9 UNESCO World Heritage City Sites to Add to Your Bucket List
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Egypt’s Great Pyramids, the Galapagos Islands, Greece’s Acropolis—the running list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites reads like a glossary of our planet’s most incredible natural and historically significant wonders. In special cases, entire cities earn a designation. Here, nine UNESCO World Heritage City sites that have withstood the test of time—and deserve a spot on that bucket list.
UNESCO World Heritage City #1
Picturesque Salzburg is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of Mozart—and little has changed in the 250 years since. Its Old Town is a preserved vision of Baroque architecture, monuments, palaces, and gardens that continue to entrance visitors and film scouts (the Sound of Music was filmed in these streets). Take a tour of the Von Trapp homes, explore the 11th-century Hohensalzburg fortress at the top of the hill, and enjoy a Mozart Dinner Concert by candlelight in an old concert hall before bedding down at the historic, riverfront Hotel Sacher—all crystal chandeliers, antiques, and 1860s mosaic-tile floors.
Photo by Steve Collis from Melbourne, Australia
Salzburg, CC BY 2.0
UNESCO World Heritage City #2
Hoi An, Vietnam
Anthony Bourdain ate the best banh mi of his life in Hoi An, a sleepy fishing village on the coast of central Vietnam whose lantern-lined Ancient Town was designated a UNESCO heritage site in 1999. Hoi An was a former trading post during the 16th and 17th centuries, and you’ll still see remnants of those outside influences, from French-colonial houses and Chinese temples to the famous Japanese bridge spanning the Thu Bon River. The Night Market on Nguyen Hoang Street is something to experience, as is a boat ride down the river. As for the famous sandwich? You’ll find it at Banh Mi Phuong—just a nine-minute walk from the Anantara Hoi An Resort, a stylish retreat with a riverside pool and spa.
Photo by dronepicr [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
UNESCO World Heritage City #3
Lima steals most of Ecuador’s cultural spotlight, but the capital of Quito—one of the world’s first designated UNESCO heritage sites, built on a site of Incan ruins high in the Andes—deserves a spot on the bucket list. Here, you’ll find the biggest and most well-preserved colonial city in Latin America, where Spanish, Moorish, Italian, and indigenous cultures mix harmoniously and hundreds of Baroque churches and monasteries intermingle with generations-old restaurants and contemporary art museums. Take in a bird’s-eye view of the city during a cable car ride to the top of Pichincha Volcano, then head down for a closer look at the golf-leaf interior of La Compañía de Jesús and the bars and live music lining the pedestrians-only street La Ronda before retiring to the intimate, stylish, family-run boutique hotel Carlota, which has its own wine cellar and rooftop lounge.
Photo by Diego Delso [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]
UNESCO World Heritage City #4
No city in the world is like Jerusalem. As one of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem is ground zero to some of the most important religious sites in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity—and conflicts over who lays claim to these sites is a war that has not yet been won. Despite—or perhaps because of—this, people from around the world flock to its souqs, memorials, and monuments, from the Temple Mount and the Western Wall to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. It’s impossible to escape the church bells wherever you roam—even at the stylish David Citadel Hotel, whose rooms overlook the Old City.
UNESCO World Heritage City #5
Belgian fairy tales were surely written with Bruges in mind; you won’t find a more beautifully preserved, lost-in-time city as this one. Its tranquil waterways, medieval market square, and 14th-century town hall escaped WWI relatively unscathed, and, thanks to a UNESCO designation in 2000, this “Venice of the North” remains just as it was. A favorite pastime is biking along the narrow cobblestone streets, which are lined with independent galleries, breweries, and many a famous chocolate shop like Spegelaere. At day’s end, bed down at the über-charming Hotel de Tuilerieen, a converted 15th-century patrician house with views of the Den Dijver canal.
UNESCO World Heritage City #6
Luang Prabang, Laos
At the meeting point between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers, in the mountains of northern Laos, is a glimpse of Southeast Asia at its most romantic, spiritual, and exotic. Robed Buddhist monks filter in and out of gilded temples, fading French colonial villas line streets roamed by rickshaws, locals in lampshade hats ply the waters with their fishing nets, and artisans and farmers peddle their handicrafts and produce in markets both day and night. The hot new hotel is the luxurious Rosewood Luang Prabang, a clutch of 23 tented villas in the city’s forested outskirts; for something closer to town, the Luang Say Residence is charming and old-world, with open terraces, net-shrouded beds, and décor that pays homage to the city’s 19th-century French heritage.
UNESCO World Heritage City #7
Those preparing for a trek to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley of the Incas must adjust to the altitude in Cusco—and there couldn’t be a better base to spend an extra few days, in our opinion. This ancient city in the Peruvian Andes is filled with so many colorful local markets, colonial architecture, Baroque churches, and Inca ruins of its own that you could spend a whole week here and constantly discover something new. Hang around the arcades of the central Plaza de Armas to find souvenirs, enjoy a hearty breakfast or lunch at Mercado San Blas (a much less crowded version than the more popular Mercado San Pedro), and cap off a day with drinks and live music at Ukukus before resting your head at Belmond Palacio Nazarenas, a 16th-century convert turned mansion where some guest rooms feature original Incan stone walls and pump in oxygen to counter the altitude.
UNESCO World Heritage City #8
Because Marrakech attracts most of Morocco’s crowds, Fez gets away with far fewer tourists around its maze-like souks and elegant hammams—all the better for soaking up the unique atmosphere of Morocco’s culture capital. Begin your tour at Bab Bou Jeloud, a beautiful Moorish gate just outside the city, then make your way back through its labyrinthine streets perfumed with spices to the city’s storied tanneries—a huge source of income to Morocco, which specializes in leather goods such as babouche slippers and poufs. Les Jardin des Biehn, in the heart of the medina, is a colorful garden oasis whose 10 rooms are like mini galleries, filled with antiques and textiles sourced everywhere from India to Uzbekistan.
UNESCO World Heritage City #9
It was the Romans who first enjoyed the thermal healing powers of the springs in Bath, 2,000 years ago. Today, hundreds of sightseers take the journey from London to explore this gorgeous city, rife with honey-colored abbeys and 18th-century Georgian heritage buildings. One of them has been transformed into the Gainsborough Bath Spa, the city's first five-star hotel with 99 Champalimaud–designed guest rooms and a destination spa of its own—the only hotel-owned pool to be fed by the city's natural thermal spring. For a more historic look at the city's past, visit the Roman Baths, whose ancient pool chamber is lined with dramatic limestone columns.