UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy

By Philip Wagenaar, MD
This item appears on page 48 of the November 2015 issue.

(First of three parts)

As I traveled on the train to the top of the Jungfraujoch in Switzerland in June 2015, it dawned on me that I had entered one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice,’ I thought, ‘to plan a trip where I would visit one UNESCO Heritage Site after another?’

I looked on the Internet at whc.unesco.org/en/list/?&delisted=1 and found a complete list of all Heritage Sites, arranged by country. I decided I would describe the sites of one country, so I chose the country with the most locations, ITALY, which, as of July 2015, has 51 (47 cultural sites and four, natural).

Four of the Italian locations are combined with other nations: “Monte San Giorgio” and the “Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes” with Switzerland; “Historic Center of Rome” with the Vatican, and “Prehistoric Pile dwellings around the Alps” with Austria, France, Germany, Slovenia and Switzerland. 

First, however, I will answer the question ‘What is a World Heritage Site?’

As determined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a World Heritage Site is a place of special cultural or physical significance. It can be a forest, lake, mountain, city, building, monument, etc.

According to UNESCO’s World Heritage mission statement, the organization “… seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world… . Cultural heritage refers to monuments, groups of building and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value. Natural heritage refers to outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, habitats of threatened species of animals and plants and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value.”

A list of all sites, which is kept by the International World Heritage Program, is overseen by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, an agency made up of 21 UNESCO member states elected by the General Assembly. UNESCO only assists in conserving the sites.

Implementation of preserving exceptional areas

The United States introduced the idea of rescuing the world’s exceptional natural areas and historic sites for the future of mankind. As a result, the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was embraced by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1972 and became effective in 1975. 

To be listed, a country must first make a Tentative List, which is a roster of its noteworthy cultural and natural assets. It selects items from this list and places them into a Nomination File. This, in turn, is appraised by the International Council on Monuments & Sites and the World Conservation Union. These organizations then make their suggestions to the World Heritage Committee, which convenes once a year. 

To be incorporated into the list, a site must conform to one of 10 standards. At the time of this writing, there are a total of 1,007 World Heritage Sites (when not counting twice those that belong to more than one country).

Below is an inventory of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy, listed by region (see map). I am covering the regions in a north-to-south direction so that you can easily plan to travel from one to the other, although you may have to cross the Apennines (which should be fun).


Prehistoric Pile dwellings around the Alps (Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia and Switzerland) These are ancient stilt houses that were constructed between 5000 and 500 BC. Their ruins were designated as Heritage Sites in 2011. Although the houses were not built directly above water, they stood on stilts to protect them from floods. Of the properties in Italy, all 19 are located in northern Italy.


Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes (Italy and Switzerland) My late wife, Flory, and I looked for our reserved seats on the kleine Rote (“small red one”), the Bernina Express, a train with panoramic coaches, as we traveled from Chur in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy via the Bernina Pass (during the summer, you also can travel from Davos and St. Moritz). As the train departed, we made ourselves comfortable.

St. Moritz is the terminus of the Albula Railway as well as the Bernina Railway. 

From St. Moritz, the Bernina railway line connects Switzerland with Tirano via the Bernina Pass, while the Albula Railway links Thusis (near Chur, in the Graubünden region) with St. Moritz. Both belong to the private Rhaetian Railway (RhB).

Whereas the Albula line, which was built between 1898 and 1904, always belonged to RhB, the Bernina line, built between 1908 and 1910, was acquired in the 1940s.

For most of its journey, the Bernina Express runs along the World Heritage Site known as the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula/Bernina Landscapes, which, besides the railway, includes the adjoining Alpine countryside and its unspoiled settlements.

Monte San Giorgio This site is a large resource for marine fossils dating from 245 to 230 million years ago, during the Triassic Period. Close to Lake Lugano, between Lombardy and Switzerland, this site is combined with the site in Ticino, Switzerland.


The Dolomites The Dolomites are a massif in the Italian Alps with stunning, steep, rocky precipices, perpendicular cliffs and extended gorges. Eighteen of its summits are above 9,800 feet and devoid of vegetation, giving these tops a stark-naked appearance. Lower down, we found the trails littered with leaves, which gave us a feeling of stepping into containers of oatmeal as we descended various trails.

Nevertheless, with their high-altitude meadows, these mountains are a rambling paradise, where Flory and I loved to hike.

LOMBARDY (Lombardia)

• Rock Drawings in Val Camonica (Camonica Valley) These rock drawings represent one of the biggest groups of ancient petroglyphs, portraying incidents from agriculture, navigation, war and magic. The etchings commenced during the Epipaleolithic, which is the middle part of the Stone Age, and continued until the Middle Ages. (The Stone Age is the earliest-known period of human culture, characterized by the use of stone implements, which began about 15,000 years ago). 

Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci This site covers the Santa Maria delle Grazie (Holy Mary of Grace) church and convent in Milan. The latter contains the mural of “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci.

Crespi d’Adda — Crespi d’Adda in the commune Capriate di San Gervasio is a company town, constructed during the 19th and 20th centuries by manufacturers who elected to provide for their employees’ essential necessities.

Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy — The Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) of Piedmont and Lombardy consist of nine clusters of sanctuaries, constructed in the 16th and 17th centuries, which are devoted to diverse features of Christianity and which have become a part of the attractive contiguous rural area.

Mantua and Sabbioneta — Mantua and Sabbioneta epitomize two features of Renaissance town design. 

Mantua, which started in Roman times, has preserved buildings from the 11th century (which were restored in the 15th and 16th centuries) and demonstrates the rebirth and expansion of an existing city with an erratic town plan, while Sabbioneta was planned as an “ideal municipality,” with a right-angle grid design, in the second half of the 16th century. 

The two cities are significant for their parts in the spreading of Renaissance urbanity.

Longobards in Italy. Places of the power (568-774 A.D.) — “Longobards in Italy, Places of Power (568-774 A.D.)” is the official name given by UNESCO to seven groups of historic structures in the towns of Brescia, Cividale del Friuli, Castelseprio, Spoleto, Campello sul Clitunno, Benevento and Monte Sant’Angelo. 

These buildings, which include abbeys, houses of worship and strongholds, reveal the accomplishments of the Germanic ethnic group of the Lombards (also referred to as Longobards) who put down their roots in Italy and governed large stretches of land from the sixth to the eighth centuries. They played an important part in the religious and cultural expansion of Christianity in Europe in the Middle Ages.

PIEDMONT (Piemonte)

Sacri Monti of Piedmont and Lombardy Listed above under “Lombardy”

Residences of the Royal House of Savoy These consist of multiple structures that were built after Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy, transferred the capital from Chambéry to Turin in 1562. These structures spread out far into the countryside to display the authority of the Royal House. 

Over the years, the House of Savoy has expanded its influence. As such, it planned the unification of Italy in 1861 and ruled the Italian monarchy from 1861 until after the termination of World War II.

Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato — This Heritage Site consists of five separate areas dedicated to viticulture and dating back to the fifth century BC. The site encompasses parts of Langhe, a hilly region in Piedmont renowned for its wines, cheeses and truffles, and Montferrat, a major viticulture area in Italy. The site includes the Castle of Grinzane Cavour.


Archaeological Area and the Patriarchal Basilica of Aquileia — Aquileia, one of the most affluent municipalities of the early Middle Ages (284-1000), was demolished by Attila in the mid-fifth century. Most of it has not been unearthed. The patriarchal basilica was instrumental in expanding the Christian religion in Central Europe.


Venice and its Lagoon Venice, spread out over 118 small isles divided by waterways and connected by bridges, was a prominent naval power in the 10th century. 

Today, I consider it a romantic getaway. Its vaporettos and water taxis provide an idyllic view of exceptional buildings. Walking from the Grand Canal to the Piazza San Marco (where you find the Doge’s Palace), crossing the Rialto Bridge, visiting the glass blowers in Murano and taking a gondola ride at night are some of the pleasures that this wonderful city offers the visitor.

City of Vicenza and the Palladian Villas of the Veneto The city of Vicenza thrived from the early 15th century to the end of the 18th. Its exceptional look is the result of the architectural prowess of Andrea Palladio, who built city edifices as well as countryside villas. His architectural designs, which came to be known as Palladian, were adapted throughout Europe and North America.

Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico), Padua — This, the world’s oldest academic botanical garden, is renowned for its ancient layout. Today, it still functions as a research facility.

City of Verona Verona has accumulated many shrines from ancient times, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

I will continue describing Heritage Sites in Italy in my next column.    

Dr. Wagenaar welcomes questions but may not be able to answer them individually. Write to him c/o ITN.