9 Oct 2023
From temples and churches to mountains and rainforest, Asia is home to some of the most unforgettable World Heritage Sites in the world. Here are 30 of the best.
Agra Fort, India
While Agra Fort may not be the most famous attraction in Agra, it takes a more-than-worthy place on our list having been inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1983. Also known as the Red Fort of Agra, the 16th-century landmark is a popular stop on the Golden Triangle tour. Explore within the 2.5km-long walls, including Jahangir Palace, from where Mughal dynasties once ruled the imperial city.
Amer Fort, India
Rajasthan’s imposing Amer Fort made it onto UNESCO’s coveted list in 2013 along with five other state forts as a collective of Hill Forts of Rajasthan. Located 11km from Jaipur, Amer Fort was built using red sandstone and marble in 1592 by Raja Man Singh, overlooking the emerald-green Maotha Lake. Inside, explore a complex of temples and palaces, including Shila Devi Temple and Ganesh Pol, which is a grand gate that leads to the private palaces of the kings.
Ayutthaya Historical Park, Thailand
Once the thriving Siamese capital of Thailand, this 14th-century archaeological site is dominated by four remarkable temples — Wat Phra Ram, Wat Phra Si Sanphet, Wat Mahathat and Wat Ratchaburana — plus the Royal Palace and Royal Chapel. Inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1991, explore the complex of temples and visit the Ayodhya Floating Market and Bang Sai Royal Folk Art and Crafts Center to pick up local souvenirs.
Fatehpur Sikri, India
Found on the Golden Triangle trail just outside of Agra, the ancient 16th-century Fatehpur Sikri is an abandoned city and one of the most popular sites in all of India. It’s home to gorgeous red sandstone Jama Masjid mosque and the giant Buland Darwaza gate. Explore these, the marble Tomb of Salim Chishti and Jodha Bai’s Palace, which demonstrates a mix of exceptional Hindu and Mughal styles.
The Forbidden City, China
Completed in 1420, the Forbidden City is the ancient heart of Beijing and has been home to 14 Ming and 10 Qing dynasty emperors over the centuries. Given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987, it’s home to the largest ancient palatial structure in the world and the best preserved in China. Take in the traditional Chinese architecture of the 980-odd buildings that feature in over 70 different palace compounds.
Great Living Chola Temples, India
Built by kings of the Chola Empire in the 11th and 12th centuries, the Great Living Chola Temples are a collection of stunning Hindu temples in southern India that were given prestigious UNESCO World Heritage status in 1987. Discover the intricate details of Brihadisvara Temple at Thanjavur, the Brihadisvara Temple at Gangaikondacholisvaram and the Airavatesvara Temple at Darasuram.
The Great Wall of China
Not only a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, the Great Wall of China is deservedly one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. An incredible feat of engineering, the Great Wall was built over a period of 1,800 odd years, from 220 B.C. to A.D. 1644. The wall covers 5,500 miles of land — from Gansu province in western China to Dangong near the North Korea border — through mountains and ravines as far as the eye can see.
Halong Bay, Vietnam
A welcome sight on a South East Asia cruise around Vietnam, Halong Bay is made up of 1,600 rainforest-covered islands that rise from inky bay. A World Heritage site since 1984, take a trip on a traditional junk boat or enjoy sea kayaking, while spotting monkeys swinging from the trees on the islands’ limestone cliffs.
Hawa Mahal, India
This pink-hued palace is arguably Jaipur’s most famous landmark. The five-storey Hawa Mahal was built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh to allow the ladies of the royal court to watch parades take place on the streets below (hence the many windows). It’s a popular attraction on India’s Golden Triangle due to its extraordinary beauty and was granted UNESCO World Heritage status along with the Pink City in 2019. Head to the top to take in views of Jaipur and beyond and visit the small museum to view relics and artefacts.
Hoi An, Vietnam
When an entire town is granted UNESCO World Heritage status, you know it must be pretty significant. Exemplary of a well preserved trading port that was active from the 15th to 19th century, discover Hoi An’s narrow pedestrian streets, the open market and religious and heritage buildings. Hoi An displays a mix of Chinese, Japanese and European influences — including the wooden Japanese bridge that features a pagoda and dates from the 18th century.
Humayun’s Tomb, India
Inscribed in 1993, Humayun’s Tomb was built in 1570 and its importance in Delhi lies in the fact it is the first garden tomb on the Indian subcontinent and went on to inspire the Taj Mahal. It is a symbol of Mughal architecture, built by Persian and Indian craftsmen and was the grandest tomb of its kind when constructed. Explore the gardens surrounding the tomb, which stands on a high-terraced platform.
Jantar Mantar, India
This astronomical observatory in Jaipur was built towards the end of the Mughal period in the early 18th century, designed to measure time and observe planetary motion around the sun, and to keep track of celestial bodies. Jantar Mantar is also home to the world’s largest stone sundial, which you can view on a tour of the observatory.
Kinabalu Park, Malaysia
The rainforest-covered Kinabalu Park on the island of Borneo centres on Mount Kinabalu, which peaks at over 4,000 metres tall and is the 20th most prominent peak in the world. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2000 for its outstanding universal value, Kinabalu Park is home to a vast array of biodiversity, with over 4,500 protected species of flora and fauna within the park. Tour the Mountain Garden, walk with an expert guide who will explain the wonderful biodiversity and take on one of the nine nature trails.
The Zen Buddhist Kinkaku-ji, just north of Kyoto, is one of Japan’s most iconic temples. The name means Temple of the Golden Pavilion because its upper two floors are clad in gold leaf. Originally built as the retirement villa of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, upon his death in 1408, and in accordance with his wishes, it became a Zen temple of the Rinzai sects. Admire the temple from across the pond and explore the gardens before reaching the Sekkatei Teahouse.
Komodo National Park, Indonesia
The otherworldly Komodo National Park was established in 1980 to preserve the Komodo dragon and its surrounding habitat. The national park is made up of three main islands, Komodo, Rinca and Padar, and numerous smaller islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986, the marine life around the islands is home to more than 1,000 species of fish and some 260 species of reef-building coral. In the waters off the islands, spot sharks, manta rays, at least 14 species of whales, dolphins, and sea turtles that make this part of the world so special.
Mountain Railways of India, India
A collection of three railways, including the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the Kalka-Shimla Railway and Nilgiri Line Railway, the Mountain Railways of India were granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999. All three railways were established in the late Victorian period to transport goods around the country and are still in operation today. Jump on board and enjoy the ride as you pass narrow gauges, dense forest and spectacular mountain ranges.
Mount Fuji, Japan
Few images are more evocative of Japan than that of snow-capped Mount Fuji. Reached via the country’s high-speed bullet train from Tokyo, Mount Fuji is a sacred mountain and an active volcano (though it has not erupted for over 300 years) that was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2013. Standing at 3,776 metres tall, it is Japan’s highest peak. Observe it during cherry blossom season (from late March to early May), when pretty pink shades shroud parks and gardens around the country.
Mount Tai, China
Mount Tai is the easternmost of China’s five sacred mountains and a symbol of ancient Chinese civilisation that has been the source of inspiration for artists for centuries. Inscribed into UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1987, you can climb the 6,660 steps from the South Gate to Heaven to reach the summit. Alternatively, take a bus to the halfway point then jump on the cable car, which is a far more leisurely.
My Son temple, Vietnam
Added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1999, My Son is a cluster of ruined Hindu tower temples, not far from Hoi An in Vietnam. My Son was constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries by an ancient Champa civilisation amid a rich jungle setting. Explore what remains of these fascinating ruins — once a group of 68 temples they have dwindled to 20 today.
National Museum of Western Art, Japan
The only museum on our list, Tokyo’s National Museum of Western Art is a Brutalist masterpiece designed by Le Corbusier — the only example of the Swiss-French architect’s work in the Far East. Completed in 1959, the building represents the resumption of diplomatic ties between Japan and France following World War II. As part of UNESCO’s recognition of 17 works by Le Corbusier, the National Museum of Western Art building was added to the World Heritage List. Don’t just admire the building; check out the works inside, which range from the Renaissance period to early 20th century western art.
Prambanan Temple, Indonesia
A vast complex of 240 temples, Prambanan was constructed in the 10th century and is the largest temple compound dedicated to Shiva in Indonesia and one of Southeast Asia’s most popular attractions. The World Heritage–listed site centres on eight inner temples, Candi Shiva Mahadeva being the largest and most extravagantly designed. Spend the day weaving around the awe-inspiring temples dotted around the park. Prambanan Temple is especially beautiful at sunset.
Red Fort, India
Located in the centre of Old Delhi, the Red Fort was built in 1639 as the palace fort of Shahjahanabad, when the capital moved to Delhi from Agra. The gigantic red sandstone complex is made up of a number of pavilions connected by a water channel that is known as Nahr-i-Bihisht (Stream of Paradise). Take a guided walk around the sprawling walled fortress, exploring the intricately detailed buildings, places and gardens.
Sambor Prei Kuk, Cambodia
An archaeological site of more than 150 Hindu temples dating from the 6th and 7th centuries in central Cambodia, Sambor Prei Kuk is known in the Khmer language as “the temple in the richness of the forest”. The impressive pre-Angkor monuments take you through the thick of the jungle in the Kampong Thom province. Explore the fascinating ancient temples and discover the area’s local villages.
Singapore Botanic Gardens, Singapore
Singapore’s single UNESCO World Heritage-listed site is the island-state’s glorious Botanic Gardens. Established in 1859, the tropical gardens encompass 60 acres on the edge of the city’s Orchard Road shopping district on the site of a former plantation. A highlight is the National Orchid Garden, which homes over 60,000 orchids (the world’s largest collection). Stop by the Botanic Gardens’ Museum, too, to learn about the site’s heritage and see exhibits.
Summer Palace, China
Beijing’s must-see Summer Palace was first built in 1750 before being restored in 1886 after being ravaged by war. The Summer Palace is made up of a harmonious collection of lakes, gardens, palaces and temples that are considered a masterpiece of Chinese garden design. Designated UNESCO World Heritage status in 1998, discover the gardens, admire Kunming Lake and the Hall of Benevolence and Longevity.
Taj Mahal, India
Not only a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Taj Mahal in Agra is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s also, arguably, the most iconic landmark in all of India. Built in the 17th-century, the striking white marble palace, its four minarets and beautiful gardens are universally recognised. Visit the Taj Mahal at sunrise or sunset when views are particularly spectacular.
Temples of Angkor, Cambodia
This extraordinary landmark tops many bucket lists. It’s also topped UNESCO’s World Heritage List since in 1992 and is arguably the biggest draw to Cambodia. Just north of Siem Reap, the city of temples is the largest religious site in the world by land area and is dominated by three main temples, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and Ta Prohm. Watch on as orange-robed monks wander the temples and don’t miss Ta Prohm, which is famous for the giant fig tree that envelops the temple.
Temple of Heaven, China
Beijing’s striking 15th-century Temple of Heaven was the most significant of the city’s imperial temples, regularly visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Today, locals can be seen practicing tai chi in the grounds. Take in The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, admire its beautifully detailed-domed ceiling and explore the circular Echo Wall at the Temple of Heaven.
Terracotta Warriors, China
The correct name of the site is the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor, though it is commonly referred to as the Terracotta Warriors. Unearthed in 1974, it is one of the greatest archaeological sites in the world and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. The burial site of Qin, the first unifier of China, whose mausoleum is surrounded by the famous terracotta warriors, complete with horses, chariots and battle weapons, you can tour the ancient tombs and visit the museum to view artefacts discovered at the site.
This Shingon Buddhist temple in Kyoto was founded in 796 as one of the three Buddhist temples allowed in the city at the time. It is most notable for its five-storey pagoda that can often be seen when you enter Kyoto from the south via the bullet train. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 as part of the Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto, admire the serene gardens and the collection of gold and wooden revered Buddhist statues.