When considering what makes the great cities of Europe great, one of the foremost things that come to mind is their architecture.
Encompassing hundreds of years of changing and evolving ideologies, religions, and cultures, the architecture around Europe ranges from the uniform Haussmann apartment buildings of central Paris to the trendy functionalism of modern Norway. Ornate, beautiful churches like La Sagrada Familia and London’s Westminster Abbey are internationally-recognized examples of the Gothic style.
But history aside, one of the things that make European cities such magnets for evocative, world-class architecture is the contrast. In places like Paris and Bergen, historic buildings sit side-by-side with avant-garde contemporary creations, making the cities themselves works of art worth contemplating on casual walks.
Whether you are a lover of architecture or someone eager to learn more about the medium, these European cities need to be high on your travel list.
Spain’s third-largest city and the capital of the autonomous Valencian region, Valencia is an eye-catching mishmash of architectural styles influenced by the Romans, Arab and Moroccan Moors, and the Spanish over thousands of years. In the historic city center, you’ll find examples of Gothic, Rococo, and Art Nouveau, as well as Art-Deco-influenced Spanish Modernista, a Catalan school of architecture that produced the work of Gaudí. Some must-visit sites include the 13th-century Roman temple-turned-mosque, the Gothic La Lonja de la Seda market-turned-municipal-office, and the flamboyant Rococo style of the Palace of the Marqués de Dos Aguas.
But it’s not all historic architecture. Designed by Santiago Calatrava, the City of Arts and Sciences is an events complex full of soaring, futuristic buildings that house museums, a planetarium, and an oceanographic park.
Along with art, culture, and plenty of great Italian food, Italy’s capital is renowned for its stunning Romanesque, Baroque, and Renaissance architecture. It’s the home of instantly-recognizable buildings like the Colosseum, founded in AD 70, and Trevi Fountain.
From the time of the Ancient Romans, Rome has been a center for the development of revolutionary engineering and architectural styles. The most notable is Classical, giving the world vaulted ceilings, domes, and arches used in both buildings and cutting-edge engineering and construction projects like aqueducts. Dating from the late 1800s and early 1900s, neoclassical and utilitarian Fascist styles also became prevalent. There are tours focused on architecture that you can take to learn more about the different buildings and eras.
Walking the streets of this Belgium city feels like stepping back into the Middle Ages. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, central Bruges houses wonderfully preserved examples of medieval and Gothic architecture. Along with charming brickwork houses with gabled roofs, cathedrals like The Church of Our Lady and former residences and commercial buildings turned into museums like the Gruuthusemuseum are some of Bruges’ best architectural treasures.
Featuring vaulted ceilings, colorful walls and columns, an ornate Renaissance exterior, and a vial of blood said to belong to Jesus, the Basilica of the Holy Blood is a must-visit. Two of the best ways to get a unique view of the city are by taking a boat ride along the historic canals or by climbing the 366 steps to the top of the Belfry of Bruges, a medieval bell tower overlooking the city center.
Venice hardly needs an introduction. This floating city in northern Italy, built on over a hundred islands in a coastal lagoon with canals for roadways, is an engineering and architectural marvel.
With Moorish and Byzantine influences like colorful tilework, Venetian Gothic is the prevailing style, with examples of Gothic and Renaissance architecture as well. The Doges Palace, St. Mark’s Square and Basilica, the Rialto Bridge, and the sights along the Grand Canal are some of the best places to view architecture around the city, but tiny alleys and canals are well worth getting lost down to find hidden treasures.
Held bi-annually since 2000, Venice also hosts the Venice Biennale of Architecture, a global hub for what’s new, innovative, and up-and-coming in architecture.
If you’re looking to immerse yourself in a city dominated by forward-thinking modern architecture, Rotterdam is the place. Heralded as the architectural capital of the Netherlands due to its innovative bridges, houses, commercial spaces, and museums, Rotterdam is the home of the esteemed International Architecture Biennale.
Some of the most popular buildings include the cubist Kijk-Kubus houses built in 1982 by Piet Blom and meant to resemble an urban forest, the New York-esque Witte Huis, Europe’s first skyscraper, the industrial-styled Van Nelle Factory, and the swan-like Erasmus Bridge. But you’ll still find some historic buildings sprinkled throughout, like the Gothic Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk church.
One would hardly think of edgy, modern architecture when imagining a romantic city in the heart of the French wine country. But in the port city of Bordeaux, that’s the reality. From the La Méca cultural center to the immense curves and golden panels of the Cité du Vin wine museum, contemporary architecture has a solid foothold here.
But historic architecture is still alive and well thanks to an immense 1990s restoration initiative. Returning many Gothic, Neoclassical, Romanesque, and Renaissance churches, buildings, and residences to their former glory, now visitors can appreciate and visit landmarks like the elegant Place de la Bourse and its reflecting pool, the Cathédrale Saint-André with its enchanting flying buttresses, and the medieval Grosse Cloche gate and bell tower.
The Austrian capital is generally associated with Gothic and Baroque architecture thanks to magnificent residences and palaces like Schönbrunn. While an abundance of exquisitely-preserved churches, homes, castles, and buildings are found throughout the city, harkening back to Vienna’s heyday as one of the great creative centers of Europe, Vienna has quite the contemporary architecture scene as well.
The curving facade of the 1970s Wohnpark Alt-Erlaa, a social housing experiment designed by Harry Glück, is a standout. The austere Postsparkasse is a Wes Anderson-esque example of Modernist architecture, and the Mumok art museum calls to mind the prow of a ship with its sharp edges. The colorful, abstract Hundertwasserhaus is another modern treasure to visit.
Scandinavian architecture is notable for its clean, sharp lines, uncluttered facades, and overall minimalist aesthetic. The buildings of Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, are excellent representatives of this now globally-recognized style of architecture.
The skyline is dominated by the Turning Torso, an over 600-foot-high skyscraper that appears to be twisting. Think malls are visually boring? You’ll change your mind upon encountering the glassy golden exterior and blue, Escher-esque escalators of the Emporia shopping center. Among all these modern masterpieces are also historic gems like the Dutch Renaissance City Hall, first built in 1546 and renovated in the mid-1800s, and the Sankt Petri Kyrka church.
Notre Dame. The Eiffel Tower. The Louvre Museum and its new modern glass pyramid. The 19th-century Haussmann apartment blocks that dominate the city center. When thinking of architecture and Paris, all these iconic examples instantly come to mind.
The birthplace of Gothic architecture, here you’ll encounter styles ranging from castles and city walls dating from the Middle Ages to grand Belle Epoque and Art Nouveau palaces. Although Paris is rightfully protective of its far-reaching historic architecture, it also looks to the future with contemporary buildings like the Georges Pompidou Center, the Brutalist Les Orgues de Flandre residences, and the revolutionary Villa Savoye by Le Corbusier.
Prague, Czech Republic
Known as the City of a Hundred Spires, the cobblestone streets and squares of Prague are lined with extravagant churches and houses dating hundreds of years old. From the 13th-century Old-New Synagogue to the Tower of Church of Our Lady Before Týn, Gothic architecture dominates the landscape here, but there are many examples of Baroque, Rococo, Renaissance, and Moorish Revival styles.
Standing out against this diverse historical backdrop can also be found modern pieces like utilitarian buildings dating from the Communist Era such as the boxy Zizkov TV Tower, the cubist Villa Müller, and the famously flowing walls of Dancing House, co-designed by Frank Gehry and Vlado Milunić.
From its romantic New Town full of classic Georgian architecture to the moody city center with its abundance of medieval and Gothic architecture, Edinburgh is a magical walk through architectural history.
The blackened churches and monuments like the Scottish National Monument and the Melville Monument in St. Andrew Square, made from sandstone that was stained black by soot and smoke, are a hallmark of the Scottish capital.
Around and outside the city, you’ll also find beautifully-preserved castles like the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh Castle. While preserving its past, the city has also found ways to incorporate modern elements, like converting old arches into studios for artists and the whimsical, almost Seussian Post-Modern complex housing the Scottish Parliament.
Exploring Basel in northwestern Switzerland feels a bit like having one foot in the past and one foot in the future. The immaculately-preserved Old Town is full of beautiful Gothic and medieval churches and buildings. The influences of neighboring Germany and France can be seen in timber-framed houses painted in dazzling colors. The elegant Town Hall, made of vibrant sandstone, and the 12th-century cathedral are two of the most eye-catching examples.
On the flip side, Basel has become a bastion for visionary modern architecture. Heralded as Switzerland’s capital of architecture, there are buildings by the likes of Frank Gehry, Mario Botta, Richard Meier, and a laundry list of esteemed design firms. See the past and present clash at the whimsical Werkraum Warteck Stairs, be swept away by the lush red interiors of Stadtcasino Basel, and seek out Brutalist buildings like Basel College of Art and Design and Vitra Campus.
Influenced by centuries of trade between the East and the West, as well as the tastes of royals and regimes, Croatia’s capital is one of Europe’s most underappreciated architectural hubs. The practiced eye will spy everything from Gothic to Baroque to the city’s trademark Austro-Hungarian architecture, prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries and drawing on elements of the Art Nouveau. Due to the political upheaval of southeastern Europe during the 1900s, you’ll also find examples of Brutalist and Bauhaus styles in apartments and houses.
Fans of Greek art and culture cannot pass up a chance to visit Athens, the former heart of the Ancient Greek empire turned modern capital. It was the Greeks who gave the world iconic architectural features like Doric and Corinthian columns.
The first place to start is by visiting historic monuments, temples, and amphitheaters, like the Temple of Zeus and the Parthenon at the Acropolis. From there, move forward in time to Neoclassical classics like the Hellenic Parliament and the National Historical Museum. Although much of the city feels frozen in time, you’ll still find glimpses of modernity at places like the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center and the Blue Condominium.
With terracotta red-tiled roofs stretching as far as the eye can see, Florence is an excellent example of the power of uniformity in architecture to make a statement. With most of its buildings built in the Renaissance style with colorful marble facades, red roofs, and abundant use of art and frescoes, there is a sense of harmony. The Florence Cathedral, with its grand dome, has to be on any must-visit list, with its ornate exterior and beautiful interior frescoes. The iconic Ponte Vecchio, with its jumbled shops spanning the Arno River, is also an essential stop.
Set against a mountainous backdrop, the city of Bergen in southwestern Norway is the gateway to the Norwegian fjord country. While the natural surroundings are a big reason to visit, tourists should spend time exploring the town itself. Colorful houses dot the hillsides behind, and in town and along the waterfront at the Hanseatic Wharf, the colorful homes and shops cluster together. You can find different architectural styles reflected in the local churches, from the Neo-Romantic Sankt Jakob to the traditional Norwegian stave church Fantoft Stavkirke. Nods to modern Scandinavian architecture include the angular new fishing market building.
St. Petersburg, Russia
With its pastel-hued palaces, colorful domed churches, and imposing Stalinist office blocks, the architecture of St. Petersburg captures the history of Russia in its buildings.
Along with the Winter Palace, a turquoise and aqua gem built in the Baroque Elizabethan style, arguably the most famous building in the city is the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. Inspired by medieval Russian architecture, it was designed to look similar to Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral. The rest of the city is full of Baroque and Neoclassical gems, as well as examples of Stalinist design like the House of the Soviets.
Where can you find an underground modern museum full of Viking exhibits, angular white apartments with blue glass terraces that look like icebergs, and charming timber houses dating from the 18th and 19th centuries? Only in Aarhus.
This Danish city is home to medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, and the Art Nouveau-inspired National Romantic. But Aarhus is most famous currently for its examples of Functionalism architecture, as well as modern and post-modern. This is an especially good place to see how architecture can interact with nature, like the grass-covered Moesgaard Museum, the Infinite Bridge at Varna Beach, and the Harbor Bath swimming complex.
Awash in red tile roofs, historic apartments painted in warm hues, and Portugal’s iconic colorful azulejos tiles, this romantic city beckons to be discovered. First and foremost to learn about Porto architecture are its six bridges which span the River Douro, combining both engineering and architectural style. Second to know is that although Porto is full of beautiful Romanesque, Gothic, and Portuguese Baroque, it’s actually an up-and-coming star in the world of contemporary architecture. The Serralves Museum and the geometric Casa de Musica are two standout examples.
From ultra-modern skyscrapers like the Shard and 30 St Mary Axe to uniform Georgian-style housing estates, London is a treasure trove for architecture lovers. Of course, you’ll have to seek out the famous spots, like the Tower of London, which dates from 1078, the Regency-era Park Crescent, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and so many more. But also seek out the underappreciated treasures that aren’t all over the tourism pamphlets, like the Brutalist Barbican housing estate and cultural center or the Industrial Battersea Power Station, now a cultural and commercial hub.