Are you ready to explore some incredible UNESCO World Heritage Sites In Australia?
We asked our friend Chris from Aquarius Traveller, a born and bred Australian adventurer, about a few UNESCO World Heritage Sites worth visiting, and this is what she shared with us.
These 15 Australian sites range from iconic landmarks, areas of cultural significance, manufactured buildings, or being immersed in natural beauty.
If you’re ever touring around the continent of Australia, you’re more than likely to pass by one or maybe a few different Australian World Heritage Sites. But know that you will not be disappointed whichever sites you stop to check out.
What is a UNESCO Site? The United Nations designates UNESCO sites as places of “outstanding universal value” in science, history, or culture. These sites are essential to humanity as a whole and are thus, legally protected by international treaties.
15 World Heritage Sites in Australia
We’ve compiled a list of 15 Australian UNESCO sites so you can find the ones you’re most drawn to and start planning your trip today!
Note: Selection for UNESCO’s World Heritage Site criteria is very competitive and requires a points system to calculate it. With these incredibly high standards, you know it’s worth visiting any site!
1. The Great Barrier Reef
Have you always dreamed of visiting the Great Barrier Reef along the Queensland Coast? Well, now is your chance to explore one of the most beautiful places on earth!
The Great Barrier Reef was named a UNESCO Site and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World in 1981.
The area stretches 2300 kilometers along the Queensland Coast from Bundaberg to the Cape York Tip. It contains roughly 3000 reef systems, many Islands, coral cays, and a living organism that can be seen from space.
The Great Barrier Reef is a vast and diverse ecosystem teeming with marine life. If you talk to anyone who has visited, it’s more than likely that the Great Barrier Reef was at the top of their Australian bucket list.
There are many ways to enjoy it, from day trips or tours leaving coastal towns, to staying at resort Islands along the entire network. This includes the Whitsundays, Tropical North Queensland, and the Southern Great Barrier Reef.
Jump in the water and try snorkeling Queensland’s best sites or diving with incredible underwater creatures. Venture among the colorful coral and thousands of fish species, in all shapes or sizes.
Also, keep an eye out for whales migrating through the waters, along with friendly turtles or graceful manta rays who call this place home.
Don’t want to get in the water? Then, you’ll be happy to know that most of these areas contain some of the best beaches to relax on and sip your favorite cocktail.
2. Gondwana Rainforest
The World Heritage Site of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia has 40 different locations scattered along the east coast. This stretches between Newcastle (in New South Wales) and the Gold Coast (in Queensland).
These protected areas are home to flora or fauna that have evolved uninterruptedly in the last couple of hundred million years.
It was initially granted World Heritage status in 1986, but this only included the section located in New South Wales. Eventually, Queensland was added to this title in 1994.
There are also several National Parks that are a part of the Gondwana Rainforest, including Lamington National Park, Springbrook National Park, and Barrington Tops National Park.
This region was once disrupted by volcanoes, which have now left behind a mesmerizing mountain range and grand waterfalls. Unsurprisingly, these natural wonders are also home to more than 200 rare plants and animal species.
Mount Warning (Wollumbin) was once an active volcano and is now extinct or dormant. It’s one the best examples of erosion calderas in the world, which form when a volcano erupts and collapses, creating a significant depression. You can access the area by staying in Brisbane, Gold Coast, or Byron Bay.
3. Uluru/ Kata Tjuta National Park
Situated in the Northern Territory, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home to two of Australia’s most iconic landmarks. This includes the monolith Uluru (Ayers Rock) and the domed rocks of Kata Tjuta (The Olgas).
These rock formations are made from red sandstone rock and a very popular with tourists. The National Park was heritage listed in 1987 for its natural values and then again in 1994 for its cultural significance.
The base of the rock is 10 kilometers in circumference, so it takes roughly 3-4 hours to walk around it. There are many viewing points along the way where you can see small waterfalls, caves, and waterholes, and get up close to different parts of the rock.
Pro Tip: Don’t want to walk it? Then you have a sealed road that circles the perimeter of the rock with allocated stopping points for early morning and afternoon viewings.
You’ll need to purchase a minimum three-day pass to enter the National Park, which allows you to get the most out of your visit. This includes Bruce Munro’s art display of 30 thousand solar light bulbs, helicopter flights, hiking, and learning about the aboriginal people.
Know that your visit will conveniently be supplied by the small town of Yulara. This is positioned about 30 minutes away from the National Park, with the sole purpose of servicing the Uluru tourists.
4. Wet Tropics of Queensland
The Wet Tropics of Queensland joined Heritage status in 1988 with four of the ten standards needed. This included its natural beauty and one of the most diverse records of plant evolution.
It spans 455 kilometers along Australia in Tropical North Queensland. The atmosphere and rainfall in this region allow an abundance of endangered plant life and rare, unique wildlife.
Famous for its beauty, the Wet Tropics of Queensland is a must-see site that can be easily accessed from major cities like Townsville and Port Douglas and in the international gateway of Cairns. This includes world-renowned locations like the Daintree National Park.
Fun Fact: Daintree National Park happens to be one of the oldest rainforests in the world. In fact, did you know it’s even older than The Amazon?
Not only that, but 20 other National Parks like Wooroonooran National Park, with the highest single-drop waterfall in Australia, and Kuranda National Park, with its scenic Railway and Gondola rides.
Your ultimate way to explore the Wet Tropics area would be to road trip between Port Douglas and Cooktown. This includes a self-drive tour through the Daintree National Park, spotting saltwater crocodiles, and swimming in the impressive Mossman Gorge.
5. Ningaloo Coast
The Ningaloo Coast spans 260 kilometers between the towns of Coral Bay and Exmouth. It covers approximately 700 thousand hectares and was declared a World Heritage Site in 2011. It’s also one of Australia’s best hidden gems, and is virtually untouched.
There are three main reasons why the Ningaloo Coast was chosen for this distinction. One is because of the visual contrast between the arid land and the bright colors of the reef itself.
If you want to see unique marine life, then this is the place for you. From May to August each year, whale sharks migrate to feed from Krill and Plankton, which are drawn from the coral spawning. This gives you a chance to snorkel alongside these magnificent creatures and should definitely be on your “To do” list.
The reef is the most popular attraction, but there are other land-based areas to explore. This includes Cape Range National Park, Jurabi and Bundegi Coastal Parks, and the Muiron Islands. This is home to various cultural landscapes of rocky shores, sandy beaches, and estuaries.
Also, what’s known as the Karst system, is a landscape primarily shaped by limestone, dolomite, or marble.
6. Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House is one of the newest UNESCO sites in the world, and its recognizable white sail-shaped shells are known all over. It was entered into the heritage listing in 2007 and is a must-see for any traveler to Sydney.
The building was completed in 1973, and it’s a great example of how creativity and innovation can be blended through form and structural design. Over 10 thousand men were used for its construction, costing roughly 102 million dollars.
No matter where you are in the city, tourists visiting Sydney will almost always see the Opera House. You can tour the building up close or enjoy its views from different vantage points around Sydney Harbour.
Events are held inside for stage shows, and sounds echo through the amphitheater on Opera nights.
Note: Add to the experience by joining a Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb tour for incredible views and take in all this marvel has to offer from above. Alternatively, you can visit during The Vivid festival in June and see it lit up with an interactive light display.
7. Fraser Island
Out of all the sand islands in the world, four of the biggest are located along the South-East coast of Queensland. Fraser Island is the largest sand island, included in the Great Sandy National Park, and was given UNESCO status in 1992.
Its 120 kilometers long, 25 kilometers wide, and covers over 1600 square kilometers in size. It was declared a world heritage site for its soaring sand cliffs and a rainforest growing right out of the sand itself!
There are many ways to explore Fraser Island, such as day trips, overnight stays, or driving your own four-wheel drive. You can book organized tours from Rainbow Beach and Hervey Bay or an overnight excursion from Brisbane.
If you prefer to bring your four-wheel drive, barge transfers are available from either Inskip Point or River Heads.
The island receives over 300 thousand visitors yearly, and beach camping is a popular pastime. You can enjoy the many swimming spots like Eli Creek, Lake Wabby, and the Champagne rock pools.
Lake McKenzie is one of your biggest highlights and is not to be missed with its white sandy shores and crystal blue waters. You can also admire the Pinnacles rock formation, learn about the history of the SS Maheno Shipwreck, or trek through the evergreen trees in the rainforest.
8. Willandra Lakes Region
The Willandra Lakes Region is of significant value as it contains data about human evolutionary history. It holds fossil evidence from the Pleistocene period and 45 to 60-thousand-year-old human archaeological records. As such, UNESCO inscribed it on the World Heritage list in 1981.
Willandra Lakes is located in the semi-arid zone of southwest New South Wales, near Mildura. As it stopped functioning as a lake ecosystem approximately 18,500 years ago, it offers excellent conditions for documenting life. Notably studying the period when humans evolved into their present form.
The 240,000-hectare area is the traditional meeting place for the Muthi Muthi, Nyiampaar, and Barkinji Aboriginal tribes. In addition, there are numerous perfectly preserved remains of gigantic marsupials.
Along with archaeological finds such as stone tools, hearths, and shell middens that were previously eaten. This is indicative of the resourceful adaptation humans made to changing environments.
9. Tasmanian Wilderness
The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area was declared in 1982 and is located off the southern coastline of Australia. Surprisingly, this area achieved 7 out of the 10 points needed to be declared UNESCO, knowing that only one other site in China shares the same value.
It covers ten National Parks, 1.5 million hectares, and 20% of the entire size of Tasmania. This makes it the world’s largest temperate wilderness zone, and the aboriginal people have lived here for over 35 thousand years.
One of the more popular areas would be Cradle Mountain, National Park. You can get up close to this majestic mountain with helicopter flights or day trip walking tours.
Otherwise, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can hike the 70 kilometers through the Overland Track and so much untouched plant life, creeks, and waterfalls.
The temperate rainforest was once affected by severe glaciation and is now protected by steep gorges and unique flora.
10. Purnululu National Park
The Purnululu National Park is located in northern Western Australia and is a highlight for many outback tourists. It is visited by more than 50 thousand tourists yearly, and World Heritage status was listed in 2003.
The Bungle Bungle Ranges in Purnululu are some of the most extraordinary and celebrated sandstone domes across the globe.
For over 20 million years, these beehive-like structures have gradually formed from ancient faults and erosion, depositing various materials. They stretch well over 450 kilometers allowing you to explore through different hikes, waterholes, and even helicopter flights.
What’s even more surprising is the Purnululu National Park didn’t catch the westerner’s eye until the 1980s. Even though the aboriginal people inhabited this land for 40,000 years.
The only way to get there is with a sturdy four-wheel drive vehicle, or you have convenient tours leaving Kununurra or Broome. Due to extreme temperatures, the tourism season is from March to October each year, with camping and cabin options nearby. So it’s easy to spend a few days enjoying this unique creation.
11. The Greater Blue Mountains
The Great Blue Mountains area encompasses over 10 thousand square kilometers and contains eight National Parks. It’s located in New South Wales (about 2 hours from Sydney) and was entered as a World Heritage Site in 2000.
The most popular section lies between Wentworth Falls and Blackheath while conveniently basing yourself in the small town of Katoomba.
The area holds a rich diversity of eucalypt habitats and is home to the world’s oldest plant, the Wollemi Pine. You also have sandstone plateaus, gorges, caves, slot canyons, and significant rock formations.
Immerse yourself in the outdoor lifestyle with many different hiking opportunities, along with riding the suspended cableway and the steepest train. Also, explore 8 National Parks, limestone caves, and famous rock formations like The 3 Sisters.
Travel Tip: Stay in one of Katoomba’s heritage hotels and check out everything it offers with locally sourced produce and uniquely made arts and crafts. Take in that crisp mountain air and find the perfect place to connect to nature.
12. Kakadu National Park
Kakadu National Park is a place full of history and is located in the Northern Territory (about 2 hours from Darwin). It covers nearly 20 thousand square kilometers, and Parks Australia help manage the park alongside the Bininj Mungguy people, who are also the traditional owners of Kakadu.
It’s home to the oldest living cultures on earth, which has survived over 65,000 years through generations of Aboriginal communities. However, the ecological features and vast diversity of plant and animal life make it a unique place and home to more than 10 thousand deadly saltwater crocodiles.
It’s notoriously wet during the summer in this Northern Territory rainforest (receiving more than 1.5 meters of rainfall). Therefore, April to September each year is the best time of year to travel by road. Still, you can book helicopter flights outside this time to see some of the biggest waterfalls in Australia.
13. Shark Bay
Shark Bay is located between Kalbarri and Exmouth on Western Australia’s west coast. This part of the state is home to lovely scenery and an array of interesting animals. We suggest driving a four-wheel drive vehicle to make the most of your time in Shark Bay.
Shark Bay was UNESCO listed in 1991 for many reasons. The most prominent is its stromatolites, which are some of the oldest fossils on earth. They are colonies of algae that have formed hard, dome-shaped deposits over time.
It’s teeming with biological activity, fascinating wildlife, and the largest seagrass beds spanning 4,800 square kilometers. You have many lookout points along Shark Bay Road with amazing views of the cliffs and clear water below.
It is not uncommon to see sharks swimming in the water; if you’re lucky, you may even spot a dugong. But you could see other large creatures like dolphins, Sting Rays, and turtles.
14. Australian Convict Sites
There are 11 Australian Convict Sites located throughout Australia that were established by the British Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries. These sites span from Fremantle in WA and Kingston on Norfolk Island. However, the most popular one would be based at historic Port Arthur in Tasmania.
These locations are important because they offer the best-surviving examples of large-scale convict transportation. Between 1787 and 1868, the British transported approximately 166,000 people to Australia as punishment for their crimes.
Each convict colony had a different purpose: either imprisonment or rehabilitation through forced labor.
The Port Arthur site is a collection of ruins from Victorian buildings. These were the homes and workplaces for convicts who experienced extreme conditions. You can walk around these ruins or take a ferry ride that gives you a tour of them and views of the bay.
Even in bad weather, this place looks peaceful and calm, which only makes the tragedy strike harder when you realize all the violence that happened here long ago.
Travel Tip: If you have your own car, it only takes 90 minutes to get from Hobart to Port Arthur. Therefore, it can easily be added to your Tasmanian road trip itinerary. Or, conveniently, you can join an organized day tour with a local tour guide embarking on their knowledge and stories from the past.
15. Lord Howe Island Group
Lord Howe Island Group is an idyllic island retreat located 600km east of mainland Australia, just off the coast of Port Macquarie. It’s part of New South Wales and can be reached by flying from Sydney or Brisbane.
The whole area, including the marine section and associated coral reefs, spans 146,300 hectares. However, the land component covers 1,540 hectares.
It was given UNESCO status in 1982 for its oceanic islands, born of volcanic activity. Along with various rare plants and animals and the most southerly coral reef. Lord Howe is popular for its picturesque views and being condensed into such a small land area.
Plus, it offers vital breeding grounds for rookeries of seabirds and habitation for endangered species.
The Lord Howe Woodhen and the Lord Howe Island Phasmid are two important wildlife only available on this island. The woodhen is a flightless bird once thought to be one of the rarest birds in the world.
However, it was later discovered that approximately 250 of them were left. The phasmid looks like a stick and could be one of the rarest insects known!
Conclusion: UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Australia
Australia’s World Heritage Sites are perfect for enjoying the great outdoors and appreciating nature. I hope you have enjoyed reading this list and learned something about Australia’s rich history.
Know that when you visit these places, you’re supporting conservation and natural wonders from all over the globe. So don’t wait any longer – there are so many things that make Australia worth visiting, so start planning your adventure today!