In 1979 UNESCO declared Lake Fertő a biosphere reserve due to its unique natural qualities, including the facts that it is a natural body of water with European and international significance and that it is the continent's largest saltwater lake, the westernmost representative of the lakes of the Eurasian steppes. Taking all this into consideration, in 2001 the World Heritage Committee inscribed Lake Fertő/Neusiedlersee, along with the settlements encircling it, onto the World Heritage List as a cultural landscape. This was done on the basis of a joint proposal from Hungary and Austria, which showed exemplary cooperation and was based on common principles. It is undeniable that the area around the lake has been the meeting place of different cultures for 8,000 years, during which time the evolutional symbiosis of human activity and geographical environment has resulted in the development of a unique cultural region. In addition to the area's natural assets, it is worth noting its vernacular architecture and the many important 18th and 19th century palaces, which are significant cultural sights. Three quarters of the lake lies in Austria, but despite this, the region may be considered a natural unit that is not affected greatly by political divisions.
On the Hungarian side the world heritage proposal contains the entire area of the Fertő-Hanság National Park's Lake Fertő portion, as well as Fertőboz, Fertőrákos's historic center and stone quarry, and the Eszterházy and Széchenyi palaces and their surroundings in Fertőd and Nagycenk, respectively (the buffer zone contains the following settlements: Balf, Nagycenk, Hidegség, Fertőhomok, Hegykő, Fertőszéplak, Sarród and Fertőújlak). In the Austrian portion, the area of aquatic habitats in the Neusiedlersee Seewinkel National Park and the listed historic district of Rust free town's downtown were proposed.
The Lake Fertő/Neusiedlersee area also presents us with an unmatched diversity of geological and geomorphological attractions. Within this relatively small area, extraordinarily diverse flora and fauna exist due to the fact that the borders of several climatic zones divide the region into different sections: continental lowland steppe lake, sub-Mediterranean hills and sub-alpine mountains, valuable alkaline deserts, and high mountains are also found.
In addition to the climactic conditions, the high salinity of the ground and water contributes to the biological diversity of the 20,000 year-old Lake Fertő/Neusiedlersee region and its surroundings. Saltwater habitats may be found near the sea throughout Europe, but continental bodies of saltwater only occur in the eastern portion of Europe and the Carpathian Basin. The lake is very shallow; the water depth continually changes, but on average it does not even reach a meter in depth, and the deepest parts do not exceed 180 cm. Therefore the fluctuation in the water level is enormous, and in the past the lake has even dried up entirely for periods (most recently between 1865 and 1871). Further features of the Fertő region are the large areas thickly covered with reeds, about 80 salt marshes, as well as vineyards on the hillsides, since the area has been characterized by viniculture for a long time.
Archeological excavations have been able to trace the area's history back to the sixth millennium b.c.e.; settlement remains and extensive permanent villages of peoples from the early Neolithic era have come to light. Later inhabitants of the region were the Celts, and then the Romans. In 1900, the remains of a spa dating to the time of Marcus Aurelius and a spring used by the Romans were discovered in the southern area of Lake Fertő, and in Fertőrákos ruins of two Roman villas have been excavated.
A network of towns and villages took shape during the course of the Middle Ages, including for example, the settlements of Rust, Purpach, Mörbisch am See and Breitenbrunn on the Austrian side and Fertőrákos, Balf, Hidegség, Fertőboz and Hegykő on the Hungarian side. The myths, legends and stories still live to this day in the imagination of the locals about the impressive natural diversity of the landscape, enriching the area's cultural heritage.
Even today the 18th century's architectural heritage dominates the main streets of towns surrounding the lake. It was at this time that the Eszterházy palace in Fertőd and the Széchenyi palace in Nagycenk were constructed, both of which have special value within this cultural region.
The current form of the Lake Fertő/Neusiedlersee region is therefore the result of a continuous and dynamic process of development clearly exemplifying how varied human cultures have been able to form their habitat in symbiosis with this extraordinary and diverse natural environment. In addition to natural and geographic factors, this landscape is a product of land use, animal husbandry and viniculture.