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The World’s Most Captivating UNESCO Sites

From the Galápagos Islands to Mount Fuji, our new study reveals the UNESCO sites that we simply cannot take our eyes off!

 
As summer casts its last few rays, we find ourselves eagerly planning our next exciting trip, and over the last few weeks we’ve been inspired by the rich tapestry of culture, history, and natural beauty that UNESCO sites have to offer. With thousands of UNESCO World Heritage sites across the globe that beckon to be visited at least once in a lifetime, they make for amazing places to set our sights on our next adventure holiday.

With plenty of historic locations to choose from, we’ve conducted an eye-tracking study to find the most visually striking UNESCO sites, creating a shortlist of the most visually unforgettable experiences for travellers. By using eye-tracking technology, this fascinating research has helped us curate a list of 20 UNESCO sites that hold our gaze the longest and are guaranteed to stun visitors with their natural beauty.

From the architectural marvels of Europe to the mountainous landscapes of North America, and the cultural richness of Asia, here are the wonders that capture the hearts (and eyes) of humanity.
 

The World’s Most Captivating UNESCO Sites

Leading the pack of most eye-catching UNESCO sites, that promise to leave you spellbound, is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal in the United Kingdom. This extraordinary feat of civil engineering, which floats over the River Dee, claimed the top spot. The Welsh landmark is the highest and longest navigable aqueduct in the world, attracting visitors thanks to its stunning views and historical significance.
Next, we travel to the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks. Its rugged mountain peaks, glaciers, waterfalls, canyons, limestone caves, and fossils make it a truly captivating sight, that holds viewers' attention with a lengthy average gaze duration of 0.31s. The Canadian Rockies comprise a group of four national parks: Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho and offer numerous activities from hiking and wildlife viewing, to winter sports like skiing and snowboarding.
Third on our list is the vibrant cityscape of Rio de Janeiro, in particular the Carioca landscapes between the mountain and the sea. It's a spectacular blend of natural and urban environments, with the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer overseeing the city. From tropical forests and granite peaks to the iconic beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, an aerial view of the area proves why viewers find this UNESCO site so visually striking.
Tied for fourth place are Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, Europe's oldest national park known for its cascading lakes, and Maloti-Drakensberg Park in South Africa, famous for its dramatic landscapes and impressive rock formations. Both held study participant’s gaze for 0.3 seconds.
 
In the Croatian site, visitors can explore the park through a network of wooden walkways and hiking trails, allowing them to witness the Plitvice Lakes’ stunning natural beauty up close. Meanwhile, Maloti-Drakensberg Park is a transboundary site that extends over both Lesotho and South Africa. The African park is renowned for the variety of plant and animal species it is home to, as well as its ancient rock art sites, which provide insight into the region's cultural heritage.
 
Wrapping up the top five most visually striking UNESCO sites in the world is the Island of Mozambique, a historic island located off the northern coast of Mozambique. Known for its key role as a trading post in the 1600s, the island showcases a fascinating mix of architectural styles, including Arab, Indian, and European influences, and is known for its well-preserved colonial-era buildings, forts, and mosques.
 
Coming in at number six on the list is the enigmatic Ancient City of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. With an average fixation duration of 0.3 seconds, this ancient city is renowned for its remarkable rock fortress, also known as the Lion Rock, standing amidst lush greenery. The site features intricate frescoes, landscaped gardens, and fascinating archaeological remains, all contributing to its allure.
At number seven, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the charming Historic Centre of Oaxaca in Mexico tie in the rankings for the most captivating UNESCO locations. Angkor Wat is an extraordinary complex nestled within the dense jungles of Cambodia. The site encompasses numerous temples, reservoirs, and intricate bas-reliefs, representing the pinnacle of Khmer art and architecture.

Meanwhile, the Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán stuns viewers and visitors alike with a captivating blend of Zapotec and Mixtec influences: Oaxaca’s centre displays well-preserved colonial architecture, while the archaeological site of Monte Albán features impressive pyramids, temples, and tombs.

Claiming the eighth spot is the enigmatic Sceilg Mhichíl, situated off the coast of Ireland in Europe. With an average fixation duration of 0.3 seconds, this UNESCO site enthrals viewers with its rugged beauty and historical significance. Sceilg Mhichíl is a remote island that once served as a monastic settlement Today its dramatic cliffs, ancient stone structures, and sense of isolation create an otherworldly atmosphere.
Petra, located in Jordan, secures the ninth position on our list. This UNESCO landmark is a true visual marvel. Carved into rose-coloured sandstone cliffs, the city's intricate rock-cut architecture, most notably the iconic Treasury, make it an unforgettable sight, drawing visitors from around the world.
Rounding out our top ten is the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, encompassing Kyoto, Uji, and Otsu cities in Japan. These locations immerse viewers in Japan's rich cultural heritage, gaining an average gaze of 0.29 seconds. The historic monuments, including temples, shrines, and gardens, reflect the country's traditional architectural styles and spiritual traditions. Kyoto, in particular, is renowned for its enchanting bamboo forests, serene Zen gardens, and wooden temples, all contributing to its timeless allure.

Further down the list, we find the stunning Yellowstone National Park in the United States, the awe-inspiring Taj Mahal in India and the vibrant biodiversity of the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, all charming viewers with their unique beauty and cultural richness.
 

 
Rank UNESCO Site Name Country Continent Nr of Fixations Avg. Fixation Duration
1 Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal United Kingdom Europe 180 0.31s
2 Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks Canada North America 159 0.31s
3 Rio de Janeiro: Carioca Landscapes between the Mountain and the Sea Brazil South America 179 0.31s
4 = Plitvice Lakes National Park Croatia Europe 126 0.3s
4 = Maloti-Drakensberg Park South Africa Africa 126 0.3s
5 Island of Mozambique Mozambique Africa 114 0.3s
6 Ancient City of Sigiriya Sri Lanka Asia 97 0.3s
7 = Angkor Wat Cambodia Asia 85 0.3s
7 = Historic Centre of Oaxaca and Archaeological Site of Monte Albán Mexico North America 85 0.3s
8 Sceilg Mhichíl Ireland Europe 70 0.3s
9 Petra Jordan Asia 66 0.3s
10 Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) Japan Asia 125 0.29s
11 Yellowstone National Park United States North America 110 0.29s
12 Taj Mahal India Asia 96 0.29s
13 Galápagos Islands Ecuador South America 94 0.29s
14 Rapa Nui National Park (Easter Island) Chile Oceania 89 0.29s
15 Piazza del Duomo, Pisa Italy Europe 88 0.29s
16 Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration (Mount Fuji) Japan Asia 85 0.29s
17 Historic Centre of Lima Peru South America 82 0.29s
18 Historic Ensemble of the Potala Palace, Lhasa China Asia 79 0.29s
19 Palace and Park of Versailles France Europe 68 0.29s
20 Statue of Liberty United States North America 67 0.29s

Methodology

We shortlisted 52 out of the 1,000+ UNESCO sites around the world based on how recognizable they are, ensuring to include landmarks for each continent. We then conducted a study where participants were shown images of the shortlisted landmarks. Using eye-tracking technology, we measured the average gaze duration of each landmark to reveal which of these draw our attention the quickest and longest, providing us with our list of the most captivating UNESCO sites to visit on your next adventure holiday.  

Source: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/ 

All data correct as of September 2023