Anyone who goes to to Europe is always amazed at the grand squares in many of the cities and towns which are both gathering places and showcases. Most of them are lined with popular cafes and shops, and are busy at all hours of the day and night. They are often scattered with fountains and sculptures as well as elegant edifices. Below is a list of some of our favorites.
1. Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), Venice, Italy
St Mark’s was once described as the "drawing room of Europe" because it has been a meeting place for people from all over the world for many years. It is huge and elegant, anchored at one end by the incredible Basilica San Marco, one of the most distinctive and well-known churches in the world and its dramatic Campanile. Outdoor dining covers much of the perimeter, with numerous shops under the arches which support the commercial and residential buildings which line the square. It is also known for the ubiquitous pigeons which are fed by tourists to get interesting pictures. The clock in one corner of the square claims to be the first digital clock.
2. Grand Place. Brussels, Belgium
Perhaps the most stunningly beautiful square in all of Europe is the Grand Place. The square is surrounded by incredibly-gilded, elegant buildings (Guild houses which were obviously in competition with one another to erect the grandest administrative office). In addition, the Hotel De Ville (Town Hall) is an architectural gem with its 70 meter tall tower and numerous statues, spires and gargoyles. Plus, every other August, the square is the scene of a giant floral display that covers much of the square a in a colorful carpet of begonias (see photo album).
3. Starometske nam (Old Town Square), Prague, Czech Republic
Old Town Square (Starometske nam) is one of the most beautiful squares in all of Europe with its pastel-colored palaces, striking churches, numerous outdoor cafes, and busy pedestrians. Particularly enchanting is the Old Town Hall with its Astronomical Clock, which entertains visitors with its workings every hour on the hour. Note also the large statue of Jan Hus, a religious reformer, the Baroque St Nicholas Church, and, perhaps most striking of all, at least from the outside, the Gothic Tyn Church with its twin steeples which towers over most of the other buildings.
4. Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa, Italy
The Leaning Tower of Pisa and its Piazza dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) is a 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.
5. Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy
Piazza Navona is one of Rome’s largest and most beautiful squares. Built on the site of a 1st century stadium, it is oval in shape and is lined with sidewalk cafes and palaces. However, it is the three gorgeous, Baroque fountains which make it a Mecca of both tourists and locals.
Directly in front of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone is Bernini’s famous Fountain of the Four Rivers. The rivers symbolized include the Nile, the Ganges, the Plata, and the Danube.
At one end of the square is the Fountain of the Moor (which was also designed by Bernini), another beautiful Baroque fountain.
The piazza is one of the major gathering places in the inner city and is often crowded with people, especially at night.
6. Plaza Mayor, Madrid, Spain
Because of its location and its popularity as a gathering place, the Plaza Mayor is one of Europe’s greatest squares. It is huge, surrounded by beautiful, majestic buildings which house shops, restaurants, etc. It is a wonderful place for strolling or for sitting and enjoying a “cervesa” (beer) or coffee.
7. Rynek Glowny (Old Town Square), Krakow, Poland
Main Market Square (Rynek Glowny), is a huge (the largest Medieval square in all of Europe) and delightful mix of shops, restaurants with outdoor dining, pubs, mimes, street musicians, etc. The atmosphere is extremely festive with thousands of people enjoying the area. At one end of the 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.
In the center of the square is the 16th century Cloth Hall (Sukiennice) which is now lined with myriad small shops selling assorted crafts. On the opposite side of the square from St Mary’s is the Town Hall tower which visitors may climb for a bird’s eye view of the square.
8. Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy
The Piazza della Signoria is a spectacular example of the incorporation of great art into a public space to make it more than special. There are three notable statues in the square: 1. The Rape of the Sabine Women, by Giambologna, 2. Perseus, by Cellini, and 3. a copy of the David, by Michelangelo. Bordering the piazza is the Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence, with its imposing bell tower, a landmark of the city’s famous skyline, and the Neptune Fountain. What a fantastic environment in which to have lunch or a beer al fresco!.
9. Markt Square, Bruges, Belgium
Markt Square, the larger and more distinctive of Bruges’ two lovely main squares, is bordered on one side by a row of colorful buildings with characteristic Dutch architecture. At the opposite end of the huge square is City Hall, with its incredibly tall tower. Along another side is the more-classic-looking Provincial Court.
10. Trafalgar Square, London, England
Trafalgar Square is one of Europe’s great gathering places, with its fountain, its pigeons, and its sculptures. The tall monolith topped by the statue of Lord Trafalgar, for which the square is named, is the focal point. Around the square are several significant London attractions, such as the British Museum and the St Martin-in-the-Fields Church.
11. Place de Concorde, Paris, France
The Place de la Concorde is an elegant square and the historical location of the guillotine used to execute King Louis XVI and others in 1793. Today it contains the Luxor Obelisk, an Egyptian monument over 3300 years old. This square is a bit difficult to appreciate because of the noise and traffic. However, it is lined by stately Government buildings and marks the beginning of one of the world’s greatest thoroughfares, the Champs Elysses.
12. Marienplatz, Munich, Germany
The center of activity in the city of Munich is the Marienplatz (Mary’s square), a huge area encircled by interesting buildings, including the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) which does not appear new at all since it was built in the Gothic style with numerous statues, gargoyles, and towers. Its tall, main tower contains the famous Glockenspiel which performs several times each day. These performances last approximately ten minutes and include several sets of figures moving around (there are dancers, knights jousting, and a cock crowing). Find a good viewing location several minutes before the show starts.
Also on this square is the Altes (old) Rathaus, which is a pretty, Medieval, wooden building with a green tower that announces the time of day on the hour and half-hour. Note also the golden statue of Mary on a column in the center of the square. Take the time to stop at a tavern with outdoor seating (there are many) to have a brew and people-watch.
13. Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City
The Piazza San Pietro is a huge area, enclosed by two semi-circles of colonnades topped with sculptures. Its centerpiece is St Peter’s Basilica, the central symbol of the Roman Catholic religion, 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.
14. Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy
All activity in Siena centers around the Piazza del Campo, which is a huge, semi-circular square. Twice a year, the square becomes a horse-racing park for the Palio, a winner-take-all competition between the local “contrada” (roughly, parishes). At other times of the year, the Piazza is simply the major gathering place for residents and tourists alike. Dominating the square is the Palazzo Pubblico, the Gothic Town Hall, which dates back to 1342.
15. Mozartplatz, Salzburg, Austria
Mozartplatz (Mozart Square) is one of the two main squares of the city of Salzburg. The chimes of the Glockenspiel play a Mozart melody several times during the day and there is a large statue of the master.
16. Cathedral Square, Milan, Italy
Cathedral Square, in the northern Italian city of Milan is of great interest to the tourist because of the Duomo, one of the largest and most beautiful churches in the world, and the opera house, La Scala, perhaps the premier venue of its kind in the world, which are at opposite ends of this extremely expansive square. Another side houses the Galleria, a collection of up-scale shops.
17. Dam Square, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Hectic and noisy Dam Square is the site of Amsterdam’s Royal Palace and also the Niewe Kerk (New Church). Directly across from the palace is the National Monument, a white column with numerous sculptures.
18. Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Spain
Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor rivals Madrid’s in size and splendor, with numerous outdoor cafes at which to sip “una cervesa” (a beer) or two. The honey-colored stone is especially striking. Since Salamanca is a university town, there are many young people about and an attitude of free-wheeling fun and frolic in the air.
19. Burg Square, Bruges, Belgium
Another great square in the charming city of Bruges is known as the Burg. It is smaller than the Markt (see #9 above) which makes it more intimate and easily appreciated. Noteworthy attractions here include the Gothic Town Hall, which dates to 1376 and the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which is reputed to contain a an important Christian relic, a vial with the blood of Jesus Christ.
20. Picadilly Circus, London, England
Piccadilly Circus is London’s equivalent to Times Square in New York City, a neon, garish confluence of streets which has become one of London’s great gathering places. There is much traffic and noise, but it is a major shopping area within the city.
21. Place d’Armes, Luxembourg City, Luxembourg
This square is small by European standards, but it is certainly the main gathering place in the old part of the city and is lined with myriad shops and restaurants, as well as several notable sculptures.
22. Syntagma Square, Athens, Greece
Syntagma (Constitution) Square is anchored by the Parliament Building (and former Royal Palace) of Athens. In front of the building is Greece’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier where visitors can watch a Changing of the Guard Ceremony (most elaborate on Sundays). Opposite the tomb is a park-like area.
23. Stephansplatz, Vienna, Austria
At the junction of two of Vienna’s most popular, pedestrian-only, shopping streets (Graben and Kartnerstrasse) is Stephansplatz and its focal point, Stephansdom, whose steeple still dominates the skyline of the city. It is a beautiful, Gothic cathedral, especially distinctive because of its mosaic tile roof, many intricate, stone sculptures, and wood-carved altar. The square is always crowded with tourists and shoppers, as well as locals on their way to or from work in the city center.
24. Trinity Square, Budapest, Hungary
Trinity Square is located in the most important tourist area of Budapest. It is immediately opposite Buda Castle and next to Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion. The square is also the site of a local crafts market where inexpensive souvenirs and other items can be purchased.
25. Plaza de Corredera, Cordoba, Spain
Here is another of Spain’s extremely elegant squares, this one lined with orange-colored buildings whose blue awnings make a striking statement. The only reason this has not become a more important square is the fact that nothing particularly important is in the vicinity.
26. Market Square, Delft, Netherlands
This adorable square is anchored at one end by the City Hall (Stadhuis), an interesting and attractive Gothic building, and the Niewe Kerk (New Church). The New Church dates to the late 14th century and contains the very intriguing tomb of William the Silent which is adorned with many figures and objects, some religious and some secular. The spire of the church is very tall (almost 400 feet) and dominates the skyline of the town.
27. Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey
This huge square is in the Beyoglu section of the city of Istanbul and is noteworthy as a significant hub for public transit, an area where numerous demonstrations and events take place, and also the northern terminus of the main pedestrian and shopping street in Istanbul, Istiklal Caddesi.
28. Plaza de Espana, Seville, Spain
Maria Luisa Parque is the largest and major city park in Seville. Within the park are several elegant squares, the most dramatic of which is the Plaza de Espana. This square dates back to the Spanish-American Exhibition of 1929 and was a centerpiece of the exhibition. The architecture is Moorish Revival and is distinctive and attractive. The addition of colorful tile railings, intricate tile alcoves, representing the various regions of the country, and a lovely fountain in the middle of the square enhance the setting immeasurably.
29. Old Town Square, Bratislava, Slovakia
In the center of the square, vendors display their local crafts and trinkets. The Town Hall, with its cute, yellow tower, plays music every hour.
30. Piazza Umberto I, Capri Town, Isle of Capri, Italy
This small square has one of the loveliest settings on the entire Amalfi Coast. Whitewashed buildings surround a terrace-like viewing area overlooking the harbor and the beautiful Bay of Naples. A charming Bell Tower displays the time, while crowds of people sit and soak up the ambience in the many cafes or stroll down the alleyways of shops which radiate from the square.