With more UNESCO sites than any other continent, Europe is home to a staggering array of natural and cultural landmarks. There are historical sights and architectural marvels aplenty, from classical Greek ruins to Italian Renaissance cities.
The scenery is exceptionally diverse too, with white-sand beaches, ancient forests and dramatic fjords just a hop and a skip away from one another. Here are some of Europe’s best UNESCO sites.
Located on a rocky hill, the Acropolis of Athens is the greatest architectural and artistic complex of Ancient Greece. The first fortifications date back to the thirteenth century, although it wasn’t until the fifth century that the sanctuary reached its peak.
Following the Athenians’ victory over the Persians, the city’s influential statesman Pericles rebuilt the citadel, commissioning some of Greece’s most prominent architects and sculptors. Phidias was charged with the construction of the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to the patron of the city – the goddess Athena.
With its network of picturesque canals and waterways, Venice is an astounding architectural masterpiece whose buildings contain some of the world’s greatest works of art. Founded in the fifth century, it was once a major maritime power that influenced the development of architecture across the city’s trading stations, from the nearby Dalmatian Coast to Asia Minor.
Venice’s harmonious integration with the surrounding natural environment and its magnificent medieval and Renaissance architecture make it one of the world’s most unique urban settlements.
Dating back to Roman times, the city of Évora in the Alentejo region is a fine example of a city from the Golden Age of Portugal. It became the residence of the Portuguese kings in the fifteenth century, with convents and royal palaces erected around town.
Over the centuries new architectural features were added, including low whitewashed houses embellished with pretty Dutch tiles and wrought-iron balconies. The city’s architecture also influenced the construction of Portugal’s colonial cities in Brazil.
Founded in the first century AD, Bath was used by the Romans as a thermal spa town. The baths are today among the most important Roman remains north of the Alps. During the Middle Ages the city flourished as a centre for wool industry, while under the reign of George III it was a fine spa city with a lively arts and literary scene.
The city’s architects were influenced by Italian Andrea Palladio, constructing neo-classical buildings, squares and terraces that harmoniously blend in with the city’s Roman remains.
Located in the karst area of central Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National Park is home to sixteen terraced lakes separated by travertine barriers and connected by cascades. Surrounded by deep woodland home to deer, wolves, bears, rare birds and boars, the lakes are spread out over 8km. A series of winding paths lead to wooden walkways that cross the pools’ azure waters, offering gorgeous lake views.
The Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord fjords in southwestern Norway are two of the longest and deepest in the world. They are characterised by crystalline rock walls rising 1400m from the Norwegian Sea and plunging to a depth of 500m below sea level.
Their steep cliffs are home to coniferous forests, glaciers, rivers and waterfalls, and sprinkled with old and largely abandoned transhumant farms. They’re considered to be among the world’s most scenic fjords, harbouring an array of terrestrial and marine life including native deer, arctic foxes, brown bears, otters, porpoises, sperm whales and Atlantic salmon.
Founded by the Celts, the university town of Salamanca became a Roman settlement and commercial hub in the third century BC, it was later ruled by the Moors. But it wasn’t until the thirteenth century that it gained importance when Alfonso IX of León granted a royal charter to the university, which became one of Europe’s most prestigious centres for learning.
The city’s historical centre is home to Romanesque, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance and Baroque constructions, such as the magnificent eighteenth century Plaza Mayor, which lies at the heart of the Golden City.
Nicknamed ”The Venice of the North”, the port city of St Petersburg was built in the eighteenth century under Tsar Peter the Great in a bid to modernise Russia and rival the most beautiful European cities. He commissioned French and Italian architects to build its elegant core.
St Petersburg’s picturesque canals are lined with pastel-coloured baroque and Neo-classical buildings, the most notable of which is the magnificent Winter Palace, the former residence of the Russian tsars until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Today it houses the Hermitage, one of the largest and oldest museums in the world.
9. Białowieża Forest, Poland
Straddling the Polish-Belarus border, the Białowieża Forest is a vast primary woodland offering excellent biodiversity conservation, thanks to its old-growth forests and diverse range of ecosystems – including wet meadows, wetlands and valleys.
It is home to the largest population of European bison, with a number of breeding reserves located in Białowieża National Park. The forest was once the hunting reserve of Polish monarchs and later of Russian tsars.