15 Top UNESCO sites in Europe

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Europe might be full of foreigners, small hotel rooms and questionable border security, but one thing it really does have going for it is the depth and breadth of history throughout the continent.  Like tropical rainforest is for plant and animal species, Europe is an area of immense cultural richness.

What follows is an introduction to UNESCO-listed attractions in Europe.  In this post I’ll concentrate on the most famous ones.  However, it’s definitely worth looking beyond the obvious to uncover less well-known destinations.

Prague's Astronomical Clock (1)

Let’s move from west to east, so it will feel a bit like we’re travelling forward in time.

Portugal

Monastery of the Hieronymites and Belém Tower in Lisbon

Belém Tower in Lisbon (2)

No other structure provides such a representation of Portugal’s wealth and power during the Age of Discovery than the Monastery of the Hieronymites.  The resident monks’ object of devotion was Saint Jerome, who provided advice to sailors and also prayed for the king’s soul.  Fitting, then, that Vasco Da Gama spent the night in prayer here before leaving for India.
Similarly, Belém Tower acts as a monument to these intrepid voyages.  Moorish architectural influences are present on the watchtowers thanks to Francisco de Arruda’s experience on the Portuguese fortifications in Morocco.

England

The Tower of London

The Tower of London (3)

An example of Norman military architecture, the Tower of London played a vital role in the protection and control of the City of London.  The Tower stands next to the Thames, ready to repel invaders trying to access from the North Sea.  It was also a prison that held some notable people in English history: Edward II, Sir Walter Raleigh, Elizabeth I and the famous ‘Princes in the Tower’.
Founded in 1066 following the Norman conquest of England, the Tower was developed throughout successive centuries and remained a highly imposing structure right up until the 19th century.  The inclusion of the Tower of London in easytobook.com’s London A-Z confirms its status as a site of outstanding international historical significance.

Spain

The works of Antoni Guadi in Barcelona

Casa Batlló in Barcelona (4)

An inspired architect and artist, Guadi drew on considerable references from the natural world in the design and creation of his structures.  The texture and angles of bones, trees and shells can be seen clearly in much of his work.  Gaudi played a significant role in advancing the El Modernisme movement in Catalonia.
According to UNESCO, there are seven properties in or close to Barcelona that are listed as important sites of world heritage.  The most famous of these are Sagrada Familia, Parc Güell, Casa Mila and Casa Batlló.

France

Palace and Park of Versailles, outside Paris

Palace of Versailles (5)

Versailles was the primary residence of French monarchs from Louis XIV to Louis XVI.  Its outstanding architectural magnificence made it a model royal residence throughout Europe for over a century.
In 1622 Louis XIII bought land the area of Versailles and constructed a hunting lodge there.  This structure and its lands were significantly developed throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Versailles became the new Royal Residence for King Louis XIV and then for Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour.
Many of the Palace’s artworks and antiques were moved to the Louvre during the French Revolution, but visitors to Versailles can view the internationally renowned gardens as well as much of the palace interior, including the Hall of Mirrors and Royal Opera.

Belgium

Grand Place in Brussels

La Grand Place in Brussels (6)

Boasting magnificent structures of social, religious and political importance, La Grand-Place provides an insightful representation of 17th century northern Europe.  Brussels’ gothic Town Hall, dating from the early 15th century, looks out over the square that used to be known as the ‘Lower Market’ until the late 18th century.
Today you can visit the Maison du Roi, which is now the City Museum, and admire the architecture of surrounding structures including Les Ducs de Brabant, Le Roi de l’Espagne, Le Cornet, Le Cygne and Le Cerf.

Netherlands

Amsterdam Canal Ring

Amsterdam Canal Ring (7)

The Netherlands’ Golden Age spanned the better part of the 16th and 17th centuries.  This period saw incredible growth in terms of wealth and infrastructure thanks to Dutch maritime success.  A large-scale urban expansion, Amsterdam’s inner canal ring was developed to cope with the demands of this growth.  Such an enormous and pioneering project required the unique Dutch expertise of hydraulics, civil engineering and architecture.
The canal ring is lined with large merchants’ houses, professional institutes and warehouses, reflecting Amsterdam’s economic importance as a European capital.  Today a large number of the buildings are the headquarters of national and international corporations, many are hotels, restaurants and bars, and many also still serve as private residences – though not in quite such an exclusive capacity.

Norway

West Norwegian Fjords – Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord

Geirangerfjord in Norway (8)

The West Norwegian Fjords cover an area hundreds of kilometres in latitude.  Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord lie 120 km apart from each other and are cited as archetypal examples of fjord landscape.  Two of the world’s largest fjords, Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord are lined with rock faces that ascend over a kilometre above sea level and plunge down to 500m below sea level.
The striking features of the fjord landscape include numerous waterfalls rushing from glacial lakes, mountainous terrain that holds a number of glaciers, deciduous and coniferous forests, and submarine moraines.  The fjords also support marine mammals.

Italy

The Vatican, Rome

Vatican City in Rome (9)

The epicentre of Catholicism situated in the historical capital of the Roman Empire, The Vatican is at once a notorious and fascinating state.  Vast riches – both in terms of monetary and artistic wealth – are on display here.  Since the Vatican is the seat of the Pope – head of the Roman Catholic Church and one of the most powerful leaders in the world – you can expect to see a touch of opulence here and there.
Examples of this are St. Peter’s Basilica, which is the largest religious building in the world, and the famous ceiling of the nearby Sistine Chapel, which was painted by the hand of Michelangelo himself.  In addition to this, the Vatican also presents awe-inspiring examples of Renaissance and Baroque art and architecture.

Germany

Museumsinsel in Berlin

Museumsinsel in Berlin (10)

Museumsinsel holds five museums: Altes Museum, New Museum, Old National Gallery, Bode Museum and Pergamon.  Altes Museum was constructed in 1830 when King Friedrich Wilhelm III commissioned it as a public art gallery.  It was Friedrich August Stüler who in 1841 actually proposed that a cultural centre be developed on the island.
Suffering the destructive consequences of World War II and subsequent split of Berlin, many buildings remained in a serious state of disrepair until the end of the 20th century.  However, the first decade of the 21st century saw several museums reopen to display prominent collections of historical and artistic artefacts.

Czech Republic

Historic Centre of Prague

Prague's Historical Centre (11)

Prague deservedly has a reputation as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.  The architectural beauty found throughout the city centre is particularly noticeable in the Old Town, Lesser Town and New Town. Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral and Hradcani Castle are historical attractions that are amongst the city’s most popular, alongside modern structures like the Dancing House.
Prague’s aesthetic appeal owes a lot to Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor in the 14th century, but the Historic Centre features structures built between the 11th and 18th centuries.  Architectural works from the Gothic, High Baroque and Modernist periods have proved particularly influential throughout the continent.

Austria

Historic Centre of Vienna

Vienna's Historical Centre (12)

Vienna’s Innere Stadt is rich in cultural, historical and architectural gems marking the capital’s pivotal role in the progression of European history.  Several important cultural periods are represented, from the Medieval to Baroque period, and further to the 19th century Gründerzeit.  Within the Ringstraße you can witness some of Vienna’s finest and most popular attractions.
The Hofburg is an immense palace complex that housed the Habsburgs through six centuries of rule from 1276 until 1918.  Stephansdom is a dominating gothic cathedral that overlooks a square of the same name.  Hoher Markt, developed on the site of a Roman garrison, was one of Vienna’s most important markets during the Middle Ages and is the site of the 18th century Wedding Fountain.  In keeping with the city’s reputation as the classical music capital of Europe, several buildings have housed prodigies including Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

Croatia

Old City of Dubrovnik

The old city of Dubrovnik (13)

Dubrovnik’s charming old town developed as a result of increased maritime strength and wealth from the 13th century.  The city you can visit today has seen its fair share of destructive influences, but is still a remarkably well preserved example of a late-medieval walled city.  Some of the most attractive features of its architecture are the extensive fortifications, the grand city gate and buildings such as the cathedral, town hall and a pair of monasteries.
Dubrovnik’s old town still functions as a small harbour and as an immensely popular tourist attraction, complete with numerous boutiques and restaurants scattered amongst the private residences.  The city was severely damaged by an earthquake in 1667 and was extensively shelled during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s.  However, it rallied impressively from both, and is all the more resplendent for the tenacity involved in its reconstruction.

Hungary

Budapest

Across the Danube in Budapest (14)

A bit of a vague listing, but Budapest demonstrates a variety of historical significance.  Human occupation can be traced back to the Palaeolithic period, whilst the city also hosts the remains of the Roman city of Aquincum, which was the capital of Lower Pannonia.  Buda Castle, built on the bank of the Danube, had a significant influence in the dispersion of Gothic art in the Magyar region from the 14th century.
Following the unification of Buda and Pest in 1873, the city required a comprehensively organised urban development strategy for the first time since the Middle Ages.  It was here that the first underground railway on the European continent was built, in the 1890s.  This was put to good use in 1896, when the Millenial Exhibition in Budapest celebrated the 1000th anniversary of the Hungarian conquest.

Greece

The Acropolis in Athens

The Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens (15)

An awesome representation of the innovative classical Greek civilisation, the Acropolis holds numerous architectural wonders.  Following victory over the Persians in 479 BC, Athenian statesman Pericles helped to instigate a golden age of artistic and cultural enrichment that included structures that still stand on the Acropolis today.  Here you can visit the Parthenon, the Erechtheon the Propylaea and the temple of Athena Nike.
The Parthenon crowns the Acropolis and is one of the most famous buildings in the world.  Sculptor Phidias produced a statue of Athena to be housed in the Parthenon, which was considered to be one of his greatest creations.  Unfortunately, the Parthenon was destroyed in 1687 by the Venetians, but more recently rebuilding and renovation projects have managed to go some way in recreating the magnificence of the temple.

Turkey

Historical Istanbul

The Blue Mosque in Istanbul (16)

The principal city of three former empires, Istanbul’s strategic position on the Bosphorus makes it a culturally and historically fascinating destination.  Istanbul marks the watershed between east and west and has played the role of capital for the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.  This dynamic influence has given rise to world-renowned structures including the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the 6th century Hagia Sophia and 16th century Süleymaniye Camii.
As Constantinople, mosaics of the city’s churches and palaces played an influential role in Eastern and Western art.  As Istanbul, palaces and religious complexes such as Topkapı Palace and Süleymaniye Camii gave the capital further religious, social and architectural significance.

This list is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of awe-inspiring destinations.  UNESCO covers almost a thousand sites in its World Heritage List, and the countries of Europe are represented very prominently.  We’re interested to hear what you make of these sites and more, so leave a comment with any advice/review you might like to share.  If you’re interested in visiting any of the places listed above, you can follow some of the hyperlinks to find accommodation in the near vicinity.  Happy travelling!

(1) http://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/
(2) http://www.flickr.com/photos/suda/
(3) http://www.flickr.com/photos/markbridge/
(4) http://www.flickr.com/photos/pivari/
(5) http://www.flickr.com/photos/nathangibbs/
(6) http://www.flickr.com/photos/haveacupoftea/
(7) http://www.flickr.com/photos/dutchamsterdam/
(8) http://www.flickr.com/photos/27404002@N04/
(9) http://www.flickr.com/photos/fsamuels/
(10) http://www.flickr.com/photos/96dpi/
(11) http://www.flickr.com/photos/aigle_dore/
(12) http://www.flickr.com/photos/bcnbits/
(13) http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicsnell/
(14) http://www.flickr.com/photos/marcomartinscosta/
(15) http://www.flickr.com/photos/ddtmmm/
(16) http://www.flickr.com/photos/oberazzi/

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About Michael

Arrogance, hostility, parsimony, rapacity, impatience; the five humours of the Englishman abroad are my most positive features and also my guide and solace through tribulations. I delight in coffee, cheese, and the music of Ray Charles, and you can catch me trying to form a queue anywhere from Centraal Station to Hoofddorpplein.

One Response to 15 Top UNESCO sites in Europe

  1. Martin Chase says:

    awesome sites – I’ve been to them all except the Norwegian fjords. What about the less famous ones, such as Belgium’s belfries or the palace of Diocletian in Split?

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