things to do in elche

10 of the best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain

If you prefer to spend your holidays learning about the history and experiencing the culture of a country rather than laying on the beach, then Spain is the perfect destination as there are plenty of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain to visit.

While many people think that Spain is all beaches and sangria, it’s actually the one of the countries with the most UNESCO Sites in the world.

In this blog post we’ll be sharing some of the best UNESCO Heritage Sites in Spain, so if you’re still deciding where to visit on your next holiday, read on…

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What is a UNESCO Heritage Site?

A UNESCO World Heritage Site is a landmark or area that has been given legal protection by an international convention administered by the UNESCO. World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific or other forms of significance

How many UNESCO Heritages Sites are in Spain?

In total there are 50 sites in Spain that are on the list, making it the fourth largest number of sites per country, only Italy (58), China (56), and Germany (51) have more.

Why does Spain have so many UNESCO sites?

Spain has more UNESCO sites than most other countries due to its long and complex history. The first settlers made Spain their home over 35,000 years ago, with the Roman conquest beginning in 218 BC. After the Romans, Spain was ruled by Germanic tribes (Visigoths, Suevi and Vandals) and later the Moors before they were overthrown by the Catholic Monarchs in 1492.

With such a diverse past it’s no surprise that you can find such an interesting and varied range of historical and cultural sites in Spain.

How many UNESCO World Heritage sites are in the Alicante region?

The province of Alicante has not one but three World Heritage Sites, all located in the town of Elche. These are El Palmeral, Museo Escolar de Pusol, and Misteri d’Elx.

How many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in Barcelona?

You won’t be surprised that you can find plenty of history and culture in Barcelona. In fact, Barcelona is home to no less than nine UNESCO World Heritage landmarks, including La Sagrada Familia, the works of Gaudi, and Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau.

How many UNESCO World Heritage Sites are in Madrid?

If you’re visiting Madrid and looking for some interesting, historical landmarks then you’re in luck. There are two UNESCO world heritage sites in Madrid, the Paseo del Prado and El Retiro gardens.

unesco world heritage sites in spain

Full list of UNESCO Heritage sites Spain

Before we pick out some of the best UNESCO Heritage Sites in Spain, here’s the full list of landmarks in the country:

  • Alhambra, Generalife and Albaycín, Granada
  • Antequera Dolmens Site, Málaga
  • Aranjuez Cultural Landscape
  • Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida
  • Archaeological Ensemble of Tarraco, Tarragona
  • Archaeological Site of Atapuerca
  • Burgos Cathedral
  • Caliphate City of Medina Azahara, Córdoba
  • Catalan Romanesque Churches of the Vall de Boí
  • Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias, Seville
  • Cave of Altamira and Paleolithic Cave Art of Northern Spain
  • Cultural Landscape of the Serra de Tramuntana
  • Heritage of Mercury. Almadén and Idrija
  • Historic Centre of Cordoba
  • Historic City of Toledo
  • Historic Walled Town of Cuenca
  • La Lonja de la Seda de Valencia
  • Las Médulas
  • Monastery and Site of the Escurial, Madrid
  • Monuments of Oviedo and the Kingdom of the Asturias
  • Mudejar Architecture of Aragon
  • Old City of Salamanca
  • Old Town of Ávila with its Extra-Muros Churches
  • Old Town of Cáceres
  • Old Town of Santiago de Compostela
  • Old Town of Segovia and its Aqueduct
  • Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau
  • Palmeral of Elche
  • Paseo del Prado and Buen Retiro, Madrid
  • Poblet Monastery
  • Prehistoric Rock Art Sites in the Côa Valley and Siega Verde
  • Prehistoric Sites of Talayotic Menorca
  • Renaissance Monumental Ensembles of Úbeda and Baeza
  • Risco Caido and the Sacred Mountains of Gran Canaria Cultural Landscape
  • Rock Art of the Mediterranean Basin on the Iberian Peninsula
  • Roman Walls of Lugo
  • Routes of Santiago de Compostela: Camino Francés and Routes of Northern Spain
  • Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe
  • San Cristóbal de La Laguna
  • San Millán Yuso and Suso Monasteries
  • Tower of Hercules, La Coruña
  • University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares
  • Vizcaya Bridge
  • Works of Antoni Gaudí
  • Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians
  • Doñana National Park, Huelva
  • Garajonay National Park, Tenerife
  • Teide National Park
  • Ibiza, Biodiversity and Culture
  • Pyrénées – Mont Perdu

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If you want to visit the best UNESCO World Heritage sites in Spain, here are 10 to choose from…

Alhambra, Generalife and Albaycín, Granada

It’s no surprise that Granada‘s most famous attraction is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. In fact the Alhambra and its magnificent gardens of the Generalife make up two of the city’s landmarks, with the third being the Moorish neighbourhood of Albaycín.

The Alhambra and Gereralife were added to the World Heritage List in 1984 because they bear exceptional testimony to Muslim Spain in the 13th – 15th centuries, forming a remarkable example of the palatine residences of medieval Islam. The Albaycín was also added in 1984 for its exceptional universal value as a distinctive and well-preserved example of Hispano-Muslim architecture from the medieval period.

Spanish city breaks - Granada view of Alhambra

The Alhambra itself if an amazing place to visit and soak up the history, you can easily spend a whole morning or afternoon just exploring the palace and feeling impressed by beautiful arches, tiles, fountains and gardens.

If you plan to visit, make sure you buy tickets to these historic Granada landmarks in advance. Alhambra UNESCO site tickets. It’s free to walk around both the Generalife gardens and the Albaycín district.

You can book a guided tour of the Alhambra to find out more, and there’s even a free guided tour of the Albaycín.

The works of Antoni Gaudí, Barcelona

Antoni Gaudí’s work in Barcelona is iconic and his buildings were named UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1984 for “representing an exceptional and outstanding creative contribution to the development of architecture and building technology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”.

There are 7 UNESCO Gaudí sites in total:

  • Parque Güell
  • Palacio Güell
  • Casa Mila
  • Casa Vicens
  • La Sagrada Familia
  • Casa Batlló
  • Crypt in Colonia Güell

These creative and unique buildings are a must see, even if you only wander around Barcelona to view the buildings from the outside. Personally, I could spend days in Barcelona just visiting Gaudí’s architecture and nothing else!

UNESCO World Heritage site parc guell in barcelona

If you want to explore the Gaudí architecture in Barcelona you can buy tickets in advance for Park Güell, Sagrada Familia and Casa Batlló amongst others. You can also book onto a free tour of Gaudí and modernist Barcelona.

The historic city of Toledo

The city of Toldeo in the Castilla-La Mancha region was declared a World Heritage site in 1986 for its “extensive monumental and cultural heritage.”

It’s known as the “City of the Three Cultures” due to the cultural influences of Christians, Muslims, and Jews throughout its history. The city is full of well-preserved medieval architecture and Toledo UNESCO World Heritage landmarks to see include the Alcázar, Toledo Cathedral, the Jewish Quarter and San Martin Bridge.

Spanish city breaks - Toledo

Just over an hour from Madrid, Toledo is a good place for a day trip if you find yourself in the area.

If you plan to visit this medieval city in Spain you can discover lots about Toledo and its landmarks on this free tour of Toledo. You can also save money by buying this tourist bracelet that gives you entry to 7 Toledo attractions.

Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias, Seville

The grand cathedral, Alcázar palace, and the Archivo de Indias make up the Seville UNESCO sites. Dating from the Reconquest of 1248 to the 16th century and full of Moorish influences these buildings are a perfect example of the Spanish “Golden Age” and were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1987.

Not only is the Cathedral the largest Gothic building in Europe, it also houses the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

Spanish city breaks - Seville Cathedral

You can buy entry tickets for the Royal Alcázar and Archivo de Indias online in advance, or book onto a guided tour of the Cathedral, Giralda & Alcazar. There is also a free tour of Seville’s Three Cultures where you can learn more about this historic city.

Route of Santiago de Compostela

This famous pilgrimage route runs from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles on the Spanish side, before making its way through Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León to finish at to Santiago de Compostela.

It was added to the World Heritage List in 1993 due to playing a crucial role in the exchange of cultural advances between the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of Europe in the Middle Ages, as well as in the following centuries.

unesco world heritage site santiago de compostela

A must visit is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela at the end of the pilgrimage route which is where the remains of the apostle Saint James the Great are said to be buried.

Luckily you don’t have to do the whole route, you could just book onto this free walking tour of Santiago de Compostela or book tickets for the cathedral, museum and Old Town tour.

Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau, Barcelona

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Barcelona is the Palau de la Música Catalana and Hospital de Sant Pau.

These great examples of modernist architecture in Barcelona were jointly granted World Heritage status in 1997 as they are considered by UNESCO to be “masterpieces of the imaginative and exuberant Art Nouveau that flowered in early 20th century Barcelona”

unesco world heritage site Palau de la Música Catalana in barcelona

To find out more you can book onto guided tour of the Palau de la Música Catalana and also grab your entry tickets in advance with a 1.5-hour tour of the Sant Pau Recinte Modernista.

Garajonay National Park, Canary Islands

This dense forest area is one of four Canary Islands UNESCO sites. Garajonay National Park on the island of La Gomera was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1986 as an outstanding and well preserved Laurel forest with an exceptional ecosystem only found in the Macaronesian Islands.

The unique biodiversity of this national park is home to rare and subtropical plant species you won’t find anywhere else.

unesco world heritage site garonjay national park

Admission to the park is free but you can also book onto a guided walk of Garonjay national park if you prefer to explore this huge forest with a guide.

Old Town of Ávila with its Extra-Muros Churches

The Old Town of Ávila is a fortified city with the best preserved medieval walls in Spain, originally dating from 1090. Founded in the 11th century to protect the Spanish territories from the Moors, the walls are 2.5km long with 88 towers and 6 gates.

Ávila was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 as an an outstanding example of a fortified city from the Middle Ages.

unesco world heritage site avila

If you’re visiting Ávila and want to learn more about it’s history you can book onto a guided tour of the Old Town and monuments or learn about the legends of Ávila on this free night time tour.

Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida

The Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida is located in Extremadura, Spain dates back to the year 25 BC. These well-preserved Roman ruins, including the theatre, amphitheatre, and the Roman bridge, were declared a World Heritage site in 1993.

unesco world heritage site Mérida

One of the most impressive UNESCO archaeological sites in Spain, the Roman ruins in Mérida were added to the World Heritage list as the remarkable conditions of the site allows it to serve as a learning ground about Roman times and the evolution of a European city over a 2000-year period.

If you’re taking a trip to Mérida, you can choose from a self-guided walking tour of the city or a guided walking tour with Theater and Amphitheatre. There’s also a Mysteries and Legends night tour of Mérida where you can discover the most magical corners of the city.

El Palmeral, Museo Escolar de Pusol, and Misteri d’Elx, Elche

The city of Elche in the Alicante province, is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, El Palmeral, Museo Escolar de Pusol, and Misteri d’Elx.

El Palmeral, or Palm Grove, of Elche is an area of over 200,000 palm trees and was designated a World Heritage site in 2000 for being an “exceptional example of the sustainable use of the environment and the evolutionary adaptation of cultural landscapes to historical changes”.

things to do in elche

The Museo Escolar de Pusol, the Pusol School Museum, was added to the World Heritage list in 2009 for its commitment to safeguarding local heritage, history and customs. The museum is home to a large collection of objects that tell the story of the local area as well as the Region of Valencia as whole.

The Misteri d’Elx has been recognised as one of UNESCO’s “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity”. The Misteri d’Elx (Valencian), Misterio de Elche (Castellano) , or Mystery of Elche in English, is a sacred Medieval drama celebrated each year on the 14th & 15th August at the Santa María Basilica in Elche.

The best thing about all three of these World Heritage Sites in Elche is that you can visit them for free or very cheaply. Wander the city streets and the municipal park to see the palm groves, visit the Museo Escolar de Pusol for just 2€, and view the Misteri d’Elx play for free.

When you are planning your trip to Spain, make sure you include on of the top UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain to your list of places to visit!

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