Four Underrated UNESCO Treasures Around the World

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

For better or worse, “UNESCO-listed” is becoming something of a mark of quality, leading travellers to entire cities and through grand temples in search of those things that, according to the United Nations, represent outstanding cultural and natural value. For travellers, they mark a kind of experience that’s about witnessing history beneath one’s feet, inhaling the air of cultures long past, and experiencing those things that have made our societies remarkable. They are the grand, insatiably Instagrammed destinations like Florence, Dubrovnik, and the Vatican, shared on a million different feeds, but, as UNESCO’s 1000+ listings attest, they’re also those lesser-known destinations, places of quiet calm and beguiling natural beauty. This little list is about the alternatives to the well-documented: the vast landscapes populated by birds but few people, ruined fortresses where ancient trade routes flourished, and the intangible allure of Viennese coffee culture.

The Wadden Sea, the Black Sun, and the Milky Way

This vast conservation area can be witnessed across Germany, The Netherlands and Denmark, and constitutes a stunning unbroken system of sand and mud flats with notoriously dangerous interactions between land, sea, and freshwaters that can lead to tides quickly enveloping sand bars, beaches and dunes. Nature is abundant here, with seals, porpoises and various migratory birds, but the Wadden is at its best when hiked and admired from within. The landscapes are long and can appear barren, with wet seabeds and salt marshes running towards the horizon, appearing and disappearing quickly with frequent tides, leading to difficult hikes characterised by evolving landscapes. In the Netherlands, sailboats are built to safely run aground on the sandbanks at low tide, offering a fascinating way to see the landscapes from the water, while the dark skies of the Lauwersmeer National Park provide a perfect base for star spotters hoping to see the Milky Way. In Denmark, an annual phenomenon takes place along the marshlands: the Black Sun, when millions of starlings form vast dancing patterns in the sky, weaving together as one mass murmuration to avoid predators, as they make pit stops to feed on the local crane flies.

The Angkor Wat of Vietnam: My Son Sanctuary

Amongst the lush countryside and heavenly azures of the Quang Nam Province, the mysterious My Son Sanctuary sits as it has for 2000 years, within a ring of mountains enveloped by jungle, an hour from Hoi An. Often dismissed as the Vietnamese equivalent to Angkor Wat, My Son is a rare remnant of a coastal culture of Hindu origin that flourished long before the formation of the modern-day countries of Southeast Asia. As such, the temples of My Son, raised in fire-red brick, depict scenes from Hindu myth, built in reverence to Krishna and Shiva (amongst others), with temples standing as towers with stone pillars and sandstone carvings gifting a timeless mysticism that calls to mind the ceremonies and daily life of the My Son Civilisation. Some of the temples lay partially reclaimed by the creeping vines that cover the humid central Vietnamese landscapes, and others retain their evocative interiors with alter-pedestals topped with cups of burning incense and carvings telling stories of the people and Gods that once thrived here. 

Intangible Culture: Viennese Coffee Houses

Vienna’s beautiful cafes are world-renowned but are not simply about coffee and a place to meet. Instead, Vienna’s coffee house culture relies on a specific classical ambience: beautiful rooms with sparkling chandeliers, chairs by Thonet tucked into marble-topped tables animated by jewelled hands grasping coffee cups and wine glasses and alcoves from which to watch the totality of Viennese society unfurl in a choral symphony of chatter supported by the percussive rhythm of cutlery. And it’s here, in knives cutting into Schnitzel and wine glasses clinked on marble, that we find the beginnings of the culture we see today (though it’s important to note that the original cafes date to the 1700s and the Turkish siege of Vienna). Today, sitting between the wood-panelled walls in Cafe Landtmann, it’s difficult not to imagine past regulars like Dietrich, Freud and Mann indulging in colourful gossip with a side of coffee and Kaiserschmarrn.

Antique Luxuries: Land of Frankincense (Oman)

Oman’s UNESCO sights are manifold, with enchanting ancient cities and pre-Islamic agricultural systems, all relatively unexplored. But the Land of Frankincense is perhaps Oman's most intriguing UNESCO destination. The listing refers to a collection of elements, each instrumental in the Frankincense trade (one of antiquity’s most desired luxuries) that flourished in Dhofar 2000 years ago. To explore it, follow those evocative aromas to Wadi Dawkah to see the scraggly frankincense trees surrounded by cinematic desert landscapes, and then visit the archaeological sights in Al Balid.

A highlight is the ancient Sumhuram, which marks a spot where a freshwater lagoon converges with the Indian Ocean. Sumhuram was a busy port city for 800 years but it now sits in silence, a ruined fort of former magnificence, with stunning views offering a contrast of desert tones and beautiful blue aquas, from within monumental slabs of limestone, remnants of towering city gates, busy streets, water wells and rooms filled with artefacts from across the world — a testament to the importance of Oman on historic trade routes such as the (maritime) Silk Road. 

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