Guide To the Best UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Landmarks in Europe
Here's my complete guide to the best and most historic UNESCO World Heritage sites in Europe. These are Europe's most famous and iconic landmarks and monuments.
UNESCO sites reflect humanity's legacy. They're highly significant cultural or natural sites that are our historic touchstones, that reflect our identity, or can catapult us back in the past to important events. Once inscribed on the UNESCO list, these sites are protected and conserved.
In this guide, I focus on the cultural landmarks, taking you to important monuments and architecture in Europe. I've picked the 50 best UNESCO sites in Europe, to help you create your own Europe bucket list. They're some of the world's most amazing destinations and places to explore.
You can put them on your bucket list for your next sojourn to Europe. Or, with my tips below, travel to them virtually at home from the great indoors.
The Best UNESCO Sites and Attractions in Spain
1. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
The undisputed jewel of Barcelona is Sagrada Família, Gaudí’s wildly creative opus. Gaudí began work on the "Sandcastle Cathedral" at age 31. In rather megalomaniac fashion, it's supposed to constitute a complete history of the Catholic faith.
The exterior looks like a mountain of sand. But the interior is luminous. It's effectively a sculpture, reinvented as architecture. The nave is lined with pale columns. They look like a forest, with columns branching out like trees.
Sagrada Familia has opened its digital doors and now provides an extensive virtual tour right on its website. You can visit the Passsion Facade, the Nativity Facade, the interior, the apse, the Cloister of the Rosary, the Western Sacristy, the Crypt, and Gaudi's Tomb. You can also take a 360 tour on Air Pano. Smarthistory has a great YouTube video about the Sagrada Familia.
2. The Royal Alcazar, Seville
The Royal Alcázar is one of the world's greatest cultural treasures, a centuries old complex of palaces and fortifications, lovely courtyards, and extensive gardens bursting with orange, purple, and green colors. It's a breathtaking 10th century palace that King Pedro the Cruel gave a 14th century Mudéjar facelift.
Inside, the highlights are the Hall of the Ambassadors, the Courtyard of the Maidens, the Courtyard of the Dolls, and the Hall of Tapestries in the Gothic Palace. The Ambassador’s Hall, or Throne Room, is the big showstopper. It’s nicknamed the "Half Orange" Room, in honor of its gilded cedar domed ceiling.
3. Seville Cathedral, Seville
Seville Cathedral is a massive Gothic affair. It's the largest cathedral in the world.
In 1402, after vanquishing the Moors in the Reconquista, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella began work in earnest on a Gothic style cathedral. They wanted a showy display of Seville’s wealth, power, and influence.
There are 15 doors on the cathedral’s four facades and each one features a unique relief or carving. The nave is the longest in the world. The glittering altar is elaborately detailed and finished in gold leaf. Along the sides, there are 80 chapels to explore.
4. The Alhambra, Granada
The Alhambra is the world's last and greatest Moorish fortress. It's one of the most visited sites in Spain, and even in the world. The Alhambra sits on a stunning piece of real estate – a high, mountainous location on Sabika Hill with sweeping views over Granada.
The complex has four must see sites: the Nasrid Palace, Charle V's Palace, the Alcazaba, and the Generalife Gardens. The Nasrid Palace is the finest example of the refined, intricate, and elegant architectural style of the Moorish civilization. Every inch of its rooms are decorated, top to bottom, with ceramic tiles, elaborate plaster work, calligraphy, filigreed windows, and stucco stalactite ceilings.
5. Works of Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona
Barcelona’s most famous son, Antoni Gaudí, left a massive legacy in Barcelona. In the late 19th and early 20th century, he created some of the world's most beautiful, unique, and innovative buildings. With perpetually curving lines and colorful mosaics, he launched Catalan Modernism, an art nouveau style.
Seven of Gaudi's creations in Barcelona are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including: Park Güell, Palau Güell, Casa Mila, Casa Vicens, Gaudi’s work on the Nativity facade and crypt of La Sagrada Familia (mentioned above), Casa Batlló, and the Crypt in Colonia Güell. I've added links to the ones you can tour virtually.
Here are my own comprehensive guides to: Gaudi architecture in Barcelona, Casa Battlo, Casa Mila, and Casa Vicens. If you're a Gaudi fanatic like me, you may also like my guides to Gaudi's Casa Calvet and El Capricho buildings.
6. Palau de la Musica, Barcelona
You have to see it to believe it. Musicians love its acoustics. Tourists love its unique design. It's a veritable symphony of stained glass, mosaics, and sculptures.
You begin at the marble Lluis Millet Grand Staircase, named after a famous Catalan composer. As you ascend, gaze up at the eye catching ceramic glazed ceiling. The auditorium is almost overwhelming. The piece de resistance is the intricate stained glass sun by Antoni Rigalt. It seems to float in midair from the ceiling's inverted dome.
Iron and glass chandeliers create a starry night effect. And sculptures curve up the sides of the stage, including a glowering Beethoven and Valkeries from Richard Wagner's operas. Click here for a virtual tour.
7. Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
The Cathedral Santiago de Compostela stands guard in the Plaza do Obradoiro square, where all roads in Santiago converge. This hallowed Galician landmark is the final stop on the mystical pilgrims’ journey.
Built in the Romanesque architectural style, construction started in 1075 during the reign of Alfonso VI. Over the years, Gothic, Baroque, and Neoclassical elements were added to the structure.
The Cathedral’s facade is the work of Fernando de Casas y Novoa. It's a splendid example of Spanish Baroque design. Atop the middle steeple, St. James the apostle stands on a column to welcome pilgrims to his burial place. The Portico of Glory at the main entrance used to be the cathedral's main facade. It displays 200 figurines from the Old and New Testament.
Inside, a darkened Romanesque nave gives way to a large gold altar with three representations of St. James. Pick up an audio guide because there's not much English signage. Click here for a virtual tour.
8. Palaeolithic Cave Art of Altamira, Cantabria
This is the most ancient site on my list. Over 35,000 years ago, our ancestors painted images of animals on the walls of a cave in Altamira, in northern Spain. They were created during the Upper Palaeolithic period. The well preserved charcoal and polychrome paintings depict animals and handprints in varying colors.
The ceiling of the cave features the paintings of a herd of now-extinct steppe bison, as well as deer, wild boar, and horses. Access is strictly limited to small private tours.
You can take a virtual tour of the Altamira caves here.
9. Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, Cordoba
Dating from the 10th century, Cordoba's Mosque-Cathedral, locally called the Mezquita, is a magnificent UNESCO site. It's one of the world's most well- preserved Islamic buildings.
In the 16th century, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella converted the Mezquita into a cathedral. It's a a snapshot of the sophisticated dual culture that once existed in southern Spain. Inside, the Mezquita is an eye catching forest of candy cane horseshoe arches.
Highlights of the Mezquita are the Mihrab (or high altar in a mosque), the Visigoth mosaics and ruins, the Royal Chapel, and the central golden altar. Newly restored, the Christian altar makes it easy to forget you're in a former mosque.
The Best UNESCO Sites in England
10. Tower of London, London
The Tower of London is my favorite sites in London. The UNESCO-listed site is the perfect site for history nerds and culture vultures.
The Tower of London has served as a royal palace, a fortress, a prison, a mint, a military storehouse, a treasury, home to the Crown Jewels, an armory, a public records office, a royal observatory, and a royal zoo.
On a visit, you'll be blissfully immersed in the various successions of the Edwards, the Richards, and the Henrys. You can relive the life of Henry VIII. And tour the Bloody Tower, the White Tower, Tower Green, and the Crown Jewels.
11. Westminster Abbey
Originally a Benedictine monastery, Westminster Abbey dates back to 1245. It's the site used for all royal coronations since William the Conqueror in 1066.
The most beautiful part of Westminster Abbey is the Henry VII Chapel, also called the Lady Chapel. It's the last great masterpiece of English medieval architecture and the mausoleum for much of England's royalty.
With all those accolades, the chapel was grandiosely nicknamed a "wonder of the world." The chapel is the work of England's first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, who vanquished Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth and seized control of England.
12. Stonehenge, Wiltshire England
Stonehenge is a popular day trip from London. This prehistoric megalithic landmark dates from 3,000 B.C. The landmark draws almost a million visitors a year.
Scholars still only have vague speculations as to the structure's real purpose. Stonehenge might have been used for religious ceremonies or to study the movement of the sun or moon. The blue stones were transported from Wales (over 180 miles away) in the Neolithic Period. Scholars have tried to replicate this feat with little success.
Stonehenge has a interactive virtual tour. It provides a 360 degree view inside the monument. You can zoom in on the carvings. There's also a 360 tour on Google Street view. And you can also learn more about Stonehenge on Google Arts & Culture.
13. Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury
Canterbury Cathedral is one of Europe's finest cathedrals. I was awestruck the first time I saw it. It's been a place of worship for almost 15 centuries. It's frilly Gothic towers dominate the town skyline. And it's opulent inside, with gorgeous stained glass windows.
But perhaps Canterbury Cathedral is best known as the site of an infamous 12th century crime. It was a murder most foul that shook the middle ages. At the behest of Henry II, Archbishop Thomas Becket was assassinated by group of knights.
Becket was a powerful man. But he fell out of favor with the king when he resigned the position of Chancellor. Three years later, Becket was canonized and Henry II forced to perform an act of public penance.
You can take a interactive virtual tour of Canterbury Cathedral here.
The Best UNESCO Sites in France
14. Eiffel Tower, Paris
The Eiffel Tower is Paris' iconic landmark. It was built for the World Fair in 1889 in record construction time, and considered an engineering marvel. At the time, it was the world's tallest building.
Originally, the Eiffel was meant to be a temporary exhibit, the main showpiece for the World Fair. There are several viewing platforms. In 2014, a glass floor was added to the first floor. At night, there's a light show.
But the Eiffel Tower can also be a Paris tourist trap, plagued with crowds and lines. Now, you can go up the tower virtually. On the Google Arts & Culture virtual tour, you can enjoy the view from the top over the Champs de Mar and learn about the history of the Eiffel Tower.
15. Notre Dame, Paris
On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame and I cried. Located on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine River, the Gothic cathedral with its dramatic flying buttresses is 859 years old. The first stone of the cathedral was laid in 1163. It was completed in 1345.
Since then, Notre Dame has been the toast of Europe. Louis IX deposited the crown of thrones there in 1239. Henry VI was crowned king there in 1431 after the 100 Year War. Mary Queen of Scots was married there. Napoleon was coronated as emperor and married there. In 1909, Joan of Arc was beatified by the pope.
Since the fateful fire, you can no longer visit. There will likely be many years of construction. But don't despair.
Now you can visit take a 360 virtual tour of the mighty edifice. The tour takes you down the nave. You can study the stained glass and rose windows. You can also explore Notre Dame on Google Arts & Culture.
16. The Palace of Versailles, Versailles
The Palace of Versailles is massive, flashy, and very, very gold. The opulence is overwhelming. Even the bathrooms are gold plated. It's the most famous and popular day trip from Paris. It's been a UNESCO site since 1979.
The Sun King Louis XIV transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a monumental palace in the mid 17th century. Located in the quaint suburb of Versailles, the Baroque palace was France's political capital and royal seat from 1682 until October 5, 1789.
As exemplifies the Baroque style, Versailles was decorated with gilding, stucco, arabesques, frescoed vaulted ceilings, mirrors, and tromp l'oeil effects. The king's apartments were in the center, because the world revolved around him. Marie Antoinette loved the Petit Trianon and the Hameau.
Now you can explore the palace virtually on Google Arts & Culture or check out its Facebook page for photos. If you'd like to go behind the scenes and visit the filming locations for the BBC's TV series Versailles, here's my guide.
17. The Pope's Palace, Avignon
The popes haven't always lived in Vatican City. From 1309-77, the popes lived in the enchanting riverside town of Avignon, rather than in Rome. That period was called the "Avignon Papacy."
Built in 1335-52, the Pope's Palace is the largest Gothic building in western Europe. The imposing facade resembles medieval fortified churches. You can gasp at the Pope’s private apartments, frescoes, and the soaring chapel. And see what it actually looked like in the 14th century on a histopad, if you're there in person.
18. Mont Saint-Michel, Normandy
Mont Saint-Michel is the crown jewel of Normandy. It's one of France's most recognizable silhouettes, a veritable castle in the clouds.
The famous landmark is a pretty-as-a mirage island sanctuary. Its steeply built architecture seems almost impossible. A surreal medieval stage set, the Mont's sky-high spires, stout ramparts, and rocky outcrops rise dramatically from the sea.
The immense stone pile stands guard over gleaming sands laid bare by a receding (and unpredictable) tide. At high tide, Mont Saint-Michel seems to float in the sea.
The hulking abbey is one of the most visited pilgrimage sites in Christendom. In medieval times, devotees flocked to venerate the Archangel Michael. The Mont’s star attraction is the ancient abbey crowning its top.
Here's my complete visitor's guide for Mont Saint-Michel, with must know tips for visiting this beautiful UNESCO site.
You can enjoy this mystic place without being swamped by adoring crowds on Google Arts & Culture. You can take this Google Street view virtual tour or explore the island abbey through HistoryView’s VR field trip.
19. The Fortified City of Carcassonne, Occitanie
Magical Carcassonne takes your breath away. It's a 13th century fantasy world of towers, spiky turrets, stout walls, winding alleys, and moats. It's a medieval junkie's dream city on steroids. As British writer Anthony Horowitz said much more poetically than me, "In no other city I've visited does history feel so alive."
Carcassonne has a double row of fortified walls stretching nearly 2 miles with 52 watch towers, each one crowned with fantastical “witch hat” turrets. The medieval streets are fairytale perfect. Not surprisingly, Carcassonne was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List list in 1997.
20. Albi Cathedral and the Berbie Palace, Albi
Albi is a serious town, with a weighty history, a wondrous must see destination in southwest France. Albi has two truly imposing citadels, the Albi Cathedral and the Berbie Palace, that are both UNESCO-listed.
The mighty Saint Cecilia Cathedral is a 13th century masterpiece of southern Gothic style. Nicknamed the "crucible of faith," the cathedral appears more fortress than church. It's one of the largest brick structures in the world. The cathedral has a stern unadorned exterior, but the interior is serenely blue and gold.
The 800 year old Berbie Palace is an all brick affair with stout walls of extraordinary height and thickness. Aside from the Pope's Palace in Avignon, the Berbie Palace is one of the best preserved castles in France. The palace was formerly the residence of the Albi's archbishops. Now, it's home to the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, a world class single artist museum.
21. Chateau de Chambord, Loire Valley
Commissioned by Francois I, a lowly hunting lodge was transformed into a monument to royalty and royal sport. It's rumored that Leonardo da Vinci, relocated from Milan to France as a court artist, influenced some of the chateau's architectural elements.
The chateau is laid out as a keep in the shape of a cross with four towers, two wings, and over 400 rooms. The highlight is its mind boggling double helix staircase. Twin staircases intertwine without actually touching. The rooftop offers breathtaking views over the valley.
22. Louvre Museum, Paris
The Louvre is Paris' crown jewel and the world's most visited museum. The Louvre is the largest, busiest, most loved museum in the world. It has 35,000 works of art art from the 6th century BC to the 19th century AD. It's a sumptuous Renaissance palace itself, with a lavishly decorated interior and beautifully painted ceilings.
The Denon Wing is home to the Louvre's best known paintings, including Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The Sully Wing is known for its statuary and antiquities, including the Venus de Milo. The Richelieu Wing houses the lavish apartments of Napoleon III and some famed Dutch art works, including Vermeer's The Lacemaker.
If you want to know more about the history of the Louvre, click here. I've also written an extensive guide to the underrated masterpieces of the Louvre and one on tips and tricks for visiting the Louvre. For a virtual tour of the Louvre, click here.
23. Reims Cathedral, Champagne Region
With or without a glass of champagne, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims is one of Europe's greatest cathedrals. Some experts think it's France's most beautiful cathedral, surpassing even Notre Dame de Paris. Reims Cathedral was designated a UNESCO site in 1997.
The church was built over 60 years, beginning in 1211. The ornate western portal is distinctive for its beauty, unity, and harmony. Inside, there's a towering 500 foot nave. You're greeted by a wall of 52 intricately carved statues.
In the apse behind the ornate altar, you'll see the catastrophically beautiful stained glass windows created by the famed French painter Marc Chagall in 1974.
Reims Cathedral is also the spot for the coronation of French kings, making it the equivalent of Westminster Abbey in England. Joan of Arc made an appearance, crowning Charles VII in 1429.
24. Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Completed in 1248 and enshrined within the Palais de Justice, Sainte-Chapelle is Paris’ most exquisite Gothic monument. It's a 14th century royal chapel, built by Louis IX to house the relics of the passion of Christ, including the Crown of Thorns.
You'll be awed by the gorgeous stained glass. Saint-Chapelle has some of the oldest pieces of glass in the world. Nearly 2/3 of the windows survived the French Revolution. To prevent further damage, the windows were temporarily removed during WWII.
Saint-Chapelle also features beautiful painted wood columns and a starry night sky. There are two parts to Saint-Chapelle. The glass awaits you at the top of a spiral staircase, depicting scenes in chronological order from the Old and New Testaments. The masterpiece is the Rose Window in the upper chapel.
The Best UNESCO Sites in Italy
25. Milan Cathedral, Milan
The Duomo is the symbol of Milan. It's stood guard over Milan for 600 years. Construction began in 1386, but wasn't completed until the 19th century. Thanks to Milan's ruler at the time, the Duomo was constructed with pink hued white marble from Lake Maggiore in northern Italy.
The Duomo is a vision of high Gothic architecture. It's adorned with over 3,000 statues, 135 gargoyles, and 700 other figures. You can climb up to the terrace to examine them all in detail.
26. Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli
Constructed between 118-133 A.D., Hadrian's Villa is an important archeological complex just outside Rome. It's the largest and most spectacular villa of ancient Rome, three times the size of Pompeii.
It reflected the power and glory of ancient Rome and the world's most important leader, Emperor Hadrian. And it was designed by Hadrian himself. The buildings were inspired by Greek, Roman, and Egyptian architecture.
Hadrian's Villa is essentially a miniature Rome that covers nearly 300 acres. It's dotted with 30 large structures -- palaces, libraries, baths, living quarters, dining pavilions, and sculptural gardens. The most beautiful spot is the Maritime Theater with an artificial island that was Hadrian's private retreat.
You can take a virtual tour of Hadrian's Villa on Google Arts & Culture here, with Smarthistory