What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

You’ve probably heard of popular destinations being described as UNESCO sites, but what does this mean? Widely known by the acronym UNESCO, The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is an entity aiming to preserve cultural and natural treasures around the world.

Although murmurings of such an organization began as early as the 1920’s, it was not until 1978 that the first World Heritage sites were announced with the addition of twelve honored sites, among them locations as diverse as Yellowstone National Park, the Galapagos Islands, and the Rock-Hewn Churches, of Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Since that time, over 1000 sites around the world have been named, crisscrossing the globe. To be considered for the UNESCO heritage list, the site must offer outstanding universal value and must meet at least one of ten selection criteria, including such reasons as representing masterpieces of human creative genius or a superlative natural phenomena.

Many Heritage Sites appear quite obvious choices, the astonishing and far-reaching ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for instance. Well known the world over, Angkor temple complex was originally used as the Khmer Empire capitals from the 9th to the 15th centuries. Stretching over 400sq Km (155sq Miles), the complex is massive and varied, showing advanced city planning in the respective capitals. Featuring scores of temples, hydraulic structures and water basins, Angkor testifies to an exceptional society.

Others are quite likely places you may never have heard of such as Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump in Alberta, Canada. Situated in south-west Alberta, Buffalo Jump is one of the most important hunting sites identified to date. For thousands of years, the native plains people hunted buffalo and this location shows their sophisticated knowledge of topography and hunting with an elaborate drive lane into which they would chase the buffalo, who would then jump off the end cliff, falling to their death below where they would be slaughtered for their meat and hides.

While many of the UNESCO Heritage Sites are focused on scenic beauty, some are definitely urban in nature, one of which is the Historic Center of Prague. Built between the 11th and 18th centuries, the old town speaks of the great architecture and cultural influences enjoyed by this popular city since the middle ages. The historic city center comprises three separate cities – the Old Town (Stare Mestro), the Lesser Town (Mala Strana), and the New Town (Nove Mesto), and many of the magnificent buildings, such as Hradcany Castle and the Charles Bridge remain top tourist sites today.

Still others are much more abstract. Included in this category are regions like the Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in Italy. Located along the Po River, this spectacular wine-making region encompasses a whole range of technical and economic processes dating back as far as the 5th-century BC showing the Etruscans were amongst the earliest winemakers in the world.

Country counting is a common traveler’s goal, while a quest to visit each of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites would be epic, indeed. Covering the globe and encompassing 161 “states parties”, or countries that have signed and ratified the World Heritage Convention. 779 are cultural, 197 are natural, and 31 are mixed properties. A complete list of all 1007 sites can be found at UNESCO’s home page at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/. Check out the list to see how many of these cultural and natural treasures you have seen for yourself!

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