The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) is a division of the UN that selects places worthy of its high-profile World Heritage Site designation based on “special cultural or physical significance". It is a high honour, but also a varied one, with heritage sites ranging from historic city centres to dramatic waterfalls and glaciers to manmade wonders such as the Taj Mahal and Pyramids of Giza. There are just over 1,000 listed sites in more than 150 countries, but only a small subset combine experiencing these unique places with world-class luxury lodging. Here are five of the best such destinations:

Old Vienna, Austria

The historic city centre became a World Heritage Site in 2001, but more significantly, next year will be the 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse. The former city walls were torn down in 1865 and replaced by the famous “Ring Street" that circles the historic core and clearly defines the Old City. Within the Ringstrasse lie one of the world’s greatest museums, the vast Kunsthistorisches, the sprawling Hofburg Palace complex, and Austria’s grandest cathedral, Stephansdom. All these top sites, along with the Spanish Riding School, home of the world-renowned Lipizzaner Stallions, and the city’s best shops and restaurants, are connected by one of Europe’s most extensive series of pedestrianized boulevards and streets. This blissfully car-free zone links just about every must-do in Vienna, and was just expanded to include the new Golden District around Am Hof square, home to the city’s finest boutiques and just one hotel, the brand new (June 2014) Park Hyatt Vienna, converted from an opulent century old bank—there’s now a luxurious swimming pool in the former vault. The Park Hyatt has much larger than average rooms with all the luxe bells and whistles, a full-service spa, several bars and restaurants, all with an unbeatable location within walking distance of just about everything.

Photo: Belmond

Few “Bucket List" destinations rival the appeal of this Lost City of the Incas—in 2007, an international vote named it one of the 7 New Wonders of the World and it is one of the earlier Unesco sites, since 1983. Amazingly and unbelievably built from massive stones atop a high jagged peak in the Andes, 2,430 metres above sea level, the elaborate city was abandoned in the 16thcentury, and rediscovered in 1911. Ever since, it has been one of the world’s top must-see sites, but the majority of visitors to Machu Picchu have a mass-produced commercial experience, staying in the nearby town of Aguas Calientes and ascending to the historic site by packed tourist buses, arriving after the dramatic sunrise and departing before the equally enthralling sunset. There is only one way to get the full VIP experience here, and that is by staying in the sole hotel at the Peruvian National Park, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, a Belmond (formerly Orient-Express) property with just 29 rooms and two suites. There is a spa, two restaurants, bar, well-appointed rooms and staff guides, but the best thing about staying here is immediate access to the ruins, just steps away, in early morning, for sunrise, before anyone else arrives, with the same experience in the late afternoon and evening. If you have ever wondered how they take postcard photos of the site while completely empty, staying here will provide an explanation.

Yellowstone National Park, US

The Yellowstone National Park.

There are surprisingly few Unesco sites in the US, and almost all of them are in protected parks, but none more famous than Yellowstone, the world’s first National Park (1872). A huge attraction worldwide, Yellowstone sprawls across three states, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, covering nearly 9,000 square kilometres, and is best known for its geysers, especially Old Faithful, high altitude volcanic lakes, and abundant wildlife, mainly grizzly bears, bison and wolves. The best place to stay within the park is the Old Faithful Lodge, itself a National Historic Site, built in 1903 and the largest log structure in the nation. Guest rooms overlook the famous geyser that erupts every 91 minutes, shooting superheated water and mist up to 50 metres into the sky. The Inn has 327 rooms and suites, is only open May-October, and is extremely popular—reservations should be made a year in advance. There are several other options in the park, including the nearby Old Faithful Lodge Cabins, Lake Yellowstone Hotel and Cabins, Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel and Cabins, the huge 500-room Canyon Lodge and Cabins, and the year-round Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the newest Yellowstone hotel.

The Ritz-Carlton in Kyoto.

The charming city of Kyoto is so rife with important ancient monuments that Unesco just lumped them altogether and designated much of the city and surrounding region, including 13 Buddhist temples, three Shinto shrines, a castle, and nearly 40 buildings the Japanese government has designated as national treasures—a quarter of the nation’stotal. Kyoto is the most visited tourist spot in the country besides Tokyo and, in addition to these amazing sites, it is one of Japan’s top culinary destinations, famed for its elaborate, delicate, multi-course kaiseki meals. But the one thing long missing in the city was a top-tier luxury hotel, a void that was filled when the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto opened earlier this year. Its design carefully fits the city’s aesthetic and the hotel has many water features, including a four-storey waterfall, the swimming pool is flanked by a zen garden, several suites have private outdoor zen gardens, and it contains a fine dining kaiseki restaurant, a branch of famed Parisian pastry chef Pierre Hermes’s shop, and an outpost of luxury spa brand ESPA. There are just 134 rooms and suites and the riverside Ritz-Carlton is within easy walking distance of the most important temples and shrines.

Venice and its lagoons, Italy

From the Coliseum of Rome to the volcanic ruins of Pompeii to the Cliffside towns of the Cinque Terre, Italy is home to more Unesco sites than any other country. But few are as impressive as the entire city of Venice, full of architectural marvels, amazing art and simply one of the most desirable and romantic destinations on earth. As Unseco explains, “The whole city is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists such as Giorgione, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese and others." Built on 118 islands, Venice is also home to many luxury hotels, but to really appreciate the city’s wonder, a stay on one of the islands in the lagoon, rather than along the busy Grand Canal, should be considered. The top choice is easily the world famous Hotel Cipriani, on Giudecca Island, just across from St. Marks’ Square, with guests shuttled back and forth via the hotel’s gorgeous mahogany motor launches. Both an escapist enclave and a convenient spot from which to explore Venice, this grand hotel has beautiful rooms, extensive gardens, a full spa and three restaurants, including the floating Cip’s Club where you literally eat on the water. Routinely named one of the world’s top hotels, the Cipriani also offers a slate of “only in Venice" custom experiences, from guided kayaking on the canals to private shopping tours and guided walks to the city’s many famous film sites, as Venice has been a set for everyone from James Bond to Fellini to Woody Allen.

Larry Olmsted is a golf and travel writer, and a columnist for Forbes and USA Today.

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