Between the 12th and 16th centuries, Gothic architecture swept Europe, with religious institutions, in particular, leading the charge. A few key advancements in architectural engineering became pivotal to Gothic construction, particularly exterior wall supports and ribbed ceiling vaults that allowed the creation of incredibly tall interiors.
While the style was continuously reimagined over its several-century domination in European architecture, some critical elements are universal to Gothic architecture. The largest departure from its predecessor – Romanesque architecture – is its overall more delicate appearance. Thick walls and heavy embellishments were abandoned for more intricate, sometimes lace-like, elements and slimmer, less imposing structural supports that allowed significantly more light to enter their elaborate stained-glass windows.
These and other hallmarks of Gothic style rendered it both an incredibly significant portion of historical architecture and a lasting testament to human ingenuity. If you’re looking to tour Europe’s Gothic masterpieces, here are some of the most celebrated examples to inspire your travel plans.
Notre-Dame Cathedral – Paris, France
Located on the relatively tiny Île de la Cité in the Seine, the massive Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the most visited buildings of any kind in the world.
Built over two centuries with the massive support of the Catholic Church, it was one of the first buildings in the world to utilize what became a staple of Gothic architecture: the flying buttress, designed to open up the nave visually by supporting their stone walls from the outside. Notre Dame showcases the single most famous example of this pivotal feature of the Gothic style.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral – Vienna, Austria
The most recognizable building in Vienna, St. Stephen’s Cathedral stands on the remains of a former Roman church, most of which was lost to a fire.
Around the remaining Roman columns was built the cathedral we see today, including the iconic mosaic roof, massive south tower, and the east-facing Gothic Albertine choir. The latter bears several sculptures, though they’re actually copies. To protect the originals, they are stored and exhibited at the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna.
Wrocław Town Hall – Wrocław, Poland
The most prominent landmark on Market Square, the historic Wrocław Town Hall has served many functions over the years, and today houses a museum, a restaurant, and a Great Hall that is used for events. Though its current iteration dates from the 15th century, it was built, rebuilt, and repurposed for over two hundred years before that, long an integral part of life in Wrocław.
Cologne Cathedral – Cologne, Germany
With a visage so iconic that it is synonymous with Cologne, the Cologne Cathedral, or Kölnerdom, is one of the most recognizable cathedrals in Europe, as well as a prime example of German Catholic Gothic architecture.
Still the seat of the archdiocese of Cologne, it is Germany’s most visited landmark, sometimes welcoming as many as 20,000 people in a day. Its exterior is largely composed of sandstone; over the years its surface has reacted with the slightly acidic rain to give the cathedral its signature black/brown coloring.
Doge’s Palace – Venice, Italy
The finest remaining example of Venetian Gothic architecture in all of northern Italy, Doge’s Palace once housed the rotating leaders of the Venetian Republic. Initial construction on the current iteration of the palace began around 1340, but over the centuries saw several additions, refurbishments, and reconstructions to add more room for the expanding administration of the growing republic.
Today Venice is a part of Italy, and the palace is now home to a museum that, in addition to showcasing the Gothic splendor of the palace, holds a wealth of treasures that illuminate the history of the Venetian Republic.
Though it was built on the site of a much smaller wooden church, St. Mary’s Church in Gdańsk owes its current state to Heinrich Ungeradin, a local architect of international renown.
Utilizing cues from other brick Gothic churches in northern Europe, it has come to symbolize Gdańsk as a whole and showcases some of the pivotal attributes of the genre, particularly in its expansive, intricately supported nave. The vaulting displayed in the ceiling is some of the finest in Europe; by utilizing two distinct styles – both ribbed and crystalline vaulting – they were able to capitalize even more on the visual intrigue created by its impossibly high ceilings.
Cathedral of Saint Bavo – Haarlem, The Netherlands
Of all of the buildings on this list, the Cathedral of Saint Bavo was built the latest. Begun at the very tail end of the 19th-century and completed in 1930, it was designed by Joseph Cuypers in a Gothic-Revival style to emulate the smaller iterations of the church previously constructed on the site. Cuypers also included both Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance elements in its design, though the cathedral’s pointed, arched windows and melange of vaulting styles are a clear nod to the Neo-Gothic.
Basel Minster – Basel, Switzerland
In 1356, a massive earthquake rocked Basel, leveling its Romanesque church. It took three different architects and a total of 150 years to rebuild the Basel Minter, this time with the vast open nave typical of Gothic churches at that time.
Iconic to the church are its two southwest-facing towers, the Georgsturm and the Martinsturm, completed in 1429 and 1500 respectively. While Basel Minster plays an important role in the region’s history, its towers are inextricable from Basel’s skyline.
Corvin Castle – Hunedoara, Romania
Built on the same site as a former fort, Corvin Castle is something of a fortress itself, encased in a double wall. Its imposing position on a hill overlooking the town of Hunedoara invokes a classic Transylvanian visage and draws scores of camera-ready tourists. It was originally commissioned by John Hunyadi in 1446 when he served as the highest-ranking official of the Voivodeship of Transylvania under the Kingdom of Hungary, and over the years it has served as a residence, a prison, and a fort, and as it does today, a tourist attraction.
Batalha Monastery – Batalha, Portugal
Though it’s officially known as the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Victory, the Batalha Monastery, as it’s more commonly known, was built after Portugal’s victory over the Castilians in the Battle of Aljubarrota. It served as the burial site for generations of Portuguese royalty, its construction alone spanned the reign of seven kings.
This is arguably the most impressive example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture in Portugal, its exterior dripping in ornate bar-tracing and relief sculpture. Inside, the proportions were tweaked to make the ceiling appear even taller than it is by narrowing the nave, amplifying the impact of its bright-white interior.
Canterbury Cathedral – Canterbury, England
Though its full name is a mouthful – the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Christ at Canterbury – what is colloquially called Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most important structures in the Anglican Church.
There has been a church on this site at least as far back as the 6th century, though evidence has been found of an even earlier Roman church. It has survived the English Reformation as well as both World Wars and remains an iconic symbol of Canterbury, the design of its quire and the Trinity Chapel were quintessential to inspiring centuries of Gothic churches that followed.
Leuven Town Hall – Leuven, Belgium
Just across from Grote Markt square from St. Peter’s Church lies the epic Leuven Town Hall, a Late-Gothic masterpiece dripping with intricate details.
Originally built as the square’s Voirste Huys (front house) to a collection of civic buildings, it was always intended to act as both a frontispiece for the town’s “living room” as well as a municipal center for its citizens. It famously bears the tell-tale ornate, carved-stone elements and pointed windows that showcase its masterful Brabantine Gothic design.
Burgos Cathedral – Burgos, Spain
Though it has several Romanesque and Baroque elements that are woven into its design, the Cathedral of Saint Mary of Burgos, or colloquially Burgos Cathedral, is unmistakably Gothic.
Its expansive inner chapel places it firmly within this style of architecture, and the decorative additions added in the 15th and 16th centuries niche the style down even further, rendering it a clear example of Flamboyant Gothic design. Though there was a 200-year gap in the two major phases of construction, the result is a seamless amalgamation of the visions of different architects, now a symbol of the city of Burgos.