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UNESCO Sites in the Islands & Archipelagos

We tend to think of Europe as a continental landmass, which is correct, but almost half of the countries of Europe have islands and archipelagos, numbering in the thousands! Island isolation is responsible for many of the unique characteristics that have earned both natural and man-made sites a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

New: Discover the UNESCO sites of Islands and Archipelagos with our interactive map!

Island Hopping

Thousands of islands are emerging quickly (in geologic terms) in the Gulf of Bothnia, a northern section of the Baltic Sea. The Kvarken Archipelagao in Finland and the High Coast in Sweden are affected by the same forces: as the weight of glaciers lessens due to melting, the earth is actually freed. Islands rise and coastlines morph, creating new geography. Because the land profile is always changing, so are the plants and animals who live there, all of which make this site a natural for the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Just below the Arctic Circle in Norway, travel to the Vega Archipelago to see how hardy and tenacious humans can be. These islands form a UNESCO cultural landscape that exhibits how people have managed to survive for over a millennium in a very harsh climate. Fishing and the collection of down from eider ducks are the two main activities here; you can see the villages, quays, light houses, and eider houses (nesting shelters for the ducks) that supported industry, as well as vast flocks of seabirds filling the sky.

Did you know that there are different kinds of volcanic eruptions? The seven Aeolian Islands north of Sicily have provided that and much more information to the science of vulcanology, earning them a World Heritage listing. If you’re visiting Italy for pleasure, island hop among these quiet islands to see hot lava glowing at night, moor at a Roman jetty, see where pirates hid their women for safety, climb to a Bronze Age village . . .and just enjoy the scenery of these fascinating islands rising up from the gorgeous Mediterranean sea.

Uniquely Dutch, Schokland and Surroundings is a community that, thanks to its isolation on an island, developed a unique set of customs and traditions. When the Zuiderzee was reclaimed, accessibility to the town jeopardized its unique culture. Schokland was the first inscription in Holland on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and remains today as a prime example of land reclamation and the constant Dutch battle against the sea.

Island cities

San Cristóbal de La Laguna, once the capital of Tenerife, Spain, began as an ecclesiastical center and has many significant religious buildings. What makes it remarkable to UNESCO is that as it grew, it was “first” in many categories. It was the first non-fortified colonial city, the first to have the new (new in the 16th century, that is) planned city section laid out on a grid plan, and the first city in the islands to have a university. Plenty of reasons have put this gracious lakeside city on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Malta’s location in the middle of the Mediterranean made it a natural object of desire to the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, and Arabs. Its history with of the Order of the Knights of St John that has put Valletta, the capital, on the UNESCO map, however. This compact city permeated with monuments is a treasure trove for travelers interested in Crusader era structures in particular. Take a boat ride for a glimpse of the massive fortifications as they appeared to would-be invaders coming by sea!Coastal cities

The largest city in Turkey, Istanbul, is in such a unique and powerful location straddling Europe and Asia, it is no wonder that the Historic Areas of Istanbul are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Comparing architecture from the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires will help you imagine the drama of this city’s past. Be sure to visit the ancient Hippodrome of Constantine, the 6th-century Hagia Sophia and the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque. If the Basilica Cistern looks eerily familiar, maybe you remember James Bond rowing through it in “From Russia with Love”.

While it’s not strictly a city, the Royal Domain of Drottningholm, built on an island near Stockholm, Sweden, is like a private municipality for the royal family. The castle itself is complemented by an 18th century theater, gardens, and a Chinese pavilion. The domain is the considered to be a northern version of Versailles; built in the 17th and 18th centuries, these buildings and grounds are some of the most beautifully preserved of their time.Island ancient history

If you knew the birthplace of love and beauty, wouldn’t you want to go see it? Paphos in Cyprus is believed to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of both, and the old town where her temples were built is on the World Heritage List. The area is known to have been a center for fertility cults predating the Greek period and the Myceneans built a temple to Aphrodite in the 12th century B.C. Exceptional remains of slightly more recent fortresses, palaces, theaters and tombs as well as lovely mosaics are all waiting for you to come and see what an enchanting goddess inspires mankind to build.

Delos, a tiny island in the Cyclades archipelago, is a very ancient holy place also famous as the mythological birthplace of Apollo, a god of many virtues. Leta, Apollo’s mother, created the floating, magical island when she couldn’t find a suitable place to give birth to her son, and Zeus, the dad, made it a permanent earthly domain. This magnetic site attracted hordes of pilgrims, which created a busy trading center. The ruins of many ancient civilizations make this one of the most important archeological sites in the Greek islands.

Scotland’s Heart of Neoliithic Orkney island has wonderful UNESCO listed prehistoric sites that reveal how people lived and worshipped five thousands years ago. Sheep graze placidly among the standing stones of ceremonial circles and the undulations burial mounds and settlements, but you’ll be looking around in amazement. The principal sites are a group of eight dwellings connected by alleyways at Skara Brea, a large ceremony circle called the Ring of Brodga, and the Banhouse Stone at Maes Howe, which aligns with the sun on the solstice.Island agriculture

Sail to the island of Hvar in Croatia for the heady scent of lavender, the sea views, and for the ancient Greek property markings. UNESCO lists the Stari Grad Plain for its longevity - the first Greek settlers arrived in the 4th century BC. You’ll remember it for its unusual appearance. Steep hills are divided geometrically by neat stone walls and shelters, still intact and in use, to separate one farmer’s olive groves and vineyards from the next. The walls have an almost other worldly appearance and are impossible to miss as you explore the island.

Growing grapes on a volcanic island requires certain adaptations; the Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture in Portugal’s Azores is listed by UNESCO for just that. Pico Island is now the only place you can what was, hundreds of years ago, common practice; miles and miles of stone walls turned into small geometric enclosures to protect the vines from seawater and the wind. This method of cultivation requires different harvesting as well, and a specific wine culture grew up alongside the grapes. You can still taste the way of life and the delicious Verdelho wine when you take a break on Pico Island.Religion on the islands

The Jelling Mounds, Runic Stones and Church in Denmark tell epic stories. The older rune stone is from the Nordic pagan era, however the stellar Viking age 10th century church captures the switch to Christianity; the inscription on one stone makes the earliest mention of Denmark as a nation. The Viking kings Gorm and Harald Bluetooth (nothing to do with your computer) are both buried here, making this a must on the World Heritage List and for anyone captivated by Viking history.

Even today, if anyone tried to build a giant stone building with lofty, lacey towers on top of a tiny island of rock, it would be difficult. UNESCO lists Mont St Michel, off the north coast of France, because it’s an architectural wonder. Built between the 11th and 16th centuries, a village grew up around the base of the beautiful Benedictine abbey. The huge tides in the area change the look of the approach to the island, but whether surrounded by tidal mud or seawater, once you’re inside the quiet chapel at the top, you’re definitely in another, contemplative world.

The Benedictine order in the Middle Ages wielded a profound influence on spiritual, intellectual, and artistic life. One of their very important abbeys was on the Monastic Island of Reichenau in the German waters of Lake Constance. The remains of the original 8th century monastery as well as churches built in the ensuing two centuries give an excellent idea of early medieval monastic art and architecture. The abbey school produced important thinkers of the age in many disciplines, as well as renowned artists and goldsmiths.

Off the southwest coast of Ireland, a group of 6th or 7th century monks chose Skellig Michael to build a monastery where they could worship – quite undisturbed, given the location, until the Vikings drove them out in the 13th century. Thanks to such isolation, this UNESCO site is very well preserved, although there is great concern about the effect of too many curious feet on the steep, wind-swept, 1000 year-old steps. The Spartan nature of early Irish Christian monastic life is evident in the beehive-shaped stone dwellings and St. Michael’s Church. You can also see stone crosses, oratories, a cemetery – and looking up, a wide variety of seabirds from the colonies on neighboring islands.

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