One thing that defines Europe is the picturesque stone architecture, in the midst of greenery and clean air, and in most cases, these buildings are either palaces or churches. When the Church was in its heights, several gigantic and ambitious cathedrals were built in the pace of older smaller churches established many centuries ago.
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Famous Churches in Europe
These churches still stand, renovated and reconstructed, and attract a strong tourist crowd of both travelers and pilgrims.
1. Notre Dame, Paris
Located along the Seine River, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris attracts more visitors than the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Constructed over a period of more than 100 years in the medieval period; between 1163 and 1345 AD, it is one of the oldest cathedrals in Europe. With the iconic (destroyed in April 2019 in a fire) spire, two symmetrical towers and the carved main façade, it is designed in gorgeous Gothic fashion, which is still admired by many; also including the numerous ancient statues, world’s largest church organ, and a 13-ton bell. The church has been a witness to historic events such as Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France and the beatification of Joan of Arc in addition to funerals for several Presidents of the Republic. A huge part of French history, literature, culture and emotion, the cathedral is vital to the French people in terms of history and religion alike.
2. ST. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Going down in history as the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture, and housing equally important art, this Roman Catholic Church is the seat of Papal power and the holiest Catholic church. It is located in Vatican City, the smallest country in the world, within Italy and is believed to be the site of St. Peter’s tomb, making it a pilgrimage spot for many devotees. Many artists and sculptors such as Michelangelo and Bernini designed the church, including the famed Sistine Chapel, and the basilica in the heights of the Renaissance. Old St. Peter’s Basilica stood at the site originally from the 4th to 16th century AD, before the current one was constructed from 1506 to 1626. The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica is the tallest dome in the world at 136 meters and the cathedral can house 60,000 people. Access to Vatican City is the easiest from Rome since the enclave resides within the city.
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3. II Duomo, Florence, Italy
The Florence Cathedral is one of the largest in Italy, with its iconic orange dome being the largest brick dome in the world. The Duomo consists of a basilica with a 280 feet tall dome, visible from afar, and the Baptistery of Saint John with spectacular Gothic architecture. The 140-year long construction started in 1296 and in fact, the cathedral entrance was the originally planned place for Michelangelo’s statue of David. Entrance to the cathedral, Il Duomo, is free but an €18 ticket can get you to the dome, the crypt, the baptistery, and the campanile – it is available online.
4. Saint Basil’s Church, Moscow, Russia
One of the most recognizable structures in Russia, this church is located in the Red Square of the capital, Moscow, at the center of the city. Due to its proximity to the Kremlin in the Red Square itself, the church is often mistaken for the Kremlin itself. The bulb-shaped domes, meant to make it look like the flame of a bonfire rising in the air, and the unusually colorful architecture has made it the symbol of Moscow. It was completed in 1561 under the orders of Ivan the Terrible and was the tallest building in the city at that time. The cathedral is affiliated with the State Historical Museum of Moscow since 1928 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1990.
5. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
Sagrada Familia was initially funded just through private sources when its construction started in 1882. But this Roman Catholic Church was never finished, due to its sheer size and complexity of the original plan, until June 2019 when it finally received permission to resume work. Located in Barcelona, Spain, the Sagrada Familia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is widely celebrated because of its architecture that was inspired by the nature that surrounds the church; the columns in shape of twisted trunks and branches and details in the interior of the church that invoke similar naturalistic art. After the newly received permission, the church will finish its long due construction in 2026, just in time for the death centenary of the original architect Antoni Gaudí.
6. Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany
The Cologne Cathedral is a Catholic church in Germany and the most visited landmark in the country with 20,000 people visiting each day. It’s twin spires and Gothic architecture are recognized worldwide, earning it the title of a World Heritage Site in 1996. The largest Gothic church in Europe, the construction for the church aka the Kolner Dom cathedral started in 1248 but took 632 years to complete. The exceptional artistic value of this church, both inside and outside of the building, is unparallel compared to any such church in the continent. Overlooking the Rhine River, this cathedral survived two World Wars and holds priceless treasures such as the ornamented tombs of the Three Kings, the 700 years old High Altar made of black and white marble, and an oak crucifix believed to be carved in 960 A.D.
7. Saint Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy
The gorgeous cathedral of Saint Mark’s Basilica was first established in 832 A.D., and the present basilica was completed in 1071 with several reconstructions over the centuries. It is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice in northern Italy and holds cultural importance too in the city. Upon entering, tourists are greeted with golden mosaic overheads, stunning statues and impressive architecture of the dome which adds to the beauty of this cathedral. The church and St. Mark’s Square attract a lot of tourists with the pristine Byzantine architecture, and it is the most famous site in Venice.
8. Westminster Abbey, London, UK
Westminster Abbey is a famous Gothic church in the City of Westminster in London and has been a part of the British culture for many centuries, including in art, stories, songs, and poems. A church was originally found at the spot in the 10th century and since 1066 it has been the site for coronation of English monarchs, for 16 royal weddings and 3300 burials of prominent people of British history. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Thames River and Westminster Palace are both located near this church and the Gothic architecture itself attracts many tourists and enthusiasts every year.
9. HallgrÍmskirkja, ReykjavÍk, Iceland
With a peak at a height of 74.5 meters, Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland and is relatively younger compared to other ancient churches in this list. It is expressionist architecture resembles the landscapes and valleys of Iceland and it was finally completed in 1986 after 40 years of disputed construction. It is uniquely built such that it is visible from everywhere in the city of Reykjavík. There’s a modest (roughly $10) entry fee for tourists to enter the cathedral (available on the spot), with recent elevator service to reach the top and the entry is open almost throughout the year.
10. Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, Lyon, France
Adorned with magnificent mosaics and gold ornaments, the Notre-Dame de Fourvière is situated on top of a steep hill just outside the city of Lyon. The church was originally built with private funds from 1872-1884 and later gained a status of a minor basilica. Dedicated to Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, the church boasts a Romanesque and Byzantine architecture, and a swarm of pilgrims throughout the year. It’s also a beautiful spot to visit just for nature and views overlooking the city of Lyon and surrounding greenery.
Other popular cathedrals and churches include St. Paul’s in London and the Duomo of Milan, Italy. France and Italy are full of ancient churches with architecture from different eras, but the smaller countries like Iceland and others also have churches that vary widely in terms of built an era. Because of a deeply religious population, these churches still remain active in most parts.