Countries with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites

April 4, 2024

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Temple of Concordia

There are thousands of culturally significant sites and unique natural structures worldwide. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a scheme that helps identify these areas and protect them for future generations.

Listed sites fall into one of three categories: cultural, natural, and mixed. The latter combines cultural and natural elements in the same location, such as an ancient temple at the foot of a mountain.

Since the project began in 1971, 1,199 sites have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites (although an additional three have been unlisted). In this article, we’ll examine which countries have the most sites and what they are.

1. Italy – 59

The Amalfi Coast
The Amalfi Coast

Italy is home to 59 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the most of any country. 53 of the listed sites in Italy are cultural, and six are natural. Of these, seven are transnational (for example, the Historic Centre of Rome is shared with the Vatican, and the Monte San Giorgio and Rhaetian Railway with Switzerland).

The first site in Italy to be listed was the Rock Drawings in Valcamonica, which were added in 1979. The drawings are believed to be the world’s largest prehistoric petroglyphs (rock engraving) collection. 25 sites were listed in the 1990s; 10 sites were added in 197 alone.

Italy has been on the World Heritage Committee five times. The committee is responsible for the World Heritage Fund allocations and helps allocate financial assistance to countries upon request. Member states on the committee also decide which sites are added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list.

Some listed sites include Venice and its Lagoon, the Amalfi Coast, and Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany. A further 31 sites have been listed as ‘tentative sites’, which Italy may propose for consideration. This includes the Hanbury Botanical Gardens in Imperia, Orvieto in Terni, and the Marble Basin of Carrara.

2. China – 57

The Great Wall of China
The Great Wall of China

China has 57 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ranking just behind Italy. 38 of these sites are cultural, and 14 are natural heritage sites. A further four sites are a mixture of both cultural and natural relevance.

One of the country’s most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites is the Great Wall of China, designated in 1987. Other sites include the Forbidden City and Zhoukoudian in Bejing, the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in Xi’an, Shaanxi, and the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu.

Six sites were added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1987. This was the first year that a site in China was added to the list. Five sites are cultural, and the sixth (Mount Taishan) is mixed between cultural and natural.

Along with designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites, several Chinese documents are also featured in UNESCO’s Memory of the World list. This project aims to document audio-visual materials, manuscripts, and other key materials for preservation.

3. France – 52

Notre Dame Cathedral
Notre Dame Cathedral

France is in joint third place with Germany, as both countries have 52 UNESCO World Heritage Sites each. 44 of these sites are cultural, seven are natural, and one (Pyrénées – Mont Perdu) is a mixture of the two. France has 37 properties on the tentative list.

1979 was the first year a French site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. Five sites were added in that year, each in the ‘cultural’ category. Some of the 52 French sites on the list include the Abbey Church of Saint-Savin-sur-Gartempe in Nouvelle-Aquitaine, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Grand Est, and the Palace and Park of Versailles in Île-de-France.

France has been on the World Heritage Committee five times since 1976. Each country can serve six years on the committee, although most choose to serve for four years to give other countries a chance to serve on the committee.

3. Germany – 52

Aachen Cathedral
Aachen Cathedral

Germany has 52 sites listed by UNESCO, 49 of which are listed in the ‘cultural’ category. The remaining three are listed in the ‘natural’ category. Aachen Cathedral, one of Europe’s oldest cathedrals, was Germany’s first UNESCO site. It was added in 1978 during the committee’s second session.

Some of Germany’s listed sites include the Maulbronn Monastery Complex in Baden-Württemberg, Messel Pit Fossil Site in Hesse, and Wartburg Castle in Thuringia.

Dresden Elbe Valley, which stretches along the Elbe River in Dresden, is one of only three sites that has been delisted from the World Heritage Site register. The site was originally inscribed in 2004 before being removed in 2009 as a four-lane bridge was being built across the landscape. This meant the valley lost its ‘outstanding universal value as inscribed’. The Waldschlösschen Bridge was opened in 2013.

5. Spain – 50

Burgos Cathedral
Burgos Cathedral

In fifth place is Spain, which has 50 designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 44 of the sites are listed as cultural, four are natural, and the remaining are mixed. Five sites were inscribed on the list in 1984 (Burgos Cathedral was Spain’s first inscription).

Some of Spain’s listed sites include the Historic Centre of Córdoba, the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe, and Doñana National Park.

Spain has been a member of the World Heritage Committee thrice since 1991. The country has over 30 sites on the tentative list, five of which have been on the list since 1998. Some of the sites on the tentative list include the Mediterranean Wind Mills, Loarre Castle, and the Olive Grove Landscapes of Andalusia.

6. India – 42

Grand Stupa, Ajanta Caves
Grand Stupa, Ajanta Caves

India has 42 listed sites, the sixth-largest collection in the world. 34 of the sites fall in the cultural category, seven in the natural category, and one (Khangchendzonga National Park) is mixed.

The first sites in India were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1984. The sites added during this year were the Ajanta Caves, Ellora Caves, Agra Fort, and the Taj Mahal. India also has 11 documents on the Memory of the World International Register.

Some sites in India have previously been listed as ‘endangered’. This occurs when the conservation of sites is in danger, such as proposed building work or a declining population of a local species. Manas Wildlife Sanctuary has been listed as endangered twice: once in 1992 and again in 2011. The site has gained this status due to poaching and militias in the area.

7. Mexico – 35

Ancient city of Teotihuacán
Ancient city of Teotihuacán

Mexico has 35 UNESCO World Heritage-listed sites. 27 are cultural sites, six are natural, and two are mixed. The country has a further 23 sites listed on the tentative list. Mexico has been a member of the World Heritage Committee five times since 1985.

Some sites inscribed by UNESCO include the Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacán, the Rock Paintings of the Sierra de San Francisco, and the Archaeological Monuments Zone of Xochicalco. The Historic Centre of Mexico City and Xochimilco, Mexico’s first inscribed site, was added to the list in 1987, along with five other sites.

8. United Kingdom – 33

The Giant's Causeway
The Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

There are 33 listed sites in the UK: 28 sites are cultural, four are natural, and one is mixed. One site (the Frontiers of the Roman Empire) is located in both England and Scotland (and shared with Germany). England is home to 18 of the sites, Scotland has five, Wales has four, and there is one in Northern Ireland. There is also one in each of the overseas territories of Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Pitcairn Islands, and Saint Helena. 

The first British sites were added to the list in 1986 (seven were added in this year alone). The Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast in Northern Ireland were the first sites in the UK to be inscribed. Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City was added to the list in 2004. However, the site was delisted in 2021 following development on the city’s waterfront.

The UK has been on the World Heritage Committee once, from 2001 to 2005. There are 11 sites on the tentative list, including Darwin’s Landscape Laboratory in London, the island of Saint Helena, and Creswell Crags in Derbyshire.

9. Russia – 31

Red Square and the Kremlin, Moscow
Red Square and the Kremlin, Moscow

Despite being the largest country in the world, Russia ranks ninth with 31 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 20 of these sites are cultural, and 11 are natural. Just under 30 sites are on the tentative list.

Some of the listed sites in Russia include the Kremlin and Red Square in Moscow, Lake Baikal in Irkutsk Oblast, Buryatia, and Kizhi Pogost in Karelia. In 1990, the Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments in Russia (then the Soviet Union) was the first site to be added to the list. Kremlin and Red Square, and Kizhi Pogost were also added in the same year.

10. Iran – 27

Hyrcanian Forests
Hyrcanian Forests

The last country on the list is Iran, with 27 listed sites on the UNESCO World Heritage Register. 25 sites are cultural, and the remaining two (the Hyrcanian Forests and Lut Desert) are natural.

Three sites were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979, the first year that a site in Iran was listed. Tchogha Zanbil, an ancient complex founded in 1250 BC, was the first of Iran’s sites to be inscribed.

Over 50 sites in Iran are on the tentative list. This includes the Ali-Sadr Cave in the Hamadan Province, Mount Damavand in the Mazandaran Province and the Khorramabad Valley.

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