The continent of Europe encompasses 44 countries, each with their own unique cultural heritage, natural beauty and historical monuments. Many have earned their place among UNESCO’s coveted list of World Heritage Sites so picking just 20 is no mean feat. But we’ve done it. Here you’ll find an equal offering of natural wonders and city delights from countries that span all four points of the compass. And they all have one thing in common – the right to be deemed as one of the top UNESCO sites in Europe.
Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia
Croatia is home to ten UNESCO World Heritage Sites, eight cultural and two natural including the dazzling Plitvice Lakes National Park. It’s the country’s largest national park and is home to over a dozen cascading lakes. Each one flows into the next via mini waterfalls over the course of eight kilometres, some reaching heights of around 70-metres. Walkways take visitors right up to the cascades and there are a number of hiking trails. The surrounding woodland changes colour with the seasons but is perhaps most impressive during spring and summer when vivid greens compliment the turquoise hues of the water.
Cinque Terre, Italy
No doubt due to its illustrious history, Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other country in the world. It claims an impressive 53 sites with an additional 40 on the tentative list. Picking just one is no easy task when you have contenders including the archaeological site of Pompei and the Colosseum of Rome. However, the rugged coastal region of Cinque Terre wins a spot on this list for its spectacular scenery, charming medieval villages and astonishing cliffside construction. Cars are banned here and the best way to get around is either on foot or by train, which only adds to the magic of Cinque Terre.
Another country with an enviable number of UNESCO sites is Spain. A total of 46 to be precise, ranging from cathedrals to rock art, historic city centres to ancient ruins. The palace and fortress complex of the Alhambra in Granada is one of the most impressive.This historic monument sits proud and majestic atop a hill overlooking the city. The rugged Sierra Nevada provide the backdrop. But it’s not only its dramatic setting that draws visitors. The complex itself is an architectural ode to Moorish culture. Within the 13th century walls are exquisitely carved ceilings, expertly designed courtyards and beautiful gardens.
Alto Douro Wine Region, Portugal
Wine goes well with quite a few things in life – a good steak, a balmy sunny day, or in this case, a scenic World Heritage Site. The Douro Valley in northern Portugal is a landscape that has been sculpted by both nature and human hands. The River Douro weaves a route through mountains that have then been cultivated with terraces and vineyards. But it’s not just beauty the Alto Douro boasts – there’s history too. It lays claim to being one of the oldest wine regions in the world with more than 2,000 years of wine-making history. Here you can sample world-class port wines, Portugal’s most famous export.
Acropolis of Athens, Greece
If there’s one monument that symbolises civilisation as we know it, it’s the Acropolis in the capital of Greece. This ancient citadel represents the Greek Empire and all that it gave the world – democracy, Western philosophy and the Olympics to name but a few. It sits high above the city of Athens on a rocky outcrop with the ruins of buildings dating back to the 5th century BC. The best-known of them all is the Parthenon, a temple once dedicated to the goddess Athena that was later used as a treasury. Its decorative sculptures and the colonnade of fluted, baseless columns are considered to be the finest example of Greek architecture in existence today.
The Göreme valley and its rock-hewn troglodyte villages was one of the first places in Turkey to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And it’s hardly surprising considering what’s on offer. Above ground honeycombed hills and towering boulders could easily have you thinking you’ve landed on another planet. While below ground entire cities have been carved into the soft rock, complete with churches, dungeons, meeting halls and stables. It’s a unique landscape that has been shaped by the power of nature and further enhanced by human hands. Furthermore, it’s a place of history with some remains dating back as early as the 4th century.
Kremlin and Red Square, Russia
Nowhere displays the might and power of Russia better than the capital of Moscow. Here you’ll find Red Square – the political, historical and geographical heart of the city. It’s a vast expanse of grey cobblestones that has evolved from market square to military parade site and now popular pedestrian locale. Some of Moscow’s most important buildings flank the sides of Red Square including the Kremlin. This fortified complex contains within its imposing walls palaces, cathedrals, an armoury and characteristic towers. Opposite sits the fanciful onion-domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the perfect example of Russia’s unique architectural style.
Bay of Kotor, Montenegro
The Bay of Kotor is easily one of the most beautiful spots along the Adriatic coast. It sits in the southwest of Montenegro and continues to grow in popularity thanks to its plentiful natural beauty and historic attractions. Forested mountains trace the outline of the bay while brilliant cobalt blue waters sparkle in the sunlight. Around the natural harbour are a number of well-preserved medieval towns with Venetian fortifications, commanding cathedrals and red-roofed buildings. The town of Kotor is the most popular of them all. And off the coast lie two island monasteries that complete this pretty picture.
Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina
The most important city in the Herzegovina region is also its most romantic. The historic town of Mostar sits on the Neretva River with a surrounding landscape of mountains carpeted in verdant trees. Its varied cultural heritage is reflected in the city’s postcard-perfect architecture of traditional Turkish houses and Austro-Hungarian buildings. The Old Bridge is Mostar’s centrepiece and one of the country’s most iconic landmarks. It was built by the Ottomans in the 16th century and is one of the finest examples of Islamic architecture in the Balkans. Known as Stari Most in the local language, it’s flanked by two medieval towers and straddles the often-emerald coloured waters of the river.
Another city that displays an impressive wealth of architectural styles is Budapest. The remnants of Hungary‘s great historical periods can all be found here, from the ancient Roman city of Aquincum to the Gothic Buda castle. And it’s this legacy that won the city World Heritage Status in 1987. Its location on the banks of the River Danube ensures that Budapest can match its urban beauty with natural good looks. Incidentally, water has gifted Budapest with another drawcard – hot springs. The city is famous for its thermal baths where residents and visitors have been soaking their tired bones for centuries.
The UNESCO-listed medieval centre of Riga, capital of Latvia, reflects the city’s prosperous history. Between the 13th and 15th centuries the city was an important merchant centre. Many of the buildings built during this time still stand today. Craftsman houses, guild halls and cathedrals all line the cobblestone streets that form the heart of the city. But that’s not all as far as Riga’s architectural gems are concerned. Its collection of Art Nouveau buildings are recognised as being the finest in Europe with colourful facades, steep roofs and, perhaps unique to Latvia, the use of ethnographic ornamental motifs.
Similarly to Riga, the capital of Estonia once flourished as a commercial centre during the 13th century. And its this prosperity that gave Tallinn its beguiling Old Town. Here you’ll find opulent churches with gleaming spires rising high in all directions, and elegant merchant houses that now serve as boutique hotels. A major factor in the fairy-tale allure of Tallinn is the magnificent medieval walls and fortified towers that encircle the Old Town. And overlooking it all is the historic Toompea Castle. This ancient stronghold tells the tale of Estonia’s conquerors and rulers, and how they shaped the country.
The Baltic states and UNESCO apparently go hand-in-hand as the next entry on our list is yet another Baltic beaut. This time it’s in the form of Vilnius. The capital of Lithuania boasts one of the largest surviving medieval old towns in this part of Europe. And like its neighbouring contemporaries, the city is home to a splendid collection of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical buildings. Wandering the cobbled alleyways you could imagine stepping back in time with artists busy in their traditional workshops. However, there’s a modern face to the city too with a wealth of trendy bars and burgeoning nightlife.
If you’ve not yet had your fill of medieval old towns, save some space for Krakow. The former capital of Poland is yet another European gem filled with magnificent architecture and medieval charisma. At the heart of it all is the vast Rynek Główny, Europe’s largest market square. The square is flanked by the commanding Town Hall Tower on one side and the ornately decorated St. Mary’s Basilica on the other. It’s a vibrant part of the city and sets the stage for street performers in the summer and Christmas markets in the winter. Beyond here you’ll find Wawel Royal Castle and the fascinating Jewish quarter of Kazimierz.
Rila Monastery, Bulgaria
Founded by a hermit saint more than a millennium ago, the Rila Monastery is Bulgaria’s most important monument. The fortress-like complex has played a vital role in asserting a Slavic cultural identity. During medieval times the monastery featured prominently in the spiritual and social life of Bulgaria. Moreover, Rila Monastery also greatly influenced the Eastern Orthodox world and its artistic traditions. It remains a working monastery to this day, home to 60 resident monks. It’s popular too, drawing pilgrims and curious visitors wanting to look upon its elegant colonnades, geometrical archways and elaborate frescoes.
Prague, Czech Republic
The city of Prague in the Czech Republic has been given the moniker “the city of a hundred spires”. And to gaze upon its graceful skyline is to understand why. Churches and cathedrals dominate the horizon with their Gothic spires and Baroque towers. Combined with the maze of cobbled streets and hidden gardens, Prague possesses a beauty that rivals bigger names like Paris and Venice. As far as any one site is concerned, the Prague Castle trumps them all. It’s the largest castle complex in the world, covering a staggering 70,000 square miles with palaces, churches and gardens that display the myriad of architectural influences that have shaped much of Europe.
Norway has eight UNESCO sites including Bryggen, the historic wharf of Bergen. The colourful wooden houses and town layout are characteristic of 15th century Northern Europe trading centres. And despite a number of devastating fires, the core of Bryggen has been rebuilt true to this character. Today it’s one of Norway’s most popular city-break destinations not only for its charming townscape but also for its surroundings. Bergen is in the heart of the fjord region and therefore the perfect base for cruising the fjords. In fact, you can combine two of Norway’s UNESCO sites this way as Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord share the same honour as Bryggen.
Fortress of Suomenlinna, Finland
The fortress of Suomenlinna was built in Finland during the mid-18th century by the Swedes. It was designed to defend the land against the encroachment of Russia. And at the entrance to Helsinki’s harbour, there was no better spot. Over the centuries this sea fortress has served various sovereign states but today it provides city dwellers and international visitors with a fascinating insight into European military architecture. It’s also a popular picnic spot thanks to its picturesque setting on a group of islands connected by bridges. The most atmospheric section of the site is where the fortified walls trace the pointed shape of a star and hide old bunkers and cannons.
Ilussiat Icefjord, Greenland
You might not initially associate Greenland with the continent of Europe. But as an autonomous constituent country within the Kingdom of Denmark, it’s worthy of mention on this list of Europe’s top UNESCO sites. As an immense land of extreme wilderness, it’s little wonder that a natural feature of Greenland made the World Heritage List. The Ilussiat icefjord spans 40km in length and is a stunning Arctic gallery of towering icebergs that have formed as chunks of ice break off from the glacier. Watching this phenomenon, known as glacial calving, is an experience in itself. Especially as it’s often accompanied by a dramatic soundtrack of booms and cracks.
Thingvellir National Park, Iceland
The words ‘national park’ conjures images of wild landscapes and abundant natural beauty. And the Thingvellir National Park in Iceland has plenty of that. Like much of the country it’s a landscape that has been shaped by the elemental power of nature. The national park sits on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which has resulted in dramatic fissures in the earth’s surface. However, that’s not what gained Thingvellir its UNESCO status. The area’s important history takes credit for that. For it’s here where the national parliament of Iceland first gathered more than a thousand years ago.
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