The UNESCO World Heritage list can often be used as a lazy tickbox list by travellers – just because something’s on the list doesn’t necessarily mean it’s worth visiting. But while there are plenty of obvious contenders – such as the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Wall of China – a few World Heritage sites are less well known. And these are some of the most obscure ones that are perhaps worth making a visit to...
The Hiroshima Peace Memorial
Where? Hiroshima, Japan
If you want a World Heritage site that genuinely brings a lump to the throat, then this is it. In 1910, the Hiroshima Prefecture decided to promote industry by building a domed exhibition hall. It’d be a pretty unremarkable building now if it hadn’t been for The Bomb. The building, now known as the Genbaku or Atomic Bomb Dome, was the only one left standing near the hypocentre of the atomic bomb blast on 6 August 1945.
The decision was made to leave the dome as it was – a blown-out shell – and build a Peace Park (including the Peace Museum) around it. It’s a terrifying reminder of a weapon that dropped out of the sky and killed 140,000 people.
The Cradle of Humankind
Where? Near Johannesburg, South Africa
This area, to the west of Johannesburg, is seemingly where we come from. An extraordinary number of ancient fossils have been found in the region’s caves, and these include hominid fossils that are 3.5 million years old. The Sterkfontein Caves are the most fruitful hunting ground for archaeologists – around a third of all early hominid fossils ever found have come from there – and the tours and exhibitions there make it a great tourist attraction. The nearby Maropeng Visitor Centre also gives a superb, if occasionally rather odd, insight in human evolution.
Where? Western Australia
Shark Bay is on the World Heritage list for its natural wonders, and although some of them may not particularly exciting to look at, they’re hugely important. Let’s face it, no-one’s going to go this far to look at the world’s largest bank of seagrass. Even the stromatolites aren’t particularly gripping for the neutral – but while they look like rocks, they’re actually extremely rare examples of the oldest remaining life on earth. Shark Bay is really worth visiting for its end-of-the-earth wilderness feel and the dolphins – some of which come up to the beach at Monkey Mia to be handfed.
Often dubbed the highest city on earth, Potosi was the world’s largest industrial complex in the 16th century. The extraordinary riches of silver in the mountainsides caught the eye of the Spanish and effectively became a giant piggy bank. Absolute fortunes were shipped back to Spain, after being dug out of the hillsides by indigenous and African slave labour. Tin and silver are still mined here today, and the combination of impressive colonial buildings and scarred landscape makes it an extraordinary place to explore.
Gunung Mulu National Park
Where? Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo
The Gunung Mulu National Park is so much remarkable for what’s above ground, but what’s below it. It’s not for the amateur daytripper, but this part of Borneo contains what is arguably the world’s most incredible cave system. Experienced cavers and canyoners can explore an enormous underground river system, and the biggest single-chamber cave in the world. The Sarawak Chamber is gigantic, and could reportedly house eight Boeing 747s lined up nose to tail.
Redwood National and State Parks
Where? California, USA
In this part of the world, it’s usually the Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks that get all the attention, but these redwood forests along the Californian coast are remarkable. The coastal redwoods are the tallest trees in the world, and plenty of them soar above the 100m mark. This makes a walk through the forest a humbling stroll through some absolute giants. It is a place in which to feel very small indeed.
Chief Roi Mata’s Domain
Chief Roi Mata’s Domain is arguably one of the weirdest on the World Heritage list. It’s a collection of sites related to a former tribal chief who was allegedly poisoned by his brother. Then, once he died, over 50 family members and followers sacrificed themselves to buried with him. The three main sites – on three different islands – are seen as where oral history meets archaeological history. And while you’re enjoying fab caves and beaches, you also get an insight into how the chiefdom systems in the Pacific nations have worked over the years.
The Rice Terraces of the Philippine Cordilleras
Where? Near Manila, Philippines
For a rare example of how the human hand can actually make a landscape look more impressive, a trip to Luzon Island (the main one in the Philippines) is in order. Around Ifuago, centuries-old systems of growing rice have left their mark on the hilly landscape. Extraordinarily intricate systems of terraces, largely based around natural contours, have made the steep slopes look like they’re a series of narrow slices stacked precariously on top of each other. The elaborate farming and irrigation systems have been built up through years of knowledge and experience, creating both a natural and engineering marvel.
Where? Alberta, Canada
Whilst it’s hardly going to compare to the Pyramids, Machu Picchu or Table Mountain in terms of wow factor, Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump wins the award for most ridiculously-named World Heritage site hands-down. Essentially, this was a giant buffalo graveyard, and for 5,500 years the native Blackfoot people had managed to hunt buffalo by rounding them up and forcing them to run off a cliff. At the bottom of the cliff, the buffalo had broken legs and were rendered immobile, making them easier to capture. This bizarre hunting technique and lots more about the Blackfoot culture is explained in an on-site museum.
By David Whitley