Which countries have the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites?

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are marvels of human achievement and natural wonders. Here, we list the countries with the highest numbers of inscriptions...

3 mins

To be included in the UNESCO World Heritage list, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of 10 selection criteria. These include representing a 'masterpiece of human creative genius' and exhibiting 'an important interchange of human values'. Quite impressively, some countries have achieved this dozens of times with their cultural and natural landmarks. 

Here are the countries with the most UNESCO sites in the world...

1. Italy

The landscape of Piedmont (Shutterstock)

The landscape of Piedmont (Shutterstock)

World Heritage Sites: 59

Out of the 1,157 UNESCO-listed sites in the world, Italy has 59 of them, the most of any country. 

With the likes of the Piazza del Duomo in Florence and the historic centres of Rome and Venice, Italy’s UNESCO-listed sites are among the most-visited in the world.

The Dolomites mountain range is UNESCO-protected, as well as the city of Verona, the birthplace of two very famous star-crossed lovers. The active stratovolcano of Mount Etna is also a World Heritage Site.

The UNESCO-protected landscape of Piedmont, producing wines such as Barolo and Barbaresco, is an excellent spot for cycling. Its vineyard-carpeted hills, rustic food and unspoiled villages make it the perfect setting for a Sideways-style retreat.

Other World Heritage sites well-worth visiting include the limestone dwellings of Alberobello and the prehistoric rock drawings of Valcamonica.

2. China

Fujian Tulou (Shutterstock)

Fujian Tulou (Shutterstock)

World Heritage Sites: 57

Everyone knows about the Great Wall of China, but some of China’s lesser-known UNESCO-listed sites are equally worth visiting.

Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in Southern Yunnan, for example, span a mindblowing 16,603 hectares. Over 1,300 years the Hani people have developed an intricate system of channels to bring water from the mountaintops to the terraces. The mist rising over these layered pools is an astonishing sight to behold.

Elsewhere, there's the 5,000km stretch of the Silk Road network, with a history spanning almost two millennia. There's also the temple, cemetery and family mansion of Confucius, in the city of Qufu.

Fujian Tulou, built over 120km in the south-west of the Fujian province, is a cluster of 46 multi-storeyed amphitheatre-like buildings, containing earthen houses (tulous) set around a square or circular courtyard. Housing up to 800 people, the buildings were constructed for defensive purposes, with only one entrance for each tulou. The tulous' plain façades are balanced with intricately decorated interiors. The relationship between the colossal buildings and the landscape of fertile mountain valleys embodies Feng Shui principles.

=3. Germany

Cologne Cathedral (Shutterstock)

Cologne Cathedral (Shutterstock)

World Heritage Sites: 52

Bauhaus was one of the 20th century's most progressive and influential art and design movements, with the Bauhaus School's sites in Weimar and Dessau both UNESCO-listed.

Other World Heritage sites in Germany include Cologne Cathedral, a Gothic masterpiece that was 632 years in the making, as well as the Hercules monument and water features of the Bergpark Wilhelmshöhe landscape park in Kassel.

The Wadden Sea also made UNESCO's list. Stretching across the Dutch, German and Danish North Sea, it is the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world. The area is home to marine mammals such as the grey seal and harbour porpoises.

The UNESCO-protected Messel Pit fossil site is also worth visiting. The site provides unique information about the early stages of the evolution of mammals.

=3. France

Mont Saint-Michel (Shutterstock)

Mont Saint-Michel (Shutterstock)

World Heritage Sites: 52

The French fare pretty well when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage landmarks, sharing joint third position with Germany with 52 sites. 

There are the obvious choices in Paris, such as the banks of the River Seine, and Notre-Dame Cathedral. Stray from the capital and you’ll find the Gothic-style Benedictine abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, as well as the famed hillsides of Champagne.

The Gulf of Porto nature reserve, part of the Regional Natural Park of Corsica, is also considered an outstanding example of scrubland. Its clear waters, brimming with marine life, attract seagulls, cormorants and sea eagles.

5. Spain

Las Médulas (Shutterstock)

Las Médulas (Shutterstock)

World Heritage Sites: 50

The bizarre and unique work of Antoni Gaudí is likely to be a part of any visit to Barcelona. His work is UNESCO-listed because of his 'exceptional and outstanding creative contribution to the architectural heritage of modern times'.

But beyond the often over-crowded Catalonian capital, the famous pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela and the canyon-rich landscape of Mont Perdu in the Pyrénées are also worth your time.

One of the country's lesser-known gems is the desecrated mountaintops of Las Médulas, once pillaged for gold by the Roman Imperial authorities.

Ibiza has also been granted UNESCO status, for the interaction between the marine and coastal ecosystems, rather than the famous club scene, of course. The thick prairies of oceanic seagrass, a species unique to the Mediterranean basin, support a diversity of marine life.

6. India

Ajanta Caves (Shutterstock)

Ajanta Caves (Shutterstock)

World Heritage Sites: 42

In 1983, India's most symbolic landmark was inscribed onto the World Heritage List. Of course, this is Agra's Taj Mahal, also known to be one of the modern Seven Wonders of the World. Near the gardens of the ivory marble mausoleum stands the 16th-century Red Fort of Agra, another UNESCO-listed monument from the same year.

Near 1,000km away from this historic city, the Ajanta Caves date back from the first and second century BC, with some of its more exquisitely decorated caves coming later. Its sculptures and paintings demonstrate some of the world's finest 'masterpieces of Buddhist religious art'. 

There are a number more cultural sites on the list worth investigating - 32 to be exact. But don't forget its seven natural sites too. Kaziranga National Park in Assam is one of India's largest untouched areas, perhaps best known for being home to the one-horned rhinoceros. 


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