Top 10 lesser-known UNESCO sites

Why visit a UNESCO site?

As Theodore Roosevelt claimed: “the more you know about the past, the better you are prepared for the future”. The allocation of UNESCO world heritage status gives incredible historical sites the memorialisation and protection they deserve. From the spiritual tranquility of the Lalibela churches and the ancient Göbekli Tepe temple, to the once domineering sites of Persepolis and Fuerte de Samaipata, each of the amazing locations on this list has a special and almost magical essence. These are the items that should be on every adventure traveller’s bucket list. 

Our tours with knowledgeable guides provide you with an intimate access to a hidden world of wonders. When visiting such significant sites, our small, tailormade tours avoid the negative aspects associated with mass tourism. And nowhere is this advantage felt more than at lesser-known UNESCO sites where suddenly legends and myths can conflate with facts and history, and what you think you know changes when you arrive at these locations. At Travel the Unknown, learning about the history and culture of our destinations is an important part of the adventure and that is certainly what you’ll find when visiting a UNESCO site with us.

Lalibela (Ethiopia)

Boldly setting out to build the “New Jerusalem”, King Lalibela’s legacy of this unique site arguably achieved its goal. Standing there, it is hard not to feel the spirituality that ruminates from these 13th-century rock-hewn churches, the destination of many a Christian pilgrim across the years.

As one of the first countries to convert to Christianty, Ethiopia seems an appropriate place to visit a UNESCO site of such religious significance. Whilst the Biete Medhani Alem (or House of the Saviour of the World) is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world, the most notable of the collection, perhaps, is the Biete Giyorgis church, or St George’s church. Its excavated subterranean position provides perfect viewing of its distinctive Greek cross shape and roof decoration. 

To visit this UNESCO site in Ethiopia, view our small group and tailormade Ethiopian tours here.

(Gujarat, India)

The historic city of Ahmedabad is worthy of its status as India's first UNESCO city. It showcases some of the finest examples of Sultanate architecture but remains significant in modern society as the hometown of Mahatma Gandhi. The peaceful activist’s first ashram was set up here and is still a must-see for visitors today. Built in 15th-century Gujarat, the citadel houses elaborate and ornate mosques, tombs, palaces, and temples, whose designs display a connection between Islam, Hinduism, and Jainism.

Not to be missed is the Jami Mosque; this grand building is held up by 260 columns and visitors cannot help but be overtaken by the sense of tranquility that accompanies this spiritual place. Or maybe you’ll be drawn in by the advanced physics of the Jhulta Minar, or Shaking Minarets, which are designed to be able to shake whilst the connecting passage between them stays still. 

To visit this UNESCO site in India, view our small group and tailormade Indian tours here.

San Agustin 
Archaeological Park

Latin America has such a rich and varied cultural history that it can be hard to choose where to even start with an exploration of this. One place that should definitely be on your list is San Agustin; this UNESCO endorsed archaeological park is renowned as the largest pre-Columbian megalithic site in South America, and some of the statues are thought to be over 2000 years old. Situated in the Colombian Massif, the journey offers outstanding views of the Andes, leaving visitors staring around in wonder before even entering the park.

With an assorted mix of human, animalistic and monstrous icons it’s perhaps understandable why an 18th-century Spanish missionary quickly decided that these objects were carved by the Devil himself. However, the contemporarily accepted opinion is that the site and the carvings form a burial site and its guardians. There is still a level of mystery surrounding the civilisation that occupied this area, with the statues themselves serving as a key clue to unlocking this history.

To visit this UNESCO site in Colombia, view our small group and tailormade Colombia tours here.

Persepolis (Iran)

If you’re looking for a destination that exudes majesty and opulence, Persepolis almost appears to define these terms. It was a palatial complex, built to be the formidable front of the Achaemenid Empire, and even in ruins it still seems to uphold these qualities. In fact modern Iranian architecture still appears to draw on inspiration from this site.

Tachara Palace in particular remains the best preserved of the palace ruins, covered in detailed and varied carvings of nobles and envoys. However, it is standing in between the intimidating half man-half bull figures that is enough to make you feel small; even thousands of years later this empire is still able to prove its sheer magnitude and power. 

To visit this UNESCO site in Iran, view our small group and tailormade Iran tours here.

Bukhara (Uzbekistan)

Turquoise domes are set in sharp contrast to pale desert landscape at this UNESCO world heritage site. Bukhara is not only dazzling in its designs but, as a part of the Silk Road, it was of incredible economic and Islamic cultural importance for several centuries. The Mir-i-Arab Medressa domes add a vibrant burst of colour, but even the beige structures, such as the Kalon (or Kalyan) Minaret, consist of such intricate designs and phenomenal architecture so that they too stand out against the horizon.

Bukhara, at around 2000-years-old, has borne witness to and been adapted by the architectural and cultural developments during this time, and it is no surprise that wandering through these ancients streets will make you as though you have been transported to the past.  

To visit this UNESCO site in Uzbekistan, view our small group and tailormade Uzbekistan tours here.

Fuerte de Samaipata (Bolivia)

The belle of Bolivia has to be this pre-Columbian “fort” that has formed a connection between three different cultures (the Chané, the Incas, and the Spanish), proving to be an integral base to each of them. This incredible archaeological discovery is the largest carved stone in the world and thought to have been created, along with fascinating zoomorphic designs, by the Chané. You will see jaguars and snakes carved into the stone, respectively representing their desire for power and fertility.

The prime hilltop location with sweeping valley views is not only beautiful to look at but provided a strong and strategic military position that drew the Incas, and later the Spanish, to this community in the clouds. 

To visit this UNESCO site in Bolivia, view our small group and tailormade Bolivia tours here.

Mtskheta (Georgia)

Known as the “spiritual heart of the country” (hence it’s UNESCO status), this medieval city appears small and quaint, shadowed by surrounding mountains. Yet, despite its rather small size it was once the capital city of Georgia, and still remains the centre of the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church. The 6th-century Jvari monastery and its large cross are typically a popular spot for visitors to this area, providing both a sense of history as well as a spectacular view across the city.

There are also several legends and acts of miracles that surround the “life-giving pillar” that forms the central support for the Svetitskhoveli church. Although believing does not always mean seeing, it doesn’t hurt to come and take a look at this sensational sight for yourself.

To visit this UNESCO site in Georgia, view our small group and tailormade Georgia tours here.

Baalbek (Lebanon)

Towering monolithic columns stand proudly against the skyline of Lebanon, compromising one of the greatest examples of Imperial Roman architecture. These impressive temples, built upon Phoenician foundations, became an important sanctuary for worshippers and pilgrims during the Roman period. The three temples that remain in the best condition within the acropolis are the temples of Venus, Jupiter, and Bacchus.

It is not just the size of these constructions that is renowned (with some columns measuring 20m tall), but the intricate and decorative carvings that adorn the columns and walls. Even now it stands out as a place of grandeur, suitable for even the most revered of gods.  

To visit this UNESCO site in Lebanon, view our small group and tailormade Lebanon tours here.

Göbekli Tepe (Turkey)

A truly ground-breaking discovery is the archaeological uncovering of, what is thought to be, the world’s first temple. Dating back to the start of civilisation, this site in southeast Turkey is an astonishing 11,500 years old: 6000 years older than Stonehenge. Initially overlooked when it was first discovered in the ‘60s, it has since become an essential key to human history, challenging and shaping previously accepted sociological theories.

Considering its age, visitors will be surprised to witness just how well the structure, the stones, and even the detailed carvings on them are preserved and how advanced it was for its time. A magnificent site, in terms of size and beauty, offering us beneficial and exciting insights into a primitive way of life. 

To visit this UNESCO site in Turkey, view our small group and tailormade Turkey tours here.

Megalithic Temples (Malta)

Unbeknown to many, the tiny Mediterranean island of Malta is home to some of the oldest megalithic structures in the world. In fact, most of them pre-date the Pyramids of Giza. The earliest examples of human habitation on the Maltese islands date back to approximately 5000 BC; but an explosion of creativity saw a building spree take place between 4100 BC to roughly 2500 BC.  The UNESCO listing of the Megalithic Temples of Malta is made up of 7 temples across different time periods and locations.

Ġgantija, on the neighboring island of Gozo, is perhaps one of the oldest examples of megalithic temple. Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra are believed to have been built next, and show how builders expanded upon their architectural skills in the construction process. The Hypogeum followed during a transitional period where old and new styles were blended to create a different style of temple. Finally, the Tarxien temples were built with a heavy focus on pottery, artwork and design. 

It is fascinating to follow the evolution of these temples across the islands. Why not combine your archeological adventures with some beach relaxation; all on one holiday?

To visit these UNESCO sites in Malta, view our small group and tailormade Malta tours here.