>  Attractions   >  UNESCO sites in Australia

Whether I’m travelling overseas or visiting somewhere closer to home, one of my favourite things to do is exploring a destination’s local UNESCO sites. There are some incredible UNESCO sites in Australia. Many of these, like the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef, are easy to get to and explore. Here is a list of 10 of the best Australia UNESCO sites. I’ve been to all of them except for one and highly recommend a visit to these amazing Australian destinations, many of which are cultural icons.

Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory

Kakadu National Park is a feast for the eyes and the soul and has one of the highest concentrated areas of rock art in the world. Check out Ubirr and nearby Nourlangie, a rock art site that is reminiscent of a traditional art gallery, with multiple rooms (caves) featuring different styles of art. On a Yellow Water cruise there are crocodile sightings, kingfishers flitting through trees, and endemic birds like jacanas wading across lily pads.

Yellow_Water_Cruises; Tiana Templeman
Sunrise cruise at Yellow Water Billabong in Kakadu

Port Arthur, Tasmania

This spot forms part of the Australian Convict Sites UNESCO listing, which includes myriad different convict sites across Australia. I’ve been to many of these but Port Arthur is my top pick as there is a lot to do here and it provides a powerful reminder of Australia’s convict history. Now an open air museum, this penal colony housed more than 12,000 convicts between 1830 and 1877.  The historic site is as beautiful as it is melancholic, surrounded by bushland and a sparkling bay and filled with fascinating stories that are revealed during a guided tour which is included in the entry price.

Port Arthur, Tasmania
Port Arthur convict site in Tasmania

Lord Howe Island, New South Wales

Lord Howe Island is part of New South Wales and just two hours away by plane from Brisbane or Sydney. The entire island and its surrounding islets are UNESCO listed as an outstanding example of volcanic oceanic islands with unique plants and animals and the world’s most southerly coral reef. Lord Howe Island caters to less than 400 tourists at a time so it feels as if the secluded beaches, rainforests, rugged mountains, superb walking tracks, and tropical reef are yours alone to explore.

Kayaking off Lord Howe Island
Scenic kayaking around the Lord Howe Island lagoon

Great Barrier Reef, Queensland

Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef is a globally recognised natural wonder that is visible from space. Coral gardens sparkle with jewel bright tropical fish, clown fish peek out of anemones tucked into the coral and huge parrot fish swim by below. Spotted rock cod drift lazily in the current, slowing occasionally to let a double-headed wrasse pass by in front of them. There is so much to see on the Great Barrier Reef that it is hard to know where to look first. If you want a truly unique experience, you can even stay overnight on the reef at Reefsleep or explore the reef on a Coral Expeditions’ Great Barrier Reef cruise.

Great Barrier Reef
Exploring the Great Barrier Reef

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory

This culturally significant National Park in the Northern Territory is one of the few World Heritage Areas to have been dual-listed for outstanding natural and cultural values. Uluru (or Ayers Rock as it was once known) is higher than the Eiffel Tower and extends around 6kms underground. Visit the Cultural Centre to see how to make traditional tools, learn how to throw a spear and hear stories from local guides. It is impossible not to be touched by the ancient beauty and spiritual significance of this special place.

Nothing compares to that first sighting of Uluru

Tasmanian Wilderness, Tasmania

Covering almost 20 percent of the island state of Tasmania, this vast UNESCO listed wilderness area is one of the world’s last expanses of temperate rainforest and shows evidence of more than 2,000 years of human occupation. There are so many incredible places to explore in a UNESCO site this big but one of my favourites is Port Davey, a remote wilderness area in the south-west corner of Tasmania, which offers incredible natural beauty, great hiking and superb wildlife spotting. Freycinet National Park, another part of the UNESCO listed region, is home to the superb luxury lodge Saffire Freycinet

Port Davey in Tasmania
Exploring Port Davey in Tasmania with Coral Expeditions

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Wet Tropics, Queensland

This UNESCO listed area covers almost 900,000 hectares and contains many of Australia’s most unique marsupials. Parts of it are so ancient there are still remains of the great Gondwanan forest that covered Australia and part of Antarctica millions of years ago. There are guided tours which venture deep into the Daintree, but many people choose to simply hire a car to drive the scenic Captain Cook Highway. You can only get so far into the Daintree without a four-wheel drive, but you can cross the Daintree River on a cable ferry and drive to beautiful Cape Tribulation in a regular car.

Cape Tribulation
Cape Tribulation

Greater Blue Mountains, New South Wales

The Blue Mountains is home to one of Australia’s largest tracts of protected bushland. Visitors can photograph the impressive Three Sisters rock formation, wander around the cute town of Katoomba, go swimming surrounded by nature, view Aboriginal rock art, go hiking or mountain biking, and stay overnight in a camp ground, B&B or upmarket hotel accommodation. It’s hard to believe this stunning area is just a few hours drive from the Sydney CBD.  If you don’t want to hire a car and drive to the Blue Mountains, day tours are readily available.

Three Sisters at the Blue Mountains
Three Sisters at the Blue Mountains

Ningaloo Coast, Western Australia

Ocean based pursuits are the drawcard at this UNESCO site which has one of the longest near-shore reefs in the world. Snorkelling over pristine coral with hundreds of tropical fish just offshore at Ningaloo Reef can be enjoyed throughout the year. Swimming with whale sharks is available from April to July. You can also spot whales here from June to November. If you would prefer not to get wet, you can check out the area’s extensive karst system and network of underground caves.

Whale shark
Swim with whale sharks at Ningaloo

Sydney Opera House, New South Wales

Located at the tip of a peninsula jutting into Sydney Harbour, one of the world’s most famous opera houses is also considered to be “one of the greatest architectural works of the 20th century” according to UNESCO. The building’s unique architectural form and structural design, its value as an urban sculpture set in a remarkable waterscape, its world renowned reputation as an iconic building and influence on architecture means it is of significant cultural value. While the exterior is stunning, it’s also worth booking a behind-the-scenes tours of the building’s interior.

Disclosure: The writer has visited all of the above UNESCO sites except the Ningaloo Coast. She is determined to get there one day.

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.