Cathedrals comprise one of the most popular travel destinations, and it is easy to see why. Not only are these grand structures some of the most impressive buildings in the world, but to enter them is to take a step back in history. Understanding cathedrals can awaken a traveler’s understanding of the world around them.
Early Christian & Byzantine Cathedrals
Early Christian & Byzantine Cathedrals
Early Christian and Byzantine cathedrals might seem small and simple at first, but they were huge accomplishments in their time. One of the most popular is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, whose rich history blends Eastern Orthodoxy, Islam, and Roman Catholicism. Today, Hagia Sophia is a museum, welcoming visitors into her expansive, round domes with open arms. The Basilica di San Marco, situated conveniently on Saint Mark’s Square in Venice, is known for its intricate Byzantine mosaics. Another popular feature are the Horses of Saint Mark, formerly on display in the Hippodrome of Constantinople. While St. Peter’s dominates the skyline of Vatican City, it would be a shame to miss the intricate mosaics and ornate ceiling of nearby Santa Maria Maggiore.
Gothic cathedrals can be some of the most spectacular in the world. Their dramatically pointed arches and soaring ceilings still inspire feelings of grandeur. The most well known representations of Gothic architecture is Paris’ Notre Dame, serving as an excellent example of flying buttresses and intricately carved gargoyles. An evensong inside Canterbury Cathedral in Kent, England, demonstrates the excellent acoustics inside a Gothic cathedral. A climb to the rooftop of Milan Cathedral reveals a garden of whimsical spires. A stroll through the nave of York Minster in York, England, is second only to hearing its musical bells from the nearby Shambles in the center of town. Most people recognize the dark, imposing spires of Germany’s Cologne Cathedral, located very conveniently near the city’s train station, making it an excellent starting point for any visit to Cologne. One of the most unique characteristics of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the colorful rooftop tiles, installed after the wooden roof was destroyed by fire during World War II. Chartres Cathedral in France boasts remarkable stained glass nestled inside the pointed arches of the Gothic style.
Most Renaissance cathedrals are located in the heart of the Renaissance, namely Italy. Florence’s Santa Maria del Fiore, more commonly called the Duomo, is considered the heart of the Renaissance. Its dome remains the largest stonemason dome in the world today. Architect Filippo Brunelleschi continues to impress architect enthusiasts today with the clever innovations that made his dome possible. Further south, the sheer size of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is awe-inspiring. Other points not to miss are Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Pieta and the way natural sunlight floods the oculus at the top of the dome.
Christopher Wren is considered to be one of England’s greatest architects, and St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is considered his crowning achievement. While the nave of this majestic church is simple in design, the quire embraces the opulence of the Baroque style. For a unique perspective, climb to the church’s Whispering Gallery. For a more colorful interpretation of the Baroque style, go to St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. Though the building was converted to a museum nearly a century ago, it’s fanciful domes remind visitors of its Russian Orthodox heritage.
Cathedrals continue to inspire today. One of the most traditional modern cathedrals is Washington DC’s National Cathedral. Though it wasn’t built until the 20th century, its neo-Gothic style is reminiscent of much older buildings. A much more distinctive modern cathedral is La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s still-unfinished Barcelona cathedral. Unique features include columns that look like trees and very modern religious figures. Philip Johnson’s Crystal Cathedral in Los Angeles takes a complete departure from traditional architecture, whose primary building material is glass.