UNESCO Sites in the Alps
Mountains beckon, challenge and mesmerize us: UNESCO recognizes the Alps in Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland for their beauty, the engineering feats they’ve inspired, and precious lessons in geology.Railroad
New: Discover the UNESCO sites of the Alps with our interactive map!
Two Alpine railroads are on the World Heritage list for similar reasons, although they were built years apart. They represented the pinnacle of engineering innovation of their time, brought towns closer together with reliable transportation, and gave a huge boost to the development of tourism. Check out the views from these trains and you’ll understand why!
Austria’s Semmering Railway was built in the mid-19th century and is considered the first real mountain railway because it is standard gauge as well as curvier and steeper than any built before. It was so well constructed, including complicated two-tiered viaducts, tunnels and other works, that it is still in use today. At times during its construction up to 20,000 people were working along its 41 km length at a time.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2010, the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes winds through Italy and Switzerland. Frankly, most amusement parks would die for a ride this good! The Rhaetian Railway links two historic narrow gauge, high altitude, very steep lines, the Albula and the Bernina. Together they’ll take you through 54 tunnels and half-open galleries, a corkscrew descent, numerous switchbacks and 196 tall, arched viaducts and bridges – be brave before you darie to look down!
Mountains of Praise
The Alps themselves get several mentions on the UNESCO World Heritage list, as they are not only stunning to look at, but are critical to our understanding of geology.
In Switzerland, two areas are listed, the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch and the Swiss Tectonic Arena Sardona. The beloved Jungfrau is a stunner, its beauty an inspiration to people in tourism, mountaineering, art, and literature. The Jungfrau has the largest extant Eurasian glacier and more glacial history than any other section of the Alps, so it teaches us a great deal about mountain and glacier formation.
The Tectonic Area Sardona in the Glarus Alps is practically a walk-through textbook on tectonic movement. These huge mountains, including seven peaks above 9,000 feet, were created by continental collision – smash! – where older (250-million-year-old) rock juts above newer (a mere 35-50 million year old) rock in jagged, razorback shapes. Even non-scientists will be startled by the abrupt color changes among different strata and will gasp at the grandeur of it all.
In Italy the Alps are known as the Dolomites, honored by UNESCO for the breathtaking landscapes they provide – almost 20 peaks reach elevations of over 9,000 feet – and the dramatic variety of pinnacles, plunging valleys, sheer rock walls, waterfalls, steeples, glacial landforms, and karst formations. The Dolomites are also known for a huge and varied endowment of fossils, an instructive record of prehistory.
The Skocjan Caves in Slovenia are listed by UNESCO thanks to of 6 km of underground passages, one of the largest known subterranean chambers, the world’s most extensive underground wetlands, it’s textbook karstic character (karst is a type of limestone formation)– and extraordinary beauty. A tour of the cave will show you that the earth’s interior is every bit as majestic as its exterior. Among more than 7,000 caves in Slovenia, this one is a showstopper.
The Pilgrimage Church of Wies in southern Germany is the place to go to enjoy the epitome of Bavarian rococo architecture set in a pretty pastoral landscape at the foot of the Alps. The story of the church involves a miracle: a peasant named Maria saw tears fall from the eyes of the Christ statue near the local whipping post, and the site began to attract pilgrims. As the number of visitors swelled, a local architect named Dominkius Zimmerman decided that the spot deserved a permanent church, and in the mid 1700s he built this beautiful confection. The interior glimmers with light, curves of plaster, and delicate, joyful frescoes.