What is UNESCO?
So, let’s start off with this: What is UNESCO? It stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation and was founded in 1946. Its goal? To promote collaboration and mutual respect across countries and cultures by recognising sites that are important to our history for scientific or cultural reasons.
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 all of these sites by train.
When Mount Vesuvius erupted nearly 2000 years ago, Pompeii was one of two cities caught beneath the explosion’s ash. Over the years, the city and its 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.
2. Works of Gaudi, Barcelona
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 Güell, 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 the emergence of this France-Spain high speed connection, it was necessary to change trains at the border and the trip could take several hours longer, so this new line is very exciting.
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
3. Norway: Fjords
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. 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: 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. 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.
4. Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia
The highlight of Split is the Diocletian Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. The entire historic city centre 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 south side of a short peninsula jutting out 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 outlining options for traveling in Croatia.
5. Hallstatt, Austria
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).
Important to note: The Hallstatt train station is across the lake from the actual town. To get into the town, there are ferries that take arriving visitors 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.
Sintra is a castle straight out of a fairytale. Formerly a monastery, this beautiful structure is a mix of Gothic, Moorish, and Renaissance design while its surrounding gardens are also a mix of both local and exotic species. If that wasn’t temptation enough to visit, 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 several tours to choose from:
- Sintra and Cascais Small Group Day Trip from Lisbon
- Lisbon and Sintra Sightseeing Tour by Convertible Beetle
- Lisbon Super Saver Tour
7. Kotor, Montenegro
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.
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, Montenegro is one of the countries covered by the Eurail Global Pass, so those planning on seeing more of Montenegro and this region of Europe can do so with ease and flexibility.
8. Cinque Terre, Italy
According to the UNESCO site, this gorgeous coastal 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’s just a picture-perfect cluster of pastel-painted prettiness.
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 and Riomaggiore. The latter is just eight minutes from La Spezia.
9. Swiss Alps & Jungfrau
Jungfraujoch is one of the most popular peaks in Europe, and it’s also home to Europe’s highest railway station. It’s also 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 astoundingly beautiful also helps — it’s one of the most visited mountain ranges in the world and contributes hugely 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 description of these various options is available on the Jungfraujoch Top of Europe page.
10. Rhine Valley, Germany
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.
Rhine Valley by train: You’re going to want to hop along all of the quaint little villages and towns lining the valley coast, so a German Rail Pass is probably a good bet. A pass is a good option for travellers 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.