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New wonders of the world

UNESCO / Heiko Oehme

Complete with paintings and intricate carvings, the 500-seat Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, Germany was designed by architect Giuseppe Galli Bibiena.

Germany’s Bayreuth Opera House isn’t exactly a household name, but you’ll be hearing more about it and for good reason. This opulent 18th-century theater has been singled out by UNESCO — and will host events celebrating the 200th birthday of composer Richard Wagner in 2013.

Every summer, UNESCO names new cultural and natural wonders to its World Heritage List for their outstanding universal value. It’s a way to raise awareness of the preservation of places important to mankind, but also drives tourism and brings fascinating places to the attention of travelers wondering where to go next. This year’s crop of new wonders — some obscure, some already famous — spans the globe and suggests the range of human experience and achievement.

Slideshow: See where the new wonders of the world are

Among the wonders added in 2012, the Rock Islands Southern Lagoon in Palau delivers both a unique natural topography and the cultural legacy of stoneworking villages abandoned in the 17th and 18th centuries due to climate change. Lovely painted farmhouses in the Swedish countryside testify to the skill of folk artists, while nearly 200 species have been identified from fossils in China’s Yunnan province. Taken together, these wonders provide a visceral connection to the past and remind us of mankind’s shared history.

This is especially true for countries that can seem inscrutable or challenging to visit. Iran, for instance, claims two of the new wonders on UNESCO’s list. Jerry Dekker, of Irantraveler.net, believes Americans should look beyond political hyperbole to explore the country for themselves. Of the Masjed-e Ja-mé mosque in Isfahan, Dekker says: “What makes the place so unique is that not only can one have a visual experience of learning architectural history but one can also absorb the real power that lies behind Islamic architecture."

Some wonders stimulate the senses in other ways. Case in point: Rio de Janeiro’s gorgeous cityscape of sultry beaches and forest punctuated by the world’s largest Art Deco statue: Christ the Redeemer atop Corcovado. The UNESCO designation of Rio's Carioca Landscapes is timely, with both the Olympics and the World Cup coming soon to Rio. Yet it is also timeless: the site made the World Heritage list in large part because of the long-standing human settlements in the region along with Rio's cultural influence on Brazilian artists and musicians.

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