Every year, the bucket lists of heritage-minded travelers get a little longer thanks to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco).
The organization has recently released its annual additions to the list of World Heritage Sites, which is focused on the world’s most important cultural and natural wonders—from the watery coasts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the top of the Pyramids of Giza.
There were 24 all-new additions to the list this year, including the first World Heritage Site in Jamaica (the Blue and John Crow Mountains, a refuge for indigenous people and Africans fleeing slavery) and the United States’ 23rd designation, the San Antonio Missions. The list now includes 1,031 different sites, located in 163 countries.
Beyond just identifying the sites, Unesco also aims to protect, preserve and conserve these locations so that they’ll be around for generations to come. These particular aims have taken on added meaning with the recent reports that ISIS has deliberately destroyed some of Iraq’s and Syria’s most valued and significant World Heritage-designated sites, including the ancient cities of Nimrud and Palmyra.During its most recent meeting, the organization also added two sites to the List of World Heritage in Danger: Hatra in Iraq and the Old City of Sana’a in Yemen, both imperiled because of armed conflict.
Here are seven of the 2015 additions to the World Heritage list that are particular destination-worthy, each so packed with history and cultural meaning it’s one of the must-see places on Earth:
On the western coast of modern-day Turkey sit the remains of the ancient city of Ephesus, once one of the world's greatest seaports. Vibrant for about 25,000 years, Ephesus reached its height under Greek and Roman rule and was then revived in the 4th century as an important Christian city.
As the most culturally significant city in Asia Minor during its time, Ephesus housed magnificent buildings devoted to religion, learning and entertainment. The Library of Celsus housed thousands of scrolls, and was one of the most important libraries of the ancient world. The Temple of Artemis, built as a shrine to the Greek goddess, is one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World.
Today, the city’s ruins attract people from all over. With over 2 million tourists a year, it is the third-most visited spot in Turkey.
San Antonio Missions: United States of America
The San Antonio Missions are the first World Heritage Site in Texas and the 23rd in the United States, joining the likes of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and New York’s Statute of Liberty. Established in the 18th century by a group of Spanish friars known as Franciscans, the missions represent a time when much of today’s southwest United States was under Spanish rule.
The most famous of these missions is the Alamo, the site where soldier and politician Sam Houston, Jim Bowie (of knife fame) and legendary frontiersman Davey Crocket fought for Texan independence in the spring of 1836. While the Alamo has become a mythical symbol of Texan and American resiliency, there are four other missions in the area that also played a vitally important part in the state's history.
For many Americans, the Alamo may not need any extra “remembering,” but the distinction will definitely be an economic boon—studies say it could mean thousands more jobs and millions more dollars pumped into the San Antonio economy.
Baptism Site "Bethany Beyond Jordan": Jordan
It's been said for centuries that John the Baptist baptized Jesus of Nazareth somewhere along the eastern bank of the Jordan River. It's only been in the past few years, though, that archeologists and historians have found evidence of an ancient civilization there, lending credence to claims that this particular area holds major religious significance.
These recent discoveries have turned the area—referred to as “Bethany Beyond Jordan” in the Bible—into a Christian pilgrimage site, where pilgrims hope to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. However, Unesco gave the World Heritage Site distinction to this spot not just because of Jesus’ theoretical one-time presence, but also due to the overwhelming existence of structures that date back to the Roman and Byzantine periods.
Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution: Japan
Just as the United States was becoming an industrial power in the late 19th century, so was Japan. Mutsuhito became emperor in 1868 after the death of his father, emperor Kōmei. Mutsuhito took the name Meiji, meaning “enlightened rule” in Japanese. As one of his first acts as ruler, he brought Japan out of its self-imposed 250-year isolation from the Western world, a change brought on after threats from the U.S. Navy. He modernized and industrialized the country rapidly, helping Japan to become the economic superpower it is today. Many of the buildings and sites that best exhibit this transition, such as shipyards and coal mines, are now World Heritage Sites.
While the Meiji Industrial Revolution pushed Japan into the 20th century, it often did so at the cost of human rights, and many of these sites are reminders of that. In 1910, Korea became a Japanese colony. From then until the 1940s, the Japanese government used hundreds of thousands of Koreans as forced laborers, often making them work in miserable conditions. One of these sites where this occurred is Hashima Island, so-called “Battleship Island” due to its resemblance to its namesake. For over 70 years, the place was an undersea coal mining facility before falling into abandoned ruin. The bid for it to be a World Heritage Site was met with controversy due to this history.
Today, public boat tours are offered for those who want to visit the much-discussed spot.
Champagne Hillsides, Houses and Cellars: France
Ever since the 17th century, the Champagne region in northeast France has been synonymous with the production of sparkling wine. In fact, it is against an EU/US wine trade agreement to call sparking wine “Champagne” if it isn’t produced in the area.
The new World Heritage Site includes the grapes that grow in the hillside vineyards, the underground cellars that house the production facilities and the sales and distribution centers. While the wineries and vineyards certainly bring millions of tourists a year to the area, there are also Gothic cathedrals, picturesque hikes, delectable restaurants and 14th century castles around—making the Champagne region about more than just wine.
Necropolis of Bet She'arim: Israel
While the 18th century Parisian catacombs may be the most famous of their ilk, ancient civilizations were burying their dead in underground rooms and tunnels well before that time. Among the oldest, most extensive and most densely populated catacombs ever to be found are the ones below the ancient Jewish city of Bet She’arim.
The necropolis was built in the 2nd century A.D. as the primary Jewish burial site for those who lived outside of Jerusalem. Beyond the extensive catacombs, the site earned its distinction due to its large assortment of carved artwork and inscriptions (in three different languages—Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew). Archeologists believe that the creation and upkeep of the underground cemetery made up a large portion of the city’s economy.
Located only about 12 miles from the modern city of Haifa, it takes only a short trip to visit the site, where archeological excavation and digging are still going on.
Great Burkhan Khaldun Mountain: Mongolia
The steepest peak among the Khentii Mountain chain, located in the northeast Khentii province, holds immense biological, religious and historical importance. The mountain range is home to several endangered species, including the Mongolian Wolverine, and has been the site of ancient shamanic and Buddhist practices for centuries.
Perhaps most interesting, though, is that this is the mountain where Genghis Khan is believed to have been born and buried. In recent years, the search for his tomb has become something of an archeologists’ crusade, with the legend that great treasure accompanies his burial site.
Despite the immense global interest, this section of Mongolia is a “Strictly Protected Area” due to its biological rarities and religious significance. This means tourism is significantly limited, though one can still visit by going through the right channels and adhering to regulations.
The other 2015 World Heritage Site additions: