For centuries, cities grew and grew thanks to two things: the river and the Church. In Europe’s leading cities, there are giant and often beautiful reminders to its rise in prominence. And, for travellers throughout the Continent, the chance to visit its famous cathedrals and churches is not something to be missed.
From Germany, into Belgium, to Austria, Romania, and deep into Serbia, there are so many magnificent sacred buildings to enjoy. As many of them find themselves on Europe’s major rivers, it is a great opportunity for you to enjoy quite a few of these gems whilst travelling in luxury on a deluxe European river cruise.
Here are some of our favourites:
The Jewel of Belgrade
A trip to the Serbian capital requires a stop by the Cathedral of St. Sava, the largest currently used Orthodox Church in the world. Built in honour of the founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church, it is built on the Vracar plateau in the city – where it is believed the remains of Saint Sava were burned in 1595.
Relatively young in comparison to other European cathedrals, work started on St. Sava in the 20th century. But starting from 1935, construction has been hampered by design problems, the outbreak of World War II and Soviet occupation of the city.
The cathedral was finally completed just over a decade ago in 2004, but interior works still continues at the site. The church was built in the Serbian-Byzantine style, constructed with four 144 foot-high steeples. Its gilded dome stands at nearly 270 feet allowing the church to dominate the Belgrade skyline from many directions.
Antwerp’s Stunning Lady
For some of these great buildings, restoring them to glory is a decades-long affair. An iconic gothic structure in the heart of this Belgian city, the Cathedral of Our Lady was started in 1352. It took nearly 200 years to complete and has been damaged by fire and protest over the years. The most recent set of renovations started in earnest in 1965 and finally finished earlier this year.
“The church has been completely and beautifully renovated over the last 50 years,” said Leen Evens, the adjunct director for the cathedral. Work has been undertaken to restore the various altarpieces, four of which created by Antwerp’s favourite son, Peter Paul Rubens.
“She really shines for the moment,” Evens said happily.
The overall design of the Antwerp Cathedral is attributed to Jean Appelmans, and the site welcomes over 350,000 visitors each year. Still an active place of worship, locals take pride in their masses complete with a beautiful choir and stirring organ music.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, this marvel is the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. For a short period of time, it was even the tallest building in the world – in the 1880s. Known as the Kölner Dom in German, this Roman Catholic Church was started in 1248. It took more than seven centuries to complete, and the final product was an artistic and architectural masterpiece.
Despite its historical pedigree, the cathedral was unable to make it through World War II. In Allied bombing campaigns, it was unfortunately struck 14 times and was used as a temporary rifle range by American forces. Extensive repairs were started in 1956, but many renovations still continue today.
The cathedral is still a major pilgrimage site for people hoping to pay respects to its most famous religious artefact – a large, gilded sarcophagus believed to hold the remains of the three wise men who travelled to witness the birth of Jesus in the New Testament.
The Romanian Patriarchal Cathedral
This unassuming building in Bucharest is the centre of the Romanian Orthodox faith and has been a national symbol since the 1600s. Following an alley from Union Square leading to the Patriarchy Hill, you will find a cluster of buildings all surrounding the church. The white marble building is a working cathedral, and a number of religious holidays and observances take place here, including a Palm Sunday pilgrimage to the city.
In 1862, the Prime Minister Barbu Catargiu was assassinated as his carriage passed in front of the cathedral.
The buildings in the area, including the Cathedral, have all played key political roles in the development of Romania. It is here that the Romanians proclaimed the independence of their country in 1878, and later the Kingdom of Romania in 1881.
The city is not satisfied with just one great church. There is currently ongoing construction of a second cathedral in Bucharest. When completed, the Catedrala Neamului is expected to be the tallest Orthodox Christian church in the world.
Imperial Treasures Overlooking the Rhine
Inexorably linked to the past emperors of Germany, the so-called Imperial Cathedrals are popular attractions on any journey down the Rhine. There is the Mainz Cathedral built in the years after 975. The Speyer Cathedral that was built starting in 1030 by Conrad II. And, finally, the Worms Cathedral that was consecrated in 1110.
While the cathedral was started in 975 AD, the majority of the Mainz Cathedral dates back from the 11th to the 13th centuries. The building boasts a wide variety of imperial tombs and monuments to the powerful princes and archbishops of Germany.
A unified Romanesque building, the Speyer Cathedral has maintained its original structure since being built. The cathedral, with its basilica of four towers and two domes, is a defining reminder of the times of the Holy Roman Empire. It was the burial place of the German emperors for almost 300 years.
The current visage of the Worms Cathedral is not the first version built on the site. An earlier church -- smaller version -- was built in the seventh century. The current version of the cathedral has survived being captured by the French in 1792 and carried on despite air raids in World War II.
The Heart of Vienna
Locals agree that St. Stephen's Cathedral defines the city centre. Built in 1147, it is easily one of the most famous Viennese sights. At nearly 450ft tall, the cathedral was the highest building in Europe when it was built. More than a million visitors make their way the cathedrals massive gate each year.
Tours of the cathedral including the building's catacombs. There are unique sarcophagi holding the bones of dead rulers, archbishops, and other people sacred to the building. There are bronze containers where kidneys, livers, and other parts of great Habsburg emperors reside. In the even more macabre, the catacombs contain the bones of more than 15,000 Viennese buried since the 1700s.
During WWII, the building was almost completely destroyed in the conflict. From 1948 until 1962, there was a collective effort amongst the entire Austrian nation to rebuild the national treasure.
Image Credit: Michael D Beckwith, Espino Family, Ruben Holthuijsen, Bernd, Alexandru Panoiu, Luke Jones, Giorgio Minguzzi (flickr.com)