UNESCO World Heritage sites are among the most beautiful and fascinating on earth. We lead you through some of the highlights.

The UNESCO World Heritage Sites programme was set up to help preserve the world's cultural and natural heritage. To date, some 830 ‘properties' in 138 countries make up the list, all considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

Some sites already enjoy great popularity with tourists and locals alike: The Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat for example need no introduction. Nor does Venice, or the Pyramids of Egypt. But there are plenty more sites to discover all around the world.

Want some great vistas?

If hiking is your thing, check out the spectacular volcanic landscape of Tongariro National Park in New Zealand: the Tongariro Crossing is one of the most popular day walks in a country notorious for its hiking trails.

Or join the pilgrims on the Route of Santiago de Compostela (St James’ Way): it played a fundamental role in encouraging cultural exchanges between the Iberian peninsula and the rest of Europe during the Middle Ages, and is still one of the most important pilgrimages in Europe.

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Going under?

There is plenty to see below the surface of the earth too, from the fascinating salt mines of Wieliczka in Poland to the Škocjan Caves in Slovenia, an exceptional system of limestone caves boasting one of the largest underground chambers. Also worth seeing are the prehistoric sites and decorated caves of the Vézère Valley in France, among them the famous Lascaux.

Like wildlife?

Go whale watching in Baja California. The Whale Sanctuary of El Vizcaino is an important reproduction and wintering site for grey and blue whales, and also attracts seals, sea lions and turtles.

Back on terra firma, Simien National Park in Ethiopia offers one of the most spectacular landscapes in the world (think jagged mountain peaks, deep valleys and sharp precipices hundreds of metres high), and the chance to spot some extremely rare animals, among them the Gelada baboon, the Simien fox and the Walia ibex, a goat found nowhere else in the world.

Or explore the Thungyai-Huai Kha Khaeng Wildlife Sanctuaries on the border between Myanmar and Thailand, which contain 77% of the large mammals (especially elephants and tigers), 50% of the large birds and 33% of the land vertebrates to be found in South-East Asia.

Birdwatchers have plenty of sites to choose from too, including the Danube Delta in Romania, Europe’s largest and best preserved delta, home to over 300 bird species, and New Zealand’s Sub-Antarctic Islands, a must see for anyone interested in seabirds and penguins (The islands are home to 126 bird species, including 40 seabirds, of which five breed nowhere else in the world).

Kids in tow?

Head for Shark Bay in Western Australia: its vast sea-grass beds (the largest and richest in the world) attract large numbers of dugongs (sea cows), which are perennial favourites with children.

Or if you're after something really special, what about the volcanic islands of Komodo National Park in Indonesia? A population of around 5,700 giant lizards (the famous ‘Komodo dragons', thus called because of their appearance and aggressive behaviour) call the park home.

Plants more your thing?

The Cape Floral Region in South Africa is an obvious choice. One of the richest areas on Earth for plants, it represents less than 0.5% of the area of Africa but is home to nearly 20% of the continent's flora.

Or if you prefer gardens to wild spaces, what about the Classical Gardens of Suzhou in China, masterpieces of the Classical Chinese garden design genre, which seeks to recreate natural landscapes in miniature?

Fancy a city break?

In Europe, Cracow in Poland boasts the continent’s largest market square, while the city of Porto in Portugal, built along the hillsides overlooking the mouth of the Douro River, is an outstanding urban landscape with a 1,000-year history.

Further afield the historic monuments of ancient Kyoto, the imperial capital of Japan, show Japanese wooden architecture and Japanese gardens at their best, and Quito, the capital of Ecuador (perched 2,850m/ 9,350ft above sea level), has the best-preserved, least altered historic city centre in Latin America.

Interested in architecture?

Brasilia, the official capital of Brazil, was created out of nothing in the centre of the country in 1956, and was a landmark in the history of town planning - the modern buildings are striking.

Tel Aviv
(The White City) in Israel is the place for Bauhaus architecture fans, while several of the works of Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain, are also on the UNESCO World Heritage list. For something more traditional try the Loire Valley in France, famous for its magnificent châteaux. And if this is not enough, there are plenty more castles and palaces to discover.

(just outside Paris) and Schönbrunn in Vienna are the most famous, but you could also try Kronborg Castle (also known as Elsinore) in Denmark, the setting of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, from which Moorish monarchs ruled over Andalucia in the 13th and 14th centuries.

Like archaeology?

Tikal in Guatemala is a mesmerising place, with ruins hidden in a dense jungle. Across the border in Mexico, Chichen Itza was one of the greatest Mayan centres on the Yucatan peninsula, and although it gets crowded during the day, it has to be seen to be believed. Try to get there really early to avoid the tour coaches and catch the sun rising over the spectacular ruins.

On a smaller scale but just as interesting, you will find remains of the first Viking settlements of North America in L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada, and the beautiful Doric temples in Agrigento in Sicily, a former Greek colony.

Off-the-beaten track destination?

The volcanoes of Kamchatka in the Russian Federation might be too remote for most, but what about Leptis Magna in Libya, one of the most beautiful and best preserved cities of the Roman Empire?

National Park in Montenegro is much less well known than other, bigger parks but just as beautiful: it boasts the deepest gorges in Europe, dense pine forests and clear lakes, together with a rich flora.

So what's the future?

The UNESCO project is a work in progress. Last year for example the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries in China, which is home to more than 30% of the world's highly endangered pandas, joined the list. The sanctuaries constitute the largest remaining habitat of the giant panda, and are the species' most important site for captive breeding.
Several of the sites might not be around forever: the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, for example, contains the world's largest collection of coral reefs, but many of those habitats are threatened by global warming. And the snow cap of Kilimanjaro is melting fast too. So get there before it's too late, and of course help UNESCO protect these treasures so they can be preserved for future generations.

Further information
For the UNESCO World Heritage website, click here: http://whc.unesco.org

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