so if you have a particular UNESCO site in mind or would like to create your own bespoke itinerary covering some of the destinations covered here, get in touch to start planning your dream holiday.