The United Kingdom boasts a long and varied history, and with it comes a number of fascinating historic sites. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (better known as UNESCO) officially recognises sites around the world for their cultural, historical or scientific significance. The UK is home to 33 of these famed locations in total, making it one of the top 10 countries around the globe for UNESCO World Heritage sites.
From Blenheim Palace, which housed 300 years of the Churchill family, to the extraordinary Kew Gardens and its 50,000 specimens of plants and flowers, it’s worth taking a trip to see some of these fascinating gems which have witnessed their fair share of history.
Keep an eye out for some recently-inscribed hidden gems too, with sites like Jodrell Bank Observatory and Derwent Valley Mills bearing testament Britain’s fascinating scientific and industrial past.
Here are 15 of Britain’s greatest UNESCO sites to visit.
1. The Tower of London
The Tower of London has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988. Originally known as the White Tower, it was commissioned by the first Norman king William the Conqueror, and work on it was underway by the 1070s. The Tower of London held prisoners for over 850 years – from Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham who was imprisoned for extortion in 1100 and managed to escape, to infamous East London gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray for going AWOL from the army in 1952.
There is a great deal to see and do at the Tower, such as the beefeaters, ravens and just walking around it to soak up the history. The spot near to the scaffold where Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey were all executed is marked with a memorial, and they were buried in the nearby church of St Peter ad Vincula which can be explored.
2. Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral is one of England’s most famous cathedrals, both because of its prominent history dating back to the 6th century, and due to the famous murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket that took place there. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988. Canterbury Cathedral operated as a monastery until 1540, when Henry VIII disbanded it as part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. He also destroyed the shrine to Thomas Becket, a place of pilgrimage now symbolised by a lone candle.
Today, Canterbury Cathedral is a popular tourist attraction. Make sure you look up and admire the Cathedral’s magnificent ceilings which feature stunning fan-vaulted designs and colourful detailing. The stained glass windows are also a marvel. Outside, the cloisters may be explored, as well as the cathedral’s picturesque gardens.
Stonehenge in Wiltshire is a world-renowned site consisting of standing (and lying) stones, some transported from South Wales. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986. The construction of Stonehenge took place between 3000 BC and 1600 BC and is considered to be one of the most impressive structures of its time, especially considering each stone weighs around four tonnes and that its founders had little by way of technological advances to assist them in moving the stones over the hundreds of miles that they travelled.
The purpose of Stonehenge has remained a mystery, despite extensive archaeological investigation. The site is managed by English Heritage, who opened a new visitor centre in 2012, which dramatically improved the visitor experience. There’s plenty of information inside the state-of-the-art museum, and it’s worth spending some time in there before visiting the stones themselves to understand why Stonehenge is viewed as both so impressive and so important.
4. Giant's Causeway
Located on the north coast of Northern Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns which are the result of an ancient volcanic fissure eruption. According to legend, the remains were once part of a causeway built by a giant.
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Ireland, attracting around a million visitors per year. Access to the site is free year-round, though there is a visitor’s centre nearby which offers more information about the site.
5. Kew Gardens
Kew Gardens is a botanic garden in southwest London that houses one of the largest and most diverse botanical and mycological collections in the world. A UNESCO World Heritage site since 2003, Kew Gardens contains over 50,000 living plants and millions of preserved specimens. Kew Gardens sprung from the merging of the Richmond and Kew royal estates in 1772, and became famous under the management of Sir Joseph Banks, with collections including specimens from around the world.
Kew’s Palm House, built between 1844-1848, was the first large-scale structural use of wrought iron – now considered the world’s most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure. The Temperate House followed later and is now the largest Victorian glasshouse in existence. Sir David Attenborough buried a time capsule in the foundation of the Princess of Wales Conservatory in 1985, containing seeds of important food crops and several endangered species. It will be opened in 2085.
6. Fountains Abbey
Combined with the stunning grounds of Studley Royal Park, Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986. Founded in the 12th century, it soon became a thriving centre of Cistercian religious activity. Like many in the country, Fountains Abbey suffered during the 14th century as a result of economic hardship and the Black Death, and it began to slowly deteriorate. Following restoration work in the 15th century, however, the abbey once again flourished.
It was royal intervention that finally ended the life of Fountains Abbey, when in 1539 it was closed under the orders of King Henry VIII. Alongside hundreds of other monastic houses in England, Fountains was ruined in what became known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Today, its atmospheric ruins allude to the power and wealth of medieval monastic communities once had in England.
7. Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace was built between 1705 and 1722 after the land on which it now stands was gifted to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough. Marlborough had been rewarded for his victory over French and Bavarian forces at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, after which the palace was named. Following its completion, Blenheim Palace became the home of the Churchill family for the next 300 years.
Today Blenheim Palace remains the home of the Churchills, with the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough currently residing there. Whether you choose to wander Blenheim Palace independently or as part of a guided tour, you can enjoy endless artistic masterpieces such as the Blenheim Tapestry depicting Lord Marlborough accepting the surrender of the French, and the stunning ceiling paintings of Louis Laguerre. The 18th-century house itself is also an architectural marvel with its Baroque design by John Vanburgh, the architect of the stunning Castle Howard. It is hardly surprising that it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.
8. Skara Brae
Located in the Orkney Isles off the coast of mainland Scotland, Skara Brae was discovered after a severe storm in Scotland in 1850 pulled away layers of earth which had buried it. It is characterised by sturdy stone slab structures insulated and protected by the clay and household waste which hold them together. It is a stunning example of the high quality of Neolithic workmanship and a phenomenal example of a Neolithic village and was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 along with a few other sites in the area.
The site is open year-round, with slightly shorter hours during the winter – it’s rarely heaving, but outside of peak summer months you’ve every chance of having the site to yourself. During the summer, the entry ticket also covers entrance to the 17th-century bishop’s mansion, Skaill House, which has a rather contrasting 1950s style interior.
9. Derwent Valley Mills
It was in the Derwent Valley Mills that the factory system was born in the early 1720s. Thanks to pioneering work by Richard Arkwright, Jedidiah Strutt, the Lombe brothers and more, the key ingredients of factory production were successfully combined. Water Power was applied and successfully used for the first time on a relatively large scale. Silk throwing and cotton spinning was also revolutionised, incurring dramatic consequences for the British economy, while the Arkwright model system also informed and inspired developments in other countries and industries.
The fact that the further development of urban-based cotton mill technology happened in Lancashire rather than Derbyshire meant the early mills in the Derwent Valley were not redeveloped. As a result, visitors can enjoy these remarkable early industrial buildings and their communities in an unspoilt landscape setting, which were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2001.
10. Durham Castle
Along with Durham Cathedral, Durham Castle has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986. Originally commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1072, Durham Castle was intended to ensure Norman control in the north of England and was built in the traditional motte and bailey style. It became the seat of the Bishops of Durham who were tasked with enacting royal authority in the area, and with each new tenant was altered to reflect his wealth and status.
Durham Cathedral is a stunning 11th-century cathedral that has been at the centre of religious activity in the area for over 1,000 years. Today dominating the town of Durham, it offers a fascinating glimpse into medieval Britain and superb views to those willing (and able) to climb up the 300+ steps to the top of the tower.
11. Hadrian’s Wall
Along with the Antonine Wall, Hadrian’s Wall has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987. Both are excellent examples of ‘Frontiers of the Roman Empire’, with Hadrian’s Wall having been built by six legions under the rule of Roman Emperor Hadrian between 122 and 130 AD.
Similarly, the Antonine Wall was a Roman defensive wall, approximately 3-4 metres high and 4-5 metres wide, and consisted of a stone base, a strong timber palisade fortified with turf, and a deep ditch. The wall stretched for nearly 37 miles between the towns of Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth and Old Kilpatrick on the Firth of Clyde, at the neck (the Isthmus) of Scotland, along its central belt. Today, extensive parts of both walls are visible and make for a fascinating visit.
12. Jodrell Bank Observatory
Located in rural northwest England, free from radio interference, Jodrell Bank is one of the world’s leading radio astronomy observatories. When it was first used in 1945, it housed research on cosmic rays detected by radar echoes. The still-working observatory holds several radio telescopes and working pieces of machinery.
Jodrell Bank has had a substantial scientific impact in fields such as the study of meteors and the moon, the discovery of quasars, quantum optics and the tracking of spacecraft. It was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2019.
13. Westminster Abbey
Along with the Palace of Westminster and Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1987. The site is an iconic medieval structure and the site of many historic royal and national events, from coronations and royal weddings to burials and even deaths. Centrally located in London, Westminster Abbey was first constructed in the 11th century by King Edward the Confessor, a Saxon king who dedicated this new church to St Peter.
To have an informed visit and to see the most interesting parts of Westminster Abbey, take a tour, as just wandering around can be overwhelming: its stunning interiors alone make it easy to understand why it is so internationally iconic.
14. Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal
Described by UNESCO as “a masterpiece of creative genius”, the 18-arched stone and cast iron structure of Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal is for use by narrowboats and was completed in 1805 after ten years of design and building. It is the longest aqueduct in Great Britain and the highest canal aqueduct in the world. A footpath runs alongside the watercourse on one side.
The first 11 miles of the Llangollen Canal is an outstanding piece of industrial and engineering heritage comprising of embankments, tunnels, viaducts and aqueducts. It was inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage site list in 2009.
15. Forth Bridge
Though the Forth Bridge was only inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2015, it has long been the subject of awe and wonder. Opened in 1890, The bridge spans the Firth of Forth in Scotland, connecting Edinburgh at South Queensferry to Fife at North Queensferry.
It remains one of the greatest cantilever trussed bridges and continues to carry passengers and freight. It is known for its distinctive industrial aesthetic which brightly displays its structural components. Innovative in style, materials and scale, the Forth Bridge marks an important milestone in bridge design and construction during the period when railways came to dominate long-distance land travel.