Since the foundation in 2013, Expat Club visited countless destinations in Brussels, Belgium and other (surrounding) countries, either by bus, train, flight or (overnight) ferry. In fact, the flags on our destinations map keep keeps on increasing month after month, including farther places. Whether near or far, we think that all the places we visit are totally worth it. Some destinations, however, are extra special because they have been named an official UNESCO World Heritage Site. And the best thing is that a few of them are literally just a few minutes walking from our office at Avenue Louise!
UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It seeks to build peace through international cooperation in Education, the Sciences and Culture. UNESCO’s programmes contribute to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals defined in Agenda 2030, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015. The UNESCO headquarters are based in Paris.
For the public UNESCO is especially known for the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Surely you can mention a few of them from the top of your head, such as the Pyramids of Gizeh in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru, the Great Wall of China, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, or the Borobudur Temple in Indonesia. But did you know there are already 1121 World Heritage Sites as of 2020?
At Expat Club we love visiting World Heritage Sites. Since 2013 we have visited 49. We do intend to visit more of them in the future and we would love it if you join us these trips. Would it not be cool to walk over the legendary Chinese Wall, see the Pyramids with your own eyes, or go snorkelling in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef? Okay, let’s stop dreaming for a moment. Let’s first get a better understanding of what a World Heritage Site actually is.
What makes the concept of World Heritage exceptional is its universal application. World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.
To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria (…). The criteria are regularly revised by the Committee to reflect the evolution of the World Heritage concept itself. Until the end of 2004, World Heritage sites were selected on the basis of six cultural and four natural criteria (source: https://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/).
The ten UNESCO criteria: (i) to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius; (ii) to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design; (iii) to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared; (iv) to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history; (v) to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change; (vi) to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria); (vii) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance; (viii) to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features; (ix) to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals; (x) to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.
Expat Club visits to UNESCO World Heritage Sites
For the following list of UNESCO sites we visited, we decided to integrally copy the official UNESCO description for every site, simply because they perfectly communicate the essence of why the UN-body decided over the World Heritage status. Behind every destination title you can also find a link that takes you to the official UNESCO website. There you can learn more about these special places, see maps and pictures and read much background information.
Let’s start in our own expat country of residence, Belgium. At the moment of writing (February 2020) there were 13 World Heritage Site in Belgium, with another 16 sites on the tentative list. So far Expat Club visit 8 sites, but we intend to see them all in the next few years. Surely you have visited one of them, right here in Brussels!
Although roughly 1,5 times larger than Belgium, The Netherlands only has “ten” UNESCO World Heritage Sites with 8 more on the tentative list. So far we visited 5 of them, but we hope to add at least 3 more in 2020, namely the Wadden Sea and the Woude Gemaal (Steam Pumping Station) in the North, and the Beemster Polder (oldest in Holland, 1609-1612) not far from Amsterdam.
Probably we travelled most often to France on all our Expat Club trips. And not without reason, because as you know God created France, the most beautiful country in the world with so much good in it, and ended up feeling guilty about it. He had to do something to make it fair. And so, he created … some amazing UNESCO sites too! Without kidding, the amazing diverse scenery is complemented with beautiful cities, great culture, delicious food and drinks, and not less than 45 cultural and natural sites. Expat Club so far has ticked off a dozen from its bucket list, and most definitely we will discover even more when we discover more of La Douce France.
You think going South will give you access to many UNESCO sites? Think again, if you travel East you will find even one more site in Germany. Indeed, our neighbours have 46 sites on their soil. So far we have seen just 6, although to be fair Trier alone has 9 sites that are all combined in one certification: the Amphiteatre, the Moselle Bridge, the Barbara Baths, the Igel Column, Porta Nigra, Imperial Baths, Aula Palatina (Basilica), Cathedral and Church of Our Lady (Liebrauenkirche). It’s our favourite destination in Germany, especially since the Christmas markets are also lovely.
Even in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean we bumped into a magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Site on our November trips in 2018 and 2019. Admitted, this is not a cultural site, but it’s super spectacular. The Thingvellir / Pingvellir or Þingvellir National Park is one of the country’s most special places that you simply must see when in Iceland. We will return to Iceland in the next years, and hopefully we will have the chance to also visit the other 2 destinations.
On our two trips to Austria, we saw 3 UNESCO sites. That’s a 150% score, not bad! In May 2018 we travelled to the South of Germany to see the beautiful Bavarian castles. On one afternoon we made a little d-tour to Salzburg, a splendid city known for Mozart’s birthplace and the Sound of Music. However, also it’s entire historic city center has a UNESCO World Heritage status. The same goes for Austria’s capital Vienna, although not only its centre enjoys this prestigious label, but also the famous “Sissi” Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens.
The only reason why we have not visited so many of the 55 Italian UNESCO sites is that we so far only went to Venice. Not bad as a first destination, because Venice is just an insanely beautiful city, but needless to say that there is much more to discover. For instance, what to think about Rome?
Our small neighbouring country may indeed be very small, but its UNESCO casemates are world-famous and very much worth a visit… which we do of course! Every year at the end of the summer we travel to Luxembourg to discover this lovely tiny capital. It’s a highly recommended tour.
Expat Club has so organised several trips to Krakow in Southern Poland. One could go there for a fantastic cultural and shopping trip, because it’s one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, and carries the UNESCO stat. However, with Expat Club we go there with another intention, namely to learn about the darkest period of the city and region. This is the city of Oskar Schindler’s factory, in which he employed many jews who he later saved from the concentration camps. Krakow is only a one hour drive from the Auschwitz and Birkenau complexes, where over 1 million people died. Both camps have the UNESCO status as they are a “symbol of humanity’s cruelty to its fellow human beings in the 20th century.” This deeply impressive trip finishes coincidentally with another UNESCO destination, the Wieliczka salt mines.
If you would join our summer trip to Switzerland, you would be able to add 4 UNESCO sites to your list, out of a total of a dozen scattered over this Alpine land. If you’d ask us at Expat Club, we would be putting the entire country as one big natural UNESCO World Heritage Site, so beautiful. We would even give an extra accolade to the country’s superb infrastructure and cleanliness.
United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland
The UNESCO sites can be found all over the country, and some come from far away places, at least in some sort of way. One of the world’s most famous borders is clearly delineated. Hadrian’s Wall marks the frontiers of the Roman Empire. If you would zoom in on this map, you can see a clear line from the East to the West filled with UNESCO sites. Quite remarkable, but unfortunately we still have to discover this as Expat Club, just like over 2 dozen of other sites in the UK. Maybe in one of the next few years! For the rest we of course visited London and Canterbury, both excellent places to go World Heritage Site shopping.
This Eastern European country is home to 7 World Heritage Sites, including one that is closely connected to Brussels. Also in Ukraine you can namely find “Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and Other Regions of Europe”, just like the Sonian Forest in the South side of our city. Our final destination for a trip to Ukraine in 2019 (and also 2020) is Chernobyl, the location of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. We can’t sit on the chair of UNESCO, but even here we could imagine the application of some of the criteria for a status, although it would be an anti-example. But for sure an actual Site will be visited during our trip to Kiev, one that goes back a entire millennium in time.
And finally, at the time of first publishing this article, Finland’s fascinating Suomenlinna sea fortress near Helsinki was indeed also our last visited new UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although it was 23 December when we landed after a short ferry ride and a bit chilly outside, it was without a doubt totally worth the visit. Hopefully we will have the chance to visit one of the other 6 Finnish sites in the Expat Club future.