These World Heritage sites will spark kids’ imaginations

Discover humanity’s most awe-inspiring places and traditions, from Rome’s Colosseum to Bali’s shadow puppeteers.

Volcanic stone structures resembling “fairy chimneys.” A prehistoric land of dinosaurs. A subterranean maze for fierce gladiators and wild animals. These are just a few of the global destinations given World Heritage status by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). And they could be your family’s next vacation.

Since 1972, UNESCO has recognized more than a thousand cultural and natural places “of universal value” by adding them to its World Heritage List. It’s not just a catalog of trophies; World Heritage status means the home nation commits resources to protect and preserve these irreplaceable areas for future generations. Over the years, the program has helped prevent harmful developments, such as a dam above Africa’s Victoria Falls and a highway near Egypt’s Giza Pyramids.

For travelers, such preservation measures help build a bucket list of once-in-a-lifetime spots to visit. But with 1,153 properties in 194 countries (and counting), where to start? From geological wonders to marvels of engineering, here are 10 family-friendly global treasures to get you going.

See Northern Ireland’s coastal wonderland

Giant’s Causeway is a volcanic formation of nearly 40,000 hexagonal columns, forged 60 million years ago when molten lava cooled in the ocean and crystallized into basalt pillars, some towering more than 80 feet tall.

According to legend, this geological marvel is the handiwork of mythical warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool), who summoned his heroic strength and built a bridge across the Irish Sea to attack foes in the Scottish Hebrides.

From the 18th century onward, this land bridge emerged as a popular destination for families attracted by the honeycomb-like promontory.

Explore Rome’s legendary Colosseum

The Roman Empire’s largest amphitheater set the stage for chariot races, executions, and gladiatorial death matches. Initiated under Emperor Vespasian and completed in A.D. 80 under the rule of his son, Emperor Titus, the Colosseum (also known as the Flavian Amphitheater) is a marvel of engineering.

Built to accommodate an estimated 50,000 spectators, the freestanding elliptical theater was originally covered in white travertine limestone. Beneath the arena’s sand-covered wooden floor is a now visible subterranean maze of tunnels and cages where gladiators and beasts—rhinos, elephants, lions, tigers, and crocodiles—were housed before contests.

Family-friendly tours of the Colosseum trace the Eternal City’s history, from the fabled founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus in 753 B.C. to the establishment of Vatican City.

Examine the earliest mummies in Chile

Wrapped simply in reeds and decorated with wigs and clay masks, Chile’s Chinchorro mummies are 2,000 years older than Egypt’s and shed light on the ancient Indigenous community that once roamed Chile’s northern coast.

Visitors can learn more and see examples in Arica, a surf town near the Atacama Desert dotted with War of the Pacific battlefields and volcano-filled treks. At San Miguel de Azapa Archaeological Museum only a few of the 300 specimens are on view, while at Colón 10, visitors can peer through a glass floor under which 48 mummies are still buried in the earth. Soon, a 53,820-square-foot museum will open to showcase and preserve the mummies, which are deteriorating from the damaging effects of climate change.

Along the road leading into nearby Caleta Camarones, six contemporary statues—some soaring 16 feet—visually represent the mummies yet to be discovered.

Watch shadow puppets in Indonesia

Shadows come to life in the artful hands of an Indonesian dalang (master puppeteer), an expert storyteller who animates flat leather puppets behind a backlit screen to create dazzling dramatizations for children and adults alike. It’s also on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage, a special designation for living traditions and practices that help tell the tale of our shared humanity.

Hundreds of years before the advent of television, wayang puppet theater—accompanied by ethereal gamelan music—brought colorful myths, morality tales, and political commentary to center stage in the royal courts and rural areas of Java and Bali. While elaborate, three-dimensional wooden puppets are also part of a dalang’s repertoire, it’s the mystical movements of shadow puppets that light up the night.

Learn the legends of Hawai‘i’s volcanoes

According to Hawai‘ian mythology, the Halema‘uma‘u caldera of Kilauea was the fiery home of Pele, the goddess of fire, lightning, wind, and volcanoes. This simmering cauldron atop one of the five shield volcanoes that form the Big Island of Hawai‘i has inspired ritual and reverence for generations. 

Along with Mauna Loa, these active and accessible fire-breathers make Hawai‘i Volcanoes National Park one of the best places for observing the churning geological forces that shape our planet. 

The park, which covers some 335,000 acres, is a hotbed of family-friendly activity, including ranger-led hikes, interpretive centers, and viewing platforms near active flows. Drive the 11-mile Crater Rim, an awe-inspiring tour of Kilauea with stops at steam vents, lava tubes, and high volcanic vistas.

Meet a master papermaker in Japan

In a country known for its technological advances, master craftspeople spend hours on the analog art of making washi by hand.

These biodegradable sheets of paper line glowing lanterns hanging from storefronts and wooden sliding doors in traditional homes. Thick sheets are even transformed into wearable art as clothing and handbags. In 2014, the centuries-old process of making honminoshi, the purest and most traditional form of washi, was bestowed with UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage status.

Three towns—Mino, Hamada, Ogawa/Higashi-Chichibu—are best known for the craft and offer a myriad of opportunities to learn, try, and buy. You can also head out to rural Echizen Washi Village, home of roughly 60 mills producing handmade versions of washi and the Paper & Culture Museum. In the bright-light capital of Tokyo, 17th-century wholesaler Ozu Washi leads small groups of visitors through the ancient process.

Spot wildlife wonders in Botswana

Fed by rainwater flowing from Angola’s highlands, the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana is one of southern Africa’s biggest and most biodiverse freshwater watersheds and a dream destination for animal lovers of all ages.

The delta sustains the planet’s most endangered animals, including the largest remaining elephant population, cheetahs, African wild dogs, wattled cranes, and Great white pelicans. The National Geographic Society’s Okavango Wilderness Project continues to make discoveries in Angola. To date, the study has logged more than 130 previously unknown animal species, 75 species potentially never studied before, and 26 species new to scientists.

From navigating reed-fringed canals in traditional dugout canoes to camping in one of the nearby national parks, a family-friendly safari here can excite even the most jaded teen. Look for outfitters with accommodations large enough for your brood and downtime boredom busters, such as swimming pools.

Camp in a biosphere in Mexico

Sian Ka’an, which means “origin of the sky” in Maya language, is a 1.3-million-acre biosphere reserve on the eastern coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. Extending from tropical forests and marshes to coral reefs along the coast, the reserve counts sea turtles, crocodiles, jaguars, spider monkeys, manatees, nurse sharks, and flamingos as resident fauna.

Families can rent beachside tent cabins and book kayaking, fly-fishing, cenote snorkeling, and canal tour excursions within the reserve. Kids can let their inner archaeologist run wild at Muyil (or Chunyaxché), a pre-Hispanic settlement featuring a steep, walled pyramid built nearly a thousand years ago. “El Castillo,” as the castle is known, towers over the fringe of Mexico’s crown jewel in conservation.

Balloon over Turkey’s fairy chimneys

Central Turkey’s Göreme National Park is an arid region of eroded volcanic stone that takes fantastic forms. Often called fairy chimneys, or hoodoos, these whimsical wonders can rise dozens of feet over the chalky soil. Some of the most striking sights within the Cappadocia Plateau are villages carved into the volcanic tuff.

The town of Göreme, in a region first settled during Roman times, emerged as a center of monastic activity in the fourth century, when Christians created subterranean communities and frescoed sanctuaries that visitors can see today. The Göreme Open Air Museum, valley hikes, cave hotels, hot air balloon rides, and guided tours are highlights for all ages.

Discover dinosaur fossils in Canada

The Age of Reptiles lives on in the geologically fascinating badlands of Alberta, Canada. Dinosaur Provincial Park gives budding paleontologists a chance to explore landscapes where experts have discovered more than 35 species of dinosaur.

During the Cretaceous period, which ended about 65 million years ago, this region looked strikingly different from the arid steppes and hoodoos that visitors see today. Back then, dense forests, swampy marshes, and flowing rivers were home to a variety of reptiles, fish, amphibians, mammals, and plants.

Although visitors are not permitted to dig in this fragile environment, the park offers a full schedule of family-friendly fossil safaris, guided activities, and dinosaur displays. Families can camp out under the stars and dream of the days when Tyrannosauridae (“tyrant lizards”) and Troodontidae (birdlike dinosaurs) inhabited this region.

This story was published in 2012 and updated in August 2019 and in July 2022.
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