From Rome and Florence to the Honghe Hani Rice Terraces in China, UNESCO World Heritage sites are marvels of human achievement and natural wonders. Which 5 countries can boast the most?
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".
Of the 1,052 UNESCO World Heritage sites, 814 fall into the Cultural category. A further 203 are Natural, such as national parks or barrier reefs. The remaining 35 are both Cultural and Natural. Mont Perdu in the Pyrenees, for example, is both an "outstanding mountain landscape" and "a pastoral landscape reflecting an agricultural way of life that now survives only in this part of the Pyrenees."
Landscape in Piedmont, Italy (Dreamstime)
Italy is a beautiful country, from the language and landscape to the people and the food. It hardly seems fair that they should hog all the UNESCO World Heritage sites as well. But Italy holds 51 of the world’s 1,052 UNESCO-listed sites, 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 worth visiting in Italy include the limestone dwellings of Alberobello and the prehistoric rock drawings of Valcamonica.
Fujian Tulou, China (Dreamstime)
Everyone knows about The Great Wall of China. Mercenary warrior Matt Damon was once imprisoned there.
Some of China’s 50 UNESCO-listed sites are less well-known, but 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 Roads network, spanning back almost two millennia, and 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.
The landscape of Las Médulas, Spain (Dreamstime)
The unique and strange 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".
Spain has 45 World Heritage sites in total, including the famous pilgrimage site of Santiago de Compostela and the canyon-rich landscape of Mont Perdu in the Pyrénées.
The desecrated mountaintops of Las Médulas, once pillaged for gold by the Roman Imperial authorities, are one of the country’s lesser-known gems.
Ibiza has also been granted UNESCO status, for the interaction between the marine and coastal ecosystems, rather than the famous club scene. The thick prairies of oceanic seagrass, a species unique to the Mediterranean basin, support a diversity of marine life.
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris (Dreamstime)
Cultural giants, as well as leading lights in the international foodie scene, the French also fare pretty well when it comes to UNESCO World Heritage sites, with a score of 42.
There are the obvious choices, such as Notre-Dame Cathedral and the banks of The Seine, but straying from Paris 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.
Bauhaus building in Dessau (Dreamstime)
Germany has 41 UNESCO-listed sites in total. 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.
Main image: Mont-Saint-Michel (Dreamstime)