10 Extraordinary UNESCO Sites to Explore Across America

Let UNESCO's World Heritage List serve as a compass to the most extraordinary spots in the United States.

green grass field near mountain under blue sky during daytime
Explore the UNESCO sites within America this year. Angela Loria/Unsplash

Since its 1945 inception, UNESCO has acted less like a global committee and more like Earth’s most discerning travel agent. This international body curates a list that’s more than a mere catalog; it’s a compendium of human and natural marvels, a bucket list backed by science, history and an unyielding respect for cultural and natural splendor. For the American wanderer, caught in the labyrinthine luxury of endless travel options—from the grandeur of national parks to the gravitas of historical landmarks—UNESCO’s World Heritage List serves as a compass pointing toward the extraordinary. With 25 American sites gracing this coveted coterie of sites, consider it your curated guide to the zeniths of cultural richness, historical gravitas and natural spectacle.

​​During its 45th session held in Saudi Arabia this past September, the World Heritage Committee expanded UNESCO’s revered list by 42 new sites. But let’s focus on the newest American entrant into this pantheon of wonders: Ohio’s Hopewell Ceremonial Earthworks. Far from mere heaps of soil, these earthworks are a trifecta of human ingenuity: they function as sacred sanctuaries, ancestral burial grounds and, remarkably, as celestial calculators. Designed with an astronomical precision that defies their ancient origins, these structures align meticulously with cosmic cycles. For those captivated by the intersection of archaeology and astronomy, or for anyone seeking a nexus where history and awe coalesce, Hopewell is a multidimensional gateway to human achievement and natural wonder.

With Hopewell as its latest gem, America’s UNESCO portfolio now flaunts 25 sites, each a unique spectacle of either nature’s grandeur or human ingenuity. Though the task was herculean, we’ve distilled this list to the top 10 UNESCO sites in the U.S., each a must-see pilgrimage for the insatiably curious.

Subscribe to Observer’s Lifestyle Newsletter

Image: Mountains at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Alec Krum

Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

Year inscribed: 1978

 Perched at a dizzying 8,530 feet, Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is a high-altitude archaeological treasure trove. As you traverse this expansive landscape, the winds sweeping across the mesas seem to whisper tales of a civilization that thrived from 450 to 1300 AD. With over 4,400 sites, the park offers an unparalleled glimpse into the Ancestral Puebloan civilization with cliff dwellings, notably Cliff Palace and Balcony House made of sandstone and mud mortar. These architectural marvels span from modest storage rooms to grandiose villages boasting up to 200 rooms. 

Image: Exterior of Independence Hall, Pennsylvania.
Independence Hall, Pennsylvania. AFP via Getty Images

Independence Hall, Pennsylvania

Year inscribed: 1979

Located in historic Philadelphia, Independence Hall stands as the birthplace of America’s political foundation. It’s far more than a relic of bricks and mortar—it’s the nucleus of revolutionary ideas and the all-important documents in which they were forged, like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The hall serves as a living testament to 18th-century ideals that have reverberated across time and space, shaping global perspectives on governance and freedom. The Assembly Room, in particular, is a chamber saturated with the intellectual vigor that birthed modern democracy.

Image: Forest in Redwood National and State Parks, California.
Redwood National and State Parks, California. Universal Images Group via Getty

Redwood National and State Parks, California

Year inscribed: 1980

Journey north of San Francisco on U.S. Route 101, and you’ll encounter the Redwood National and State Parks, a clutch of protected land where time stretches skyward in the form of ancient redwoods. These arboreal titans have roots tracing back 160 million years, making them among Earth’s oldest living organisms. The parks are also a refuge for a diverse array of marine and terrestrial life, including sea lions and the endangered California brown pelican. Access to the coveted Tall Trees Grove is limited to preserve its pristine condition—free permits are available at the Orick visitor center. The journey to this secluded grove involves a six-mile drive on a locked logging road, followed by a moderately strenuous 4.5-mile round-trip hike. The rewards are immeasurable. 

Image: Mountain peak, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina. Nathan Mullet

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina

Year inscribed: 1983 

Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—America’s most visited national park—encompasses nearly 500,000 acres. It’s a living repository of over 3,500 plant species and a myriad of endangered animals. The “smoky” mountains themselves lend an ethereal quality to the landscape, its network of hiking trails and scenic roads enveloping you in an ancient, awe-inspiring. 

Image: River between trees, Everglades National Park, Florida.
Everglades National Park, Florida. Mark Jacquez

Everglades National Park, Florida

Year inscribed: 1979 

At Florida’s southern tip lies the Everglades National Park, a 1.5-million-acre ecological marvel that defies traditional boundaries between water and land. This sanctuary for over 20 endangered species, including the elusive manatee, serves as a global symbol of ecological resilience. Here, each droplet and reed plays a role in a grand tale of ecological balance.  Whether you’re kayaking through ancient mangrove canals or embarking on a slog through cypress domes, the park offers a range of experiences that are both serene and exhilarating. 

Image: Red lava, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.
Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

Year inscribed: 1987

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park is a dynamic theater of Earth’s most primal forces. Dominated by Mauna Loa and Kilauea—two of the world’s most active volcanoes—the park is a living canvas constantly reshaped by volcanic activity. Kilauea’s Halemaʻumaʻu crater, the “House of Eternal Fire,” has been a spectacle of volcanic ash and gasses for decades, recently surprising scientists with a greenish pond on its floor—a phenomenon believed to be caused by the crater’s collapse below the local water table. The park is also a hub for rare birds and endemic species, set amid forests of massive ferns. For those seeking cultural depth, the 1.3-mile round-trip to Puʻu Loa reveals one of Hawaii’s largest concentrations of ancient petroglyphs—over 23,000 drawings etched into smooth-flowing lava.

Image: Exterior of Missions of San Antonio, Texas.
Missions of San Antonio, Texas. Joshua J. Cotten

Missions of San Antonio, Texas

Year inscribed: 2015

Strategically aligned along the San Antonio River basin, the San Antonio Missions are a constellation of five Spanish frontier missions, each a microcosm of faith and community. These missions—Mission Concepción, Mission San Jose, Mission San Juan and Mission Espada—serve as cultural crucibles where Spanish and Coahuiltecan legacies meld. Established as far back as 1690, these missions feature meticulously restored churches, constructed between 1745 and 1756, that transport visitors to the 19th-century frontier. The Espada Aqueduct, an engineering marvel, lies east of Mission San Juan and remains a functional part of the park’s intricate irrigation system. On-site museums offer a tactile history, displaying artifacts like olive presses and weaving looms. Annual events such as Mission Days and La Fiesta breathe life into these heritage sites throughout the year.

Image: Exterior of La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico.
La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico. Getty Images

La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico 

Year inscribed: 1983

​​La Fortaleza and its surrounding fortifications in San Juan are more than mere stone and mortar; they double as a lexicon of architectural styles, from Italian Renaissance to French Enlightenment and Baroque grandeur. Built between the 16th and 20th centuries, these fortifications—including Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Castillo San Cristóbal and San Juan de la Cruz (El Cañuelo)—were designed with innovative military designs to shield the Bay of San Juan and its city. La Fortaleza itself has worn many hats: a fortress, an arsenal and a prison. Today it serves as the seat and residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico.

Image: Monticello, Virginia.
Monticello, Virginia. Richard Hedrick

Monticello, Virginia

Year inscribed: 1987

Monticello serves as Thomas Jefferson’s architectural autobiography. Set in Virginia’s rolling hills, this plantation home, best known for its Doric columns and Romanesque dome, has long represented ideals of freedom and self-determination. Completed in 1809 after 40 years of meticulous planning and construction, Monticello stands as the only private home in America with UNESCO World Heritage designation. The “Slavery at Monticello” walking tour, included in the ticket price, is a poignant highlight. Far from romanticizing Jefferson, the tour confronts the paradox of a man who penned the phrase ‘all men are created equal’ in the Declaration of Independence, yet owned slaves and likely fathered children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. For those interested in the more intimate spaces of Jefferson’s life, seek a tour of the living quarters upstairs.

Image: Exterior of Taos Pueblo, New Mexico.
Taos Pueblo, New Mexico. Getty Images

Taos Pueblo, New Mexico

Year inscribed: 1992

Taos Pueblo is a living museum, a community that has thrived since the late 13th century, set against the dramatic backdrop of the Sangre de Cristos mountains. The Pueblo is anchored by twin five-story adobe complexes, flanking the Río Pueblo de Taos, and stands as a quintessential example of ancient Pueblo architecture. The guided walking tours, led by residents and tribal members, are a must-do. These tours not only illuminate the Pueblo’s unique history and culture but also provide an opportunity to purchase fine jewelry, pottery and other arts and crafts. You can even sample flatbread baked in traditional beehive-shaped adobe ovens.

10 Extraordinary UNESCO Sites to Explore Across America