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The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization — better known as UNESCO — designates World Heritage Sites around the globe in an attempt to preserve some of the world's most important natural and cultural landmarks. From Machu Picchu in Peru to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, UNESCO World Heritage Sites always have something incredible to offer. Some countries are home to numerous sites, while others boast only a few standouts. But if you're traveling in Canada, you have 20 incredible historical and natural sites to choose from. Narrowing down the list can be tough, but here are four that you need to visit at least once in your life.
Old Town Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
Designated a World Heritage Site in 1995, Old Town Lunenburg is perfect for history lovers. Home to North America's most intact example of a British colonial settlement, Lunenburg dates all the way back to 1753. Incredibly, it has remained relatively unchanged over the past few centuries, despite being a functional, occupied town. In fact, about 70% of the buildings in Old Town Lunenburg are originals, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
When you arrive in this small waterfront town, the first things you'll notice are the vivid, multicolored building facades. To learn more about the history of this World Heritage Site, you can book a walking tour with an eighth-generation resident of the town. As you walk, you may spot a familiar boat — the Bluenose II, an exact replica of the original Bluenose, which is featured on the Canadian 10-cent coin and became famous for racing undefeated in the International Fisherman's Cup in the 1930s. When in port, the Bluenose II offers free deck tours to any interested visitors, and if you stay on board, you'll also get a tour of the harbor.
If you're looking to get an even more in-depth experience of this historic town, be sure to check out Lunenburg Distilled. Participants in this tour will be treated to unique rum-running stories, visit the only floating rum warehouse in the world, and get a seafood dinner with traditional Lunenburg dishes.
Banff National Park, Alberta
Part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks World Heritage Site, Banff National Park is known around the world for its striking landscape and incredibly well-preserved fossils. Canada's first national park, Banff features stunning mountain views, vibrant lakes, and an idyllic village nestled in the mountainside.
To start off on a relaxing note, visit the Banff hot springs. The best time to visit these springs is in winter, when you can enjoy snowy mountain views from the comfort of the warm water. If you're traveling at other times of the year, the hot springs are particularly enjoyable at dawn or dusk, when the air is cool and crisp and the sky is full of stars.
In addition to the incredible hiking, skiing, and camping opportunities in Banff, there are a number of museums and historical sites to enjoy. Don't miss the Banff Park Museum, which features displays of the diverse animal and plant life that can be found within the park. Housed in a log cabin that dates all the way back to 1903, this is western Canada's oldest museum of natural history. To learn more about the First Nations groups that have lived in the Banff area for centuries, visit the Buffalo Nations Luxton Museum. With examples of ceremonial pieces, traditional clothing, and artwork, this museum is dedicated to educating visitors about the original inhabitants of this beautiful area.
Old Québec City, Québec
The charming French Canadian city of Québec is over 400 years old, and is the only fortified city north of Mexico. In fact, UNESCO lists it as one of the best-preserved examples of a fortified colonial city. While you're in town, you'll want stop at the Fairmont Château Frontenac, which towers over the old town above the banks of the St. Lawrence River and claims to be the most photographed hotel in the world. The hotel opened in 1893 to encourage people to take a luxury train ride to visit the once-secluded area, and since then, Château Frontenac has housed a wide range of celebrities, including Grace Kelly, Charlie Chaplin, and Céline Dion.
Another must-see in Old Québec is the Petit-Champlain district and Place Royale. Dating back to 1608, this is the site of North America's first French settlement. It is also home to the oldest stone church in North America, the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. Strolling through the Petit-Champlain district, you'll feel like you've just stepped into a fairy-tale — the quaint cobblestone streets and unique local boutiques only add to the charm.
Áísínai'pi (Writing-on-Stone), Alberta
Designated a World Heritage Site in 2019, Áísínai'pi in southern Alberta is the most recent addition to Canada's collection of UNESCO-recognized landmarks. In the Blackfoot language, Áísínai'pi translates roughly to "it is written" — an appropriate name for the sandstone cliffs that feature artwork dating as far back as 1050 BCE. The majority of this ancient artwork can be attributed to the Siksikaitsitapi, or Blackfoot Nation, although some of it may also be the work of other Indigenous groups who traveled through the area. Human beings, horses, deer, sheep, and elk are a few of the most commonly featured subjects of this rock art.
Áísínai'pi is a sacred place for Blackfoot Nation. For centuries, this group has been performing ceremonies in the area to keep ancient traditions alive and to uphold the appropriate level of respect for such an important place. In addition to the ancient engravings and artwork found on the cliffs in this area, the landscape around Áísínai'pi is incredibly striking. It contains a number of hoodoos — tall pillars of rocks that have been sculpted into unique shapes through the process of erosion. The beautiful landscape combined with the awe-inspiring ancient artwork make Áísínai'pi a spot that should definitely not be missed.