A UNESCO World Heritage Site can be defined as “a place like a building, monument, national park, desert or city that is listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) because of its special physical or cultural significance.”
Currently, there are 1,092 sites on a list made up of 845 cultural, 209 natural and 38 mixed properties throughout 167 countries. The Great Wall of China, Grand Canyon, Great Barrier Reef and the Pyramids are among the best-known World Heritage Sites, but what follows is a journey around Europe to visit some of the lesser-known attractions.
Hadrian’s Wall – ENGLAND
One of the ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’, Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage Site of epic proportions. Marching 73 miles from the Irish Sea to the North Sea, it extends across some of the wildest and most dramatic country in northern England.
Built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian between AD 122-128 it is a striking example of the defensive fortification from ancient Rome. A feat of ancient engineering, the manpower required to construct it was three legions (around 16,000 men).
There are 80 milecastles, 160 turrets and 16 forts dotted along its length, with the best preserved example being Housesteads Roman Fort, near Haltwhistle.
A great way to experience this landmark up close is to walk the designated 84-mile Hadrian’s Wall Path. If you don’t have the time to do the full route, it can be done in sections.
Alto Douro Wine Region – PORTUGAL
Known for its depth of flavour and majestic structure, port-wine is produced from grapes grown on the steep, rocky slopes of Northern Portugal’s Upper Douro and its tributaries.
The drink was discovered during the 17th century when two British traders added brandy to preserve the local wine for an Atlantic sea voyage. Vines have been grown on these remote hillsides since pre-Roman times, planted on tiers of walled terraces, the product of centuries of toil and sweat.
The River Douro is always present, as it snakes its way past abstract patterns of rust-coloured vines that march up the dizzyingly steep valley sides. Driving through this World Heritage region, especially around harvest time, is pure pleasure, with each vista better than the last.
Specks of colourfully clad pickers carrying baskets dot the hillsides, heady sweet aromas fill the air and every second vehicle seems to be a tractor pulling a trailer load of precious fruit, destined to be made into port.
Cornwall & West Devon Mining Landscapes – ENGLAND
During the 18th and early 19th centuries many parts of Cornwall and West Devon were transformed into mining landscapes due to the rapid growth of tin and copper mining techniques, and the substantial remains of deep underground mines, engine houses and foundries are testimony to the region’s contribution to the world of mining and the Industrial Revolution.
Ten areas make up the World Heritage Site, and one of the best is Cornwall’s St Just Mining district which can be accessed via the South West Coast Path near the village of St Just. Here, the coastal track skirts past the picturesque engine houses of the Crowns Shaft of Botallack Mine perched far below on a rocky outcrop.
The workings once stretched well under the sea and it was said that the miners could hear the boulders rumbling over the seabed above their heads while they worked.
Museumsinsel (Museum Island) – GERMANY
Museum lovers visiting Berlin should cross the Spree River over the Monbijou Bridge to Museumsinsel (Museum Island), a World Heritage Site that is home to an unparalleled ensemble of five museums, each built between 1830 and 1930.
The Altes Museum (Old Museum) features the art and culture of the Greeks, Etruscans and Romans; the Bode Museum’s main focus is medieval sculptures and Byzantine art; the Neues Museum (New Museum) has collections of Egyptian art, prehistoric objects and classical antiquities and the Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) showcases works by 19th century impressionists such as Monet, Degas and Manet.
Visitors to the final museum of the complex, the Pergamonmuseum, can marvel at huge, historically significant reconstructed buildings such as the Pergamon Altar and Ishtar Gate of Babylon. You may be tempted to try and cover all the museums in one go, but its worth remembering that each one is worth a few hours at least.
Giant’s Causeway & Causeway Coast – NORTHERN IRELAND
Legend has it, that Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site – the spectacular Giant’s Causeway, made up of thousands of hexagonal pillars that climb out of the Atlantic Ocean – was created by Finn MacCool, an Irish giant that lived along the Antrim Coast.
The scientific reason behind its formation may not be as romantic, but every bit as impressive. About 60 million years ago there was intense volcanic activity along the coast, after which the lava cooled very quickly. The uneven cooling rate resulted in the basalt contracting into the characteristic hexagonal and octagonal pillar shapes that are seen today.
The Giant’s Causeway may be the star of the Causeway Coast, but other attractions include the stunning Carrick-a-Rede swinging rope bridge that spans a gaping chasm between the coast and a small island. The haunting ruins of the 16th-century Dunluce Castle are perched precariously on the edge of a rocky headland, while Old Bushmills (established in 1608) – the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world – is nearby.
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Saltaire – ENGLAND
Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001, Saltaire (situated 9 miles west of Leeds and 4 miles north of Bradford), was recognised as one the world’s best-preserved 19th-century industrial villages, and for its international influence on town planning.
Conceived and built in 1851 by wealthy wool merchant and philanthropist Sir Titus Salt (1803-76), Saltaire’s textile mills, public buildings and workers’ housing are constructed in a harmonious classical style of high architectural standards.
Neat rows of honey-coloured cottages on a hillside above the River Aire and Leeds Liverpool Canal overlook what was once the world’s largest factory, Salts Mill. Housed inside this splendid building is a permanent exhibition of art work by Bradford-born artist David Hockney, plus an enticing array of independent shops, cafés and restaurants.
West Norwegian Fjords – NORWAY
On the outskirts of Bergen, a beautiful city with a 15th-century waterfront on Norway’s west coast, you’ll find some of Europe’s most spectacular scenery. The steep-sided fjords with their jutting fingers of sea cut shimmering paths into the coastline.
Two of these larger-than-life natural wonders, namely Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord (set 120 km from one another) are among the world’s longest, deepest and most scenically outstanding examples and were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.
Both feature narrow crystalline rock walls that rise 1,400 metres from the Norwegian Sea, while extending another 500 metres below the surface. Numerous waterfalls tumble into the sea from the forests above, while wooden huts and small farms dot the lower verdant slopes.
To really appreciate Geirangerfjord, take Norway’s most spectacular scheduled public ferry route between Geiranger and Hellesylt. For a taste of the fjords, book a ‘Norway in a Nutshell’ one-day tour from Bergen with Fjord Tours.
Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal – ENGLAND
No northern England itinerary would be complete without a visit to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, two of Yorkshire’s most beautiful attractions. Nestled in a secluded wooded valley known as Skelldale, about 4 miles south-west of Ripon, are the atmospheric ruins of 12th-century Fountains Abbey.
The remains of Britain’s largest and most complete Cistercian abbey is the centrepiece of the estate know as Studley Royal, a beautifully preserved 18th-century designed parkland landscape featuring spectacular Georgian water gardens, elegant temples, statues, follies and a deer park; home to Red, Fallow and Sika deer that roam freely among ancient oaks, limes and sweet chestnuts.
Historical centre of Florence – ITALY
Travellers from all over flock to the great Italian city of Florence (Firenze), famous for its Renaissance architecture, the paintings of Botticelli, the sculpture of Michelangelo and the genius of Leonardo da Vinci.
There is so much to see and do in this World Heritage city but some of the major sites include the Piazza della Signoria (the old heart of the city), the Gothic Duomo (one of the world’s largest cathedrals with its inspired red-tiled dome), the Uffizi Gallery (home to the planet’s greatest collection of Italian Renaissance art), and the 14th-century Ponte Vecchio bridge spanning the Arno River (originally flanked with butchers’ shops and today replaced with goldsmiths).
For panoramic views of the city, climb a series of steep steps to the Piazzale Michelangelo from the southern bank of the Arno River. To avoid the crowds try to visit Florence out of season with the added bonus of shorter lines at museums and key attractions.
Stonehenge & Avebury – ENGLAND
Attracting pilgrims, mystics and travellers for the past 5,000 years, Britain’s most iconic prehistoric monument, Stonehenge (situated 8 miles north of Salisbury in Wiltshire) is the most architecturally sophisticated stone circle in the world.
The stones are arranged in a pattern for which scientists are still debating the possible astronomical meanings. The debate continues as to how Neolithic people constructed this masterpiece of engineering using only basic tools and methods.
Try to time your visit for early morning or late evening when the slanting light and silhouetted stones help to create a mystical aura. Adding to the Stonehenge experience is a visitor centre housing museum-quality exhibitions, five Neolithic Houses, a shop and café.
Still part of the World Heritage property and situated 25 miles north of Stonehenge is the impressive and less visited Avebury Stone Circle – the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world.