Ten Iconic Sites to See on a Europe Vacation

Landmarks & Icons

Old street in Montmartre quarter in Paris, France

The most outstanding sites on a Europe vacation are numerous and should not be missed. What’s on your bucket list?

My intention here is to highlight the top 10 iconic sites in Europe, natural or otherwise, that are my favourites that I have personally experienced on European tours and have what I call the “Wow Factor.” Over time, I have visited over 80 countries in the world and, by the way, there are officially 195 altogether. I am sure you will agree that to whittle down the choice to 10 sites is bordering on the insane. However, after giving this some thought, I have only selected those (in no particular preferential order) that are generally known and cherished… let’s see if they coincide with yours.

1. The Tower of London – London, England

If you only pick one place to visit in London on a trip to England – and it is the Tower of London – once visited, you will have had an experience that will have taken you back through English history. It was actually built as a royal palace and a military stronghold by William the Conqueror in the 11th century and is one of the very few medieval buildings around, still intact. It has been used as an armoury, a treasury, home to the Royal Mint, a public records office, and home of the Crown Jewels of England. It was used as a prison at various times between 1100 and 1952 AD and famous inmates have included Queen Elizabeth l (before being crowned queen), James l of Scotland, Henry Vlll’s wives, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, Sir Walter Raleigh, Guy Fawkes, and Samuel Pepys. The tower is, and has been for centuries, “policed” by, to use their nickname, Beefeaters who are otherwise known as Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace. They have performed a ceremony almost every night since the 14th century where the Chief Yeoman Warder and night watchman ritually lock up the gates of the tower. In conclusion, two things to know are that you need plenty of time on London vacations to do justice to the Tower of London, and to beware of the ghost of Anne Boleyn who haunts the Bloody Tower.

Tower of London in London, England, UK (United Kingdom)
Tower of London

2. The Vatican – Rome, Italy

Apart from being the home of the current pope, the Vatican in Rome is also the smallest country in the world with its own post office and stamps and a radio station broadcasting in 20 different languages. My research tells me that the population is around 1000. When you first set eyes on the Vatican on a trip to Italy, it will probably be on the magnificent St. Peter’s Square, the largest square in Rome with its statues of 140 saints. St. Peter’s Basilica is the world’s largest church and awe-inspiring both inside and out. The Vatican museums are so extensive that you can walk through 14.5 kilometres/9 miles of corridors and rooms viewing the many treasures here. The Sistine Chapel is a large and renowned chapel in the Vatican. Today it is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new pope is selected. The fame of the Sistine Chapel lies mainly in the frescos that decorate the interior, and most particularly the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment mural by Michelangelo.

Aerial view over St Peter's Square (Piazza San Pietro) in Vatican City, Italy
Aerial view over St Peter’s Square, Vatican City

3. The Colosseum – Rome, Italy

The Colosseum is a Rome landmark that cannot be missed on a Europe vacation to Italy, as it is so striking. It is still very impressive even though a part of it has either collapsed or been taken away. You can easily imagine the days of the Gladiators as they fought the lions in the spectacles from the Roman era. To quote, “Completed in 70 AD, Rome’s circus maximus embodies the power, wealth, and brutality of the ancient empire.” Originally an arena for gladiators and other blood-sport athletes, the only competition at the Colosseum today is arriving at the right time to avoid a lineup. Booking an organized tour or buying a pass such as the Vatican and Rome Card, or a combination ticket for the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Roman Forum can save you a lot of time in high season. Oh, and by the way, you can’t miss the inhabitants of the Colosseum – lots of stray cats that have made it their home.

Colosseum in Rome, Italy
Colosseum in Rome

4. The Acropolis – Athens, Greece

The Acropolis is the most important ancient site in Athens and is visible from almost anywhere in the city to admire on a Greece vacation. The hill is crowned by the Parthenon located on its summit. This is an ancient temple dedicated to the goddess, Athena Parthenos. Actually, the word Parthenon translates as the “House of the Virgin.” Built entirely of marble, it gleams in the sunshine. It is the largest Doric temple in Greece and 22,000 tons of marble was used to make it. Many of the artefacts which existed in the temple have been removed to the Acropolis Museum which is situated at the bottom of the hill. It is here that, in this excellent museum, you can learn about the history of both the Acropolis and the Parthenon plus, of course, many other aspects about ancient Greek civilization. You will have heard of the Elgin Marbles, which were also known as the Parthenon Marbles – a collection of ancient Greek sculptures originally part of the Parthenon Temple. In the early part of the 1800s, they were taken or perhaps I should say, “stolen” by a certain Lord Elgin and shipped to England. They now reside controversially in the British Museum in London.

Acropolis of Athens, Greece
The Acropolis in Athens

5. The Kremlin – Moscow, Russia

If going on a Europe vacation to Russia, the very first place to head for in Moscow is the Kremlin. It is simply unique. In essence, it is a complex which houses many attractions. Actually, the name “Kremlin” means “fortress inside a city.” The buildings surrounding the square are all significant. It is closed to traffic and is the venue for many massed parades such as the one on May Day. The Kremlin’s towers and St. Basil’s Cathedral are attractively illuminated at night. The fairy-tale multi-coloured onion-domed St. Basil’s Cathedral was first erected in 1560 and probably stands out more than any other building. The Cathedral is now a museum. Lenin’s Tomb is where Lenin, one of the founders of the communist doctrine, lies in state. The Mausoleum can be visited for a short period of time if you want to line up. Red Square is in a sense a cemetery. More than 100 people are interred here including Stalin, Gorky, an author, and astronaut Gagarin. The Kremlin houses 4 churches and the Armoury. The Armoury was originally a storehouse for weaponry but now contains all kinds of treasures including the famed Faberge eggs and the 190-carat Orlov Diamond. Opposite the mausoleum is the GUM Store which is Moscow’s major consumer store. Although it has been modified in recent times, the traditional building itself is exceptional. Before the 1917 Revolution, it contained 1,200 stores.

Kremlin and Cathedral of St. Basil at the Red Square in Moscow, Russia
Kremlin and Cathedral of St. Basil at Red Square, Moscow

6. Montmartre – Paris, France

I could write a book about Montmartre. Any time I find myself in Paris, I love to immerse myself in this neighbourhood situated on top of a large hill. Just to simply stand in front of the Sacre Coeur Basilica, with its spectacular circular dome, and look at the best view of the city spread out below is reason enough to head here on a trip to France while on a Europe vacation. Once you wander among the narrow cobblestone streets behind the Sacre Coeur, you will find yourself retracing history. The heart of Montmartre is the Place du Tertre, where street artists are ready at all times to sketch your portrait for a small fee. The square is lined with 18th Century buildings which house many restaurants and cafes. An important museum in Montmartre is the Musee de Montmartre that was once a meeting place for artists and writers. This delightful museum housed in a 17th Century manor where several renowned painters such as Renoir had their studios, showcases paintings, lithographs, and documents which illustrate Montmartre’s bohemian and artistic past. Another fascinating museum is the Espace Dalí, a permanent exhibition devoted to Salvador Dalí and his paintings, sculptures and engravings. It contains over 300 exhibits of this surrealist and whimsical painter and sculptor. Just at the bottom of the hill are two other outstanding venues. One is the Moulin Rouge with its cabaret featuring the can-can. It still has performances and has retained its old atmosphere. The other is the Montmartre Cemetery, which is the third largest cemetery in the city and contains the tombs of Emile Zola, Nijinsky, Degas, Berlioz, Offenbach, Francois Truffaut, Alexander Dumas, and Adolphe Sax (inventor of the saxophone).

Aerial view of Sacre Coeur Basilica in Montmartre and Saint Trinity Church, Paris, France
Aerial view of Sacre Coeur Basilica in Montmartre

7. Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia – Istanbul, Turkey

Standing side by side, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul are both important edifices and extraordinary sites to discover on Turkey vacations. The Blue Mosque is enormous and was built in the early 1600s, designed to be one of the largest anywhere, with its 5 domes and 6 minarets. Majestic and splendid are two descriptive words that come to mind to describe it. It is called the Blue Mosque because the upper part of the interior has 20,000 blue tiles adorning the ceiling. Like all mosques, the centre is empty of adornment but the walls and ceiling are where the attractions lie.

Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) with Bosphorus Sea and Asian side skyline, Istanbul, Turkey
Blue Mosque with the Bosphorus Sea and Asian side skyline, Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia’s claim to fame is that it has been a church, then a mosque, and is now a museum. It was built as a Greek Orthodox church in the 6th century AD and used to contain many treasures such as mosaics and frescoes on its walls. Then in the 15th century, the Ottomans converted it into a mosque and the walls of the church were plastered over, hiding the artwork. Today, work to remove all the plaster and restore the mosaics and frescoes is progressing slowly. Take a look at the impressive dome on top of the Hagia Sophia. It was so heavy when built that it collapsed several times and had to be propped up.

Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul

8. Sagrada Familia – Barcelona, Spain

No one can visit Barcelona on a trip to Spain and not be aware of the renowned architect, Antoni Gaudi (1852-1926). His exceptional architectural style is to be seen all over the city. It is impossible to avoid Gaudi-designed buildings, parks, and cathedrals in Barcelona, as they are spread out over the entire centre of the city and should not be missed. You can describe his style as whimsical, maybe eccentric. His tour de force is the Sagrada Familia, one of the most famous and breathtaking locations to visit on your Europe vacation to Spain. Although incomplete, the church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Unbelievably, the project started nearly a century ago. The height of the church will be, once it is finished, exactly equal to the height of the largest mountain in the nearby hills. The church is overwhelming when standing at its base, and the inside is even more impressive. It is truly a masterpiece.

Related Article:
Journey Through Gaudi’s Barcelona in Spain

Barcelona at Night with Sagrada Familia, Spain
Barcelona at night with a view of Sagrada Familia

9. Peterhof (also known as Petrodvorets) – St. Petersburg, Russia

Peterhof is a palace and gardens just outside of St. Petersburg which are the Russian equivalent of Versailles in Paris, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The palace estate was commissioned by Peter the Great to be more impressive than all other European palaces, and was completed in 1721. More than 20 museums exist in the complex. The Grand Palace and other palaces within the estate are lavishly decorated with priceless works of art and exquisite craftsmanship including antique authentic period furniture. The museums include the Special Treasury, Monplaisir Palace, the Marly Palace, the Imperial Yacht Museum, the Church Building Museum, and the Museum of Playing Cards. The beautiful gardens are dominated by huge and intricate fountains. The Lower Garden fountains are particularly spectacular. The Upper Garden also has many fountains including the Grand Cascade with 64 fountains.

Grand Palace and cascade in Peterhof, St Petersburg, Russia
Grand Peterhof Palace and Grand Cascade, St Petersburg

10. The Norwegian Fjords – Norway

On a Norway vacation, there are more than one thousand fjords to visit along the Norwegian coastline. A fjord is a long, deep, narrow body of water that heads from the sea, inland, usually with very steep towering walls of rock on both sides. The Norwegian fjords are nothing less than spectacular. Some of the major fjords include the following. The Sognefjord is Norway’s longest and deepest fjord extending just north of Bergen to the Jotunheimen National Park. Its depth reaches 1300 metres/4225 feet and the highest point is 1700 metres/5440 feet. It has an arm called the Naeroyfjord, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, and where you will find the highest mountains on a Europe vacation in Norway. The Hardangerfjord is just south of Bergen, and is the world’s 4th largest fjord and the second longest in Norway, stretching 179 kilometres/111 miles. Norway’s 3rd largest glacier is located here. The Geirangerfjord is surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks and lush, green vegetation. Stretching for 15 kilometres/9.3 miles, it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is surrounded by some of the steepest mountains on the west coast of Norway. The sides rise practically vertically out of the fjord. Dramatically beautiful waterfalls plunge down into the fjord.

Cruiseship sailing along Geiranger Fjord, Norway
Cruiseship sailing along Geiranger Fjord, Norway

So there you have it. Not an easy task to select a mere 10 iconic sites to see on a Europe vacation, as it could have easily, space allowing, turned into 100!