Wonders of the World: Examining Civilization’s Greatest UNESCO Sites

Wonders of the World UNESCO Site

Wonders of the World: Examining Civilization’s Greatest UNESCO Sites

Why do people enjoy traveling abroad to foreign countries? One of the top reasons is to visit world-famous attractions, such as the many UNESCO sites around the world. The Great Wall is synonymous with China. Seeing France on a map conjures up dreams of the Eiffel Tower. If I mention Egyptian history, don’t the Great Pyramids immediately come to mind?

It is these world-famous landmarks, so lovingly dubbed “Wonders of the World,” that travelers crave to visit and experience. To aid us in the lifelong quest of discovering the globe’s most important sites, the fine folks at UNESCO compile an ongoing list of certified “World Heritage Sites.” These range from historical cities to majestic national parks and everything in-between. There are over 1,000 UNESCO sites spread across our beautiful planet.

Today’s goal is to take you on a brief tour of these wonderful places! I will do so with an analytical mindset, pointing out curious statistical finds and interesting tidbits along the way. Also be prepared for a visual feast of photos and charts, as these wonders are surely meant to please the eyes and stoke our imaginations.

Without further adieu… let’s explore some world wonders!


The Criteria: Defining a “UNESCO World Heritage Site”

To begin, it is necessary to define what exactly UNESCO is and how they select their sites. UNESCO is short for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Their mission is to strengthen the relations between nations and societies. An extension of their cultural goals is UNESCO’s World Heritage Convention, an international treaty signed to help protect natural and cultural heritage sites around the world.

The convention created an inaugural list of “World Heritage Sites,” which are nominated by country’s and chosen by the convention annually. By doing so, places such as Peru’s Machu Picchu or Britain’s Stonehenge are actively protected and funded over time.

Click here for more information on the World Heritage Convention’s mission.


The List: World Wonders Galore!

Now I will dive into the actual list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Click here to see the full list on UNESCO’s website. For my analysis, I will focus on the inaugural year of selections. This occurred in 1978. See below for these locations:

UNESCO World Heritage Sites (by year)
Date Inscribed Site Name Country
1978 Aachen Cathedral Germany
City of Quito Ecuador
Galápagos Islands Ecuador
Historic Centre of Kraków Poland
Island of Gorée Senegal
L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site Canada
Mesa Verde National Park United States of America
Nahanni National Park Canada
Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela Ethiopia
Simien National Park Ethiopia
Wieliczka and Bochnia Royal Salt Mines Poland
Yellowstone National Park United States of America

To summarize, 12 locations were selected to be UNESCO-certified as a “World Heritage Site.” Interestingly, the selections were not spread out amongst a wide variety of countries. Rather, the nations of Ecuador, Canada, Ethiopia, Poland and the United States of America each were awarded with two sites. Germany and Senegal earned one site each. Also of note is that 33% of the selected areas were national parks.

Before further analyzing, let’s take a look at these wonderful places in the photo gallery below:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There is a great diversity in the locations chosen. The United States and Canada are represented by national parks (Forest), while Germany and Ethiopia have historic churches (Sites) as their representatives. In addition, the cultural cities of Quito, Ecuador and Krakow, Poland (Cities) were chosen for preservation. Lastly, Senegal is listed here with its’ Island of Goree (Marine & Coastal).

Over 1,000 locations have been added to the list since 1978. See below for the number of properties added by year:

UNESCO sites by year

Note the spikes in approved UNESCO sites in 1987, 1997 and 2000. In fact, the period from 1997-2000 featured the three highest years of sites added to the UNESCO list. Since then, fewer have been added in the 2000s and 2010s. Fortunately, we have not experienced a steep decline since 2002. As more sites are added, that many more incredible landmarks of humanity are preserved for future generations.


The Theme: Categorizing Locations by Type

Locations are sorted by “theme.” There are five unique themes, as mostly mentioned above: site, city, forest, marine/coastal and cultural landscape. For regions of the world rich in fantastic buildings or monuments, they will have “sites” or “cities” as their UNESCO locations. Areas known for their natural beauty, such as national parks, will be featured as “forests” or “landscapes”. Meanwhile, locations by the sea have their own unique “marine” theme.

To further illustrate this, see below for a chart of UNESCO locations by theme, year-over-year:


UNESCO Sites by theme

The “sites” immediately jump out as the leader in type of UNESCO location. In fact, they far outnumber the other four categories combined. Cities come in second place, although their selections have decreased recently and given way to a rise in cultural landscapes. To better illustrate this spread numerically, refer below for theme totals:
Having scanned the full list of 1,000+ sites, I want to highlight some of my favorite locations by theme. Here’s to a brief tour of UNESCO World Heritage Sites!


Site: Angkor Wat


Angkor is one of the most culturally significant archaeological sites in Southeast Asia. Stretching over some 400 square kilometers, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the various capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. Included are the fantastic Temple of Angkor Wat and the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. One of my friends visited here a few years back and his photos made me so jealous! Definitely add this to your list.

UNESCO Sites Angkor Wat

The pride of Cambodia: Angkor Wat


Forest: Yosemite National Park

United States

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, Yosemite is known worldwide for its granite cliffs, tumbling waterfalls, giant sequoia groves, soaring mountains and biological diversity. Yosemite was crucial to the development of the national park idea, due to the lobbying of Galen Clark and John Muir. Their efforts paved the way for the enactment of the United States national park system. The park is located in California’s Sierra Navada mountain range and protects nearly 750,000 acres of land. Its’ most dramatic features include rock-climbing haven Half Dome and the stunning Yosemite Valley.

UNESCO Sites forest Yosemite national park

The humbling and majestic playground of John Muir, Yosemite Valley


City: Vienna


The stunning capital city of this western European nation is well-known for its’ leading role in European music culture and development. The city center is rich in historic buildings and landmarks, from its’ Baroque castles and gardens to Ringstrasse, the old city center sitting on medieval fortifications. Vienna was also the capital city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and developed from the ancient Roman and Celtic settlements of its’ housing nation.  It is truly one of the world’s landmark cities.

UNESCO Sites City Vienna Austria

Vienna, one of Europe’s finest capital cities


Marine & Coastal: Puerto-Princesa Subterranean River National Park


This is a great example of a “Marine & Coastal” theme, as this park is very unique as it contains a full ‘mountain-to-sea’ ecosystem. This is due to the fact that the river emerges directly into the ocean, which creates great tidal changes and unique cave formations. Quite simply, this is a natural phenomenon not often seen anywhere. Tourists are drawn to its fantastic limestone landscape, featuring an underground river tour unlike any other. This park holds the distinction of being the first ever devolved and managed by a local government unit.

UNESCO Sites Marine Puerto Princesa Philippines

A natural phenomenon of a ‘river-meets-sea-meets-mountain’ here in the Philippines


Cultural Landscape: “Incense Route” – Desert Cities in the Negev


This ancient desert route connects the Nabatean towns of Avdat, Mamshit, Haluza and Shivta to nearby fortresses in the Negev Desert. This cultural path forms the historic “incense route” that dominated this region from the 3rd century BC to the 2nd century AD. Tourists who venture here will find a myriad of wonders to discover, from old urban cities to sophisticated water irrigation systems and military compounds. This route generated significant revenues for the region, specifically by trading frankincense and myrrh across the Mediterranean.

UNESCO Sites Cultural Landscape Incense Route


The Location: World Heritage Sites by Region & Country

Now that we have defined the criteria, viewed the list and discussed selection themes, let us now wrap-up this discussion by summarizing the geographical imprint of UNESCO’s site selections. With over 1,000 sites scattered around the globe, it is important to note why and where these locations are. For our sakes, UNESCO has classified their sites into the following regions:

  • AFR – Africa
  • ARB – Arab States
  • APA – Asia and the Pacific
  • EUR – Europe and North America
  • LAC – Latin America and the Caribbean

See below for a graphical depiction of the “World Heritage Sites” by region:


Europe and North America dominate with 47% of the world’s designated sites. Granted, this is an obvious case of grouping preference. It is not quite fair to group the cultural landmarks of Europe with the vast natural wonders of North America. Nevertheless, this is the result we have. In addition to the category leader, Asia comes in strong at second and the Latin American countries are also well represented. One thing of note is the ratio of specific categories to their region’s totals. For example, Africa has the highest ratio of natural-to-total locations with 41% of its’ sites being categorized as “Natural”. Meanwhile, the Arab States have the highest ratio of cultural-to-total locations with 90% of its’ sites falling in the “Cultural” category.

In addition, sites can also be sub-categorized by country. Let’s see the results below:

UNESCO Sites by country

Showing the 20 Highest-Ranking Countries by # of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

 Quick Impressions

  • Countries apparently get better with age! Four of the top five-ranked countries (and nine of the top ten) are in Asia or Europe, which comes to no surprise. The older a country’s history is, the more likely it is to have ancient and important sites that need conservation protection. Tourists want to visit these places, too!
  • The United States of America is tied with Iran, as each country boasts 21 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The USA is the youngest country here, which lends some respectability to its’ ranking. Half of America’s UNESCO sites are considered national wonders, a.k.a. national parks.


The Conclusion: Go Explore the Incredible UNESCO Sites Around You!

Now is a good time to revisit my originally stated purpose of this article. I wanted, “… to take you on a brief tour of these wonderful places! I will do so with an analytical mindset, pointing out curious statistical finds and interesting tidbits along the way.” I certainly hope that I have done so, and in the meantime spurred a fascination with the never-ending list of places worth exploring in our world. My goal was to provide a high-level overview of the UNESCO “World Heritage Sites” by mixing data and charts with photos and cool facts. There is so much more to discuss when it comes to these worldly wonders, and I will certainly do so in future writings.

In the end, please take some time to research the good work that organizations such as UNESCO is doing. We certainly want the capability to visit and experience these landmarks of civilization not only in our own time, but in future generations to come. As we continue to protect and conserve ancient cities, endangered forests and crumbling monuments, we protect the peaks of humanity and of the natural world around us. The best way to show your appreciation is by getting out and discovering these amazing sites for yourself!

To conclude, I hope that you have enjoyed this statistical presentation of UNESCO’s World Heritage list. Be on the lookout for future articles diving more in-depth into UNESCO’s data and the wonders of our world. You can interact with me about this article on Twitter @PaulAblesCM or via email at . Thanks for reading!

No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: