So, let’s start off with this: What is UNESCO? It stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization and was founded in 1946. Its goal? To promote collaboration and mutual respect across countries and cultures by recognizing sites that are important to our history for scientific or cultural reasons. Sounds good!
Europe: More UNESCO World Heritage Sites Than Anywhere Else
Now for the fun facts: did you know that Europe has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other continent? Pretty impressive. We’ve compiled a list of 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites that we think you should add to your European travel itinerary — and as a bonus, we’ve got tips on how to reach those sites by train.
(And if we missed a site that you think should’ve made it on this list, never fear: we also made a Pinterest board featuring even more European UNESCO sites you can reach by train! Can you tell we got really excited about this topic?)
When Mount Vesuvius erupted nearly 2000 years ago, Pompeii was one of two cities beneath. Over the years the city and the surrounding villas have been excavated as a historical and educational testament to the power of nature as well as a monument to those who suffered the great volcano’s wrath.
Pompeii by train: Pompeii can be reached quite easily by rail. Pompeii’s Scavi Station is just 15 miles south of Naples and has trains running frequently throughout the day and late into the evening (trains also continue out to Sorrento). Tickets for this train route can only be purchased locally at the train station, as the train is operated by a private local line. Once off the train, just follow the signs to the main attraction
If carrying a Eurail Pass or Eurail Italy Pass, the regular Trenitalia service can bring you from Naples Central to the modern city location of Pompeii further from the archaeological site and Salerno.
The city of Barcelona is known for its delicious tapas, exciting nightlife, and quirky architectural gems — most of them the work of Antoni Gaudi. Gaudi’s 7 most famous works — the Sagrada Familia Basilica, the Parc Guell, Casa Batllo, the Crypt of the Colònia Güell, the Palau Güell, the Casa Milà-La Pedrera, and the Casa Vicens — are such a part of the city’s culture and heritage that they have been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Barcelona by train: Barcelona is an easy ride from two of Europe’s most popular cities, Madrid and Paris. From Madrid, it’s about 2.5 hours on the high-speed AVE train. From Paris, it’s about 6.5 hours on the new France-Spain High Speed line (it’s just over a year old). Before that France-Spain high speed connection, it was necessary to change trains at the border and the trip could take several hours longer, so we’re pretty excited about this new line.
Once in Barcelona, try out a city tour to make sure you hit all the important sites you want to see:
- City Sightseeing Barcelona Hop On, Hop Off Tour
- Skip the Line: Best of Barcelona Tour (including Sagrada Familia)
- Barcelona Super Saver: Sightseeing Tour with Montjuic Cable Car and Montserrat Tour
We’ve waxed poetic about the Norwegian Fjords many, many times (including this recent post with tips for traveling the Norway in a Nutshell route), and for good reason: look at those things! This area was named a UNESCO World Heritage site because it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
Norway & fjords by train: Look, if you’re going to head out all the way to Norway to see this beautiful landscape, you want to make sure you invest in a great experience. It’s probably a once in a lifetime opportunity! The Norway in a Nutshell tour is perfect for this route because it takes care of everything: the train portion of the trip, the bus portion, and the boat portion. These different transportation segments are great because you get to experience the fjords from far away, then up close and personal, from land and water and the sides of mountains, meaning your photo opportunities are going to be pretty frequent and varied. Charge those camera batteries!
The highlight of Split is the Diocletian Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. The entire historic city center is built around its remains. The palace is considered to be among the best-preserved Roman palaces in the world (if not THE best), and it was built by the Roman emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century. The location is spectacular too, lying in a bay on the southside of a short peninsula jutting from the Dalmatian Coast.
Split by train: Split is about 5.5 hours from Zagreb by train, and the route is pretty scenic! If you plan to travel around Croatia a bit more by train, you might want to consider a Eurail Croatia Pass. If this is the only train trip you’re taking, you’ll be good to go with point to point tickets. Here’s a helpful guide we put together about your options for traveling in Croatia.
If you’re looking to scratch postcard perfect European towns and UNESCO sites off your list, this one will get you both! Many of the towns in Austria are quite idyllic, but this one achieved UNESCO status because of its unique history with salt — salt mines have assured this town’s prosperity from medieval times up through the 20th century. In fact, “Hallstatt” translates roughly to “Salt Settlement.”
Hallstatt by train: Hallstatt is easily reachable by train from several popular European cities: Vienna (there is one direct train per day, then trains with a change in Attnang Puchheim along the way); Salzburg (about 2 hours by train with a change in Attnang Puccheim); Hallstatt is also included in the Eurail Austria Pass (currently on sale at the time this post is published!)
FUN FACT (and actually, kind of an essential fact): The Hallstatt train station is across the lake from the actual town. To get into the town, there are ferries that take arriving passengers across the lake. The ferries are timed to meet train arrivals and departures, and the ferry ride to town takes about 10 or 15 minutes.
You knew there’d be at least one castle on this list. Sintra is the castle that fairytales are made of: formerly a monastery, this beautiful structure is a mix of Gothic, Moorish, and Renaissance designs while its surrounding gardens are also a mix of both local and exotic species. Need even more romance than that? Sintra Mountain used to be called “The Mountain of the Moon.”
Sintra by train: 45 minutes by train from Lisbon. Tickets can be purchased locally. Or, if you’d prefer some commentary and expert knowledge, there are a few great tours you can choose from:
- Sintra and Cascais Small Group Day Trip from Lisbon
- Lisbon and Sintra Sightseeing Tour by Convertible Beetle
- Lisbon Super Saver Tour
This little Eastern European gem proves that Western Europe doesn’t have a monopoly on stunning historical architecture. Kotor makes the UNESCO list for a rather simple reason: the architecture is beautiful, historic, and most importantly, blends harmoniously into the landscape. Couldn’t agree with you more, UNESCO.
Kotor by train: There is no train station in Kotor, however there are two stations that are each about 25 miles away: Podgorica and Sutomore. From either of these towns, you could take a bus or taxi to continue on to Kotor. Also, fun fact for anyone planning to see more of Montenegro and this region of Europe: as of 2015, Montenegro has been added to the countries covered by the Eurail Global Pass!
You’ve probably seen Cinque Terre all over Pinterest and that’s because there’s basically a stunning photo opportunity around every corner. According to the UNESCO site, this region made the list because it represents “the harmonious interaction between people and nature to produce a landscape of exceptional scenic quality that illustrates a traditional way of life that has existed for a thousand years and continues to play an important socio-economic role in the life of the community.” But also, it looks great on Instagram.
Cinque Terre by train: With a Eurail Italy Pass, getting to La Spezia is easy despite the rugged landscape. There are direct Le Freccia trains from Rome, Genoa and Pisa. Getting around the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre is simple thanks to the Regionale train that makes all the local stops: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola. Riomaggiore is just eight minutes from La Spezia.
Jungfraujoch is one of the most popular peaks in Europe, as it’s home to Europe’s highest railway station. And it’s a UNESCO site because of the diversity of its flora and fauna, whose variety and longevity help to show the different geological processes that formed the Swiss Alps. The fact that it’s beautiful also helps — it’s one of the most visited mountain ranges in the world and is a massive contribution to tourism in this area of Switzerland.
Jungfraujoch by train: If you’re traveling with a Swiss Travel Pass, Swiss Half Fare Card/Combi, or Eurail Pass, you can get discounts on the trip up to the mountain peak. A list and explanation of those various options is available on the Jungfraujoch Top of Europe page.
This one is sort of a combination of two previous items on this list: Sintra and Cinque Terre. Like Sintra, it evokes feelings of romanticism and legend and has inspired many artists and writers throughout the centuries. Like Cinque Terre, it shows the harmonious relationship between a culture and its surrounding landscapes for hundreds of years. Fun fact: the Rhine Valley is lined with about 40 castles and fortresses. Castle bucket list, anyone?
Rhine Valley by train: You’re going to want to hop along all of the quaint little villages and towns along the valley coast, so a German Rail Pass is probably a good bet. A pass is a good option for travelers wanting to take more than a couple of train trips.
So there you have it — our list of top UNESCO sites in Europe! Did we leave any out? Head over to our top UNESCO sites Pinterest board to see even more sites you can visit by train in Europe. And if you liked this article, please share it on Pinterest using the button and image below!