Canada's Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites

By: Lindsay MacNevin

From the very northern tip of Newfoundland to a tiny island located off the west coast of British Columbia; Canada’s Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites are both breathtaking and awe-inspiring. Travel back in time and learn about the only Viking settlement in North America, or sail aboard a fishing boat and discover the picturesque town in Nova Scotia known for its colorful 18th century houses. Discover what a Buffalo Jump is, walk in a whaler’s shoes or cruise through the infamous Rideau Canal. Rich in both history and culture all of the following sites have gone through a rigorous selection process and have been named Canada’s Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Travel with us as we explore these interesting and stunning places of cultural importance.


1. Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump

One of the world’s most important hunting sites; as well as being the largest, oldest, most well-preserved buffalo jumps in the world is the claim to fame for the Cultural UNESCO World Heritage Site located in South-Western Alberta. A buffalo jump was as method used by the aboriginal people nearly 6000 years ago as a way to kill their prey and involved chasing the buffalo over a steep rock cliff.

This world heritage site has been extremely well-preserved and has added an extremely informative and educational interpretive center to its grounds. Explore the multi-level structure and learn facts like how the stampeding buffalo can reach up to 50km/hour or take in the short film that explains exactly what the site used to be. There are plenty of trails to be explored; whether you choose to hike them independently or hire one of the informative guides that will tell you more detail. The artifacts, the views and the history of this site makes it a great place to visit while in Alberta.

Jeff Whyte /
Jeff Whyte /


2. Historic District of Old Québec

Founded in the early 17th century by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, Old Quebec remains one of the last walled cities in North America. The Historic District of Old Quebec is comprised of two parts; the Upper Town which is perched on the cliffs and known for its fortified defense walls whereas the Lower Town is built around the harbor. This World Heritage Site is the best and most complete example of a fortified colonial town in North America.

The breathtaking range of architecture gives this city the reputation for being “a piece of Old Europe” and it doesn’t disappoint with architectural styles ranging from Classic Revival to International Style. Explore places of historical significance including The Plains of Abraham, The Citadelle and the Promenade des Gouverneurs. Get lost in the cobblestone streets, history rich churches and museums that date back to the early 17th century. Immerse yourself in the culture of the city and educate yourself on why this city was the capital of New France until 1760. The towering defense walls still in place, the rush of the St.Lawrence River and the breathtaking beauty will make your tip to this World Heritage Site unforgettable.

Old Québec


3. Landscape of Grand Pré

The Landscape of Grand Pre is located on the Bay of Fundy’s Minas Basin in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley and is the third World Heritage Cultural Site. Rewind to the 17th century where Acadians first established the dykelands in an area where extreme tidal ranges made this almost impossible. This area is of importance because not only does it demonstrate the polder technique of developing farmland but it demonstrates the permanency of the hydraulic draining system the Acadians set forth.

This site is also the well known symbol for the deportation of Acadians from Nova Scotia. Thousands of people were forcibly removed from their colonies and dispersed amongst the thirteen American colonies or sent back to Europe. The Grand Pre historic site contains commemorative gardens and memorials to the Acadian Deportation along with cemeteries and the Memorial Church. This amazing landscape is a collection of symbolism, harsh environments and the amazing farming systems built and maintained by the Acadians. Stretching over 1,300ha this World Heritage Site offers a glimpse into the adaptations the first European settlers had to make while facing Mother Nature’s toughest conditions.

Grand Pre Nova Scotia


4. L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site

The only confirmed Viking settlement in North America; L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site sits on the tip of Northern Newfoundland. This archaeological site contains the evacuated remains of an 11th century Viking settlement. The Vikings were believed to have come from Greenland as part of a Norse exploration and discovered this “land of meadows”.

The site was rediscovered in 1960 when a Norwegian explorer and his wife excavated the site. What they found was a temporary Viking settlement comprised of eight houses, one forge, four workshops, and artifacts such as stone oil lamps. The houses found used the same building techniques and materials as those found in Norway during the same period; wood frame structures with grass sod dug into the ground. Visitors can enjoy the interpretation center where a short video is played to explain the significance of the site and are encouraged to check out the artifacts and reconstructions. Outside there is a trail that leads you to the remains of the workshops and houses and also takes you by the reconstructed houses. As the oldest settlement of European origin in America, this World Heritage Site is an amazing experience.

L’Anse aux Meadows Newfoundland


5. Old Town Lunenburg

A picturesque fishing town in Nova Scotia is the next World Heritage Cultural Site on the list. Narrow streets, captivating architecture and the rows of colorful houses dating back to the 18th century make Old Town Lunenburg not only breathtakingly beautiful but rich in culture and history. The fact that it is the best surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America catapulted it into World Heritage Site status.

The original layout has remained throughout the years and the residents of this town have carefully cared for and preserved much of the original buildings and houses. Historically fishing and shipbuilding were the main industries and as time has gone on; they have remained so in this harbor town. It remains Canada’s base for the largest fish-processing plant and fleet of deep-sea trawlers. Visitors can wander the docks and buy fresh lobster and fish, sail the waters on a tall ship or pop in to see the Bluenose II being restored. Step back in time to a simpler world where locals love to chat, you can buy fresh fish off the boat and the houses are bursting with vibrant colors.

Lunenburg, Nova Scotia


6. Red Bay Basque Whaling Station

Positioned in Labrador on the shores of Strait of Belle Isle, Red Bay comprises the largest known 16th century Basque whaling station in North America. Perhaps the most comprehensive, intact and earliest testimony to pre-industrial whaling; the Red Bay Basque Whaling Station was used as a base for all major elements of Basque whaling. Including hunting, butchering and rendering of fat to be used for oil; this base was used daily in the summer months for over seventy years until the whale population was depleted.

Visitors can stroll through Red Bay and discover artifacts such as rendering ovens, temporary dwellings and cooperages. A cemetery, look out points and interpretation center complete this archaeological site. The underwater wrecks of vessels and whale bone deposits play a major role in learning about the whaling station and although visitors can’t access these items; the interpretation center does an excellent job educating people about them. Walk where the whalers walked, pay tribute at the burial ground and discover one of the most fascinating sites in Canada.

Red Bay Basque Whaling Station


7. Rideau Canal (2007)

Dating back to the early 19th century; the Rideau Canal was built mainly for military purposes and became the first of its kind to be build specifically for steam-powered vessels. Since that time it remains the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. History tells us that the canal played a significant role in allowing British forces to defend the colony of Canada; thus creating the two political and culturally different entities in North America.

The waterway has a total of 45 locks, all of which are operated manually by the same mechanisms that were used in 1832, with the exception of three automatic locks. The timber gates and cut stone walls make the Rideau Canal an impressive piece of architecture. Visitors come from all over the world to sail through the locks, visit the parks and beaches and explore the historic sites that surround it. This North American slack water canal remains one-of-a-kind with its European design and a must visit to anyone in the Ottawa area.

Rideau Canal


8. SGang Gwaay

Located on a small island off the West Coast of British Columbia is the village of Ninstints; a site which commemorates the lives of the vanished Haida Indians. The culture of the Haida people was based on fishing and hunting and their relationship with the land and sea. The remains of the large cedar long houses along with carved memorial poles are what remain on this island. The towering intricately carved poles have been subject to Mother Nature and have suffered from erosion but still remain the most impressive example of the power and artistry of the Haida Indians.

Set amongst the majestic Christoval Mountains, this small island is crawling with unique wildlife and island flora along with the 1.5 million seabirds that nest along the shorelines. The waters hold marine life including a number of species of whales, octopus, starfish, dolphins and harbor seals.   The Haida lived on the wealth of the sea and forest and lived here for thousands of years. Explore this beautiful island and the surrounding area and understand why this magical place still exists.

Photo by: Clifford Bourke
Photo by: Clifford Bourke