As the birthplace of many great civilisations and as the continent that colonised the New World and beyond, it goes without saying that Europe is, indeed, awash with history. In fact, aside from the mouth-watering food and the leisurely rhythm, most visitors seek to immerse themselves in said historic heritage when they travel to the Old Continent; an easy way to find out what the most significant sites are is to look up those part of the UNESCO World Heritage programme, which highlights places with substantial cultural or historical implication.
Out of the almost 500 sites across Europe, here are 12 that, according to us, must be seen in a lifetime.
UNESCO Sites in Europe: What To See
Although no one would raise an eyebrow at seeing Venice on top of this list, there’s actually more to it than meets the eye. Evidently, the city is unadulterated eye candy; but what really sets it aside is the fact that Venice, its lagoon, and its 118 islands are registered under six different criteria, by opposition, most sites usually get two or three.
Obviously an artistic and architectural achievement, Venice also bears testimony to a bygone era when it linked the East and the West: this is where Marco Polo embarked on his voyage back in the 13th century, which were quickly followed by entrepreneurial merchants, further strengthening the Venetian authority across the Mediterranean Sea and the world.
Prague is nothing if not an outstanding architectural ensemble; with buildings spanning over nine centuries and a variety of cultural influences, the Czech capital is, deservedly, one of the most beautiful in Europe. What few visitors are aware of, however, is the significant role Prague played in the development of Christianity in Central Europe from the Middle Ages onwards and how it became the intellectual hub of the Old Continent’s eastern half, attracting now-household names like Mozart and Kafka.
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Few architects have left a similarly noteworthy mark on a city the way Gaudi did, his seven imaginative Barcelona masterpieces: Park Güell, Casa Milà-La Pedrera, Casa Batlló, to name a few and the still unfinished Sagrada Familia. It is widely agreed upon that his works represent an exceptional contribution to Barcelona’s early 20th century architectural, technological, and artistic development; his highly personal vision was inspired by Catalonia’s modernist movement and, perhaps more meaningfully, by the beauty of nature and its elements.
Talk about a natural wonder! The Plitvice Lakes is indeed one of Europe’s most beautiful areas, and a continuously changing one at that, as the geological process is still very much active today. Waterfalls, caves, and turquoise-coloured lakes are quite common at Plitvice and are home to exceptional fauna, including wolves and bears, but also rare birds. An ornithologist’s paradise!
Budapest is infinitely more than just a pretty face: aside from historians, few people are actually aware that this particular stretch of the River Danube is home to a Roman settlement once known as Aquincum, the capital city of the Lower Pannonia province (present-day western Hungary and northern Serbia); one of its amphitheatres can still be visited today.
Moreover, Buda Castle and the Hungarian building are testament to the extensive power and influence held by the Austro-Hungarian empire throughout Europe in the late 19th century, of which Budapest was co-capital.
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Delos is one of those places where reality and fiction play an equally inherent role; as Apollo’s and Artemis’ birthplace (in theory) and as the Aegean Sea’s largest trade port back in the Hellenistic period (in fact), this microscopic island just off Mykonos is without a doubt one of the most archeologically significant places in the Cyclades.
Amsterdam is without a doubt a marvel of civil engineering and urban planning; did you know that in the 18th century, the Dutch capital was, in fact, considered an ideal city and served as reference for many other cities around the world? Historically speaking, Amsterdam is a purpose-built and entirely artificial port city located a whopping two metres under sea level and comprising a vast network of concentric canals (which help drain water from surrounding swampland) stretching over 100 kilometres, almost 2000 bridges, and hundreds of thousands of piles. This cohesive, compact layout led the way to a homogenous urban ensemble filled with gabled facades and historic warehouses, a testament to Holland’s former maritime enrichment.
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Part of Ireland’s Ancient East, the Bend of the Boyne is home to three fascinating prehistoric sites , Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth, making it the largest concentration of megalithic art in Europe. The area has long been synonymous with spirituality, as passage graves and burial mounds were not only used for pagan funerary rites but also for astronomical celebrations (such as the famous Equinox sunrise), as demonstrated by the petroglyphs carved inside the caves. That’s over 5000 years of history, right there just north of Dublin.
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Strange things went down in Wiltshire in the Bronze Age! Stonehenge may be the world’s most sophisticated stone circle but the ominous, gloomy megalith sanctuary is just as much a mystery to us now than it was hundreds of years ago; no one seems to agree on how druids got these massive stones all the way from Wales and laid them out in such precise, orderly manner. In fact, scientists are still actively studying the astronomical, architectural, and ceremonial implications of the holy menhirs 3000 years after Stonehenge’s assessed completion.
The bucolic jurisdiction of vinicultural Saint-Émilion, just outside Bordeaux, is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site specifically because of its historically significant wine-making culture, which has played a leading role since Roman times. The landscape, dotted with vine-covered rolling hills and limestone châteaux, has pretty much remained unchanged; Saint-Émilion’s trade and commerce both hugely benefited from its premium location along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route.
Did you know that Bruges was a trading metropolis back in the Middle Ages and a prominent member of the Hanseatic League? Although no longer as significant on the global scale, the city nonetheless holds one of the most brilliant sets of medieval architecture in Europe, which continues to delight tourists with its stately belfry (which, like many other belfries in Europe, was built solely as a demonstration of wealth and did not actually serve a purpose), its colourful markt, its network of tranquil and romantic canals, and its flamboyant Gothic city hall.
Spanning 800 square kilometres, the Loire Valley is home to over 164 villages as well as some of France’s most lavish castles; seeing it on the UNESCO World Heritage sites list makes complete sense, considering how much of an impact these estates (along with their celebrated wineries and orchards) had on French and Western European culture, architecture, and art de vivre in the hedonistic Renaissance age.