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I am going to caveat this whole post to say first, that any list of the best and worst things in the world is highly subjective, and second, that most of the “worst” sites fall into “disappointing” rather than downright bad. There is something of value in each site, otherwise it wouldn’t have gained the honor of becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but some sites are just easier to appreciate than others.
I have visited hundreds of UNESCO sites since I began traveling full time in 2007 (at last count 350 of the 1,092 inscribed sites), and I have a high bar for what it takes to interest travelers. Some sites simply offer a better experience—the information on site and the presentation make the site stand out. Others (I am looking at you Vredefort Dome in South Africa), may have cultural or natural impact, but the site itself is just to vast/old/hidden that actually visiting it leaves one … well, disappointed. So, without further ado, let’s look at the best and worst UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the World.
Worst UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Why this place is a world heritage site is beyond me. Having met people involved with UNESCO, much of what goes into making the list has to do with politics and putting together a good presentation. This really benefits rich western countries. The Royal Exhibition Building is an old building. The end. There are any number of buildings its age around the world, and even in Australia probably, which are as impressive. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice building, but it isn’t that nice.
Sangiran in Indonesia is the location of where the fossils of Java man were found. Many other fossils have been found in the area as well, making it a valuable resource for paleontologists. There was, however, really nothing to see once you’re there. There is only a museum, and a poor one at that. You can’t see any of the actual humanoid fossils. You can’t even visit a dig site. I recently visited the Ban Chiang site in Thailand, which is also an archeological site, and at least it had a very nice museum.
The Sydney Opera House is an iconic building, but there are lots of iconic buildings in the world that are not subsequently named to the World Heritage list. I think there should be some sort of age test for a property. If the Sydney Opera House can make it, why not other iconic new buildings like Skydome in Toronto or the Bird’s Nest in Beijing? The Opera House isn’t even that impressive as you get up close. The Harbor Bridge is more deserving than the Opera House, in my opinion. The tile on the building looks like the teeth of someone who has been smoking two packs a day for 20 years. Is this the worst site? No, but it’s certainly not going to wow you the way some of the best ones do.
The Vietnamese have done well with what they have to work with, which isn’t much. My Son in Vietnam is like one of the minor outer temples in the Angkor complex in Cambodia—one of those that just doesn’t get much tourist traffic. The site itself isn’t very big. Moreover, the condition of the temples is pretty bad since they have been around a lot longer. The ruins are truly ruined. That being said, the visitor center at My Son is nicer than anything you’ll see in Angkor, but that doesn’t change facts of the case.
How could I possibly put the Great Barrier Reef on this list?! Well, the “greatness” of the reef can only be appreciated by looking at a map, or from satellite photos. If you’re on the coast of Queensland, you’d never know there was a reef because you can’t see it from land. It’s located an hour boat ride away (at least), and once you are there, it really isn’t different than most other reefs in the world, and you can only appreciate and see the small part of it immediately around you.
I am an avid diver, and you can enjoy a better reef experience in the Pacific, where reefs are very close to the shore and there are definite lagoon areas. The Great Barrier Reef is much more interesting in theory than as a tourist destination. While it gets a lot of tourists because it’s located in Australia, I wouldn’t put it in the top diving locations I’ve been to. I’m not saying the Great Barrier Reef shouldn’t be a World Heritage Site, only that really isn’t much to see first hand.
Best World Heritage Sites in the World
This site is on a par with Easter Island in my mind, and it finally in 2016 gained the list of UNESCO sites in Micronesia. I think the property is privately owned, but I’m not positive. Nan Modal is reason enough to visit Micronesia, and there are a lot of other reasons. I always talk up Micronesia when people ask for suggestions for where to travel. It isn’t easy to get there from anywhere, but it is well worth the trip. This is easily one of the best worst heritage sites in the world to my mind.
This is the southernmost coral reef in the world and one of the favorite spots on Earth of the world’s most traveled man, Charles Veley. Just look at photos of the place and you’ll know why the landscape here makes this one of the prettiest natural UNESCO sites in the world. (Hopefully, including this here also shows that I’m not being too hard on Australia!).
The lagoon area around Koror is one of the most unique aquatic environments on Earth. The jellyfish lakes are one of a kind (and swimming with them is my favorite travel experience from the past decade). When I first visited the Rock Islands in 2007 they were not yet a World Heritage Site—an oversight that blew my mind. Since 2012, however, this truly impressive site is inscribed on the list and is fully deserving of its spot as one of the best natural UNESCO sites in the world. It is just so good. Please go—I highly recommend travel to Palau.
UNESCO Sites Deserving of More Time
My stay in New Zealand was somewhat hurried because I had to book tickets out of the country before I got there. I would like to have gone hiking in the area and spent more time in this pretty national park.
Hiking to the summit of Kinabalu is doable for anyone in reasonable health. It is usually a two-day trip and you time it so you are at the peak at sunrise. Weather conditions on the mountain prevented me from making the attempt, but I will return to do it one day!
I had spent a good amount of time and money in Exmouth diving and swimming with the whale sharks. Had not been so burned out from weeks of driving across Western Australia, I might have spent more time here. I did get to spend quality time with the stromatolites at least.
UNESCO Sites I’m Most Excited to Visit
1. Komodo, Indonesia
Komodo dragons in the wild. C’mon. I can’t see how this World Heritage Site is going to disappoint. There are a lot of UNESCO sites in Indonesia that I still need to visit, and this one is tops on my personal list.
2. Ujung Kulon National Park, Indonesia
This the location of Krakatoa Volcano, which erupted in the 19th century. It was the largest volcanic explosion in recorded human history.
3. Shiretoko, Japan
4. Haeinsa Temple, South Korea
I skipped this UNESCO site due to a cold snap in South Korea when I was there. Haeinsa Temple has a program where you can stay overnight with the monks. The temple itself is the home to some of the oldest Buddhist writings in the world, and I am positive this is going to deliverable as one of the best UNESCO sites in the world.
Stunning Sites That Should be World Heritage Sites
- Temples of Bali, Indonesia: I bet most people assume that Bali would be on the UNESCO list. It isn’t. If the list is about identifying and protecting important cultural sites, the Balinese culture is one of the most unique on Earth.
- Gregory National Park, Australia: Home to Australian boab trees, it was a place that I was surprised to discover when I drove through it from Darwin to Purnululu.
- Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong: The harbor of Hong Kong is more impressive than Sydney. I’d lump Victoria Peak on here and some of the classic buildings of the area. The feeling I had watching sunset on the harbor and watching the lights of Hong Kong turn on is one of my most memorable.
- Blowholes of Savai’i, Samoa: Watching the blowholes on Savai’i was like watching the fountains of the Bellagio on steroids. It’s an awesome display of nature and one of the most impressive and fun things I’ve seen during my travels. It isn’t even promoted as heavily in Samoa as some other attractions. I don’t think the Samoans are even considering this site for inclusion. Tonga also has some impressive blowholes, but not quite as cool as Samoa. It is a trick even finding the blowholes since there is little in the way of signs or facilities when you get there. It is worth the trip if you are ever in Samoa!
- Hawaiian Cultural Sites of the Big Island: There are three different locations in the National Park Service on the Big Island celebrating Hawaiian culture. I think they should all be included as a unit. The only site dedicated to Pacific culture is Easter Island, and that really is more about the moai than anything else.
- City of Napier, New Zealand: Several cities I’ve visited have been given World Heritage status for the whole town. Napier is an art deco town, and I don’t think there are many of those in the world. It should be on the list!