Since its inception in 1978, the UNESCO World Heritage List has grown exponentially, with over 1,000 sights deemed to have 'outstanding universal value' being added over the last 40 years. You'll find countless architectural masterpieces, ancient ruins and natural marvels on the list, with wonders ranging from well-known sites like the Grand Canyon and Great Wall of China to more off-the-beaten-track curiosities. Below we take a look at some of our favourite UNESCO-listed cities and towns, celebrated by the organisation for their well-preserved architecture and crucial role in history.
Acre is one of Israel's best-preserved old cities © Itamar Grinberg, IMOT
Acre’s Old City remains today as it has done throughout its long years of existence. It is undoubtedly one of Israel’s most picturesque and historically fascinating places to visit, and a must-see on any itinerary. A jumble of cobbled lanes snake around, through and past ancient stone buildings, piled one upon another; majestic, vibrant mosques and churches stream with devout worshippers; immaculately preserved relics remain, left by the city’s passionate invaders; people crowd into the aromatic souks; and the tranquil waters of the ancient sea port lap against the old sea walls. Acre was one of the most crucial cities of ancient times on a par with Alexandria and Troy, a fact difficult to envisage while wandering the lively yet peaceful alleys that today house large Arab – both Muslim and Christian – populations. The UNESCO-designated Old City is a veritable maze, and while maps are handy, your time would be better spent relaxing into the ambience around you than trying to follow one.
Évora's cathedral towers over the town's terracota roofs © Migel, Shutterstock
Nowhere in Portgual's Alentejo is more redolent with history than its capital, Évora. Rising in narrow, winding Moorish streets to a central praça, crowned with a magnificent ruined Roman temple, ringing with the peal of bells from an array of Portuguese Golden Age churches and littered with stately mansions and monuments, the city has been protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. Its listing as such owes as much to its architectural unity as it does to its magnificent churches and small museums, for while Lisbon was levelled by the 1755 earthquake, Évora retains its medieval and Renaissance buildings. Nowhere in Portugal better preserves the country’s architecture of Empire.
Gammlestad is one of Sweden's last remaining church towns © Pecold, Shutterstock
One of Lapland’s top sights, Gammelstad was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996. It is an outstanding example of what’s known in Swedish as a kyrkstad, a ‘church town’ consisting of 408 gnarled timber cottages, which were used on Sundays and during religious festivals by people attending services in the spectacular late medieval stone church, Nederluleå kyrka, around which they are grouped. The cottages provided overnight accommodation for parishioners who lived too far away to make the journey to the church and back in one day.
Grand-Bassam, Ivory Coast
Grand-Bassam's French-period neighbourhood of crumbling manors makes for an intriguing wander © Alex Sebley
Bassam has more history in its Quartier Colonial (Colonial Quarter) – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site – than the rest of the Ivory Coast combined. Ranged along a network of floral boulevards, these romantic old French buildings were erected between the 1890s and the 1930s. The sweeping balconies, hipped roofs and paper-white stucco walls recall films such as Gone With the Wind. Amid the atmospheric architecture are quill-shaped banana leaves and the giant carapaces of papaya trees. Natty flowerbeds add colour to expansive backyards and driveways.
Historic Inner City of Paramaribo, Suriname
Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral is Paramaribo's greatest example of a wooden church © Ariadne Van Zandbergen, Africa Image Library
A UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its trademark colonial architecture, central Paramaribo incorporates the largest wooden building in the Americas in the form of the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral. The street plan of the inner city has changed little since the 1760s, although around 400 of the original buildings were lost to the fires of 1823 and 1831, and have subsequently been rebuilt.
Lunenburg is North America's only surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement © Nova Scotia Tourism
All in all, Lunenburg is one of Nova Scotia’s most interesting and appealing towns. Established in 1753, it is the best-surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America. The UNESCO-listed Old Town sits on a steep hillside overlooking the harbour, and as you drive – or better still, walk – through you’ll realise just how steep some of the narrow streets are. Many of the well-preserved brightly painted historical buildings now house inns, cafés, restaurants, shops and a seemingly ever-increasing number of galleries. In the Old Town area, most of the shops, museums and services are in the rectangle bounded by the waterfront, Lincoln, Cornwallis and Hopson streets.
Colourful Sighişoara looks like a Dracula film set © Gaspar Janos, Shutterstock
This 12th-century Saxon citadel town does not disappoint and everything looks like a Dracula film set, from the dusty lower town to the steep climb up to the citadel itself, adorned by a fairytale clock tower, the covered wooden steps up to the Gothic church on the hill and the ancient medieval houses lurching into narrow cobble-stoned streets. Sighişoara has a great atmosphere that even the cheesy Dracula souvenir shops cannot diminish. The historic centre of the town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a miss-at-your-peril item on the Transylvanian tour agenda.
Stone Town, Zanzibar
Stone Town's alleyways are perfect to get lost in © Koverninska Olga, Shutterstock
One writer has compared the old Stone Town of Zanzibar to a tropical forest where tall houses stretch to the sky instead of trees, and the sun filters through a network of overhanging balconies instead of foliage. Its labyrinth of twisting streets and alleys is a stroller’s paradise, with new sights, sounds or smells to catch the imagination at every turn: massive carved doors, ancient walls, tiny tempting shops with colourful wares and bustling shoppers, old men hunched over a traditional game, kids with homemade toys, ghetto-blasters at full volume, little boys hawking cashews or postcards or fresh bread, the sound of the muezzin calling from the mosque and the scent of cloves or ginger or lemongrass – and everywhere the echoes of Zanzibar’s rich and fascinating history, the sultans, shipbuilders, explorers, slave markets, merchants and exotic spice trade.
Car-free Trogir is one of the best-preserved towns in Croatia © Qypchak, Wikimedia Commons
Most people think of Dubrovnik if you mention UNESCO-listed towns in Croatia, but lesser-known Trogir possess a charm of its own. One of the most attractive stops in Dalmatia, just 26km from Split, the old town is not just excellently preserved but also delightfully car-free. Come here to soak up a pleasantly uncorrupted medieval atmosphere, where stone-carved balconies overhang the narrow streets, and Renaissance and Gothic palaces compete for your attention with the ancient cathedral.
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