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What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?


World Heritage Site is a landmark or area recognized as having "outstanding universal value" to the world. This list of sites has been granted legal protection by UNESCO (short for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), a specialized agency of the United Nations formulated in 1945 with the express purpose "to contribute to the building of a culture of peace, the eradication of poverty, sustainable development and intercultural dialogue through education, the sciences, culture, communication, and information."


In short, it's the list of legally protected and revered sites around the world due to their cultural and historical significance, and their ability to help educate, unite, and foster peace. 


UNESCO started with 20 countries (or member states) and has evolved to include 193 member states working together to open up communication and foster collaborative relationships among different civilizations, cultures, and peoples based upon commonly shared values. 


It's about honoring and protecting the past and learning from it.


There are 1,121 World Heritage Sites sprinkled around the globe. The most visited of which include:


  1. Paris, Banks of the Seine
  2. Rome
  3. Tower of London
  4. Palace of Westminster & Westminster Abbey
  5. Venice and its Lagoon
  6. Vienna
  7. Amsterdam Canal Ring
  8. Vatican City
  9. Florence
  10. Prague


There's a reason why you've heard of all of these landmarks. Because they are essential to see and experience, and we learn something about our collective cultural inheritance from each of them—be it scientific, environmental, historical, or in some other way significant to who we are today as a collaborative world community. 



For example, there's Vienna (which we'll be blessed enough to visit on our Danube River Yoga Cruise next year). UNESCO recognizes Vienna for its "rich architectural ensembles, including Baroque castles and gardens, as well as the late-19th century Ringstrasse lined with grand buildings, monuments, and parks," and because it "played an essential role as a leading European music center."



We also have the opportunity to visit Prague on next year's yoga cruise (#616 on the World Heritage List), designated by UNESCO as "one of the most beautiful cities in Europe in terms of its setting on both banks of the Vltava River, its townscape of burgher houses and palaces punctuated by towers, and its individual buildings." 



Not in the top 10 list of visited UNESCO World Heritage Sites (likely due to the sheer distance one must travel to get there) is Angkor, in Cambodia. Nevertheless, we were blessed to experience the energy of the temples in this archeological park on our Mekong River Yoga Cruise a few years back. As it reads on UNESCO's website, "Angkor is one of the most important archaeological sites in South-East Asia. Stretching over some 400 km2, including forested area, Angkor Archaeological Park contains the magnificent remains of the different capitals of the Khmer Empire, from the 9th to the 15th century. They include the famous Temple of Angkor Wat and, at Angkor Thom, the Bayon Temple with its countless sculptural decorations. UNESCO has set up a wide-ranging program to safeguard this symbolic site and its surroundings."


When I'm curating one of my group trips for International Yoga Travel, I've always got an eye and ear out for potential UNESCO World Heritage Sites we can visit. 


In our recent Rhine Castles & Swiss Alps Yoga Cruise (August 2022), we were gifted with the experience of SIX of them, including Amsterdam's Canal Ring



Amsterdam has over 165 canals adding up to about 60 miles, making "Canal Ring" a UNESCO World Heritage Site with good reason. These canals separate the city into 90 different islands. 


Originally founded as a fishing village, Amsterdam has 1,281 bridges (more than three times as many bridges as Venice) and almost 3000 beautiful houseboats (local laws require the wooden boats are kept looking clean and pristine with fresh new paint every three years).


Just over an hour away and easily accessible from Amsterdam (and therefore a possible seventh UNESCO site visit during our Rhine River Yoga Cruise) are the Windmills of Kinderdijk



Considered "a world-renowned monument of German Catholicism and Gothic architecture," the Cologne Cathedral's two massive towers dominate the city skyline, making it impossible to miss from any vantage point in Cologne. 


The Cologne Cathedral (Or Kölner Dom) was one of the few buildings in the city left unscathed during WWII, arguably because it was such a navigational landmark for pilots. However, it may also have been out of reverence for an architectural masterpiece it took over 600 years to build. While the Cologne Cathedral is so imposing it's almost impossible to take it all in, be sure to venture inside to admire the jaw-dropping design, stained glass windows, and artifacts.



 The Upper Middle Rhine Valley, also known as the Rhine River Gorge, is a section of the Rhine River Valley between Rüdesheim (a town known for its winemaking, especially Rieslings) and Koblenz (a 2,000-year-old city located where the Moselle River joins the Rhine River) is unique for several reasons. Not the least of which is a landscape punctuated by 40 hilltop castles and fortresses dating back to the Middle Ages. 


We enjoyed being on the upper deck on that particular afternoon on our Rhine River Yoga Cruise, sipping on a cocktail or hot cocoa while we leisurely flowed downriver through the Upper Middle Rhine Valley. This section is, hands down, the most scenic part of the Rhine Valley, with more castles in one stretch than anywhere else in the world. There is, statistically, a castle every mile, which has earned the Rhine Gorge a spot on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.



Speaking of castles, Heidelberg Castle is not actually on the list yet, although it has been under consideration by UNESCO. Representing the epitome of German Romanticism since the 19th century, these impressive ruins tell a story of what was once one of the most magnificent castles in Europe and one of the most famous ruins in the world. Its silhouette dominates the image of the old town of Heidelberg. 


Destruction by war and forces of nature left the castle in ruins until its preservation in the early 1900s. You'll see it, feel it, and learn all about it on an AMA Waterways Rhine River Cruise tour or, if you've got the stamina, hike or climb the 2 km uphill Philosopher's Walk. Your reward for making it to the top is sweeping panoramic views of Heidelberg to the Rhine River Valley. The Philosopher's Walk likely earned its name from university professors and philosophers who walked here to enjoy the solitude of the forest and views for inspiration. 



UNESCO describes the Speyer Cathedral as "a basilica with four towers and two domes…founded by Conrad II in 1030 and remodeled at the end of the 11th century. It is one of the most important Romanesque monuments from the time of the Holy Roman Empire. The cathedral was the burial place of the German emperors for almost 300 years."


It goes on to say, "In its size and the richness of its sculpture, some created by Italian sculptors, it stands out among all contemporary and later Romanesque churches in Germany."



Strasbourg boasts two landmarks recognized and protected by UNESCO. 


Located in the Alsace region of France, Strasbourg initially earned its place on the list of World Heritage Sites for the island found in the middle of it. The Grand-Ile (or big island), recognized as the historical center of Strasbourg, was later joined by Neustadt (new town). Both sites are remarkable due to their unique blend of French and German influence, which has resulted in an urban space that is unique to Strasbourg."


There are 21 bike and pedestrian bridges connecting Grand-Ile to the rest of Strasbourg. The medieval buildings and meandering canals, narrow paths, and peaceful parks make the Petit France area of the island particularly appealing. 


Strasbourg is an excellent city to participate in an AMA Waterways biking or walking tour.


The List in Danger

A loss of any of these properties would be a loss for all of humanity. Fifty-three properties on the World Heritage List are currently considered "in danger," including the Everglades National Park here in the United States. I take every opportunity to visit these sites the world has agreed are remarkable and worth noting, learning from, and saving. 


The good news is, there are also many success stories, like the successful restoration of Angkor in Cambodiathe Old City of Dubrovnik in Croatia, and more.


I always love hearing the stories, enjoying the architecture, and taking in the artwork of these historically significant places while hiking, biking, or walking, depending on my mood and how much ground I want to cover. Yet another reason to travel by river cruise


The beauty of our upcoming Danube River Yoga Cruise is you can take it as slow and immersive as you want or enjoy the perspective you get from a distance—it's a beautiful way to travel sustainably while covering lots of ground. 


Travel bucket lists aren't the only lists driving where and how we explore. Check out UNESCO's interactive map to find out which World Heritage Sites you can visit on your next trip. If the founders of UNESCO are correct, each one will help you understand and relate to the world in a more respectful, compassionate, and peaceful way.

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