Established in the early 1970’s, UNESCO recognizes places around the world that have outstanding cultural value, or natural importance; ancient ruins (like the Colosseum), famous architecture, and picturesque natural wonders.
There are over 1,100 UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered across the globe, though Italy ranks number one when it comes to countries with the most (technically, it shares this top spot with China, but does hold the record when it comes to cultural sites ).
With 55 sites, there’s definitely a lot to choose from, so we’ve put together a list of the best; our top 10 favorites you should start with.
The best tours in Italy will usually take you to a number of the country’s top UNESCO sites, as well as many that are pending recognition; there are around four dozen tentative sites that are being considered by UNESCO such as Arch of Trajan in Campania.
Let’s get started!
The 10 Best Italian UNESCO World Heritage Sites
Long before Pompeii was a Bastille song, or a Hollywood film that ended up being more of a disaster than the event it was based on, Pompeii was an ancient Roman city near Naples.
It is most well known for being buried in 20 feet of volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79.
Around 2-3 million people visit the Pompeii ruins annually to capture snapshots of ancient Roman life through nearly perfectly preserved temples, theatres, homes, public buildings, and even people frozen in time. The site has been a popular tourist destination for over 250 years after it was discovered in 1748.
Other nearby sites which were also covered by volcanic ash in the eruption includes the ancient town of Herculaneum and the Roman archaeological site known as Oplontis. Both warrant a visit and attract fewer crowds than Pompeii.
You’ll find Herculaneum in a much better state of preservation due to the deeper layer of ash it experienced and the fact it wasn’t destroyed by as many falling rocks and fires.
You’ll find the ruins of Pompeii in the city and commune Pompei (just one “i”) within the Metropolitan City of Naples.
Mount Vesuvius has erupted many times since the tragedy that buried Pompeii in ash and is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world due to its future potential for disturbing millions of lives.
The Amalfi Coast
With its beautiful coastal views, terraced vineyards and gardens, and abundant colorful houses and buildings, the Amalfi Coast is one of Italy’s most Instagrammable UNESCO sites.
Located in southern Italy’s Province of Salerno, the Amalfi Coast looks out over the Tyrrhenian Sea and is home to over a dozen charming towns including Positano, Praiano, and of course Amalfi. Each town has its own distinct character and traditions.
Enjoy scenic coastal walks, beautiful beaches, delicious cuisine, and exceptional natural scenery from every angle. Take a boat tour to visit the Emerald Cave or nearby islands such as Capri.
You’ll find great shopping, luxurious hotels, lovely mountainside villas, and citrus and olive groves. Begin your adventure in Sorrento after taking the scenic train ride from Naples.
Orto botanico di Padova
Also known as the Garden of Padova, these botanic gardens are regarded as the world’s oldest. The gardens rival the age of Italy’s Garden of Pisa, but unlike Pisa’s gardens, Padova’s still sits on its original site.
The gardens feature nearly 7,000 plant species from all around the world including many individual plants which are hundreds of years old. The oldest plant here is the Goethe palm dating back to 1585, as well as the 18th century ginkgo and magnolia trees.
Orto botanico di Padova was one of the first gardens in Europe to receive New World exotic plants like agave, sunflowers, and potatoes. Walk the immaculate gardens and visit the onsite museum which houses a library of around 50,000 books and manuscripts relating to plants.
Five villages make up the Cinque Terre of northwestern Italy, and each village offers beautiful sea views and their own unique attractions. Enjoy fresh seafood and plenty of colorful cliff-hugging buildings.
Getting between the various villages is easy and can be done by boat, train, or hiking the Azure Trail. Note that some detours are in place along the Azure Trail due to trail section closures.
The villages include Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The villages along with surrounding hillsides and coastline make up the Cinque Terre National Park which has been recognized by UNESCO.
Expect a bit of an uphill climb when visiting Corniglia and discover beach access at Monterosso al Mare. Vernazza is arguably the most picturesque village and offers up Doria Castle.
Medici Villas and Gardens
Head to Tuscany to see a number of villas and gardens owned by the Medici family. The UNESCO site is made up of a dozen villas and two gardens built during the Florentine Renaissance. Note that not all villas are open to the public and others often have limited hours.
The Medici family were wool merchants and bankers, owners of the Medici Bank which was the largest in Europe at the time. We have the Medici family to thank for the many famous buildings in Florence including the Uffizi Gallery.
The family held a great deal of power and influence over the happenings of Florence during their reign. The Medici Villas are rural buildings scattered around Tuscany that were owned by the family and used as country palaces, recreational resorts, and agricultural activities.
Villas such as Villa del Trebbio and Villa del Cafaggiolo are the oldest, dating back to the mid-14th century. Villa La Petraia offers beautiful views over Florence and others house important museums today.
Florence’s Boboli Gardens features one of the finest examples of an Italian Garden, which helped to inspire the creation of many other European courts.
Visitors can enjoy hiking through the lunar-like landscape filled with craters and lava fields. Come winter, there are also ski resorts available. You can also take a ride on the narrow-gauge railway line known as Ferrovia Circumetnea which nearly encircles Mount Etna.
Take time to visit one of the many award winning wineries which produce exceptionally fine wine in the rich volcanic soil. The region is also known for its delicious pistachios, strawberries, and cherries.
Since its formation 35,000 years ago, Mount Etna has erupted hundreds of times and will no doubt erupt in the future once again.
Rock Drawings in Valcamonica
Italy’s first recognized World Heritage Site, Valcamonica’s Rock Drawings make up the largest collection of prehistoric petroglyphs in the world.
Upwards of 300,000 individual petroglyphs can be found scattered throughout the valley, having been created over roughly 8,000 years. Rock drawings represent life and histories of people living in the region during the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Copper, Bronze, Iron, and Middle Ages.
The rock drawings feature nomadic hunters, local wildlife of different eras, and various religious or spiritual symbols. The petroglyphs are most concentrated around Darfo Boario Terme, Capo di Ponte, and Paspardo.
Image credit: Luca Giarelli / CC-BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons
Villa Romana del Casale
Sicily’s Villa Romana del Casale is an extravagant Roman villa that houses one of the world’s largest collections of Roman mosaics.
The in situ mosaics feature scenes from early Roman life such as hunting adventures with dogs and women engaging in sports which can be found in “The Chamber of the Ten Maidens”.
The villa and mosaics date back to the 4th century, the villa being thought to have served as a country retreat for the great Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius Maximianus.
Northeastern Italy is home to the mountain range known as The Dolomites. The UNESCO site includes Dolomiti Bellunesi National Park as well as other natural parks that offer an abundance of outdoor recreation that change with the seasons.
Winter brings great downhill and cross-country skiing opportunities, while summer is the time for hiking, cycling, base jumping, paragliding, hang gliding, and rock climbing. Try the easy loop hike offered at the Tre Cime di Lavaredo or check out the green and turquoise waters of The Dolomites’ largest lake Lago di Braies.
The town of Livinallongo del Col di Lana is home to World War I trenches, forts, and barricades and nearly every town in and around The Dolomites are home to highly skilled artisans.
Every July, The Dolomites hosts the one day road cycle race called the Maratona dles Dolomites which makes its way through several mountain passes.
Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa
One of the most famous squares in the world, Piazza dei Miracoli or the “Square of Miracles” is where you’ll find the much loved Leaning Tower of Pisa.
The wall square is also home to a large concentration of other historical buildings and monuments including a Roman Catholic cathedral, Baptistery, and the Monumental Cemetery. The Baptistery of San Giovanni is where the great Galileo Galilei was baptized.
The Piazza dei Miracolisi offers one of the finest architectural complexes in the world and is an important center for European medieval art. Surrounding the square are beautiful green lawns that are perfect for relaxing after checking out all the sites.