From the beautiful yet little-known volcanoes of Kamchatka in Russia to the birthplace of Buddha in Nepal, we round up 20 of the most overlooked UNESCO World Heritage sites you should visit.
Just off the coast of Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean, the island of Cocos has a tropical rainforest. In fact, it’s the only island with a tropical rainforest in this neck of the woods, which makes it a fascinating anomaly. The surrounding waters hold even more wonders, with divers reporting superb conditions in which to goggle at sharks, rays and dolphins.
Studenica Monastery, Serbia
As the biggest and best of Serbia’s Orthodox monasteries, complete with two white marble churches (the Church of the King and the Church of the Virgin), Studenica reflects the country’s medieval boom time. The remains of the first Serb kings lie in rest here, and inside the churches are breathtaking Byzantine paintings.
The last residents were evacuated from the Outer Hebrides island of St Kilda in the 1930s, no longer able to sustain themselves in tough, remote conditions. It’s now given over to seabirds, who have rendered this place Europe’s most important seabird colony. Along with the puffins and gannets are the remains of abandoned villages, and these are now protected by a team of conservationists and volunteers from the National Trust.
Morocco is already a top tourist destination, and almost everyone has heard of the big draws like Marrakesh, Fez and Essaouira. Mazagan, 90km southwest of Casablanca, is an often overlooked city brimming with rich historical significance. Originally built by the Portuguese in the early sixteenth century, it was taken over by the Moroccans in 1769 and today exhibits a special architectural amalgamation of the two nations.
The birthplace of Buddha, Lumbini in southern Nepal is currently being developed, with temples under construction and gardens cultivated around pre-existing archeological sites. As this is where Buddha lived till he was 29, Lumbini is already a very holy place, yet the expansion is aiming to attract larger numbers of pilgrims.
A diver’s paradise, for Tubbataha Reef, southeast of Puerto Princesa City in Palawan, literally teems with precious marine life. From multicoloured coral and hammerhead sharks to silvery barracudas and thick-lipped Napoleon wrasse, the icing on the cake is undoubtedly seeing Hawksbill and Green Bill turtles. It’s an isolated reef, so to visit you’ll have to set sail on a liveaboard boat.
This exquisite Silk Road city is over 2000 years old and lays claim to being the most complete medieval city in Central Asia. Some of its monuments and buildings would alone be enough to secure World Heritage status, but it’s the integrity and unity of the conglomeration that’s truly startling. A highlight here is the famous tomb of Ismail Samani, a magnum opus of Muslim architecture.
Volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia
Gloriously peppered about the glacial Kamchatka region in eastern Russia, these volcanoes are thought to be some of the most beautiful in the world – yet not many people know about them. Perhaps that’s because they’ve never been particularly destructive, though many are active. The area supports some wonderful wildlife including sea eagles, sea otters and peregrine falcons.
A place of superlatives, as South Africa’s Vredefort Dome, 120km southwest of Johannesburg, is not only the oldest astrobleme (literally “star wound”) but the largest as well. Over 2000 million years ago, an enormous meteorite thumped into the Earth’s crust, creating a gigantic hole measuring 190km across. The effects must have been devastating. Today, visitors come to gawp at the depth and size of the crater, an impressive reminder of quite how old our planet is.
Gebel Barkal and the Sites of Napatan, Sudan
Together with the small mountain dubbed the Gebel (or Jebel) Barkal, the five Sites of the Napatan straddle the River Nile and spread over 60km. These sites are seriously, seriously old, representing both the Napatan (900 to 270 BC) and Meroitic (270 to 350 AD) dynasties. You’ll find ancient pyramids, tombs, temples and palaces here – some still worshipped by the locals today.
Hidden deep beneath scrubby New Mexico land, the 117 caves that make up Carlsbad Caverns National Park have a wonderful, magical feel to them, despite the fact you have to be decontaminated before entering. Carlsbad Cavern is the biggest and most exciting chamber in the park, housing all sorts of delightfully named stalactites such as the “Witch’s Finger” and the “Totem Pole”.
Compared with more traditional French sights like Arles and the Canal du Midi, some might dispute the inclusion of the northern town of Le Havre on the UNESCO list. However, that would be to disregard the monumental achievements by a certain Monsieur Auguste Peret, who rebuilt the town to a spectacularly unified and consistent design, following its flattening during World War II bomb raids.
Dinosaur Provincial Park, Canada
This badland park in Alberta has the richest deposit of dinosaur bones and fossils in the world. From being doused by great rivers and later covered by a thick sheet of ice during the Ice Age, to switching to swampy grove and morphing into today’s drier, rocky land, the area has undergone perfect conditions to preserve many species of reptilian beasties.
Saltaire near Bradford in West Yorkshire was founded by eminent Victorian industrialist Sir Titus Salt, who built a textiles mill and village to house his workers on the banks of the River Aire. Hence the name: Salt-aire. Far from being a stuffed model, it is still a living village. Salt built a concert hall, hospital, gymnasium and washhouses with running water for his employees.
We all know Greece is loaded with ancient archeological sites, but Aigai, near modern-day Vergina in the north of the country, is a particularly important find – and relatively overlooked. Touted as the first capital of the Kingdom of Macedonia, the site features a massive palace plastered with amazing mosaics, and a huge burial ground with over 300 tombs and graves.
China Danxia, Southwest China
China Danxia is a catch-all term referring to several UNESCO World Heritage sites in the southwest of the country that are typified by incredible rock formations erupting from red sedimentary beds. Weathering has contributed to the creation of odd-shaped ravines, waterfalls, caves, towers and pillars, all soaked in mesmerising colours like russet, burnt orange, rose pink and apricot.
It’s hard to take in the sheer size of this majestic fort with its vast, bastion-lined walls stretching out 4km long. The fort, situated near the city of Jhelum in northern Pakistan, dates back to the sixteenth century and is the best-known example of early Muslim military architecture.
Gulf of Porto, Corsica
Created in 1975, Corsica’s Regional Natural Park covers nearly 40 percent of the island and includes the wild Gulf of Porto on the island’s western coastline. This part of the island, particularly around the so-called Scandola peninsula, features a mass of rust-red porphyritic rocks, spiked islets, gaping caves and sea stacks.
An incongruous sight, this (and an endangered one, too): tower blocks soaring several stories high, encompassed by a fortified wall and plonked in the middle of the South Arabian plateau. But these are no ordinary towers; dating to the sixteenth century, these amazing buildings are made entirely out of sun-dried mud. It’s no surprise that Shibam is nicknamed the “Manhattan of the Desert”.
The people who created these magnificent rock paintings have long gone, but the figures of animals and humans are as dramatic and brightly coloured today as the day they were daubed, in pre-Hispanic times. The dry heat of the Sierra de San Francisco and the inaccessibility of the caves have ensured their remarkable preservation, though a visit is certainly possible – just be prepared for long journeys involving driving, hiking and mule-riding.