The UNESCO World Heritage Site programme catalogues, names and conserves sites of outstanding cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. There are 1,073 sites currently listed including cultural and natural sites as well as mixed properties. Around 20 new places make the list each year.
London is one of the few cities in the world that can lay claim to having 4 separate UNESCO World Heritage sites. These sites represent the most significant cultural proprieties in the greater London Area:
Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey and Saint Margaret's Church
Together these historic buildings showcase the growth of the English monarchy and have been the setting for many of the events that have shaped the British nation.
The Palace of Westminster was originally the site of a royal palace, and the primary London residence of English monarchs from the 11th century until 1512 when a fire destroyed much of the complex. Today it's more commonly called the Houses of Parliament, as it's home to the British parliament. Its elaborate clock tower, known as Big Ben, helps make it one of the most popular tourist attractions in London. Many famous historical events occured there including the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and the subsecuent execution of Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators. In 1812, Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated there, still the only British prime minister to have met that fate.
With a rich history of royal coronations, burials and weddings Westminster Abbey is one of the most identifiable churches in the world. People worldwide watched the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge held there in April 2011. It is also a great study in the phases of English Gothic art as it has been renovated and added to over the past 9 centuries. The Abbey was home to Benedictine Monks until the 1500s when they were finally removed by Elizabeth I.
Several buildings from this period have survived, including the Chapter House, the great dormitory (now the Abbey Library and the Great Hall of Westminister School), the monk's gardens and the cloisters. Their influence can also be seen in the existance of Saint Margaret's Church. Distracted by the locals attempting to attend their services, they established Saint Margaret's as a separate place of worship for the Abbey's neighbors. Several notables are buried at Saint Margaret's, including Sir Walter Raleigh who was efficently tried, executed and buried in Westminster.
Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew
At Kew Gardens you'll find the world's largest, most diverse collection of plants. Since 1759 Kew Gardens has served an important role in the understanding of the plant kingdom. Their Millennium Seed Bank contains seeds from thousands of plant species for reintroduction to their natural habitats or for scientific study.
Kew Gardens' glasshouses allow visitors to experience different environments. The Temperate House is the garden's largest, with specimens including the world's tallest indoor plant. In stark contrast, the Bonsai House displays miniature trees. Other glasshouses include Davies Alpine House, the Evolution House, the historic Palm House and Rose Garden, the Princess of Wales Conservatory, the Secluded Garden and the Waterlily House.
The Treetop Walkway offers one of the most unique experiences. At 18 metres above ground, it allows visitors a bird's eye view of the forest. During your scenic journey you might feel the structure swaying slightly in the breeze.
The Tower of London
The Tower of London lies on the bank of the River Thames and was first built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century as a palace and royal residence. The Tower of London has played an important role in British history. Redeveloped over the years, with evolving building techniques, its use has changed many times.
While most castles were used to imprison people for short lengths of time, the Tower of London gained a reputation for torture and imprisonment. It held important prisoners (like the future Elizabeth I), common soldiers and prisoners of war as late as World War II. It is also home to the Crown Jewels and you can see the largest cut diamond in the world there.
The Tower of London has long been said to be haunted by spirits. Most famously, the ghost of Anne Boleyn is said to walk around the White Tower holding her head under her arm.
Home of the Royal Greenwich Observatory and the National Maritime Museum, Maritime Greenwich is an interesting place to visit. One of the most popular things for tourists to do is stand astride the prime meridian - the Earth's line of 0 degrees longitude - with a foot in both the eastern and western hemispheres at the same time. You can also witness the ball drop at the top of the Greenwich Observatory at 1pm daily, a tradition which has occurred every day since 1833.
The Greenwich Observatory is now a museum containing John Harrison’s original time keeping devices, which were used to establish the prime meridian - the basis of Greenwich Mean Time. The Observatory also contains a planetarium containing Britian's first digital planetarium projector. Also in Maritime Greenwich you'll find the National Maritime Museum which houses many important historical and nautical artifacts.
Gary Arndt is an American travel blogger who has been traveling around the world non-stop since March 2007. He has visited over 100 countries and territories and over 150 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. You can follow his adventures on his travel blog or on Twitter or Facebook.