Religion has played a crucial role in shaping Europe’s architectural backdrop over the centuries, with some of the continent’s most illustrious landmarks built in homage to countless gods and deities.
From lavish synagogues and imposing medieval cathedrals, to glistening basilicas and ancient churches; Europe owes many of its most beautiful architectural treasures to the faith. Here we explore some of the finest religious buildings you can expect to see during an unforgettable European river cruise with Scenic.
Where else to begin a tour of Europe’s celebrated religious sites than the Notre-Dame de Paris? Lovingly referred to as ‘Our Lady of Paris’, Notre-Dame has stood on the banks of the tranquil Seine since the 12th century, and is considered the world’s finest example of French Gothic architecture.
With its dramatic western façade and adjoining stone spires, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is a true historical wonder. The beauty of its exterior means there’s little need to brave the queue and venture inside, but if you choose to do so, you’ll be gifted spectacular views of the richly embellished ceiling and the spectacular rose window.
The Great Synagogue, Budapest
The Great Synagogue of Budapest is among the world’s biggest sites dedicated to the Jewish faith. And yet, its splendour lies not in its size, but in its architectural diversity. The synagogue features a string of onion-like domes which suggest a Moorish or Oriental influence, while its gilded spires are of Byzantine appearance. Wherever its creator sought influence, its design proved incredibly popular, prompting other synagogues across the world to be built in a similar vein.
The Great Synagogue’s architectural grandeur continues inside, too, with the main hall boasting a series of gothic archways flanked by gilded candelabras. The site also features a number of unique art installations, including the magnificent Weeping Willow monument located in the rear courtyard, making it one of Budapest’s finest cultural attractions.
Cologne Cathedral, Cologne
Easily one of Germany’s most beautiful religious buildings, Cologne Cathedral is an austere and imposing Roman Catholic monument, and one whose spires dominate the city’s skyline. A World Heritage site of supreme importance, the cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark, attracting some 20,000 people a day.
Pay a visit to Cologne Cathedral yourself, and you’ll be overawed by the scale of its huge spires, which stand at over 150m tall. This gives the cathedral the largest exterior façade of any church in the world, so it’s easy to see why so many take the time to visit the site each year regardless of their faith.
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood, Saint Petersburg
Cruise the peaceful River Volga between Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and you must pay a visit to the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood. Located in Saint Petersburg’s celebrated historic quarter, this magnificent Russian Orthodox cathedral is built in the classic Romantic Nationalism style which was popularised throughout Russia during the 18th and 19th centuries. The cathedral was commissioned by Alexander III as a memorial to his father, but wasn’t finished until the reign of Nicholas II in 1907.
While it may not be the oldest site on this shortlist of Europe’s religious gems, the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is certainly one of the most unique. The church itself contains over 7,500 mosaics, and its multi-coloured domes pay homage to Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral.
Kirche am Steinhof, Vienna
Kirche am Steinhof, or the Church of St. Leopold as it’s known in English, is arguably Vienna’s most exquisite church. Built in the Art Nouveau style, Kirche am Steinhof represents the work of Otto Wagner, who was lauded for his detailed mosaics and exquisite stained glass designs. Today, the Cathedral is regarded as one of the world’s finest examples of Art Nouveau architecture, and one of the most significant turn of the century buildings in Austria.
Kirche am Steinhof is located on an elevated position in Vienna’s 14th district, and forms part of the Steinhof Psychiatric Hospital, which in itself is one of the city’s most underrated architectural wonders. With lashings of art nouveau finesse, this is a must-see site during a stopover in Austria’s historic and cultural capital.
Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam
Of all Amsterdam’s evocative religious wonders, none are more spectacular than the Portuguese Synagogue, which not only reflects the beauty of Jewish architecture and design, but the grandeur of the Dutch Golden Age. The synagogue was built and completed in the 17th century at the height of Amsterdam’s success on the world stage, and this is reflected in the synagogue’s majestic architectural design as well as its opulent finishing touches.
Located amid the canal-strewn streets of the Dutch capital, the Portuguese Synagogue was commissioned by the city’s Sephardic community, one of the wealthiest Jewish communities in Europe. Not only is the building sumptuously designed, it’s home to the Ets Haim Library, one of the oldest Jewish libraries in the world. The library is filled with original and rare texts dating back hundreds of years, and is open for the public to marvel at its antique volumes.
Avignon Cathedral, Avignon
The Rhône Valley and all of its charming towns and villages are littered with historic castles, forts and churches, and one of the region’s very best religious sites is Avignon Cathedral. Situated close to the banks of the lazy Rhône River, this beautiful cathedral has all the trappings of a typical Romanesque building, and was originally built in the 12th century beside the city’s illustrious Palais des Papes.
Sadly, during the French Revolution, Avignon Cathedral fell into disrepair, and suffered near-irreversible degradation. In 1822 however, archbishop Célestin Dupont was charged with restoring the cathedral to its former glory. Thankfully he succeeded, and the site was listed as a Monument Historique in 1840 — protecting it for future generations to enjoy.
Sao Francisco Church, Porto
Roman Catholicism is hugely significant to the Portuguese way of life, and the country is home to dozens of beautiful religious sites dedicated to the Catholic faith. One of the finest is Porto’s Sao Francisco Church, whose Gothic façade is one of the city’s most distinguishable landmarks. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, this ancient structure was established in the 14th century by King Ferdinand I, and later expanded to become the primary Roman Catholic institution in Porto.
In contrast to its imposing Gothic façade, the interior of Sao Francisco Church is noted for its baroque style artworks and opulent design flourishes. Every inch of the interior — from the floor to the ceiling — is covered in intricate carvings, and the Baroque-style gilt work is considered some of the finest in Portugal, if not Europe.
If you’re interested in visiting any or all of the sacred sites mentioned in this article, Scenic can get you there in absolute luxury and comfort. Our 5-star Space-Ships sail to hundreds of historic destinations on Europe’s waterways, providing luxurious passage to the continent’s best cultural attractions.
To browse our complete range of 5-star luxury river cruises, visit the Scenic homepage or call us on 0808 252 5111.
Image credits: Flickr Creative Commons