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15 must-see Unesco world heritage sites in Europe

Unesco Europe

Unesco’s mission is to preserve the cultural and natural heritage of the world for generations of people to experience long in to the future. They protect some of the most breathtaking and culturally significant monuments, buildings and locations around the world, and a visit to any one of them is sure to be a delight. Here’s our pick of 15 unmissable Unesco world heritage sites in Europe. If you’re planning a trip to any of these European cities, be sure to make time to visit these magnificent sites.

1. Schönbrunn Palace — Vienna, Austria
Vienna’s 1,441-room Schönbrunn Palace is the former summer residence of the Habsburg emperors. Designed by the architects Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and Nicolaus Pacassi, the palace is the foremost example of Gesamtkunstwerk — a work of art that strives to masterfully synthesise several different mediums. It was also the site of the world’s first ever zoo in 1752.

The palace and gardens are some of the most immaculately preserved examples of baroque design in Europe, and they stand as testament to the power of the Habsburgs, who influenced the face of European history from the end of the 17th through to the early 20th century. A visit to Schönbrunn Palace, one of the most significant buildings in European history, provides an enlightening look in to Austria’s past.

You can enjoy an excursion to Schönbrunn Palace as part of our Cruise the Danube to Vienna and Budapest; Danube Discovery Cruise and Stay featuring Vienna and Budapest; and Danube to the Black Sea cruises.

2. 17th-century canal ring area of Amsterdam inside the Singelgracht — Amsterdam, Netherlands
Though it is not apparent if you visit the city today, Amsterdam is built on swampland. The canal district of the Dutch capital was built during the Dutch Golden Age at end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th to further facilitate trade. To achieve this, engineers had to artificially drain the swamp using a network of canals which still run through the heart of the city today. This was the largest and most ambitious example of town planning of the time, and influenced the expansion of many cities throughout the world until the 19th century.

The gabled facade of the terraced houses which occupy this area are indicative of the prosperous, middle-class culture which the booming maritime trade created. From the prosperity, the city became a hub of humanist culture and the Calvinist Reformation, which lead to the split between the protestant and catholic churches. This led to Amsterdam being seen as the realisation of the ‘ideal city’, and it was used as a blueprint around the word during the 17th and 18th centuries.

You can see Amsterdam in its full beauty on our Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent; Spring Gardens in Holland and Belgium; and The Delights of Amsterdam and the Dutch Bulbfields cruises.

3. La Grande-Place — Brussels, Belgium
Brussels’ La Grande-Place is an architectural jewel, and one of the most beautiful market squares in the whole of Europe. The majority of the buildings facing on to the cobbled square date back to the late 17th century, when they were rebuilt after they were mainly destroyed during the bombarded of Brussels by the troops of Louis XIV in 1695. This reconstruction, which was supervised by the city magistrate, was remarkable not only in the speed of its completion, but in the beauty of the buildings and their architectural coherence.

The wonderful baroque buildings are accentuated with gold details, making the square a magnificent sight, especially at night when illuminated by the streetlights. Every two years in August, the floor of the square is covered in an enormous flower carpet made up of over a million vibrant begonias arranged in a geometric design.

You can see Brussels on our Christmas Cruise to Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and Brussels; Spring Gardens in Holland and Belgium; and Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent trips.

4. Historic Centre of Bruges — Bruges, Belgium
The beautiful city of Bruges, which dates back to medieval times, is still an active city to this day. It now makes most of its money through its thriving tourist industry, rather than as a hub of international trade. The magnificent historic centre spans 430 hectares, and around 20,000 (17%) of the city's total population reside in this protected site.

Some remains of the 1st-century city walls remain, but the majority of structures date back to the city’s economic peak in the middle ages. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many of the buildings were joined to create larger living spaces to suit the needs of the times. In the late 19th century, the majority of the city’s building facades were renovated in a neo-gothic style — this has given the city a continuity which is almost unseen in cities with as long a history as Bruges.

With its stunning visual appeal and fascinating history, it’s no wonder that Bruges has exploded in popularity over the past few years as a tourist destination. This is especially the case during December, as the city is famous for its magnificent Christmas market.

Enjoy a day in Bruges as part of our Spring Gardens in Holland and Belgium; Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent; and New Year Cruise to Bruges, Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp trips.

5. Museumsinsel (Museum Island) — Berlin, Germany
The Museumsinsel in Berlin is comprised of five museums, constructed between 1824 and 1930, which were all built with the same aim in mind: to act as the pinnacle of human thought and design, and trace the development of civilization throughout the ages. The complex is remarkable because it represents the realisation of a vision and architectural style which remained consistent for over a hundred years.

The concept for the museums originates from the age of enlightenment in the 18th century, when culture and education where held in extremely high regard. Prussia’s most renowned architects worked on the buildings over the century it took to complete the project, and the architecture is some of the most stunning in Europe.

During the Second World War, the museums took on further significance as the place where the Nazis stored the art they stole from around Europe. Today, the Museumsinsel contains some of the world’s most significant pieces of art, dating from medieval times to the modern day.

You can visit these museums as part of a trip to Berlin on our Baltic Isles, Berlin and Poland and Elegant Elbe, Berlin and Prague cruises.

6. Speyer Cathedral — Speyer, Germany
Speyer Cathedral was founded by Conrad II in 1030 during the rule of the Roman empire, and was the burial place of German emperors for almost 300 years. Flat-topped in its initial form, four towers and two domes were added to the cathedral when it was rebuilt by Henry IV following his reconciliation with the pope in 1077, leading to the impressive structure of today.

Speyer Cathedral is the largest, and arguably the most significant, example of Romanesque architecture in Europe. Its crypt houses the remains of eight emperors of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, making it a building of huge historical significance. The size and quality of its sculptures also make it a significant artistic landmark.

The cathedral was seriously damaged by fire in 1689, and its reconstruction from 1772 to 1778 is one of the first successful attempts at monument preservation in Europe.

See the Speyer Cathedral on our Rhine Cruise and Swiss Delights and Hidden Treasures of the Rhine to Strasbourg cruises.

7. Grande île — Strasbourg, France
The Grand Île was founded as Argentoratum, a Roman camp which eventually gained its independence and developed into the free city of Strasbourg. The city was a centre of commerce in the middle ages, and it’s where Johannes Gutenberg created the first mobile printing press in the late 15th century.

The Grande Île, or Big Island, is Strasbourg’s historic centre. Surrounded on either side by arms of the Ill river, the island is home to the city’s central square, Place Kléber, four centuries-old churches, and the former residence of prince-bishops. It is also home to Strasbourg Cathedral, a magnificent example of gothic architecture which was the tallest church in the world from 1647 to 1874.

See the Grand Île and the rest of the historic city of Strasbourg on our Cruise the Rhine to Switzerland; Hidden Treasures of the Rhine to Strasbourg; and Rhine Cruise and Swiss Delights trips.

8. Cologne Cathedral — Cologne, Germany
Cologne Cathedral is the seat of the archbishop of Cologne and the most visited landmark in Germany, attracting an average of 20,000 people each day. It’s one of the greatest examples of gothic architecture in Europe and a renowned monument of German Catholicism.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1248 but was stopped in 1473 and left unfinished until the 19th century. It was completed in 1880, becoming the largest gothic church in northern Europe with the second-tallest spires on the continent and the largest facade of any church in the world. Remarkably, the 19th-century builders completed the cathedral to the exact specifications of the original plans.

During the Second World War, the cathedral was badly damaged by bombing. Despite this, it remained one of the only structures left standing in an almost completely flattened city. This is because its twin spires were an easily recognizable landmark for allied aircraft to use to navigate their bombing raids. Repairs to this damage were partially completed in 1956, and the church was restored to its original appearance in 2005.

See the Cologne Cathedral on our Rhine Discovery; Christmas Rhine; and Medieval Towns of Bavaria and the Rhine Valley cruises.

9. Kremlin and Red Square — Moscow, Russia
The Kremlin, meaning ‘fortress inside a city’, is a fortified complex at the heart of Moscow overlooking Moskva river to the south, Saint Basil's Cathedral and the Red Square to the east, and the Alexander Garden to the west. It includes five palaces, four cathedrals, and is enclosed by the Kremlin Wall and towers. It also serves as the official residence of the president of the Russian Federation, and has been at the geographical and political centre of Moscow since the time of the tsars.

The Red Square separates the Kremlin from Kitai-gorod, a historic merchant quarter. Built as Moscow’s main marketplace in the 16th century, it remains the city’s central square. Today, the Red Square is the site of Lenin’s Mausoleum, which was designed by A.V. Shchusev and is an outstanding example of Soviet monumental architecture.

The Kremlin and the Red Square are not only some of Europe’s most historically significant sites, but are also among its most beautiful. You can see them both on our Moscow to St Petersburg cruise.

10. Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg — St Petersburg, Russia
According to Unesco, “the unique urban landscape of the port and capital city of Saint Petersburg, rising out of the Neva estuary where it meets the Gulf of Finland, was the greatest urban creation of the 18th century”. The entire city was constructed in a remarkably short period of time to a plan which included many of Peter the Great’s own ideas. Much like Amsterdam and Venice, this was done on an artificially created landmass crisscrossed with canals.

During the reign of the Soviet Union, the city was renamed Leningrad, and it is inextricably linked to the October Revolution and the rise of communism in Russia. The city is also the site of the 1917 February Revolution and the blockade of 1941–1944, during which approximately a million lives were lost. In the 21st century, the city is a centre of Russian culture, science and education.

A visit to St Petersburg will not only reveal its idiosyncratic architecture, but also some of the best tourist destinations in Europe, including the Church of the Saviour on Blood, the Winter Palace and Catherine Palace. See this and more on our Moscow to St Petersburg cruise.

11. Würzburg Residence — Würzburg, Germany
The Würzburg Residence is one of the largest and most magnificent residential buildings in Germany. It was constructed in the 18th century under the patronage of two successive prince-bishops, Johann Philipp Franz and Friedrich Karl von Schönborn. The beautiful residence and the vast accompanying gardens stand as a testament to the power and influence held by the prince-bishops at the time — they were designed and constructed by architects, engineers and artists ranging from Vienna, Paris, Mainz, Flanders, Munich and Venice.

The residence was heavily damaged in a bomb raid during the Second World War, with only the central building coming out unscathed. Between 1945 and 1987, it was reconstructed to its current state at a cost of approximately €20 million, and it now stands as a marvel of modern conservation techniques as well as baroque architecture.

Enjoy a visit to the Würzburg Residence as part of our Medieval Towns of Bavaria and the Rhine Valley and Bavaria and the Romantic Rhine cruises.

12. Plantin-Moretus House-Workshops-Museum Complex — Antwerp, Belgium
Alongside Paris and Venice, Antwerp was one of three leading cities in the development of commercial printing in the 1500s. The Plantin-Moretus Museum, named after the greatest printer-publisher of the late 16th century, Christophe Plantin, is home to the oldest working printing presses in the world.

The protected complex includes the printing factory itself, as well as the former homes of the Plantin and Moretus families, in which you can see what life in Antwerp was like for a nouveau-riche family in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Platin household includes an impressive art collection featuring portraits by Peter Paul Rubens, while the Moretus’s breathtaking library contains over 30,000 perfectly preserved books from the Renaissance and baroque periods.

See the Plantin-Moretus Museum alongside the rest of Antwerp as part of our our Christmas Cruise to Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges and Brussels; New Year Cruise to Bruges, Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp; and Amsterdam, Brussels, Antwerp and Ghent trips.

13. Budapest, including the Banks of the Danube, the Buda Castle Quarter and Andrássy Avenue — Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is one of the most idiosyncratic cities in all of Europe. Traditional ‘Buda’ and cosmopolitan ‘Pest’, which were two separate cities until they were officially unified in 1873, are separated by the Danube and conjoined by the colossal Chain Bridge.

The highlight of the city is the stretch of land along the riverbank, which is protected by Unesco due to its huge historical significance. This land has been settled on since the Palaeolithic times, and has since been the site of the Roman city of Aquincum and the medieval urban centre of Pest. The castle of Buda was built on the opposite bank of the river in 1265 by King Bela IV, and since then the city has been home to the Hungarian monarchy. Urban development in the form of Europe’s first underground railway, the neo-gothic parliament building, and W.T. Clark’s suspension bridge has seen the city become a must-see European capital.

Experience beautiful Budapest on our Danube to the Black Sea and Danube Discovery cruises.

14. Town of Bamberg — Bamberg, Germany
The beautiful Bavarian town of Bamberg, with its magnificent cathedral and famous breweries, is one of the highlights of southern Germany. It’s a perfect example of a European medieval town, and many of the buildings survive from the period. When the Duke of Bavaria, Henry II, became King of Germany in 1007, he made Bamberg the seat of Catholicism with the intention of making it a ‘second Rome’.

The city’s most prosperous period was the 12th century, when its architecture — especially its religious buildings — had a strong influence on northern Germany and Hungary. In the 17th century, the witch trials in Bamberg claimed more than 1,000 victims. This reached its climax between 1626 and 1631 under the rule of Prince-Bishop Johann Georg II Fuchs von Dornheim, and during this time the Drudenhaus (witch prison) was built. The building is no longer standing today, but the detailed historic accounts of the trials still remain.

Bamberg has a rich and intriguing history: in the late 18th century, it was the centre of the Southern German Enlightenment and home to eminent thinkers such as Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and E.T.A. Hoffmann. In 1926, Adolf Hitler called the Bamberg Conference at the town in an attempt to stifle dissent within the then recently formed Nazi party.

See the historic town of Bamberg on our Bavaria and Romantic Rhine and Medieval Towns of Bavaria and the Rhine Valley cruises.

15. Historic Centre of Prague — Prague, Czech Republic
Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is one of Europe’s most stunning cities. Its sprawling and beautiful architecture ranges from the gothic period (14th and 15th centuries) to the baroque design of the early 18th century and the modernism of the 20th.

Situated on the banks of the Vlatava river, Prague represents some of the best examples of every period of European architecture. This can be seen in its many incredible monuments, such as the Hradčany Castle, Saint Vitus Cathedral, and the iconic Charles Bridge. Prague stands as such a magnificent city today because it has avoided major works of urban renewal, and so retained its character and charm in a way few other European cities have.

Alongside its fairytale architecture, Prague is a hub of European culture, food and art. The city is also well known for having some of the best nightlife in Europe, and is famous for its magnificent beer.

Prague’s 1,100-year history is filled with prominent figures in the world of art, science and politics, including Charles IV, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, and Edvard Beneš. Follow in their footsteps on a visit to this wonderful city, which you can see on our Elegant Elbe, Berlin and Prague cruise.

A visit to any one of these magnificent locations is sure to be a highlight of any European getaway. Each site has its own intriguing history, and together these sites represent some of the most beautiful and influential examples of architecture, art, and design the continent has to offer. Each of these must-see European Unesco world heritage sites can be reached on one of our river cruises, which you can book online today.

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