Thursday, February 9, 2012

What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

If you read travel articles even occasionally, you've surely come across the term "UNESCO World Heritage Site."  I've read it so often over the years I finally decided to investigate what the criteria are to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The palace and gardens of Schönbrunn
in Vienna, Austria, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The acronym stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a group founded in 1945 originally to reconstruct Europe's systems of education after the war.  Nine years later, in response to Egypt's Aswan Dam project and its potential flooding of ancient Egyptian treasures, UNESCO launched a worldwide safeguarding campaign.  The program now includes the protection and conservation of places of outstanding cultural as well as natural significance.  As of 2011, 936 sites are listed, with the most (47) in Italy.

The historic center of Rome
is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

There are ten criteria for cultural and natural heritage.  Nominated sites must be of "outstanding universal value" and meet at least one of the ten criteria, such as "represents a masterpiece of human creative genius," "bears a unique or exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared," or "contains superlative natural phenomena."  (Source:

The Acropolis in Athens, Greece,
is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What I find particularly cool is that UNESCO World Heritage Sites are legally protected under the Law of War per the Geneva Convention.  Attacks and other acts of hostility are prohibited.  With the political and economic rioting we see so often nowadays in some historic locations (Athens comes to mind) I worry sometimes about the world's precious monuments.  I remember watching on TV the destruction by dynamite of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in Afghanistan.  How tragic that that was permitted to occur!  Although UNESCO vigilantly opposed the proposed destruction of the statues, they were not a listed site and therefore not under protection of the law.

I like to consider designated sites as worthy of a visit when I travel, as they are always unique and interesting.  When we are in Spain and Portugal this summer we will explore the Alhambra in Granada, the city of Córdoba, the Monastery and Site of the Escurial in Madrid, the town of Cáceres in Spain, the Cathedral and Alcázar in Seville, the Tower of Belém in Lisbon, and the town of Sintra in Portugal - all listed by UNESCO.  I'm grateful that this organization exists to preserve the world's cultural and natural treasures for my children and all future generations.

Mont-Saint-Michel and its Bay, in France, are preserved by UNESCO.


  1. It's great you'll get to see so many UNESCO sites on travels this summer. I also like seeing UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They're like history lessons come to life.

  2. They even protect natural places of beauty like the coral reef in Belize, Central America. It's a wonderful organization. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I often think that I should print out the list and start checking them off to see how many we can get to. Sounds like you have a great summer of sightseeing planned!

  4. I never knew just what a Unesco site was. Thanks for the explanation.

  5. If you want to read about UNESCO WH sites in Andalucia, look at this There's been much controversy here in Seville lately over plans to build a skyscraper considerably taller than the Giralda, currently our tallest building. UNESCO has threatened to take away our WH status if the height of the building, the Torre Pelli, isn't modified. You can read more about it here

  6. I've read about the Pelli building and I agree, it should be reconsidered. Thanks for sharing. Will check out your recommended sites!

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  9. A World Heritage Site is a social or regular milestone that has been perceived by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These destinations are considered deserving of safeguarding because of their all inclusive incentive to humankind, both in the present and for people in the future. occupational therapy online

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