Scotland is home to 13 UNESCO sites and it is the first country in the world to introduce a trail that links each of them together. Scotland’s UNESCO sites include everything from a city synonymous with creative design to an uninhabited island, as well as whole swathes of wild countryside. By connecting all the sites together, you could enjoy an engrossing holiday on which you could appreciate many aspects of Scottish life from its most modern cities to its remotest outposts. Alternatively, you could visit the sites over several holidays because to complete Scotland's UNESCO Trail in full you would need at least four weeks!
One of the best ways to explore Scotland’s UNESCO Trail is to stay at a few of our self-catering holiday cottages. Book cottages at either end of the trail to relax in after your epic road trip to see Scotland’s UNESCO sites. We have the perfect accommodation for you to uncover in our collection.
UNESCO’s aim is to connect people everywhere with nature so they can restore, manage, learn from, knowledge-share and help to sustain and protect sites of interest. To gain UNESCO status, an area or place of interest must be nominated by the national government and meet a range of aims that fulfil conservation, development, and educational ends. Read on to find out more about historic Scotland’s UNESCO world heritage sites below.
What does UNESCO stand for?
UNESCO stands for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
There are currently 13 UNESCO sites in Scotland; these include six world heritage sites, and seven other types of UNESCO sites such as geoparks, biospheres, and cities of cultural importance.
A UNESCO biosphere reserve is an area consisting of land and marine ecosystems. They are sites of excellence where you can see people integrate with nature to sustain, learn about, and protect the local environments. There are two biospheres in Scotland – Wester Ross, and Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biospheres.
A UNESCO geopark status is a protected site considered to be of geological interest. It’s a place where everyone can assist with research and get involved in learning programmes that revolve around our prehistory and how the world around us is shaped.
About Scotland’s UNESCO Trail
Unlike the NC500 for instance, there is no signposted route for Scotland’s UNESCO Trail. This is because you can journey between the designations via train, boat and car and take any route. So the trail is less definable as an actual road, it’s more of a journey that you can travel your own way in your own order. Read our NC 500 guide here.
Completion of the entire of Scotland’s colossal UNESCO Trail, takes most people 40 days. However, if you’re not at leisure to spend quite that long away from home, you could split the journey into smaller sections.
To remain sustainable, UNESCO suggests travelling via public transport to reduce your carbon footprint. Each of the designations can be reached via train, bus and boat.
For the purpose of our guide, we have listed Scotland’s UNESCO sites according to their type of designation (ie, world heritage site, biosphere or geopark).
Alternatively you could read the blog in a loosely geographical clockwise order that resembles a horseshoe shape. Simply click on the 'Where to next?' jump link at the end of each section. Also refer to the map at the foot of this guide for visual context - some of the distances between sites are phenomenal.
Scotland’s UNESCO Trail’s biosphere reserves
Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere
Area: 2,034 square miles | First inscribed: 2012
Galloway and Southern Ayrshire was the first of the UK’s seven biospheres to be designated. When exploring the region, you’ll encounter lots of new ways to live more sustainably via innovative businesses and initiatives that are run for locals and visitors alike.
Top things to do in Galloway and Southern Ayrshire
Cycling: You can enjoy a myriad of outdoor sports like cycling as there are many routes to consider in Galloway and Southern Ayrshire. The area is also home to several of the 7Stanes centres such as Glentrool, and Kirroughtree. If you need a rental, go to Biosphere Bikes.
Stargazing: The biosphere partially consists of Galloway Forest’s Dark Sky Park, near Dalmellington. Engage a biosphere ranger to take you on a Dark Sky tour.
More: Get in among the wide range of activities available from the many providers in the biosphere. Enjoy paddle boarding at Adventure Carrick, or the climbing wall at the Galloway Activity Centre for instance. There are lots of outdoor pursuits to choose from including kayaking, coasteering, and bushcraft.
How do I get to Galloway and Southern Ayrshire UNESCO Biosphere?
- The main towns to head for are Stranraer, Dumfries and Ayr. Each of these places is on the railway network. Other towns in the biosphere such as Newton Stewart and Kirkcudbright are on the bus network
Where to next?
Dumfries and Galloway cottages
Wester Ross UNESCO Biosphere
Area: 3,000 square miles | First inscribed: 1976 / 2016
This area of the more westerly Scottish Highlands was expanded and renamed from Beinn Eighe in 2016 to become the Wester Ross UNESCO Biosphere. Residents in the region are encouraged to actively learn about their surroundings to preserve their culture and heritage. Wester Ross includes two national scenic areas and three nature reserves. It’s just jaw-dropping in its beauty.
Top attractions in Wester Ross
Applecross: Applecross Peninsula is a must-see if you want to feel like you’ve travelled to the ends of the world. Travel over the Pass of the Cattle - one of the most challenging roads to drive in the UK - for unforgettable views. Only try this in the daytime and in summer months.
Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve: Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve forms the core of Wester Ross biosphere and is the UK's oldest. It's home to Loch Maree, Coire Mhic Fearchair, Triple Buttress Corrie and the multi-peaked Beinn Eighe Munro.
Inverewe Gardens: Inverewe Gardens is managed by the National Trust for Scotland and is world famous for its collection of exotic trees and plants that thrive thanks to the warm currents of the gulf stream.
More: Visitors to Wester Ross often take part in outdoor activities via Climb-Ride-Explore Scotland and Ewe Canoe and Kayak Centre.
How do I get to Wester Ross?
- This part of Scotland is very wild and open so cars are the main travel option in Wester Ross – although you can take trains, and buses can be taken as far as Achanalt from Glasgow and Inverness
Where to next?
- St Kilda via ferry from Waternish on Skye (approx. 40 miles)
Scotland’s UNESCO Trail’s geoparks
The North West Highlands
Area: 770 square miles | First inscribed: 2004
Scotland’s first geopark, the North West Highlands (which is the most northerly part of the British mainland) feature some 3,000 million-year-old rocks, possibly the oldest in Europe. The park’s main geological features include Smoo Cave and Moine Thrust Belt. Perhaps most interesting to visitors is Cape Wrath, one of only two capes in the British Isles, where there is a lonely lighthouse (and cafe), some of the UK mainland’s highest cliffs, and the UK’s most remote military shooting range. Ancient animal bones were found at the Inchnadamph caves too, making it an important archaeological site.
The park was awarded its status for its abundance of interesting rocks and geological features that are uncommon across the rest of the UK. There is so much to see and do in this quiet part of the Highlands.
Top attractions in the North West Highlands
Cape Wrath: Catch a ferry and a bus to Cape Wrath. Booking is essential for this unforgettable scenic trip to the country’s loneliest lighthouse and café.
Smoo's Cave: As well as being a place of geological interest, Smoo's Cave was also once the lair of the notorious cutthroat and robber, McMurdo.
Balkaneil Craft Village: Pick up some bespoke craft goods from this remote Balkaneil Village. Just 1 mile from Durness, this is a good place to pick up some interesting mementos from your visit.
How do I get to the North West Highlands?
Where to next?
Area: 566 square miles | First inscribed: 2012
The Shetlands is an important site for geologists and archaeologists alike. There are up to 100 geosites on the islands. Highlights include an ancient ocean floor, shifting sands, and a volcano.
The Shetlands have been the source of many age-long puzzles for experts, for example, it’s been discovered that the islands' foundations originated at the South Pole millions of years ago. This fact alone boggles the mind! But when you learn that some of the rocks on the island are up to 3 billion years old, you begin to gain more perspective. The Shetlands is a bewitching holiday destination of treeless green islands and ancient folklore and culture. Why don't the Shetland Islands have any trees? you may ask. Blame the sheep, the high winds and the need for firewood and building materials over the centuries. You may see a few lone specimens in private gardens but for now there are no woodlands on The Shetlands. This may change one day soon though!
Top attractions in The Shetlands
Mousa Broch: A broch is an Iron Age roundhouse of a kind only found in Scotland and Mousa is the most intact example in the world.
Muness Castle: This castle ruin is located on the east coast of Unst, The Shetlands’ most northerly of its large islands. This makes Muness Castle the UK’s most northerly fortress too since it was built in 1550.
Old Scatness: Lost for over a millennium, the remains of this Iron Age broch and village at Old Scatness are well worth a visit. Book a tour in advance to avoid missing out.
How do I get to The Shetlands?
- You can travel from Aberdeen direct to the Shetlands or from the Orkney’s via Kirkwall by ferry. Flights are also available from the Orkneys and major cities on the mainland. The local bus service on the island is extensive, and there is an inter-island ferry network too. The Shetlands is a great place to hire a bike and see the place on two wheels
Where to next?
Scotland’s UNESCO Trail’s world heritage sites
Area: unknown | First inscribed: 2001
New Lanark was constructed in the late 1700s as a purpose-built mill village. Thanks to a long-lasting programme of conservation over the decades, New Lanark appears as it would have in the early 19th century. It is one of the oldest surviving collections of mill buildings in the world and its design by David Dale and Robert Owens was used widely across the world.
Good to know
Facilities: Today there is a visitor centre, a restaurant/café, a gift shop, a roof garden, Robert Owen’s House museum, a historic classroom, exhibitions, tenements, and tours.
Tickets: For the New Lanark experience – Adults £12 | Children £6 – for more ticket information and itineraries, visit the website.
How do I get to New Lanark?
Where to next?
Frontiers of the Roman Empire, The Antonine Wall
Length: 36.5 miles | First inscribed: 2008
First constructed around 142AD, the Antonine Wall was a part of the Roman Empire’s northern frontier. Located further north than Hadrian’s Wall it marks the extent of the Romans’ advance. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, which was constructed largely from stone, the Antonine Wall consisted of a turf bank and a long wooden palisade.
The Antonine Wall lay forgotten until the 18th century and ever since, new artefacts and the remains of stone-built military buildings have been excavated. Among the best attractions along the wall are Rough Castle and Bearsden. And there is a superb exhibition at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow devoted to the history of the wall.
Top attractions along the Antonine Wall
Rough Castle: Rough Castle is the most accessible part of the Antonine Wall being close to Falkirk Railway Station. It has tallest section of ramparts along the wall.
Bearsden: At Bearsden you can see the remains of a Roman bath house and grafitti by the men of the 20th legion.
Other sections of the Antonine Wall: You can see other sections of the wall at Kinneil Park, Callendar Park, Polmont Hill, Rough Castle, Kemper Avenue, Anson Avenue and Tamfourhill Road in Falkirk, Underwood Lock (Allandale) and Castlecary.
How do I get to the Antonine Wall?
Where to next?
Glasgow City of Music
Area: 67.5 square miles | First inscribed: 2008
Glasgow was the first place to be recognised by UNESCO as a City of Music. The award reflects the city’s heritage, and sheer number of music venues (there are currently 30), performers, events, festivals and musical education provision. When it’s all totalled up, the contributions to world music are very impressive and numerous. The city has the highest density of music education courses in Scotland with 127 annual events on average hosted annually.
The best of Glasgow’s music festivals
Celtic Connections (Jan/Feb): In spite of its instructive title, the headliners the Celtic Connections music festival represent all genres and countries from all around the globe.
Hinterland (April/May): Hosting more than 30 bands, the Hinterland music and arts festival is known for showcasing new bands and singers from Scotland and around the globe.
Glasgow International Jazz Festival (June): Like it says on the box, the world’s jazz community head into the city to ensure one of music’s artist genres is represented to the fullest. Don't miss the Glasgow International Jazz Festival.
Piping Live! (August): If you love bagpipes, fifes, and drums, then don’t miss Piping Live!, a hugely popular display of national talent. It’s also followed by the competitive World Pipe Band Championships in the same month.
Tickets: Take part in a stroll around the streets with Glasgow Music City Tours. See the website for prices and times.
How do I get to Glasgow?
- Being a city, Glasgow is well-served by plane, train, car, bus, and long-distance coach
Where to next?
Area: 3.3 million square miles | First inscribed: 1986
St Kilda is a small volcanic archipelago found 40 miles west-northwest off the North Uist (Outer Hebrides) – the largest islands are Hirta, Dun, Soay, and Boreray. There has been no permanent population in St Kilda since 1930; nowadays it’s home to nearly a million seabirds.
The major draw for visitors to St Kilda is the landscape of ancient stone houses, enclosures and cleits that stud the islands. It is thought that the archipelago has been occupied sporadically for over 4,000 years. The preservation of these precious buildings and some of the unique sub-species of mice and wren make this an important site for protection. The islands are owned and stewarded by The National Trust for Scotland.
Top attractions on the Islands of St Kilda
Sea stacks: Some of the UK's tallest sea stacks including Stac Lee can be seen from the water on your way to Hirta.
The clieteans: Unique to St Kildas, clieteans are stone buildings made specifically for storing bird feathers. The islands are home to many of these which now stand in ruins.
Conechair: Climb the the summit of Hirta's highest point, Conechair, to see the ruined villages and the sea stacks.
How do I get to St Kilda?
- Tickets: Book a guide when on the island for £5. Ferry day tickets from the Isle of Skye: Adult £280 | Children £220 with Go To St Kilda.Book a ferry from Waternish on the Isle of Skye. The Isle of Skye is joined to the mainland by a bridge. The best way to travel is by car, via ferry
Where to next?
Isle of Skye cottages
Heart of Neolithic Orkney
Area: 37 acres | First inscribed: 1999
History buffs will love touring the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. Much like St Kilda, this site bears evidence of ancient human activity and cultural achievements. Four ancient sites near Stromness, built around 5,000 years ago, make up the heart of Neolithic Orkney.
The site achieved UNESCO world heritage status because it is one of the best examples of Neolithic architecture in Europe. These vast ceremonial monuments are very relatable for those that want to understand how life would have been lived thousands of years ago.
Top attractions in Neolithic Orkney:
The Ring of Brodgar: At 130 metres in diameter, the Ring of Brodgar is an iconic stone circle surrounded by a rock-cut ditch looks like it was used as an amphitheatre.
Maeshowe: During the winter solstice, the sun sets through a door in this extraordinary tomb with multiple chambers called Maeshowe.
Skara Brae: Skara Brae was a Neolithic village; today you can still see the buildings’ stone walls and stone furnishings. It’s incredible.
The Stones of Stenness: Standing up to 6 metres tall, the stones of this ancient monument are towering. The mind boggles as to how each of the above monuments have endured for so long. Don't miss the Stones of Stenness on your trip to the Orkneys.
How do I get to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney?
Where to next?
Dundee City of Design (Creative City)
Area: 26 square miles | First inscribed: 2014
Dundee is a survivor; following the collapse of local industry it has embraced cutting-edge design in many fields such as architecture, medical research, fashion, and future tech to boost its prospects. All of these aspects have earned the city UNESCO Creative City world heritage status.
Dundee has given the world orange-flavoured marmalade, the ZX spectrum games console, and the Beano comics! Visit the city’s thriving Cultural Quarter which is home to the Dundee Rep Theatre and Verdant Works. During weekends and evenings, the Broughty Ferry neighbourhood comes to life with its restaurants, pubs, and entertainment venues.
Top attractions in Dundee
V&A Dundee: Without a doubt, V&A Dundee is an impressive edifice inside and out. The building was designed by Kengo Kuma. The exhibitions showcasing the very best of design are always enticing and educational.
Gallery 48: If modern art is your thing, you won’t want to miss a trip to Gallery 48. Its art displays are enhanced by the presence of a lovely restaurant.
Dundee Law: Take a rewarding walk to the city’s highest point, Dundee Law. At 174 metres tall, you can see all the way across Dundee and the scenic countryside and seascape beyond.
How do I get to Dundee?
- Dundee is on Scotland’s railway network connecting it to the far north and the major cities. Being located 90 minutes north of Edinburgh, you can catch an electric bus!
Where to next?
The Forth Bridge
Length: 1.5 miles | First inscribed: 2015
When the Forth Bridge was completed in 1890 it had the longest span in the world – as it stands, it is still one of the planet’s most distinctive cantilever bridges and in the pantheon of engineering feats. The bridge was a replacement for the ill-fated Tay Bridge that collapsed taking a train with it in 1879. The current bridge enjoyed a full restoration between 2001 and 2011. The bridge is painted red and designed to carry trains across the Firth of Forth – these days, 200 trains per day cross its span.
The best way to see the Forth Bridge
You can book river tours where you can see the bridge from the water as well as several viewpoints where you can see all three bridges (including the Forth Road Bridge and the Queensferry Crossing).
How do I get to the Forth Bridge?
- Hop on a train or a bus from the centre of Edinburgh and disembark at Queensferry
Where to next?
Edinburgh City of Literature
Area: 102 miles | First inscribed: 2004
Edinburgh has been long associated with literature – such writers as Muriel Spark, RL Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, and Arthur Conan Doyle spring to mind immediately. Carrying on through to modern day Edinburgh has inspired the writers of modern classics and best-sellers like Irvine Welsh, Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Alan Warner, Alexander McCall-Smith and JK Rowling. It’s no surprise that Edinburgh is a designated UNESCO City of Literature!
Edinburgh is also home to the world’s largest literature festival, a good number of public libraries and a seamlessly unending selection of book shops for readers to get lost in.
Top attractions in literary Edinburgh
The Writers’ Museum: Celebrating the life and works of three of Scotland’s storytelling titans, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and RL Stevenson, the free-to-enter Writers' Museum leaves no stone unturned.
The Scottish Storytelling Centre: Bringing together culture, contemporary design and literary influences, John Knox House which houses the Scottish Storytelling Centre is an arts venue with a packed programme of varied literary and musical events throughout the year.
The best bookshops: There are tons of bookshops in Edinburgh to keep you busy for year. Try out Golden Hare Books, Topping & Co, and Armchair Books to get you going.
How do I get to Edinburgh City of Literature?
Where to next?
Old and New towns of Edinburgh
Area: Unknown | First inscribed: 1995
The Old and New towns of Edinburgh is a small UNESCO site inside a larger one! The built-up area along the world-famous Royal Mile is known as Old and New Towns. It’s been given UNESCO world heritage status because of how it demonstrates how urban planning has changed and developed over the decades.
The Old Town is dominated by Edinburgh Castle and the New Town is characterised by its neoclassical architecture and wide cobbled streets. Both contrasting areas dovetail together and complement one another. These areas including the Royal Mile and Edinburgh are perhaps the most popular tourist attractions in the country.
Top attractions in the Old and New towns of Edinburgh
Edinburgh Castle: Edinburgh Castle is perhaps Scotland's most recognisable buildings. It is open to the public all year round so take some time out to visit.
The Real St Mary's Close: Hidden beneath the Royal Mile is a preserved 17th century street, St Mary's Close. It had lain undiscovered because it had been walled up for hundreds of years.
How do I get to Old and New towns of Edinburgh?
- The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh are both a short walk from Edinburgh Central Railway Station. The city tram system also takes you close to the Royal Mile. There are lots of bike hire schemes in the city if you want to save on shoe leather.
Where to next?
- Home! Come back soon though?
Our map of Scotland’s 13 UNESCO sites
Stay at a self-catering cottage or castle in Scotland
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Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing,
please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.