People from all over the world watched the news from Paris last April as fire raged in the iconic Notre Dame cathedral. Footage of the heavy old steeple breaking off and toppling to the ground broke our hearts. Reconstruction is already underway so Notre Dame can once again open the doors and welcome people in to bask in its quiet elegance. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of churches large and small, old and new-ish, across Europe. Here are a few of my favorites, along with some of the reasons I recommend you visit.
Sainte-Chapelle dates from 1248 and was a bit grimy before a recent cleaning. The glory of this church is not the exterior but rather the stained glass windows seen from the inside looking out. Once in the church, you will be astounded by more than 6,000 square feet of intricately colored glass. The panes depict 1,113 scenes from the Old and New Testaments and recount the history of the world up to the 13th century. Stand here and you are surrounded by shimmering, colorful art.
The Berlin Cathedral
The impressive Berlin Cathedral, with its magnificent dome, is a landmark in central Berlin. The church sits among the stately museums on Museum Island, with the Spree River flowing nearby. The Berlin Cathedral is the largest Protestant church in the area and is well worth a tour.
A church was first built on this site in the fifteenth century. This was the court church to the Hohenzollern dynasty, the Prussian rulers, and then the German Emperors. Due to fires and restorations that destroyed earlier churches, the baroque-style Berlin Cathedral on the island today dates from 1905. Kaiser Wilhelm II decided to build a cathedral to rival St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. And he did.
The Berlin Cathedral, damaged in World War II, was finally restored in the 1990s. Today, the interior is lovely, with a large pipe organ. A skylight of stained glass is one of the artistic touches.
What I loved most about the Berlin Cathedral was the view from the dome. Climb 270 steps, and you are looking down at the river, watching the city from your perch far above where you stand with the angels.
This cathedral in the castle grounds, and it soars above everything else. St. Vitus Cathedral impressed me with its imposing architecture. The line to get inside was very long, so I enjoyed this beauty mainly from the outside.
The one section of this cathedral I was able to go into was the dome — more stair climbing! I was a bit concerned about the person in front of me on the winding stone stairway. It’s 270 steps, and I was certainly out of breath, but she was almost hyperventilating. The views from the top were well worth the effort, though.
Sometimes the history of a cathedral in Europe is one of the most compelling reasons to visit. In the U.S., our known history doesn’t go back nearly as far so I’m amazed at the layers of centuries of life in Europe. And Westminster Abbey is a church rich in history. The present abbey dates from 1245, though a church has been on the property since 1066. The coronation of every English monarch has taken place here since the founding of the church. The last was Queen Elizabeth’s in 1953. No photos are allowed inside, but when you visit, you can see the resting places of royalty and artists, as well as walking in the footsteps of so many well known people.
I highly recommend a tour of the inside of the abbey so you can hear the many stories of the people interred here. London Walks provided an informative and lively tour. For example, we learned of the writer who was too poor to book a six-foot space for his final resting place, but he could afford a few feet. So he was buried standing up. When you’re here, wander next door to St. Margaret’s Church, a small building on the same grounds as the abbey. It’s charming, and offers intriguing tributes to the departed who “fell asleep” and to the poor soul “ejected” from his first grave.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna
This is one of Vienna’s most popular landmarks, attracting more than a million visitors each year. The people of Austria helped restore this treasured church after it was damaged in World War II. The church describes itself as “faith set in stone.” A fun fact is that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart got married here in 1782. I managed to see the inside as well as the exterior of this European beauty.
I learned that an Allied bomber aiming for a nearby industrial plant dropped a bomb on the church by mistake on April 11, 1945. Fire ravaged the church for 4 days. One casualty was the giant bell. Here’s the empty place where it hung. A bell is now in another tower. The roof of the cathedral was also destroyed. It’s been rebuilt with lovely mosaic tiles. And the view over the city is magnificent.
This tiny chapel sits in what was a concentration camp, and you have likely not heard of it. It’s the opposite kind of church from Notre Dame in Paris or Westminster Abbey. It’s in a corner of Germany far from major cities, and is simply called the “chapel.” But I found a visit here so moving. This chapel was built by Polish people in remembrance of those who suffered and lost their lives at Flossenburg during World War II. The stained glass windows depict scenes of the camp and the badge worn by prisoners.
All of these churches hold services, and many of them also host concerts and special events. Before you go, check the local schedule to make sure the church will be open to visitors. Of course, you may also want to plan to take in a concert or attend a service.
Sainte-Chapelle is open 9 am to 7 pm; cost is 10 Euros
Berlin Cathedral is open midday to 8 pm Sunday, Monday through Saturday 9 am to 8 pm; cost is 7 Euro
St. Vitus Cathedral is open Sunday noon to 5, Monday through Saturday 9 to 5; cost is 350 CZK (about $15)
Westminster Abbey suggests checking the website, as they are closed to visitors for various reasons; cost is 23 Euro, with a highlights tour Wednesday evening when most parts of the abbey are closed.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is open Sunday from 7 am to 10 pm, Monday through Saturday 6 am to 10 pm; cost of 15 Euro includes audio guide
Flossenburg Chapel is open 9 am to 5 pm daily; free