You have to see them to believe them

It takes something special to earn World Heritage Site status. Claudia Pritchard and Mark Rowe choose 10 of the best
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The Independent Travel

1 Liverpool maritime district

The powerful river Mersey is the life-blood of the city of Liverpool, and the mighty estuary has witnessed departures and arrivals both shameful and heroic. Liverpool was the centre of slave-trading until 1807, and the Merseyside Maritime Museum in the heart of Docklands acknowledges this with a seering exhibition recording this infamous business. But the port saw great heroism too: merchant vessels set out from here in the Second World War and some 9 million emigrants started their intrepid voyages to new lives as the great birds atop the Liver Buildings faded into the distance. Liverpool's maritime and mercantile district was named a World Heritage Site on the grounds of its historical significance and the impact worldwide of its innovative port management. In common with other regenerated docklands, the area is now a chic property hotspot.

Weekend rates at the Hope Street boutique hotel (0151-709 3000; www.hopestreethotel.co.uk), between the Anglican and Roman Catholic cathedrals, are £120 per room per night, based on two sharing, including full English breakfast.

2 Vicenza and the villas of the Veneto

The entire neoclassical output of Andrea Palladio was honoured in 1994 and 1996 with citations for the city of Vicenza which is packed with the architect's distinctive, dignified style, and for the villas of the Veneto that were commissioned by merchants eager to demonstrate their wealth and status with country houses that celebrated both industry and leisure. While each villa is different, they share certain characteristics, notably symmetry, respect for classical proportions, and the practice of making "working" buildings such as stables highly visible. Outstanding examples are the Villa Emo, Villa Chiericati and the Almerico Capra - the much imitated, temple-like "Rotonda".

Art tour specialists Martin Randall Travel (020-8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com) offers an escorted, six-day holiday including flights, transfers, five nights at the four-star Campo Marzio with breakfast, dinner with wine on four nights, and guided tours on five days from 17 to 22 May and 20 to 25 September 2005, for around £1,250 per person, based on two sharing. Alternatively, Ryanair (0871-246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies to Brescia, around 35 miles from Vicenza, from £23 return. Car hire with Avis (0870 010 0287; avis.co.uk) costs from €154 (£105) for four days. A stay at the Campo Marzio (0039 0444 545700; www.hotelcampomarzio.com) costs from €148 (£100) per room per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast.

3 Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona

This explosion of modernista design, the masterpiece of Lluis Domènech i Montaner, is an expression of outstanding confidence in both the performing arts and the exuberant architectural vocabulary of the early 20th century in Spain. Montaner was commissioned by the local music society to create this concert hall, which celebrates its centenary next year. The result is a fantastical blast of Tiffany-style stained glass, tiled columns reminiscent of the work of fellow countryman Gaudi, and sculptured horses that leap out of the walls towards the bogle-eyed audience. Musicians may complain of hit-and-miss acoustics, but never of the unique atmosphere. Richard Strauss conducted in the inaugural season; World Heritage Site status came in 1997. Guided visits, some in English, leave the foyer every half hour between 10am and 3.30pm, subject to rehearsals and performances.

British Airways Holidays (0870-2400 747; www.ba.com) offers scheduled return flights out of Gatwick from £66 per person. Accommodation with breakfast in a twin room at the four-star Nunez Urgell hotel in Barcelona costs from £124 per room per night. Prices are based on two sharing and travelling in October. The Palau de la Música Catalana is within walking distance of the hotel, in Sant Pere.

4 Historic centre of Salzburg

How fortunate for music-lovers that their pilgrimage to Mozart's birthplace should plunge them into the heart of this jewel-like former city state, dominated by the architecture of Vincenzo Scamozzi. Or did the vibrant, creative atmosphere of Salzburg contribute to the musical prodigy's can-do attitude? Either way, the entire old quarter of Salzburg was made a World Heritage Site in 1996 and is an outstanding example of Baroque art on a lavish but often intimate scale. Every winding street leads to another breathtaking revelation - church, square or house - generally to the accompaniment of live classical music played by today's prodigies.

A three-night stay at the old townhouse Auesperg Hotel in Salzburg, with flights from London and regional airports via Frankfurt or Munich, transfers, buffet breakfast and local taxes costs £521 per person, based on two sharing, from Kirker Travel (0870-112 3333; www.kirkerholidays.com).

5 Chartres Cathedral

The 12th-century cathedral, a masterpiece of medieval art, became one of the first of the 788 World Heritage Sites, in 1979. Built in 1145 to house a relic, the tunic of the Virgin Mary, and rebuilt over 26 years after a catastrophic fire in 1194 the cathedral is most famous for the glowing stained glass that records in detail both secular and religious scenes. While some of the scenes carry strong messages, others are cheerful and irreverent views of daily life, the lush reds and blues rendering glorious the daily grind. The three rose windows represent the life of the Virgin Mary, the Last Judgement and the Apocalypse, and in all there are 5,000 figures in glass and 4,000 in stone, including 200 statues in the exceptionally wide choir. A labyrinthine nave floor shows the paths of good and evil, with Paradise at its centre. Flying buttresses and spires contribute to the building's impression of soaring to the heavens above the plain of Beauce.

From 1 November, Bridge Travel (0870-191 7140; www.bridgetravel.co.uk) offers three nights for the price of two at the 12th-century Abbaye des Vaux de Cernay in its own 160-acre estate about 40 minutes' drive from Chartres and Paris. Channel crossings from Dover to Calais for two adults and a car, and three nights' room and breakfast costs £169 per person based on two sharing; half board is available for an additional £38 per person, per night.

6 Butrint, Albania

Butrint, in the highlands in the far south of Albania, was the site of a Greek colony and then a Roman city. Now surrounded by dense vegetation, it was abandoned in the late Middle Ages and all but forgotten for 500 years before excavations began at the start of the 20th century. The present archaeological site, on a wooded plateau surrounded by water, is a repository of ruins representing each period in the city's development, including fortifications that date from the 6th century BC and an amphitheatre from the 3rd century BC which would have held an audience of 1,500 and two Greek temples, while the hill on which the acropolis stands is encircled by a wall built of huge stone blocks.

Butrint is less than 10km from the island of Corfu. CV Travel (020-7591 2833; www.cvtravel.net) can arrange a day trip to Butrint as part of a package in Corfu, with excursions priced at £42 per person, including transfers and guide at the ruins. It offers a week's stay at a villa in Mimosa on Corfu for £570 per person, based on two sharing, including flights from Gatwick and transfers.

7 Fossil mammal sites, Australia

Situated in the north and south respectively of eastern Australia, the fossil mammals of Riversleigh and Naracoorte, preserved in limestone, are described by Unesco as "among the world's 10 greatest fossil sites and a superb illustration of the key stages of evolution of Australia's unique fauna". The Riversleigh section, which covers 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres), is in Boodjamulla National Park in north-west Queensland and includes fossils that date back 15-25 million years. Naracoorte, in south Australia, covers 600 ha and features a series of caves which are believed to have acted as pit-fall traps for animals dating back 400,000 years. Fossils feature several pre-historic "megafauna", including a giant Tasmanian Devil, giant kangaroos, a giant python, a giant wallaby and a marsupial lion.

Both sites require long drives on unsealed roads. Trailfinders (020-7938 3939; www.trailfinders.com) offers return flights and 14 days' four-wheel drive car hire from £1,387 per person, including flights from 1 November to 9 December. This includes flights with Qantas from London, via Singapore and Cairns, to Townsville (for Riversleigh), onward flights to Adelaide (for Naracoorte) and back to London.

8 Tikal National Park, Guatemala

One of the major sites of Mayan civilisation, the ruined city of Tikal lies in the heart of the jungle in north-eastern Guatemala, surrounded by lush vegetation and swamps. Inhabited from the 6th century BC, Tikal was home to an elaborate religious, artistic and scientific culture that collapsed in the late 9th century. In all, the city has more than 3,000 buildings, including towering pyramids, residences, religious monuments decorated with hieroglyphic inscriptions and tombs. The ceremonial centre contains superb temples and palaces, and public squares accessed by ramps. Remains of dwellings are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside, which is also home to howler monkeys, toucans and jaguars.

Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers fares from £450 to Guatemala City and internal return flights of £70 to Flores, the town nearest the ruins. Accommodation at the ruins costs around £30 per person per night.

9 Darjeeling Himalayan railway

Arguably the world's most romantic toy train, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway climbs from the plains of West Bengal near New Siliguri to the hill station of Darjeeling, perched 2,100m in the foothills of the Himalaya. A taxi will do the trip in under three hours but the train, prettily painted in blue, takes around nine hours, and is an atmospheric step back into the puff-puff days of steam. The railway opened in 1881, to take the British away from the withering heat of the Indian summer. It's a dramatic feat of engineering, with a narrow, two-foot gauge rail line guiding the stout engine and three carriages indefatigably up the mountainside. Zig-zags and stops for the engine to take on water, which enable passengers to drink in the spectacular views, are frequent.

Audley Travel (01869 276218; www.audleytravel.com) offers a tailor-made seven-night holiday travelling through Calcutta and Darjeeling, including a trip on the Himalayan Mountain Train, from £1,995 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, guides and accommodation.

10 Tadrart Acacus rock art sites

The Tadrart Acacus massif, on the borders of Algeria, is the location for thousands of cave paintings dating from 12,000BC to AD100. They are a magnet for archaeologists and pioneering tourists who have begun to venture into Libya. The paintings reflect the changes in the environment of this region of the Sahara over the past 14,000 years, from a lush landscape to the desert of today. They also track the parallel population and empire shifts that took place, from hunter gathers to Neolithic communities. Outline engravings of what was once savannah include elephants, rhinoceroses and giraffes. There are several pre-Christian religious paintings, while the human images are striking and graceful, with highly stylised men and women in what are thought to be ceremonial clothes.

Visa red tape means that small group tours are the only realistic option for travel to Libya. Worlds Apart Travel (01242 226578; www.worldsaparttravel.co.uk) offers trips ranging from £900 per person, based on two sharing, for an eight-day "highlights" tour to £1,500 for a two-week trip taking in Libya's southern deserts and the rock art of Tadrart Acacus, using direct flights to Tripoli on British Airways.

WHAT ARE WORLD HERITAGE SITES?

The Taj Mahal and Great Wall of China are perhaps the most iconic world heritage monuments but they are just two of 788 man-made or natural sites inscribed by Unesco, the cultural wing of the United Nations. Britain has 26 sites, including Hadrian's Wall and the city of Bath. Others include Machu Picchu in Peru, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Statue of Liberty, along with the landscape around the ill-fated Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Sites don't have to be photogenic, though many are, such as the Ilulissat ice fjord in Greenland, which earlier this year became the first truly Arctic site to be given world heritage status. But they must possess what the UN describes as "outstanding value to humanity". For a building, this importance could be historical, aesthetic or anthropological. For a natural location, the value can be a geological formation or a habitat for threatened species.

What are the benefits? The protective arm of the UN's Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage requires nations to conserve and manage the sites. For poorer nations, Unesco makes available a general pot of $3m each year for conservation projects. The associated prestige also frequently results in an increase in tourism and external funding.

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