Australia’s Incredible World Heritage Sites
Did you know we have 19 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Australia? Come with us as we take you to these incredible natural and cultural treasures.
Scattered across Australia, these sites range from ancient rainforests, age-old Aboriginal cultural sites, natural attractions, convict heritage and iconic 20th century buildings.
We’ve already visited a number of heritage sites but we’re planning to tick a few more off our bucket list as we continue our journey around Australia.
UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites
The United Nations has made the protection of Heritage sites the common goal of humanity. Almost every nation on the planet has submitted their own list of treasures to be included for heritage listing.
“World Heritage sites belong to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located.” United Nations.
So, how easy is it to make the list?
Some sites are listed for their heritage values, others for their natural or cultural values.
To be considered, a site must meet a selection criteria ranging from “a masterpiece of human creative genius” to “natural habitats for conservation of biological diversity.”
So … not so easy!
Australia’s UNESCO World Heritage Listed sites
Australia currently has 19 World Heritage sites. These include 3 cultural sites, 12 natural sites and 4 mixed sites. A credit to the passion and commitment of conservationists who ensured they will be treasured forever.
I’m on a mission to visit as many heritage sites as I can.
Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens
Carlton Gardens surround the Royal Exhibition Building and one of the oldest exhibition buildings in the world. It’s located in the suburb of Carlton, in the city of Melbourne.
Built in the 19th century, the Royal Exhibition Building hosted the World Fair in 1880 and then hosted the first session of Australian Federal Parliament in 1901.
The garden features plant species that are only found in the state of Victoria.
- Where: Melbourne
- How to experience it: Take a ‘Behind the scenes tour’.
- Read more: Royal Exhibition Building
Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House is a masterpiece of modern architecture and one of the world’s most recognisable buildings. The architect, Jorn Utzon, incorporated sustainable design elements using a cooling system using seawater from the harbour.
The Sydney Opera House is one of the 20th century’s greatest works of architecture and cited for its “creativity and innovation” and “enduring influence on architecture”.
- Where: Sydney Harbour
- How to experience it: Take a Sydney Opera House backstage tour.
- Read more: Sydney Opera House
Australian Convict Sites
Australia’s convict history began in the mid 19th century when prisoners were transported from England to Australia. There are 11 penal sites across Australia that are listed as World Heritage Sites.
Penal settlements were built by the convicts under appalling conditions and all sites were noted for their harsh punishment regime. Today, these gaols are documented in the history Australia’s early settlement.
- Where: Convict sites are located in Western Australia, Tasmania, and Sydney and Norfolk Island in New South Wales.
- How to experience it: In-depth tours are available at each site including night-time ghost tours.
- Read more: Australian Convict Sites
Islands and reefs
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven wonders of the world and stretches over 2,300 kilometres along the Queensland coast.
The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest living thing and one of the most complex natural ecosystems on the planet. Imagine 3,000 individual coral reefs, 600 islands, 300 coral cays and 150 inshore mangrove islands! It is also the habitat for 1,625 kinds of fish, 600 types of coral and more than 30 species of whales and dolphins.
- Where: Popular spots to access the reef are Port Douglas and Cairns and Airlie Beach.
- How to experience it: Take a boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef to include fishing, snorkelling and island hopping.
- Read more: The Great Barrier Reef
K’gari (Fraser Island)
Known as the largest sand island in the world, Fraser Island extraordinarily beautiful. Home to long uninterrupted sandy beaches, spectacular wildlife, coloured mineral sands and tall rainforests.
- Where: Fraser Island, Queensland. 3.5 hours north of Brisbane + an hour ferry from Hervey Bay, Drive-yourself, DIY tours or stay at Kingfisher Bay Eco Resort.
- How to experience it: Float in the blue waters of Lake McKenzie, walk through the Valley of the Giants and go 4WDriving on the beach while exploring the island.
- Read more: Fraser Island
Lord Howe Island
Lord Howe Island and its neighbouring islands are a part of New South Wales and the world’s southernmost rock formation. This sub-tropical rainforest-covered volcanic island is a true paradise.
It is a protected nature preserve, popular for birdwatching, aquatic activities and a tourist holiday destination. It’s home to just 350 people, but 500 different types of fish and some of the world’s rarest birds, including the Lord Howe woodhen.
- Where: A two-hour flight from Sydney
- How to experience it: The island permits only 400 visitors at a time, so book in advance. You don’t need a car on Lord Howe, as everyone cycles or walks.
- Read more: Lord Howe Island
Kakadu National Park
The Bininj/Mungguy have called Kakadu home for more than 65,000 years, and are known as the world’s oldest living culture. Jointly managed by the traditional owners, many continue to live and hunt in the park as they’ve always done.
The National Park has plentiful wetlands and river systems and a magnificent rocky escarpment containing unique waterbirds, fish, frogs and reptiles and saltwater crocodiles.
- Where: 3+ hours drive, south east of Darwin. Tours are available.
- How to experience it: See ancient rock art at Nourlangie and Ubirr Rock. Take a Cultural Tour to learn about their culture and bush foods. Go camping or choose a resort experience.
- Read more: Escape to Kakadu | 6 Seasons of Kakadu
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Uluru and Kata Tjuta are culturally sacred to the Anangu Aboriginal people. The desert people are spiritually connected to the land, the animals and the elements of this region.
- Where: Fly into Uluru or Drive five-hours south west of Alice Springs, Central Australia
- How to experience it: Take a Cultural Tour, Cultural experiences, Walk.
- Read more: Australia’s most famous Rock
Purnululu National Park
The Purnululu National Park is in Western Australia. The Bungle Bungle Ranges are more than 350 million years old and home to unique beehive-shaped sandstone domes.
Aboriginal people have lived in the area for thousands of years, however due to it’s remote location it remains difficult to access.
- Where: A four-hour drive from Kununurra in the Kimberley, Western Australia
- How to experience it: Access is by 4WD but one of the most popular ways to visit is by helicopter.
- Read more: The Kimberley Region
This coral reef system in Western Australia is valued for its natural and marine importance. This northwest Western Australian coastline contains over 700 species of fish, turtles, coral and crustaceans within the Ningaloo Reef system. In addition, it is also an important migration route for humpback whales, dolphins, manta rays and dugongs. Many of them, endangered.
Up to 500 whale sharks gather between March and July drawing visitors in for the highlight of ‘Swimming with Whale Sharks’.
- Where: Ningaloo Coast, Western Australia
- How to experience it: Swim with the Whale Sharks, visit the nearby Pinnacles.
- Read more: Ningaloo Reef
Shark Bay has an abundance of evolving habitats and rare endangered species and where you’ll find the oldest life forms on Earth, living fossils called stromatolites.
As a natural wildlife refuge, it is the largest and most abundant seagrass meadow in the world, making it an important habitat for dugongs. It is also home to a number of unique animals and plants, found nowhere else on Earth.
- Where: A nine-hour drive or a two-hour flight from Perth, Western Australia
- How to experience it: Take a roadtrip north from Perth.
- Read more: Shark Bay
Wet Tropics of Queensland
Stretching along the coast of far north Queensland from Townsville in the south, to Cooktown in the north, the Daintree Rainforest is the oldest rainforest in the world.
World Heritage listed for its biodiversity, it is home to 663 animal species, 230 butterfly species and over 2,800 different types of plants – most not found anywhere else.
Stunning waterfalls, gorges, beaches and rivers as well as endangered marsupials such as cassowary, flying possums and tree kangaroos. Many rare birds and other wildlife live in this rainforest region.
- Where: Daintree Rainforest is a one-hour drive north of Cairns.
- How to experience it: Explore the rainforest on a guided night walk or take a Cultural Tour or visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre. Walking trails and scenic drives are popular for visitors.
- Read more: The Wet Tropics | Daintree Discovery Centre
Australia was once part of a vast super-continent called Gondwanaland. These rainforests are among the only places on the planet that remain unchanged since the dinosaurs roamed.
With rainforest stretching from southeast Queensland to northeastern New South Wales, it contains almost all the world’s Antarctic beech rainforest. It is also the largest subtropical rainforest in the world with over 200 threatened or rare flora and fauna species.
- Where: Around 50 national parks and reserves between Newcastle in New South Wales and Brisbane in Queensland.
- How to experience it: Drive Yourself or take a tour to Springbrook in the Gold Coast Hinterland.
- Read more: Gondwana Rainforests
Greater Blue Mountains Area
The Blue Mountains of New South Wales is a protected area consisting of sandstone tablelands and gorges, and eucalyptus forests. It is natural habitat for endangered species, including platypus and echidna.
The Blue Mountains are one of Australia’s most popular weekend-away escapes, easily reached from Sydney.
- Where: The Blue Mountains, Sydney region.
- How to experience it: Train trip, tour or Drive Yourself from Sydney.
- Read more: The Blue Mountains
The Tasmanian Wilderness is considered the last temperate wilderness in the world. From Cradle Mountain in the north, to the Maatsuyker Islands in the south, the Tasmanian wilderness is known for it’s stunning gorges, wild rivers and temperate rainforest.
Archaeologists who studied the Tasmanian wilderness have documented significant rock art and other evidence of early Tasmanian Aboriginal culture.
- Where: Fly into Hobart or travel over via the car-ferry and roadtrip the island.
- How to experience it: The area is particularly popular for bush-walking, wild water rafting, fishing and camping by taking a roadtrip through Tasmania.
- Read more: Tasmanian Wilderness
Fossil Mammal Sites
Naracoorte Caves in South Australia
Imagine wombats the size of cars and 200 kilogram kangaroos! Australia’s mammals used to be huge when they roamed the plains of Naracoorte 200,000 years ago. These amazing fossils are just two of the mammals discovered here. Fossils are well-preserved in limestone and provide significant insight into the evolution of Australian mammals.
Four caves are open to the public and others have been set aside for scientific research and preservation.
Riversleigh in North Western Queensland
Fossil fauna from the Riversleigh site is believed to have originated during the Cainozoic era. Extinct marsupial fossils have been found such as moles, bandicoot, marsupial lions, koalas, kangaroo and possums.
- Where: Naracoorte Caves are a 3.5 hour drive from Adelaide in South Australia and Riversleigh is in North West Queensland.
- Read more: Riversleigh | Naracoorte Caves
Willandra Lakes Region
This site is recognised as key evidence of human habitation with well-preserved fossils up to 60,000 years old uncovered.
As a cultural site, it features ancient evidence of human activity, including an old cremation site at Lake Mungo. The discovery of Mungo Lady in 1968 and Mungo Man in 1974 on the edge of a dry lakebed in Mungo National Park changed history. It clearly identified the length of time humans have inhabited Australia.
- Where: A two-hour drive northeast of Mildura in Victoria’s north west.
- How to experience it: Stay at Mungo Lodge and join a guided tour of the lunette, where the human remains were found.
- Read more: Visit Mungo
Macquarie, Heard and McDonald Islands
Macquarie Island is a sub-Antarctic island located in the Southern Ocean, approximately half way between Australia and Antarctica. It is about 1,500km southeast of the Tasmania.
Home to a population of elephant seals and penguins (both Royal and King), Macquarie Island is a human monitored scientific base although there are occasional tours available. It takes about three days to reach Macquarie Island from Hobart, Tasmania … in good weather.
Heard Island and McDonald Islands are located in the Southern Ocean, about 4,000 kilometres south west of mainland Australia. Heard Island is almost entirely covered by glaciers.
Local birds, seals and macaroni penguins remain uncontaminated by introduced species or permanent human occupation. There are no commercial tours to the islands and access is strictly regulated.