Boasting more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other continent, Europe is home to a remarkable array of cultural and natural landmarks, all accessible by train.
These sites, important as part of our global history and culture, make the world that extra bit special. Many UNESCO sites are widely visited by tourists, like the canals of Venice, Barcelona’s Gaudí buildings and Rome’s Colosseum. However, there are plenty of fascinating UNESCO hotspots to be found, including many you may not have realised were protected sites. Here are some of Europe's most interesting UNESCO World Heritage sites reachable by train.
Classical horsemanship at the Spanish Riding School, Vienna, Austria
The Spanish Riding School of Vienna upholds the traditional art and practice of breeding, keeping, training and riding Lipizzaner horses. A tradition maintained for over 450 years, the Spanish Riding School holds UNESCO Cultural Heritage of Humanity status. Because just as landmarks and buildings need protecting, cultural heritage for future generations needs safeguarding too. Aside from prancing ponies, Vienna’s Baroque historic centre is also UNESCO-listed.
La Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium
Brussels, the seat of the European Union, is too often misread as bland and bureaucratic. Far from being just a centre of politics and business though, the city has a wealth of history and culture, particularly its 10th century Grand Place. Widely considered one of the most remarkable town squares in Europe, this UNESCO World Heritage site is reason enough to visit this vibrant, walkable city.
Champagne Cellars in Epernay and Reims, Champagne, France
An hour away by train from Paris, the Champagne region is famed for its vineyards where the region’s namesake sparkling wine is produced. Vast networks of 17th-century cellars hide beneath the area’s hilly landscape, where cool temperatures give the world’s classiest fizzy drink its je ne sais quoi. While champagne is life-giving enough in and of itself, its most famous cellars, in Reims and Epernay, also served as shelters during both World Wars.
Port of the Moon, Bordeaux, France
Since 2000, Bordeaux, known as Port of the Moon, has undergone a striking renaissance. Straddling the Garonne River in southwestern France, Bordeaux is a blend of 18th century elegance and urbanite chic. Second only to Paris in its number of protected buildings, Bordeaux will enchant history-buffs, architecture-admirers and wine-loving bon vivants alike. Read more about the beauty of Bordeaux here.
The Rhine Gorge, Germany
The Rhine Gorge, a 65km section of the Upper Middle Rhine Valley in Germany, is fairytale-like in its beauty and romance. Nestled between Koblenz and Bingen, the flowing narrows of this enchanting waterway are guarded by a forest of 40 hilltop fortresses and castles, deep ravines and canyons plunging 130m. Read more about travelling through the Rhine Valley and Rhine Gorge by train here.
Pizzaiuolo, Naples, Italy
The art of the Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo, the culinary practice involving four stages of pizza dough preparation and baking, was inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The art of pizza-perfection isn’t Naples’ only UNESCO-nod. Its historic centre, the largest in all of Europe, is a jewel box of artistic and cultural treasures. The Spaccanapoli district in particular proffers piazzas and hidden porticos around every corner.
Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
Luxembourg might be small but its heritage is mighty. Visit the world’s only Grand Duchy for its UNESCO Old Town, a zigzagging network of streets along the gorge of the River Alzette. From the winding walkway along the edge of the Old City, gaze down at the Grund, the former penal colony now home to trendy restaurants, bars and arts hubs. For more breathtaking views, walk along the Chemin de la Corniche pathway, “Europe’s most beautiful balcony.”
Located in Castile-La Mancha, the UNESCO city of Toledo, 33 mins from Madrid by train, is famous for its blend of religious architecture. Known as the “city of three cultures,” Toledo’s Sephardic synagogues, arched mosques, and Gothic cathedral reflect the city’s history of religious tolerance and peace. Toledo is also known for being home to 16th century artist El Greco, whose paintings can be seen in galleries and churches throughout the city.
Wandering through Bern’s UNESCO-listed Old Town, it’s hard to believe this laid-back, provincial city is the Swiss capital. Take time to meander through the Old Town’s medieval arcades, stopping in at the many cafes and shops along the Marktgasse. Bern is also gateway to the Alps, with Grindelwald and Interlaken both under 2 hrs away by train.
Jurassic Coast, UK
A 154km stretch of southern England, between Exmouth in East Devon and Studland Bay in Dorset, the Jurassic Coast is the world’s most geologically diverse coastline. This dramatic landscape is dotted with secluded coves, rock formations and undulating hills, all concealing 185 million years of history within their folds and strata. You can take in the whole thing, and more, hiking on the the South West Coast Path Trail or choose the circular walking trail along the beach from Lyme Regis to Charmouth for fossil-finding fun.
Image credits top to bottom: Bordeaux river bridge with St Michel cathedral iStock ©MartinM303, Grand Place in Brussels iStock ©querbeet, Dom Perignon iStock ©stocknshares, The Lorelei (Loreley) on the right bank of the River Rhine in the Rhine Gorge ( Middle Rhine) at Sankt Goarshausen in Germany iStock ©Leamus, Colourful streets of Naples iStock ©javarman3, Old Bridge of Toledo city in Spain Dreamstime ©David Moras Sarabia, Durdle Door in Dorset iStock ©andreknot