Dinosaurs to gladiators: 10 World Heritage sites for families

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

Since 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has recognized more than a thousand cultural and natural heritage sites around the world, with the goal of preserving humanity’s most precious places and traditions for future generations. From geological wonders to marvels of engineering, here are 10 family-friendly destinations that have been recognized for their universal value.

Explore Northern Ireland’s coastal playground

Northern Ireland’s 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 water and formed crystallized basalt pillars, some towering more than 35 feet tall. According to legend, this geological marvel is the handiwork of mythical warrior Fionn MacCumhaill (or Finn McCool), who conjured 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.

Wander through 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 Flavian Amphitheater is a marvel of engineering. Built to accommodate an estimated 50,000 spectators, the 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.

Sing along at the Sydney Opera House

Shakespeare wrote that all the world’s a stage, but the architecturally revolutionary Sydney Opera House is a stage for all the world. Situated near the heart of the city’s famed harbor, this structure of vaulted, interlocking concrete “shells” is both a celebrated performing arts center and an iconic urban sculpture. The center was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon and debuted in 1973. Today, it is one of the planet’s busiest live arts venues, and includes programming for children and families. During the day, the building’s scale-like ceramic tiles glint in the sunlight; at night, the space glows like Neptune’s underwater castle.

Watch shadow puppets come to life 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 behind Hawaii’s active volcanoes

According to Hawaiian 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 Hawaii has inspired ritual and reverence for generations. Along with Mauna Loa, these active and accessible fire-breathers make Hawaii Volcanoes National Park one of the best places for observing the churning geological forces that shape our planet. The park, which covers some 333,000 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.

Witness spectacular animal migration in Tanzania

Zebras, gazelles, and wildebeest—along with the carnivores that track them—are the stars of Serengeti National Park, forming the world’s largest community of migrating ungulates and its greatest concentration of large predators. Along with its companion, Ngorongoro Conservation Area, this protected 8,000-square-mile region is home base for safari-goers on the prowl for impalas, lions, hyenas, elephants, rhinos, jackals, and more. While grazing herds are constantly on the go in these rolling grasslands and acacia-dotted woodlands, the annual May-June migration from the central plains to permanent waterholes in the park’s western end is a magical time for a family safari.

Join the party during Colombia’s vibrant Carnival

The Carnival of Barranquilla is both a raucous pre-Lent party and a multicultural celebration of the indigenous, European, and African roots of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Staged on the city’s streets over the four days before Ash Wednesday, the annual event is one of the world’s largest carnivals. The events begin with Saturday’s Battle of Flowers, which features the carnival queen, floral floats, and vibrantly costumed dance troupes, followed by Sunday’s Grand Parade of traditional cumbia and garabato dancers; Monday’s Fantasy Parade; and Tuesday’s symbolic funeral of Joselito Carnaval, the personification of the festival, who dies from too much fun.

Explore mysterious Maya ruins 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.

Take a hot air 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, 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 Christian communities 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, where 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 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.