UNESCO World Heritage Sites That Don’t Impress Me Much

On an earlier entry I said “don’t trust UNESCO” for choosing what to visit. Someone pointed out that their list is not for tourists, but to recognize places that are cultural treasures that deserve special care. Yes…I was just tired of people promoting their places with me based on this list.

Someone else asked which UNESCO World Heritage sites I thought were overrated. I couldn’t remember. I went to their website, reviewed the list, and found these, which I feel are not worthy of special praise. They are all important cultural treasures and fine sights…just not particularly better in my estimate than other competing sights for a sightseer’s priorities.

Americans have the shortest vacations in the rich world, and my responsibility as a travel writer is not to just rave about everything, but to help overwhelmed travelers sort through the superlatives and smartly allocate their precious and limited vacation time. When someone from the tourist board in one of these places brags, “We are on the UNESCO list,” I sing, “That don’t impress me much”:

Historic center of Telc, Czech Republic (fine, well-preserved ring of buildings, but thin)

Jewish Quarter in Trebíc, Czech Republic (poorly presented compared to other historic Jewish quarters)

Grande île, Strasbourg, France (Colmar beats anything Strasbourg has to offer)

Tokaj Wine Region, Hungary (why?)

San Gimignano, Italy (like Obidos in Portugal, a fine and touristic shell — great towers, after that…expensive ice cream and no parking)

Vicenza, Italy (yes, nice city, but only if you’re into Palladio)

Botanic Garden in Padua (wonderful historic garden…but not likely to connect with travelers)

Villa d’Este, Tivoli, outside of Rome (fine old park, but run-down and doesn’t make the cut for a best week in Rome)

Etruscan Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy (impressive Etruscan tombs but not worth a journey)

Alto Douro Wine Region in Portugal (no better than wine regions in Germany and France)

Old Town of Ývila, Spain (thunderous walls, but the town itself is not unique)

Old Town of Segovia, Spain (not unique…Salamanca is better, with more life)

Ramparts of Bellinzone in Switzerland (I love ramparts, but they’re a dime a dozen)

Giant’s Causeway in North Ireland (impressive geology, but I don’t believe in giants)

Derwent Valley Mills in England (why?)

Having stuck my neck out to say all this, I must add that it is fun to reassess opinions I once held and change them. First impressions can be too powerful. On many occasions I am saddled with a first impression from a generation ago…and with an opportunity to reconsider…I realize I missed a place’s charm at first glance. Still, overall…there are too many superlatives in the travel-writing business.


40 Replies to “UNESCO World Heritage Sites That Don’t Impress Me Much”

  1. As someone who fights tooth and nail for that precious two week window of vacation every 12 or so months – thanks! I remember my first trip to Europe where I haughtily declined all guidebooks – it was overwhelming.

    My next trip was planned with your guidebook, advice from friends, and a lot of internet research. I am impressed with your judicious eye for the gems of a city or region. I for one appreciate your work in sniffing out the good stuff, being understanding about what might appeal to certian groups and even brutally honest about the over-rated.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. At the end of June, we are making our 12th trip to France, but we have never had to buy or rent a phone before.

    I would like to know if you really endorse Mobal Phones.

    They use your name and image on their web site.



  3. Amen! I don’t have months on end to travel and I haven’t been traveling Europe since I was a teen. I need someone to sort through all of it and give me an OPINION! My problem with other guidebooks is they just don’t offer anything definitive. I don’t think I would have visited Siena had I not felt the passion that Rick had written about that city. And what an amazing time we had. I have experienced Italy, Germany and Switzerland using Rick’s books (a tip from a good friend) and soon we will be traveling France. I cannot freaking wait! I am hooked. I have passed my Rick books onto friends who have been converted too. My Italy books are worn thin and that is the way it should be. Proof positive how much they were used. Don’t water it down, I might not agree with everything you write – but I am grateful for a book with point of view.

  4. You say Giant’s Causeway does not impress you much, as you don’t believe in giants. Yet it’s promoted (at least in my older 2005 copy) of your Ireland book?

  5. Great post!

    I haven’t been to most of the places on the list, but have to agree with your comments about Villa d’Este and the Etruscan tombs at Cerverteri. If someone has only a week in Italy, both of those places aren’t worth the time. Fortunately, I had the time when I spent a semester during college, but I wouldn’t go back unless I was in Italy for more than a week. (the tombs are really not worth it unless you’re a HUGE history buff)

    Speaking of vacations in Italy, I’m going back soon, and was considering swinging by San Gimignano. Thanks for the heads up!

  6. I noticed that too, about Giant’s Causeway… Rick also called Dublin rather dull on his “disappointments” list in 2000 (though not on his more recent ones), yet certainly didn’t diss the city in his Ireland book. Can’t fault the guy for having mixed feelings, I say.

    The causeway is certainly very cool if you are a bit of a geology nerd! (Guilty as charged.) Some folks enjoy rock formations a whole lot more than others do.

  7. I agree with the others, kindly please keep sticking your neck out on the behalf of those of us who haven’t figured out how to ditch the day job and travel the world. We greatly appreciate your efforts.

    The difference between UNESCO and tourist sites is good to note. And I appreciate the subtleties more than the superlatives. But tourism industries do what they have to in order to make money. Far fewer people would go see the third or twelfth ranked site, so everyone feels they must be the best/oldest/greatest/largest. Too many guides are just directories and phone books of foreign lands. I like that your guides go far beyond that.

  8. Giants Causeway Comment #2

    As a previous blogger noted your comment about the Giant’s Causeway is at odds with previous comments.

    In particular on one of your Ireland DVDs you stand at the Giant’s Causeway with your Irish tour guide friend and he recounts the story of the “baby giant”.

    The impression is that you think the Giant’s Causeway is special and worth taking time to visit.

    Your DVDs have a huge influence on me as to where I visit and what I look for when I get there. If you drink a beer in Prague and say it’s the best in the world I want to go to Prague and see for myself. I did go and the beer was fantastic.

    Your overall comments I agree with but I’m wondering did you change your opinion on the Giant’s Causeway?

  9. While I have not visited many on your list, I have visted San Gimignano and agree with your comments, am saddened by the deterioration of the Villa deEste, which was a glorious place to visit at night with the illuminated fountains in the early 80s, but I do question your inclusion of the Giant’s Causeway. It is a natural wonder, and unique, and I believe it should be viewed by any who are in the area. Man-made buildings may deteriorate, but things of nature usually don’t, and to my knowledge, this is the only place you can see something like this in the world.

  10. I’ve been on three ETBD tours and loved them all. On my best of Italy tour, we stopped in San Gimignano. If you find the city overrated, why include it on your tour? A little explaining is in order…..

  11. We have not had the good fortune of joining one of your tours, but I recall a time when you spoke of San Gimignano as one of your favorite places. Am I mistaken or has it changed that much in recent years for you to alter your opinion. Amen to Villa de Este……simply not taken care of.

  12. I browse tour catalogs and brochures all the time. Tour companies change their itineraries frequently. It’s part of the business. Some sights and places loose their appeal. It’s okay to breath people! :) Happy travels!

  13. But Rick, wasn’t San Gimignano, Italy a stop on your Best of Italy tour a couple of years back?? We stopped there on your tour and enjoyed it. Perhaps we are naive.

  14. Rick:

    Avila and Segovia: My wife and I spent a month in Spain living out of your book. Agree on Avila: nice walls, but see them from the train or the motorway. Would suggest a second thought on Segovia which we found to be spectacular (ancient aqueduct, modern cathedral). We agree on Salamanca which was worth the trip just to visit the library!

    San Gimignano: Yes parking is tough, but the views are stunning from the towers.

    Thanks for your insights, thoughts, opinions…that is why we all buy your books!

  15. I am travelling in Italy right now (writing this at an “Internet Point” in Orvieto, and, having spent a remarkable, jaw-dropping afternoon at Villa Deste, am very surprised to see it on your list, as well as the supporting comments above. Maybe I am easily impressed, when it comes to fountains anyway, but just loved the design and gardens, and hated to leave (to return to a very hot Rome). Even though I had only a few days in Rome, and this trip made me miss a few of the “must sees” on everyones list, I am glad I went to Tivoli.

  16. Rick,

    I’m a huge fan. My roommate and I love your books. We are studying abroad in Rome for 6 weeks this summer. Today we went to Villa d’Este and we both thought it was amazing. It was a great place to escape the Roman heat. I wish you’d consider revising this comment.



  17. Low Fat Diet

    Rick, you mention a centrifuge on your DVD.

    What I really like about your books, DVD’s, Internet site and other writings
    is that you distill things down to their essence.

    We get the meat without the fat. It is high value knowledge, ideas and information that you and your staff work hard to provide and keep up to date.

    On my first trip with your book which was to Spain I spent about $20.00 on the book.
    It easily saved me I would say $500 for a three week trip, probably a lot more.

    And just as importantly the experiences I had were rich and exciting and filled with the local culture and people.

    I’ve been using your books and DVDs and other resources ever since with excellent results.

    Thanks Rick and thanks to your staff.

  18. Our first trip to Europe [Italy] was planned and executed with Rick’s guidebook in hand. We even did a one-bagger with rolled up clothes for two weeks; worked fine. Many trips have followed, all supported by Rick’s suggestions. We prefer trips to be adventurous and avoid the constraints of group travel; independence is our companion and we’ve been able to maintain both with Rick’s help. If this sounds like a paid testamonial, it’s not. We’re believers, we did it!

  19. I watched the show of Rick doing Madrid last night. It all looked like fun…..until I saw the part of sampling the pig ears…..ugh! When in Rome….. Happy travels, Rick and all!

  20. What I like about you, Rick, is that you are a real peson. You are allowed to change your mind. Travelling is an art and not a science, and your treat it as one. Cheers!

  21. I just came through Frankfurt yesterday (May 28) and BE PREPARED!!! The airport is terribly complex and confusing. If that is the last stop you make in the EU before coming back into the US, the checkpoint is crazy, packed full of anxious travelers hoping not to miss flights and unfortunately not all the employees are happy campers. You have to practically be nude to get through the scanning episode and even bare feet are checked in some cases. Just give yourself plenty of time between flights. I literally ran to my plane and was almost the last to board.

  22. Jan is so right about this! The Frankfurt airport is just HORRIBLE! I had a connecting flight there on my Salzburg trip. I would try to avoid that airport if possible.
    I’m going to Berlin in November and that looks easy. I just change in NY, and that’s it!
    Rick, I’ve been pretty busy and have not post on your blog for awhile, but am reading your blog and am enjoying it very much.
    I thank you Rick on for putting in all this time and effort into this when your schedule is so full!! You are a lovely person, and I had so much fun meeting you in Edmonds for the travel festival. Coming up from Texas was worth it. Also I enjoyed talking about your piano days!!
    What an interesting life you have!

  23. As far as UNESCO goes, Cesky Krumlov is a fine place to kick back for a day or two on the Moldau River. It’s close to Prague and also Vienna. We stayed at the Hotýlek u Malého Vítka. Huge room, extremely helpful staff and right downtown. Found a first rate vegetarian restaurant, the Laiban where we ate lunch with the owner. Not a lot of action but fine for a breather. The castle is OK but it has fine grounds and fountains. It’s a UNESCO city.


  24. Maybe all you saw was the Villa d’Este, and not the gardens, or Hadrian’s Villa, a mile away.

    The terraced gardens at Villa d’Este, alive with gushing fountains, waterfalls and fish ponds, are something we will never forget. The gardens extend over seven acres, and it would take pages to describe the seven hundred fountains and cascades that remain, let alone the two thousand that were built a few hundred years ago.

    Water gates divert the Aniene River into a canal, then to the double tunnel through the hill, to supply the fountains and miniature waterfalls in the gardens of Villa d’Este. The hundreds of fountains and waterfalls use gravity, natural water pressure — no pumps are involved.

    Hadrian’s Villa — The Villa, covering an area of 600 acres, includes pavilions, an imperial palace, baths, libraries, theaters, large gardens dotted with statues, fountains and waterworks, one of the most magnificent creations of the imperial age

  25. I agree with your comments on Cerveteri not being worth a visit on a short visit to Italy. However, if you are a repeat visitor, getting a car and doing an Etruscan trip of Cerveteri, Tarquinia, and Volterra is especially enjoyable. Ending with your restaurant pick in Volterra, Ombra della Sera was a great finish.

  26. I absolutely adored Tivoli when I went in 1985. Granted, that was over 20 years ago, and things may have gone downhill since then. However, I was reading today in the Telegraph (UK) that Tivoli has won a prize for most beautiful garden in Europe. It came tops out of 20 gardens in Britain, France, Italy, Sweden and Germany.

  27. Well, the good news is that now hopefully those people who only follow your travel books and watch your travel shows will now detour away from the likes San Gimignao and help return it to the nifty little town it is, with, in disagreement of your opinion, one of the best gelato shops in the Tuscan and Umbrian areas. As for the Giant’s Causeway, it is well worth a visit for the geological site it is. Hum, I’m thinking this could be good news—would you kindly tell your followers that the Amalfi Coast isn’t worth visiting, and how about Giverny and most of Provence. And please do not recommend Brittany whatever you do!!

    P.S. Do not get me wrong, along with the wide range of travel reading and watching I do, I also enjoy your books and videos.

  28. Dear Rick,

    Love your books, TV specials and philosophical approach to travel, BUT …

    Strasbourg is my favorite town in France – just walk the streets and enjoy the many levels or heritage.
    Segovia is fantastico – aqueduct, cathedral, Alcázar – que mas quieres?
    San Gemignano – I visited it on your book’s recommendation – should we avoid it now?

  29. Rick,

    I normally agree with most of your recommendations, but I have to respectfully (but adamantly) disagree with your assessment of Strasbourg. Colmar is a nice place, too, but nothing can beat the rush of seeing the Strasbourg cathedral for the first time. Strasbourg has many things to offer that Colmar can’t. I lived in Strasbourg for four months and hold those memories dear to my heart.

    On an unrelated note, my husband and I returned from two weeks in England and Scotland last night, and once again, your books were invaluable in pointing us to B&B’s, restaurants, sites, etc. Thanks for the great advice!

  30. You are of course entitled to your opinion, but I totally disagree with your comments on the Giants Causeway (and no, I’m not a geology nerd).

    I found it to be quite interesting (though admittedly it’s not a sight where one can spend hours) predominantly because of the fact that it’s rather unique and unusual. I’d much prefer visiting a site like this than going into a church for the umpteenth time.
    Don’t get me wrong, many of the churches I’ve visited in Europe are wonderful architectural masterpieces but still, after you seen about 500 or so (and every town seem to have a church mentioned in a guidebook) it gets a bit stale.


    P.S. – I also found the area near the Giants Causeway to be rather scenic so even if someone is only interested in a short visit to the Causeway, a drive along the Antrim coastline is definitely worth it (IMHO).

  31. I spent three and a half weeks in all of Italy (top to tip of the “boot”), and San Gimignano was my favorite of all of Tuscany. There were no designer shops, like Armani, as there are in Siena. Siena was a huge disappointment to me, and so was Florence–so overexposed, littered with commercialism, and dirty (Florence only). San Gimignano was so charming–there are no words. I saw Italians here that were truly old world–nuns, people in non-designer clothing, and met people of true, genuine warmth. I am a very tough critic, because I travel often, and really like to get off the beaten path. I will never forget San Gimignano. The place warmed my heart.

    I also spent a lot of time in Rome’s Villa D’este, and was very impressed. It’s Rome’s version of NYC’s Central Park, with a gorgeous museum, and an adorable zoo. Go and see it!!

  32. Rick,

    I have to disagree on the Giant’s Causeway comment. It is worth seeing and should not be discounted by your readers. You obviously included it in your book for a reason and I hope your readers are not dissuaded from visiting it because of your comment above. The formations are beautiful and the landscape in that area is captivating.

  33. I read a quote: To know Italy is to discover her soul and fortunately that takes a lifetime. Rick, this may be one reason your books and shows are fresh year after year. I was in the US Army near Venice for two years and have been back to Italy once since and plan another trip this September. I have not scratched the surface of knowing Italy. She changed my life and is never very far away from my thoughts.

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