UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Europe
Acropolis is of course a huge and important historical site, but what really makes it pop, is its location. Perched on top of a hill right in the middle of Athens, so it can be seen from almost everywhere within the city. The panoramic view from the top is equal amazing and stretch all the way into the Aegean Sea. It was the ancient Greek (not a given) who built this magnificent temple complex around 440 BC and no expense was spared. The crown jewel is no doubt Parthenon with its tall marble columns, which are constructed such they lean slightly inwards to create the optical illusion that they look straight. The Acropolis site is surrounded by several other ancient sites on it's slope, like Theatre of Dionysus and further down, the Ancient Agora (ancient city square). To fully appreciate and understand this masterpiece, a visit to the Acropolis museum is a must.
The architect Iktinos who designed the Parthenon did more than just that. On the Peloponnese peninsula, stands the by-him-designed temple of Apollo Epicurius, also called the temple of Bassae (Vasses). It is one of the best kept temples of its time and has some quite unique features. You can only walk around the temple but unfortunately not enter the central area. Inside used to be some nice friezes, which as so many ancient Greek art has been taken to London in the early 19th century.
For decades, this temple has been undergoing restoration works and in order to protect it from the elements it has been covered by a large tent, which prohibits a full-sized view. It looks like it will still be covered for quite a while. Many of the columns need to be entirely removed in order fix the fundaments of the temple.
The remote location of this temple still makes this World Heritage listed site also a great place to visit.
Budapest is a wonderful mix of fine architecture on par with Vienna and charismatic east bloc leftovers. The city is split into two sections by the Danube river, Buda the west side and Pest the east side. They are connected by several bridges, all with their own style and history. A popular activity is a river cruise either during the day or at dinner at night - you could also just grab a drink at the river front in a cafe or bring your own. There are heaps of churches and other magnificent buildings, including a few quirky sights (like underground hospital from WWII and "Shoes on the Danube"), which can keep you busy for days. But no visit to Budapest is complete without a trip to one of the famous thermal baths.
Þingvellir National Park is an UNESCO Heritage Site. It was here in 930 AD the world's first democratic parliament was established. Maybe contrary to many's belief, the Icelandic Vikings society was fairly advanced - at least when it came to democracy and justice. They had written laws which stated what has to be done to whom, when such and such crime was committed. At the annual assembly at Þingvellir, when people from all over Iceland would gather, these laws were recited at the Law Rock, maybe new were passed by the cheifmen, and disputes were settled. Every issue affecting Iceland were discussed on this site. Today, there are of course nothing left from the Viking age, besides the spectacular natural setting right at the rift valley created by the separation of the Northamerican and Euroasien tectonic plates, but that will also do.
Newgrange is a prehistoric megalithic tomb dating back to about 3200 BC, making it older than both Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. It consists of a large circular mound with an inner stone passageway and chambers. The entrance and passageway is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, such that the sunlight for a short moment reach the inner chamber. Newgrange is a part the UNESCO World Heritage site of Brú na Bóinne Complex, which also include the neighbouring similar sites of Knowth and Dowth. The Brú na Bóinne Complex is considered to be Europe's largest and most important concentration of prehistoric megalithic art. Of the three sites, Newgrange is the only site where you can get into the chamber. A guided tour is necessary and starts from the Brú na Bóinne visitor centre. Tickets can sell out fast, so book ahead.
Le Cinque Terre quite literally means the five lands in Italian and you will see why when you view this beautiful and bold coastline. The villages that make up the Cinque Terre are nestled into the steep cliff faces of the coast and offer some of the most amazing views and food within the Ligurian region. Travelling to the Cinque Terre has been made easy by regular trains departing from nearby La Spezia, most visitors opting to ride the train to the most northern village of Monterosso and hike the trail to the most southern village of Riomaggiore. The hike will take around 4 to 5 hours including a mouth watering lunch stop but there is also plenty of B&B's which cater for all price ranges if you should want to stretch out your stay on this stunning coastline. Best times to go are the months leading up to and after the European summer when you will find less traffic and more favourable temperatures but be careful not to go in the wet season when mudslides can occur. Don't forget to wear a good pair of walking shoes!
Florence is one of Italy's cultural and architectural centers, and although the town is very touristy, you can still sense a special historical atmosphere of the old town. Famous Florentines include artists such as Raphael, Donatello, Leonardo da Vinci and not least Michelangelo, whose famous David statue stands in several places in town. Besides beautiful statues in the city's piazzas, the great Gothic cathedral, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, is also worth a visit. Here you can climb up into the dome and look out across the city. You should also see one of the city's famous landmarks - namely the bridge Ponte Vecchio, that was previously filled with slaughterhouses, which meat waste was thrown directly into the River. Today the street is filled with more tourist-friendly jewelry stores.
It seems everywhere you go in Italy there's a UNESCO site within spitting distance. The island of Sicily is no different. Of the 4 sites on the island, the town of Syracuse is the crown jewel. Dating back some 2,700 years, Syracuse has managed to maintain the ancient while living in the present. When more magnificent fountains, beautiful churches and expansive squares, it is no wonder the whole town is UNESCO listed. While it certainly draws in the tourist crowds, it is a fraction of that on the Italian mainland. This means you get a wonderful historical Italian site with a few hundred others, not a few thousand.
The charm of Riga's Old Town lies in the fact that it's still very much alive, and not some tarted up open air museum with pretty churches. The rugged streets are worn and the old houses holds more great things than souvenirs shops. There are lots of bars and clubs, with a thriving nightlife as a consequence. But there are also forgotten corners with dilapidated buildings and walls which just adds to the great atmosphere of Old Riga. UNESCO have been kind enough to enlist the historical part of Riga consisting of Old Town along with the 'newer' suburbs of Art Nouveau houses and wooden buildings in neoclassical style.
Visitors to the Spit spend their time swimming, boating, on forest walks, exploring the coastal villages or playing in the sand dunes - the tallest of which tower more than 60 meters above the waves. In winter, you can skate or try your luck at ice fishing rather than plunging into the water. While the forest walks, villages, and dunes might be covered in snow, these are just as lovely as during the summer months. The Spit covers 98 km and is just 400 meters wide at its thinnest, roughly divided equally between Lithuania and Russia's Kaliningrad. The Lithuanian half is easily navigated on a bike; boasting a cluster of museums and the port on its northern tip while its only town Nida is 50 km to the south. The Spit is mostly undeveloped nature, which has earned to both the status of National Park and UNESCO World Heritage site. It is assessable by ferry from Klaipeda.