Right across the country, Australia’s World Heritage Sites manage to achieve two great feats. They celebrate (and protect) most of Australia’s most magnificent icons. And they highlight some of the lesser-known landmarks that make the country so special.
From the famous Great Barrier Reef and Sydney Opera House, to the fascinating (but the relatively unknown) Budj Bim and Riversleigh Fossil Site, visiting the World Heritage Sites of Australia is a wonderful way to see the best of the best.
When I travel internationally, I try to visit as many World Heritage Sites as possible. Through them, you often get a deeper sense of what makes that country unique, beyond the obvious tourist destinations. Because each nation nominates its own World Heritage Sites, you can see what it considers to be the important aspects of its story.
Globally, most World Heritage Sites are ‘cultural’ (one of the official designations) and they make up 78 per cent of the World Heritage List. ‘Natural’ sites make up just 19 per cent of the list. (And the remaining sites are what’s called ‘mixed’, and have both cultural and natural elements.)
However, 60 per cent of Australia’s World Heritage Sites are natural and just 20 per cent are cultural, with the remaining 20 per cent being mixed.
This means many of the UNESCO sites in Australia are not in the main cities and can actually be quite remote. It makes visiting Australia’s World Heritage Sites quite time-consuming (and almost impossible in a couple of instances) but I think the rewards are greater. The enormous national parks of Kakadu and Purnululu are a couple of examples of epic locations where the journey is half the fun.
How many World Heritage Sites are in Australia?
Australia has 20 World Heritage Sites, 12 of which are natural sites.
Some of Australia’s most famous World Heritage Sites are the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef, and Uluṟu.
In total, Australia has 20 World Heritage Sites (putting it equal 14th on the list of countries with the most sites). About half of them are along the east coast of the country, with four in Western Australia and two in the Northern Territory. Four of the sites are on islands off the coast (not counting Tasmania, which has two sites).
There are rainforests, deserts, and mountains. There are iconic buildings, ancient engineering, and history-shaping complexes. Each has its own incredible story, so let’s have a look at the list of World Heritage Sites in Australia.
Uluṟu-Kata Tjuta National Park
Let’s start in the centre of Australia, at Uluṟu (previously known as Ayers Rock), the enormous red monolith that has been an important part of the local Indigenous heritage for thousands of years. It’s often referred to as ‘the spiritual heart of Australia’ and I think you can feel a special energy when you’re near it.
About 60 kilometres away is Kata Tjuta, the other highlight of the national park. It consists of rock that looks similar to Uluṟu but was actually formed in a different way and is made up of 36 different domes spread out over more than 20 square kilometres. Although it may not be as famous as ‘The Rock’, it’s just as special.
There’s plenty of tourism infrastructure and things to do at Uluṟu and Kata Tjuta. I would recommend spending a few days here to see the landmarks at different times of the day and go on some of the walks. There are also some incredible outdoor dining and art experiences.
Kakadu National Park
Further north is the Northern Territory’s other star natural attraction – Kakadu National Park. Unlike the desert of Uluṟu, this is the tropics and Kakadu is defined by the changes between the wet season and the dry season.
Large stone escarpments turn into torrential waterfalls in the wet seasons, which create gorgeous swimming holes in the summer. Floodplains that are full of water for half the year, become the nesting grounds for hundreds of bird species. And crocodiles inhabit the waterways all year round.
Indigenous people have lived here for tens of thousands of years and there are some stunning rock art sites that you can visit, while Aboriginal guides tell stories that have been passed down for generations. As a visitor, you need a few days here to see the range of landscapes and all the things to do at Kakadu. It can take time to drive between them all – it is, after all, about 200 kilometres from top to bottom!
Great Barrier Reef
Of all of the World Heritage Sites in Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is probably the most famous. It’s the world’s largest reef and stretches for more than 2,300 kilometres down the coast of Queensland. It has some of the most astounding biodiversity, with more than 1,500 species of fish and 400 species of coral.
Although there’s been a lot of news about the effect climate change is having on the Great Barrier Reef, most of it is still vibrant and healthy and you’ll have an amazing experience if you head out to snorkel or dive amongst the marine life. There’s lots to see in the fringing reefs around islands, but serious divers might want to go to the outer reef, which can take a couple of hours by boat from the mainland.
Because the Great Barrier Reef is so long, there are lots of places you can use as a base to visit it. Cairns is one of the most popular cities for tours, but other good spots include Townsville, the Whitsundays, and Bundaberg.
Wet Tropics of Queensland
One of the reasons Cairns is popular as a base for the Great Barrier Reef is because it also offers access to another of Australia’s World Heritage Sites – the Wet Tropics of Queensland.
Stretching for about 450 kilometres up the eastern edge of North Queensland, it’s made up of 14 sections of protected tropical rainforest. This lush wilderness of tall trees, ferns, and vines is home to hundreds of native Australian animal species, including the beautiful (but terrifying) cassowary!
The most popular part of the World Heritage Site is the Daintree Rainforest near Port Douglas, where you can follow walking trails and visit the cultural centre. But you can also explore less-visited parts of the rainforest to go deeper (literally and figuratively) into the ecosystems here. The drive up to Cape Tribulation is especially spectacular.
Gondwana Rainforests of Australia
Heading south, another stretch of rainforest has been protected to make up the site known as the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. Straddling the border of Queensland and New South Wales, the site consists of 41 different locations, mainly national parks or natural reserves.
These rainforests are significant because they are similar to the landscape that would’ve covered the supercontinent of Gondwana millions of years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the planet. The lush and humid environment is filled with ferns and soaring trees that the abundant birdlife flits between. Volcanic activity has created mountains that rivers flow amongst, with waterfalls and gorgeous natural swimming holes.
Some of the location are quite small and not all are worth visiting, to be honest. But highlights include Lamington National Park and Springbrook National Park near the Gold Coast, and Dorrigo National Park near Coffs Harbour. They each have incredible hikes with stunning views.
K’gari (Fraser Island)
Before we move on from Queensland for the time being, I want to also talk about K’gari (previously known as Fraser Island), which is a couple of hours’ drive north of Brisbane (plus a ferry ride).
This enormous site is 122 kilometres long and is the largest sand island in the world. But despite being formed of sand, it manages to support some majestic sections of rainforest, along with other rugged forests to explore. Coupled with the sand dunes, the freshwater lakes, coloured cliffs, and the blue coastline, K’gari is a natural playground.
There’s no shortage of things to do on K’Gari and it’s easy to spend a few days on the island, driving the sandy trails, swimming at the beaches, or joining some of the cultural tours. There are a few accommodation options, and it’s also a popular location for camping.
Lord Howe Island Group
Another fantastic island, this time off the coast of New South Wales, is Lord Howe Island. About 570 kilometres from the mainland, it’s much harder to reach than Fraser Island (most people fly) and so the visitor numbers are much lower and it feels more exclusive.
Lord Howe Island is quite small – only ten kilometres from one end to the other – but it’s dramatic terrain means it can take a long time to explore. Created by volcanic activity more than 2,000 metres under the sea, it has large rugged mountains covered in forest with steep slopes down to beautiful beaches. A large population of birds and a coral reef just add to its magic.
Accommodation is limited on Lord Howe Island and it can get quite expensive, but a few days on the island to relax and explore the landscapes makes for a spectacular trip.
Sydney Opera House
The Sydney Opera House probably needs little introduction. It’s not just one of the most famous World Heritage Sites in Australia, it’s also one of the best known landmarks in the world. The iconic sails that cover the building add to the beauty of the building and its surroundings, poking out into the water next to the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The Sydney Opera House was opened in 1973 and was imagined by a Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, after he won an international competition to find a design. However, he had a falling out with the government and the final construction was different to his plan (he never even saw it in person).
While many visitors will see it (and photograph it) from the outside, you can also go inside – and it’s from here that you’ll appreciate how the sails (or shells, as some people call them) fit with the two main performance halls and other amenities. There are guided tours of the Opera House or you can also buy a ticket to a performance.
Australian Convict Sites
Of course, the cultural history of Australia is tens of thousands of years old and some of the country’s Indigenous history is presented within some of Australia’s World Heritage Sites. But this one consists of some of the most important buildings from the start of ‘Modern Australia’, when the British colonised the country.
The British founded their first settlement in Sydney in 1788, in a large part as a place to send convicts. In the following decades, convict colonies were also created in other parts of the country. Although many of the original buildings from those very early years are gone, prisoners were still sent here until 1868, and some of the most important constructions from the whole period make up this World Heritage Site.
There are 11 locations in total. Four of them are around Sydney (including the Hyde Park Barracks), five of them are in Tasmania (including Port Arthur), there’s Fremantle Prison in Western Australia, and also the convict settlement on Norfolk Island. Some of them (particularly the ones I just mentioned specifically) have excellent visitor experiences.
Greater Blue Mountains Area
From Sydney, another easy World Heritage Site to visit is the Blue Mountains, which begins less than an hour away from the city centre. This large mountain range that begins at the western border of the city is technically a series of sandstone plateaux, with steep cliffs and vast valleys between them.
The natural environment of the Blue Mountains is wonderful, full of eucalyptus trees and other important native flora. The rock formations create iconic shapes at the top, while waterfalls cascade down into more humid areas of ferns and gullies. A large network of trails allows you to see the different environments on short walks or multi-day hikes.
The main road and train line across the Blue Mountains leads through the string of towns that dot the region and they are also an attraction in themselves (although they are outside the official boundaries of the World Heritage Sites). The shops, galleries, cafes, and restaurants all add to the enjoyment of a visit to the Blue Mountains, which I recommend doing for longer than just a day trip.
Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens
Looking down to Melbourne now, the city has just one World Heritage Sites – the Royal Exhibition Building (plus the gardens that surround it). It’s an interesting site because it has a few different elements to its significance.
The building was constructed during an era when cities around the would were hosting large international expos to share the scientific and technological discoveries of the time. Melbourne built the Royal Exhibition Building for an international exhibition in 1880 and another planned one in 1888 to celebrate Australia’s centenary. They were the largest events ever held in the country at the time, and introduced the progress of the British colony to much of the world.
When Australia officially became a country, the Royal Exhibition Building was also used for the ceremony of the opening of the first Parliament of Australia in 1901 by the future King George V. These days, it is still used for its original purpose – to host exhibitions and other large events. Attending one of these is one way to see the building’s interiors, although there are also tours on days when it is not being used.
Budj Bim Cultural Landscape
Australia’s latest World Heritage Site is in the west of Victoria, in an area called Budj Bim. It was here that the local Indigenous people created an ingenious aquaculture system more than 6,600 years ago. The Gunditjmara used the stony landscape formed from a volcanic eruption to build channels and ponds to catch and farm short-finned eels.
The eels were used for most eating and trade and the aquaculture system (which also included woven nets) is considered to be one of the planet’s oldest examples of engineering. Parts of it are still visible, with stone traps and nearby huts on display for visitors.
The cultural landscape has several different components and, along with a new visitor centre, you can join guided tours led by Gunditjmara rangers to see some of the ancient sites and learn about the culture. The volcano itself, Budj Bim, is part of a national park that is open to visitors and has a number of interesting walks.
The island state of Tasmania is known for its rugged nature, so it’s no surprise that much of the state has been designated as a World Heritage Site known as the Tasmania Wilderness. The site covers a fifth of the state (or 1.5 million hectares) and includes some of the most important national parks.
In Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park, you’ll find jagged mountains formed by glaciers, covered in forests of beech and pine. Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park has ancient rainforests and hearty waterways, while Southwest National Park is some of the most remote parts of the state, with an epic multi-day walk along the coast.
There are lots of ways to visit this World Heritage Site because it covers so much land. On the edges of the park, there are easily-accessible visitor areas and easy walks. But the more adventurous among us can head deep into the wilderness for longer adventures in some of the world’s best wilderness.
Australian Fossil Mammal Sites
This is certainly one of the lesser-known World Heritage Sites in Australia, partly because it’s not one of the best visitor experiences, even though it’s very significant. The site consists of two locations – Riversleigh in the northwestern pocket of Queensland, and Naracoorte in the southeastern tip of South Australia (about 30 hours’ drive apart, in case you were thinking about visiting both!). At both these spots, scientists uncovered incredible collections of mammal fossils – considered to be among the world’s top ten fossil sites.
Some of the fossils at Riversleigh are up to 30 million years old and they give a unique insight into the evolution of animals because Australia was geographically cut off from the rest of the world, so didn’t have influence from other species. The animals found at Naracoorte are from about 530,000 years ago, right up until recent years.
The South Australian location (Naracoorte) has a much more developed visitor experience, with an information centre and tours into the caves to see the fossils. The Riversleigh site is above ground and the fossils are less defined to the average eye, although there is an information centre a few hours away in Mount Isa.
Willandra Lakes Region
Another remote fossil site is the Willandra Lakes Region, in the far west of NSW, near the Victorian and South Australian borders. The large lakes here started drying up about 18,000 years ago and what’s left are the large dry beds and stunning sand formations around the edge.
While the landscapes are striking and sometimes evoke thoughts of the moon or other planets, it’s the fossils that were found here that are part of the reason it’s a World Heritage Site, with the remains of giant marsupials from 100,000 years ago preserved in the rock. There is also important evidence of human life here from at least 40,000 years ago. Along with artefacts, the most important discoveries are the burials of ancient skeletons, the most important being the Mungo Man.
The main area for visitors to the region is Mungo National Park, which has tourist facilities and tours to the most scenic parts of the dry lake bed. There’s also a driving track that leads through the diversity of the Outback.
Purnululu National Park
Heading into Western Australia, the first World Heritage Site you would come to, in the northeast of the state, is Purnululu National Park, an enormous tract of land that is most famous for its Bungle Bungle Range.
As remote as it is dramatic, the Bungle Bungles is made up of hundreds of giant domes of rock with orange and black stripes, creating a maze though the palm trees that grow at ground level. The unique stone formations appear to change throughout the day as the sun moves through the sky, and one of the best ways to see them is on a scenic flight.
In other parts of the national park are huge cliffs up to 250 metres high with waterfalls and swimming pools, and canyons and gorges that can be accessed by 4WD. The geology here is at least 350 million years old and there are walking trails that lead through parts of the landscape. There’s also a robust Indigenous heritage to discover.
On the coast of Western Australia, near Exmouth, is one of the most underrated World Heritage Sites in Australia (and one of the best places to visit in Western Australia). If it wasn’t for that other reef in the east, Ningaloo Reef would probably be world famous, as it’s the largest fringing reef on the planet.
One of the things that makes it so special is that you can access the reef right off the beach in some places. The whale sharks that gather here each year is one of the highlights (you can even swim with them!), but there are plenty of other animals here, including humpback whales and a large amount of turtles.
As well as the reef, the World Heritage Site includes a stretch of land that has a large network of underground caves and an extensive karst system. The red rugged limestone gorges of the Cape Range National Park are an incredible contrast to the clear turquoise waters of the adjacent coast.
Shark Bay, Western Australia
Just 500 metres south of Ningaloo Reef (I say ‘just’ because that’s a short distance in Western Australia) is the World Heritage Site of Shark Bay. Another enormous and remote site, this is an incredible marine ecosystem full of superlatives.
Located at the westernmost point of mainland Australia, Shark Bay is home to the largest and richest sea-grass beds in the world. It has one of the biggest populations of dugongs on the planet, and is significant for its colonies of algae (known as stromatolites) that are among the oldest forms of life on earth.
For visitors, there are pristine beaches where you can swim – and even join some dolphins at the popular Monkey Mia. Or there are boat cruises in the water to see turtle and manta rays. On land, the Francois Peron National Park offers a taste of the Outback with red earth 4WD trails meeting white sand and gleaming water at the coast.
Heard and McDonald Islands
If you think any of the previous Australian World Heritage Sites were remote, then the next two take it to a whole new level. Heard and McDonald Islands are located far into the Southern Ocean, about 4,100 kilometres southwest of Perth and just 1,600 kilometres from Antarctica.
The two islands are volcanic and are home to some of the world’s most pristine ecosystems. Visitors are not allowed here, which is one of the ways that the environment is protected from any interference. There are no foreign plants or animals, and that allows the few scientists that are allowed onto the site to study the geological and biological processes of this part of the planet, including evolution.
One interesting bit of trivia is that Heard Island actually has Australia’s highest mountain – Mawson Peak, at 2,745 metres (much taller than the mainland’s Mount Kosciuszko, at 2,228 metres). Heard and McDonald Islands also have Australia’s only active volcanoes.
In completely the other direction, Macquarie Island is about 1,500 kilometres southeast of Tasmania, about halfway to Antarctica. It’s relatively small, at just 34km by 5km, but like Heard and McDonald Islands, has incredible scientific significance.
Macquarie Island was formed about 600,000 years ago when a gap between the tectonic plates forced a line of molten rock to the surface – and it’s the only place on the planet where this has happened. The tiny bit of land in the vast Southern Ocean offers sanctuary to a huge number of animals, including seal pups and birds like giant petrels. But it’s the penguins who rule the roost, with at least 400,000 king penguins and three million royal penguins!
It is possible to visit Macquarie Island but, because of its isolation, it’s not an easy trip. Almost everyone who gets to see the island comes on a small ship expedition cruise but, like all of Australia’s World Heritage Sites, it’s worth the journey!