While the pyramids and the Taj Mahal are on everyone’s bucket list, travellers would do well to add their less famous World Heritage relations to the list. From ruins to marketplaces, temples to ancient hermitages, here are 10 ‘alternative’ Heritage experiences that span the globe.
Discover an Ancient World in… Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto is not the first place you think of when you hear ‘UNESCO’, but 17 historical locations are cultural heritage sites in this beautiful city. These include Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines, castles and Japanese gardens. You might even glimpse a geisha scurrying to secret liaison.
Awaken the Force Deep in the Jungle at… Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal, Guatemala, is not as well known as other South American ruins but it is exceptionally rich in history and culture. This ancient Mayan citadel, which flourished between 200 and 850AD, lies in the rainforests of northern Guatemala.
Ruins are of staggering proportions, with many towering temples including, Temple IV, the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas, offering sweeping views from its 70-metre peak. The forest canopy winds around the ruins, offering rich, earthy aromas, and providing a home to monkeys, agoutis and foxes. It is no wonder this magical location was chosen for a Star Wars movie scene.
Lose Yourself in… Copan, Honduras
The Copan ruins can be found in Honduras, just over the border from Guatemala. For travellers, it is one of the most charming and friendly ‘tourist’ spots in this part of the world.
Copan, one of the most spectacular cities of the ancient Maya civilisation, is a beautiful stone complex of temples, altars, hieroglyphs and stelae, as well as a maze of underground tunnels. The nearby town of the same name is just as picturesque, boasting paved cobblestones lined with white adobe buildings with red-tiled roofs. It also has fantastic restaurants.
Spice Things Up in… Hoi An, Vietnam
Hoi An in Vietnam is home to one of Asia’s most beautiful Old Towns, which is a reflection of its cosmopolitan history. This former port city, laced with canals, offers an eclectic mix of eras and styles, from Vietnamese tradition to French colonialism, Chinese architecture and Japanese bridges and pagodas.
Paying homage to its spice-trading heyday is a vibrant culinary scene with a bustling street-food culture and incredible fresh markets. Despite such a romantic setting there is plenty to do for couples, families and backpackers alike.
Enjoy a Royal View at… Himeji Castle, Japan
Himeji Castle, one of 12 remaining castles in Japan, has a fascinating history, as well as a more recent film history, featuring in The Last Samurai and James Bond movie You Only Live Twice. Perched on a hilltop overlooking the city of Himeji, this 400-old relic from the feudal era is elegant and proud, the finest surviving example of prototypical Japanese castle architecture. Visiting in cherry blossom season is a must.
Explore a Medieval Maze in… Tallinn, Estonia
Tallinn, on the Baltic Sea, is an exceptionally well preserved medieval trading city that flourished between the 13th and 16th centuries. Its skyline is peppered with church spires, and its lower town is a maze of narrow, winding streets, many still adorned with their original medieval names. And the medieval architecture of the monasteries and guild houses is a highlight. Since the Viking days, Tallinn has been a melting pot of cultures, resulting in a diverse and hedonistic art and culinary scene.
Get Your Zen on in… Seokguram Grotto, South Korea
Seokguram Grotto is one of Asia’s finest Buddhist shrines and one of South Korea’s best national treasures. The hermitage is part of the Bulguksa temple complex, completed in the eighth century, and showcases some of the best Buddhist sculptures in the world.
It was abandoned for centuries and not rediscovered until 1909, when a postman happened upon it. The tale goes that he was caught in a thunderstorm and sought shelter in the nearest cave. When he was safely inside, he lit a candle and found a gigantic stone Buddha staring back him.
Awaken all Your Senses in… the Medina of Marrakech
An exotic tapestry of sights, smells, sounds and tastes, the Medina of Marrakech takes travellers on a sensory journey into the city’s past and present. The Medina was, and still is, the economic and cultural centre of the city.
It is home to an array of impressive buildings and monuments, from the Kasbah Mosque, Badii Palace and Saadian tombs to the maze of souks and the square in the heart of the action, Jemaa El Fna. With spice sellers, silk spinners, fruit vendors and jewellery hagglers, the Medina is a lively spot.
Follow in Ancient Footsteps and Visit… Quebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina
Quebrada de Humahuaca, part of the Camino Inca cultural route that has 10,000 years of trading history, is a narrow mountain valley in northern Argentina. It’s known for its dramatic rock formations and hills, and its indigenous Quechua villages – with visible traces of prehistoric hunter-gatherer communities, of the Inca Empire (15th to 16th centuries) and of the fight for independence in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the south, the rocky, multihued slopes of the Seven Colours Hill rise above the Spanish colonial village of Purmamarca, which is also home to the centuries-old Santa Rosa de Lima church and holds morning markets framed by the surrounding desert landscapes.
Play in an Archaeological Park at… Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka
Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s majestic medieval capital, was established as the first city of the land in the 11th century and today is an incredible archaeological park packed with hundreds of ancient structures, from tombs and temples to statues and stupas. The central quadrangle is worth the trip alone and music lovers might recognise the architecture from Duran Duran’s 1982 video Save A Prayer.
Animal lovers and documentary fanatics might also recognise the striking landscape from Disney documentary Monkey Kingdom, which documents a troop of toque macaques – who are not that dissimilar to their counterparts in The Jungle Book.