One of my favorite things about traveling to different countries is viewing their culture through architecture. And there is nothing quite like the architecture built by religious organizations, especially centuries ago when the church was an even more influential and integral part of society.
Often churches were the tallest and most intricate buildings in the community. If you were lucky enough to have a cathedral in your town, it was even more grand. This week on instagram I’ve been sharing my top five favorite churches I’ve seen on my travels and as promised, I’m here to expand more into these gorgeous buildings and what I love about them.
Number 5 – Basilica San Marco, or St. Mark’s Basilica
The first time I saw this church was in 2013 when we went to Italy for my 30th birthday. We happened to be in Venice for Easter and the line to enter St Mark’s was insanely long. So instead of waiting to go inside with all the other tourists, we headed to the Easter Vigil Mass. And while it was a VERY long mass, I’m so glad I went. It’s something I’ll never forget.
The ceilings of St Mark’s Basilica are gold mosaic. During the beginning of the Easter vigil, the lights were turned out and a candlelight procession made it’s way down the aisle, lighting congregants’ candles along the way. Watching the candlelight flicker off the gold mosaic on the ceiling was one of the most magical things I’ve ever experienced. This reason alone would be enough for me to out St Mark’s as my number five, but wait, there’s more!
If attending a mass or waiting in an extraordinarily long line to enter the church isn’t your thing, just sitting in St Mark’s square at night is enough to make a wonderful memory. Several restaurants line the square and sitting outside with an aperitif, in the shadow of St Mark’s listening to a live string quartet is also one of the best ways to spend an evening in Venice and is bound to make you memories that last a lifetime.
Number 4 – Duomo del Firenze, or The Florence Cathedral
I know you’re already sensing a theme here. And if you’ve followed me for awhile you know I have a very strong love for Italy. But I promise, not all my choices are from there!
The first time I saw the Duomo was on the same 30th birthday trip way back in 2013. We had purchased the Firenze pass and back then you just got in line to climb the duomo. (Now a days there are time slots… even pre VWSNBN). The Firenze pass is kind of like a Disney fast pass and we went to the head of the line. What we thought was a fast pass to see the inside of the church was actually a fast pass to climb the dome! I didn’t even know we were climbing to the top of the dome until we were… well climbing! And it worked out better this way. I didn’t have time to hem and haw about whether I really wanted to be at the tippy top of that giant round thing. Spoiler alert. I did.
The view of Florence from the top is absolutely amazing. Plus the experience of climbing the dome was just as amazing. Similar to other large tower climbs there were a lot of stone spiral stairs in a tower but at one point you got to walk on a catwalk-like structure on the INSIDE of the dome. Viewing the church inside from above was almost as cool as viewing Florence from above on the outside.
At the end of our climb we ascended a small ladder where a worker hoisted us out of the floor. That’s right, we popped out of the floor into the top of the dome. It was breathtaking. I think that ascending the dome might have been what kicked off my bug for climbing tall things and taking photos on vacation.
Protip-If you climb the neighboring bell tower (as well or instead) you actually get the Duomo in your photos. If you ask me, I’d say as well because the tower climb was okay but the dome climb was amazing.
Number 3 – Kościół Mariacki or St Mary’s Basilica
St Mary’s Basilica is my most recent addition to the list as we ventured to Krakow just last summer. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to go inside but the beauty of the church outside and the purity of the trumpeter added it to my list immediately.
Every hour, from the top of the left tower, a real live trumpeter emerges. He plays The Hejnał Trumpet call. I may be biased as I am the daughter of a trumpet player and dabbled in playing a little as a girl, but the tune that came out was the most beautiful and haunting tune. Initially played to know when to open and close the medieval city gates, this tune eventually started being played hourly so that the citizens would know that the trumpeters were doing their job and watching out for the city.
According to legend it ends suddenly on a note because in the 1200s during an invasion an arrow pierced the throat of the trumpeter while he played the call. Immediately ending his life, and the tune. I posted a video of the trumpeter on my reels. Check it out on instagram. It’s beautiful.
Number 2 – Ely Cathedral
Ely, Cambridgeshire, England
This one is a little closer to home! I’ve had the fortune to spend many days in Ely and have even attended a couple concerts in the Ely Cathedral.
Famously used as a stand-in for Westminster Abbey in productions like “The Crown,” Ely cathedral is a beauty in it’s own right. It’s massive center nave seems to stretch up forever. I sat beneath it listening to a symphony play one fall evening and it was the most amazing experience. Even more amazing maybe was the Christmas Carol event we attended back in 2019. The choir walked throughout the church as they sang carols and in different locations of the church, the sound was astonishing. It echoed around us as if we were surrounded by speakers, when in fact (I think?!) it was just the acoustics of the building!
You can visit Ely cathedral and climb the tower too. I want to do this when things open up again as I haven’t yet had a chance. If you’re in the mood for a tea, you can have one at The Almonry in the shade of the great church. Even from inside, some windows afford a lovely view of the nearly 1000 year old building.
Number 1 – Basílica de la Sagrada Família
I don’t think I have ever entered a church and been so incredibly speechless as I was when I entered Sagrada Família. The outside it a sight to see in and of itself. With the Nativity and Passion stories told on both the West and East sides. But inside. Inside is a whole other story.
Designed by Antoni Gaudi in 1883, and still under construction today, the Sagrada Família is a church unlike any other. The over 100 year construction period aside, you’re bound to see something you’ve never seen before when you visit this church. In most other churches specifically Christian, the outside of the church is a beautiful, but story-less facade, hiding the true religious tales that lies within. It’s on the inside of most churches you find paintings, sculptures and stained glass works to tell the stories of their religion. Gaudi did just the opposite. Like I said before, the stories of Christ are plainly designed for all to see around the outside of the church. When you walk inside though, it’s not nearly as intricate but because of this, it’s even more breathtaking.
Inspired by nature, giant columns that hold up the ceiling stretch into limbs resembling trees. Stained glass windows are abstract instead of traditional scenes but depict color and change with the rising and setting of the sun. When we entered in the afternoon the sun streamed through the warm colored windows. Splashing reds oranges and yellows all around. Bright greens and blues line the windows on the other side of the building and I would love to see what those look like when they’re lit in the morning. I can image the while feeling changes.
Unlike many other churches I’ve been in, the crucifix hangs not from the back walk behind the altar, but is suspended in midair above the altar. Covered by its own canopy and lights, it’s different to anything I’ve ever seen before.
If you do nothing else in Barcelona, make a point to see Sagrada Família.
If you want to read my more in-depth account of Sagrada Familia, check out the blog I wrote soon after I returned from Spain, here.
And there you have it. My top five favorite churches I’ve seen on my European travels. This of course is not an exhaustive list as I’ve seen amazing pieces of religious architecture all over Europe, but these are the ones that stick out to me when I think back on travels. What do you think? Do you agree or do you have other ones I haven’t listed? Send me suggestions of which ones I should see on my future adventures.