“As travel becomes accessible to more people by the day, it’s important to stop for a moment and remember exactly WHY we travel.” ~ Alyse.
What first springs to mind when you hear the words UNESCO sites in North America? For me, it’s the sweeping landscapes of the many (and incredible) national parks. There are so many places sitting patiently on my North America bucket list! But did you realise there are some UNESCO sites that aren’t national parks?
Most of us have bucket lists with items that are just calling to be ticked off. If your list is anything like mine, it can seem never ending as you come to the ironic realisation that the more you see in this world, the more you actually don’t know. The constant craving to further your knowledge just means that no sooner you check something off your list you’re adding more to it!
Invisible Tourists don’t just visit a destination so they can say “I’ve been there”. There’s so much more to travel than the satisfaction of checking something off a list. For us, it’s a thrill travelling to an exciting new place to gain a better understanding of its people, history, culture and their natural environment. A huge part of that is learning about attractions that have significance to that culture, and why.
Thankfully, in 1946 the United Nations created the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO) with the aim of securing and preserving the world’s cultural and natural heritage. To further question why we travel, I’ve reached out to travel bloggers around the globe to ask them what their favourite UNESCO World Heritage site is, and the reasons behind their decision. Read on for more!
Here are 14 UNESCO Sites in North America to Add to Your Bucket List
This six-part bucket list series explores why adding UNESCO World Heritage listings to any itinerary will make it more meaningful and fulfilling. In case you missed them, here’s the series so far but for now let’s get into Part One that focuses on alluring UNESCO sites in North America with locations from around Canada, Cuba, Mexico and the United States of America (listed alphabetically by country):
Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks
In 1984, the area covered by four Canadian National Parks – Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho – was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s easy to see why, there are so many things to do in Banff in winter! In 1990, the designation was expanded to include three Provincial Parks: Mt. Robson, Hamber, and Mt. Assiniboine.
If you are a lover of natural beauty, you’ll think you are in heaven when you visit this area. There are jaw-dropping vistas everywhere you look! The area also contains the Burgess Shale, renowned for its beautifully preserved fossils of soft-bodied organisms.
Drive the Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic drives in the world. Look for wildlife: we saw elk, moose, coyote, black bear, and grizzlies when we visited. Hike, walk on a glacier, take a cruise, go boating… the possibilities for adventure are endless!
TIP: The region is beautiful in every season, but to see the surreal blue of the alpine lakes at its stunning best, visit in the summer.
Contributed by: Dhara, It’s Not About the Miles
Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve
Not only because it’s a short drive from where I grew up, Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador is my favourite UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is also arguably the oldest.
Set against a backdrop of the raging North Atlantic, and stretching for some 17 kilometres along the rugged coastline, Mistaken Point is home over 10,000 fossils – some dating back to over 580 million years ago (yes, you read that right). The impressions in the rock range in size from 2 centimetres to over 2 metres, and most are in remarkable condition.
Tours to Mistaken Point are by guide only, so it’s important to book well in advance since there is limit to the number of participants each day. Also remember to wear good hiking/walking shoes with a sturdy grip since you will be clamouring over cliffs to reach the main site.
Contributed by: Raymond, Man on the Lam
Old Havana is one of the most unique destinations one can visit in the world. If you ever dreamt of traveling back in time, Old Havana and Cuba in general is a great place to go. The trade embargo from the U.S and the regime that rules Cuba have created a very special scenario.
As a tourist, you can admire the beauty of the colonial style architecture with colorful buildings everywhere. What makes it even better is the fact that you can sip on the original version of Mojito and listen to Salsa music at the same time. Or, why not go for a ride in one of the American cars that are still driving around the streets of Cuba and Old Havana?
Havana has so much history and culture to offer, and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site that shouldn’t be missed!
Contributed by: Alex, Swedish Nomad
Although most people equate Cuba with surf and sand, the ideal beach holiday, it is so much more than that. I had spent six months exploring where to find good Cuban food in Havana and locals invited me along their trip to Valle de Viñales, which is only a few hours from Havana. I couldn’t pass up a trip with locals.
Stupidly I brought a swimsuit with me because I thought we’d be close to a beach. But Viñales is unlike any area I had seen in Cuba, and not a beach to be found! Instead it’s a lush valley filled with tobacco plantations, steep cliffs, lots of caves to explore and farmers to meet. It was designated a UNESCO region in 1979, and is known for its “mogotes” which are huge limestone rocks that dot the small valley. It is truly spectacular.
Viñales is worth spending a few days, look to stay in a casa particular, which is similar to a BNB at a local’s house. They can help you organise tours from visiting tobacco farmers to horseback riding the gorgeous region. It’s the best way to support the local economy and really connect with locals.
Contributed by: Ayngelina, Bacon Is Magic
The reason I wanted to see these particular ruins was because they are not as well known as places like Chichen Itza. Another big draw for me was that they are hidden deep in the jungle, just 35km from the Guatemalan border.
Although it is hidden, it is thought to be the biggest archeological area in Mesoamerica, with nearly seven thousand buildings in the centre. The main pyramid here is the largest Mayan structure in existence – the base almost covers five acres.
I loved exploring Calakmul, mainly because it was so quiet. The views weren’t ruined by hoards of people. Because of this there was also lots of wildlife about. Climbing the two larger pyramids gives an amazing view, you can just see the other pyramids peeping out from the treetops.
TIP: It’s very hard to get to. It’s a very long drive from either Campeche or Chetumal. So my advice, take an organised tour. I went with Bacalar Adventure Tours, and loved it.
Contributed by: Nat, Natpacker
Historic Centre of Zacatecas
Zacatecas is a spectacular silver mining city in northern Mexico with a surprising wealth of attractions and almost no foreign tourists. This hidden gem’s beautiful colonial centre, imposingly constructed of pink stone, is stunningly illuminated at night.
Top sights include the Museo Rafael Coronel, atmospherically located in the ruins of a lovely 16th-century convent, which features a fascinating collection of traditional masks and puppets. The Museo Pedro Coronel, housed in a 17th-century building, exhibits modern art by Picasso, Dalí, and Miró as well as pre-Hispanic artefacts. Cerro de la Bufa offers superb panoramas of the city; walk up or take a short cable car ride.
Mina el Edén, a fabulously wealthy 16th-century mine that now includes an underground disco, provides a sobering reminder of the brutal Spanish exploitation of the native population. To learn more about local indigenous tribes, visit the fantastic collection of Huichol art at the Museo Zacatecano.
Contributed by: Ingrid, Second-Half Travels
San Miguel de Allende
I have the distinct joy of actually living in my favourite UNESCO World Heritage site. San Miguel de Allende, in central Mexico, was added to the list in 2008. Cited for the extraordinary architectural heritage of its historic centre and its importance in the independence of Mexico, the city is also a tourist mecca.
More than one slick travel magazine has named it the Best City in the World over the last few years. This “prettiest town in Mexico” has retained its cobblestoned streets, no traffic lights, a ban on neon and other garish advertising signage, and its walkability. It’s also an artists’ colony, with 100+ galleries.
Anchored by the wedding-cake Neo-Gothic, pink stone Parroquia church, visible from most of the town, San Miguel’s neo-Baroque, colonial and 19th-century buildings, all in colours of rose, maroon, gold and umber, create an architectural museum that is still very much lived in and loved.
Contributed by: Donna, Nomad Women
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Glacier Bay National Park
For myself, my favourite UNESCO World Heritage Site is Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska. It is sort of hard to get to for one, unless you manage to find a cruise itinerary that actually goes inside the National Park, and they only allow 4 cruise ships every day to do so.
It is nature at its finest, with glaciers all around, and plenty of wildlife in the water. We saw so many sea lions on an island, leopard seals, and birds that are just hanging around near the glacier. It is also a sentimental favourite of mine, as Alaska was our honeymoon destination and the Alaskan cruise was definitely worth it.
If you try to visit and are not fond of cruises, it will mean flying into Gustavus and going on the only boat tour that goes to the National Park.
Contributed by: Ruby, A Journey We Love
Grand Canyon National Park
There is nothing else in the world the rivals the Grand Canyon. There are amazing canyons in other places, even nearby in the southwest United States, but no other compares to the sheer magnitude of the Grand Canyon.
It is always stunning in photos, and looks incredible, but they really do no justice. There simply is no way to capture this incredible natural wonder in a photo, as it goes on for miles. That first glimpse over the side evokes a sense of awe, a sudden realisation of how small we are in the realm of space and time.
The layers in the canyon walls for stunning striations of colours, but they also reveal billions of years of the earth’s history. This is one of the four criteria for which UNESCO recognises the Canyon. Another is one which brings many visitors, its exceptional natural beauty and visually powerful landscape. For visitors, flying over the canyon is the only way to truly grasp its vastness.
Contributed by: Roxanna, Gypsy With A Day Job
Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park, located in the southwest corner of Colorado was the first US national park to be established purely for cultural preservation. In fact, it is the largest archaeological preserve in the United States. The park covers more than 52,000 acres and protects more than 5,000 archaeological sites, including 600 cliff dwellings, which were built between 600 and 1300 AD.
A weekend visit will give you plenty of time to explore, and while you can see many of the Puebloan cliff dwellings from roadside overlooks, a guided tour will allow you to venture into the sites with a National Park Service ranger.
Tours do require some hiking, but are well worth the effort if you are in good physical condition. Highlights for us included a tour of Cliff Palace, the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum, and driving the Wetherill Mesa Road. The Far View Lodge provides the only lodging in the park and makes a great home base for park explorations.
Contributed by: Tara, Back Road Ramblers
San Antonio Missions
Many people could likely tell you about the Alamo, but don’t realise that there are five missions on the “Mission Trail” in San Antonio. They were designated World Heritage status in 2015 and are all worth a visit.
Built in the 18th century by Franciscan missionaries, the missions are situated along the San Antonio River and include farmlands, residences, churches, and granaries. They are a fantastic way to learn about Texas history – one of the reasons we were so drawn to them. The other was their beautiful architecture and seeing them in their natural surroundings.
We recommend you start at Mission Espada, the furthest mission from town, then work your way towards town to finish at the Alamo. This will put you in the heart of San Antonio to explore or dine on the River Walk.
Contributed by: Lee & Stacey, One Trip At A Time
Statue of Liberty
My favourite UNESCO site is the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty was a gift from France and has been welcoming immigrants on Liberty Island in the New York Harbour since 1886. To me, it is an important symbol that the US is the land of opportunity and a place where you can practice whatever religion you choose.
Emma Lazarus’s poem, the New Colossus, on the pedestal says it best – “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
You can get a nice view of the Statue of Liberty from the Staten Island ferry, which is free. Alternatively, you can take the Statue of Liberty ferry to Liberty Island. If you would like to climb up to the crown, be sure to get your tickets well in advance. It’s also worthwhile to visit the National Museum of Immigration on Ellis Island.
Contributed by: Anisa, Two Traveling Texans
Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone National Park stole my attention years ago when I discovered that it contains over half of the world’s geothermal features. The largest hot spring in the USA, third largest in the world, Grand Prismatic Spring is one of these geothermal features. Yellowstone is now my favourite UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On my road trip from Lafayette LA to Calgary AB in May I decided to make time to visit Yellowstone. Now that I have seen a few of the geysers, hot springs, and mud pots I can only describe it as other-worldly. Even in a crowd of tourists, you can get lost in the mesmerising theatre of geothermal activity at Yellowstone.
TIP: When planning a trip to Yellowstone, try to go in shoulder season of April/May or October/November to avoid the largest crowds. Be inspired for your trip with this 3 days in Yellowstone itinerary!
Contributed by: Susan, Solo Trips and Tips
Yosemite National Park
Tucked into California’s scenic Sierra Nevada mountain range, Yosemite National Park is an American national treasure. It’s been inspiring awe in visitors since it was officially designated as the third U.S. national park way back in 1890.
Yosemite’s deep central valley is framed by soaring cliffs and polished domes…including famous Half Dome, a bucket list destination for climbers worldwide. Serene mountain lakes, giant Sequoias, and rushing waterfalls complete the experience. Whether you’re seeking a remote alpine hike, an easy day jaunt, or a disability-friendly nature exploration, Yosemite delivers.
Just remember that Yosemite sees more than 1 million visitors annually… which can make a summer trip feel crowded.
TIP: Consider a spring or fall visit instead when you can also enjoy off-season prices at one of Yosemite’s historic hotels. Whatever you do, stop in for a meal or an evening cocktail at the gorgeous Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee).
Contributed by: Chris, Explore Now or Never
What UNESCO sites in North America will you add to your list?
So that’s a wrap for some of the most alluring UNESCO sites in North America! After finding out why each world heritage site holds significant meaning and are our bloggers’ favourites, are you planning on adding any to your bucket list you hadn’t thought about before? Let me know!
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out other articles in my UNESCO Sites Bucket List series! I’d also love if you’d come and join me on Facebook, follow me on Instagram or don’t forget to pin it to Pinterest!
Until next time,
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