Most likely, you have been to a UNESCO World Heritage site in the United States without knowing it. Remember that Griswoldian summer vacation to the Grand Canyon? The high school field trip to Independence Hall in Philadelphia? The college tour of the University of Virginia? Congratulations! That's three in your pocket. But don't stop now; you can collect all 24.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which was founded a year after the end of World War II, has many anniversaries. This year is a big one: On Nov. 16, 1972, the World Heritage Convention established the master plan for its mission to preserve, protect and promote the world's most valuable natural and cultural sites.
"This anniversary is important because it gives us the opportunity to take stock of all that has been achieved in the past 50 years. It lets us see what has been successful with the convention and what has not been successful," Lazare Eloundou Assomo, director of the UNESCO World Heritage Center, said from the organization's Paris office.
Since 1978, when UNESCO anointed its first dozen, 1,154 attractions in 167 countries have earned the distinction. Of those, 897 are cultural, 218 are natural and 39 are a hybrid of both categories. Italy boasts the most with 58, and several countries claim one, such as Fiji, Mozambique and the United Arab Emirates. The United States is in the middle of the pack.
"What still remains challenging is that the World Heritage list remains imbalanced. It does not represent the diversity of all the regions in the world," Assomo said. "Almost 50% of the sites are located in Europe and North America. This imbalance needs to be addressed in the future, like in Africa and the Arab states."
The United States supported the World Heritage Convention in its development and adoption a half-century ago and was one of 194 countries that ratified the treaty. However, the relationship has frayed over the years. In 2011, President Barack Obama's administration stopped contributing payments after the organization admitted the Palestinian territories. In 2017, President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from UNESCO. Two years later, the country severed ties, but not fully: As an original signer, the United States maintains its state party status. This means that it can still nominate new sites and that U.S. landmarks can keep their World Heritage status.
The current administration has taken small steps toward restoring the relationship. According to a State Department spokesman, the agency is working with Congress to rejoin UNESCO and once again play a prominent role in safeguarding the world's irreplaceable treasures.
On this golden anniversary, the best gift you can give is to go. Here are UNESCO sites surprisingly close to home.
Statue of Liberty
Est. 1984; New York
Why it's UNESCO-worthy: Lady Liberty has been greeting newcomers at the entrance of New York Harbor since 1886. However, the Statue of Liberty is more than just a symbol of freedom; she's also a work of art by French sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and engineer Gustave Eiffel. UNESCO describes the landmark as a "masterpiece of the human spirit."
How to reach it: Catch the ferry from Battery Park in lower Manhattan or Liberty State Park in Jersey City.
Best time to visit: The first boat out on weekdays, to avoid the mash of crowds.
Insider tip: To get your steps in (377, to be exact), climb up to Lady Liberty's crown, which reopened in October after being closed for more than two years because of the pandemic.
20th-century architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright
Est. 2019; New York City, Pennsylvania
Why it's UNESCO-worthy: Frank Lloyd Wright, the father of the Prairie Style, permanently altered the architectural landscape with his then-outrageous ideas, which included the open plan; the integration of materials such as steel and concrete; and the blending of the outdoors and indoors. The eight structures represent a highlights reel of his portfolio and showcase his mastery in nearly every sector of life, from art (Guggenheim Museum) to religion (Unity Temple) to domestic bliss (Fallingwater, Frederick C. Robie House, Hollyhock House, Herbert and Katherine Jacobs House). Taliesin and Taliesin West, his homes and studios in Wisconsin and Arizona, respectively, are microcosms of modern designs.
How to reach it: The eight structures are scattered around the country, in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and in Mill Run, Pennsylvania.
Best time to visit: There is no wrong time; only Wright time. However, because the buildings are primarily inside, visit during inclement weather. This way, you can be steeped in nature without getting cold, wet or overheated.
Insider tip: Don't stop at eight. The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail features 13 architectural sites in Illinois, including the two UNESCO sites. Wisconsin's FLW route has nine, with Taliesin as one of the UNESCO-certified stops.
Est. 1979; Pennsylvania
Why it's UNESCO-worthy: The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were debated, adopted and signed at Independence Hall, setting in ink the founding principles of the new republic.
How to reach it: The Georgian-style building resides in Center City Philadelphia and is accessible by car, bus or public transportation.
Best time to visit: January and February, when tickets are not required, or on federal holidays that push your patriotic buttons.
Insider tip: The original Rising Sun chair is off limits to everyone but the ghost of George Washington. However, visitors can preside over an imaginary Constitutional Convention in a replica chair at the Independence Visitor Center in Independence National Historical Park.