Every year, UNESCO meets to determine the next round of places that will be added to the organization's coveted list of World Heritage Sites. To qualify, a place or structure must have great cultural, historical, and/or natural significance - say, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, or Machu Picchu in Peru. This year's committee named a whopping 29 new spots, including Italy’s Prosecco region, India’s colorful Jaipur City, and eight Frank Lloyd Wright buildings across the U.S. Below, you’ll find 14 of the most interesting places on the list. Each is as beautiful and diverse as the next - so get your passports ready.
Paraty and Ilha Grand, Brazil
The coastal town of Paraty and nearby island of Ilha Grande are our go-tos for exploring beyond Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo (Paraty is in the middle the two major cities, about four hours from each). The two offer pretty different experiences: Paraty is a charming, 17th-century colonial-style town, with white-washed buildings decorated with colorful trim, while Ilha Grande is a minimally developed, car-free island. But both offer incredible biodiversity: A visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site will likely include howler monkey, sloth, jaguar, caiman, and peccary spottings.
The capital of the ancient Burmese empire, Bagan is Myanmar’s version of Angkor Wat - with a fraction of the tourists. Filled with 13th- and 15th-century Buddhist temples, monasteries, and stupas, it offers a glimpse of the once-powerful Bagan empire. Today, you can get the best views at sunrise in one of the hot air balloons that float over the area. And if the few tourists are still too much for you, head to Kyaukgu Umin, a nearby monument that’s stunning and much quieter.
Bom Jesus do Braga Sanctuary, Braga, Portugal
Less than an hour from Porto, Portugal's most creative city, sits Braga, home to one of the most iconic examples of 17th-century Baroque architecture. The hike up the 577 steps to the cathedral at the top (a feat some pilgrims complete on their knees) includes lots of stops, as the architects placed small chapels on different terraces along the way depicting the Passion of Christ. The church itself is beautiful, but it's the zig-zagging steps - known as the Via Crucis - that UNESCO is recognizing.
Jaipur is one of the most colorful cities in the world, hands down—and it’s not just the peachy pink that coats most buildings’ exteriors that make it so. The interiors of the shops, restaurants, and hotels in the city are a kaleidoscope of colors, too. But it’s the city planning, grid layout, and large public squares, or chaupars, that put Jaipur on UNESCO’s map. The grid plan is a model that prevails in the West, while the organization of the different districts refers to traditional Hindu concepts.
Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria, Spain
Located on Gran Canaria in the Canary Islands, the Risco Caido area is being recognized for the work of its pre-Hispanic cave dwellers. In the center of the island, those that lived on the island before the 15th century created granaries, cisterns, and homes in the mountains themselves. The real draw is the two sacred temples in giant mountain cavities where the inhabitants held star-centered ceremonies.
The 20th-century architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, United States
Crediting his open floor plans, innovative style, and "unprecedented use of materials such as steel and concrete," UNESCO chose eight buildings designed by renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to be recognized this year. You'll find the Robie House and the Unity Temple in Chicago, Taliesin and the Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House in Wisconsin, and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona on the list. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City (pictured) and Los Angeles' Hollyhock House round it out.
Hyrcanian Forests, Iran
By far the oldest of UNESCO's new additions, Iran's Hyrcanian forests along the Caspian Sea date back 25 to 50 million years. Filled with maple, ash, and elm trees, the forests cover about 7 percent of Iran - but house more than 40 percent of the country's plant life, according to UNESCO. Some, but not all, of the area is protected by the government, like Golestan National Park, home to the Persian leopard. More than 180 species of birds also call these forests home.
Nearly 3,000 years ago, these palace and temple ruins near Baghdad were the site of one of the most important cities in the ancient world. Once ruled by Nebuchadnezzar, the city isn’t quite its shining self anymore, with many of its ruins left unexcavated and those existing damaged by the region’s earlier conflicts. That said, the UNESCO World Heritage distinction comes with a dose of hope for the sites, including aid in restoration should they be further damaged in the future.
Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
Home to one of the largest glaciers in the world, Vatnajökull National Park is one of our favorite places to explore ice caves. But there's more than just frozen ice rivers to see at Vatnajökull, which covers much of Iceland's eastern half. It holds two of the island's most active volcanoes, herds of reindeer around Mt. Snæfell, and a number of breathtaking waterfalls, including Svartifoss, Dettifoss, and Selfoss. It also served as a filming location for some beyond the Wall scenes in Game of Thrones's early seasons.
Le Colline del Prosecco di Conegliano e Valdobbiadene, Italy
Yes, this is that Prosecco, the region of Italy that grows grapes for sparkling wine just north of Venice. Because the area is so hilly, Italians in the 17th century took advantage of what they could, planting small plots of vines on the hills’ terraces, creating a lush, green, checkerboard pattern over the terrain. There is an entire road trip dedicated to the Prosecco Road, lined by more than three dozen vineyards, if you want to see - and drink your way through - the region. Ask me about it!
Historic Center and Khan Palace, Sheki, Azerbaijan
This addition to the UNESCO list is split into two parts: the historic city center of Sheki and the nearby Khan Palace. Almost the entire city was rebuilt in the 18th century after mudslides demolished what had existed before, so much of the historic center is in the same architectural style, with high, gabled roofs covered in brownish-red tiles. A four-hour drive from Azerbaijan’s up-and-coming capital Baku, the Khan Palace was built around the same time, though the craftsmen’s masterpiece has its own design features, including stunning stained glass windows and an almost completely tiled colorful exterior.
Migratory Bird Sanctuaries, China
China's intertidal mudflats and marshes run along the coast of the Yellow Sea and Gulf of Bohai. Cranes and deer have also made this area their home, alongside the huge number of endangered bird species that fly through the area on their way through the East Asian-Australasian Flyway, which stretches from Alaska to Australia. Spoon-billed sandpipers, red-crowned cranes (pictured), and more nest, molt, or winter in the area.
Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group, Japan
You likely haven’t noticed the kofun, or ancient tombs, scattered throughout Osaka prefecture, because honestly, from street-level, they look like lush parks. But from the sky, these key-hole shaped burial mounds show off their true size: enormous, multiple acres-large spaces with their own moats (sometimes two), that date back to the third century. UNESCO chose just 49 of the 160,000 kofun across Japan for their exceptional offerings, including pottery, weapons, and jewels the dead were buried with.
Budj Bim Cultural Landscape, Australia
This sweeping region on Australia’s southwest coast, about four hours from Melbourne, is the ancestral homeland of the Gunditjmara. It’s also the first Aborigine site recognized by UNESCO. At 6,000 years old, the freshwater aquaculture system that traps eels in Budj Bim is older than Stonehenge - and is vital to the area’s Aborigine culture and economic success. The UNESCO site also includes the extinct Budj Bim Volcano and 300 stone huts nearby, the only existing permanent houses built by indigenous people in the country.
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