The countries that punch above their weight when it comes to World Heritage Sites

Oliver Smith
What do Belgium and Lebanon have in common? - GETTY

There are now a staggering 1,121 Unesco World Heritage Sites. Is that too many? Given that the exhaustive list includes a Fray Bentos meatpacking plant, a German shoe factory, and a Belgian boat lift, the answer might well be “yes”. Then again, the lineup does not yet include St Paul’s Cathedral, so perhaps there’s still room for more.

The countries with the most World Heritage Sites won’t surprise you. Italy, with more Roman ruins than you’ve had hot dinners, is number one, with a whopping 55. It shares the top spot with vast, ancient and fascinating China, the world’s most populated nation. Spain, the second most visited country on the planet, completes the top three, while joint-fourth is France (not a shock when you consider that Unesco’s headquarters is in Paris and its Director-General is French).

But which countries punch above their weight when it comes to World Heritage Sites?

Firstly, we worked out which nations have the most listed attractions per capita.

Naturally, the results favour the minnows, those little lands with just one or two sites and a tiny population. Step forward the Vatican City. It has a population of 792, but can boast two World Heritage Sites: Vatican City and the rather wordy “Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura”, of which it is part. A clutch of other tiddlers complete the top 10: Palau, San Marino, Seychelles, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, St Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, Andorra and Antigua and Barbuda.

Exclude those countries with fewer than one million residents, however, and Cyprus takes the crown. It’s 1.18m citizens have three World Heritage Sites to share: Choirokoitia (a neolithic settlement), Paphos, and the Painted Churches in the Troodos Region (which are exactly what they say on the tin). Croatia also stands tall, with 10 sites but only 4.19m residents, as does Denmark, with 10 listed attractions and a population of 5.73m. Both are good bets if you want to tick off lots of World Heritage Sites in a very short space of time.

At the other end of the table is Nigeria. It has two listed sites: Osun-Osogbo Sacred Grove (a sacred forest) and Sukur Cultural Landscape, but with a population of 190.9m that’s only one site per 95.4m residents. Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and Indonesia follow. 

Next we worked out which countries have the most World Heritage Sites per square kilometre of land area.

Naturally, the Vatican - an enclave of 0.44km2 - tops the bill again, along with its minuscule counterparts. But when you discount nations with only one or two sites, others come to the fore.

Malta has three World Heritage Sites for its 316km2, or one per 105.3km2; Bahrain has three sites, or one per 256km2. Lebanon (five sites, or one per 2,045km2) and and Israel (nine sites, or one per 2,259km2) also do well.

But for an easy-to-reach country that promises a whole lot of heritage packed into a relatively small area, it’s hard to beat Belgium. It has 13 listed attractions (yes, including that aforementioned boat lift) but covers only 30,278km2. Get yourself to St Pancras, hop across the Channel and tick them all off. Then you’ll have just 1,108 to go...

Or try Switzerland. Compact, beautiful, and with 12 sites packed into 39,997km2 of land. 

Hoge Kempen National Park in Belgium Credit: GETTY

Bottom of the pile is Angola, with one World Heritage Site and 1,246,700km2 of land, followed by Mozambique, Zambia, Chad and Sudan. 

But spare a thought for those nations with no listed attractions whatsoever. Step forward The Bahamas, Bhutan, Brunei, Burundi, Comoros, Cook Islands, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eswatini, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, Guyana, Kuwait, Liberia, Maldives, Monaco, Niue, Rwanda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Sudan, Timor-Leste, Tonga, and Trinidad and Tobago. Hardest done by, perhaps (and a victim of political considerations), is Taiwan, a nation of 23.58m people with not one World Heritage Site. May we suggest Unesco take a look at Tainan, its first capital, where temples lurk behind every corner? It sure beats Fray Bentos. 

Have you visited the countries, and World Heritage Sites, listed above? Which would you recommend and which would you avoid? Share your view in the comments section below.