25 UNESCO World Heritage Sites to Add to Your Architecture Bucket List

The list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites has grown dramatically since it was first unveiled in 1978 with only a dozen entries (at the time it included places like Aachen Cathedral in Germany and Yellowstone National Park in the US). Today, the World Heritage list includes 1,199 places, from natural sites and protected areas showcasing ecosystems and biodiversity (like Yosemite National Park) to archaeological sites (like Peru’s Machu Picchu) and cultural sites and landmarks (that’s you, Statue of Liberty), all of outstanding universal value in nearly every corner of the earth.

However, this also means the list is something of an architectural treasure map. So we’ve parsed the sites for a few of our most beloved landmarks to help you plan your next architectural pilgrimage (or two). Read on for our top World Heritage Site recommendations, as well as answers to frequently asked questions about the distinguished list.

What is the meaning of UNESCO World Heritage Sites?

Beginning in 1978, UNESCO (the universally accepted shorthand for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) published its first list of places with important “cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” These sites range from places of great biodiversity to historic sites or archaeological sites and important cultural sites.

“The UNESCO World Heritage List’s main objective is to pass on cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity to future generations,” UNESCO tells AD in a statement.

Each year (skipping 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic), the organization adds about 20 to 40 new locales. The places it includes are those that it considers to be critical to its mission to “encourage the identification, protection, and preservation” of these important places. However, being on the list is not just about pedigree or honor, it also ensures that the conservation and protection of the sites is carried out to high standards.

What qualifies as a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

So far, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites include a diverse group, from Stonehenge and the Galapagos Islands to the pyramids of Giza and the works of modernist Swiss-French architect and painter Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. To make the World Heritage List, an entry doesn’t have to be in a single location, it can be an ode to cultural heritage across boundaries and countries—for example, Le Corbusier’s included works can be found in Europe, India, Japan and Argentina.

“The uniqueness of UNESCO World Heritage sites is based on their outstanding universal value, meaning that their significance is so exceptional as to be of common importance for all humanity, for present and future generations.” UNESCO explains. “As such, the permanent protection of this heritage is of the highest importance to the international community.”

How many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are there?

The list has grown from its original 12 in 1978 to 1,199 in 168 countries as of mid-2024, though three have been removed from the list. Of those 1,199, 933 are cultural sites, 227 are natural sites, and 39 are a hybrid. Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritages Sites (59), China is second (57), and France and Germany are tied for third (52).

Does the US have any UNESCO sites?

The US has 25 UNESCO World Heritage Sites as of mid-2024. The first US sites on the list were Mesa Verde National Park and Yellowstone National Park, which were among the original group of 12 honored sites in 1978. The most recent, added in September 2023, was Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks in Ohio. There are currently 18 US entrants on UNESCO’s Tentative List of potential World Heritage Sites.

Does the UNESCO World Heritage List change?

As noted, the list is always growing, but sometimes World Heritage Sites can also be delisted. One of the reasons for such a case is a poor state of conservation. UNESCO currently lists three places that have lost their designation, including the English city of Liverpool, which lost its place on the list because of the encroachment of waterfront development that didn’t preserve the city’s maritime heritage.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of places on the list worthy of a visit. “The World Heritage List is a gateway to new cultures, new landscapes, new people, and identities. Everyone is invited to discover these sites in a real or virtual way to better understand what constitutes our common humanity,” UNESCO adds. From neoclassical homes in America’s South to European modernist masterpieces and Moorish mosques, there’s something for every architecture buff on every continent on the planet (except Antarctica). Get your passport ready!

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