UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK include ancient monuments, magnificent historic buildings, fine cities, significant industrial locations and exceptional natural areas.

UNESCO World Heritage in the UK:Dorset Coastline (27)
Jurassic Coast in Dorset

To be included on the World Heritage List, a location must be of Outstanding Universal Value, demonstrating international significance. It must transcend national boundaries and be of common importance for present and future generations of all humanity.

There are a total of 1,121 sites world-wide, mainly designated as Cultural, but some as Natural and a few as Mixed.

There are 28 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK, though some have more than one location. All but three are Cultural, with two Natural and one Mixed. I’ve visited almost all of these sites and can recommend most of them as ‘bucket list’ essentials. So check them out on your ‘staycations’.

Ancient Monuments

UNESCO World Heritage Sites: Stonehenge (1)

The most famous of the UK sites is referred to as Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites (1). Stonehenge is the most iconic of these, but I found it disappointing when I last visited, in that all I could do was circumnavigate the site at some distance from the stones, plus check out the indoor exhibition organised by English Heritage.

In many ways I found the Avebury location to be more impressive with the massive Henge (circular earthwork), containing the largest prehistoric stone circle in the world, and nearby Silbury Hill, the largest prehistoric mound in Europe.

The other ancient monument site is Heart of Neolithic Orkney (2) which this covers a range of structures scattered around this remote archipelago in the far north of Scotland and provides a graphic description of life some 5,000 years ago. It’s remoteness however means I have yet to make a visit.

Historic Buildings and Structures

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall

Not surprisingly, Hadrian’s Wall is included, under the heading Frontiers of the Roman Empire (3). Much of the remains of the Wall and its associated forts comes under the stewardship of English Heritage. See our recent article on Heritage in Northumberland. The designation also includes the remains of the less well known Antonine Wall which ran between the Firth of Forth and the Clyde and is now managed by Historic Environment Scotland.

One of the two UNESCO World Heritage sites in Wales is Castles and Town Walls of King Edward in Gwynedd (4). This includes the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, each of which has its own unique features and all of them well worth visiting. They are managed by the Welsh heritage organisation CADW.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK: Fountains Abbey
Fountains Abbey

This leads on to three remarkable English religious sites: Durham Castle and Cathedral (5), Canterbury Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey, and St Martin’s Church (6) and Studley Royal Park including the Ruins of Fountains Abbey (7). In each case the cathedral/abbey is the key feature and, for me, the most impressive is the Norman Durham Cathedral perched above the River Wear. When visiting Fountains Abbey, don’t miss out on the beautiful Water Garden as you wander along the River Skell through Studley Royal Park.

Finally, and rather differently, Blenheim Palace (8) is the only stately home in the UK given World Heritage status. Its inclusion is based on the relationship between the Baroque palace and Capability Brown parkland. Blenheim is certainly an impressive place to visit, however I do not include in in my Top Ten Stately Homes in England.


UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK: The Pagoda at Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens, London

There are four sites in London with the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey including Saint Margaret’s Church (9) and the Tower of London (10) being the most well-known. The Maritime Greenwich (11) location symbolises English artistic and scientific endeavour in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the Royal Observatory being of particular note for its role in the development of global navigation. My favourite site in London however is Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew (12) which houses what is reputed to be largest and most diverse botanical and collections in the world. I find the newly restored Temperate House, the largest glasshouse in the world, a stimulating place to wander around.

Other Cities

Of the other cities in the UK included in the UNESCO list, Edinburgh, listed as Old and New Towns of Edinburgh (13), is a place I try to visit whenever I can. It is fascinating to contrast the haphazard layout of the medieval Old Town around the Royal Mile with the formal splendour of the neo-Classical and Georgian architecture of the New Town.

Liverpool Pier Head from the Albert Dock
Liverpool Pier Head

The City of Bath (14) designation is based on the way it reflects both the Roman and Georgian eras with regard to development of the natural hot springs in the area. Important Roman remains include the Temple of Sulis Minerva and the baths complex, whilst the architecture of the Georgian spa city can be seen in the Assembly Rooms, the Pump Room and the famous Royal Crescent.

I very much enjoy visiting the Albert Dock area of Liverpool with its little shops and restaurants clustered around the dockside. This forms a key part of the designation of Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City (15). However a recent plan for modern developments in the area is putting its UNESCO listing at risk.

UPDATE July 21st, 2021:  Liverpool has been stripped of its UNESCO World Heritage status, but it’s still well worth visiting.

Industrial Locations

Cornwall: Botallack
Botallack, Cornwall Mining Landscape

Nine of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK can be considered as industrial locations, illustrating the UK’s leading role in industrial innovation and related social developments.

The Derwent Valley Mills (16), which include Arkwright’s Cromford Mill, date back to the late 18th Century. I often visit the Masson Mill nearby where you can get a feel of what life was like in those days working in a cotton mill, plus do some shopping.  Similarly the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape (17) gives an impression of life in the Welsh Valleys in the late 18th and 19th Centuries, as the coal and iron industries developed. At about the same time, copper and tin mining was taking place in the Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape (18). There are many remnants of these activities, including the engine houses above deep underground mine-shafts at Botallack.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK: New Lanark
New Lanark by the Clyde

In the Clyde Valley in Scotland New Lanark (19) village is where the idealist Robert Owen built a model industrial community in the early 19th century. Similarly in West Yorkshire, Titus Salt built an industrial village in Saltaire (20) in the second half of the 19th century near to his mills. As well as exploring the village, now a town, one of his mills is now an attractive shopping complex decorated with David Hockney paintings. I can recommend a walk along the Leeds-Liverpool canal which runs past the mill up to the famous Bingley Five-Rise Locks.

Three very different bridge sites are included in UNESCO’s list. The oldest being the first iron bridge in the world, built over the River Severn in 1779, that is located in the Ironbridge Gorge (21) designated site. Just forty miles north-west in Wales is the bridge, opened in 1805, carrying the Llangollen Canal over the River.

Titus Salt’s Mill in Saltaire

This is included in the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal (22) site. I found it quite breath-taking walking across the two mile long aqueduct. Finally in Scotland, spanning the Firth of Forth, The Forth Bridge (23) had the world’s longest spans when opened in 1890. Its magnificent structure is truly a work of art, whether viewed from below or from a train as you pass over it.

The final ‘industrial location’ is a rather different in that the Jodrell Bank Observatory (24) only dates back to 1945. It obtained its recent UNESCO designation based on its significant role in the development of radio astronomy. The Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre is open to the public.

Natural and Mixed Sites

The Lake District
Buttermere, The English Lake District

Curiously The English Lake District (25) is included in the Cultural list, however I visit it more for the scenery than for its agro-pastoral tradition or its links with the Romantic poets of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Like the Orkney listing mentioned above, St Kilda (26) is a very remote location, off the west coast of Scotland, reached only by boat. It is the only one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the UK that is classed Mixed Cultural/Natural. This is based on its dramatic scenery, importance as a bird sanctuary and on structures and field systems that provide evidence of more than 2,000 years of human occupation. It is managed by the National Trust for Scotland.

The only Natural designated site in England, the Dorset and East Devon Coast (27). It is often referred to as the Jurassic Coast, but it actually displays a far longer period of time, about 185 million years, of the Earth’s history, and is famous for its many fossils. I visited recently and was very impressed with Lulworth Cove and Durdle Door, a natural limestone arch 200ft in height.

The Giant's Causeway
Giant’s Causeway

Finally Northern Ireland has just one listing, the Natural location of Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast (28). In addition to the very impressive Giant’s Causeway of basalt columns stretching out to sea, the cliffs behind are equally impressive with towering black columns.

Many of these sites, or parts of the sites, come under the stewardship of UK heritage organisations such as English Heritage  (1, 3, 6, 7, 21), the National Trust (1, 3, 7, 14, 18, 25, 27, 28),  Historic Houses (8), National Trust for Scotland (26), Historic Environment Scotland (2, 3) and CADW (Wales) (4, 17).

To find out more about membership of these organisations, and the advantages of taking up annual membership, see:

English Heritage versus National Trust – Which to join?
Historic Houses versus National Trust – Which to join?
Heritage: Historic Environment Scotland versus National Trust for Scotland

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Posted 7th MARCH 2021 by STEVE HANSON. Some of the photographs were taken by BARBARA HANSON.