Wherever you travel in Europe this summer, it is likely that you will be no more than a stone's throw from a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ed Leahy picks a few of his favourites.

Wherever you travel in Europe this summer, it is likely that you will be no more than a stone's throw from a UNESCO World Heritage Site - places considered of special cultural or physical significance.

UNESCO sites worldwide include mountains, lakes, forests, deserts, monuments, buildings, complexes and cities.

Ireland only has three UNESCO heritage sites with Newgrange, the Giant's Causeway and Skellig Michael all listed.

However, there may be more in the near future as the Medieval Monastic sites, the Burren, the Céide Fields, the Historic City of Dublin, Clonmacnoise, Cashel, Dún Ailinne, Hill of Uisneach, Rathcroghan, Tara, the Western Stone Forts and Mount Stewart Gardens are all on a tentative list for inclusion.

And while UNESCO recognition can be a great boost to a nation's tourist industry, unfortunately, there are a growing number of such sites that are now listed as being in danger, including the Old City of Jerusalem and its Walls, the Belize Barrier Reef, which is the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere, and Los Katíos National Park, which was placed on the list at the request of Colombia as it is threatened by deforestation due to the illegal extraction of timber. The Everglades National Park in Florida has also been listed due to serious and continuing degradation of its aquatic ecosystem.

So perhaps take a day or two away from the sunshine and sangria and experience some local culture.

Here's a sample of what is waiting for you around mainland Europe, and a little closer to home.

BrugesBRUGES, Belgium
Located in Flanders in the Flemish region of Belgium, Bruges returned to prominence following the movie with Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson. One of the prettiest cities in northern Europe, the historic centre is a joy to wander or explore via the canal network, while the city boundaries remain the same as the medieval city centre. Often referred to as the 'Venice of the North' due to the numerous canals that run through the city, there is plenty to do other than to admire the brick gothic architecture as the city's main attractions include the Flemish Primitives' art and the Beguinage and Minnewater. The centuries-old Bruges skyline can be viewed from the Belfry spire, while the city claims to be the world capital of chocolate, with 49 chocolate boutiques and a chocolate museum. Before you go, watch 'In Bruges' - I think you'll agree, it's like a fairytale.

Le Mont Saint Michel LE MONT SAINT-MICHEL, France
Located just off the coast of Normandy in northern France at the mouth of the Couesnon River, Le Mont Saint Michel has been a strategic fortification since ancient times. Listed as a World Heritage site in 1979, this eighth century gothic-style Benedictine abbey, which was dedicated to the archangel St Michael, has long been a place of pilgrimage. The site proved a stronghold throughout France's military history and played a significant part in the 100 Years War and as a result became a symbol of French national identity, while it was used as a prison for half a century after the French Revolution. The views from the mainland are spectacular, especially at night when illuminated.

Piazza del Duomo PIAZZA DEL DUOMO, Italy
UNESCO World Heritage Sites are dotted throughout the entire peninsula of Italy such is the richness of history and culture throughout the country. So whether you are in the north, south or middle of Italy, you will be surrounded by such sites and one of the finest is the Piazza del Duomo in the Tuscan city of Pisa. Most famous for its leaning tower, the Piazza Del Duomo (Cathedral Square) houses four fantastic religious buildings - the Duomo, the Campanile bell tower (Leaning Tower), the Baptistry and the Camposanto. The Leaning Tower of Pisa may not be as big as you may expect but it certainly doesn't disappoint and with Florence, San Gimignano, Cinque Terre and Siena close by, you are spoilt for choice in every direction.

discoverireland.ie SKELLIG MICHAEL, Co Kerry
One of only three UNESCO sites in Ireland, Skellig Michael is actually an island in the Atlantic Ocean about nine miles from the Kerry coast. Dating back to the seventh century, the island was converted into a monastery for Christian monks and continued for around 600 years. Remarkably, the monastery is one of the best preserved in Europe, if not the easiest to reach, or negotiate (so watch your step). The monks lived in beehive huts known as clochans, which are still intact, while the main landmarks on the island include Christ's Valley, The Needles Eye, The Spit and The Hermitage. A limited number of tour operator licences are issued each year for tourists, while there are also good dive sites around the island.

The AcropolisACROPOLIS, Greece
Known as the birthplace of modern civilisation and one of the most famous tourist attractions in Europe, no visit to Greece is complete without a visit to the Athens and the Acropolis. Built on a flat-top rock that sits over 150 metres above sea level, the Acropolis can be seen for miles and more than deserved of its title of preeminent monument on the European Cultural Heritage list. Exploring Athens is a continuous history lesson with so much to see, including, the Ancient Agora, the Temple of Hephaestus, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, Panathinaiko Stadium and lots, lots more.

DurhamDURHAM CASTLE & CATHEDRAL, England
Sitting pretty on the banks of the Wear in northeast England, Durham Cathedral dates back to the 11th century and is the best example of Norman architecture in England. The cathedral houses the relics of St Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. And the castle, also dating back to the 11th century, was built by the Norman king to help control the 'wild and fickle' northern folk. The castle is home to the University of Durham, resulting in Durham becoming one of the most famous University towns in England. Arriving by train, the cityscape from above is fantastic, providing beautiful panoramic views of this old town. The city of Newcastle and the Northumberland Coast are both in close proximity if an extended visit is planned.

ToledoTOLEDO, Spain
Toledo is located 70km south of Madrid and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986 thanks to its rich history, which saw leadership change hands between the Romans, Visigoths and Moors. When under the rule of the Caliphate of Córdoba, Toledo became a cosmopolitan city where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative harmony. The city was Romanesque with straight roads arranged in a grid, but the Islamic influences changed it for the benefit of protecting the city. A river walk along the banks of the Tagus River, which loops around the ancient city walls, will get you out of the town centre, and the bridge-to-bridge ramble incorporates some fantastic vistas, while the panoramic views of the old town from across the river are truly spectacular. The Cathedral of Toledo is the second largest gothic cathedral in the world, while the Iglesia Santo Tomé houses one of El Greco's most famous paintings, the Burial of Count Orgaz.

Tower of BelémTOWER OF BELÉM, Lisbon
Keeping guard over the historic, and now very contemporary, city of Lisbon at the mouth of the Tagus River sits the Monastery of the Hieronymites and Tower of Belém. These are Lisbon's most symbolic monuments and received World Heritage status in 1983. Both the Tower and the Monastery are fine examples of the Portuguese Manueline style showcasing the fantastic architectural beauty on show throughout the city, evoking the time of the Portuguese Discoveries. The Monastery of the Hieronymites was construction in 1502, while the Tower of Belém was commissioned by King John II and celebrates explorer Vasco da Gama's expedition.

The Giant's Causeway GIANT'S CAUSEWAY, County Antrim
Situated on the north coast of Antrim, close to the whiskey-making town of Bushmills, the Giant's Causeway was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1986. Resulting from a volcanic eruption 60 million years ago, the Causeway is the focal point of a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The Giant's Causeway is made up of 40,000 black basalt columns that stick out of the sea, which, as legend will tell you, were built by Irish warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill to walk to Scotland to fight Benandonner. The Giant's Organ, Chimney Stacks, The Harp, The Organ, the Camel's Hump and Hamilton's Seat are some of the main formations in this vast geologically significant area. Sea birds can be seen off the coast around the Causeway, with species such as fulmar, petrel, cormorant, shag, redshank guillemot and razorbill being frequently observed.

For more information on UNESCO World Heritage Sites, visit: http://whc.unesco.org.

Ed Leahy

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