UNESCO is a specialised agency of the United Nations that contributes to the building of peace, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education and culture. It also cures the World Heritage List, a group of places around the world with outstanding cultural or natural significance for humanity. In short, the places that make up our world’s heritage.
There are currently 203 natural sites on the World Heritage List, each displaying a mix of exceptional natural beauty, biological and geological diversity as well as showcasing major stages of Earth’s history and record of life. We’ve picked 15 of the most beautiful natural UNESCO sites, ranging from tropical rainforests and deserts to complex cave systems and volcanoes.
Dorset and East Devon Coast, UK
If you need a visualisation of Jane Austen’s novels, head to the Dorset and East Devon Coast – also known as the Jurassic Coast. The endless shoreline consists of distinctive rock formations such as red mudstone cliffs, beaches filled with fossils from early dinosaurs, quiet bays, rich grasslands and romantic villages.
One of the most recognisable natural landmarks is the limestone arch of Durdle Door. While most layers of limestone are horizontal, the Durdle Door stands almost vertically out of the sea, making it a marvel of geology.
Want to get a unique souvenir? Go fossil hunting on Charmouth Beach and bring home your very own little piece of natural history.
Archipiélago de Revillagigedo, Mexico
Archipiélago de Revillagigedo, a group of four volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean, has entered the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2016.
Located to the west of Mexico, the four islands showed no sign of human habitation before their discovery by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. Sometimes called Mexico’s ‘little Galapagos’, the islands are known to have a unique ecosystem attracting scientific explorers from all over the world.
Although there are no tourist facilities, curious travellers sail here as part of arranged tours to discover the diverse flora, fauna and topography of the islands. The seas around the islands are popular with scuba divers, who can interact with giant manta rays, sharks and dolphins.
Wet Tropics of Queensland, Australia
Though it only occupies 1% of Australia’s territory, the Wet Tropics of Queensland, with its rugged terrain, deep gorges, splashing rivers and roaring waterfalls is one of the most spectacular rainforests around.
Stretching along the north-east coast of Australia, the rainforest contains numerous rare plant and animal species and showcases an almost complete record of plant life evolution on Earth. Walk the Wet Tropics and spot 90 different kinds of orchids, listen to the sounds of birds only found here, such as the red-green Australian king parrot, and take a swim in one of the many natural pools.
Read more: Best beaches in Australia
Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, China
Deep into the Sichuan province in southwest China, surrounded by expansive parks and snow-capped mountains, you’ll find perhaps one of China’s most famous and beloved residents, the cuddly panda bear. Up until recently the World Wildlife Fund has defined the species as endangered, but due to successful conservation efforts the status has been changed to vulnerable. Though this is reason for joy, they are still a conservation-dependent species due to habitat loss and poaching.
They are rarely seen in the wild, but at Wolong National Natural Reserve, one of the most important breeding centres in the country, you’ll be able to meet 150 of them. You can see pandas in all stages of their lives, from mice-like babies and cubs to adult pandas spending most of their time sleeping and eating bamboo.
Caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst, Hungary/Slovakia
Along the border of Hungary and Slovakia, the 712 caves of Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst form the largest cave system in Central Europe. These caves are outstanding due to their diversity of structures and habitats, and have been shaped over tens of millions of years.
Among the most important is the Baradla-Domica cave complex, which stretches over 25 km through both countries. This subterranean world includes, among many wonders, a dome featuring top-notch acoustics, where visitors can give into some joyous moments of classical music.
Worth mentioning is also the Dobšinská Ice Cave, a cave filled with impressive ice formations, such as icefalls, ice stalagmites and glaciers.
Read more: Incredible underground cities
Białowieża Forest, Poland/Belarus
Virgin woodland Białowieża Forest, stretching across Belarus and Poland, is among the last remaining primary forests. Big parts of the forest have been undisturbed for centuries, and host today a diverse flora and fauna, mixing new- and old-growth vegetation. Ancient oaks grow in diameter every year, and some are even individually named, such as the 34-metre high Great Mamamuszi and the dying King of Nieznanowo.
Roaming with the howls of wolves, the whistles of owls, the shrieks of elks and the roars of stags, the 8000-year-old Białowieża hosts around 900 European bisons – or 25% of the entire world’s population.
If you are wondering what the forest tastes like, try the famous Żubrówka vodka that contains a blade of bison grass grown right here.
Lut Desert, Iran
Another newbie on the UNESCO World Heritage List, Lut Desert in south-east Iran is one of the hottest and driest places in the world. Clocking in at 70C, it’s where the highest land temperature has ever been recorded.
Deserts can feature diversity as well – it’s not just scorching sand – and Lut is the perfect showcase. While the eastern part of the desert is covered in salt flats shining white under the sun, the centre is decorated with parallel ridges and furrows sculpted by the wind. Finally the south-east is an expansive area of sand seas and dunes.
Mount Etna, Italy
The largest active volcano in Europe, Mount Etna is a colossal presence on the eastern coast of Sicily.
There are around 200 documented eruptions dating back to 1500 B.C. Walking around the volcano area, you’ll notice the eerie tracks hot lava has left throughout time: from recent flows burning everything in their wake to the rock formations of ancient eruptions, now covered by pine and birch forests.
The best time to visit is during lava-producing eruptions, but not to worry, you’ll enjoy the spectacle far enough from the craters, where it’s safe and the view is unforgettable. Eruptions, though regular, are unpredictable, so you’ll need to be a bit flexible.
Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord, Norway
West Norway’s fjords are seen as some of the most unique places on the planet, and once there, the surreal beauty will make you question your sight.
North-east of Bergen, Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord, set 120 km from one another, are among the world’s longest and deepest fjords. Picture this: a steep landscape where half a kilometre-high cliffs plunge directly into the sea, waterfalls plummet from incredible heights, and the water reflects shades of blue and emerald.
Yosemite National Park, USA
Ancient sequoia trees, granite monoliths, thick forests, deep valleys, cascading waterfalls – welcome to the gobsmacking Yosemite National Park!
Besides the geologic and biologic diversity, Yosemite has also been inhabited by humans some 10,000 years ago. Traces of indigenous natives, who called themselves Ahwahneechee, can be found in the national park. In Yosemite Valley you’ll be able to visit a reconstructed village complete with sweathouses, acorn granaries, ceremonial houses and a chief’s house.
Whether you choose to hug a 2000-year old sequoia tree, climb up the Half Dome, or picnic in the El Capitan Meadow, everything about Yosemite is awe-inspiring.
Danube Delta, Romania
Europe’s second longest river, the Danube, flows through 10 countries before it empties in the Black Sea, forming a delta of wetlands, patches of reed, endless waterways covered in water lilies and riverbanks lined with willows and poplars.
Among one of the most diverse and intact deltas in the world, the Danube Delta is a nature lover’s and birdwatcher’s paradise. Over 300 species of birds call this place home – with the white pelican reigning over them.
Take a boat ride along the quiet rivers and try to spot as many birds as possible. Round your trip with a visit to the thinly inhabited villages that still maintain a traditional touch: colourful small houses, animal sheds with reed roofs and simple boat shacks.
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Lake Baikal, Russia
The lake that rules them all, Lake Baikal is situated deep in the Siberian outskirts, and is the oldest, deepest and largest freshwater lake by volume in the world.
Shaped in the form of a banana, the lake holds the clearest deep blue water where the world’s only freshwater seals – the nerpas – live. It’s a bit of a mystery how they made their way to Baikal: the most accepted theory posits that the nerpas descend from the ringed seal and have been isolated here for half a million years.
Summer and winter showcase two very different sides of the lake and its surroundings. While the summer months allow for many activities such as trekking, hiking, camping and fishing, the lake freezes completely during the winter months, creating a thick layer of transparent ice.
Read more: Natural swimming pools around the world
Mistaken Point, Canada
Recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, Mistaken Point, on the southern tip of Newfoundland, is known for its numerous extremely well preserved fossils. Since they’ve been covered by layers of volcanic ash, it has been possible to estimate their age – and at approximately 565 million years, these fossils make for the oldest and rarest of their kind.
This place takes its name from the fact that sailors, especially in foggy weather, mistook it for nearby Cape Race. They turned north and expected to arrive at Cape Race Harbour, but ran into rocks instead.
Since it became a UNESCO site, visiting is only possible as part of a guided tour, so make sure to call ahead of your visit.
Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
Legend says that a great mountain dragon descended into the sea, carving out the grand limestone pillars and tiny islets that make up Ha Long Bay.
Located in the Gulf of Tonkin, Ha Long Bay is among Vietnam’s top tourist attractions – no wonder, since its 1,600 islands and islets form a mystical seascape that leaves even the most sceptical visitor in awe. Due to the harsh conditions, most of these islands are completely uninhabited and therefore untouched by humans.
Peak tourist season is between May–August, but if you visit January–March, the ensuing fog will add another layer of eerie beauty to this place.
High Coast/Kvarken Archipelago, Sweden/Finland
Though situated on opposite sides of the Gulf of Bothnia, the High Coast (Sweden) and the Kvarken Archipelago (Finland) feature together on the UNESCO list due to the similar geological processes that have shaped them.
It’s hard to imagine that areas rife with human endeavours – agriculture, fishing, tourism – were once covered in an endless mass of thick ice that throughout thousands of years has melted, letting the land rise. Nowhere in the world has landmass risen as much as here – 283 m above sea – and it continues to rise a little bit every year.
The numerous hilltops, fields, lakes, caves and bays bear witness to this extraordinary process.