10 New UNESCO World Heritage Sites

UNESCO World Heritage added 21 new sites in the past year, and although each one is worth writing about, here are our top 10 picks for places to add to your ever-growing travel bucket list. Getting to some of these spots isn’t easy, but few things that are worthwhile ever are.

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Sanganeb Marine National Park and Dungonab Bay/Mukkawar Island Marine National Park, Sudan

This inclusion encompasses Sanganeb Marine National Park and Dungonab Bay/Mukkawar Island Marine National Park. Both are found off the coast of Sudan in the Red Sea, and represent every scuba diver’s dream. The parks are renowned for their coral reefs, plus they’re packed with marine life, from dolphins and turtles to sharks and tropical fish. This protected area is also home to a large dugong population, a manatee relation that’s distinguished by its fluked whale-like tail.

Gorham's Cave Complex, Gibraltar, United Kingdom

You’ve likely heard of the Rock of Gibraltar, known since ancient Greek times as part of the 12 impossible tasks Hercules had to perform. It’s located on the Gibraltar peninsula in Spain near Morocco, which has been a British territory since the early 18th century. Even more fascinating is that the limestone caves on the rock’s eastern side were once home to Neanderthals for at least 100,000 years. Four caves comprise Gorham’s Cave Complex, where archeologists have uncovered rock carvings, ornamental feathers and proof of a plant- and meat-based diet. The caves are also significant because they’re considered one of the last known Neanderthal dwellings, whose inhabitants lived there as recently as 28,000 years ago.

Hubei Shennongjia, China

Shennongjia Nature Reserve, a subtropical Chinese forest in the Hubei province, is home to one of China’s most biodiverse regions. Here you can find rare animal species, including the Asian black bear, clouded leopard and golden snub-nosed monkey. It’s not easy getting to the reserve, and much of it is inaccessible, but there are tourist-friendly areas worth making the multi-hour trek. You’ll find hiking trails (keep an eye out for the Chinese equivalent of Big Foot) and the impressive Shennong Altar. If you’re up for it, climb the long flight of stairs for a close-up view of the giant half-human, half-bull statue. As an active shrine, don’t be surprised to see locals paying their respects here.  

Archaeological Site of Ani, Turkey

Ancient ruins are often associated with Italy or Greece; in fact, the Archaeological Site of Philippi in Greece made this UNESCO list as well. But the ruins in Ani, Turkey, literally a stone’s throw from Armenia, are fascinating because its history as a major medieval center isn’t widely known. The city existed from the 10th to 17th centuries; at least 100,000 lived here during its height in the 11th century, when it was known as “The City of 1,001 Churches.” As an in-demand locale, it was conquered endless times throughout the centuries by everyone from the Ottomans (more than once) and Mongols to the Byzantines and Armenians. (Relations with the latter have long been tense, and the border has remained closed since 1993.) In fact, events in modern history have made it impossible for anyone to visit Ani until this past decade. Those who make the trek will find some of the ruins remarkably intact, considering centuries of war, earthquakes and vandalism. Between few tourists and the rugged, unpopulated landscape, it’s easy to visualize what life might have been like so long ago.

Pampulha Modern Ensemble, Brazil

This former complex, consisting of a church, casino, ballroom, golf course and yacht club, were all part of a grander scheme for a planned community in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Centered around man-made Pampulha Lake, the complex is a stunning example of modern architecture in the early 1940s. It was also one of architect Oscar Niemeyer’s first major projects; he went on to play a significant role in Brazil’s modern architecture movement. (It’s worth noting that famed modern architect Le Corbusier greatly influenced Niemeyer’s work; he also made this UNESCO list.) Though Pampulha no longer functions as a community, you can visit the site, along with the Pampulha Art Museum, located in the former casino.

Ennedi Massif, Chad

UNESCO added the Ennedi Massif section of the Ennedi Plateau, part of the Sahara Desert in Chad, for two reasons. The first is the wind-ravaged landscape, where towering canyons and plunging valleys are dotted by otherworldly sandstone formations. The second is the area’s abundance of petroglyphs, or rock art, deemed to be one of the largest examples in the Sahara. Much of the artwork dates back thousands of years. Niola Doa (dancing maidens) is one of the oldest and most famous sites. The hardy few that venture this far will encounter life-size depictions of women covered in intricate designs and jewelry; the complexity of it makes the mind reel to think it’s about 7,000 years old.

Stećci Medieval Tombstone Graveyards, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro

Stećci, or medieval tombstones, are largely found throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to a lesser extent in the bordering areas of Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro. UNESCO chose 28 sites for their elaborate engravings and other regional distinctions. Most of the cemeteries date between the 12th and 16th centuries, and a surprising number of limestone tombstones are well preserved, showing off inscriptions and designs that favored animals, flowers, crosses and more. Radimlja in Herzegovina contains some of the best examples of stećci thanks to a large number in a variety of shapes and sizes. Some of the most impressive tombs contain carvings of knights with bows and arrows — exactly what you’d hope to find from the Middle Ages.

Mistaken Point, Canada

Mistaken Point supposedly earned its name after countless sailors mistakenly navigated there. However, UNESCO added this rugged Newfoundland coastal area for its ancient fossils. And by ancient, this part of Canada has quietly concealed one of the oldest examples on record of large, complex life forms, which have been traced back 580 million years. The remains of these deep ocean dwellers were buried and preserved by volcanic ash; fossils found before this era reflect microscopic creatures. The Edge of Avalon Interpretive Centre, part of the Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve, leads seasonal hikes to Mistaken Point since visitors aren’t allowed without an official guide.

Archaeological Site of Nalanda Mahavihara (Nalanda University), Bihar, India

Nalanda University holds the distinction of one of the oldest universities in the world. Founded as early as the 3rd century B.C., it lasted until around the 13th century, when invaders destroyed it. It functioned as a Buddhist center and a place of higher education, where, in addition to Buddhist teachings, students are said to have learned everything from medicine and philosophy to astronomy and math. At its peak as many 10,000 students attended, and came as far away as Turkey and Korea (which explains evidence of dorms). The campus contained classrooms, temples, a library and meditation halls. Tourists can visit the ancient ruins, as well as the Nalanda Archaeological Museum, where objects excavated from the site are on display.

The Persian Qanat, Iran

Qanat are irrigation tunnels that have carried much-needed water to Iran’s desert regions for more than 3,000 years. It’s estimated that more than 30,000 qanat are still in use today; UNESCO chose 11 as ideal representations of the ancient system, such as containing a rest area for laborers to watermills and reservoirs.