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10 outdoorsy UNESCO world heritage sites for your adventure bucket list

From a young volcanic island off the coast of Iceland to some of the oldest vineyards on the Azores and unreal geological formations across the continent, Europe holds amazing natural heritage considered to be of outstanding and unique universal value. You don't have to travel far in Europe to admire the amazing formations and many of the UNESCO recognized sites are easy to access, so we put together our list of 10 Unique UNESCO World Heritage Sites in stunning nature that you should give some serious through for your next adventure holiday.

1. Giant's Causeway & Causeway Coast - Ireland

On the north coast of the County of Antrim, in Northern Ireland, the Causeway Coast extends for about 6 km between Causeway Head and Benbane Head.

View from the Giant's Casueway over the Atlantic Ocean, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

This coast has an unparalleled display of volcanic and geological formations that can be traced back to about 50-60 million years ago. The most characteristic and unique feature of the area is the large number (40,000!) of basalt columns that were naturally formed due to a submarine volcanic eruption - though legends tell a different story involving several giant's that were once resident along the Antrim Coast. These columns and pillar-like structures form the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast which in 1986 were inscribed into the natural UNESCO Heritage list for their global geological importance.

How to get there?

Dark hedges, trees over country road, Antrim Coast, Northern Ireland

The Giant Causeway is on Ireland’s northeast coast, approximately a one-hour car ride from Belfast and a 2.5-hour drive from Dublin. From Belfast, you can follow along the beautiful Antrim Coast, taking you through old forests, small valleys, sleepy villages and along one of Ireland's most beautiful coastline. You will also find the iconic Dark Hedges featuring in the Game Thrones series on the way.

You can easily make it a day tour from Belfast and even Dublin if you don't mind the long day and journey. Alternatively make it an adventure in the local area and spend a few nights in the historic city of Derry, Bushmills or the seaside town of Portrush

2. Laurel forest - Madeira

Madeira's laurel forest is the largest remaining laurel forest in the world and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 for its ecological importance.

The laurel forests of Madeira used to cover a large area of the island and much of Europe until the last glaciation. When the island was discovered and colonized in the 15th century, the forest was dramatically reduced but still occupies about 20% of the island - most on the northern coast.

Laurisilva Forest, Madeira, laurel forest with clouds and mountains in the back

The forest - also called “Laurisilva” - can be found between 300 and 1300m altitude in a humid subtropical climate. The extremely dense forest is home to hundred years old trees, covered by ferns and mosses, as well as many local species of plants. Often, the forest is covered by fog and mist, adding a mysterious atmosphere.

There are several places on the island of Madeira where to explore the laurel forests, probably the most known is the Fanal forest.

How to get there?

Various airline companies from Europe's main countries fly directly to the airport of Madeira in Funchal. Alternatively, you can fly to Lisbon and take a flight with the national airline of Portugal, TAP.

To reach the Fanal Forest on the northern coast, it is recommended to rent a car. From the capital Funchal, it is about an hour's drive.

3. Neolithic Orkney - Scotland

Orkney’s most famous archaeological treasures – Skara Brae, the Ring of Brodgar, the Standing Stones of Stenness, and the Maeshowe chambered tomb – form the keystones of the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Each of the four sites is a masterpiece of Neolithic design and construction in Scotland in itself but together they form one of Western Europe’s richest surviving Neolithic landscapes.

Skara Brae, Orkney Islands, Scotland, view over Neolithic site covered with grass overlooking the ocean

These important domestic and ritual monuments were built some 5,000 years ago, by the prehistoric people of the Orkney Islands and give incredible insights into the society and beliefs of the people of that time.

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney got the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1999. Not only for being an outstanding example of architecture but mainly for the role these monuments play in learning more about the culture and beliefs of Orkney’s Neolithic society.

How to get there?

The Heart of Neolithic Orkney is located on the main island of Orkney, Mainland.

The ferry ride between Aberdeen and Mainland's town Kirkwall takes about 6-7 hours. You can reach Aberdeen by bus, train, or car. Alternatively, there is a short crossing of just 1 hour between Gills Bay on the north coast of Scotland and St Margaret's Hope in Orkney's South Ronaldsay island, which is half an hour by car from Kirkwall.

From Glasgow, Inverness, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen there are also direct flights to Kirkwall.

4. The Aeolian Islands - Sicily

Lipari, Vulcano, Salina, Stromboli, Filicudi, Alicudi, and Panarea are the seven Aeolian islands that rise from the deep blue Tyrrhenian Sea in the North-East of Sicily. On the islands (from even before the 4th Century BC) you find two active volcanoes, steaming fumaroles, an authentic Mediterranean atmosphere, typical architecture (with small cubic white houses), and extraordinary nature.

Not only for their natural beauty but especially for their unique flora, fauna, and morphology - shaped over the millennia by the volcanoes, sea, and wind - Unesco recognized the Aeolian Islands as a world heritage site in the year 2000. On the islands, there are about 900 species of plants (mostly typical Mediterranean) and about 40 species of birds!

View over the Aeolian Islands and volcanic cones, Sicily, Italy

Dotted with charming villages, black lava beaches, a magnificently clear sea, sparsely populated hiking trails, and an amazing diversity of local products (capers, figs, olives, wild fennel, lemons, and grapes) which grow abundantly in the dense volcanic soils, the Aeolian Islands are a real treasure!

How to get there?

The main Aeolian Island is Lipari which you can reach with a ferry boat from Sicily's mainland. There are daily connections from Milazzo (northeast of Sicily) and also from the Sicilian capital of Palermo. There are also ferry connections to Lipari from Napoli on the Italian mainland.

5. The Upper Douro Valley - Portugal

Douro Valley, Portugal, river meandering through a valley

The Upper Douro Valley (Alto Douro) is located some distance upstream from the Northern city of Portugal, Porto. More than 2,000 years of winemaking have shaped this area of outstanding beauty into an important wine-producing destination using traditional methods. It’s no wonder that it made UNESCO decide to put this area on the World Heritage list in 2001. While the region is primarily known for the production of port wine - regulated since 1756 - the Douro valley also produces dry red and white table wines.

How to get there?

From Porto, it will take about 1h15 to get to the Alto Douro. If you like to enjoy the scenic views in peace (and try some Port wines), you can opt for a train journey of about 2,5 hours or take a river cruise to the Douro Valley departing from Vila Nova de Gaia's Quay in Porto!

6. The Vega Archipelago - Norway

Just south of the Arctic Circle, The Vega Archipelago in Northern Norway comprises more than 6,500 little islands. The islands face extreme weather conditions, especially in winter, and the local inhabitants maintained a viable way of living with fishing and eiderdown harvesting.

Over the past 1500 years, generations of farmers have created cozy 'houses' for eider ducks. In return, the local women collected warm and soft down from Eider nests, which are used in the world's best duvets! It was this unique tradition that put the Vega Archipelago on the World Heritage list in the year 2004.

Vega archipelago Norway, view over small islands and blue sea

In the old fishing harbour of Nes - on the main island of Vega - the Eider Duck Museum and fascinating exhibitions in the Vega World Heritage Center tells you everything about the Eider Duck's significance and the history of the islands.

In the summer, you can join a guided tour of the eider farms and sportive visitors can take the Vegatrappa path (with almost 2,000 stairs!) that leads from the beach to the top of Mount Ravnfloget, where you get rewarded with breathtaking views of the sea.

How to get there?

The islands are accessible by car ferry from Horn on the Norwegian mainland or by express ferry from Brønnøysund, a 15-minute drive from Horn. Both places are about a 6 hours car ride from the city of Trondheim which is connected to Oslo by plane.

7. Pico Island Vineyard Culture - The Azores

Pico Island - the second largest island of the Azores - is of volcanic origin. Already since the 15th century, the agricultural practice of viticulture is taking place in extreme conditions. The vines are planted in volcanic soil only 50 to 300 meters from the sea, which sprays the vineyards with salt. The vines run along the ground, rather than in neat rows which we are used to seeing. And, instead of large fields of vines, the Pico vines are limited to small squares of black stone walls, known as "currais" that protect the vines from the sea wind while creating a warmer microclimate for the plants.

Cycling through vineyards, Pico Island, Azores

This outstanding example of farming practices in a remote and challenging environment has put this area on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2004 under the name: Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture.

In the main town of the island, Madalena, the Museu do Vinho (Wine Museum), tells you everything about the fascinating history and cultural heritage of wine on this Azorean island. You can also enjoy a walk on the island's trails through the vineyards, to experience the unique scenery.

How to get there?

From the main cities in Europe you can fly to the main island of the Azores, São Miguel, and from there take a domestic flight to Pico Island, which takes about 50 minutes. There are connections as well via ferry but be aware that they are more time-consuming and don't go every day and in every season. The neighboring island of Faial can be reached by ferry from Madalena in less than one hour.

8. Geirangerfjord - Norway

Geirangerfjord, Norway, boat on a fjord with mountain and waterfall in the back

Until the last Ice Age, ending about 15,000 years ago, glaciers covered Norway. Then, when the glaciers moved back, they left behind inlets along the coastline which were flooded with seawater, creating fjords. Norway has over 1,700 named fjords one of which is the Geirangerfjord. Surrounded by majestic mountain peaks and lush vegetation, it’s considered Norway’s jewel in the crown.

Right for its outstanding natural beauty, the Geirangerfjord - together with the narrow Naeroyfjord - was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

The fjord is 15 km long, 1,5 km wide (at its widest), and 700 metres deep (at its deepest) and can probably best admires on a cruise!

How to get there?

From Oslo, you can drive to Geirangerfjord (about 7 hours) or take a plane to the town of Ålesund, and then take a short car ride of 1.5 hours.

9. Surtsey - Iceland

Surtsey Island, Iceland

Surtsey is a volcanic island off the southern coast of Iceland, that was formed in a volcanic eruption undersea which reached the surface in November 1963. During the next three and one-half years, it built up an island of 1,4 square km.

After Surtsey cooled, numerous geologists, biologists, and ecologists visited it, and now it is a protected area and a natural laboratory for studying the natural succession of plants and how birds, seals, and other animals establish themselves on the island over time. Right for this unique science opportunity UNESCO designated Surtsey a World Heritage site in 2008.

The Eldheimar museum on the nearby island of Vestmannaeyjabær features a Surtsey exhibition with all available information about this unique island.

How to get there?

The general public is not allowed to set foot on Surtsey island itself, but there are some boat trips leaving from the island Vestmannaeyjabær to view Surtsey island from the water. Vestmannaeyjabær is connected by a ferry to Landeyjahöfn on the south coast of Iceland. The trip takes about 45 minutes.

10. Vatnajökull National Park - Iceland

In 2019, Vatnajökull National Park became Iceland’s third site to join the UNESCO World Heritage List. The decision was made on the basis that the national park features unique nature with incredibly varied landscapes.

Vatnajökull National Park is 14,967 square kilometers stretching from Iceland's southeastern shores all the way to the north of the country. It covers 14% of Iceland's land area.

The Vatnajökull glacier dominates the national park and it is home to breathtaking natural phenomena such as Hundafoss Waterfall close to Skaftafell, as well as Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, and Iceland’s highest peak (2.109m), Hvannadalshnjúkur. Also the famous glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón is fed by the melt waters of Iceland''s largest ice cap.

Svinjafelljokull, Vatnajokull, Iceland, glacier with mountains in the back

How to get there?

From Reykjavik, the drive time is 4-5 hours depending on the area you visit. Skaftafell, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, and Jökulsárgljúfur canyon are easily accessible by car and even with public transport. From Reykjavik, a bus goes to the town of Höfn with stops at Skaftafell and Jökulsárlón. Visiting the remote highland areas of Vatnajökull is more complicated. Keep in mind that all roads in the highlands are only accessible by 4WD (in summer), so joining a tour is the best option.

Contact us for itinerary ideas and a quote for a small adventure centered around some of Europe's most exciting and impressive heritage.


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