25 Random Thoughts On Visiting My 250th World Heritage Site

My first World Heritage Site: Volcanoes National Park
Last month I spent 2 hours exploring the Emperor Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli, Italy. It marked my 250th visit to a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Here is a collection of thoughts and facts about world heritage sites that I’ve collected over the last 6 years:

1) As of the time of writing, there are 962 UNESCO World Heritage sites scattered around the globe. I’d estimate that number of people on Earth who have visited as many are in the low 1,000’s. Nonetheless, I still have only been to 1/4 of all the world heritage sites on the planet. That is a very humbling fact.

2) I am often asked if my goal is to visit all of them. To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever done it and no one has ever even come close. The most anyone has ever claimed in 825, and that is unverified. There are probably only 1-2 dozen people who have visited over 500. What makes it an almost impossible task is that they add about 10-25 new sites every year. That means you’d have to be running around the world every year just to keep up with the World Heritage Committee.

3) I haven’t done an exact count, but approximately 40-45% of all world heritage sites are located in Europe. If you want to visit a lot of sites, you pretty much have to spend a lot of time running around the backroads of Europe. To give you a comparison of countries which are of an approximate size to Western Europe, there are only 43 sites are in China, 27 in India, 25 in Russia, 21 in the United States, 19 in Australia, and 16 in Canada.

World Heritage Site #50: Town of Luang Prabang
4) There are 25 countries with 10 or more world heritage sites. Those 25 countries contain 554 world heritage sites, or 57.5% of all the sites in the world. The remaining 165 countries who have signed the convention have 408 between them. 33 countries have no world heritage sites at all.

5) As of June 2013, 190 state parties have signed the world heritage convention. The only UN member states who have not signed are The Bahamas, Liechtenstein, Nauru, Somalia, South Sudan, Timor-Leste, and Tuvalu.

6) There are several non-UN member states who have signed the convention. They are the Holy See, Palestine, Cook Islands, and Niue. There are also six associate member states: Aruba, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Macao, Netherlands Antilles and Tokelau.

7) My personal definition of a “visit” is that it has to be a purposeful visit (ie: flying over the Grand Canyon en route to Los Angeles doesn’t count) and I had to have spent a meaningful amount of time there. Those criteria are vague, but the intent behind them is to actually have a real visit, not just to snap a photo and declare victory. The amount of time can vary greatly depending on the site. You could easily spend days exploring Yellowstone or Angkor. However, I only spent 20 minutes at Holašovice in the Czech Republic. After 20 minutes I had no idea what else there was to see. I’d say most cultural sites which are buildings or small towns can be visited in 1-4 hours. Natural sites will usually require significantly more time.

World Heritage Site #100: Redwood National Park
8) There are several countries where I have visited all of their world heritage sites. They are: Germany, Netherlands, El Salvador, Guatemala, Solomon Islands, Luxembourg, Andorra, Vatican City, Palau, San Marino, Jordan, and Belize.

9) I have visited all but one world heritage site in the United States (Papahānaumokuākea) and all but two in Canada (Nahani and Wood Buffalo National Parks). (UPDATE: I’ve now been to every world heritage site in Canada.)

10) There are four sites which have been put on the world heritage list after I visited. They are the Ningloo Coast in Australia, Wadi Rum in Jordan, the Rock Islands of Palau and Bali, Indonesia. That list will almost certainly grow as they add more sites to the list.

11) There are three sites which you could say I have technically visited, but I do not count. They are:

  • Belfries of Belgium and France. I was in Brugge which is part of the serial site, but I had no idea at the time. I’ll revisit another town someday to officially count it.
  • Jesuit Block and Estancias of Córdoba , Argentina. I visited here in 2005 before I started traveling full time. I had no idea what world heritage sites were and I took no photos.
  • The Aeolian Islands, Italy. I sailed past on a cruise ship and watched Stromboli erupt. I took no photos and I never set foot on land.

World Heritage Site #150: San Cristóbal de La Laguna
12) There are a few sites I hope revisit at some point in the future. They include the Abbey and Altenmünster of Lorsch and the Margravial Opera House Bayreuth. Both sites were under heavy renovation when I visited and I couldn’t see as much as I had hoped. I revisited the Wadden Sea this year because my initial visit was so disappointing. There are many sites I’ve revisited just because there is so much to see. Rome, Vatican City, Paris, Prague, Venice, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and other sites are so large, you can keep coming back and always have a different experience.

13) I have had several near misses. Sites which I wanted to visit but, for whatever reason couldn’t. The most notorious for me was the Archaeological Sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn in Oman. I drove around the Omani countryside for hours looking for it and never found it. There are no signs and nothing to tell you where it is. There are several sites I passed on because of time constraints and scheduling. I passed on visiting Komodo Island in Indonesia in 2008 because I wanted to get to Australia. I really kick myself if I’m within 50 miles of a site and don’t make a visit.

14) The 12 most popular world heritage sites in the world to visit as measured by mosttraveledpeople.com are:

  1. Palace and Park of Versailles (France)
  2. Budapest including the Banks of the Danube the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue (Hungary)
  3. Historic Centre of Florence (Italy)
  4. Venice and its Lagoon (Italy)
  5. Historic Centre of Vienna (Austria)
  6. Statue of Liberty (United States)
  7. Historic Centre of Prague (Czech Republic)
  8. Vatican City (Holy See)
  9. Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura (Italy)
  10. Westminster Palace Westminster Abbey and Saint Margarets Church (UK)
  11. Paris Banks of the Seine (France)
  12. Tower of London (United Kingdom)

World Heritage Site #200: Auschwitz Birkenau
15) The 12 least popular sites are:

  1. Central Sikhote-Alin (Russia)
  2. Chengjiang Fossil Site (China)
  3. Lorentz National Park (Indonesia)
  4. Putorana Plateau (Russia)
  5. Lena Pillars Nature Park (Russia)
  6. Manovo-Gounda St Floris National Park (Central African Republic)
  7. Gonbad-e Qabus (Iran)
  8. Salonga National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo)
  9. Río Abiseo National Park (Peru)
  10. Natural System of Wrangel Island Reserve (Russia)
  11. Minaret and Archaeological Remains of Jam (Afghanistan)
  12. Phoenix Islands Protected Area (Kiribati)

16) Most popular site I have not visited is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, Former Abbey of Saint-Remi and Palace of Tau Reims (France). The least popular site I have visited is East Rennell in the Solomon Islands.

17) Since I started traveling full time in 2007, 2013 has been my biggest year for visiting world heritage sites. I’ve visited 57 new sites and revisited another 12. That was all done in 5 months. I will probably be visiting at least another 10 this year. My slowest year was 2010 where I only visited 15.

18) Since I’ve begun visiting world heritage sites I’ve had the pleasure of meeting many people involved in the process of submitting sites to the World Heritage Committee for listing. It is an incredibly long and expensive process. When I visited Gran Pre, in Nova Scotia last year, I met with the man who headed up the effort to get it listed. They had dozens of volumes of supporting research for their bid. I met the man heading up the bid for the Bethany Baptism Site in Jordan this year, and their book (what I saw) was a high quality, glossy book that could have been at home on any coffee table. The reason why so many world heritage sites are in developed countries I think has a lot to do with the costs involved in submitting a proposal.

19) The very first class of world heritage sites was listed in 1978. There were 12 sites on the initial list. They are:

  1. Mesa Verde (United States)
  2. Yellowstone National Parks (United States)
  3. L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site (Canada)
  4. Nahanni National Park (Canada)
  5. City of Quito (Ecuador)
  6. Galapagos Islands (Ecuador)
  7. Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela (Ethiopia)
  8. Simien National Park (Ethiopia)
  9. Historic centre of Cracow (Poland)
  10. Wieliczka Salt Mine (Poland)
  11. Aachen Cathedral (Germany)

I have visited 8 of the first 12 so far and I am planning a trip to Nahani National Park in 2014.

20) Many world heritage sites are considered to be “serial” sites. That means they are made up of multiple locations scattered across one or more countries. My recent visit to the Prehistoric Pile dwellings around the Alps is a site that has around 100 locations in 6 different countries (Germany/France/Austria/Switzerland/Slovenia/Italy). There are some sites which have hundreds of locations which make up the site. In particular, the Rock Art of the Mediterranean Basin on the Iberian Peninsula has over 500 different rock art locations in Spain which comprise the site. For obvious logistical reasons, I consider a visit to one location to be a visit to the site. While I will often visit other locations of a site I’ve previously visited, it has a lower priority for me than visiting a brand new site.

World Heritage Site #250: Villa Adriana (Tivoli)
21) I don’t limit my travels to only UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I’ve visited many places that are of great cultural or natural importance, but are not listed. Here are some of the sites I have visited which are most deserving of being declared world heritage sites:

  • South Georgia Island. Without question this is one of the most important places in the world for penguins and seabirds. The reason it isn’t listed has more to do with politics and the fact that Argentina also claims the island which is currently controlled by the UK. The Falkland Islands would also be worth of listing.
  • Nan Modal. I personally think Nan Modal is on a par with Easter Island, except no one knows about it. The government of Micronesia hadn’t even put it on their tentative list until recently. It should be a slam dunk, but I think this is a classic case of poorer countries not having the means to jump through all the hoops the World Heritage Committee requires.
  • Jerash. The city of Jerash in Jordan is one of the best Roman cities I’ve seen. Not only is it (relatively) well preserved, but it is also enormous.
  • Walls of Ston. The walls surrounding the town of Ston in Croatia are the longest in Europe and the longest in the world outside of China.
  • Buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. There are several architects who’s work has been designated with world heritage status. Not surprisingly, they are all in Europe.
  • Ostia Antica. As much as it pains me to add another Italian site to the list, Ostia Antica is worth it. It was the port of Rome and is still rather well preserved.
  • Antarctica. According the the rules, only member states can propose sites for listing. With the noteworthy exception of Jerusalem, every site has been nominated by the country who’s territory it lies in. Antarctica belongs to no one, so it has slipped between the cracks. They could create a special motion to give parts of the Palmer Peninsula world heritage status.
  • Skyscrapers of New York. New York is the home of the skyscraper. Several such as the Flatiron Building, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are worthy of being listed.
  • Space Age Monuments. This would be a joint site between the United States and Kazakhstan listing Cape Canaveral and Star City. Preserving some of the launch pads from the early days of the space race.

22) One of the 250 sites I have listed as having visited is actually not on the UNESCO list anymore. The Dresden Elbe Valley was removed from the list in 2009 because their community decided to build a bridge across the river. A bridge that had been planned for over 80 years before its construction! It is one of 2 sites to have ever been delisted, the other being an oryx sanctuary in Oman. I felt the decision to delist Dresden was ridiculous so I’ve kept it on my personal list. Despite all the good which UNESCO has done in preserving heritage sites, they often times go too far. This was the most egregious case in its history.

23) One of the reasons I’ve been able to visit so many world heritage sites is simply because I make it a priority. Given how many there are in Europe, it is difficult to find a place on the continent which is more than an 1-hour drive from a world heritage site. When I am in Europe, I often take side trips to visit sites that are near wherever I happen to be. If you do a bit of research, you can find wonderful places to visit that are not far from wherever you are in Europe. Most tourists to London for example visit the Tower of London and Westminster Abbey. Few, however take the time to visit Greenwich or the Kew Gardens, both of which are also world heritage sites in London. There are no sites in Frankfurt, but there are 4 within a 1-hour drive. I use a Google Earth layer to plan and find world heritage sites to visit everywhere I go.

24) Every so often I come across a site that is a dud. I leave wondering how in the world it ever got listed and if the people who voted on it ever paid a visit themselves. More often than not, however, I am surprised at the amazing attractions I would have otherwise never known about. If nothing else, the world heritage list has introduced me to many great places which are off the typical tourist route. While I wouldn’t recommend it, one could do a lot worse than just visiting sites on the world heritage list. It might require nothing more than a 30 minute train ride and you’ll experience something incredible you didn’t even know existed.

25) How do I visit the next 250?? Believe it or not, I don’t think getting to 500 will be much more difficult than getting to 250. In fact it might even be easier. There is still a lot of low hanging fruit for me to visit. Consider the following:

  • I have only visited 2 of 38 sites in France. I could easily visit the remaining sites via a 3 week road trip through the country, which would be an incredible experience in its own right. (36)
  • I have only visited 15 of 44 sites in Spain. That leaves me 29 sites, and I’ve already visited the 3 more difficult to visit sites in the Canary Islands. (29)
  • I have only visited 2 of 31 sites in Mexico. I could easily visit a dozen just via day trips from Mexico City. (29).
  • I have been to 22 of 48 sites in Italy. I have broken up the remaining sites by region in Italy and could visit the rest in 5-6 small trips. (26)
  • I have only visited 1 of 44 in China. That is the biggest untapped pool of sites I have yet to visit. (43)
  • I haven’t visited a single site in Portugal (14), Russia (25), Brazil (19), Peru (11), Iran (15) or India (27).
  • I haven’t explored much of Greece (16), Turkey (10), Switzerland (10), Czech Republic (10) and Sweden (13)

All the countries I listed are not particularly challenging to visit and they contain 323 sites I haven’t visited yet. There are another 15 in England/Wales/Scotland I haven’t visited either. It is all a matter of visiting places I haven’t been to before, which is pretty much what I like to do anyhow.

Toss in the occasional 1 or 2 in the smaller countries I visit and it is a very achievable goal, even if it will take a few years to achieve. Visiting 50 per year should be possible so long as I have a significant number of sites to visit in Europe. European sites are close enough together that visiting 2 per day is possible.

When I began traveling, this wasn’t really something I was focused on. Since then, it has gradually become my ‘thing’. I’ve seen a rise is other travelers and bloggers who are going out of their way to vist cultural and natural heritage sites, and I think that is great!

Next time you are on a trip take a few minutes and see if there are any world heritage sites where you will be traveling. Taking a short side trip to visit one might be the highlight of your journey.