When I was travelling through Eastern Europe with my wife (then girlfriend), we’d comment on how our trip could be mistaken for a pilgrimage due to all the churches we were visiting. Every day brought with it some new medieval cathedral to explore or some treasure of the Renaissance that took decades to build. Even though we weren’t actually on a pilgrimage, exploring magnificent churches remained an essential part of our European vacation.
In many ways, it has nothing to do with your interest in religion. Whether you hold a church as sacred or not, there’s no denying the beauty and cultural importance of Europe’s greatest churches. Furthermore, if you love architecture, culture, and being in a quiet building full of beautiful art, you need to check out these churches on a European vacation. We’ve chosen to highlight 10 of the most magnificent churches across the continent. Some are world famous while others fly under the radar. They’re all breathtaking sites to behold, and essential landmarks to see when exploring Europe’s wonders.
St. Paul’s Cathedral
As one of the most significant churches in the Church of England, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London has been an essential part of the city skyline since it was built in the late 17th century. It’s the seat of the Bishop of London and the highest point in the city, situated on top of Ludgate Hill. As such, it’s hard to miss when you’re exploring London on your trip to England. Its massive dome is one of the tallest church domes in the world, while the interior is as opulent as Anglican churches get. There’s a tourist fee to visit the inside (unless you’re attending a worship service, in which case it’s free), but it is well worth the fee to visit the sanctuary and even climb the dome to enjoy breathtaking views of London.
The Sagrada Familia in Spain is the only unfinished church on this list, but that doesn’t make it any less magnificent. Designed by Antoni Gaudi, this eccentric church blends Gothic, Art Nouveau, and Modernist architectural trends into a wholly-unique monument in downtown Barcelona. Construction began in 1882 and is estimated to continue at least until the 2030s, but even in the midst of construction, the skeletal appearance and bright decorations of the church remain breathtaking. There is likely no greater landmark in Barcelona and no more fascinating church in Western Europe.
Notre Dame Cathedral
Is there a more famous church anywhere else in the world? Likely not. Home to Quasimodo and one of the defining buildings of Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral has long attracted tourists on trips to France to its magnificent Gothic towers and served as a refuge for locals. It’s located on the Ile de la Cite, between the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank and Marais on the Right Bank, so it’s right in the heart of the city. The church was completed in the 13th century and stands as the greatest example of French Gothic architecture. It’s free to visit the sanctuary and quietly admire the famous rose windows, but it’ll cost you a few Euro to climb the bell towers and see the gargoyles up close. Even if you don’t climb the towers to enjoy the view of the city from the island, head around back and stroll the garden while admiring the incredible flying buttresses that made the church’s high walls and roofs possible during the Middle Ages.
Cologne Cathedral is the most popular church in Germany and the crowning achievement of Gothic architecture in the country. In fact, it’s the most visited landmark in all of Germany, averaging around 20,000 visitors a day. Although construction began in the mid-13th century, the church was never completed until 1880. Today, it’s considered one of the great churches of Northern Europe and an unmissable highlight during a trip to Cologne. Its many spires are among the tallest in the world and the sheer scale of the church overwhelms everything that surrounds it. The church itself also contains the Shrine of the Three Kings, a golden reliquary that is thought to contain the bones of the Three Wise Men, who visited Jesus after his birth. If you’re ever in Cologne on your European vacation, it’s essential you take the time to visit it.
Borgund Stave Church
This remarkable wooden church is off the beaten path of most European vacations, but that doesn’t make it any less essential to visit. Located along the Norwegian fjords, northeast of Bergen (and close to the town of Borgund), the Borgund Stave Church is a stunning work from the 12th century. Affiliated with the Church of Norway (which belongs in the larger Lutheran denomination), the Stave Church is markedly less opulent than most of the other churches on this list—you won’t find golden chests or marble altars within its sanctuary. But it is undeniably striking and unlike what most people imagine when they think of churches.
St. Peter’s Basilica
Apparently we spoke too soon when we called Notre Dame Cathedral the most famous church in the world. If there’s any other church that gives it a run for its money, it is St. Peter’s Basilica, the world’s largest Catholic Church and the centrepiece of the Holy See. Situated on St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City in Italy, the church was built during the Renaissance and designed by the likes of Bramante, Michelangelo, and Bernini, the last of which is responsible for its final designs as well as the square outside. St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the greatest achievements of the Italian Renaissance and undeniably one of the most gorgeous buildings you can visit anywhere on the planet. Its massive dome towers above the city of Rome, while the sheer scale of the sanctuary is overwhelming. It is home to artistic masterworks like Michelangelo’s Pieta and is situated overtop the burial site of St. Peter, one of the 12 Apostles and the first Bishop of Rome. It’s hard to overstate the grandeur of this building. Go see it for yourself and be amazed at its treasures.
St. Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark’s Basilica is one of the most famous sites in Venice. It’s situated in the city’s unofficial centre, St. Mark’s Square, but it likely doesn’t attract as many visitors on a European vacation as some of the other churches on this list. This is probably because its facade is so magnificent that it overshadows the beauty you’ll find indoors. The church has a flat, horizontal design that sacrifices height for width. This allows it to have five arched doorways along its façade, with five decorated arches and six steeples along the roof. This design makes it one of the most celebrated works of Italian-Byzantine architecture in the world. However, don’t make the same mistake I made on my first visit to Venice and ignore the sanctuary in favour of staying in St. Mark’s Square. If you head inside, you’ll see a gorgeous, golden sanctuary with elaborate Byzantine mosaics decorating the walls and ceiling. The church offers a marked contrast to the design of other Italian churches like St. Peter’s Basilica and another example of the heights of the Italian Renaissance.
St. Vitus Cathedral
Located on Castle Hill within the walls of Prague Castle, St. Vitus Cathedral is another stunning example of Gothic architecture in Europe. It’s also one of the most significant monuments in all of the Czech Republic. It houses tombs and relics of past Bohemian saints and Holy Roman Emperors, including St. Wenceslaus, King Charles IV, and the eponymous St. Vitus. It’s also a gorgeous building. On one side of the exterior you can admire the flying buttresses that support its high ceilings. On the south side, you can spot the Great South Tower or Clock Tower, which has a golden clock and Eastern Europe’s largest church bell. You can even climb the tower to enjoy views over Prague.
St. Stephen’s Basilica
St. Stephen’s Basilica is essentially the Hungarian version of St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. Located in Budapest, it’s the most significant church in Hungary and home to a series of relics and tombs of Hungarian kings and saints. The most significant of these relics if the right hand of St. Stephen, the first king of Hungary and one of the nation’s most popular saints. The building itself is one of the tallest in Budapest and is known for its twin bell towers that stand on either side of its central dome. If you head inside the sanctuary, on your European vacation, you’ll admire the frescoes that adorn the ceiling and have a chance to climb to the top of the cupola to look out over Budapest.
St. Basil’s Cathedral
St. Basil’s Cathedral is an icon of the Kremlin and the Russian administration within the western imagination. In fact, this remarkable Russian Orthodox Cathedral located in Red Square in Moscow is not a part of the Kremlin, although it does lie next door to the headquarters of the Russian government. It was built during the time of Ivan the Terrible, in the 16th century, and secularized in 1928 when the Soviet Union seized it under state atheism. Today, the church remains the property of the Russian Federation and serves as a museum for visitors to Russia. The most stunning part of the church is its red exterior and colourful bulbs, which are especially remarkable when lit up at nighttime. However, the inside of the church is also worth visiting. It’s narrow and has a maze-like structure, but also boasts intricate paintings and Russian designs across every surface. Every square inch is a work of art.
These basilicas and cathedrals are only a few of the incredible churches you’ll come across exploring Europe’s greatest cities, but they do offer a taste of the cultural and religious heights of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Even if you’ve never stepped foot in a church before, be sure to visit a few during your time in Europe. They’re some of the most gorgeous and significant buildings you’ll come across on your European vacation.