35 European Landmarks You Need to Visit
March 5, 2018
These amazing spots showcase a continent’s long and varied history
Landmarks are landmarks for a reason. While they can often draw tourists in such large numbers that restaurants start to take advantage of it, areas get crowded, and locals get annoyed, they’re still spots that are worthy of consideration for the thoughtful traveler. Europe, with its centuries of rulers, wars, artwork, and more, as well as the wealth and opulence that came with colonial power, has more than its fair share of landmarks that are recognized not just in their native nations but around the world, and we’ve created a list of the ones you need to make sure you see.
With its many dynasties, past and present, Europe’s landmarks are often dominated by castles and palaces. Thanks to a strong Christian history, opulent churches have a strong presence on this list, but so do ancient pagan temples and one cathedral that was originally built as a mosque. France seems to have a bit of an edge over other European countries, with six landmarks on the list, four of which are in Paris. Spain follows with five landmarks spread out in five different cities. Moscow may be the official capital of Russia, but St. Petersburg seems to be its cultural capital, with three of the country’s four spots on this list. Italy, of course, also has a strong showing with four sites, not counting the two that are located in Vatican City. There are plenty of other landmarks throughout the rest of Europe that are worthy of note, however, and cities like Lisbon, Vienna, Kiev and Valletta have just as much to offer both in terms of education and scenery. So if you’re planning a trip to the Old Continent, check out this list of 35 European landmarks you need to visit.
The Alhambra is a testament to the cultural and architectural legacy left behind by the Arab Muslim rulers of Spain. Built in the mid-thirteenth century, the palace and fortress complex shows off the finest of arabesque and Islamic art and architecture. Tickets can sell out pretty quick, as the Alhambra brings in about 6,000 visitors every day, so make sure to book ahead and get there as soon as you’re done with your delicious Granada breakfast.
Apostolic Palace (Vatican City)
Seeing the Sistine Chapel may be a bit of a cliché for travelers to Rome, but it’s more than worth a trip to the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope. Also known as the Papal Palace, this stunning structure not only contains the offices of the Holy See and the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s also home to the Vatican Library and Vatican Museums, which contain 54 galleries of some of the world’s great works of Western art by legends such as Da Vinci, Raphael, and Caravaggio.
Arc de Triomphe (Paris)
Paris has many famous monuments, and one if its top landmarks is the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (French for “Triumphal Arch of the Star,” better known as the Arc de Triomphe. Located at the western end of the famous Parisian avenue, Champs-Élyseés, it stands as a monument for the soldiers who were killed in both the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. You can see all the names of the French victories and generals from these conflicts on the surfaces of the arch, and France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I also lies beneath its vault.
Belém Tower (Lisbon)
Officially named the Tower of Saint Vincent, Belém Tower is located in Portugal’s capital city of Lisbon in the civil parish of Santa Maria de Belém. It was built in the early sixteenth century as a gateway to the city and defense tower by King John II, and continues to be one of many architectural wonders that are helping put Portugal on the map as one of the hottest tourist destinations.
Brandenburg Gate (Berlin)
Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate was built in the eighteenth century in celebration of the restoration of order during the early Batavian Revolution, and it has stood the test of time through Germany’s eventful history. Damaged during World War II, the East Berlin and West Berlin governments restored it in a joint effort, and the gate went on to symbolize their unification after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. A great spot for a photo op, it’s particularly stunning at night when the gate is lit up, and on New Year’s Eve, you’ll find one of the largest street parties in Europe right in front of it.
Buckingham Palace (London)
Queen Elizabeth II’s London residence and administrative headquarters is Buckingham Palace, used as such since Queen Victoria moved in in 1837. With 775 rooms and huge, beautiful garden, it’s a must-see for any visitor to London; state rooms are open to public access for most of August and September as well as some days during the spring and winter months.
Buda Castle (Budapest)
The Hungarian kings resided at Buda Castle, a castle and palace complex in Budapest that shows off some truly stunning Baroque architecture. A guided tour will not only show off the palace’s stunning rooms and courtyards but also teach you much about the history of Hungary and the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood (St. Petersburg)
The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood is a Russian Orthodox church built on the spot where Czar Alexander II was attacked in 1881 by an anarchist with a grenade, later dying of his wounds at the Winter Palace. His son, Alexander III, ordered it to be built in his honor in 1883, and it was completed under the reign of his grandson Nicholas II in 1907. Richly decorated inside and out, the church is largely built in the Baroque and Neoclassical style, but with medieval Russian influences. Over 7,500 square meters of mosaics can be seen inside the church, mostly depicting Biblical figures and stories, and despite the damage it sustained in the Russian Revolution of 1917, the church has seen restoration and remains one of St. Petersburg’s top attractions.
The Colosseum, or il Colosseo as it’s known in Italian, is an ancient Roman amphitheater — the largest ever — that was built in between A.D. 72 and 80. Used for gladiator contests and public spectacles such as executions, dramas, and mock sea battles, the Colosseum was a center of entertainment until the early medieval era. Today it is in partial ruins as a result of stone-robbers and earthquakes, yet it remains a testament to the Roman Empire and one of the Italy’s top attractions (and some even say it’s haunted). Take a guided tour with an archaeologist or walk around the structure yourself.
Eiffel Tower (Paris)
Florence Cathedral (Florence)
Officially called the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower and locally known as il Duomo di Firenze, is a Gothic-style cathedral that began construction in 1296 and was finally completed in 1436 with the addition of its dome, a groundbreaking feat in architecture accomplished by Italian Renaissance engineer Filippo Brunelleschi and the largest brick dome ever built. Worth a trip after hitting up Florence’s amazing restaurant scene, visitors can climb 463 steps to the top of the Duomo, a tiring feat that’s more than worth it for the absolutely stunning view from the top.
Grand Place (Brussels)
The Grand Place (French for “Grand Square”), or Grote Markt (Dutch for “Grand Market”), is the top tourist attraction in the Belgian capital of Brussels. Here you’ll find the Brussels Town Hall, Museum of the City of Brussels, and other beautiful guildhalls making up one of Europe’s most picturesque squares. The square is pedestrianized, making it more than friendly for tourists to get to know the best of Brussels’ architecture and cultural offerings.
Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (Bilbao, Spain)
Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry, the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao is not only a museum of modern and contemporary art but considered a work of contemporary art itself. Built in the postmodern style of Deconstructivism, the museum is located in the Basque city of Bilbao, and holds modern artworks by artists from Spain and around the world in both permanent and visiting exhibitions. Its restaurant, Nerua, is also worth a visit with amazing culinary creations by chef Josean Alija.
Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg)
Officially called the State Hermitage Museum, this institution has celebrated the art, culture, and history of Russia since it was founded when Catherine the Great purchased a collection of paintings in 1764. Open to the public since 1852, the Hermitage Museum is the second largest museum in the world and owns the largest collection of paintings, with three million items in its overall collection. The museum complex consists of six historic buildings, including the Winter Palace, the official residence of the Romanovs.
Houses of Parliament (London)
The Houses of Parliament, officially named the Palace of Westminster, is where the two houses of the United Kingdom’s Parliament — the House of Commons and the House of Lords — meet to take care of governmental affairs. Visitors can visit the Strangers’ Gallery of either House to witness them in session, as well as Westminster Hall, where the bodies of deceased royal family members have lain in state. In all, the palace has over 1,100 rooms lavishly designed and decorated, but the most iconic part is the Elizabeth Tower, better known as Big Ben, which was originally the name of its bell.
Kiev Pechersk Lavra (Kiev, Ukraine)
Kiev Pechersk Lavra, or the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, is a monastery that was founded in 1051 and continues to be an important center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Eastern Europe. While there are over 100 monks in residence at the monastery, visitors are welcome to come and admire the Ukrainian Baroque architecture of the buildings and the ingenuity of the caves, dug out by priests and today containing mummified monks and an underground church. The complex has an upper part, owned by the state, which consists of museums with religious and historical relics, and a lower part, owned by the Orthodox Church, which consists of the caves and requires the purchase of a candle to enter as well as proper attire (women are required to cover their hair and wear a skirt, or pants if it’s winter). For an extra fee, visitors can also get a stunning panoramic view from the bell tower, one of the many reasons Kiev is one of our top Instagrammable budget destinations.
Leaning Tower of Pisa (Pisa)
The Leaning Tower of Pisa began construction in 1173, meant to be the bell tower of Pisa’s cathedral. However, it was soon found that the tower had begun to tilt as a result of the ground underneath it being too soft on one side. The tilt grew worse as construction continued, finally completing in 1372. A project to prevent any further tipping over was successfully completed in 2001, and it’s more than safe to climb to the top of this icon of Italy, provided you reserve a ticket.
The largest art museum in the world is housed in the Louvre Palace, with its main entrance being through the iconic Louvre Pyramid, a pyramid designed by famed Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei and made of glass and metal. The most visited art museum in the world, 8.1 million people came through its doors in 2017 to witness the over 380,000 objects and 35,000 artworks on display, including the Mona Lisa, Code of Hammurabi, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. The museum complex is also stunning on the outside and one of the top things to do in Paris is to visit the museum at night, when it’s particularly stunning and has fewer crowds.
Mont Saint-Michel Abbey (Normandy, France)
An unusual yet very popular destination, Mont Saint-Michel is an island commune located less than a mile off the northwestern coast of France, known for the stunning site of the medieval monastery sitting at the peak of the island. The construction of Mont Saint-Michel Abbey is supposed to reflect the order of the feudal society that existed in medieval times; at the very top is God, then the abbey and monastery, below that are the great halls, and then below those are stores and housing. At the very bottom and outside the walls of the abbey are the homes of the island’s fishermen and farmers.
Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba (Córdoba, Spain)
Known as the Mezquita, this mosque-turned-cathedral in Spain is yet another stunning example of Moorish architecture. While the mosque was built in 784, the Reconquista brought Christian rule back to Córdoba in 1236, and a Renaissance cathedral was constructed at the center during the sixteenth century, offering a fascinating chance to compare the different styles of architecture present.
Neuschwanstein Castle (Schwangau, Germany)
Visit the castle that served as the primary inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, as well as one of the inspirations for Disney World’s Cinderella Castle. Neuschwanstein Castle is a nineteenth-century palace that was built on the orders of King Ludwig II of Bavaria in the Romanesque Revival style and in homage to the operas of German composer Richard Wagner. Each year, approximately 1.3 million people come to the southeastern German state of Bavaria to visit the castle, which has 35-minute guided tours as well as special guided tours for specific topics and does not allow photography inside.
Notre-Dame Cathedral (Paris)
The Notre-Dame Cathedral, or Notre-Dame de Paris as it’s officially known, is one of the largest and best-known Catholic churches and a stunning example of French Gothic architecture. Construction began in 1163 and took over 180 years, finally being completed in 1345. Known for its naturalistic sculptures, amazing stained glass, and named bells, it’s an absolute must for any visit to Paris, and visitors can climb 387 steps to see its bells and gargoyles up close alongside a breathtaking view of the city.
Palace of Versailles (Versailles, France)
Right on the western edge of Paris and just about 10 miles from the city center, Versailles is home the famous royal château that was once home to the French royal family and is today an opulent museum. Take a guided tour of the grounds and the palace’s more than 700 rooms or use an audioguide as you roam around on your own. During the summer, there are plenty of activities for visitors to take advantage of, such as rowboats, cycles for hire, or a train ride that will take you around the entire grounds, which covers over 700,000 square feet. Famed chef Alain Ducasse also opened a restaurant, Ore, at the palace in 2016 so that visitors can experience the luxury of this palace at their dinner table as well.
Built between A.D. 113 and 125, the Pantheon is an impressively well-preserved Roman temple that is today used as a Catholic church, with Masses being held on Sundays and holidays. On any other day, it’s one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions and contains impressive ancient Roman architecture as well as Christian altars and works of art. Multiple important figures are buried here, including two of Italy’s kings and the renowned Renaissance painter Raphael.
When visiting Athens, a trip to the Acropolis — an ancient citadel situated high on a cliff above the city — is a must, particularly for a chance to see its largest temple, the Parthenon. The partially ruined structure has been around since the fifth century B.C., when it was built in honor of the Greek goddess of wisdom and warfare, Athena.
Pena Palace (Sintra, Portugal)
Located in the Portuguese Riviera, the Pena Palace sits atop a hill in the Sintra Mountains where it was built in the Romanesque Revival style and completed in 1854. Its distinct red and yellow paint had faded into grey over the centuries, but a fresh coat of paint brought it back to life at the end of the twentieth century and it continues to be one of Portugal’s top attractions. The summer residence of the Portuguese royal family, the palace is filled with royal relics, amazing artwork, and the finest of furniture, and it is surrounded by a forested area known as Pena Park which contains trees and plants from all over the world.
Peterhof Palace (St. Petersburg)
Modeled after France’s Versailles, the Peterhof Palace was commissioned by Peter the Great in the eighteenth century. It consists of palaces and gardens, most notably the Grand Palace, which has 30 public rooms and hundreds of exquisite paintings and decorative objects from all over the world. The Grand Palace sits on top of a bluff, and on the face of the bluff is the ornate Grand Cascade, which has 64 fountains that flow into a semicircular pool and operate without pumps.
Prague Castle (Prague, Czech Republic)
It took over 1,000 years for the Prague Castle to be completed, with construction starting in 870 and not finishing up until 1929. Once the seat of power for the King of Bohemia and the Holy Roman Emperor, today it is home to the offices of the President of the Czech Republic as well as the Bohemian Crown Jewels (hidden away in one of its hundreds of rooms). Located in the capital of the Czech Republic, it has an area of nearly 750,000 square feet, making it the largest ancient castle in the world, and the complex also has multiple other palaces as well as museums and a Royal Garden.
Royal Palace of Madrid (Madrid)
The eighteenth-century Royal Palace of Madrid is one of the biggest and most beautiful palaces in all of Europe. Officially, it is the royal residence of the King of Spain, but in reality it is mainly used for official ceremonies, and as such, it’s more than welcome to visitors in Spain’s capital. Self-guided and guided tours of the palace will take you through opulent state rooms filled with decorative objects and artworks from around the world, and visitors can also see the royal armory, a two-story collection of medieval armor and weapons, as well as a pharmacy showcasing a reconstructed laboratory and hundreds of bottles of early medicines.
Sagrada Família (Barcelona)
This iconic symbol of Barcelona hasn’t even been finished yet. The Sagrada Família — its full name in Catalan is Basílica I Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, or Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family — saw its groundbreaking in 1882, and isn’t expected to be completed until at least 2026. Despite the fact that it’s incomplete, however, visitors still come from all over the world to marvel at its breathtaking heights and the intricate designs of its architecture. Two of its towers have elevators that will take you up to the top for a fantastic view of Barcelona.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral (Moscow)
The most iconic spot in Moscow, the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed is officially known as the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, but most of the world knows it as Saint Basil’s Cathedral. Ivan the Terrible had it built in the mid-sixteenth century to celebrate the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan, and it originally was made up of eight churches built around a ninth church in the middle, the Church of the Intercession. A tenth church was later built in 1588 on top of the grave of local saint Vasily, also known as Basil. Completely secularized by 1929, the church is a museum today and visitors can marvel at its impressive collection of Russian icon paintings and church art.
Saint John’s Co-Cathedral (Valletta, Malta)
Valletta is a top destination this year after being named a 2018 European Capital of Culture, and UNESCO has even dubbed the capital of Malta “one of the most concentrated historic areas in the world” due to the fact that the 136-acre city has an impressive 320 historical sites. Possibly the most notable of those is Saint John’s Co-Cathedral, a sixteenth-century Roman Catholic co-cathedral with an interior redecorated in the seventeenth century in the Baroque style. This ornate, golden interior is stunning, filled with intricate sculptures and carvings as well as painted figures that seem to be three-dimensional at first glance. Built by the Knights Hospitaller, a medieval Catholic military order that survives today, there are nine chapels inside honoring different saints, and the church is also home to The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing, both original artworks by Caravaggio.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral (Dublin)
The National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is the tallest and largest church in Ireland and was founded in 1191. The location of many public ceremonies, its interior is as impressive and breathtaking as its exterior and it continues to be one of Ireland’s most magical attractions. There are over 500 people buried either under the cathedral floor or in the church’s cemetery, including famed Anglo-Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, who served as Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral from 1713 to 1745.
Saint Peter’s Basilica (Vatican City)
The largest church in the world, and quite possibly the most renowned piece of Renaissance architecture, Saint Peter’s Basilica is considered to be one of the holiest sites in Roman Catholicism. It is said to be the burial site of Saint Peter, the most prominent of Jesus’s Apostles according to the Catholic Church and the first Pope, and as a result, has been the burial site of many Popes since then. The line here is long but moves quickly, and visitors can get to the top of the dome, which was designed by Michelangelo, for a beautiful view of Vatican City by first taking an elevator and then climbing 323 steps. Many religious relics and artworks also reside in the basilica, such as Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Schönbrunn Palace (Vienna)
Summer residence to the Habsburgs monarchs, the Schönbrunn Palace is an impressive Baroque structure with 1,441 rooms and beautiful gardens, making it one of the most picturesque spots in Vienna. The zoo on its grounds claims to be the oldest continuously operating zoo in the world, and the Schönbrunn Garden has 32 stunning sculptures. For more landmarks to add to your bucket list, check out these landmarks the locals hate (but you’re bound to love).
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