With a strategic location between Europe and Africa, the enormous cultural and artistic influence of different civilizations throughout the centuries, and great natural treasures, it is not surprising that Spain is one of the world’s cultural hubs, nor that its cultural heritage attracts millions of tourists, making it the second most visited country on the planet.
And it is not simply a subjective assessment. Spain is the third country with the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage designations, only behind China and Italy, both with 55 designations. Our country has exactly 48 properties and sites that are considered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to be unique and diverse, and of outstanding value to humanity that transcends national boundaries and belongs to all peoples of the world, and to which it offers technical assistance for its conservation.
Although Spain joined the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of Humanity relatively late, in 1982 (ten years after its adoption on 16 November 1972 in Paris), two years later the Alhambra, the Monastery and Royal Site of El Escorial, the Cathedral and León, the historic centre of Córdoba and the works of Antonio Gaudí were added to UNESCO’s list. A rapid recognition of the enormous Spanish cultural heritage that continued to grow throughout the decades and that has seen Spain move up to third place globally.
Cultural, Natural and Intangible Heritage
UNESCO has a broad classification of World Heritage: cultural, natural and mixed (when they combine their cultural and environmental value), as well as being either tangible or intangible. Spain stands out in the first category, cultural, with 42 declared properties and sites. It also has 4 natural and 2 mixed.
Among these, there are 15 Spanish cities that form the group of World Heritage Cities of Spain, with the aim of acting jointly in the defense of the historical and cultural heritage of these cities. The historic centres and cities that make up this network are: Córdoba, Ávila, Santiago de Compostela, Segovia, Cáceres, Toledo, Salamanca, Cuenca, Alcalá de Henares, San Cristóbal de la Laguna, Úbeda, Baeza, Ibiza, Mérida and Tarragona.
The list goes on with a large number of sites from different periods: from the caves of Atapuerca and the cave paintings of Altamira, to the Palau de la Música Catalana in Barcelona, to the cathedrals of Burgos and Seville, the Renaissance cities of Úbeda and Baeza, the Silk Exchange building of Valencia or the modernist works of Gaudí.
In terms of natural sites, Spain has four: Garajonay Natural Park, Doñana National Park, Teide National Park and the primary Beech forests of the Carpathians and other regions of Europe (a designation shared with other European countries).
There are also mixed sites that combine their cultural and environmental value, such as the city of Ibiza and the Pyrenees-Monte Perdido.
The European country with the most Intangible Heritage
For UNESCO, cultural heritage is not limited to monuments and historic cities. It also includes living expressions inherited from our ancestors, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social customs or festive events.
This is why the idea of including intangible heritage also emerged in the 1990s. With the signing of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage in 2003, this designation materialised, and between 2001 and 2005 Spain obtained its first classifications: the Mystery of Elche and the Patum of Berga.
Since then, Spain has become the European country with the highest number of Intangible Heritage designations, with 18, followed by Croatia, with 17. These include universal Spanish traditions, such as flamenco, the Fallas of Valencia or the castells, as well as the Patios of Cordoba, the Silbo Gomero, falconry or the Mediterranean diet (which it shares with other countries).
In addition to all this, Spain also has 11 documents distinguished as Memory of the World by UNESCO, within the Memory of the World Programme. An international initiative promoted by UNESCO since 1992 with the aim of promoting the preservation of and access to the documentary historical heritage of greatest relevance to the peoples of the world. Spain also occupies a very prominent position, as the second European country with the most designations of this type. These documents include the Treaty of Tordesillas (shared with Portugal), the Capitulations of Santa Fe, the Codex Calixtinus or the Archives of Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the Spanish School of Neurophysiology.