The 10 Best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain

Vista general de Toledo
Ventura Carmona / Getty Images

World Heritage Sites are locations of extraordinary historical, cultural, or scientific value, and UNESCO awards the distinction. The purpose is to preserve and protect these sites for posterity. As of July 2019, there were 1,121 World Heritage Sites in 167 countries, with Spain ranking fourth, proudly exhibiting no less than 48 sites. They reach from single monuments to historical districts within a city to breathtaking landscapes. We have compiled a list of the 10 best, with examples of each type so that you can plan your visit to Spain according to your interests and preferences.

01 of 10

Explore the Historic Center of Córdoba

La Mezquita, Cordoba, Andalucia, Spain
Michael Busselle / Getty Images
Córdoba, Spain

Córdoba in Andalusia in the south of Spain is an example where the entire old town of a city has been declared a World Heritage Site. Córdoba’s oldest part is not very big, so it’s easy to explore one marvelous building after another on foot.

The most famous landmark is the Grand Mosque or mezquita in Spanish. In 784 A.D., when Spain was under Islamic rule, the big mosque was constructed. After the conquest by the Catholic Kings, a Roman Catholic cathedral was built in and around the mosque in the 13th century. The result is an incredible assembly of Moorish columns, arches, ornaments and carvings sitting side by side with the Gothic, Baroque, and Renaissance elements of the cathedral.

Cross the river Guadalquivir, which flows through Córdoba walking over the majestic Roman Bridge and visit the Alcazar of the Christian monarchs, a medieval fortress built in 1328 with beautiful gardens and elements of the typical Mudejar architecture of the south of Spain.

For many centuries, Moors, Christians, and Jews coexisted and prospered peacefully in Córdoba, and the winding streets and big synagogue of the Jewish quarter bear witness to these times.

Other historical and cultural highlights are the rather gruesome Museum of the Inquisition and the exquisite Museum of Art on Leather, which documents the ancient Arabic art of embossing leather. Córdoba is also the city of the flower patios with an annual festival and competition for the most colorful and lavish arrangements.

02 of 10

Marvel at the Hanging Houses of Cuenca

QuimGranell / Getty Images
C. Canónigos, 16001 Cuenca, Spain
Phone +34 969 21 29 83

Located around 90 miles southeast of Madrid, Cuenca is a prime example of a well-preserved medieval fortress town. The city is surrounded on three sides by deep gorges formed by two rivers. Built by the Moors, it became a royal city after the Catholic Kings re-conquered it in the 12th century.

Cuenca is the site of the first gothic cathedral in Spain, Nuestra Señora de Gracia. The most stunning views in Cuenca are the famous hanging houses, some painted in bright colors, and clinging to the cliffs over the river Huecar. One of these houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art, the most important of its kind.

For an excellent, dizzying, overview, you can cross the pedestrian San Pablo Bridge spanning the gorge.

03 of 10

Experience Wild Nature at Mont Perdu

Ordesa valley in Pyrenees, Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park, Huesca, Aragon, Spain
Pablo Benedito / Aurora Photos / Getty Images
Monte Perdido, 22375, Huesca, Spain

Mont Perdu or Monte Perdido ("Lost Mountain") is the third-highest mountain in the Spanish Pyrenees on the border with France. It's an example of a landscape having been declared a World Heritage Site because of the contrasts in the upper mountain regions and the valleys and gorges below, as well as its plethora of flora and fauna.

Be prepared for some serious hiking, starting from Torla, if you want to explore properly. It's all located within the Ordesa and Monte Perdido National Park. The higher you climb the arider the land becomes, with snow-covered peaks in the distance. The lower regions, fed by the waters of melting snow, are formed by lush green valleys, pastures, waterfalls, gorges, and canyons.

04 of 10

Be Dazzled by Toledo’s Historic Center

Toledo, scenic view of the city at sunset
Francesco Riccardo Iacomino / Getty Images
Toledo, Spain

Toledo, just an hour's drive south of Madrid, is also called the City of the Three Cultures because, like in Cordoba, Jews, Arabs, and Christians lived together in harmony for centuries, creating between them an urban museum with over 100 historical monuments and buildings, reflecting every possible style from Mudejar to Gothic to Renaissance.

Massive city walls and an alcazar tower over the river Tagus. Enter the Old Town through one of the many gates and visit synagogues, mosques, palaces, convents, the cathedral, and of course, the El Greco museum. Best stroll along Calle Mayor, where the 'dazzle' comes in. Toledo was famous for her world-class steel and swords until firearms took over warfare. Nowadays, the ancient art of damascening (inlaying gold or silver threads into black steel in intricate patterns) is used to produce genuinely sparkling jewelry, plates, vases, and other trinkets. Silversmiths sit in the windows of their shops, and you can watch their handicrafts.

In one of the synagogues, you'll find Spain's most important Sefardi museum, and you can even hang glide over the river. For those of you with a sweet tooth, don't miss trying the famous Toledo marzipan.

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05 of 10

Watch the Sun Rise in Tenerife’s Teide National Park

Sunrise over Teide National Park

Santiago Urquijo / Getty Images

Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain
Phone +34 922 92 23 71

The Canary island of Tenerife is of volcanic origin, and the third-highest volcanic structure in the world, Mount Teide, is an active volcano with the last eruption in Nov. 1909. Located in the middle of the Teide National Park, the ascent to the summit is possible by various means. The easiest is by cable car—it's a one-hour walk to the starting point at Montaña Blanca, where you can then go up by cable car and descend into the crater.

The initial eruptions have left the sides of the volcano and much of the National Park with bizarre formations of black lava. Not much grows at these heights, except Teide daisies and summit rosebushes. Apart from the fascinating landscape, the Teide National Park is a paradise for stargazers. Some of the world's clearest night skies are to be found here, and it's one of three Starlight reserves of the Canary Islands. Las Cañadas del Teide, at close to 9,900 feet, is the prime night sky viewing point. Another is Mount Guajara, also within the National Park. Here you can start another remarkable ascent, walking on a guided tour at night, resting halfway up in a cabin, and then continuing to watch the sunrise.

06 of 10

Admire the Architecture in Barcelona

View of Gaudi architecture in Park Guell

TripSavvy / Chris VR

Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi is considered the foremost representative of the early 20th-century movement of Catalan Modernism. Inspired by nature and orientalism, his designs of flowing lines, elaborate wrought ironwork, and colorful ceramic chips are instantly recognizable. Seven of his works, completed during his lifetime, have been declared World Heritage Sites, all in Barcelona. Here they are:

  • Parque Guell is a vast park on Carmel Hill. Designed by Gaudi, it included municipal gardens, several houses, terraces, and decorative walls and walkways. One of the houses was owned by Gaudi and is the Gaudi museum, whereas another one houses the Barcelona City History Museum. Apart from the decorative art and plants, the park affords the best overview of the city.
  • Palacio Guell is a magnificent city palace in the heart of Barcelona, created by Gaudi. Most significant is the central hall, where you can see how he made use of space and light. The palace also features a wide staircase and permanent art exhibitions.
  • Casa Mila, also known as La Pedrera, is one of Gaudi's best known urban buildings, commissioned by the Mila family as their townhouse with apartments for rent on the upper floors. Curving lines, twisted chimney pots and ornaments galore, this home was Gaudi's last work to be completed during his lifetime where he gave full rein to his imagination.
  • Casa Vicens is another townhouse and was Gaudi's first commission. Whereas Casa Mila is predominantly white, Casa Vicens is far more colorful, and the ornaments are symmetric as opposed to the curvy lines of later buildings.
  • Casa Batlló's outstanding feature is the curved roof covered in multi-colored ceramic mosaic and the "glued-on" balconies.
  • The still unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral is Gaudi's masterpiece. Gaudi was profoundly religious and incorporated many Christian elements in his creations, giving special attention to the crypt facade and nativity of the cathedral.
  • Crypt at Colonia Guell is another religious building by Gaudi. Originally commissioned as a church with four naves, the Guell family ran out of money, and Gaudi was only able to complete the crypt.
07 of 10

Understand Seville's Rich History

Real Alcazar in Seville

TripSavvy / Paula Galindo Valle

Seville, Spain

Seville, in southwestern Spain, is home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

King Philip II initially commissioned the building which houses the Archivo de Indias as the stock exchange for the merchants of Seville. Expanded under the reign of King Carlos III, it became one of the most critical document centers of the world relating to the discovery, conquest, and administration of all Spanish overseas possessions between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Seville's Saint Mary of the See, referring to the bishop's ecclesiastical jurisdiction, is the third-largest church of the world and was the largest Gothic cathedral when it was completed in the 16th century. It is the burial place of Christopher Columbus and many other notable people in one way or another connected to the history of Seville. If you wish, climb up to the 343 feet high bell tower, the world-famous Giralda, built in the shape of the former minaret, which stood in its place when a mosque was constructed under Arab rule.

The third World Heritage Site of Seville is the massive compound of the Royal Alcazar, an accumulation of buildings and gardens reaching from the Arab period to Renaissance and Baroque to modern times, a real chance to travel through and understand Spanish history.

08 of 10

Stroll Through Santiago de Compostela's Old Town

Spain, Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, low angle view
Andrew Gunners / Getty Images
Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Spain

It’s quite emotional to watch the dust-covered pilgrims who have walked the Way of St. James, a pilgrimage since the 9th century, arrive at their final destination, the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain's northeast province. They cheer, they cry, for each of them, it’s often the fulfillment of a lifetime’s dream.

The vast and richly decorated cathedral with three facades of different architectural styles was designed to receive the pilgrims who had made such a long journey to pray at the grave of St. James. The interior is splendid baroque with gold leaf as far as the eye can reach. Look out for the botafumeiro, a gigantic silver bowl hanging from a heavy chain and used to burn incense during mass.

The main entrance faces the Praza do Obraidoiro, the largest square of Santiago de Compostela. Cross over to the medieval Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos, which was built in 1492 as a hospice to sick pilgrims and is today a luxury hotel.

Many more churches and buildings like the Town Hall, make up this World Heritage Site, including the Old Town’s many narrow alleys and connecting passageways, often populated by local musicians in traditional costume, playing the bagpipe.

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09 of 10

Believe the Shapes and Colors of Las Médulas

Las medulas
David Díez Barrio / Getty Images
24442 Las Médulas, León, Spain

The province of Castilla Leon is the location of one of the most bizarre landscapes in Spain—and it’s man-made.

During the times of the Roman Empire, Las Medulas, near the town of Ponferrada, was the largest gold mine. To mine the gold, the Romans used a technique to undermine the mountains with high-pressure water, brought in via aqueducts which eventually resulted in the collapse of the mountains and the formation of peaks and outcrops covered with red dust whilst lush green pastures grow at the bottom.

The area was declared a World Heritage Site not only for the spectacular landscape but also for extensive research and excavations to better understand the Roman techniques—in other words, for scientific reasons.

Walking tours lead you around, and you can look at the remains of ancient water conducts and crawl through caves if you so desire.

10 of 10

Watch a Peformance in Mérida's Roman Theater

The Roman Theatre in Merida
Peter Unger / Getty Images
06800 Mérida, Badajoz, Spain

Mérida, the capital of Extremadura, was founded in 25 B.C. by Emperor Augustus with the name of Augusta Emerita. It has become a World Heritage Site because it contains the most significant number of Roman ruins in all of Spain.

If you visit in the summer, you can see a performance of classic theatre either in the amphitheater or the Roman theater. Other Roman landmarks include the bridge over the river Guadiana, the Aqueduct of Miracles, the elegant Villa Mitreo, and the Trajan's Arch. It's a treasure trove for lovers of antiquity.

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The 10 Best UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Spain