Must-see UNESCO sites in Italy

Did you know there are more than 1,000 UNESCO world heritage sites? They’re usually historic buildings or places of outstanding natural beauty, recognised for their uniqueness and cultural significance.

When it comes to culture, history and beauty, Italy is one of the most remarkable countries in the world. Just think of the treasures of the Vatican, or magnificent mountains like the Dolomites. In fact, with 55 sites on the UNESCO list, Italy is tied only with China – obviously an infinitely bigger country, which makes Italy’s ranking even more special.

Unesco Italy - Dolomites
The Dolomites – Picture by Kallerna, Wikimedia Commons

So, to celebrate Italy’s place at the top of the list, let’s look at some of the highlights, so you can start planning your Italian bucketlist for your next visit!

UNESCO in Italy: culture and history

The definition of a cultural site is quite broad. For example, the list for UNESCO in Italy includes:

  • Archaeological sites (Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli; Pompei)
  • Churches and religious sites (Christian monuments of Ravenna; Cathedral of Modena)
  • Historic city centres (the historic centres of Rome, Florence, Naples and more)
  • Historic buildings or monuments (the Royal Palace of Caserta, the Etruscan necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia)
  • Larger areas (Amalfi Coast; Venice and its Lagoon; Val d’Orcia in Tuscany)

It’s no surprise that famous sites like Pompei were awarded UNESCO world heritage status. Similarly, anyone who’s had a stroll around the historic centres of Rome or Florence will agree that they deserve recognition.

Take the area around the Pantheon in Rome, for example. After visiting this 2,000 year old temple, walk for just five minutes in any direction and you’ll find countless historical treasures – Piazza Navona and the remains of the Stadium of Domitian, or the archaeological site of Largo Argentina (location of Julius Caesar’s execution). Each individual site deserves UNESCO recognition, but there are so many that it was simpler to add the whole area to the UNESCO in Italy list under the label “historic centre of Rome”.

Pantheon Rome
The Pantheon in Rome

Off the beaten path

But while many of the sites on the list are already world-famous, take a closer look and you’ll find some lesser-known sites to add to your Italian bucketlist.

The Su Nuraxi di Baruminia in Sardinia are one example. These fascinating stone structures were built around 2,000 BC, and according to UNESCO the archaeological site “bears exceptional testimony to the Bronze Age civilisation of Sardinia and evolution of the political and social conditions of this prehistoric island community over many centuries.” So, after a few days lounging around on Sardinia’s pristine beaches, why not venture inland to explore some unique ancient ruins?

Su Nuraxi di Baruminia
Su Nuraxi di Baruminia in Sardinia – Picture by Norbert Nagel, Wikimedia Commons

If you’re visiting Rome for a longer period, we’d also recommend a day trip to Tivoli. This pretty hilltop town is less than an hour from Rome, and has not just one but two UNESCO sites – the gorgeous Renaissance gardens of Villa d’Este and the magnificent remains of Hadrian’s Villa.

Natural wonders for your Italian bucketlist

The majority of the sites on the UNESCO in Italy list are in the “culture” category, but there are also five sites classed as “natural”:

  • Monte San Giorgio (Lombardia)
  • The Dolomites (various regions in northern Italy)
  • Primeval Beech Forests (various regions across Italy)
  • Aeolian Islands (Sicily)
  • Mount Etna (Sicily)

The Dolomites and Mount Etna are obvious choices, but what about Monte San Giorgio? You may want to add this underrated site to your Italian bucketlist. Monte San Giorgio is a beautiful wooded mountain overlooking Lake Lugano (on the Swiss border), and it was awarded UNESCO recognition as the best fossil record of Triassic marine life. It’s an astonishingly rich and varied fossil deposit with remains of fish, reptiles and crustaceans that are up to 245 million years old. The Colosseum seems modern in comparison!

Unesco Italy - Monte San Giorgio
Monte San Giorgio – Picture by Jacques Perler, FMSG

To discover the best of UNESCO in Italy, join Roads to Rome Private Tours! We offer a variety of city Rome city centre tours and day trips from Rome, as well as excursions to Pompei and other UNESCO sites.

Read more: UNESCO in Italy: the full list of heritage sites

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Written by Alexandra Turney

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