Top European UNESCO Sites to Add to Your Travel Plans
We have gathered some of our favorite southern European attractions from the UNESCO World Heritage List (there are over 1,000 sites worldwide!) so you can be sure to add a meaningful dose of culture to your next trip.
In case you’re not familiar with UNESCO, it stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and was founded in 1946. Its mission is to “encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity”. To further this goal, they work to find and recognize specific sites around the world that are important to our globe for reasons of cultural or natural history.
Every year, around 25 global sites deemed to possess "outstanding universal value" are added to UNESCO's World Heritage list. The original list (released in 1978) included 12 entries, and today there are more than 1,000 UNESCO-designated sites to visit all over the world. That’s a lot of ground to cover for the curious traveler! Would you guess that Europe has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other continent? Many of these sites are easily accessible and located in cities you may have already visited, but we bet there may be a few you haven’t heard about yet.
Below is a useful checklist of some of southern Europe and the Mediterranean’s best cultural and natural spots. But you don’t have to take our word for it – all of these places are UNESCO-approved! Which ones have you seen?
Certainly the highlight of Split, this unique palace built by Roman emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century, is considered one of the best-preserved Roman palaces in the world. Resting in a spectacular bay along the Dalmatian Coast, the walls of its remains are surrounded by Split’s historical center.
Inscribed to the World Heritage list in 1979, the natural wonders of the Plitvice Lakes have been in the making for thousands of years. This mesmerizing national park is a series of travertine lakes, waterfalls and caves, along with a collection of wildlife such as bears, wolves and rare species of birds.
View our Croatia program here.
Once the location of the Papal seat in the 14th century, today this city is an intriguing blend of modern and medieval. The must-see sites on UNESCO’s register are the Papal Palace, the Episcopal Ensemble, and the remains of Avignon’s 12th-century arched stone bridge.
This massive complex in France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region is one of the most remarkable examples of a medieval fortified city. You get a sense of medieval life as you walk the small streets of this preserved town containing a castle with a drawbridge, numerous watchtowers, and an impressive Gothic cathedral.
An incredibly charming city on a small island off the Normandy coast, where you will find an abbey perched at the top of the central hill, and a view that stretches over miles of marshland. There are even restaurants, hotels, shops, and homes in this tiny town, but go early as the quaint winding streets can get crowded.
If this famous river valley had an icon, it would be the château. A lush and fertile river valley dotted with impressive castles of all sizes, this site was chosen for its architectural importance to France and all of Western Europe.
The exquisite Palace of Versailles, along with its superbly manicured gardens, was the primary headquarters of the French royals during the reigns of Louis XIV and his grandson Louis XVI, until after the start of the French Revolution. Today the surrounding area is a wealthy suburb of Paris, and the grand palace stands as a symbol of absolute privilege and monarchy.
View our France programs here.
The world’s most intact example of a classical complex from Greek Antiquity, the series of architectural masterpieces comprising the Acropolis in Athens lets you get a glimpse of how the ancient Greeks had such an impact on global society. Dating back to the 5th century, these monuments - including the Parthenon and a temple to Athena - have miraculously withstood 25 centuries of natural and human threats.
The religious epicenter of the Hellenistic world in the 6th century, this sanctuary is where the ancient Greeks consulted the great Oracle for all manner of events. You can see how the remains of Apollo’s temple, the theater, and the stadium still blend with the superb rolling landscape that encircles the site. There is also an archaeological museum filled with many artifacts from the excavations. threats.
With a fusion of Christian, Turkish, and Italian influence, the Old Town of Rhodes combines Gothic architecture with mosques and public baths from the Ottoman period. Notable sights in this UNESCO city include the Palace of the Grand Masters, the Great Hospital, and the Street of the Knights.
An immensely moving display of nature’s grandeur in connection with man’s ageless endeavors to connect with the divine, the monasteries at Meteora were constructed with much determination. Dating back to the 11th century, there are six of these miraculous monasteries remaining perched atop the rocky monoliths.
Greek legend had it that Apollo and Artemis were born on this small and rocky Cycladic island, which received a large number of pilgrims and traders at its thriving port.
View our Greece programs here.
This former major maritime power with over 118 small islands, canal-ways, historical architecture and magical atmosphere. There is an overwhelming collection of artistic masterpieces here, and the city absolutely oozes with mesmerizing details from a bygone age.
The historic town center of San Gimignano, nestled in the Tuscan landscape, is still characterized by the remaining impressive tower-houses built by the powerful and wealthy families who used to reside there.
This archetypal medieval city was devised on three hills in the Tuscan countryside. The World Heritage Site includes the tower and adjacent Piazza del Campo, where you can find a singular Gothic style at work.
Most famous as the birthplace of Saint Francis, patron saint of animals and the environment, this central Italian town perched on a hill is also hosts a serious collection of medieval art masterpieces.
Under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius in the province of Naples, the two ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are being excavated to uncover the historical and cultural stories found in the villas preserved by the volcanic eruption in AD 79.
In the unique scenery spread across these five gorgeous cliffside towns, there is a first-rate photo opportunity waiting around every corner reaching down to the Ligurian Sea.
Tivoli, a hilltown near Rome, boasts two historical villas and registered UNESCO sites. The Villa d’Este is a stunning Renaissance palace and garden that really defines the Italian garden of the 16th century. The Villa Adriana, from emperor Hadrian, was designed in the 2nd century AD to embody the ideal city.
View our Italy programs here.
An important artistic and commercial center in the Middle Ages, this cozy Eastern European gem is purely picturesque, with a mix of surprising architecture and history that seamlessly blends into the majestic natural surroundings of mountain and bay.
View our Montenegro program here.
The city of Evora in central Portugal is an open-air museum with a history dating back to the Romans. In the 15th century, it became the home of Portuguese kings, and it features stunning whitewashed buildings with typical Portuguese tiles, alongside Roman artifacts.
Walking around Sintra is like stepping into a fairytale landscape with fine castles, dwellings and parks. Among the fantastic buildings in close proximity, you will find Gothic, Egyptian, Moorish, and Renaissance architecture.
Also known as the Hieronymites Monastery, this stunningly intricate and soaring building took 100 years to build. At the entrance to Lisbon’s port, it sits near another UNESCO must-see, the Belem Tower built in memory of the Age of Discoveries.
View our Portugal program here.
Following the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th century, Cordoba was built up and enhanced to compete with the magnificence of Muslim centers such as Constantinople, Damascus, and Baghdad. The Great Mosque, later turned into a cathedral, is the primary example of the dazzling city transformation.
The palace and fortress complex of the Alhambra is considered by some to be one of the greatest historic monuments of our time. An enchanted place, it is resplendent example of medieval and Moorish architecture.
You can’t visit Barcelona without encountering the colorful modernist masterpieces of its most famous architect, Antoni Gaudi. There are 7 properties listed on UNESCO’s register, and these quirky buildings (including the Sagrada Familia Basilica, Parc Guell, and Casa Batllo) are now inseparable from the city’s culture and heritage.
Las Médulas is an other-worldly assembly of sheer red-earthed rock faces and pointed spires among the mountains in northwestern Spain. This bizarre and beautiful scenery is a side effect of Roman goldmining techniques dating back to the first century AD.
View our Spain programs here.
If you think the Acropolis in Athens is impressive, you’ll also love Ephesus’s excavated and renovated structures, dating back to ancient Hellenistic and Roman settlements. It was in this Mediterranean port city that the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the World) once stood, as well as the Library of Celsus, and the House of the Virgin Mary.
“Göreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia” is another foreign landscape we love on UNESCO’s list. You must try an extraordinary hot air balloon ride in the early morning hours as the sun begins to creep over the surreal terrain, dotted with pointy spires (fairy chimneys) and dwellings cut into rock. In Göreme National Park, you walk around a site of cave dwellings that were once inhabited by Christians retreating from Rome. Here there are rock churches with preserved paintings important to Christianity.
View our Turkey programs here.
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