The kids are all right—as long as they know their heritage. Help them brush up on history and geography, and honor the 40th anniversary of UNESCO’s World Heritage List, by booking a family trip to some of the planet’s most noteworthy places. We combed through the list’s 936 cultural and natural treasures to choose destinations of sublime beauty and historical significance that will inspire travelers young and old. —George Stone See National Geographic World Heritage Guides >>
The Carnival of Barranquilla, Colombia
Photograph by Ivan Pisarenko, Archivolatino/Redux
Kid Appeal: Four days of choreographed dance, music, and kaleidoscopic costumes make for one of South America’s most eye-popping street festivals.
The Event: Fire-breathers. Floral floats. Masquerade revelers in the guise of monkeys, jaguars, and skeleton spirits. Teams of drummers pounding out entrancing beats. Costumed dancers twirling in a colorful swirl. Glittery face paint and feathery headdresses. Satirical speeches and songs.
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. 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.
Staged largely on the city’s streets over the four days before Ash Wednesday, the annual event is one of the world’s largest carnivals. Spectators, standing on the sidewalks or seated on grandstands, watch the festival’s coordinated series of events, beginning with Saturday’s Battle of Flowers, which features the carnival queen, floats, and exotically costumed dance troupes; Sunday’s Grand Parade of more traditional cumbia and garabato dancers; Monday’s Fantasy Parade of flamboyant revelers; and Tuesday’s symbolic funeral of Joselito Carnaval, the personification of the festival, who dies from too much fun.
Giant’s Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland
Photograph by Britain on View, Getty Images
Kid Appeal: Ancient volcanic forces forged this spectacular coastal playground. It’s the perfect place to scramble across a mythical landscape.
The Site: Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway is a volcanic formation of nearly 40,000 mostly hexagonal columns, forged 60 million years ago when molten lava cooled quickly in the ocean water and contracted into crystallized basalt pillars, some more than 35 feet tall.
This geological marvel is interpreted in legend as having been the handiwork of mythical warrior Fionn MacCumhaill (Finn McCool, in English), 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 tourists attracted by the honeycomb-like promontory. The Giant’s Causeway was also immortalized in rock music. The formation appears on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, a 1973 album that concluded fittingly with a song called “The Ocean.”
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Photograph by Nigel Pavitt, Alamy
Kid Appeal: Song, dance, high drama, and “Kids at the House” programs turn this architectural icon into one of Australia’s top family attractions.
The Site: 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” looms large as both a celebrated performing arts center and an iconic urban sculpture.
Conceived by Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the center debuted in 1973 and is today one of the planet’s busiest live arts venues, with more than 1,750 performances a year, attracting millions of visitors.
Built on a platform surrounded on three sides by Sydney Harbor, the Opera House symbolizes the artful merging of form, function, and geography. During the day, the building’s scale-like ceramic tiles glint in the sunlight; at night, the space glows like Neptune’s underwater castle.
Wayang Puppet Theater, Java and Bali, Indonesia
Photograph by Stéphane Lemaire, Hemis/Alamy
Kid Appeal: A flickering candle and capable storyteller are all these Indonesian shadow puppets need to take on enchanted forms and mystical powers.
The Event: 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 of secular and religious tales. Pictured here are shadow puppets at the Laras Puppet Theater in Java.
Hundreds of years before the advent of moving images, these wayang kulit scenes—accompanied by ethereal gamelan music, played on xylophones, gendér (bronze xylophones), drums, gongs, bamboo flutes, and strings—brought colorful myths, morality tales, Indian and Persian epics, political commentary, and social satire to center stage in the royal courts and rural areas of Java and Bali.
While elaborately decorated and dressed 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. Travelers to Bali can seek out traditional performances of wayang kulit and watch as timeless tales take shadowy form in Indonesia’s iconic expression of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Colosseum and Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
Photograph by Bjorn Holland, Getty Images
Kid Appeal: To the lions! Long before there was a Super Bowl, there was an imperial stadium where gladiators and beasts fought for the pleasure of one of history’s most powerful empires.
The Site: The Roman Empire’s largest amphitheater set the stage for simulated sea battles and safari hunts and very real 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 stands today as a marvel of engineering and a symbol of the gory glory of ancient Rome.
Kid-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 emergence of the Republic, Empire, and Christian capital of Vatican City.
Though the World Heritage site includes the Forum, Pantheon, mausoleums, columns, and papal structures, it’s the immense stadium in the middle of Rome that most colorfully captures the modern imagination. Built to accommodate an estimated 50,000 spectators, the Colosseum was a freestanding elliptical theater 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, crocodiles, and other ferocious fauna—were contained before contests.
Sian Ka’an, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Photograph by Pete Oxford, Minden Pictures/Corbis
The Site: Turquoise waters, emerald mangroves, and ivory limestone bedrock are the chromatic components of the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean.
Sian Ka’an, which means “Where the Sky Is Born” in Mayan, is a fantastically flat biosphere reserve on the eastern coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. But what this wetlands region lacks in dramatic topography, it makes up for in biodiversity, beauty, and a range of kid-friendly activities.
Extending from tropical forests and marshes to coral reefs along the coast, the reserve counts sea turtles, crocodiles, jaguars, spider monkeys, manatees, spiny lobsters, nurse sharks, and flamingos as resident fauna. The 1.3 million acres of Sian Ka’an form a lush ecosystem that supports farmers and fishermen, biologists, anthropologists (some 23 Maya archaeological sites dot the landscape), and tour operators.
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 tomb raider 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 today over the fringe of Maya Mexico’s conservation crown jewel.
Serengeti National Park, Tanzania
Photograph by Paul and Paveena Mckenzie, Getty Images
Kid Appeal: Camp out under African skies, where the world’s most spectacular animal migration crosses this vast protected region of northern Tanzania.
The Site: Zebras, gazelles, and wildebeest (above)—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 8,000-square-mile contiguous protected region is home base for safari-goers on the prowl for impalas, dik-diks, Cape buffalo, lions, hyenas, elephants, rhinos, jackals, and other beasts. 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 the moment camera-toting visitors wait for.
Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta, Canada
Photograph by Camille Moirenc, Hemis/Alamy
Kid Appeal: Grab your magnifying glass and hiking boots and head to one of the world’s best dinosaur fossil sites, a Cretaceous marvel southeast of Calgary.
The Site: Leptoceratops, Lambeosaurus, Euoplocephalus, oh my! The Age of Reptiles lives on in the geologically fascinating badlands of Alberta, 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 capped by hoodoos (towers of eroded stone) that visitors see today. Back then, a subtropical climate sustained dense forests, swampy marshes, flowing rivers, and an inland sea, creating ideal habitats for dozens of species of reptiles, fishes, amphibians, mammals, and plants. Many of the skeletons and fossils these organisms left behind are starring attractions in natural history museums around the world.
Scientists keep busy here, excavating bone beds with the hope of identifying surprising finds. Although visitors are not permitted to dig or surface-collect in this fragile environment, the park offers a full schedule of kid-friendly fossil safaris, guided activities, displays of dinosaur skeletons, and interpretive exhibitions. Families can camp out under the stars and dream of the days when Tyrannosauridae (“tyrant lizards”) and Troodontidae (birdlike dinosaurs) inhabited this once fern-filled region.
Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii
Photograph by Steve and Donna O'Meara, National Geographic
Kid Appeal: Turn on the heat with a visit to two of the world’s most active volcanoes.
The Site: 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, the world’s most massive mountain—its summit rises to about 56,000 feet above the depressed sea floor, making it more than 27,000 feet higher than Mount Everest—these active and accessible fire-breathers make up 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, from ranger-led hikes, interpretive centers, and viewing platforms near active flows to the 11-mile Crater Rim Drive, a gobsmacking car tour of Kilauea with stops at steam vents, sulfur banks, lava tubes, tropical rain forests, arid landscapes, and high volcanic vistas.
Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia, Turkey
Photograph by Flip Franssen, Hollandse Hoogte/Redux
Kid Appeal: The Stone Age rocks on in Anatolia, where young geologists can explore time-weathered volcanic landscapes in a culturally rich province.
The Story: It’s a destination fit for every modern stone-age family. Central Turkey’s Göreme Valley is an arid region of eroded volcanic stone that takes fantastic forms, ranging from tall spires and sharp cones to totem pole-like hoodoos, topped with caps of hard rock. Often called fairy chimneys, these whimsical wonders can rise dozens of feet over the chalky soil of an area inhabited long before the fourth century B.C.
Some of the most striking sights within the Cappadocia Plateau are villages carved into the volcanic tuff, rock-hewn churches, and cave homes deep within the sediment. 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 underground communities and subterranean sanctuaries with frescoes that visitors can see today. The Göreme Open Air Museum is pocked with caves and studded with fairy chimneys. Valley hikes, hot air balloon rides, and guided tours hit the high points of this low-lying region. And when night falls, families can check into cave hotels and sleep in stony silence.
Travel Photos From Your Shot
World Heritage Sites in Europe