8 Towns So Significant They’re Protected by UNESCO

Getting Around By Stefan Zechner April 7, 2017

To protect mankind’s most prized creations, UNESCO designates culturally significant places around the world with heritage status. Stonehenge, the Great Wall of China, and the Statue of Liberty immediately come to mind, but some locations are so important that their value can’t be narrowed to one building, monument, or fort. In those instances, the entire town or city can be granted World Heritage status.

1. Lijiang, China


Originally a commercial center in the 1300s, Lijang Old Town’s maze of stone streets, willow-lined canals, and dilapidated wooden buildings have long attracted Chinese travelers. But in recent years, curiosity has sparked beyond its country’s borders. If crowds get too crazy, hop on a bike and head to one of the nearby villages.

When to Visit: April – October

2. Salzburg, Austria


Salzburg’s picturesque Old Town was added to the UNESCO list in 1997. The city’s Baroque buildings, architectural monuments, and street patterns have been remarkably preserved.

Salzburg also has ties to Austria’s musical history thanks to its most famous export, Mozart. Little has changed since he lived there 250 years ago, and thanks to its UNESCO status, Salzburg will retain its charm for years to come. 

When to Visit: July – December

3. Ouro Preto, Brazil


Meaning “black gold,” Ouro Preto is best known for its 18th-century gold rush. The town’s former wealth can be seen in its ornate cathedrals, squares, and public fountains.

Narrow winding streets and steep topography make Ouro Preto exhausting to explore, but the challenge is well rewarded with spectacular panoramic views.

When to Visit: April – September

4. Cienfuegos, Cuba


Now that there are fewer restrictions on Cuba travel for Americans, it’s a great excuse to visit Cienfuegos along the country’s southern coast. Nicknamed “the Pearl of the South,” the colonial town was founded in 1819 by French immigrants as a trading hub for sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee.

Cienfuegos is the earliest example of Latin American urban planning centered on modernity, hygiene, and order. In contrast to chaotic Havana, it’s a great place to unwind.

When to Visit: December – May

5. Corfu, Greece


After years under Venetian, French, and British rule, Corfu united with Greece in the 19th century. Its Old Town still possesses traces from former rule, including three Italian-style forts and hundreds of neoclassical homes. With beautiful year-round weather and surrounding natural beauty, this Ionian island is like an ancient paradise preserved in time.

When to Visit: March – November

6. Sukhothai, Thailand


Restored temples and monuments abound in the historic center of Sukhothai. As the capital of the first Kingdom of Siam, Sukhothai artworks represent the beginnings of Thai expression. In fact, the religious art and architecture of that era are considered Thailand’s most classic styles. The nearby Historical Park cannot be missed.

When to Visit: November – February

7. Bruges, Belgium


Bruges’s UNESCO-protected historic center showcases the evolution of Belgium’s aesthetic from a medieval settlement to a Gothic powerhouse to a neo-Gothic fairytale. The city’s cobblestoned streets, canals, and world-renowned chocolate shops make it especially romantic.

Stay overnight to experience its magic without the day-trip crowds, which grew to over four million last year, 205 times the number of Bruges residents.

When to Visit: May – September

8. Yaroslavl, Russia


Northeast Russia contains a cluster of ancient towns called the Golden Ring, but Yaroslavl is the clear favorite. The town is full of quaint merchant homes and impressive churches (including one with a record-breaking 15 domes). In addition to its impressive display of Kievan religious zeal, Yaroslavl showcases developments in residential planning from the 16th to 18th centuries.

When to Visit: April – September

For more site-seeing inspiration, check out the full list of UNESCO-protected destinations.