Welcome to Part 2 of my Top Historic Sites in Europe series! I’m glad you came back to check out some more fantastic sites. Europe is a region that has had human activity for over 37,000 years and is just full of history. Last week we looked at 10 famous sites in Europe and why they’re worth visiting. Today we’re looking at 10 more of the amazing places around Europe that you really shouldn’t miss.
England – Tower of London
The Tower of London has had a lively history in the thousand years it has been standing and has been used for a variety of purposes over the years, ranging from a royal residence, a prison for the elite, an armory, a menagerie, home of the Royal Mint, a public record office, home of the Crown Jewels, and, most recently, a museum. The hill on which the Tower of London sits was first settled in 1066 when the Norman’s, led by William the Conqueror, conquered England. The White Tower, the most prominent building in the fortress and where the fortress draws its name, was built around 1078. The buildings around the White Tower was added during the 1190s by Richard the Lionheart, and a wharf was built in 1285 by Edward I. The Tower of London was the home of England’s royalty until the year 1547. After that, the Tower of London was only used by royalty during the few days before the coronations of Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. By the time Charles II was crowned in 1660, the castle fortress’s royal accommodations were in such disrepair that he opted to forgo the tradition of staying in the Tower of London the night before his coronation, then ending the tradition.
After the royal residence was moved from the fortress, the most famous use of the Tower of London began: that of a prison and execution ground for nobility. Though, the Tower prison was a bit more comfy than our modern view of a medieval prison. The prisoners here were mainly members of the royal family and wealthy nobility who were able wander the grounds at times and to also purchase comforts such as tapestries and higher-quality food. There were cases of torture during the Tower’s reign as a prison, but during the roughly 200 years the Tower was used as a prison, there are only 48 documented cases of torture being used. As for executions, only 7 people are known to have been executed inside the fortress walls between 1066 and the First World War. The 112 other known executions took place on a hill adjacent to the fortress, which is known as Tower Hill. And then there are all those who went ‘missing’ from the Tower, but that’s another story.
Another famous use for this site is as the home of the Crown Jewels. The Crown Jewels have been housed at the Tower of London since the reign of Henry III in the 13th century. The Jewel House was destroyed in 1669 and the Crown Jewels were moved to Martin Tower, where Colonel Thomas Blood constructed an elaborate, but failed, plot to steal them. The Crown Jewels have been housed in various locations around the Tower of London until 1994, when the Crown Jewels were moved to the Jewel House inside the Waterloo Block, which is behind the White Tower.
The most unique and unknown historic fact about the Tower of London is that a Royal Menagerie was once kept inside the fortress. King John first brought lions to the Tower during the late 12th or early 13th century and until 1830, a wide range of exotic animals, such as leopards, hyenas, baboons, wolves, bears, elephants, and tigers, were kept on the grounds. Now, all that is left are wire sculptures of wild animals and six live ravens. These are kept due to a prophecy that says the city of London will fall once ravens leave the Tower.
Erin Tracy is the owner and author of this blog, Traveling Thru History, which she uses to share her love of history, culture, and travel with her readers. You can also find stories and pictures of her travels on her Facebook page.
Slovakia – St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral
Often described as the easternmost Gothic cathedral in Europe, St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral in Košice is Slovakia’s largest church and, together with the nearby St. Michael’s Chapel and Urban’s Tower, a National Cultural Monument. Construction of the cathedral was done in five staves beginning in the late 14th century and finishing in the early 16th century, at which time it was dedicated to a Hungarian saint (today’s Slovakia was part of the Hungarian empire).
The cathedral consists of five naves, two towers, and three chapels, and is adorned with some of the finest Gothic stonework, altarpieces, windows, and frescoes. The main St. Elizabeth altar includes one of Europe’s largest sets of Gothic paintings, of which there are 48 total. The church’s architectural significance rests in how the central nave and the transept have the same length, forming a Greek cross. This also creates a large indoor space, and allows for three large decorative gables outside.
St. Elizabeth follows the style of many other medieval cathedrals in that it has its own crypt, which houses many famous remains. The most famous are the remains of Francis II Rakoczi, the Hungarian nobleman and national hero who led an 18th century independence uprising against the Habsburgs.
The cathedral also boasts several legends. The most popular holds that somewhere within the walls there is a hollow building stone, which, if removed, would cause the entire cathedral to collapse. Another says the only non-zoomorphic gargoyle, that of a woman holding a goblet and a bottle, is the alcoholic wife of a builder who immortalized her thusly in revenge for her tarnishing his name. Yet another legend has it that the St. Matthias lantern has the power to absolve the criminal guilt of anyone who can climb into it.
St. Elizabeth’s is very dear to the people of Košice. They view this cathedral as the city’s crown jewel and unofficial symbol. It was the first of its Seven Wonders, as voted by a poll of the city’s residents in 2009. The best time to visit are outside of mass, which times can be found here. On sunny days, climbing to the top of Sigismund Tower rewards visitors with a 360-degree view of the historic Košice downtown and surrounding areas.
Latvia – Riga Cathedral
Located in the heart of Riga’s Old Town, Riga Cathedral stands proudly for all to see. The Cathedral is the biggest medieval church and one of the oldest religious buildings in Latvia and also the whole Baltic region. While the original foundation stone was laid in 1211, the actual construction wasn’t get underway until 1215. Riga Cathedral was originally envisioned as a basilica, but the design was later changed and a hall church was built instead. One of the most unique construction features for this cathedral is that the materials changed over time from natural stone to brick.
At the beginning of the 15th century, the hall church was enlarged by building the western cross-nave and side chapels. The tower of the Cathedral can be first seen in a cosmography dating back to 1559, so it is estimated the tower was added during the early . According to records, Riga Cathedral Tower was the highest spire in the whole city of Riga at that time.
The cathedral was damaged by a city-wide fire in 1547 and the Gothic spire burned down entirely. A new tower was built in 1595, and the famous Riga Cathedral Rooster, which visitors today see a replica of, can be dated back to this post-fire reconstruction.
The Gothic spire was demolished in 1775 due to structural concerns and was replaced with the Baroque style present-day tower. Riga Cathedral has undergone numerous renovations throughout the 20th century. At one point from the late 1950s, the Cathedral was converted into a concert hall as religious ceremonies were prohibited under Soviet rule. The Cathedral has since been restored to replace the altar and the seating.
Today, visitors can appreciate the beautiful brick architecture combining Romanesque, early Gothic, Baroque, and Art Nouveau influences. The Cathedral serves as a busy cultural hub for performance, worship, and art – and don’t forget to wave to the Rooster high atop its perch!
Lisa and Eric of Penguin and Pia are a German and Canadian travel couple brought together by Instagram. Now, they travel the world, inspire others to waddle, and tell stories in two languages, which you can follow on their Facebook page.
Turkey – Hagia Sophia
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul has quite a history, both culturally and architecturally. It was first a Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, then it was a Roman Catholic cathedral, then it was a Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, again, then an imperial mosque, and now it is a museum. Hence, if there was one place in Istanbul that combines the different stages of Turkish history, it is definitely the Hagia Sophia.
Constructed in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia was once the seat of the Patriarch of Constantinople. For a short period between 1204 and 1261 it was converted into a Roman Catholic cathedral by the invading Crusaders, but after they left it resumed its function as a Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica. In 1453, Hagia Sophia became an Ottoman mosque and remained a mosque until 1931, when it underwent renovations to make it into a museum. The museum opened in 1935 and, since then, has been a popular site for tourists travelling to Istanbul. Not only is Hagia Sophia located in an area that is perfect for anyone who would like to visit mosques and get an insight into Istanbul’s history, but it is also a truly magical place.
One of the most striking features of Hagia Sophia is the massive dome. This feature is striking both the interiorly and exteriorly. Such a feat was considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture and is said to have literally “changed the history of architecture.” That’s just the exterior. The interior of the dome is striking in its adornment of beautiful mosaics and stunning marble pillars.
When visiting Hagia Sophia, visitors can explore two floors. When entering through the Imperial Gate, visitors will be wowed by Byzantine relics and stunning mosaics. Then, as you start making your way into the upper gallery, you will enter the nave and find several mosaics and runic graffiti. This is the best place to have a look at the dome. The dome is one of the most interesting parts of Hagia Sophia and still drives many art historians, architects and engineers crazy as it has a very innovative way compared to what the original architects actually envisioned for the dome. The first few domes placed on top of Hagia Sophia collapsed due to poor design and natural disaster, but ancient architects finally found a way to make this one stay, in spite of natural disasters, which continues to baffle those who study it.
Aside from the dome, Hagia Sophia has other unique design elements. Apart from typical elements that you can find in most churches or mosques, such as Christian mosaics and Islamic minarets, the Hagia Sophia hosts some very special features: figurative decorations of Christ, prophets, and historical figures that were added during the second half of the 9th century. The list of things to see at Hagia Sophia is endless you’ll want to set aside several hours to take it all in properly.
Clemens Sehi and Anne Steinbach found the online travel magazine, Travellers Archive, which combines detailed travel documentaries and in-depth travel guides to mostly unexplored destinations. You can follow their adventures on Facebook.
Bosnia & Herzegovina – Mostar Bridge
The Mostar Bridge (a.k.a Old Bridge/Stari Most Bridge) is one of the oldest and most recognizable structures in the Balkans. With a history dating back to the mid-16th century, the bridge helps to tell the story of not only Mostar, but of Bosnia & Herzegovina..
Built in 1566, Mostar Bridge was built by Mimar Sinan/Hajruddin, one of Suleiman the Magnificent’s architects. When it was completed, it was the widest man-made arch in the world. Legend has it that the mortar used to hold the stones together was made from egg whites and reinforced with metal pins. Even if the legend isn’t true, Mostar was a marvel of its time. Many who crossed it wrote of how no other bridge was as high or as strong, which strength was tested many centuries later.
On November 9, 1993, Mostar Bridge was bombed extensively by Croat military forces during the Croat–Bosniak War. It is estimated that around 60 mortars hit the bridge before it fell. A few years later, the decision was made to rebuild Mostar Bridge in the same fashion as before, using limestone materials as the original had been. Trying to build Mostar Bridge in the same manner as it had been before took several years and the newly rebuilt bridge wasn’t reopened until July 2004, which has allowed hundreds of people the opportunity to cross between the two halves of the city.
The first time I saw the Mostar Bridge was during the Red Bull cliff diving series. I’d heard locals often jump off the bridge in exchange for tips from onlookers, and the occasional tourist will do the bridge jump, as well. If you do get the chance to see th is, it’s an impressive feat to watch with the few seconds of freefall. Other than that, there are numerous vantage points on both sides of the river where you can get the perfect postcard shot of the bridge.
If you’d like to get to know more behind the history, book accommodations with local owners. They are more than willing to tell the history of the city from their perspective and share their personal experiences.
Though it’s not a totally uncommon site, with bridges constructed in a similar fashion found throughout the country, particularly rail bridges. The fact this bridge was destroyed in a city makes the story that much more significant.
Jub, of Tiki Touring Kiwi, is a sports loving travelling kiwi with little plans more than a week in advance. He believes experiencing sports abroad is one of the best ways to embrace local culture, if you want, ask him any questions via Facebook.
Ireland – Dunluce Castle
The ruins of the medieval Dunluce Castle make for a dramatic scene perched on the coastal cliffs in County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The first castle was built by Richard Óg de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster, during the 13th century. The earliest recorded history of the current castle shows it to have been owned by the MacQuillan family in 1513. However, in the 1550’s the MacQuillans lost Dunluce to the famous Scottish warrior chieftain, Sorely Boy MacDonnell, after losing two battles in the time of great violence and rebellion.
In the 17th century, Dunluce Castle became the seat of the Earls of County Antrim and was home to the MacDonnell clan until Sorely Boy’s grandson, the 2nd Earl of Antrim, abandoned it in 1639 and moved to Glenarm after, as legend says, after the entire castle kitchen fell into the ocean below, which prompted his wife to insist they leave. There is much speculation as to whether or not this actually happened since visitors can still see an oven, fireplace, and multiple entryways into the kitchen. Three of the four walls of the castle are still standing, with a portion of the living quarters falling into the sea during the 18th century. Even though the castle was abandoned in 1639, the ruins are still owned by the MacDonnell family.
There are many interesting stories and facts surrounding Dunluce Castle, including the tales of a banshee and the wreck of the Girona from the Spanish Armada in 1588. This wreck was of particular notoriety as it killed most of the 1300 men on board. The MacDonnell family used the cannons to fortify castle gatehouses and sold the rest of the cargo to fund restoration work of the castle in the early 1600s.
After the MacDonnell’s left the castle, they fell into poverty and quit maintaining the castle. Locals scavenged the grounds and buildings to use for their own homes and shops. Unfortunately, the city was destroyed in 1641 by the Irish and never settled again. It wasn’t until 2011 that an archaeological excavation began unearthing the remains of the city, with evidence pointing towards the use of indoor toilets and a city created with a grid system, both of which were almost unheard of in Europe during that time.
Today, the ruins are maintained by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and can be explored and photographed by the public. It was definitely one of our favorite sites along our road trip of Northern Ireland and the stunning Coastal Causeway.
Sarah and her partner, Nathan, left the Pacific Northwest five years ago to pursue a life of full-time travel and location independent business. They share their experiences, travel tips, and guides on their website, Live Dream Discover, and their Facebook page.
France – Palace of Versailles
Opulence, extravagance and grandeur – words inextricably linked to the Chateau de Versailles. The Palace with its 700 rooms, acres of formal gardens and ornate fountains, is truly magnificent and a must on your French itinerary. It actually started out as a fairly modest hunting lodge until King Louis XIV became its owner and started adding further wings and many of the features present today. Apparently, half of France’s GDP at that time was spent on building the Palace! King Louis XIV wanted to use this palace to display his wealth and dominance, and I would have to say he succeeded.
Versailles is a fascinating place to visit if you’re interested in French history as it was home to the last King and Queen of France, Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The couple were probably the chateau’s most (in)famous inhabitant. It was their indulgent and extravagant lifestyle within Versailles that played a role in the onset of the French Revolution, and the eventual demise of the French monarchy.
The Queen, Marie-Antoinette, had her own hamlet built within the estate where she would pretend play at being a peasant. As you can imagine, this did little to curry favour with the starving people of France and earned her the nickname of Madame Deficit. The hamlet, complete with several thatched cottages, a pond, bridges, gardens and even a small working farm, feels like something out of a fairytale.
There is a beautiful golden gate on the chateau’s esplanade which was actually torn down during the French Revolution. It was rebuilt almost 200 years after the Revolution and is made up of over 100,000 gold leaves which have been shaped into symbols of Apollo the Sun God, fleur–de–lis, and crowns.
We loved our visit and really enjoyed learning about the historical significance of the Chateau and its inhabitants. Our particular highlights included Marie-Antoinette’s hamlet, the farm, the musical gardens, the Petit Trianon and travelling around the estate on the little train. When you visit the Chateau de Versailles in all its grandeur, you begin to understand why there was a Revolution!
Gillian, a Francophile with a penchant for red wine, writes about family travel both in France and in Europe. She’s a Scottish expat blogger, mum of two, who has been living in rural South West France for the past 5 years and sharing about her life and adventures on her blog, The Little Den, and her Facebook page.
Kosovo – Patriarchate of Peja
The Patriarchate of Peja is a UNESCO recognized monastery in Kosovo. If you enjoy beautiful hand-drawn frescoes and elaborate interiors, this church, which is actually composed of four different chapels put together, will not disappoint. It dates back to the 13th century when it was founded by the Serbian Orthodox church. It has actually been the seat of the Serbian Archbishopric in various points of history.
The first of the four chapels, the Temple of the Holy Apostles, was built in the early 13th century by Archbishop Arsenije I. From 1321 to 1324, Archbishop Nikodim added a chapel to the northern side of the Temple of the Holy Apostles, which he called the Temple of St. Dimitrije. The last two churches, the Church of Virgin Odigitrija and the Church of St. Nikola, were built on the southern side of Temple of the Holy Apostles by Archbishop Danilo II around the same time. Over the following centuries, the insides of these chapels were adorned with intricate frescoes which chronicle the changing artistic styles of Christian art.
The last artwork was painted inside the chapels in the late 17th century when Turkish oppression forced the Christian population of Peja to abandon the city and Patriarchate. Thankfully, Patriarchate has been preserved over the last 200+ years. After WWII, the monastery was converted to a convent. There are currently over 20 nuns living full-time on the grounds.
For those knowledgeable about Balkan history, the Patriarchate of Peja is quite controversial as many Serbians believe this church should belong to Serbia. Regardless, it’s worth visiting as a historic place of religious importance, and an excellent introduction to Orthodox Christianity.
The Patriarchate of Peja is well protected by the police and entering this church requires giving your identification/passport to the police outside. It can be a bit intimidating, however, it’s worth it to visit the church. Once you’re inside the grounds, you’ll find picturesque views of the mountains as well as a friendly nun happy to show you around. Tourists are not allowed to take photos within the church, so please be aware of this when visiting the Patriarchate of Peja. It’s also possible to see earlier ruins of previous chapels that they have unearthed around the grounds.
Karen is a travel blogger at WanterlustingK, which focuses on off the beaten path European destinations. She visited Kosovo and fell in love with the Balkan region afterward, which you can see on her Instagram page.
Bulgaria – Tsarevets Fortress
If there is one place in Bulgaria that embodies the country’s glorious past, this is for sure Tsarevets – the seat of Bulgaria’s most powerful kings of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. Tsarevets is a a Bulgarian word that comes from “tsar,” which means “king.”
Before the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, there was a First. The First Bulgarian Kingdom existed between the 7th and 11th centuries and was one of the biggest rivals of Byzantium in South-Eastern Europe. However, following a Golden Age, there came the fall of the Empire and in the 11th century, Bulgaria became one of the provinces within the Byzantine Empire.
It wasn’t until the second half of the 12th century when Bulgaria could reinstitute itself as a sovereign country. In 1185, two brothers from Tarnovo, Asen and Peter, initiated a revolt that eventually led to the liberation of the Bulgarian territories and the proclamation of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, with the capital being moved to Tarnovo. From 1185 to 1396, Bulgaria was one of the biggest and most powerful countries in Europe, stretching from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea to the Adriatic Sea. Tarnovo turned into the most important cultural hub with booming architecture, literature, and art. It was called in those days the “Third Rome”. The Tarnovo Artistic School set the trends of the medieval painting and fine arts, characterized by a certain dose of realism and psychological depth. The Tarnovo Literary School was also an important institution and produced some major medieval works both in the religious and secular literature.
As for the fortress, the kings of the Asen dynasty built their stronghold on Tsarevets in 1185. Thracians, Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, and Bulgars had previously had fortifications on Tsarevets, which made it easy for the Bulgarians to improve upon. Along with the king’s castle on the site, there were also a patriarchal church (along with 17 other churches), 400 houses for the aristocracy, and an execution site. Executions were carried out by pushing convicted persons off a large rock and into the Yantra River below.
Caught in one of the loops of the meandering Yantra River, Tsarevets was an inaccessible stronghold for almost two centuries, until 1393 when Bulgaria was invaded by the Ottomans. The Turks laid siege to the fortress for three days before breaching the walls and burn Tsarevets Fortress to the ground. They ransacked and destroyed what was left of the city. This invasion and destruction of the fortress marked the end of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
Today, tourists can visit the ruins of this once glorious stronghold and learn about the cultural and historical significance of this place. There’s also a “Sound and Light” show performed at night, where the story of the rise and the fall of the Bulgarian Kingdom is told with lights, lasers and dramatic music.
Daniela is the founder and blogger at Ipanema travels to…, a blog about small charming places away of mass tourism focusing on responsible tourism, offering travel inspiration for the mindful traveller. You can learn more about her travels on her Facebook page.
Switzerland – Kapellbrucke
It’s nearly impossible to miss the Kapellbrucke, or Chapel Bridge, when visiting Lucerne, Switzerland. Built in 1333, this historic bridge is the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe and also the oldest surviving truss bridge in the world. It is 670 feet (204 meters) long and spans the Reuss River in the heart of Lucerne. A fire in 1993 destroyed part of the bridge, but it was rebuilt and stands today exactly as it has stood for over 680 years.
Kapellbrucke angles diagonally across the Reuss and around an old water tower. Walking the length of the bridge from one bank to the other is like stepping back in time to an era more sedate than our own. Swans glide through calm waters and small nesting birds, called Alpine Swifts, perch in the rafters. Seventeenth century paintings of Swiss history and important cultural figures can be seen painted onto the rafters as well. These paintings were created by Hans Heinrich Wagmann and the ones seen on the bridge today were restored from the originals after the 1993 fire.
I spent a night in Lucerne while traveling through Switzerland and simply fell in love with Kapellbrucke. The views of the town from the bridge are amazing. From here it is possible to see out toward Lake Lucerne and back across to parts of the old town. At one end is the bridge’s namesake – St. Peter’s Chapel which has existed in one form or another on the same site since the twelfth century. At the other end is an awesome Swiss bakery that serves traditional sweets and fresh-baked breads. The Kapellbrucke in Lucerne is a scenic 45-minute drive or train ride from Zurich. It is a must-see attraction in Switzerland and one of the top historical sites in Europe.
Mary Talbott of The Lifelong Adventures is a world traveler with over twenty years of international living. Writing about her global experiences, she hopes to inspire others to find their passion in the world beyond their doorsteps, which can be seen on her Pinterest page.