On your travels throughout the Mediterranean, you will undoubtedly come across a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Italy alone is home to the most places with that designation at 58, and Spain and France are close behind with 49 and 48, respectively. The icons, like the historic center of Rome, the works of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona, and the Acropolis in Athens only begin to scratch the surface of the treasures this region holds. Below are four destinations where you can explore UNESCO Sites that may not be as well-known as their aforementioned siblings, but are awe-inspiring nonetheless and play an equally important role in preserving our shared history.
Seville is most known for the Royal Alcazar, the oldest European palace that is still in use today, but did you know that the second largest Cathedral in the world, Santa María de la Sede, is also a UNESCO Site a short distance away? Built in the 15th century, it’s tower can be seen from virtually wherever you are in the city, and when climbed gives you a perfect view of the city and horizon. Also nearby is a third UNESCO Site that is not often highlighted, the General Archive of the Indies. Storing more than 43,000 documents, walking the halls of the Archive is simply impressive. Like all of Seville, its architecture tells its history and importance as one of the most important archives in Europe regarding the Spanish conquest and empire throughout the world, especially in the Americas.
The country of Greece boasts nearly 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. While many of the mega-stars are located in Athens, there is one archeological gem in the picturesque southern town of Gythion that begs to be explored. Mystras is a medieval stronghold that overlooked ancient Sparta. You can still see ancient fountains and great vaulted halls, but the real draw are the exquisite frescoes, many of which were inadvertently protected when conquering Turks painted over them while converting the Greek’s religious sites into mosques. Observe the frescoes in the Pandanassa Convent, noteworthy because they were created using different styles over the span of several centuries.
Split is synonymous with the Emperor Diocletian. And what would a monarch be without a palace? His sprawling home was built between the 3rd and 4th century C.E. and was able to spend his last years here. While you may have heard of Diocletian’s Palace as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, what might not be obvious is that the palace, and therefore the designation as a World Heritage site, spans the entire Old Town. The palace is not a structure that stands as a monument to visit—it is very much alive with the majority of residents living, working and shopping within the old palace walls. You will pass them while marveling at the monumental cellars, the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, patron saint of the city, and the remarkably intact Temple of Jupiter.
The ruins of Ephesus are one of the largest Roman archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean and once the location of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The indelible image of the two-story, 2nd-century Library of Celsus often graces the pages of travel magazines. Yet, a mere five kilometers (3 miles) south of Ephesus, is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The House of Virgin Mary is located on Mount Bulbul. The house was discovered in 19th century, but is estimated to have been built in the 4th century C.E. It is considered that Virgin Mary lived here until the age of 101, and therefore, a very important place of pilgrimage.
What does it mean to be deemed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO?
World Heritage is the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy. Places as diverse and unique as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Galápagos Islands in Ecuador, the Taj Mahal in India, the Grand Canyon in the USA, or the Acropolis in Greece are examples of the 1,007 natural and cultural places inscribed on the World Heritage List to date.