A region that was settled around 35,000 BC, Europe is just full of ruins and historically significant sites. I’ve been to Europe a few times and it has always amazed me how many amazing things there are to see. History mixed with modern and ruins surrounded by technology. Europe really is such a wonderful place.
Seeing as Europe is so old, there are hundreds of thousands of historic sites around the region. It’s hard to pick favorites, so I asked a group of travel bloggers which were their favorite historic sites around Europe. There are too many for one post, so this will be a five-part series showcasing the most memorable historic sites for each country. Take a look below and let me know what you think of these picks.
Germany – Frauenkirche
The large sandstone facade of the Frauenkirche “Church of our Lady” sits dominant on the landscape in the former East German city of Dresden. Dresden has a rich history as a center of arts and culture in the 18th century. Sadly, the grand baroque city was heavily bombed during the second world war and the Frauenkirche was damaged. Due to political unrest, reconstruction of the city stagnated until German reunification in 1990. The Dresden Frauenkirche has remained a symbolic landmark throughout the cities turbulent history, and not only for its religious significance.
George Bähr, the Dresden city architect and one of the best German baroque architects of the time, was commissioned to design the church. The huge stone dome, which became known as the Steinerne Glocke or “Stone Bell” was to be the focal point of the masterpiece, a feat of engineering not seen at the time.
Construction of this Lutheran church took place between 1726 and 1743. The strength of the 12-tonne dome was put to the test during the Seven Year War in 1760 when lore states the dome was pummeled with 100 cannonballs and still held strong. Again, though, on February 15th, 1945, Dresden was heavily bombed. The Frauenkirche initially held strong, but as the city turned into an inferno of fires, the heat is thought to have melted the copper ring strengthening the dome and weakened the structure of the stone pillars. The dome collapsed into the church.
Dresden locals collected and documented the rubble, hoping to rebuild the church that was so central to their city. But, under East German communist rule, religion was discouraged, and city planners wanted to clear the site. Eventually it was agreed to preserve the site and the rubble remained. Grass grew around the site and sheep even grazed in the square that had once been the center of the city for the past 1,000 years.
Following the fall of the Berlin wall and German reunification, it was decided to rebuild the Church which was to be a symbol of Dresden’s rise from the now long cold ashes. The project was funded through lotteries and donations from around the world and the church was finally completed in 2005. The cross which sits atop the Frauenkirche was smithed by hand using 18th-century techniques by Alan Smith and was gifted to the city of Dresden by the Duke of Kent as a symbol of peace.
Kaylie of Happiness Travels Here is a doctor and New Zealander who moved to Dresden, Germany, with her husband, 6-month-old daughter, and 3-year-old son in 2014. Together they have visited more than 30 countries around the world and share their adventures on Facebook.
Serbia – Kalemegdan
Belgrade’s fortress on the confluence of the Danube and Sava river has been inhabited long before it was called the ‘White City’. Prehistoric tribes in this region did not leave a huge mark, so known history starts with the Celtic tribe of Scordisci, who called the city ‘Singidunum,’ in the 3rd century BC. The Scordisci defeated Thracian and Dacian tribes that previously lived in and around the fort, so Kalemegdan’s history predates written record. After the Scordisci took possession of what is now known as Belgrade, the fort was fought over dozens of times throughout the centuries.
The third time I visited the Kalemegdan, I met a guy on a park bench who could name all the 26 or so civilizations that have fought over the region, chronologically. I can try to tell you about them, but it will be a sorry imitation compared to what this guy did.
Basically, the Scordisci invaded the area, only to be replaced by centuries of Roman emperors. After Rome’s collapse, the territory falls under the Byzantine empire and the city is renamed Belgrade. Attila the Hun makes a visit and lays the city to ashes, after which Emperor Justinian I rebuilds the fort around 535 AD. The Byzantines lose it, then gain it again while fighting off invasions by various groups like the Huns, Avars, and Goths. Legend says when Attila the Hun died, his grave ended up underneath the fortress as the structure expanded out towards the river.
After the Byzantine’s gain the area back, the first Bulgarians take it, then lose it to the Franks. The Franks get visited by the Hungarians, after which it gets retaken by the Byzantine empire and then the Crusaders passed through. A tug-of-war between the second Bulgarians and the Hungarians happened until a Serbian king took control during the 12th century and then the Hungarians gifted the fortress to Serbia when the Hungarian prince married a Serbian princess. In 1427, Kalemegdan was returned to Hungary.
In 1521, the Ottomans come by and decide to stay while fighting the Habsburg empire. During the occupation of the Turks, Austria and Serbia both invaded various times. During the 20-year Austrian occupation, Kalemegdan was rebuilt and modernized. The Ottomans left in the 19th century when Serbian rule had been established and modern-day Belgrade was born with Kalemegdan as the core and oldest section of the city.
Today, the Kalemegdan is Belgrade’s most visited and enjoyed public space. People not only come to immerse themselves in history but also to have a picnic and catch up with an old friend. Visiting the citadel is free of charge, so don’t skip it!
The most important part of the architectural heritage of Budapest was created at the end of the 19th century during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy era. Even amongst the most beautiful buildings to visit in Budapest, the majestic building of the Hungarian Parliament stands out. This magnificent building is one of the most spectacular Neo-Gothic buildings in Europe, which also includes Baroque and Renaissance elements. Its construction took about a decade and the building was officially inaugurated for the 1000th anniversary of Hungary in 1896.
The Hungarian Parliament is the third largest Parliament building in the whole world with 691 rooms, 20 kilometers of stairs and is 96m (315ft) tall. It is just as tall as St. Stephen’s Basilica, the main cathedral of the Hungarian Catholic Church. Many Hungarians still remember when a huge red star was present at the central tower of the building, which is fortunately only a distant memory now, since it was removed when Communism fell in 1990.
The Parliament building is found at one of the main squares of the city, Kossuth Square, and looks down on the Danube River. The best place to take an exterior picture of the building is from the Buda Side of the Danube River, either from the Batthyány Square or from up in the Buda Castle. From there you will appreciate even more the harmony of the building than from close range.
You can visit the Parliament building on a guided tour when the National Assembly is not in session. During the visit you will have the chance to walk on the majestic stairs, gaze at the very detailed architecture of the halls and lobbies, and you also get the chance to see the Hungarian Crown Jewels, which were moved here from the National Museum at the end of the last century.
The best way to get to the Parliament is by subway (M2), which stops at Kossuth Square itself. It’s recommended to book your tickets in advance, since usually queues are long and the number of tickets sold per day is limited.
Gábor of Surfing the Planet is a Hungarian travel blogger and photographer who has lived in Spain for more than a decade with his Italian wife, Rachele. Together they write about long-term travel and weekend getaways on their blog, which they also share on their Facebook page.
Romania – Peles Castle
Romania’s Peles Castle is one of Europe’s most stunning castles. While it’s often referred to as a castle, Peles is actually a palace, both in form and function. Built on the medieval route that linked Transylvania to Wallachia, in the Carpathian Mountains, it’s 80 miles north of Bucharest. The palace was commissioned in 1874 by King Carol I, the first King of Romania, as an extravagant summer home. The Royal family used Peles Castle up until 1954.
Peles Castle is home to 160 rooms, formal gardens with statues and fountains, and intricate murals across its exterior. Many of the rooms celebrate specific cultures like The Turkish Parlor, The Florentine Room, and The Moorish Salon. It was a palace built ahead of its time. Not only was it the first European castle lit entirely by electrical current, but the electricity was made from its own plant. Peles Castle is a delight to wander, with rooms full of stained-glass windows, Murano crystal chandeliers, and European art. A few notable rooms include; the Music Room, the Armory, and The Hall of Honour.
The Hall of Honour covers three floors and is home to retractable stain glass panels, alabaster sculptures, and carved woodwork. On a grand scale, it leaves a lasting impression. The Armory may not seem fancy to all, it is still impressive, nonetheless.
King Carol I was a proficient soldier who also helped improve Romania’s military. He amassed a large collection of over 4,000 pieces which range from European to Oriental and date from the 19th century back to the 15th. The Queen, a writer herself, was a fan of the arts, from music to literature and fine art. Carved of teak with frescoes, her Music Room is one of Peles Castle’s most breathtaking rooms.
So, whether you’re looking for a great day trip from Bucharest or on the hunt for a slice of Europe’s brilliant history, Peles Castle is a must visit. Please note: you’ll want to splurge on paying extra for the pass to take photographs.
Stephanie is the gal behind The World As I See It, where she shares her adventures, tips, and guides from her travels around everywhere from Europe to her own backyard of Ontario, Canada. She loves getting lost in cities, on the hunt for street art or a cute café, but also finding herself in the great outdoors, exploring trail after trail, all of which she shares on her Instagram.
Greece – Acropolis of Athens
The Acropolis of Athens is the most popular landmarks and a symbol of the city of Athens in Greece. The Acropolis is an ancient citadel which sits atop a hill overlooking the city of Athens and houses several ancient buildings which are of great historical importance. The site can be accessed after a short hike which leads to the main entrance of the site termed as Propylaea.
The first structure once inside is the magnificent Parthenon. The temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena and which is almost in ruins, is still one of the imposing buildings of exemplary Greek architecture. The most striking part of the Parthenon is the 58 columns enclosing the central part of the structure. On your left will be the Erechtheion, another beautiful ancient Greek temple dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon. The interesting feature here is the famous “Porch of the Maidens” which has six sculptures female figures (caryatids) built as supporting columns.
Also worth a visit here are the two ancient theatres ‘Theatre of Dionysus’ and the ‘Odeon of Herodes Atticus’ which was recently renovated and is a venue for Athens Festival and several international performances. The archaeological museum of Acropolis downhill houses some of the interesting archaeological findings and artifacts from the site of Acropolis of Athens and also original sculptures from the Acropolis buildings.
If you are in Athens you cannot miss a visit to this incredible ancient treasure. You will need at least half a day to explore the site including a visit to the museum. It is recommended you start your Acropolis early morning when the site opens at 8 am. This is the best time to avoid crowds and also the heat of the scorching sun as the Acropolis buildings are located in an open site.
Rashmi & Chalukya of Go Beyond Bounds are travel bloggers traveling as a family with their daughter. They have traveled to more than 20 countries as a family and share their experiences on their Facebook page.
Portugal – Evora Bone Chapel
Portugal is a country known for its beautiful sandy beaches, warm weather, and laid-back attitude. Less well-known are its many bone chapels; chapels that are decorated with thousands of human skulls and bones.
Of all the bone chapels (Capelas dos Ossos) in Portugal, the most famous is the chapel in Évora. The chapel was built in the 16th Century in response to two problems Évora was facing at the time: graveyard overcrowding and commercialism.
The easiest solution to graveyard overcrowding would have been to move the bones to another graveyard outside of the city, but the monks didn’t feel that this was appropriate. Instead, they decided to take five thousand of the bodies buried in the chapel’s graveyard and cement them into the walls of the chapel. This, they believed, would be a blessing to those buried as it would allow them to be part of something holy.
This approach would also provide a solution to Évora’s other problem: growing materialistic attitudes. At the time, Évora was a very wealthy city and the monks believed that peoples’ focus on material possessions would cause them to stray from the church. A church made from the bodies of five thousand former city residents would force anyone who entered the chapel to reflect on the fleeting nature of life.
To make sure they really got their point across, they also hung two corpses from the wall and wrote the words “Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos” across the entrance. The phrase literally translates as “we bones, are here, waiting for yours,” which definitely goes a long way toward reminding anyone who enters of the fleeting nature of life.
If you’re visiting Évora, I highly recommend visiting the Capela dos Ossos. Not only is it a unique experience but, as the monks intended, it will definitely force you to pause and think about life for a moment or two.
Scotland – Historic Vaults of Edinburgh
The Edinburgh Vaults are a group of chambers under arches built in the late 1700s as part of the South Bridge complex in the capital of Scotland.
Initially the chambers, or vaults, were utilized as inns or workstations for the local tradespeople. Over the years, the area deteriorated until it became a slum. Soon businesses left, and the area was populated by the city’s poorest. By the mid 1800’s, even the poorest people left the vaults which by now had become uninhabitable with no air circulation, water, sanitation or proper lighting. The area rapidly became crime-ridden: a center of prostitution, a hideaway for vagrants and fugitives, and a repository for illicit merchandise including, so the legend goes, cadavers.
Two men who prowled the vaults were William Burke and William Hare, laborers who identified a need for cadavers for medical research. These serial killers murdered guests at their lodging house, then sought out fresh victims in the bowels of the Edinburgh vaults. They suffocated the weakest victims and then sold their bodies to a doctor at the local university who used the cadavers for experimenting and anatomy research. After 16 murders, Burke and Hare were captured. One turned state’s evidence and implicated the other, who was hanged. Appropriately, his skeleton was used for anatomical display at the university where he can still be seen today.
Eventually, the vaults were filled with rocks and construction refuse rendering them completely uninhabitable. It wasn’t until the 1980s when they were again discovered, and their macabre but fascinating history brought to life. Today the vaults are used for the local Ghost Tours. Guests are given a tour of the dark, cool vaults and told stories of the days when the vaults housed murderous criminals said to still haunt the chambers. It is definitely worth visiting to get a feel for the mysterious and spooky side of this wonderful city.
Talek Nantes is the founder of Travels With Talek, a blog sharing destinations, tips and travel advice for active, adventurous adults who like culture, food and a little bit of comfort. You can find more of his adventures on his Facebook page.
Slovenia – Predjama Castle
Predjama Castle in Slovenia is the world’s largest cave castle. Perched majestically beneath imposing limestone cliffs, it was built in the 12th Century and owned by a robber baron called Erazam, who was the Slovenian answer to England’s ‘Robin Hood’. In 1483, Erazam used the castle as a place of refuge after killing a marshal whilst defending the honour of one of his friends. The cave fortress was impregnable, and despite being besieged for over a year by the Governor of Trieste, Erazam somehow managed to survive without starving to death. Secret cave tunnels enabled the castle occupants to sneak out for fresh supplies of food and water, and Erazam taunted his enemies with fresh cherries. Alas, he was eventually betrayed and was killed by a canon ball whilst sitting on the long drop!
The best view of the castle is from outside on the tournament field, a long stretch of green grass once used by knights to win the affections of the lovely ladies. If you fancy experiencing this for yourself, the castle holds a medieval feast and tournament each July. It’s quite a spectacle with such a magnificent backdrop. For the more adventurous, the secret tunnels underneath the castle can be explored on tours during the summer.
The castle isn’t exactly cozy inside, but it’s easily one of the most impressive sights in Slovenia and you can see why it would have been the perfect refuge. The castle is 5 stories high, and you can actually enter the cave itself right at the top. The most impressive room is the Armoury, which is full of replica weapons and armour and is a great place for children to put on helmets and pretend to be knights. The views from here of the surrounding countryside are stunning, too. Near to the Armoury is a bell which used to ring out a warning of impending attack, but today tourists strike it for good luck instead. Judging by the constant ringing, there must be an awful lot of lucky people out there!
Heather Cole is a travel writer and blogger at Conversant Traveller, and likes nothing better than to discover quirky and unusual places to explore around the world. She can often be found sleeping in castles, treehouses and palaces, and has a bit of a thing for English history, all of which she shares on her Facebook page.
Sweden- Decorated Farmhouses of Hälsingland
Residing in Hälsingland, Sweden, these seven painted farmhouses (also known as Hälsingland farms) are a shining example of the regional architecture that was dominant in the area in the 19th century, but also harkens back to the main style of architecture in the Middle Ages. Remarkably, the barns are built entirely with wood, a rarely-used feature in barn building, and serves as a reminder of the growth and prosperity these farmers enjoyed.
Perhaps the most identifiable feature of these farmhouses is how big and majestic they are. Farmers often built these farmhouses quite large so they could freely host large gatherings such as festivals, weddings, or other celebrations. These festivity rooms, lined with intricate wallpaper, were elaborately decorated with Biblical motifs and contained paintings from all over the area. These were highly specialized rooms and were only used occasionally for particular events. Seasonal festivals, such as the summer solstice and the fall equinox, provided opportunities for locals to get together, slaughter a fattened hog or calf, and celebrate all evening long with games and dances.
These large, multifunctional farmhouses are historically and culturally significant in Sweden due to their unique timber architecture and elaborate folk art and paintings. They represent a high time in Sweden’s agricultural heyday while also invoking the pagan and Christian heritage that spread through the land. Pagan in that the farmers were closely tied to the Earth for crops, but also attuned to Christian stories and traditions.
These houses are built closely together and represent the style of living farm families of that era typically lived. They also had other multifunctional buildings nearby which were used for milk, milling, or slaughtering. Families were often large and had to work together, thus the formation of these farms is a glimpse back into history.
Visiting these beautiful painted houses feels like stepping back into the pages of a history book. The simple life, for as idyllic as it looks in the movies, was often difficult and required long hours of work every day. But when the time comes to cut loose and celebrate, these farmhouses were exactly where you wanted to be.
Scott and Hayley of International Hot Dish are two Minnesotans on an adventure around the world. They love culture, food, new experiences, and making money on the road, all of which they share with their readers on their Twitter page.
Vatican City – Roman Necropolis
When Pope Pius XI died in 1939, work began to create his tomb in the Vatican grottoes. However, diggers came across the remains of an ancient mausoleum under St Peter’s Basilica. During the papacy of Pope Pius XII, more mausoleums were excavated, revealing a sprawling Roman necropolis and also a shrine to the first head of the Church.
To visit the necropolis, one needs to contact the Vatican Scavi office well in advance to reserve a spot on a guided tour. It costs 13 euros and the limited places fill up quickly. You enter via a separate entrance near the southern colonnade of St Peter’s Square, where there is queue is infinitely shorter than the one that leads to the basilica. Just note that no photography is allowed inside.
In groups of no more than 15, the tour takes in several of the 1st and 2nd Century Roman mausoleums that were discovered during the excavations. Many are in a good state of preservation, so it is easy to imagine what it was like when they were above ground and in active use. Now that they are underground, I would recommend doing it outside the summer months because it is a humid and stuffy environment.
Our guide, a Vatican archaeologist, led us through the dark and narrow passages, showed us the frescoes, explained Roman burial traditions and interpreted the inscriptions on the lintels. These date from the time before Christianity was a legal religion in the Roman Empire, but one of the tombs shows hints that the owners were Christians.
The tour culminates in a visit to the spot closest to where St Peter was buried after his martyrdom, right under Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s baldachin in the present-day basilica. The ancient Christians built a small trophy to mark the site; what you see now is the marble sarcophagus that encloses it and the graffiti that was left by pilgrims. To be this close to the “rock” on which the Latin Church was built is very special indeed.
The tour ends in the Vatican grottoes, where several of St Peter’s successors are buried, and allows the visitor to explore the interior of the Renaissance basilica (not the Vatican museums) without waiting in line again.
Want to see more historic sites in Europe? Check out Part 2 of the series!