Newest Wonders of the World
Hundreds of years ago, a tribe of Berbers put down stakes at the edge of the Sahara, catering to the desert caravans. The streets in Agadez’s old city center still look much like they did in the 15th century—and recently earned UNESCO’s stamp of approval.
Each summer, UNESCO convenes to announce new picks for the World Heritage List, chosen for their cultural, historical, and environmental importance, from vast sand dunes and mountains towering 22,000 feet high to magnificent palaces. Agadez in present-day Niger was recognized for its earthen architecture, becoming one of the 19 new inscriptions that bring the total to 981 sites in 160 countries (Fiji and Qatar debuted this year).
While the Medici villas in Tuscany and Mount Fuji in Japan—also new members of the club—will continue to draw hordes of tourists, no doubt there are other travelers who’ll welcome the challenge of visiting the off-the-beaten-track destinations singled out by UNESCO.
Check out this year’s new crop of wonders and see which ones speak to you. Tajikistan, anyone?
University of Coimbra–Alta and Sofia, Portugal
If you thought your professors were tough, consider that this university, founded in 1290, once had its own court of law and, naturally, its own prison for students and scholars (under the library). One of the oldest continuously operating universities in the world, the institution grew and evolved for more than 700 years within the old town. It now includes the 12th-century Cathedral of Santa Cruz, the Royal Palace of Alcáçova, and several 16th-century colleges.
Honghe Hani Rice Terraces, China
For the past 1,300 years, the Hani people in southern Yunnan have used a sophisticated system of channels to funnel water from the top of the Ailao Mountains to the terraces below. These 41,000 acres of terraces also form a unique integrated farming system—using buffalo, cattle, ducks, fish, and eel to support the production of red rice, the staple crop. The Hani still live in thatched houses between the mountaintops and terraces, much like they have for a millennium, worshipping mountains, rivers, forests, fire, and other natural forces.
Red Bay Basque Whaling Station, Canada
Beginning in 1550 and continuing for more than 50 years, 600 Basque mariners and 15 whaling ships from southern France and northern Spain would make a summer voyage to remote Red Bay, on the far-eastern shores of Newfoundland. Today, three whaling galleons, four smaller chalupas, and plenty of whale bones lie at the bottom of a watery archaeological site—and visitors can observe the rendering ovens, cooperages, and living quarters that make it one of the best-preserved examples of the European whaling tradition.
Namib Sand Sea, Namibia
Stretching 1,200 miles along the Atlantic and covering roughly 10 million acres of desert and buffer zone, the otherworldly Namib Sand Sea is the oldest desert in the world and is almost completely uninhabited by humans. Dense fog—which can envelop the coastal areas for half the year—is the primary source of water and, combined with the sandstorms, makes this one of the world’s top storm-watching destinations. The animals that manage to live here need to adapt to ever-changing microhabitats.
Levuka Historical Port Town, Fiji
When American and European traders began building on Levuka’s coconut and mango tree–lined beachfront in the early 19th century, they were considerably outnumbered by the islanders. Rather than foist Western architecture on the landscape, they integrated local building styles into the stores, churches, schools, warehouses, and homes, giving a distinctive look to Fiji’s first colonial capital.
Medici Villas and Gardens, Tuscany, Italy
During the Renaissance, any self-respecting Florentine family of means owned a vast farm outside the city gates. But when the powerful Medicis began building princely country estates, these wealthy patrons of the arts innovated a whole new approach to form and function—living in harmony with nature with an eye toward leisure and learning. These 12 villas and two pleasure gardens are exquisite examples of an architectural and landscape ideal that lives on today.
El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, Mexico
Desert bighorn sheep, black-tailed jackrabbits, Gila monsters, and the endangered Sonoran pronghorn all survive among the sand, cinders, and playas of this 1.75-million-acre reserve. The dramatic landscape includes 10 enormous, nearly perfectly circular craters, sand dunes that reach up to 650 feet, and granite massifs that rise 2,000 feet from the desert floor.
Wooden Tserkvas, Poland and Ukraine
Poland and Ukraine came under the influence of rival Christian centers (Rome and Constantinople, respectively) more than a thousand years ago. But their shared traditions include tserkvas found in the Carpathian region: shingled wooden Greek Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches built between the 16th and 19th centuries. They honor the holy trinity with buildings typically constructed in three parts, with wooden domes, cupolas, and bell towers.
Hill Forts of Rajasthan, India
These six forts are set among the rocky outcroppings of the Aravalli Mountains in India’s “land of kings” and remain a standing testament to the power that Rajput princes enjoyed from the 8th to 18th century. The defensive walls—up to 12 miles around and incorporating natural defenses such as hills, deserts, and rivers— protected the ornate palaces, temples, and other buildings within.
Al Zubarah, Qatar
Nowadays petrodollars fuel Qatar’s economy, but at one time pearls supported the realm. The fortified town of Al Zubarah—an abandoned pearl fishing and trading port that thrived on the Persian Gulf coast beginning in the mid 1700s—provides a glimpse into everyday Arab life before the discovery of oil and emergence of the modern Gulf States. alzubarah.qa
Mount Fuji, Japan
Perhaps the most iconic feature in all of Japan, this active and often snowcapped volcano is an object of both artistic inspiration and spiritual pilgrimage, particularly among Buddhists. The UNESCO inscription comprises 25 sites that reflect the variety of Fujisan’s sacred landscapes, including pristine lakes, springs, waterfalls, Sengen-jinja shrines, and Oshi lodging houses.
Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe, Kassel, Germany
From its hilltop perch, a 27-foot copper statue of Hercules stands sentinel over this 590-acre water park, whose Grand Cascade spills down along stone steps for 1,150 feet. The park, begun in 1696 by a Prussian ruler and completed nearly 150 years later, uses a complex hydropneumatic network to supply water to the Baroque water theater, grotto, and fountains, which in turn feed dramatic waterfalls, wild rapids, a lake, and secluded ponds. wilhelmshoehe.de
Agadez’s Historic Center, Niger
On the southern fringe of the Saharan desert, Agadez was founded in the 15th century and became a thriving stop along the route of medieval trading caravans. The nomadic Touaregs settled the city while maintaining the boundaries of historical encampments, forming a street pattern that exists to this day. It’s renowned for its earthen architecture; an 89-foot minaret made entirely of mud is the tallest of its kind in the world.
Mount Etna, Italy
On the eastern coast of Sicily, near the cities of Messina and Catania, Mount Etna is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and the tallest active volcano in Europe at almost 11,000 feet. The volcanic soil supports vineyards along the lower slopes, while its nearly constant eruptions make Mount Etna a natural laboratory for volcanologists and other scientists.
Pamir National Park, Tajikistan
This roughly 6.5-million-acre park is 18 percent of Tajikistan’s total size, yet frequent strong earthquakes and extreme seasonal weather leave it only sparsely populated. That’s worked to splendid advantage for the endangered species that are sheltered there: among them, snow leopards, Siberian ibex, Marco Polo sheep, and markhors (wild goats with spectacularly long, curved horns). The park is at the center of the so-called Pamir Knot, where the highest mountain ranges in Eurasia meet at peaks that reach 22,000 feet.
Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran
Although elaborate Golestan Palace was originally built in the 15th century, it was the ruling Qajar family who made it the seat of government about 300 years later, adding its most characteristic features. What’s left of the palace complex—the oldest monument in Tehran—is composed of eight main palaces surrounding lush gardens. Reza Shah destroyed much of it between 1925 and 1945 to make room for large, 1950s-era commercial buildings.
Kaesong’s Historical Sites, North Korea
Once part of South Korea but now near the demilitarized zone in the north, the area of Kaesong flourished during the Koryo dynasty from the 10th to 14th centuries. UNESCO awarded World Heritage status to Kaesong for sites including the remains of a fortress that once surrounded the ancient city and the ruins of the Manwoldae Palace.
Tauric Chersonese, Ukraine
Among the ruins of this ancient city, founded by the Greeks in the fifth century B.C., you can find early Christian artifacts scattered alongside remains of Stone and Bronze Age settlements and Roman tower fortifications. Hundreds of chora—vineyard plots of equal size—once made this area the most productive wine center in the Black Sea region.
Xinjiang Tianshan, China
The snow-covered peaks of the vast Tianshan range—one of the largest in the world—form a striking contrast to the high deserts that surround it. Linked geologically to the Himalayas, this area supports beautiful glaciers, pristine forests and meadows, and clear lakes and rivers. Of the world’s estimated 2,500 living snow leopards, two-thirds of them can be found in Xinjiang.