I might not be particularly religious, but if there is one thing I love to visit when landing in a new destination, it’s a cathedral. And honestly, European countries give good church. Whether it’s domed, turreted, with tower or just all the way gothic, I’ve been in some simply beautiful cathedrals in Europe and fallen in love each time.
When preparing to write this post, I actually had 22 cathedrals on my list, but I managed (with difficulty) to narrow it down to my top 10. It’s no surprise that Italy features heavily as they really do religious buildings with aplomb but you might even come across a few surprises. In no particular order, here are my top ten cathedrals in Europe.
1. Notre-Dame de Paris
Widely considered to be one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, and one of the largest and most famous church buildings in the world, if you like churches and gothic architecture you’ll probably like this. It’s beautiful both inside and out, but I’d advise visiting early if you want to avoid all the crowds.
It has an interesting history too (particularly with regards to the French Revolution and the Pope’s visit during the Napoleon years, and a walking tour will give you some interesting insight). We didn’t climb the tower, but you can climb the 422 steps for a great view of Paris if you feel fit enough!
2. Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula, Brussels
If you think this looks familiar, you’d be kinda right. The gothic architecture is similar to many other churches and cathedrals in Europe, and I think it looks a bit like St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague (see below). Except the reason why this building is so beautiful (IMHO) is the beautiful pale coloured stone. It really talk my breath away as we walked up the hill to reach it.
The cathedral can be traced back to the 10th century, but it actually only became a cathedral in the 1900s. It’s name comes from the original chapel that was built there (St Michael) and the fact that St Gudula’s remains were transferred there.Whether it's domed or just gothic, there are some beautiful cathedrals in Europe you should visit.Click To Tweet
3. Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence
One of the most iconic buildings in Florence (and I would argue in all of Italy too) is Florence’s Duomo and associated buildings (the Bell Tower and Baptistry). Located right in the heart of the city, the Duomo almost sneaks up on you from in between narrow streets – as you turn a corner, the beauty is revealed, bit by bit.
It’s a huge white gothic structure, with a beautiful renaissance dome and it took two whole centuries to be completed. Looking at the wonderful intricacy of the building its not hard to see why. The exterior is covered in a decorative mix of pink, white and green marble (I’d never seen anything like it).
There are long lines to visit the Duomo as it is free, but get there early or late in the day to enjoy a shorter queue. The mosaic floor is a must-see!
4. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Probably the most famous landmark not just in Barcelona, but in all of Catalonia. In fact, alongside the Notre-Dame de Paris, I’d say it is probably the most famed cathedral in the world and not just because it still isn’t finished yet! Designed by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, he took over the work in 1883 and worked on it until his death in 1926. He is buried in the chapel of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the crypt of the Sagrada Familia, and is a true hero in the eyes of the Catalan people.
This year has seen the 135th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of the temple, and currently 70% of the Basilica is finished. In fact, there is a timeline to finish by 2026 but its true that there has been a long standing joke about it ever actually being completed. This would be on the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí’s death.
Despite its unfinished nature, the Sagrada Familia is one of the most impressive and truly awe-inspiring buildings you’ll ever lay eyes on. With its gothic / art-nouveau style and Gaudí’s typical flourishes, it’s an absolutely huge building which is just as impressive inside as it is out. You can of course just spend time circling the outside (and I suggest you do – there is a great park opposite its front facade from which to admire the whole building), but you’d miss out on the incredible moment you walk inside and look up to the impossibly high vaulted ceilings.
5. Cattedrale Metropolitana Primaziale di Santa Maria Assunta, Pisa
Unlike many of the cathedrals in my top ten, Pisa’s Duomo is a perfect example of romanesque architecture. Located in the Square of Miracles, you’d be crazy if you only visited the Leaning Tower in the area, and missed out on this gorgeous building. In fact, it’s the only building in the square that is free to enter, so there are no excuses.
As a top tip, it’s worth paying for entry to the Baptistery, climbing the winding stairs and taking a peak out of the window for an unrivalled view of one of Italy’s most spectacular cathedrals (as above). It might not be as decorated as the Duomo in Florence, but the shaping and decoration means it more than holds its own.
6. Berliner Dom, Berlin
There is a whole section of Berlin, near Alexanderplatz called Museum Island, which is exactly what sounds like. An island full of Berlin’s main museums. We didn’t stop inside any of them, but it’s worth a visit even if you are not planning any museum trips this time as the architecture of the museums is absolutely beautiful.
You’ll also find Berliner Dom here, a wonderfully gothic cathedral which is insanely beautiful both day and night (especially by day). You can visit inside for free but it is quite possible to sit and stare at this building from the outside for quite some time and not get bored. The best feature is its beautiful turquoise domes.
7. Salisbury Cathedral, UK
I’ve had a thing for wonderful English gothic cathedrals ever since I studied in a traditional cathedral city for University (Canterbury), and Salisbury has long been on my list to see because of its own unique history of being a cathedral that was moved (from Old Sarum). It’s a beautiful, huge, imposing building set in a gorgeous green space with its spire climbing right into the clouds.
It’s just as impressive inside too, and it was easy to lose perspective when walking around. There is so much to see too – both the cathedral itself as well as it’s cloisters and the Chapter House which displays one of only four copies of the Magna Carta (it’s the best preserved too). You can also go inside for a service, and listening to the choir in that huge building was honestly one of the most moving things I’ve ever heard.
The best thing about visiting Salisbury Cathedral though is its Tower Tour – an opportunity to climb 332 steps to get a real look inside how they built it’s iconic spire. Not only are you treated to an amazing view of Salisbury at the top of your climb, you also have the opportunity to hear the famous bells inside the tower – a loud, but thrilling experience!
8. St Vitus Cathedral, Prague
St Vitus Cathedral is actually located within the castle complex in Prague, and you can see it standing tall from many places in the city (including Petrin Observation Tower). It’s a masterpiece of the gothic era, with an intricate facade and towers that climb impossibly high.
The true beauty however lies within, and the wonderful stained glass reflects the light perfectly against the floors and the high roof. The cathedral may have taken almost six centuries to complete but I would say it was worth the wait. As a place of worship, coronation and a royal resting place, there is no more important church in Prague. And it shows.
9. Cattedrale di San Gennaro, Naples
It’s not an Italian city break without a Cathedral, so as soon as we arrived we set off to have a look. It’s widely known as the Cattedrale di San Gennaro, in honour of Saint Januarius, the city’s patron saint, and it’s a good example of gothic architecture.
Like all Italian Cathedrals, it is heavily gilded inside with some insane artwork, making it more of a gallery than a church to me. Alongside the Cathedral is the Baptistery which is also worth exploring, and if you time it right you could also explore the archeological zone too.
10. Basilica of Notre Dame de la Treille, Lille
Lille Cathedral not only is a very interesting building, but also gives an insight into its construction (and reconstruction woes). On our walking tour we heard very many stories of things burning down and having to be rebuilt several times, and also of construction taking far longer than anticipated. Lille Cathedral is an example of the latter.
Its foundations were laid all the way back in 1854 as a 13th century gothic style building (and its name comes from a 12th century statue of the Virgin Mary), but in 1947 work stopped for good due to a lack of funds.The front of the building was bricked up for almost 50 years, until in 1999 work was completed and the cathedral is now an interesting mix of gothic architecture and contemporary art. In fact, its like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and as you can tell I’ve seen a lot of gothic cathedrals in Europe.
The front of the cathedral is made with marble slabs that takes the colour of the sun streaming through, and it was designed by the same person who designed the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Inside, the cathedral is very similar to that of many other gothic churches, with the added focal point of the sun reflecting on the front wall of the church.
I’d love to know your favourite – and make sure you add some of these cathedrals in Europe to your itinerary this year.
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