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25 of the Coolest UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Western Europe

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by Hal Amen Sep 30, 2010
In a region full of well-visited historical and natural sites, these are some of the best that impressed UNESCO.

[Editor’s note: I’m using the definition of “Western Europe” given by National Geographic (and Wikipedia). For more info on these and the rest of the 900 World Heritage Sites around the globe, visit the UNESCO website.]

Cinque Terre, Italy

Cinque Terre in Italy

Photo: Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock

The name refers to five small, cliffside towns strung along several miles of the Ligurian Coast, connected by a hiking trail and local train line. The area was also declared a national park in 1999. Pictured above is Vernazza, the second-northernmost town of the five.

Jungfrau Region, Switzerland

Stunning autumn view of picturesque alpine village Wengen with Jungfrau Mountain and Lauterbrunnen Valley on background. Location: Wengen village, Berner Oberland, Switzerland, Europe.

Photo: Vadym Lavra/Shutterstock

This area is the most glaciated of Europe’s Alps and is named after the 4,150m (13,640ft) peak of Jungfrau. It is one of the premier trekking and climbing destinations in Europe.

Bryggen, Norway

View of historical buildings in Bryggen

Photo: Grisha Bruev/Shutterstock

Bryggen is the name of the old wharf in the coastal city of Bergen. Its UNESCO value lies in its rows of traditionally constructed and brightly colored wooden structures.

Loire Valley, France

Amboise Castle in Loire Valley, Touraine Region, France

Photo: Antoine2K/Shutterstock

This river valley was listed by UNESCO in 2000 for its historical and architectural importance to France and the rest of Western Europe.

Surtsey, Iceland


Photo: Thomas Males/Shutterstock

Surtsey is a volcanic island just south of the Icelandic mainland that didn’t even exist until 1963, when an undersea eruption built up the square-mile landmass. It’s never been peopled, so it’s like an unspoiled natural laboratory.

Stonehenge, England

Stonehenge in pink and soft sunlight from above

Photo: joaoccdj/Shutterstock

Solstice brings the party to Stonehenge. For more quiet, head down the road to the Avebury circle or other Neolithic stone sites in the area, all of which are included in the UNESCO listing.

Assisi, Italy

Photo: Stefano Zaccaria/Shutterstock

This central Italian town, seen here in panorama dominated by the Basilica of San Francesco, is the birthplace of St. Francis, the patron saint of animals and the environment. A complex of Franciscan-related landmarks make up the World Heritage Site.

Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland

Photo: Lyd Photography/Shutterstock

Over 40,000 black basalt columns interlocked along the coast of County Antrim gave rise to legends of an ancient roadway used by giants to move between Ireland and Scotland. Today, we just call it a really cool natural phenomenon.

Cordoba, Spain

Southern cities Spain: View of the picturesque Cordoba jewish quarter with the bell tower of the Mosque Cathedral.

Photo: essevu/Shutterstock

Following the Moorish conquest of Spain, Cordoba was hyped as a metropolitan peer to Constantinople, Damascus, and Baghdad in the Muslim world. Much evidence of this history survives today, such as the Great Mosque.

Cologne, Germany

Houses and park in Cologne, Germany

Photo: William Perugin/Shutterstock

Cologne’s Gothic cathedral, which took more than 600 years to build, is the focus of the UNESCO site in this western German city.

Avignon, France

Photo: Photoprofi30/Shutterstock

The best known sites in this ancient French city are the Papal Palace, the Episcopal Ensemble, and the 12th-century stone bridge, seen here behind a field of lavender blossoms.

Venice, Italy

venice beautiful italy gondola

Photo: a href=”″>givaga/Shutterstock

From the UNESCO site: “Founded in the 5th century and spread over 118 small islands, Venice became a major maritime power in the 10th century. The whole city is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists…

Skellig Michael, Ireland

Skellig Michael, Ireland

Photo: ghotion/Shutterstock

This island, 12km off the southwest coast of Ireland, was used as a monastic getaway for Irish Christian monks starting in the 7th century. It’s a hard place to get to, so even though it’s been on the UNESCO books since 1996, it sees few visitors apart from puffins.

Brugge, Belgium

Bruges, Belgium

Photo: Ruslan Kalnitsky/Shutterstock

The history of Brugge goes back to medieval times, and like many cities in the region, its system of canals has earned it the nickname “Venice of the North.”

Evora, Portugal

Photo: Fotoeventis/Shutterstock

Once the home of Portuguese kings, Evora’s history goes back much further, as demonstrated by the well-preserved Roman temple ruins that stand in the city center.

Dorset Coast, England

Photo: Lissj/Shutterstock

This Channel-facing coast is lined with limestone cliffs displaying 180 million years of geologic history. Visitors can hike the length of the World Heritage Site via the South West Coast Path, and its beaches are popular with surfers.

Alhambra, Spain

Ancient arabic fortress Alhambra at the beautiful evening time, Granada, Spain

Photo: Taiga/Shutterstock

The stone and wood carving work within the Alhambra’s main palace, a sample of which is shown above, is what struck me most during my visit.

Kronborg Castle, Denmark

Photo: Aleksandr Medvedkov/Shutterstock

Sitting just across the sound from Sweden, this castle is better known to English majors as Elsinore, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Siena, Italy

Photo: Rastislav Sedlak SK/Shutterstock

Probably founded by the Etruscans several hundred years before Christ, Siena came into its own during medieval times. The World Heritage Site includes the tower and adjacent Piazza del Campo, which was recently featured in the James Bond flick Quantum of Solace.

Versailles, France

September 2018 - Versailles, France - Versailles Palace facade near Paris

Photo: Stockkbym/Shutterstock

The Palace of Versailles and its exquisitely manicured gardens hosted the French royal court for different periods during the 18th and 19th centuries. These days, it’s pretty much a suburb of Paris.

Western Fjords, Norway

Photo: Ana del Castillo/Shutterstock

Geirangerfjord (shown above) and Nærøyfjord “are considered as archetypical fjord landscapes and among the most scenically outstanding anywhere,” according to UNESCO. “Their exceptional natural beauty is derived from their narrow and steep-sided crystalline rock walls that rise up to 1,400 m from the Norwegian Sea and extend 500 m below sea level.”

Northern lights at Þingvellir National Park, Iceland

Aurora borealis with silhouette love romantic couple on the mountain.Honeymoon travel concept

Photo: basiczto/Shutterstock

Iceland‘s first national park is now one of its most visited tourist attractions. It includes the rift valley that marks the edge of the tectonic Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and is obviously a nice place to catch the Northern Lights.

Gwynedd castles

Photo: Oliver Hoffman/Shutterstock

The castles and other fortified medieval structures on the northern coast of Wales are well preserved and seriously fun to climb around.

Rhine Valley, Germany

Photo: DaLiu/Shutterstock

Their are plenty of castles and other ruins all along the Rhine, but the “Upper Middle Valley” is the section designated as World Heritage material.

Schokland window


Once a peninsula, then an island, and now a peninsula again, Schokland has always existed at the mercy of the Dutch floodwaters. Human settlement was abandoned in 1859, so the area now offers a well-preserved look into the past.

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