Dream Destinations Steeped in Culture and Natural Beauty

We travel to open our eyes to new experiences, cultures, sights and ideas. UNESCO, an agency of the United Nations, designates World Heritage landmarks around the world that are selected for their cultural, historical, scientific or other significance, and are legally protected by international treaties.

Currently there are 1,073 sites listed, the majority of them (832) for cultural reasons, and 206 are listed for their natural features. Only 35 meet the criteria for both cultural and natural features. 

Prairies of seagrass, mountain and monasteries, the oldest human settlements in Europe, a volcanic archipelago, petrified waterfalls and more make up these extraordinary features.

If you're building your travel dream list, this is a good place to start. Here are 30 places rich in natural beauty and steeped in history and culture.

Meteora, Greece

Meteora, Greece
In a region of almost inaccessible sandstone peaks, monks settled on these "columns of the sky" from the 11th century onward, according to UNESCO. Twenty-four of these monasteries were built, despite incredible difficulties, at the time of the great revival of the eremetic ideal in the 15th century.

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Mount Athos, Greece

Mount Athos, Greece
Another site with monasteries towering up high, Mount Athos, an autonomous region in Greece, is an Orthodox spiritual center dating back to 1054. The "Holy Mountain", shown, is forbidden to women and children and is a recognized artistic site, according to UNESCO.

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Pyrénées - Mont Perdu, France and Spain

Pyrénées - Mont Perdu, France and Spain
The third highest mountain (11,000 feet) in the Pyrénées, this pastoral landscape reflects an agricultural way of life that was once widespread but now survives only in this part of the Pyrénées. The site includes two of Europe's largest and deepest canyons on the Spanish side and three major cirque walls on the more abrupt northern slopes with France, according to UNESCO.

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Ibiza, Spain

Ibiza, Spain
This island in the Mediterranean Sea off the east coast of Spain is noted for its interaction between the marine and coastal ecosystems, UNESCO says. Prairies of seagrass support a diversity of marine life. Archaeological sites indicate the important role played by the island in history. The fortified Upper Town is an outstanding example of Renaissance military architecture.

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Ohrid region, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia

Ohrid region, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia
Situated on the shores of Lake Ohrid, which straddles the mountainous border between southwestern Macedonia and eastern Albania, the town of Ohrid is one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, UNESCO says. Built between the 7th and 19th centuries, it has the oldest Slav monastery and more than 800 Byzantine-style icons dating from the 11th to the end of the 14th century. Above, Sveti (Saint) Jovan Kaneo Church on Lake Ohrid.

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St Kilda, United Kingdom

St Kilda, United Kingdom
This volcanic archipelago, with its spectacular landscapes, is situated off the coast of the Hebrides in Scotland. It has some of the highest cliffs in Europe, which have large colonies of rare and endangered species of birds, especially puffins and gannets, above. UNESCO says it bears the evidence of more than 2,000 years of human occupation in the extreme conditions prevalent in the Hebrides. 

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Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, Turkey

Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, Turkey
A spectacular landscape, entirely sculpted by erosion, the Göreme valley and its surroundings contain rock-hewn sanctuaries that provide unique evidence of Byzantine art in the post-Iconoclastic period. Dwellings, troglodyte villages and underground towns -- the remains of a traditional human habitat dating back to the 4th century -- can also be seen there, according to UNESCO. Travelers should note the U.S. state department has issued travel warnings for Turkey.

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Hierapolis-Pamukkale, Turkey

Hierapolis-Pamukkale, Turkey
Calcite-laden waters have created an unreal landscape made up of mineral forests, petrified waterfalls and a series of terraced basins, above. The ruins of 2nd-century B.C. baths, temples and other Greek monuments can be seen at the site.

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Wadi Rum Protected Area, Jordan

Wadi Rum Protected Area, Jordan
This varied desert landscape near the border with Saudi Arabia features narrow gorges, natural arches, towering cliffs, ramps, massive landslides and caverns. Petroglyphs, inscriptions and archaeological remains in the site testify to 12,000 years of human occupation. Rock carvings and inscriptions trace the evolution of human thought and the early development of the alphabet, UNESCO says. Above, a Bedouin man serves coffee in Wadi Rum. 

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Kakadu National Park, Australia

Kakadu National Park, Australia
This unique archaeological and ethnological reserve, located in Australia's Northern Territory, has been inhabited continuously for more than 40,000 years. Cave paintings, rock carvings and archaeological sites record the skills and way of life of the region's inhabitants, from the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric times to the Aboriginal people still living there, UNESCO says. Above, the Jim Jim Falls in the park.

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Willandra Lakes Region, Australia

Willandra Lakes Region, Australia
A unique landmark in the study of human evolution on the Australian continent. There is archaeological evidence of human occupation dating from 45,000 to 60,000 years ago. Several well-preserved fossils of giant marsupials have also been found here. Above, erosion formations at sunset in the famous "Walls of China" region of Lake Mungo.

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Tasmanian Wilderness, Australia

Tasmanian Wilderness, Australia
These parks and reserves, with their steep gorges, is one of the last expanses of temperate rainforest in the world. Remains found in limestone caves attest to the human occupation of the area for more than 20,000 years. Above, Russell Falls at Mount Field National Park.

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Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia
This park, formerly called Uluru (Ayers Rock -- Mount Olga) National Park, features spectacular geological formations that dominate the vast red sandy plain of central Australia. Uluru, an immense monolith, and Kata Tjuta, the rock domes located west of Uluru, form part of the traditional belief system of one of the oldest human societies in the world. The traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta are the Anangu Aboriginal people.

Photo: Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock.com

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand

Tongariro National Park, New Zealand
The mountains at the heart of the park have cultural and religious significance for the Maori people and symbolize the spiritual links between this community and its environment. The park has active and extinct volcanoes, a diverse range of ecosystems and some spectacular landscapes. Above, hikers at Emerald lakes.

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Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Palau

Rock Islands Southern Lagoon, Palau
Snorkelers would delight in these 445 uninhabited limestone islands of volcanic origin. Many of them display unique mushroom-like shapes in turquoise lagoons surrounded by coral reefs. This complex reef system sustains a large diversity of plants, birds and marine life including dugong and at least thirteen shark species.

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Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam

Trang An Landscape Complex, Vietnam
This landscape of limestone karst peaks is permeated with valleys, many of them partly submerged and surrounded by steep, almost vertical cliffs. Exploration of caves at different altitudes has revealed archaeological traces of human activity over a continuous period of more than 30,000 years. The property also contains temples, pagodas, paddy fields and small villages. Above, tourists in Trang An take cave tours.

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Mount Emei Scenic Area, Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area, China

Mount Emei Scenic Area, including Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area, China
Mount Emei has over 30 temples and some of the most important cultural treasures of China, including the remarkable Leshan Giant Buddha, above, carved in the 8th century CE out of the hillside of Xijuo Peak. It is the tallest Buddha sculpture in the world.

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Mount Taishan, China

Mount Taishan, China
The sacred Mount Tai was the object of an imperial cult for nearly 2,000 years, and the artistic masterpieces found there are in perfect harmony with the natural landscape. It has always been a source of inspiration for Chinese artists and scholars and symbolizes ancient Chinese civilizations and beliefs.

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Mount Huangshan, China

Mount Huangshan, China
Mount Huangshan was a magnet for hermits, poets and landscape artists, fascinated by its dramatic mountainous landscape consisting of numerous granitic peaks emerging through a perpetual sea of clouds. The landscape is the inspiration for the influential Shanshui ("Mountain and Water") school of landscape painting, according to UNESCO.

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Mount Wuyi, China

Mount Wuyi, China
The dramatic gorges of the Nine-Bend River juxtaposes smooth rock cliffs with clear, deep water. Situated along this river are numerous temples and monasteries, many now in ruins, which provided the setting for the development and spread of Neo-Confucianism. UNESCO says Mount Wuyi is the most outstanding area for biodiversity conservation in southeast China.

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Khangchendzonga National Park, India

Khangchendzonga National Park, India
This park includes the world's third highest peak, Mount Khangchendzonga in the heart of the Himalayas. It features a unique diversity of plains, valleys, lakes, glaciers and spectacular, snow-capped mountains covered with ancient forests. A great number of natural elements (caves, rivers, lakes, etc.) are the object of worship by the indigenous people of Sikkim.

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Tassili n'Ajjer, Algeria

Tassili n'Ajjer, Algeria
This strange lunar landscape of geological interest has one of the most important groupings of prehistoric cave art in the world. More than 15,000 drawings and engravings record the climatic changes, the animal migrations and the evolution of human life on the edge of the Sahara from 6000 BC to the first centuries of the present era. The geological formations are of outstanding scenic interest, with eroded sandstones forming forests of rock.

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Ennedi Massif: Natural and Cultural Landscape, Chad

Ennedi Massif: Natural and Cultural Landscape, Chad
In the northeast of Chad, the sandstone Ennedi Massif has been sculpted over time by water and wind erosion into a plateau featuring canyons and valleys that present a spectacular landscape marked by cliffs, natural arches and pitons. Thousands of images have been painted and carved into the rock surface of caves, canyons and shelters, presenting one of the largest ensembles of rock art in the Sahara. Travelers should note travel warnings to Chad, due to crime, terrorism, and minefields.

Photo:© Comité Technique/ Sven Oehm

© Comité Technique/ Sven Oehm

Maloti-Drakensberg Park, Lesotho and South Africa

Maloti-Drakensberg Park, Lesotho and South Africa
Two parks in South Africa and in Lesotho make up this site of exceptional natural beauty with soaring basaltic buttresses, incisive dramatic cutbacks, and golden sandstone ramparts as well as visually spectacular sculptured arches, caves, cliffs, pillars and rock pools. The site harbors endangered species, including the Cape Vulture, shown, and many caves and rock-shelters with the largest and most concentrated group of paintings in Africa south of the Sahara.

Photo: Shutterstock

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, United Republic of Tanzania

Ngorongoro Conservation Area, United Republic of Tanzania
The Ngorongoro Conservation Area spans vast expanses of highland plains, savanna, savanna woodlands and forests. Established in 1959 as a multiple land use area, with wildlife coexisting with semi-nomadic Maasai pastoralists practicing traditional livestock grazing, above, it includes the spectacular Ngorongoro Crater, the world's largest caldera. The property has global importance for biodiversity conservation due to the presence of globally threatened species, the density of wildlife inhabiting the area, and the annual migration of wildebeest, zebra, gazelles and other animals into the northern plains.

Photo: Abdelrahman Hassanein/Shutterstock.com

Cliff of Bandiagara (Land of the Dogons), Mali

Cliff of Bandiagara (Land of the Dogons), Mali
This outstanding landscape of cliffs and sandy plateaus has beautiful architecture (houses, granaries, altars, sanctuaries and communal meeting-places). Several age-old social traditions live on in the region, including masks, feasts, rituals, and ceremonies involving ancestor worship. Above, the Bandiagara Escarpment cliff. Travelers should note travel advisories for Mali.

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Papahānaumokuākea, Hawaii, U.S.

Papahānaumokuākea, Hawaii, U.S.
This isolated cluster of small, low-lying islands and atolls has deep cosmological and traditional significance for living native Hawaiian culture. On two of the islands there are archaeological remains relating to pre-European settlement and use. It is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world. Above, Chub in the shallows at Kure Atoll in Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

Photo: NOAA

Blue and John Crow Mountains, Jamaica

Blue and John Crow Mountains, Jamaica
This rugged and extensively forested mountainous region in the south-east of Jamaica provided refuge first for the indigenous Tainos fleeing slavery and then for Maroons (former enslaved peoples). They resisted the European colonial system in this isolated region by establishing a network of trails, hiding places and settlements. The forests offered the Maroons (above) everything they needed for their survival.

Photo: M. Morgan © JNHT

Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico

Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul, Campeche, Mexico
These well-preserved structures offer a vivid picture of life in an ancient Maya capital. The property also falls within the Mesoamerica biodiversity hotspot, the third largest in the world.

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Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Tikal National Park, Guatemala
A major site of Mayan civilization that sits in the heart of the jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation and dates from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. The ceremonial center contains superb temples and palaces, and public squares accessed by means of ramps. Remains of dwellings are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside. Check the state department for travel warnings to Guatemala due to crime.

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Machu Picchu, Peru

Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu stands nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, in the middle of a tropical mountain forest. It was probably the most amazing urban creation of the Inca Empire at its height; its giant walls, terraces and ramps seem as if they have been cut naturally in the continuous rock escarpments. The natural setting, on the eastern slopes of the Andes, encompasses the upper Amazon basin with its rich diversity of flora and fauna.

Learn more about these sites at the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Descriptions of these destinations were provided by UNESCO.

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