From the lofty tracks of the Swiss Alps to the idyllic atolls of the Seychelles, Garry Astle rounds up some the planet’s most underrated UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Rhaetian Railway, Albula/Bernina landscapes, Switzerland and Italy
The Albula and Bernina lines of the Rhaetian Railway offer spectacular views of Italy and Switzerland while opening up the remote domains of the Swiss Alps via a series of 196 viaducts and 55 tunnels. UNESCO added the railway to its list of World Heritage Sites in 2008 for its outstanding architecture and engineering feats, coupled with the inspiring landscape it runs through.
Mount Emei Scenic Area, China
The Mount Emei heritage site in China’s Sichuan province isn’t only strikingly beautiful; it’s also considered the birthplace of Buddhism in China and home to the world’s largest Buddha statue — the Leshan Giant Buddha. Carved into a cliff facing the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi Rivers, the colossal figure was built in the Tang Dynasty in the eighth century and stands a staggering 233ft tall.
Cape Floral Region Protected Areas, South Africa
Comprising eight protected areas, covering 1.3 million acres, this heritage site in South Africa’s Cape Province is widely considered to be one of the world’s richest and most beautiful areas for plant life. The site represents only 0.5% of Africa, yet is home to almost 20% of the continent’s flora, making it an area of outstanding scientific importance.
Kenya Lakes System, Great Rift Valley, Kenya
Two hours north of Nairobi, lakes Bogoria, Nakuru and Elemetaita form the Kenya Lakes System, home to 13 globally threatened species of bird. But among the region’s eclectic population of winged migrators, lions, rhinos and giraffes, it’s the lesser flamingos that steal the show — up to four million flit between the three lakes, creating an exceptional natural spectacle.
Huascaran National Park, Peru
Listed by UNESCO in 1985, this vast natural expanse encompasses most of the Cordillera Blanca — the world’s highest tropical range — in the Central Sierra region of the Peruvian Andes. Snowy peaks, deep ravines, 120 glacial lakes and a diverse array of vegetation make the park a site of great beauty, in which the spectacled bear and Andean condor can be found.
Historic Centre of Bukhara, Uzbekistan
The ancient Persian city of Bukhara, situated on the legendary Silk Road, is more than 2,000 years old and represents the most complete example of a medieval Islamic city in Central Asia, with a largely unspoiled urban center. The tomb of Ismail Samani and the masterful, brick decorated minaret of Poi-Kalyan are particular highlights of this important city-museum in Uzbekistan.
Aldabra Atoll, Seychelles
The world’s second largest coral atoll, Aldabra comprises four islands enclosing a shallow lagoon. The atoll’s remote location in the Indian Ocean has allowed it to remain largely untouched by mankind, enabling it to retain its incredible natural habitat, home to over 100,000 giant tortoises, the greatest population of the species on the planet.
Ningaloo Coast, Australia
This 1.49 million-acre marine site in Western Australia is one of the longest near-shore reefs in the world. It supports 220 species of coral and 500 species of tropical fish, including an annual congregation of whale sharks. On land, the site features myriad underground limestone caves and waterways, contributing to the coastline’s exceptional biodiversity.
Kluane/Wrangell-St Elias/Glacier Bay/Tatshenshini-Alsek, Canada
This impressive collection of four national parks along the Canadian/US border offers epic mountainous backdrops, wonderfully diverse wildlife habitats and the largest non-polar icefield in the world. The parks are also home to the largest protected population of grizzly bears on the planet.
Hanseatic Town of Visby, Sweden
Situated on the Swedish island of Gotland, the former Viking site of Visby was the epicenter of Baltic commercial confederation the Hanseatic League, from the 12th to the 14th century. The well-preserved medieval town still has a largely intact 13th-century rampart, surrounding picturesque merchants houses, cobbled streets and over 200 warehouses.