I’ve always had a fascination with churches and cathedrals. The history of how churches came to be and the stories of how they were built spins a compelling narrative that spans hundreds of years. The Catholic Church has a long history that is deeply intertwined with Western culture. The Church’s influence is inescapable. The fire of my interests exploded after having read Ken Follett’s incredible novel, Pillars of the Earth. Pillars of the Earth is a historical novel focusing on the fictional town of Kingsbridge in England. It’s an epic tale, but the main focus is the construction of a cathedral in the town. The story spans years and generations, and even though it’s 800 pages, it’s a page turner. The book gave me a new-found appreciation and layman’s understanding of how a cathedral is built. Since reading this book, visiting cathedrals and basilicas while traveling has never been the same. Below, you will find my ten favorite cathedrals and basilicas from my backpacking trips to Europe, along with photos, and my favorite memories from each.
1.)Duomo di Firenze, Florence
Favorite Moment: Visiting Duomo was an incredible experience. Nothing can really prepare you for it’s magnificent presence, which made my first glimpse all the more magical. Much like famous mountains and other world renown buildings, your mind can’t really comprehend or assemble the true scale from viewing a photograph. I usually don’t pay for guided tours while traveling, but I couldn’t resist the lure of grasping the history of such a project. There was also the fact that they had a discount for purchasing the crypts entrance, guided tour, and the Brunelleschi Dome climb together. It was well worth it. Filippo Brunelleschi was an absolute master architect and engineer, one of the very best from the Italian Renaissance. Climbing the Brunelleschi Dome was quite the experience in the baking heat of a Florentine summer. The cramped stairways and stale air had me feeling like a monk in no time. It was all the perfect buildup to what the outside catwalks had in store. Looking up at the dome from the city streets below was special, but climbing to the top and looking down on Florence took things to a whole new level.
2.) St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Favorite Moment: St. Peter’s Basilica is one of the largest churches in the world, and one of the most famous works of Renaissance architecture. Located in Vatican City, St. Peter’s is an incredible addition to a visit to Rome. It’s like walking back in history. After spending the week visiting the Coluseum, the Pantheon, The Forum, Trevi Fountains, and countless other historical sites, to explore Vatican City was just the icing on the cake. I went with a group I met at my hostel, and we started at the Vatical museum. I went in thinking they only had religious artifacts, but their collection is one of the very best in the world. As we walked in to St. Peter’s, crepuscular rays came beaming down over the alter with Bernini’s baldacchino. After exploring for a bit, we climbed the cupola (dome) and were treated to spectacular views of Vatican City and Rome. We were enjoying ourselves so much that we lost track of time, and by the time we made it down everything was closed up. The major problem is that all of our bags were still at the bag check at the Vatical Museum! We looked around for a while, knocked on the doors, and finally someone came out. They took us over to the Swiss guards, where all of our things had been stowed away. We got to walk “behind the scenes” and see some of the grounds we would have never seen otherwise. It was an incredible after hours experience!
3.) Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre, Paris
Favorite Moment: Like many, visiting Paris had always been a dream of mine. From the very infancy of my travel dreams, I knew one day I’d be walking past the Eiffel Tower and strolling down Champs-Élysées on my way to Arc de Triomphe. After watching Amelie in college, I added Montmartre to the list of places I had to go upon visiting “The City of Light”. I spent an entire day taking in the art, music, and romance of Montmartre. The one feature I didn’t expect to like so much was the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur. The basilica is the highest point in the city, and gave me my favorite moment of looking down on Paris from above. The day was filled with dark clouds and intermittent showers, the perfect backdrop for getting into character while pacing in the crypts of an old church.
4.) Notre Dame, Paris
Favorite Moment: I arrived in Paris after catching an overnight train from Barcelona. As tired as I was, I couldn’t fathom the thought of wasting anytime in Paris with sleep. Luckily, I couldn’t check in to my hostel until noon, and I arrived at 7am. I put my things in a locker, and made my way to the subway to start exploring. I stepped out of the subway station and spent a few hours roaming around the canals before finding a place for breakfast. I realized within two seconds that I didn’t know enough French, and that the French I did know was useless. Luckily, the stereotypes of rude Parisians did not hold true, and every person I met was incredibly kind to me. It was a great way to start my visit in Paris, and on a full belly of coffee and bread, I made my way to Notre Dame. There isn’t a singular moment that sticks out as my favorite here, other than the fact that it was the first time it hit me that “I’m in Paris!”.
5.) Basilica di San Marco, Venice
Favorite Moment: When most people think of Venice, their first thought is of the canals. The canals are gorgeous and definitely the main attraction in Venice, but Piazza San Marco and St. Mark’s Basilica are destinations in their own right. Venice was my first stop in Italy, and much like my moment in front of Notre Dame, it was in the Piazza I had my “I’ve arrived” moment. The Campanile di San Marco (bell tower) is one of the most recognizable icons of Venice. Climbing to the top for a bird’s eye view of Venice was incredible. From up above, you lose all sense of time and space, and each ant moving below looks as it did many years ago. A huge part of travel for me is walking back in time and history, and viewpoints like this help me wash off the veil of globalization to step back for only a moment.
6.) St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague
Favorite Moment: Prague was the first city that I ever visited in Eastern Europe. The great thing about visiting Prague was that it was completely unplanned. Julia and I had just finished trekking Tour du Mont Blanc where it had rained for a week straight. Our initial plan was to continue on for the Haute Route, but with more rain in the forecast, we changed our plans for an Eastern Europe trip instead. The hotel I booked was only a few blocks from St. Vitus Cathedral, and being so close, it was the first landmark we visited. My favorite moments were learning about the history of Prague, of which I knew very little. The museums on the surrounding grounds are incredible, and do a great job of making you feel like you’re stepping back in time. Some of the true historical story archs seemed like the provided the direct inspiration to Game of Thrones! To top things off, I got a bit of a movie like exit when leaving the Cathedral grounds. One of my favorite pieces of music is Bedřich Smetana’s Má vlast, and a quintet of Czech musicians were playing the tune at sunset just outside the gates of Prague Castle. Simply perfection.
7.) Cattedrale di Pisa, Pisa
Favorite Moment: No backpacker’s visit to Italy is complete without some time spent in Pisa. It makes for a great side trip if you’re visiting Florence, as it’s only a short distance away. The Pisa Cathedral and Pisa Baptestry are iconic buildings on the Piazza dei Miracoli landscape. It’s a shame more don’t visit this area to appreciate the beauty of these buildings, but instead flock to the Leaning Tower. My favorite moment in Pisa was learning about the history of the area through the eyes of Galileo. It was at the Learning Tower that Galileo famously conducted his experiment of dropping two balls of different mass to demonstrate that the descent time was independent of the ball’s mass. It was in the Cathedral that Galileo observed a lamp swaying and developed the idea to regulate and measure time with a pendulum. There are documents to suggest Galileo was baptized in the Baptistry in the second photo below. Finally, there is the cemetery of Pisa, the final resting place of mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci and the physicist Carlo Matteucci.
8.) St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest
Favorite Moment: Budapest was the final stop on my tour of Eastern Europe last summer. St. Stephen’s Basilica doesn’t have any of the history that the other churches on this list share, but it does have incredible views. The Cathedral has what I consider the best views from Pest. It was an incredible hot and sticky day when we arrived in Budapest, but I was still eager to get out and explore. There was only one problem, the accommodation I booked on Expedia was a complete sham. For starters, I met the manager of the apartment in a mini-mart on the street we were staying on. She proceed to unlock a dungeon like door into an unlit foyer painted with cobwebs and smelling like centuries old must. At that point I was still okay…that’s when she led us to our door that was clad with 6 different locks. At this point I was starting to get worried. Upon entering I saw the pieces of a couch and bed on the floor halfway assembled, empty beer cans and half eaten take out food on the couches, and more mold in the shower than anything I had ever seen before. It was at this point I told the manger I was cancelling the reservation, and against my thrifty travelers habit, I booked us a decent hotel. After checking in to the much more comfortable hotel, Julia and I made our way out into the city feeling like we just avoided a train collision. Our first stop was the Basilica, and it signified the beginning of another great city visit.
9.) Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Santiago
Favorite Moment: Camino de Santiago was the most transformative traveling experience I’ve had to date. Starting in France, and walking 500 miles across Spain to Santiago is something I’ll never forget. The Camino is a Catholic pilgrimage route that originated in the 9th century. My favorite moment was walking through the city of Santiago early in the morning with fellow pilgrims all around me. Reaching Santiago after a month of walking brought up emotions I’m still not able to put into words. I spent the rest of the day exploring the city and soaking up all of the positive energy from fellow pilgrims. I arrived in Santiago just as the pilgrims mass got underway, and the timing could not have been any more perfect. Just as I stepped into the nave of the church, they began swinging the iconic botafumeiro, the thurible swinging incense made famous by churches in Galicia. It was a spectacular moment, and one I’ll never forget.
10.) Salisbury Cathedral, Salisbury
Favorite Moment: Stonehenge was one of the top sites on my list to see while visiting London. In order to see Stonehenge, you have to take a train to Salisbury first. I figured I’d make the most of the day and explore the town a little bit while I was there. Salisbury Cathedral was finished in 1258 and embodies early English architecture. Salisbury Cathedral has the tallest church spire in all of the UK. The Cathedral also has the worlds oldest working clock, and the best preserved of the four original copies of the magna carta. I had now idea how much of a history lesson I was in for when I began my visit. It was amazing how few people visit Salisbury, especially when compared to the other buildings on this list. Because of this, the staff are very informative and attentive. I would highly recommend a day trip for anyone visiting London.
Have you traveled to Europe and visited the cathedrals and basilicas? Did I leave any of your favorites off of the list? Post your thoughts and stories in the comment section below!