Gothic architecture is probably one of the best-known architectural styles in the world. The style expanded quickly in Europe due to its close connection to the Catholic church and held its ground for several centuries. For this roundup, we have asked fellow travel bloggers for their favorite examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.
What is Gothic Architecture?
The Gothic architectural style developed in northern France in the early 12th century. At the time, the Capetian dynasty of French kings had established their power base in the region which led to an immediate upswing in influence and, of course, wealth. To demonstrate their newfound riches, as well as their religious faith, they soon built monumental cathedrals and monasteries. The first notable building to be constructed in the new style was the Basilica of Saint-Denis, in what is today one of Paris’ northern suburbs. From here, the style quickly spread throughout Europe.
Gothic architecture is best characterized by pointed arches, flying buttresses, rib vaults, and rose windows. Unlike later styles, Gothic was reserved for ecclesial buildings and certainly didn’t find its way into vernacular architecture. It was, however, revived in the 19th century, when the Neo-Gothic style was applied to other structures as well.
Best Examples of Gothic Architecture in Europe
1. Vienna, Austria
Gothic architecture arrived in Austria relatively early and gradually developed from Romanesque in the 13th century. At the time, Austria was firmly Catholic which added to the style’s quick advancement in the country. Although the first notable Gothic buildings popped up in Lower Austria, Austria’s real Gothic marvel is St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.
Built between 1304 and 1340, the church was expanded several times throughout its existence. Despite its imposing nature, it would take another three centuries before the Diocese of Vienna was elevated to an archbishopric.
The church is built with local limestone and best known for its blend of late Romanesque in the west front and Gothic extensions. The sides of the building are adorned with pointed-arch windows, typical of the Gothic period. Another interesting feature of the exterior are the so-called ell-fixtures, a length standard which was used at Viennese markets during the time. St. Stephen’s most notable attribute, however, is its colorful roof. Covered with over 200,000 glazed tiles, the roof depicts the coats of arms of the City of Vienna and of the Republic of Austria on the north side.
The interior shines in Gothic glory with no less than 18 altars, an intricate stone pulpit, six formal chapels, and the famous Maria Pötsch Icon. Make sure to allow enough time for exploring this architectural gem and don’t forget to also check out the tombs and catacombs beneath the cathedral!
2. Vilnius, Lithuania
When the Gothic architectural style expanded to Lithuania in the 14th century, the country became the style’s most eastern outpost. Interestingly, the first buildings to be constructed were intended for German merchants, rather than locals, as the predominant religion in Lithuania was still Paganism at the time. As a result, most of the Gothic buildings you can see in Lithuania today only developed in the late 15th and early 16th century.
The most notable Gothic landmark in Vilnius is without a doubt the Church of St. Anne. Due to its late construction date in the late 15th century, Gothic had already developed into what is known as Flamboyant Gothic, which makes St. Anne Church one of the style’s leading examples in the Baltic countries. In addition, local brick was used which also adds to the church’s distinct charm and makes it a living example of Brick Gothic.
The uniqueness of the building best presents itself in its facade. Overly exaggerated point-arches dominate the picture, reminiscent of the traditional Gothic style, but are framed with rectangular elements, atypical of more common Gothic examples. Supposedly, Napoleon was so impressed with the building, we wished to ‘carry the church home with him to Paris in the palm of his hand.’
3. Prague, Czech Republic
Due to its central location in Europe, the Gothic style arrive in the Czech Republic relatively early in the 13th century. The style developed quite a bit during its existence which is why it is often categorized into three sub-styles: Přemyslid Gothic (Early Gothic), Luxembourg Gothic (High Gothic), and Jagiellonian Gothic (Late Gothic).
Gothic churches and monasteries appeared relatively quickly and wide-spread, but one of the style’s most notable examples is, of course, St. Vitus Cathedral in the capital Prague.
Commissioned by John of Bohemia in the mid-14th century, the church’s first contributing architect, Matthias of Arras, heavily drew inspiration from the Papal Palace in Avignon. He is responsible for the building’s beautifully pronounced flying buttresses, a key element in Gothic architecture. After his death, architect Peter Parler mostly followed his original plans, but added his own touches as well, such as net-vaults, a relatively revolutionary element at the time.
Many more architects worked on the cathedral throughout its existence, and, in fact, it was only completed in the 20th century. Despite more modern influences, such as some Art Nouveau windows, St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague remains one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Europe.
4. Milan, Italy
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Gothic architecture was first introduced into Italy in the 12th century, after being imported from Burgundy (which is now eastern France). The first Gothic structures in Milan (such as Santa Maria in the Brera area) were more understated, with less decoration, and often made of brick. As Gothic architecture began to spread throughout Europe, construction on the Duomo di Milano began (in 1386).
The Cathedral in Milan took nearly six centuries to complete and it is now the largest church in Italy, the third largest in Europe and the fourth largest in the world. Being that the Milan Cathedral took so long to complete, some of the construction (including the lower level, constructed in the 1600’s) is said to be more inspired by Renaissance design. But the roofline that the Duomo di Milano is most known for its classic Gothic design of spires, pinnacles, gargoyles and over 3,400 statues. The most famous of all the statues is the Gold Madonna that sits higher than the rest of the statues and can be seen from the terrace atop the cathedral. When visiting Milan, you can’t miss the cathedral!
5. Rouen, France
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One of the best examples of Gothic architecture in France is Rouen Cathedral which was completed in the 12th century in the Early Gothic style. Over the years, many parts were added, damaged, remodeled, and changed. In the 16th century, it was badly damaged during the French Religion Wars and World War II also left its mark on this imposing building.
You can admire the impressive Gothic architecture on display in the massive and intricate interior, with its vaulted ceilings that were once the highest in the world. There are three prominent towers, the Tour de Beurre (butter tower), Tour Saint Romain, and Tour Lantern – each towering over the whole cathedral.
The main facade of the cathedral is a prime example of Flamboyant, a late Gothic style developed in France in the late 14th century. The left portal (Porte St-Jean), however, is an important survivor of the 12th-century Early Gothic period. The nave has a four-story elevation, restrained height, and architecture elements that focus attention downward, instead of to the heavens like later Gothic architecture. The Chapelle de la Vierge (Lady Chapel) is adorned with Renaissance tombs of French royalty as far back as 900 AD. The most famous royal relic is the heart of Richard the Lion-Hearted of England.
Apart from its religious and architectural importance, Rouen Cathedral also used to house over 30 works by Claude Monet which have since been moved to the Musee d’Orsay.
6. Chartres, France
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Chartres Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been dubbed the “high point of French Gothic art”. It’s widely considered to be France’s best example of Gothic architecture, even more so than Notre-Dame in Paris.
Since the previous cathedral of Chartres, which had been built in the Romanesque style, burned to the ground, the one that replaced it was not a hodgepodge of previous styles, as is often the case. Instead, it was built entirely in the Gothic style between 1194 and 1250 and is very harmonious.
Obvious Gothic features include the ribbed cross vaults and the exterior flying buttresses, which minimized the load on the walls and made it possible to include huge stained glass windows. The Cathedral has stood the test of time and is very well preserved. Incredibly, 152 out of the 176 original stained glass windows are still intact.
You’ll also find hundreds of sculpted figures, both on the façade of the Cathedral and on the inside. The Gothic narrative sculptures on the West Portal are spread across three doorways that lead into the Cathedral. The sculptures on the first entrance depict the life of Jesus Christ on earth, the second shows his second coming, while the third illustrates the end of time as described in the book of Revelation.
The interior sculptures on the monumental screen that surrounds the choir are from a much later period and weren’t completed until the 18th century, but they are no less magnificent than their Gothic counterparts.
7. Barcelona, Spain
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If you want to marvel at Gothic architecture, there’s no better place to do so than Barcelona. Barcelona has a 2000-year old square named the Gothic quarter, which is a living embodiment of the development of Gothic art.
The walls of the Gothic quarter were built by Romans and extended in the 12th century. Many places in the Gothic quarter were built or refurbished in the 19th century in neo-Gothic style, for example, the iconic Barcelona Cathedral. However, you can still see some 14th-century Gothic chapels in the Gothic quarter of Barcelona.
One such place is the Ramon square, the reminiscence of the walled city of Barcino in Roman history. It is a classic blend of three periods of Catalunya’s history – the Roman walls, the Chapel of Saint Agata and the medieval statue of the count of Barcelona, Ramon Berenguer. The Chapel of Saint Agata is a Gothic monument dating back to 1302.
The other notable 14th-century Gothic monuments in old Barcelona are Santa Maria Del Mar and Santa Maria Del Pi. You can take advantage of the free walking tours to explore the charming Gothic quarter and learn about Catalan Gothic style.
8. Münster, Germany
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Münster, Germany is a city that can woo any lover of Gothic architecture. The city was based around the Catholic Church, as a Bishopric of the Holy Roman Empire during medieval times, and many of the Gothic structures in the city stem from the church movements to establish and maintain power in the city.
There are 3 primary buildings that immediately draw attention in Münster, all located in the Prinzipalmarkt, the city’s old town. The first being St. Paulus Dom, sometimes referred to as Münster Cathedral, which is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles. The other two are St. Lambert’s Church and the Münster Rathaus, or city hall. It is difficult to choose a favorite of these three, but St. Lambert’s Church may have the greatest appeal.
St. Lambert’s is technically classified as late Gothic, but it boasts a number of typical Gothic features, which draw the viewer’s attention in every direction. The interior features a very tall nave, lighted with a series of stunning stained glass windows and supported by a ribbed vault. The outside features an intricate tympanium and finely detailed sculptures surrounding the windows, along the roof, and on the supporting columns.
The church is topped by an elaborate spire which dominates the city’s landscape. Because of its height and presence, the spire became the location of the tower guard. Beginning in 1379, the tower guard would climb to the top of the spire and search the surrounding area for signs of fire, or approaching enemies. If none were seen, the all clear would be sounded, by blowing a horn in 3 directions. This ceremony is still performed every evening.
9. Ghent, Belgium
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Ghent was an important cloth trade center between 13th and 15th Century, just in time when Gothic is becoming a popular style in Europe. Many buildings were built in Ghent during that time. That’s why the whole city center has a Gothic feel and it’s one of the best-preserved areas in Europe built in that style.
Ghent could almost be nicknamed ‘the city of Gothic towers’. However, three major ones are Belfry, St. Nicholas Church and St. Bavo Cathedral.
Ghent’s Cathedral is one of the buildings where you can feel the Gothic style the best. Started as a Romanesque church, it was rebuilt during the 14th century and Gothic features are especially visible in its choir. Its spire was built in Brabanter Gothic during the 15th Century. It’s a type of Gothic style that was popular in Belgium and some parts of the Netherlands. St. Bavo Cathedral is home to one of the most famous Gothic altarpieces from that time, too – Jan van Eyck’s ‘Ghent Alterpiece’.
Another church built during the same time is St. Nicholas Church. It’s an example of Schelde Gothic architecture. Small elegant spires on its facades are its typical feature.
Being home to many wealthy merchants during the Middle Ages, Ghent has many examples of secular Gothic buildings, which is not the case with some other cities. Close to Cathedral is Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) built in 1425. Its buttresses, roof dormers, and stepped gables are great examples of the Gothic style. Town Hall also has many of its features. Its oldest part is a cellar built during the 14th century. On the Alderman’s House der Keure a Brabanter Gothic façade was started in 1518. The Metselaarshuis was built in the same style during the 16th Century. There are many more Gothic buildings in Ghent, making Ghent a great place to visit for anyone in love with this architectural style.
10. Tatev, Armenia
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Rich history, unique cultures and at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, Armenia is one such country that remains a mystery and unusual travel destination to many travelers. It is considered the first nation to make Christianity its state religion in 301 AD. Unlike the Gothic cathedrals and monasteries in other parts of Europe, Armenia had an eye for churches and monasteries that are smaller, dark, and designed as intimate gray spaces.
Some would argue that Armenia is the frontrunner of Gothic architecture where some of the surviving monuments were presented during the pre-Chrisitan Era which had Assyrio-Babylonian, Hellenic or even Roman influences. One of the best examples of this unique architectural style is Tatev Monastery, located in Syunik. The monastery was built in the 9th century and serves as a university as well, making it one of the most historically significant places to visit in Armenia.
Its Gothic past is particularly notable due to Tatev’s belfry and copper bells added in the 14th century. Inside you will notice that there are big external dome-shaped arches and bas-reliefs of human faces with snakes’ heads facing one another.
As you head deeper into the monastery, the narrow passages lead to spacious halls that seem vacant, empty and grim. The darkness, stone staircases and arched doorways make it particularly unsettling and stands as a testament to the world’s oldest and least heralded civilizations.
11. Bruges, Belgium
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Bruges is one of the most picturesque cities to visit in Europe with a fairytale-like medieval city center. The major highlights in Bruges are the Gothic style buildings, most of them built at the end of the Middle Ages. The style can be defined more precisely as brick Gothic, typical of Northern European countries. The whole Old Town of Bruges is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Amongst the beautiful Gothic sights in town, one can’t help but marvel at the Burg Square with several beautiful gems, such as the beautifully detailed façade of the Town Hall (built in 1376). The Dutch master Jan van Eyck painted the original façade, and although it was destroyed in the 18th century, it was renovated in its original charm.
It’s actually one of the earliest late-Gothic style building in Flanders, a symbol of the economic power that Bruges had in the 13th and 14th century. It’s worth checking out the interior of the building, especially the large Gothic Hall with huge wall paintings. You should also visit the adjoining Historic Hall, where looking at paintings and sculptures, you will learn a lot about the power struggles in the history of Bruges.
12. Oxford, United Kingdom
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There are many cities in the UK with fine examples of Gothic architecture but few of these rival Oxford when it comes to number and scale.
Large parts of Oxford (both the university and beyond) were built in English Gothic style – together these Gothic buildings form the backbone of the City of Dreaming Spires. Safe to say, they should be at the top of your list of places to see in Oxford.
Central Oxford is surprisingly small, and where many of the most remarkable Gothic buildings can be found. There are many, but the best examples of English Gothic in Oxford are the Magdalen College Bell Tower, New College, St Mary’s Church and the Divinity School within the Bodleian Library.
If you only have time to visit a few, you should make sure to climb the bell tower at St Mary’s Church – where the narrow spiral staircase leads to the top of the tower and you can marvel at the tower’s striking architectural details up close. It doesn’t hurt that it also has the best view of Oxford either.
Follow up with a trip across the road to the Bodleian’s Divinity School – the oldest purpose-built university building with a beautiful lierne-vaulted ceiling that you simply shouldn’t miss during any trip to Oxford.
13. Leon, Spain
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You don’t hear much about the city of Leon in northern Spain. In fact, it’s not on a major tourist route. Leon is one of the stops on the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage, along with the Burgos Cathedral and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, but there seems to be little else at first.
And that’s where Leon would surprise you. If you venture into the city, you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the Cathedral of Leon, a church that exemplifies art inspired by religious devotion. Built over the 12th Century CE on the site of Roman baths and Visigoth palaces, the cathedral is considered a masterpiece of Gothic architecture.
It has almost 2,000 meters of stained glass some of which date to the 13th century, an amazing achievement of cultural preservation.
The interior is equally impressive. The main altar houses the remains of the city’s patron saint, Saint Friolan. There is also an interesting museum containing religious art dating from the Neolithic to more recent periods. The best part of a visit to this cathedral is that the guides are well informed, entertaining and passionate about their art.
14. Dublin, Ireland
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One of the best European cities to see Gothic architecture is Dublin, the capital city of Ireland. While a walk though the city will show the different architectural sides of Dublin, there is specifically one building that catches ones eye: the Christ Church Cathedral.
It is standing on high ground in the oldest part of the city, a matter of only a few hundred yards from Trinity College, O’Connell Street, The GPO, Grafton Street and St. Stephen’s Green. Part of the Anglican Church of Ireland, the Christ Church Cathedral is the mother church for the diocese of Dublin and Glendalough.
The history of the building dates back to the year 1038. At his time the first Christianized Danish king, king Sitric Silkenbeard, built a wooden church at this site. However, construction of the present stone cathedral began a bit later, in 1172, after the conquest of Dublin by Strongbow, a Norman baron.
Construction continued into the 13th century and was inspired by the architecture of the English western school of Gothic. Nowadays it’s one the most beautiful and most impressive churches in the country.
For all those interested, a great idea is to take a tour of the cathedral, which takes between 30 and 60 minutes and can be self-serviced using a handy map and explanatory leaflet available at the entrance.
15. Paris, France
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Paris is known for its gorgeous architecture, ranging from Second Empire on the Champs Elysees to the early modern style of Montmartre. Notre-Dame Cathedral is not only one of the city’s most spectacular landmarks, it is also one of the world’s best examples of Gothic architecture.
Notre-Dame Cathedral has been impressing visitors since it was constructed between 1163-1345. It is known as one of the first buildings to use a flying buttress, an arch that extends from the exterior wall to a masonry tower. A quintessential feature of Gothic architecture, the flying buttress helps redistribute the weight of the massive walls, which allows large stained glass windows to be installed.
Notre Dame’s powerful facade features two towers and statues of religious and historic figures. In the center is a circular rose window, found in other Gothic churches in Paris including Sainte-Clotilde Basilica, Sainte-Chapelle, and Saint-Séverin. Notre-Dame is often known for its gargoyles, grotesques, and chimeras, which have appeared in popular books and movies. While often grouped together as “gargoyles,” the gargoyles are functioning water spouts (derived from the word “gargle” because of the sound of draining water), the grotesques are the various stone carvings nestled around the exterior, and the chimeras are the iconic creatures on the bell tower balconies.
Walking around Notre-Dame, you can see the beauty of the flying buttresses, details in the masonry, an ornate spire, and enjoy gardens and patios with views of the Seine River. At over 700 years old and seeing around 13 million visitors a year, preservation is a major concern for Notre-Dame, and organizations like the Friends of Notre Dame are requesting donations to help support the church’s longevity. To see more Gothic architecture around Paris, explore the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 7th arrondissements.
Now, what do you think? Which is your favorite example of Gothic architecture in Europe? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!