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April 18th marks World Heritage Day, which is all about celebrating the history and heritage of the human race. We fell down the rabbit hole of UNESCO World Heritage Sites to find 10 that are both incredible, get-them-ticked-off-your-bucket-list places and easy to get to – from mountaintop monasteries to the largest royal palace in the world.

Gobustan Rock Art in Azerbaijan

The rock art in Gobustan is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

This plateau of rocky boulders, spread across three areas, rises out of the semi-desert of central Azerbaijan. Just an hour along the coast from capital Baku, this ancient (like, seriously ancient) landscape is home to more than 6,000 rock engravings from our planet’s earliest Picassos. Bearing testimony to a whopping 40,000 years of rock art, you’ll also find once-inhabited caves, settlements, and burials, as well as more than 400 mud volcanoes in the wider Gobustan area – think less fiery infernos, more small, happily belching puddles of brown bubbles.

You can drive to Gobustan in just over an hour if you’re based in Baku, or you can hop on a local bus that’ll take you right down the coast.

The Semmering Railway in Austria

The Semmering Railway in Austria is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

The first railway to be added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List back in 1998, the Semmering Railway runs between Glognitz and Murzzuschlag, crossing over 16 viaducts and passing through 15 tunnels – all through some of the country’s most beautiful scenery, the Austrian Alps. And you probably recognise that little red train ambling across viaducts too – you’ll find it on nearly every single list of the world’s most scenic train journeys.

You’ll start at Gloggnitz station, 436 m above sea level, and about 90 minutes later (slightly dazed) find yourself a couple of hundred feet higher at the Muzzuschlag station. South of capital Vienna, you can take a direct (somewhat less awe-inspiring) train from here to Gloggnitz in about 50 minutes.

The Historic District of Old Quebec in Canada

Old Quebec City is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

The only fortified city north of Mexico and the birthplace of French North America, Old Quebec has over 400 years of history and is like a little piece of Europe across the pond. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, Old Quebec is home to Petit-Champlain, one of the oldest shopping streets in North America, and the grand Parliament Building, modelled after none other than the Louvre in Paris. Nearby you’ll find the Fontaine de Tourny, a fountain originally installed in Bordeaux back in 1857 before being moved here in the 60s.

The Plains of Abraham is Quebec’s answer to New York’s Central Park, whilst Grande Allée in summer means al fresco dining on outdoor patios – you’ll seriously think you’re in Europe. And that building watching over all? That’s the Château Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. It doesn’t get easier when it comes to visiting a UNESCO World Heritage Site when the whole place is one!

The Summer Palace Imperial Gardens in Beijing

The Imperial Summer Palace in Beijing is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

Just 9 miles outside Beijing and a marvel of Chinese garden design, the Imperial Summer Palace is a garden on steroids – they actually call it the ‘Museum of Royal Gardens’. Made up largely of Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake, it’s the largest and most well-preserved royal park in the country. First built in 1750, in 1869 it was burned down by the Anglo-French Allied Forces. Rebuilt in 1888, it wouldn’t be until 1914 that it opened to the public before finally gaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 1998.

On Longevitity Hill you’ll find various buildings, ranging from the Hall of Dispelling Clouds to the Hall of the Sea of Wisdom, whilst in the Kunming Lake area you’ll find the Seventeen-Arch Bridge and the Marble Boat. It’s easy to reach by subway from the city too – take line 4 or 10 from the centre.

Flights to Beijing

The Painted Churches in Cyprus’ Troodos Mountains 

The Painted Churches in Troodos are one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

The largest mountain range in Cyprus, the Troodos Mountains can be found roughly in the centre of the country and are known for their copper mines, their tiny villages clinging to terraced hills, a listening post for the NSA and GCHQ – and several Byzantine monasteries and churches that now form a collective UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Deceptively simple-looking from the outside, the second you step through the doors it’s all about the frescoes that date back to the 11th and 12th centuries that exhibit Byzantine metropolitan art at its best, as well dated inscriptions – said to be an uncommon feature in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Middle Ages, and another reason why this site gained Heritage status in 1985.

If you’re based in Paphos, it’s easiest to rent a car to make the quick trip to Troodos (just over an hour – and they drive on the left hand side too!) but you can also visit the area via coach as part of a tour.

Flights to Paphos

Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates

Al Ain is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

90 minutes inland from downtown Abu Dhabi and at the crossroads of the ancient land routes between Oman, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf and Mesopotamia, Al Ain is a little lush oasis and one of the world’s oldest permanently inhabited settlements. Here, you can wander through historical forts – like the beautiful Qasr Al Muwaiji fort, which has been carefully preserved and restored into a state-of-the-art museum, and Al Jahili, one of the biggest forts in the UAE – archaeological parks, and old-world palaces.

The lush greenery of Al Ain Oasis is thanks to the ancient irrigation system known as falaj – an essential piece of the region’s heritage dating back to the Iron Age and one of reasons why Al Ain became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011.

Although part of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi, Al Ain is easily reachable from both Abu Dhabi and Dubai. You can get a bus from both cities, which’ll take around 2 hours, or you can rent a car and drive in about 1 hour from Abu Dhabi or 1 hour 30mins from Dubai – both cities are actually the same distance from Al Ain, but the traffic on getting out of Dubai can be fierce. 

The Royal Palace of Caserta in Italy

The Royal Palace of Caserta is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

Commissioned by Charles III of Spain (who also happened to be Charles VII of Naples) in the mid-18th century, the Royal Palace of Caserta is actually the biggest (by volume) in the world – yep, even bigger than Versailles.

Designed in the Baroque style, it’s full of lavish interiors – think many, many rooms, galleries, and halls decorated with frescoes, sculptures, and intricate designs reflecting the wealth and power of the Bourbon dynasty.  But the one thing you’ll probably make a beeline for (most do) is the Grand Staircase, designed by Vanvitelli. This double-revolution staircase was inspired by the one at the Palace of Versailles, and was featured in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (it was in Mission Impossible III, too).

The other big draw here is that incredible cascading fountain that reaches all the way down to the palace itself in gardens that spread across 120 hectares. This, and the excellent example of Baroque art and architecture to be found here is what led to the palace becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

Only 28 miles from Naples, and you can get it to easily by hopping on either a slower regionale train or a speedier Intercity train from Napoli Centrale. From the station in Caserta it’s about a 20 minute walk, but you can grab a taxi if you don’t fancy the exercise.

Flights to Naples

The ruins of Chichen Itza in Mexico

Chichen Itza is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

One of the most important and well-preserved archaeological sites in Mexico (and the world), Chichen Itza was once a major pre-Columbian city built by the Maya civilization. Featuring a blend of Maya and Toltec cultures, it played a crucial role in facilitating the exchange of goods and ideas right across Mesoamerica.

There’s a lot to see here (it is a whole city, after all) but some of the standout sites include the Temple of the Warriors, a complex that features a large pyramid and a temple adorned with columns and sculptures covered in depictions of warriors and mythological creatures; the Sacred Cenote – or Well of Sacrifice – a natural sinkhole where it’s believed offerings (humans included) were made to the gods; and the Temple of Kukulkan, a pyramid temple dedicated to the feathered serpent deity Kukulkan. One of the most famous sites here, it’s got a unique design that aligns with astronomical phenomena, such as the equinoxes when shadows create an illusion of a serpent descending the pyramid’s steps.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, you can reach Chichen Itza by car from Cancun in about 2 hours by taking the Cancun-Merida Highway, or you can take the ADO bus to Merida from downtown Cancun – it’ll take about 2 and a half to 3 hours.

Flights to Cancun

The Monasteries of Meteora in Greece

Meteora in Greece is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites

Meaning ‘in the heavens’, Meteora in Greece is known for its natural beauty, its historical significance – and monasteries that sit perched perilously on top of rock formations liked bird’s nests. If there’s anything you have to see to actually believe it, it might just be this.

With the area inhabited since ancient times, these monasteries have their origins in the Byzantine era, when in the 14th century, monks began constructing them on the steep rock pillars, using ropes and ladders to reach these spiritual retreats hidden in the rugged landscape. Safe from political upheaval, this was the only means of reaching them and they were drawn up whenever the monks felt threatened.

The largest and oldest of the Meteora monasteries is the Great Metereon. It houses a rich collection of religious artifacts, manuscripts, and frescoes. The Holy Trinity Monastery, meanwhile, is known for its incredible views (and for being featured in Bond film, For Your Eyes Only).

The best way to visit Meteora is by car so you can visit as many monasteries as you like and at your own pace – you can reach it in a few hours whether you’re based in Athens or Thessaloniki, but you can also join guided tours from both cities too. Oh, and you don’t have to reach the monasteries by rope and bucket like back in the day – steps have been carved into the rock formations!

Flights to Athens

Agra Fort in Agra, India

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is often overlooked thanks to its neighbour – the Taj Mahal. Primarily constructed during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great in the mid-16th century, it’s been added to and extended over the years into what you’ll see today.

On the banks of the Yamuna River, it’s served as a military stronghold, administrative centre, and royal residence for the Mughal rulers. Known for its distinctive red hue, there’s a series of palaces, mosques, and gardens within the complex, including the Palace of Mirrors – adorned with intricate mirror work, it creates a stunning visual effect when illuminated with candles or lamps.

One of the fort’s most famous historical events is actually the imprisonment of Emperor Shah Jahan by his son Aurangzeb. Confined to a tower within the fort, Shah Jahan could see the Taj Mahal from his room, the building he had built in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal.

If you’re already planning to see the Taj Mahal while in Uttar Pradesh, then it couldn’t be easier to tick off this place too – it’s right next door, after all.

Flights to Delhi

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