Seven World Heritage sites you can see without leaving Australia

Travelling Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 11 July 2019

From islands inhabited by Royal Penguins to the country's most famous opera house, these are seven of the most spectacular UNESCO sites in Australia.

As Victoria celebrates recognition of Budj Bim National Heritage Landscape becoming Australia's first World Heritage-listed site based on indigenous cultural importance, we take a look at seven of Australia's most fascinating UNESCO World Heritage sites.

From left: Royal Exhibition Building, Macquarie Island penguin colony, Fraser Island's Lake McKenzie, aerial view of Shark Bay coastline, Purnululu, Willandra Lakes Region, Sydney Opera House

Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens, Victoria

Listed in 2004

You may have visited the Royal Exhibition Building for a flower show, rock concert or even a beer fest without realising the significance of the site.  Sure, the striking white building is a magnificent backdrop for weddings held in the surrounding Carlton Gardens, but there’s more to this grand old dame than photogenic appeal.

It was Australia’s first World Heritage listed building and the only survivor of the world’s “exhibition movement” which included events such as the Paris World Fair in 1889.

In the heady goldrush days of the 1880s, the movers and shakers of “Marvellous Melbourne” wanted to show-case colonial Australia to the world. Architect Joseph Reed designed the building and its formal grounds for Melbourne’s Great International Exhibitions of 1880 and 1888.

The building has a great hall, imposing dome, towers and elaborate interior murals. Threatened with demolition in 1948, it was restored, and heritage listed, in 2004.

Macquarie Island, Tasmania

Listed in 1997

It’s a black-tie event at this island when the locals get together. Macquarie island has 850,000 breeding pairs of Royal Penguins endemic to the island and nearby Bishop and Clerk Islets. Other guests include about 170,000 breeding pairs of King Penguins, four species of Albatross and a breeding colony of Elephant Seals.

Situated half way between Tasmania and the Antarctic continent, it’s always a bad hair day because fierce winds dubbed the ‘Furious Fifties” constantly lash the island. But it is its remote, windswept landscape with steep escarpments, lakes, and dramatic changes in vegetation that helped win its heritage listing.

It also scored points for being the only place in the world where rocks from deep within the earth, about six kilometres below the ocean floor, are pushed to the surface. The geological creation of the island started 10 million years ago and continues today with regular earthquakes.

Explore the Tasmanian World Heritage wilderness with Gordon River Cruises. RACV members receive 15 per cent off cruise tickets.

People wandering through exhibition in classic old building with ornate details, walls painted with art and a domed ceiling

Inside Carlton's ornate Royal Exhibition Building.

Happy emperor penguin with arms flapping and yellow eyelashes blowing in the wind

Close up of happy royal penguins on Macquarie Island.

Fraser Island, Queensland

Listed in 1992

This tourist hot-spot is also an ecological gem recognised as the world’s largest sand island with exceptional natural beauty. It is the only place in the world where tall remnant tropical rainforest grow on sand dunes. It has half of the world’s known “perched” lakes, formed when rain fills depressions in the sand to form permanent lakes.

The World Heritage listing includes Fraser Island, also known by its Aboriginal name of K’gari and measuring 122km long, and several smaller islands about 300km north of Brisbane.

Nature lovers can wander 250 kilometres of clear sandy beaches with long, uninterrupted stretches of ocean beach and amazing coloured sand cliffs. Others drive the sandy highway known as 75 Mile Beach in four-wheel drives or stop to watch migrating whales. Inland you can take a dip in the stunning freshwater Lake McKenzie or view the unique sand dune rainforest.

Do Fraser Island in one or two fun-filled days with an experienced local guide and see the best the island has to offer. RACV members can access discounted Fraser Island Explorer Tours.

Shark Bay, Western Australia

Listed in 1991

You must get wet to see the pastures the “sea cows” feed on at Shark Bay.  Dugongs got their nickname from being large and slow but are related to elephants. There are 11,000 of them feasting on massive seagrass beds making this the most significant area in the world to protect the species.

The diverse waters of the 2.2 million-hectare Shark Bay area, 800km north of Perth, is home to dolphins, sharks, rays, turtles and fish and is a stopping off post for migratory humpback and southern right whales. Visitors can stop and see wild bottlenose dolphins come in for a free feed at Monkey Mia or visit the impressive Shell Beach covered with cockle shells 10 metres deep stretching for 70km.

It is also renowned for the abundance of oldest form of life on earth, stromatolites - hard, dome-shaped structures formed by microbial mats, that look like cow pats. Its uber salty Hamelin Pool has the world’s most diverse and abundant stromatolites, known as living fossils.

Purnululu National Park, Western Australia

Listed in 2003

A bucket-list must see is the Bungle Bungle Range in Purnululu National Park, 300km south of Kununarra. Nature started its work on this mountain range 20 million years ago, eroding sandstone into a series of bee-hive cones with distinct horizontal bands.

Rising 250 metres from the surrounding grasslands, the maze of towering cones is cut with narrow, sheer-sided gorges lined with fan palms. The cones change colour daily with the changing position of the sun or seasonally with rain and in the wet, spectacular waterfalls and pools form with such names as Echidna Chasm and Piccaninny and Cathedral Gorges. The dramatically sculptured cones are unique in the world; unequalled in their size, extent and imposing majesty.

The 240,000 hectare park is remote and accessible only via a 53km, rugged four-wheel-drive track but viewed from scenic flights its orange and black striped bee-hives and its hidden gorges and rock pools are revealed. Several well-preserved fossils of giant marsupials have also been found here.

People swimming in crystal clear blue waters of lake beach and sunbaking on white sandy shore surrounded by tropical rainforest

Rainforest rising from the sand dunes of freshwater Lake McKenzie, which is found in Fraser Island's Great Sandy National Park.

Willandra Lakes Region, New South Wales

Listed in 1981

If you’re a budding Indiana Jones, pack your bags and head to this site which has some of the earliest evidence of human evolution in Australia. The lakes are long gone but the fossil remains of the lake and sand formations, along with archaeological evidence of human occupation dating from 45–60,000 years ago, get adventurers excited.

Willandra contains some of the earliest evidence of Homo sapiens outside Africa and shows that humans had dispersed to Australia about 42,000 years ago. Archaeological treasures in the area 120km north of Balranald, NSW include hearths, stone tools and shell middens while there is evidence of the earliest known cremation and use of grindstones.

The Willandra lakes is a fossil waterway developed during the Pleistocene Geological Period when the climate was considerably colder and wetter than in the same area today and the lakes dried up 18,500 years ago.

Sydney Opera House, New South Wales

Listed in 2007

The iconic Sydney Opera House is recognisable worldwide because of its unique design. Danish architect Jørn Utzon, used a series of vaulted shells to create its timeless appeal creating more of an urban sculpture than a traditional building when it opened in 1973. Sitting on the tip of a peninsula jutting into Sydney Harbour, it is still Instagram-worthy for its unique look and harbour bridge backdrop.

The building was heritage listed because it represented a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture and was unrivalled in its design and construction. It pushed the limits of technology, engineering and innovation at the time, making it a world-famous icon of architecture.

It was regarded as a daring and visionary experiment which had an enduring influence on architecture. The distinctive shells, which formed the roofs of two main performance halls and a restaurant, were set on a vast platform and surrounded by terraces used by pedestrians.

See the imposing harbour-side structure from the water with Captain Cook Cruises. RACV members receive discounts on hop-on hop-off cruises departing from Circular Quay and Darling Harbour.


Full list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Australia:

Cultural (4)
  • Australian Convict Sites (2010)
  • Budj Bim Cultural Landscape (2019)
  • Royal Exhibition Building and Carlton Gardens (2004)
  • Sydney Opera House (2007)
Natural (12)
  • Australian Fossil Mammal Sites (Riversleigh / Naracoorte) (1994)
  • Fraser Island (1992)
  • Gondwana Rainforests of Australia (1986,1994)
  • Great Barrier Reef (1981)
  • Greater Blue Mountains Area (2000)
  • Heard and McDonald Islands (1997)
  • Lord Howe Island Group (1982)
  • Macquarie Island (1997)
  • Ningaloo Coast (2011)
  • Purnululu National Park (2003)
  • Shark Bay, Western Australia (1991)
  • Wet Tropics of Queensland (1988)
Mixed (4)
  • Kakadu National Park (1981,1987,1992)
  • Tasmanian Wilderness (1982,1989)
  • Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (1987,1994)
  • Willandra Lakes Region (1981)