The Best Cultural Destinations Around the World for Travel Enthusiasts
Discover the world's most captivating and diverse cultural destinations as we embark on a thrilling journey across continents. From the majestic Gwynedd castles in Wales to the ancient city of Kyoto in Japan, and from the enchanting churches of Chiloé in Chile to the mesmerizing ruins of Tikal in Guatemala, this article unveils the very best cultural destinations that will ignite your wanderlust. So, fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore the rich historical tapestry, vibrant traditions, and awe-inspiring architecture that make these destinations the epitome of cultural wonder.
SourceItaly is full of popular attractions that are deeply rooted in its culture. From the Colosseum in Rome to the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Venice's gondola boats and maze canals, Florence's stunning cathedrals, Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco, and the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa, the country offers a wide range of historical and cultural sites. Exploring Italy's rich heritage is a truly enjoyable experience. Additionally, the country's diverse landscapes, such as the Mediterranean beach resorts on the Amalfi Coast, and the remote shores of Sardinia and Sicily, add to its cultural charm. And of course, Italian cuisine, known worldwide for its pizza and pasta, can be found in every corner of the globe.
Italy is home to more UNESCO sites than any other country, and Ravenna, located in the Emilia Romagna region, boasts eight of them, collectively known as the 'Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna.' These sites, dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries, include the impressive Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, built for Emperor Honorius' sister. While austere on the outside, the mausoleum's interior is adorned with beautifully intricate mosaics, including a star-studded cupola. Exploring these sites, combined with indulging in the region's fine cuisine and enjoying the nearby Adriatic Sea, makes for a truly memorable experience.
Get there: Ravenna is located 70km from Bologna, and can be easily reached by train or bus.
Why? Immerse yourself in the beauty of Ravenna's mosaics.
Gwynedd castles, Wales
After conquering North Wales in 1283, King Edward I initiated an ambitious castle-building project to secure English control over the region. Today, UNESCO recognizes four of these coastal fortresses as the 'Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd.' Each castle has its own unique features, from the symmetrical design of Beaumaris to the formidable fortifications of Caernarfon. Conwy's well-preserved ramparts and turrets and Harlech's stunning location atop a rocky outcrop add to the charm of these coastal strongholds.
Get there: Harlech and Conwy have mainline train stations, and all four castles can be linked by walking the Wales Coast Path.
Why? Marvel at the historic coastal fortresses of Wales.
Troy, an ancient Anatolian city, is one of the world's most famous archaeological sites. Founded in the third millennium BC by the Hittites and immortalized in Homer's Iliad, this site offers a glimpse into millennia of human history. Visitors can explore the ruins of early defensive walls, Greek and Roman temples, and the surrounding plains, which are scattered with prehistoric settlements, Ottoman bridges, and monuments commemorating the First World War Battle of Gallipoli. A visit to Troy is an incredible experience that transports you to a city that has captured the imagination for thousands of years.
Get there: Troy is just a 45-minute minibus ride from the city of Çanakkale, which has an airport.
Why? Witness the incredible history of this 5,000-year-old city.
Prague, Czech Republic
In 2018, Czechoslovakia celebrated the centenary of its formation and the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Divorce, which peacefully divided the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Prague, the capital city, is a fairytale destination with its beautifully preserved UNESCO-listed medieval center. Visitors can explore Prague Castle, stroll through the picturesque Old Town Square, and marvel at the 15th-century astronomical clock without the usual crowds. It's the perfect time to experience Prague's historic charm post-pandemic.
Get there: Prague is well-connected to many UK airports, with a flight time of around two hours.
Why? Discover a revitalized capital in a historic year.
Situated strategically in the Mediterranean, Malta has a rich and diverse history, having been ruled by a succession of civilizations including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, and the Order of the Knights of St. John. Valletta, the diminutive capital, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a treasure trove of historic monuments. Its dense concentration of historic architecture has earned it the distinction of being one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world. Highlights include the Baroque beauty of St. John's Co-Cathedral and the opulent Grand Master's Palace. Exploring Valletta's fortified city walls and taking a traditional boat ride, known as a dghajsa, offer unique experiences in this small archipelago nation.
Get there: Valletta is well-connected to many UK airports, with a flight time of around three hours.
Why? Immerse yourself in the rich history and culture of this small archipelago.
Read next: Beyond Valletta: 6 of Malta's lesser-visited gems
Ancient Kyoto, Japan
Over 150 years ago, Japan's capital shifted from Kyoto to Tokyo, but Kyoto remains the country's cultural and spiritual heart. UNESCO recognizes 17 sites in the city as the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, which showcase the evolution of Japanese wooden architecture and landscape gardens from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries. Highlights include the golden Kinkaku-ji temple, the serene Ninna-ji temple famous for cherry blossoms in spring, and the towering pagoda of To-ji. A visit to Kyoto offers a glimpse into Japan's rich cultural heritage.
Get there: Kyoto is approximately a 2.5-hour train ride from Tokyo.
Why? Experience the grandeur of Japan's former capital.
SourceComprising England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom holds significant global influence in commerce and culture. With a centuries-old legacy propelled by the Royal family, the UK is steeped in history. From venerable universities like Oxford and Cambridge to palaces, fortresses, and museums, such as Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, and many more, the country offers a wealth of historical and magical experiences. Additionally, cities like London, Edinburgh, and Bath are known for their stunning palaces and pristine museums. Cultural tourism is a rising trend, and experiencing the diverse culture of the UK is a rewarding endeavor.
Robben Island, South Africa
Robben Island, located off the coast of Cape Town, holds historical significance as the place where Nelson Mandela spent 18 years of his imprisonment. Now a living museum, visitors can take guided tours of the island, led by former political prisoners. The tour includes visits to the old leper graveyard, the African penguin colony, the lime quarry where Mandela and other inmates were forced to work, and the Maximum Security Prison where Mandela was held in a small cell. A visit to Robben Island offers a unique opportunity to learn about South Africa's tumultuous history and Mandela's remarkable journey.
Get there: Robben Island is a 30-to-60-minute ferry ride from Cape Town's Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.
Why? Sail to the centenary celebration of Mandela's legacy.
Tsodilo Hills, Botswana
While Botswana is well-known for its wildlife, its wealth of rock art is often overlooked. The Tsodilo Hills, located in the Kalahari Desert, are known as the 'Louvre of the Desert' for their impressive collection of over 4,500 paintings. These paintings, created by the San people, showcase various figures, animals, shapes, and geometric patterns. Some of the paintings are estimated to be over 20,000 years old, providing a unique glimpse into ancient cultures. A visit to Tsodilo offers the opportunity to see the highest concentration of rock art in the world.
Get there: Tsodilo is a four-hour 4WD trip from the village of Shakawe, approximately 370km from Maun.
Why? Witness the ancient rock art of Tsodilo.
Jordan has faced challenges in recent years due to its association with the Middle East and the global pandemic. However, this is the perfect time to visit Petra, Jordan's headline site, as visitor numbers are lower. Carved by the Nabataeans in the third century BC, Petra is an extensive archaeological site that offers more than most people assume. Visitors can explore the narrow Siq, marvel at the iconic Treasury, climb up to the monastery, and wander through the old city. For an even more immersive experience, consider hiking the 650km Jordan Trail, which winds through the country's breathtaking landscapes.
Get there: Petra is a 2.5-hour drive south of Amman, and buses run to Wadi Musa, the gateway to Petra.
Why? Experience the grandeur of ancient Petra without the crowds.
Read next: 5 ancient ruin sites to visit in Jordan, beyond Petra
The medieval rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, known as the 'New Jerusalem,' are a testament to Ethiopia's rich cultural heritage. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, these churches were carved from monolithic blocks and feature intricate details, such as windows, floors, doors, and decorations. Some of the churches can only be accessed through tunnels or ropes. Despite their age, Lalibela remains a place of devotion, with vibrant religious ceremonies, incense-filled air, and mesmerizing chants. Visiting Lalibela is like stepping back 900 years into a world of living faith.
Get there: Lalibela is a 90-minute flight from Addis Ababa.
Why? Discover the buried faith in ancient architecture.
Churches of Chiloé, Chile
The Chiloé Archipelago in southern Chile is home to a unique cultural fusion of native traditions and European influences. Built by Jesuits and Franciscans in the 17th century, the 70 mission churches in the archipelago showcase a distinctive wooden architecture that blends European and local craftsmanship. Sixteen of these churches have been recognized by UNESCO for their historical and cultural significance. Highlights include the tri-towered Tenaún and the 53-meter-long Quinchao. Exploring the churches of Chiloé offers a glimpse into a resplendent religious circuit.
Get there: Chiloé Island is approximately a two-hour journey from Puerto Montt airport, with buses running via the Chacao Channel ferry.
Why? Embark on a journey through resplendent religious architecture.
Read next South America trip planner: 8 incredible routes
Mesa Verde National Park, USA
Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado is the only US national park dedicated solely to archaeology. This park is home to a massive concentration of Ancestral Puebloan dwellings, built between the sixth and twelfth centuries. Spread across a verdant plateau at an elevation of 2,600 meters, the park contains over 4,400 recorded sites, ranging from simple pits to elaborate multi-story cliff dwellings. Exploring Mesa Verde offers a unique opportunity to admire the ancient architecture and marvel at the rich history of Native American cultures.
Get there: Mesa Verde is located off Route 160, around 14km east of Cortez. It's approximately a 600km drive southwest of Denver.
Why? Admire the roots of American and UNESCO heritage.
SourceSpain's culture is as lively as you can imagine. It stands out when compared to the rest of Europe, with its red sangria, football fandom, and vibrant festivals. The country is a global tourist destination, offering a rich history shaped by the Romans, Visigoths, Moors, and its colonial endeavors. The Spanish value healthy family relationships and hard work, as exemplified by their tradition of the siesta, where they take breaks during working hours to have lunch with their families. Spain's culture is also reflected in its numerous festivals, such as the exhilarating bull running in Pamplona and the tomato-throwing La Tomatina festival in Valencia. Experience the vibrant culture of Spain in 2019.
SourceFrance's culture extends beyond its reputation for fashion, art, and architecture. It is a sophisticated culture that places high value on traditions and values, particularly equality. French culture is known for being open-minded, embracing love, race, and sex. Wine and food play an integral role in French cultural tourism, complementing the country's historic sites and museums. French fashion is renowned worldwide, with brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermes, and Dior originating from the country. Art is also highly regarded in France, with a vibrant arts scene found throughout the streets and museums, including the iconic Louvre Museum in Paris.
SourceCanadian culture is a unique blend of American, French, and British influences. The country's welcoming and polite nature, as well as its cultural diversity, make it a friendly and hospitable destination. Canada is known for its art, especially performance arts, with numerous theaters and centers spread across the country. Notable performance festivals like the Shaw Festival and Stratford Shakespeare Festival showcase Canada's rich literary tradition. Canadians take pride in their friendly conversations, making it a delightful cultural destination for visitors.
Uzbekistan is a hidden gem for cultural tourism. Situated in Central Asia and once a key stop along the Silk Road, Uzbekistan holds a wealth of historical and architectural treasures. The Ark of Bukhara, a grand structure that housed royal emirs, is among the must-see sites in the country. The Tsodilo Hills, also known as the Louvre of the Desert, offer a unique display of over 4,500 paintings in the Kalahari Desert. The ancient city of Samarkand, particularly its Registan Square, stands as a testament to a glorious past ruled by Persians, Mongols, Chinese, and Russians. A visit to Uzbekistan allows travelers to immerse themselves in a vibrant cultural tapestry.
Abu Simbel, Egypt
Abu Simbel, a complex of temples built for Ramses II around 1260 BC, symbolizes the global revolution in heritage preservation. Saved from the rising waters of the Nile in an international effort, this UNESCO World Heritage site showcases the incredible engineering skills of ancient Egypt. Visitors can explore the temples, visit the archeological site of Philae, and marvel at the conservation achievements. Abu Simbel is a testament to the importance of preserving cultural heritage for future generations.
Get there: Abu Simbel is located 280km south of Aswan, and can be reached by a 30-minute flight or a three-hour bus ride.
Why? Celebrate 50 years of preservation.
Check out more incredible UNESCO-listed sites around the world:
UNESCO's 18 new Biosphere Reserves
17 World Heritage wonders in South-East Asia
21 World Heritage wonders in Latin America
Our favorite new UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Skellig Michael, Republic of Ireland
Located off the Irish coast, Skellig Michael is a Gaelic Christian monastic settlement believed to have been founded in the sixth century. Monks lived on this rugged outpost, moving between their hermitages and beehive-shaped huts via steep stone steps. While the island was abandoned in the twelfth century, it gained recognition as the home of Luke Skywalker in recent Star Wars films. A trip to Skellig Michael offers a chance to explore an ancient religious site and experience the movie magic firsthand.
Get there: Skellig Michael is located 12km off Portmagee in southwest Kerry, and boat trips are available.
Why? Embark on a journey to Luke Skywalker's home.
Take the quiz: How well do you know the UK's UNESCO World Heritage Sites?
Vietnam is becoming increasingly popular among tourists, largely because of its rich and enduring traditional culture. In addition to visiting the Imperial City in Hue, the former residence of Vietnamese royalty, or exploring the Old Quarter in Hanoi, a thriving business and cultural center for centuries, you can also immerse yourself in the vibrant markets and festivals that Vietnam has to offer.
One of the best times to visit Vietnam is during Tet, also known as Vietnamese New Year. During this season, the locals in Hoi An and other cities decorate lanterns and create a festive atmosphere that can be felt throughout the town.
SourceIndia's culture is truly diverse, with each state having its own unique traditions. The country's culture, which has been around for thousands of years, is deeply rooted in history. Indian culture encompasses various aspects such as religion, cuisine, dance, music, films, art, philosophy, and more, with each state showcasing its own distinct characteristics. Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttaranchal are among the top states to experience the cultural richness of India. These regions are home to magnificent forts and palaces, ancient temples, heritage monuments, the breathtaking Himalayan mountain ranges, and much more. It is fascinating to see how these diverse cultures coexist harmoniously. Each state in India also has its own language, cuisine, traditional clothing, folk songs, dances, and even film industries, in addition to mainstream Bollywood. Cultural tourism is a significant force in India, attracting millions of tourists each year, and is expected to continue growing in the future.
SourceThe culture of Japan is both fascinating and multifaceted. It is deeply rooted in tradition while also constantly evolving with the latest technology, fashion, and trends. If you're looking for a unique cultural experience, Japan is the place to be. The country is known for its hard-working and friendly population. Exploring cultural tourism in Japan allows you to learn about discipline and uncover social conventions, such as eating with chopsticks and bowing while greeting. Japan is also a paradise for food lovers, with mouthwatering dishes like sushi and ramen, as well as traditional drinks like sake and green tea. Additionally, Japan is globally recognized for its manga (comic books) and anime (animated films and TV shows), both of which originated in the country. All of these aspects only scratch the surface of Japan's ever-growing culture. To truly experience it, you must visit the country yourself.
SourceThe United States of America consists of 50 states, each with its own distinct culture. Known for its advanced infrastructure and technological advancements, the USA is considered one of the world's leading superpowers. Although relatively young, the country has undergone cultural and social transformations that can be traced throughout its history. The USA is famous for its iconic buildings, skyscrapers, museums, amusement parks, and art galleries. One of its most well-known attractions is the Statue of Liberty in New York City, which draws in movie enthusiasts due to its association with Hollywood in San Francisco. Las Vegas, on the other hand, is renowned for its showgirls, casinos, and vibrant nightlife. Miami attracts beach lovers and those seeking a vibrant boardwalk experience. The USA offers countless must-visit places such as Washington National Cathedral, Dolby Theatres, Iolani Palace, Disneyworld Park, Central Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Coronado Beach, and many more.
Rajasthan hill forts, India
The Rajput princes knew how to live the high life. These rulers, who thrived in northern India from the 8th to the 18th centuries, constructed magnificent fortresses, and some of them were collectively recognized by UNESCO five years ago.
Among the most well-known forts are Amer Fort in Jaipur, Jaisalmer Fort in the desert, and Sawai Madhopur, located within the tiger-inhabited Ranthambhore National Park. Lesser-visited forts include Gagron Fort along the riverside in the Jhalawar district and Kumbhalgarh near Udaipur, which boasts walls that stretch 38 km in length.
However, the most impressive of them all is the majestic Mewar fortress of Chittorgarh. Perched atop a cliff, this enormous complex features gates, palaces, towers, and temples, making it the largest walled complex in the country.
Get there: Railways connect Jaipur, Udaipur, and Chittorgarh.
Why? Explore six stunning forts for the price of one flight.
If you have a penchant for ancient history, Greece is the ultimate destination for you. With its archaeological sites such as the Acropolis of Athens and Delphi, the country is a treasure trove of beautiful ruins that offer glimpses into centuries of religion, wars, politics, architecture, and more.
The modern side of Greece, particularly in vibrant urban areas like Athens and Santorini, offers plenty of Mediterranean culinary experiences. You can explore local farmer's markets known as "laiki" or even take Greek dance lessons to fully immerse yourself in the local arts.
In northern Greece, the Xanthi Carnival takes place three weeks before the Great Lent of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This carnival, founded formally in the 60s, celebrates folkloric traditions rooted in Thracian elements. Folklore clubs participate in various activities such as sports, dance performances, and feasts. Each year has its own unique theme, and the festival culminates with the burning of the "Tzaros," a symbolic figure made of holly trees.
XANTHI, GREECE – Participants in colorful costumes march and have fun during the carnival. Greek people of all ages join in the annual parade along city streets, showcasing themed festival outfits.
Old Havana, Cuba
Havana, founded by the Spanish in 1519, recently celebrated its 500th anniversary. However, time seems to stand still in this captivating city, renowned for its elegant mansions, picturesque squares, lively streets filled with salsa music, vintage cars, and charmingly weathered buildings.
Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1982, is undergoing extensive restoration to preserve its status as the most impressive historic city center in the Caribbean. Explore this area by foot, weaving through its five large plazas, the cathedral, and the fortifications that once protected this important port. One of the largest colonial fortresses in the Americas can be found here.
Get there: It takes approximately ten hours to fly from the UK to Havana.
Why? Take a step back in time in this enchanting city.
SourceCanadian culture is a fusion of American, French, and British influences. What sets Canadian culture apart is the welcoming, polite, and friendly nature of its people. Canadians believe in hospitality and strive to make visitors feel at home. This is largely due to the country's diverse population, which is made up of various ethnic minorities from around the world. Canada boasts a vibrant arts scene, particularly in the field of performance arts, with numerous theaters and centers spread throughout the country. Notable performance festivals like the Shaw Festival and Stratford Shakespeare Festival attract literature enthusiasts. If you enjoy friendly conversations, Canada is the perfect cultural destination for you.
SourceThe United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a sovereign constitutional monarchy comprising seven emirates, with Abu Dhabi serving as the capital. It is known as one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world. The land has been inhabited for a long time, resulting in a complex and rich chronological history. Islam is the national religion, and the UAE is home to numerous magnificent mosques. The country also offers a buzzing nightlife, extravagant shopping complexes, and fascinating man-made islands. Each of the seven emirates has its own unique features and architectural wonders. In Abu Dhabi, you cannot miss Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Saadiyat Island, Al Reem Island, Al Bahr Tower, and Ferrari World. Similarly, Dubai is famous for landmarks like Burj Khalifa, Palm Jumeirah, Dubai Creek, and The Dubai Fountain, which attract a large number of tourists. Other major attractions in the UAE include Emirates Palace, Khor Fakkan Beach, Wild Wadi Waterpark, Naif Souq, and Etihad Museum.
Tikal National Park, Guatemala
The Maya ruins at Tikal, as well as those across the Petén region, are expansive and breathtaking. Groundbreaking research this year using LiDAR laser technology, which digitally removes the forest from aerial images, has revealed that the ruins are far more intricate than previously believed. The images unveiled previously unknown structures and connections between sites that were inhabited for 1,400 years from the 6th century BC.
This only adds to the sense of anticipation and wonder as you explore this metropolis of temples, squares, and palaces.
Get there: Tikal is approximately a 75-minute drive from the town of Flores.
Why? Experience a taste of Maya magnificence in this extraordinary archaeological site.
From the ancient ruins of Rome to the vibrant streets of Havana, the world is filled with extraordinary cultural destinations waiting to be explored. Whether you're wandering through the intricate churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia or marveling at the grandeur of the Great Pyramids in Egypt, each destination on this list offers a unique glimpse into the rich tapestry of human history and tradition. So, pack your bags and let your wanderlust guide you as you embark on an unforgettable journey across continents and centuries.
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