14 Exquisite Examples of European Architecture Worth Visiting

Château de Chambord by Arnaud Scherer via Wikimedia Commons.

Considering an art-filled journey through France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, or maybe Malta? If it’s not the season’s art exhibitions that motivate you to hop across Europe, what might further fuel your art-inspired wanderlust is the desire to be vis-à-vis with breathtaking European architecture – beloved structures that have become prime examples of the era in which they were built.

No, we are not just talking about the Eiffel Tower, nor the Parthenon, nor even the Duomo. While these famed structures are certainly worth a visit, we’ve selected 14 other extraordinary edifices to see across 12 different countries and spanning 8 major art movements. Have your maps at the ready.

Medieval Architecture (496–1492)

1. The Hagia Sophia

Location: Istanbul, Turkey

Byzantine architecture began after 330 AD, and reflected the style of then Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). Buildings featured basilicas, domed roofs, massive interior spaces with towering ceilings, marble columns, mosaics, gold and other ornate decorations. Byzantine architecture prevailed until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

There’s no better example of this style than the Hagia Sophia, which still stands today in Istanbul. It was built in 537 AD, just at the start of the Middle Ages. Now a museum, it was once a Greek Orthodox Christian church and later turned into an Ottoman imperial mosque. The Hagia Sophia is most famous for its massive dome and extremely complex engineering for its time, and is considered to have “changed the history of architecture.” Interior walls of the Hagia Sophia feature stunning green and white marbles and purple porphyry, igneous rocks with crystals.

Hagia Sophia by Steve Evans via Wikimedia Commons.

2. Cathedral of Saint Peter of Angoulême

Location: Angoulême, France

In Angoulême, France, near the southwestern coast just north of Bordeaux, sits the beautiful Cathedral of Saint Peter of Angoulême. Completed in 1128, the church is exemplary of the next phase of Medieval architecture following the Byzantine: Romanesque, which started around the mid-11th century. It is considered a “fusion of Roman, Carolingian and Ottonian, Byzantine and local Germanic traditions.”

Romanesque architecture emerged during a time with monasticism was prevalent; larger churches were needed to house monks and priests. Romanesque churches, like the Angoulême Cathedral, typically included semicircular arched windows and doors, giant walls and piers, and side aisles underneath galleries. On the façade of this cathedral are 70 sculptures depicting the Ascension and the Last Judgment, as well as scenes of everyday life.

Bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Peter of Angoulême by Jack Ma via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Leuven Town Hall

Location: Leuven, Belgium

At the center of the tiny town of Leuven, just outside of Brussels, Belgium, is the intricately crafted, ornately detailed landmark City Hall. Built toward the end of the Medieval period between 1448 and 1469, this style of architecture reflects the Brabantine Late Gothic style, largely seen in the Low Countries.

The style is considered to be inconsistent, yet the unparalleled craftsmanship of architects can be considered a unifying characteristic of buildings of the era. The Leuven City Hall has three stories and is recognizable by its pointed Gothic windows, studded roof, and octagonal turrets. It is adorned with 236 statues which were added after 1850.

Leuven City Hall by Angel Oswaldo Vázquez Patiño via Wikimedia Commons.

Renaissance Architecture (14th–17th century)

4. Royal Summer Palace

Location: Prague, Czech Republic

Considered the “finest example of Italian Renaissance architecture outside of Italy,” the Royal Summer Palace of Prague is indeed something exquisite to see. Commissioned by Emperor Ferdinand I for his wife in 1538, the palace sits high on a point called Belvedere.

Straying from the Gothic style that came before it, Renaissance architects put more emphasis on symmetry and proportion, similar to structures built by the ancient Romans and Greeks. The Royal Summer Palace of Prague, in particular, mirrors aspects of ancient architecture as it features a colonnade with 36 columns and 114 reliefs depicting Greek mythology and court scenes.

Royal Summer House in Prague Castle Royal Garden by Michael Brezocnik via Wikimedia Commons.

5. Château de Chambord

Location: Chambord, Loir-et-Cher, France

This iconic château might look familiar to you, as it’s often a major checkpoint on tourists’ maps. The Château de Chambord in France is a magnificent product of the French Renaissance. It was completed in 1547, and is considered one of the best examples of architecture from this period. The French Renaissance marked the emergence of new, foreign ideas and architectural concepts during a time when the French Kingdom was at war with northern Italy.

The Château de Chambord, the largest in the Loire Valley, was constructed by King Francis I to serve as a hunting lodge. It is complete with a moat (purely decorative, not meant as a defense) and several gardens, and features interior rooms grouped into suites rather than Gothic-style corridors. Architectural elements like open windows, loggia (covered exterior corridors), and large outdoor spaces on upper levels were borrowed from Italian Renaissance architecture.

Château de Chambord by Arnaud Scherer via Wikimedia Commons.

6. House of the Schumann Family

Location: Gdansk, Poland

Between the High Renaissance and the Baroque movements came Mannerism, which emerged as a rejection of the harmonious, proportionate buildings of the Renaissance. Artists and architects of the era favored “irrational settings, artificial colors, unclear subject matter and elongated forms.”

Mannerism is the style in which Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were known for. Mannerist architects experimented with elements that emphasized solid and spatial relationships – the need for harmony was replaced with freer imaginations. Quite the imaginative, colorful structure created in the Mannerist style is the House of the Schumann Family, built in 1560 for a wealthy merchant family.

House of the Schumann Family in Gdansk, Poland by Pumeks via Wikimedia Commons.

Baroque Architecture (early-17th to mid-18th century)

7. Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso

Location: San Ildefonso, Spain

To express the triumph of the Catholic church (and improve its image during the Protestant Reformation), the Baroque period emerged in the early 17th century. Characteristic of the style were architectural elements that emphasized grandeur, richness, drama, movement and emotion. While churches encouraged worship, palaces like the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso highlighted the power and wealth of the state.

This palace, located just north of Madrid in the province of Segovia, most certainly radiates grandeur. Built in the early 18th century and modeled after the Palace of Versailles, it incorporates typical Baroque materials like gilding, stucco, and marble, and elements like massive spaces, twisted columns and facades with architectural sculptures.

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso by Miguel Ángel García via Wikimedia Commons.

Rococo Architecture (late-17th to early-18th century)

8. Esterháza Palace

Location: Fertőd, Hungary

Often called the “Hungarian Versailles,” the Esterháza Palace was built during the Rococo movement that followed the Baroque (we provide a more detailed overview of the distinction between Baroque vs. Rococo here). Rococo architecture was not like the religious propaganda of the Baroque; instead, it celebrated intellectuality, freedom and happiness during the period of Enlightenment.

Rococo interiors feature asymmetrical, curving forms, extravagant ornamentation, lighter pastel colors and, in paintings and sculptures, scenes of love, nature, and light-hearted entertainment. The Rococo style is evident throughout the 126 rooms of this Hungarian palace. The ceiling of the Sala Terrana, for example, depicts curved, vine-like shapes in pastel pinks and greens and dancing angels with flower wreaths.

Esterházy Palace by Monyesz via Wikimedia Commons.

Romanticism (late-17th century to mid-18th century)

9. The Rotunda of Mosta

Location: Mosta, Malta

The little island country of Malta was not secluded from the art movements of its neighbor Italy and the rest of the continent. The Rotunda of Mosta is a Roman Catholic parish church built during the artistic, literary, intellectual and musical movement called Romanticism that fittingly followed Rococo. The term Romanticism in architecture is more of an umbrella term that describes 19th-century European revivalist and Eastern-influenced styles.

The Rotunda of Mosta, built between 1833 and the 1860s, is an example of the Neoclassical/Greek Revival. It is modeled after the pantheon in Rome, with six columns at its facade. While some discredited the architects for building a church that was not a suitable model for the Roman Catholics, others praised creators for something so new and utterly magnificent.

The Rotunda of Mosta by Väsk via Wikimedia Commons.

Mosta Dome interior by Sudika via Wikimedia Commons.

10. Palace of Westminster

Location: London, United Kingdom

You may not have known that the famous Palace of Westminster in London, too, is a product of the Romanticism era. This is an example of Gothic Revival style, built from 1840-76. What was once a medieval building complex on its grounds burned down in a fire in 1834, and replaced with this symmetrical, classic structure that put a shiny coat on some old architectural trends.

The Palace of Westminster by Mike Gimelfarb via Wikimedia Commons.

Modernism (late-19th to early-20th century)

11. Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève

Location: Paris, France

The Sainte-Geneviève Library in Paris might sometimes get overlooked by Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe-goers, but it’s truly a modern marvel (and we’re not surprised that it served as a model for the Boston Public Library in the United States).

This building, which houses approximately two million documents, was built 1838 and 1850 and is an example of early Modernist architecture. Modernism was prevalent in Western society starting in the late 19th century, however, it started to emerge earlier in the century during the time this library was built. It was a philosophical movement that countered more traditional forms of art, architecture, philosophy, and more, largely due to changing culture and events tied with industrialization. A standout work of its time, MoMA describes the creation of this modern library as a “temple of knowledge and space for contemplation.”

Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève reading room by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons.

Postmodern (mid- to late-20th century)

12. SIS Building

Location: London, United Kingdom

Back in London, the SIS Building is home to the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service. Futuristic and eye-catching for its uncommon use of symmetry and geometric shapes, it was completed in 1994 toward the end of the Postmodern era.

Postmodern architecture emerged as a reaction to the formality and lack of variety in modern architecture, and was popular throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The multi-layered SIS Building has 60 separate roof areas and features 25 different types of glass.

The SIS Building by Laurie Nevay via Wikimedia Commons.

Contemporary (late-20th century–present)

13. Elbphilharmonie

Location: Hamburg, Germany

Though still relatively young in its history, there are several noteworthy contemporary structures to see, particularly for those who haven’t been to Europe in a few years. The Elbphilharmonie (nicknamed “Elphi”) is a concert hall that opened in 2017 in the advanced city of Hamburg, Germany. Its exterior was meant to resemble a hoisted sale, a wave of water or a quartz crystal.

This building is an excellent showcase of contemporary architecture, which emerged in the 21st century and cannot be defined by a single dominant style. Contemporary architects, like those that built the Elphi, experiment with different styles and, of course, create their own.

Elbphilharmonie by Robert Katzki via Wikimedia Commons.

14. Copenhagen Opera House

Location: Copenhagen, Denmark

Last but not least on our list is the Copenhagen Opera House, which opened in 2005. It is considered to be one of the most modern opera houses in the world, done in the neo-futuristic style of contemporary architecture. Both design and function are both key in neo-futurism, based on the need for sustainable architecture in growing cities.

Such high-tech architecture has been embraced by forward-thinking cities like Copenhagen, which has seen a recent architectural boom. The Copenhagen Opera House is not only beautiful to look at, but it also smartly uses several functional materials including maple wood, limestone, marble, glass and bronze.

Copenhagen Opera House by Julian Herzog via Wikimedia Commons.