Understanding UNESCO World Heritage Sites

What is an UNESCO World Heritage Site?

We've all heard or seen the term UNESCO or UNESCO World Heritage Site. I often find myself telling people about the UNESCO World Heritage Sites that I've visited on my travels with a hint of a boastful tone, proud of my accomplishments.

But does everyone actually understand what that means? What makes a location a UNESCO World Heritage Site? What goes into the selection process? What does the UNESCO protection mean?

UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and is a specialized agency of the United Nations. UNESCO is comprised of 195 member states spanning countries around the globe from France to Afghanistan.

UNESCO's mission is encourage countries to be a part of the World Heritage Convention. Once part of the organization, UNESCO will ensure the protection of their natural and cultural heritage, encourage participation of locals to preserve culture and heritage and  provide assistance to sites in immediate danger of destruction. 

To accomplish their mission, UNESCO dedicates World Heritage Sites.

"Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration" -unesco

A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a landmark or area which is selected by UNESCO as having cultural, scientific or historical significance and therefore is legally protected by international treaties. Each site is deemed to be of importance to the collective interests of humanity.

In order to be selected, a site must already be classified as a landmark with a uniquely identifiable feature and must be of outstanding universal value. It must also meet one of the following ten criteria:

  1. To represent a masterpiece of human creative genius
  2. To exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design
  3. To bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared
  4. To be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history
  5. To be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change
  6. To be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria)
  7. To contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance
  8. To be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
  9. To be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals
  10. To contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation

UNESCO seeks to conserve the selected site that could otherwise be subject to risk of destruction from human (or animal) interference. Sites that would sit unmonitored or that could become neglected with time. At the time of writing, there are 1,073 protected sites world wide.

For example, Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia was classified as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. As such, visitors cannot swim in the waters. On the contrary, Krka National Park in Croatia is not designated a World Heritage Site and visitors are free to swim in the park. 

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Krka National Park

Krka National Park

To further commit to the mission of preserving culture and heritage, in 2008 UNESCO introduced the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in an effort to further protect heritage, cultural practices and experiences. Think the way food is prepared like Korean Kimchi or European Summer solstice festivals.

In fact, French President Emmanuel Macron wants the traditional French baguettes listed under the UNESCO banner. Just as pizza in Naples was just declared a UNESCO World Heritage status.

We agree with President Macron as we too feel baguettes are a national treasure of France and should be preserved for future generations!

Fun Fact: Italy is the country with the most World Heritage Sites at 53.

Now that you have a better understanding of what UNESCO and World Heritage Sites are all about, we have put together a master list of all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites the Sapphire & Elm co-founders have visited on their travels.

Click the links for a more in depth look at each site and why you too should give these sites consideration when planning your next trip.

Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System

Belize Great Blue Hole
Cartagena Cathedral
Dubrovnik Wall Croatia
Plitvice National Park | Croatia
Hvar Croatia Stari Grad Plain
Split Croatia
Vinales Valley Cuba
Bordeaux France
Corfu Town
Acropolis | Athens, Greece
UNESCO Worl Heritage Site |Antigua, Guatemala
UNESCO World Heritage Site | Antigua, Guatemala

Bank of the Danube River, Budapest, Hungary 

UNESCO World Heritage Site| Thingvellir National Park

Historic Center of Naples, Italy

Pompei, Italy

UNESCO World Heritage Site | Pompei, Italy
Moroccan Lantern Shop
UNESCO World Heritage Site| Moroccan Medina
Leon Cathedral | Nicaragua
UNESCO World Heritage Sitte | Norway Fjords
Bergen, Norway
Courtyard of the Maidens| Alcázar, Seville,+Spain

Waterton Glacier International Peace Park / Glacier National Park, Montana, United States


Interested in visiting any of these sites? Contact us to start planning your custom vacation.

Explore More UNESCO World Heritage Sites