The following is a list of some of Europe’s and the planets’s greatest religious treasures which Lee and I have visited.
1. St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
St Peter’s Basilica, the central symbol of the Roman Catholic religion, is located within Vatican City, the world’s smallest state, which lies entirely within the city of Rome. The Basilica, with its impressive dome, designed by Michelangelo, is the largest church in the world, and probably also contains the most wealth.
As one enters the church, to the right is Michelangelo’s Pieta, his magnificent sculpture of Mary holding her dead son, Jesus. It is now behind bulletproof glass because of a previous attempt to vandalize it. The church can hold 95,000 worshipers. The main altar sits directly over St Peter’s tomb and has a canopy designed by Bernini. The dome is also the largest in the world.
Outside the church, the Piazza San Pietro is a huge area, enclosed by two semi-circles of colonnades topped with sculptures.
2. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Hagia (or Aya) Sophia, is located west of the Bosporus, the strait which divides Asia from Europe. Constructed in 537 AD, it began as a church, became a mosque after the fall of the Roman Empire, and is now a museum. It was one of the most important and largest churches in the world. It sported the largest dome in the world until St Peter’s Basilica in Rome was completed. The inside is positively huge, covering an area of about 4 acres, and contains fabulous mosaics, dating from the 10th century. The current building dates from the time of Justinian and was completed in 537 AD. The minarets were much more recent additions, recalling the Turkish conquest of what was then Constantinople. There is still debate today about whether the Aya Sophia is a church or a mosque.
3. Mont-St-Michel Abbey, France
Mont St-Michel rises dramatically from the sea as one approaches from the mainland. It is truly an awe-inspiring sight and positively unique in the world — an offshore rocky mountain transformed into a place of worship with a village fortress around it. It is difficult to imagine how someone conceived the idea to build such a structure and the engineering involved in its construction makes one marvel at the ability of Medieval stone masons and architects.
The island is approachable today by a causeway which links it to the mainland and which offers a parking area for vehicles (no cars are allowed inside the walled city). Visitors must walk along the causeway to enter through the Bavole Gate, which leads to the main street, the “cour de l’Avancee”, which then winds upward to the Abbey. The street is crammed with shops and restaurants.
But the Abbey is the purpose for visiting. It is precariously perched on top of the rocky island and has had an interesting, sometimes surprising, history since construction first began in 708 AD. The church and associated buildings (the Marvel) were built in several architectural styles, including Gothic, Flamboyant Gothic, and Romanesque. Somehow, it all blends together.
Be sure to see the Abbey Church, the Cloister, the battlements, the Guest’s Room, and the Crypts (not tombs but hidden areas which support the Church and Marvel).
4. Pantheon, Rome, Italy
The Pantheon of Rome is the Eternal City’s best preserved ancient building. It dates to approximately 100 AD and is a testament to its Roman builders. Pantheon means “temple of all gods” but it became a Christian church in the 7th century. Although services still take place, it is more a tomb than a church, now. The interior is a circular hall with an incredibly high (as high as the radius of the dome, which gives it an elegant proportionality) scalloped dome with an “oculus” (circular opening) at its top that allows the only light into the building. The marble floors, vestibules and altars around the edges of the hall are harmonious and muted in color, but beautiful as well.
5. St Mark’s Cathedral, Venice, Italy
St Mark’s Basilica is a blend of Eastern and Western architecture which coincides with Venice’s role, for many years, as the connection between those two worlds. The mosaics along the main facade are spectacular. Much of the church is reminiscent of Constantinople, which is where the Four Horses above the main entrance were brought from. The “booty” from voyages far and wide adorn the church. Much of the wealth is displayed in the Treasury (separate admission). The altarpiece (Pala d’Oro), which stands behind the main altar, is made of gold and inlaid with numerous precious gems (some were stolen by Napoleon). A visit to the Galleria and Museum reveals the original bronze horses, replicas of which now grace the church’s facade.
6. Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
Notre Dame Cathedral, one the most beloved houses of worship in the world, located on the Ile de Cite (city island), in the middle of the Seine, is another of the must-see attractions of Paris. It has been immortalized in Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. Its construction began in the 12th century and is certainly an imposing, Gothic edifice, perhaps the quintessential Gothic cathedral in the world. Its facade has been much copied, while its gargoyles (strange-looking creature sculptures which adorn its exteriors) are the stuff of legend. Note the row of statues (Kings of Judah) and the statue of Mary, mother of Jesus, on the facade. Inside, don’t miss the Rose windows.
7. Blue Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
The Blue Mosque, reputed by many to be the most beautiful mosque in the world, is located next to the Hippodrome, part of the old Roman section of Istanbul. It is called the Blue Mosque because its interior is covered in blue tiles and mosaics. It is truly spectacular. The visitor must remove his/her shoes and females must cover their heads during their visit. Also, shorts are not allowed. The floors are carpeted and lights hang from the high ceilings by wires. The Mihrab, the most sacred part of the mosque, the area which points the worshipper in the direction of Mecca, is gold and intricately decorated. The interior is huge and is sometimes host to 25,000 devotees for prayer service. The Blue Mosque is one of only two mosques in the world with six minarets (the other is in Mecca).
8. Westminster Abbey, London, England
Westminster Abbey is a beautiful church in its own right. The exterior resembles the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, but, inside, it is more like a museum or a mausoleum, in that it contains the tombs of, or memorials to, most of the kings and queens of England, as well as many other notables. It is solemn inside because it is the burial place of so many, and pictures cannot be taken as a consequence. Some of the special memorials are particularly elaborate, such as the tombs of Elizabeth I and her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots. Of special note is the Poet’s Corner which has busts or plaques to England’s famous literati.
9. Duomo, Milan, Italy
The Duomo is located in a huge piazza, opposite La Scala. It is impressive because of it size, but, more importantly, for its glorious exterior decoration. It has 135 spires and numerous statues and gargoyles. The interior is equally imposing with huge supporting columns and beautiful stained glass windows.
10. Duomo, Florence, Italy
The Duomo of Florence, Santa Maria del Fiore, has one of the most beautiful and most recognized exteriors in the world. Its Brunelleschi Dome was the largest, built without scaffolding, in the world when it was completed in 1463. It has become a symbol of the city with its red roof and distinctive shape. The outside of the church itself is covered in pink, green and white Tuscan marble. Many statues adorn the facade. Unfortunately, the Piazza in front of the Duomo is crowded and narrow, preventing visitors from getting a more distant perspective. Immediately across from the Duomo entrance is the Baptistry, with its beautiful, Ghiberti bronze doors (on the North and East sides of the building). The panels depict scriptural subjects, such as, the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, etc. Inside are colorful mosaics.
11. Mezquita, Cordoba, Spain
La Mezquita, in Cordoba, Spain, began its existence as a mosque when construction began in 788 AD. The interior of the mosque is breathtaking with hundreds of red and white striped double arches. The Mihrab, the most sacred part of the mosque, has intricate geometric designs.
Later, in the life of this remarkable building (in the 16th century), after the Christians conquered the Moors, a cathedral was erected within the center of the mosque, which, except for its position, would probably be an important sight in and of itself. The Choir stalls are beautifully carved mahogany and the pulpits are also noteworthy. Now, however, it detracts somewhat from the mosque.
Outside is the Patio of the Orange Trees, a shady respite from the summer heat and the bell tower which dominates the skyline of the city.
12. Duomo, Pisa, Italy
The Leaning Tower of Pisa and its Piazza dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) is another spectacular religious sight. Three buildings, the Baptistry, the Duomo, and the Campanile (Leaning Tower) occupy a broad grassy plain. Each building would be a centerpiece in its own right, but to have them all together in one location is wonderful. Despite the commercialism across the street, this spot is awe-inspiring.
The Baptistry is best known for its pulpit and its acoustics. Check out the panels on the door of the Duomo, facing the tower, depicting the life of Christ and also its pulpit, inside. The Leaning Tower has been aslant since its construction began in 1174. Finally, engineers have halted the settling and it is once more possible to climb the tower. Reservations are essential in the high season.
13. Melk Abbey, Melk, Austria
Austria’s Melk Abbey is one of the most beautiful, Baroque buildings in the world. It sits dramatically atop the edge of a promontory over the Rhine River. The overall impression the visitor receives is one of great wealth — everything in the abbey and its church, the Stiftskirche, is gilded and incredibly ornate. The library is famous the world over for the over 80,000 volumes in its collection and its beautiful wooden decor. The church, itself, is lavish in its ornamentation, with numerous gilded statues and frescoes.
14. Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France
A popular day trip from Paris lies south in the town of Chartres to explore its famous Cathedral. It is considered a model of Gothic architecture and has been copied many times over the years. A cathedral has existed on this site since the 4th century, although today‘s gothic structure dates to the 12th century. It is an imposing sight for any visitor since it towers over the town and can be seen for miles.
15. Wieskirche, Wies, Germany
The amazing Wieskirche, a Rococo masterpiece, located just off the Romantic Road, has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its incredible splendor. With its frescoed ceilings and gilded accoutrements and lovely marble columns, it is certainly one of the most extravagant and delightful churches in the world.
16. St Francis Basilica, Assisi, Italy
The town of Assisi is charming and a joy to walk, despite the hills, but its crowning feature is the Basilica di San Francesco, one of the world’s most beautiful and important Catholic churches. It is really two churches in one, the Lower Church, built in the Romanesque style in the early 1200’s and the Gothic Upper Church. The frescoes in both are beautiful and memorable.
17. St Mary’s Church, Krakow, Poland
At one end of the Rynek Glowny,Krakow’s huge main square, is St Mary’s Church. From its bell tower, in the 13th century, a trumpeter was warning the townspeople with his horn that the enemy Tatars were approaching, when he was struck and killed by an arrow. Each hour, this scene is reenacted with the trumpeter beginning his warning and never completing it.
The interior of St Mary’s Church is positively stunning. Ceilings and columns are painted a dark shade of red or maroon while many of the baroque accoutrements are black with gold trim, creating a striking appearance. The main altarpiece is exquisite (considered the finest Gothic sculpture in Poland). Unfortunately, picture-taking is prohibited.
18. St Paul’s Cathedral, London, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral, the setting for the very public marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, was designed by Christopher Wren, the famous architect who practically rebuilt London after its devastating fire of 1666. The church claims to have the second largest dome in the world (after St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City). The interior, the setting for many lavish state ceremonies, is striking, especially the ceiling and dome. The outside of the cathedral is also very attractive, but it needs cleaning.
19. Monastery of St John the Theologian, Patmos, Greece
Patmos, an island near the coast of Turkey, is also a favorite stop for cruise lines. This island is famous as a Christian pilgrimage site, associated with St John the Theologian, who wrote one of the Gospels, as well as the Book of Revelations, in the New Testament.
St John lived on Patmos from 95 to 97 AD (when he was an old man) and was exiled during that time. He wrote “the Apocalypse” as a result of visions he received inside a grotto or cave which can be visited. According to legend, he listened to God’s revelation while lying in the cave and the cave wall was split during the vision.
From the cave, visitors are led to the highest hill of the island where a Monastery was built, in the 11th century, dedicated to the memory of St John. The Monastery is still in operation and contains a beautiful church, with frescoes from the period. The museum on the grounds has numerous artifacts on view which have been left by pilgrims with the Monastery, notably a painting by El Greco and some relics given by Catherine the Great of Russia. The Monastery area also provides a great view of the island and its Aegean coastline.
20. Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury, England
Canterbury Cathedral is not only an impressive church, but is also a repository of a considerable amount of history, particularly involving the events surrounding the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170 (his remains were housed here until 1538). The church is also known for its medieval stained glass and the tomb of the Black Prince (son of Edward III).
21. St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland
St Giles Cathedral, the High Kirk of Edinburgh, with its distinctive steeple and its dark, Gothic interior, lies along Edinburgh’s famous Royal Mile.
22. Stephansdom, Vienna, Austria
Stephansdom, whose steeple still dominates the skyline of the city of Vienna, is a beautiful, Gothic cathedral, especially distinctive because of its mosaic tile roof, many intricate, stone sculptures, and wood-carved altar.
23. St Vitus’ Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic
St Vitus Cathedral, is a 14th century Gothic structure which is notable for its stained glass windows and the tomb of Saint (King) Wenceslas, the patron saint of the Czech Republic
24. Cathedral, Seville, Spain
Seville’s Cathedral is the largest Gothic building in the world, and the third largest church in Europe. Its Moorish bell tower, the Giralda, has become a symbol of the city. The interior of the church displays much beauty and wealth, from the Choir stalls to the gilded Reredos of the Main Chapel, to the Sacristy and the Treasure. A Patio of Orange Trees, similar to the one at La Mezquita offers shade and greenery. Columbus’ grave (no one truly knows if his remains are really here) is also noteworthy.
25. Santa Croce Church, Florence, Italy
Another famous house of worship in Florence is the church of Santa Croce which, besides another gorgeous marble façade, some beautiful artwork, such as frescoes by Giotto and a chapel dome by Brunelleschi, contains the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, and other notables.
26. Wawel Cathedral, Krakow, Poland
The Wawel dominates the upper part of the Old Town. It is really composed of two buildings, Wawel Castle and the Cathedral.
27. Cathedral, Toledo, Spain
The Catedral is easily the most magnificent structure in the city of Toledo. From the Reredos of the high altar, to the Choir, to the Transparante behind the altar — all are exquisite! Unfortunately no pictures are allowed inside.
28. York Minster, York, England
The York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps, is stunning inside, with its intricate choir screen, made of stone, depicting kings of England, and its beautiful Chapter House.
29. Munster, Berne, Switzerland
The Munster (Cathedral) dominates the skyline of Berne. Note the carved scenes of heaven and hell above the main entrance.
30. Basilica of the Holy Blood, Bruges, Belgium
The Basilica of the Holy Blood, which houses a relic (a cloth with the reputed coagulated blood) of Jesus Christ along with a beautiful interior, can be found on Burg Square, one of the elegant gathering places in Bruges.
31. Monastery, Ettal, Germany
Ettal Monastery (Kloster Ettal), in the town of Ettal, a short distance from Oberammergau, is a splendid abbey with another Baroque masterpiece, the Church of Our Lady. Note the beautiful frescoed dome and elaborate decorations throughout. The exterior of the abbey is made even more beautiful by its dramatic setting, nestled in the mountains.
32. Abbey, Montecassino, Italy
One of several possible excursions from Rome is to the famous Abbey at Montecassino, south of the city. It was the site of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II. The Abbey was considered a high priority target since its location at the top of a mountain was a German observation post and headquarters. Although almost completely destroyed in the bombing and subsequent fighting, it has been lovingly restored and also contains a memorial cemetery to commemorate those who lost their lives in its liberation.
33. Hofkirche, Innsbruck, Austria
The Hofkirche contains the elaborately decorated mausoleum of Maximilian I, flanked by 28 bronze, life-size statues representing his real and legendary ancestors.
34. Frauenkirche, Munich, Germany
Near the Marienplatz is the Frauenkirchen (Mary’s Church), a huge cathedral, surprisingly, made of brick. Its distinctive twin steeples are a symbol of Munich.
35. Sacre Coeur Church, Paris, France
Sacre Coeur, another of Paris’s beautiful churches, sits atop the Montmartre section of the city. Its location is extremely prominent, and, although initially disliked by the Parisians, has become one of the city’s many symbols. It is elegant in white, and is best reached by a funicular, since the climb is extremely steep. It also offers a spectacular view of the entire city.
36. Duomo, Siena
Not far from the Piazza del Campo is the Duomo of Siena, a magnificent church with a striped marble exterior decorated with numerous statues and a black and white marbled interior which houses several major works of art by artists like Michelangelo, Bernini, and Donatello.
37. El Escorial, Spain
One of the most popular excursions from Madrid is west to El Escorial (more precisely, Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial), which has been the summer palace for the Kings of Spain since 1564. It was built by Philip II and completed by his son. It is another great chateau in the spirit of Versailles.
Yet it is more than a residence; it is also a monastery with a lovely chapel. As expected, the rooms are extremely ornate, with beautiful artwork and tapestries. Especially noteworthy are the five wooden doors, gifts from the Kingdom of Austria, which are incredibly detailed, with inlaid wood of different colors. Also significant are the Pantheons, the crypts of the kings (all but 3 monarchs since 1564 have been interred here), and the Pantheon Infantes, the tombs of the royal children who did not become kings.
38. Oude Kerk, Delft, Netherlands
The Oude Kerk (Old Church), founded around 1200, can also be visited (combination tickets include both). It houses the tombs of many important and famous Dutchmen, particularly Jan Vermeer, the artist, and Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope.
39. New & Old Cathedrals, Salamanca, Spain
In an interesting situation, Salamanca’s two main churches adjoining one another. Check out these cathedrals (Nueva and Vieja) as you stroll the charming streets of the city.
40. Notre Dame Cathedral, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
The huge Notre Dame Cathedral sits near the city walls, above the Casemates and other fortifications.