Guide to the 13 stunning UNESCO World Heritage sites in Switzerland

Guide to the 13 stunning UNESCO World Heritage sites in Switzerland

From major historical sites to natural wonders, Switzerland has more than its fair share of stunning places to visit. Along with locations that have been recognised by the Swiss government as sites of significance, some locations have been internationally sanctioned by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. Here’s a guide to every UNESCO World Heritage site in Switzerland, so you can start ticking them off your bucket list. 

What is a UNESCO World Heritage site?

A UNESCO World Heritage site is a landmark or area which is given special protection by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The sites themselves can be located in any part of the world and can take any form, so long as they have cultural, historical, scientific or other characteristics that are considered of outstanding value to humanity.

Each country is able to submit locations to be given special protection status, and once approved the sites are given conservation support from the United Nations. The first site ever given UNESCO World Heritage status was the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador in 1978. As of September 2023, there are 1.199 designated sites around the world in 168 different countries.

How many UNESCO World Heritage sites does Switzerland have?

As of 2024, Switzerland has 13 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Nine were given the status due to their cultural significance, while four were listed due to their natural beauty and importance. Switzerland earned its first three heritage sites in 1983.

The 13 UNESCO sites in Switzerland

Here’s all you need to know about every UNESCO World Heritage site in Switzerland, starting with cultural sites before moving on to natural wonders:

1. Abbey of Saint Gall

One of the three Swiss sites awarded UNESCO status in 1983 was the Abbey of Saint Gall in St. Gallen. Founded in the 8th century by Saint Othmar, the site is an impeccable example of a Carolingian monastery. 

The monastery itself was founded on the site of the hermitage of Saint Gallus, an Irish monk who came to the area in the 600s. Between its creation and its secularisation in the 1800s, it was one of the most important and powerful monasteries in Europe. Today, the monastery complex is impeccably preserved, along with its library - one of the oldest in Europe and home to many ancient manuscripts.

Abbey of Sain Gall, Switzerland

2. The old city of Bern

The second of the three sites given UNESCO status in 1983 was the old city of Bern, and it’s easy to see why! First built in the 12th century by the powerful Zähringer family, the old town of Bern was founded on a bend in the River Aare. The centre of the city has remained remarkably unchanged since it was rebuilt following a fire in 1405.

The old city is given high praise by UNESCO for how it has been able to preserve its ancient buildings while also ably catering to demands for public transport, housing and the fact that it is now the de-facto capital of Switzerland

Bern’s efforts to maintain its historic architecture and city centre are reflected in the number of tourists that come to its covered alleyways and cobblestoned streets every year. Some of the highlights of the area include the Zytglogge, Bern Minster, and the parliament building.

Old city of Bern, Switzerland

Image credit: Ernst Christen /

3. The three castles and fortifications of Bellinzona

Moving south, one of the most imposing UNESCO World Heritage sites in Switzerland has to be the castles and fortifications around the capital of Ticino, Bellinzona. Since this area was historically a pivotal axis and trade route through the mountains, fortifications have stood here since Roman times.

The fortifications visitors can enjoy today are centred around three medieval castles: Castelgrande, Montebello and Sasso Corbaro. The stunning forts, walls and towers had to be built in lockstep with the terrain, leading to a flowing set of fortifications that wrap around the city and surrounding hillside. 

Fortifications of Bellinzona, Switzerland

4. Vinyards of the Lauvaux region, Canton Vaud

A place likely already familiar to fans of Swiss wine, the Lavaux wine region of Canton Vaud has been a UNESCO site since 2007. Situated on the eastern banks of Lake Geneva and the southern bank of Lake Neuchâtel, the region is one of Switzerland’s most productive and prominent wine regions.

While the vintners of the Lavaux region produce many types of wine, it is most famous for Chasselas. The grape originated in the region and is known for making fresh, delicate and fruity white wines. 

Even those who aren’t fans of wine can indulge in a cycle or walk along the vineyards. With the sun on your back paired with the lake and mountain views, tranquil just doesn’t cut it as a descriptor.

Lavaux wine region, Switzerland

5. La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle: Watchmaking

From stunning scenery and wines to an equally known part of Swiss culture: watchmaking. The watchmakers and city design of La Chaux-de-Fonds and Le Locle were added to the UNESCO list because of how the two towns were designed with watchmaking and the wellbeing of workers in mind.

This was done through close commutes between homes and workshops, and the building of wide, open living spaces.

Watchmaking in Switzerland

6. Benedictine Convent of St. John at Müstair 

The final site of the three approved in 1983 was the Benedictine Convent of St John at Müstair, Canton Graubünden. High in the Swiss mountains, the site was founded in the 8th century, likely on the orders of Emperor Charlemagne himself. Having served briefly as a Benedictine monastery and a women’s abbey, the convent continues to host religious practices to this day.

So why is this relatively small church on the list ahead of other imposing religious sites like the Abbey in Einsiedeln and the Minsters in Basel and Zurich? UNESCO noted that the convent is an exemplarily preserved 8th-century church which boasts one of the most extensive collections of original paintings from the Charlemagne era.

Monestary in Switzerland

7. Prehistoric pile dwelling sites in Switzerland

The subject of many a field trip in Swiss schools are the pile-dwelling settlements found across Switzerland and in parts of Germany, France, Austria and Italy. Pile-dwellings are homes and platforms that were constructed on stilts near or in lakes surrounding the Alps. 56 of the 111 pile-dwelling sites on UNESCO's list are located in Switzerland, with those around Lake Biel considered some of the finest examples. 

The first pile-dwelling settlements have been traced back to 5.000 BC, meaning they are some of the oldest settlements discovered in Switzerland so far. To see what pile-dwellings would have looked like thousands of years ago, it’s best to take a quick hop over Lake Constance to Uhldingen in Germany, where they have painstakingly recreated a settlement.

Elsewhere, an exhibit on pile dwellings in Switzerland can be found at the Museum of Archeology in Hauterive, Canton Neuchâtel.

Pile-dwelling settlements, Switzerland

8. Rhaetian Railway from Chur to St. Moritz and Tirano (Albula and Bernina)

Another iconic UNESCO World Heritage site in Switzerland is the Rhaetian railway, specifically the Bernina and Albula lines from Chur to the Swiss ski resort of St. Moritz and on to Tirano in Italy. The 60-kilometre line from Chur to Tirano climbs 1.824 metres on its way through the Engadine, necessitating the construction of 55 tunnels and 196 bridges, the most iconic being the Landwasser Viaduct.

If you are a fan of luxury, you can experience part of the line for yourself using the Glacier Express. Alternatively, regular public transport services use the line too.

Rhaetian railway

9. The works of Le Corbusier

Perhaps the most nebulous of all the Swiss UNESCO sites is the "works of Le Corbusier." Born in La Chaux-du-Fonds in 1887, the renowned and controversial artist, architect and city planner is one of the most famous Swiss people of all time. 

Over his career, Le Corbusier was famous for his contributions to the modernist movement of design and art, and for designing buildings like the headquarters of the United Nations in New York along with Oscar Niemeyer and Wallace K. Harrison. In 2016, 17 of his buildings were designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, two of which are in Switzerland: the Villa Le Lac in Corseux and the Immeuble Clarté building in Geneva.

10. The Jungfrau region of Switzerland and Aletsch glacier

With the Swiss Alps being such a prominent feature of the country, it’s no surprise that part of the mountain range finds itself on the UNESCO list. Specifically, 82.400 hectares of mountainside in the Jungfrau region have been given special status, including the Aletsch glacier.

The area was given special status due to its impact on art and culture in Switzerland and abroad, and how it can maintain a diverse and unique set of plants and wildlife.

Jungfrau region of Switzerland

11. Monte San Giorgio

At first glance, you may wonder why Monte San Giorgio, an unremarkable wooded mountain near Lake Lugano, would be given UNESCO status. The secret lies not on the mountain itself, but in the rock beneath.

According to UNESCO, the hill boasts some of the best fossils available from the Triassic Period (245 to 230 million years ago). At that time, the mountain formed part of a tropical sheltered lagoon, meaning the rocks are full of reptile, fish, insect and plant fossils.

Want to see the fossils for yourself? The best places to go are the archaeological park in Tremona-Castello, the museum in the town of Meride or the 13-kilometre Sentiero del Monte San Giorgio hiking route (Switzerland Mobility route 636) - a hike that takes you right across the mountain.

Monte San Giorgio

12. Sardona tectonic area of Switzerland 

While Monte San Giorgio gives an insight into all the species that used to call the alpine nation home, the Sardona tectonic area of Switzerland in the northeastern mountains is a great showcase of how the Alps formed in the first place. A site of geological research since the 18th century, the overlapping rockfaces demonstrate how erosion and plate tectonics shaped the landscape as we know it today.

Sardona tectonic area of Switzerland

13. The beech forests of Switzerland

Finally, two of the primordial beech forests protected by UNESCO are in Switzerland, one at the Forêt de la Bettlachstock in Canton Solothurn and another at the Valli di Lodano, Busai and Soladino Forest Reserves in Ticino. These are designated as heritage sites due to the impeccable insight they provide into the development of certain types of trees.

UNESCO protected forests Switzerland

Switzerland and its UNESCO sites

Well there we have it, all 13 UNESCO sites in Switzerland described. Do you have a favourite heritage site in the alpine nation or overseas? Let us know in the comments below!

Jan de Boer


Jan de Boer

Jan studied in York and Sheffield in the UK, obtaining a master's in broadcast journalism and a bachelor's in history. He has worked as a radio DJ, TV presenter, and...

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