In the centre of the wildly beautiful city of Krakow is the eclectic structure known as Wawel Castle. Commissioned by King Casimir III in the 13th century, Wawel Castle is a strange mix of nearly all the popular architectural styles of the 13th – 18th centuries – including medieval, gothic, Renaissance (particularly Italian), Baroque, Romanesque and more (neo-classical seems the only important style of the time missing from the list). The Wawel we see today is much altered from the original structure – parts were destroyed by fire, leading to other parts added on or rebuilt entirely. When it was occupied by the Prussian Army, it was changed to meet new needs and new standards – Wawel’s was modernised and its interior re-styled. Defensive structures were changed, and some buildings were removed. Long the residence of Polish kings during Poland‘s Golden Years and beyond, Wawel overlooks one of Poland’s most spectacular cities. In fact, Krakow is one of the few urban centres not razed during the devastating WWII (due to Hitler using it as a base camp). Today, as one of the largest castles in Poland, Wawel Castle is a member of UNESCO world heritage sites (alongside Krakow’s historic downtown). Inside, find museums and exhibition on art, architecture, history, ceramics, weaponry, gold, and even articles from the Orient. To visit is also the cathedral, the ‘lost’ basements where the foundations show what once was there, and cave leading to the banks of the river nicknamed “the Dragon’s Den,” home to the legendary Dragon of Wawel lived.
Pro tip: Wawel can be quite busy – try to visit in the off-peak season (or at least earlier in the day) if you can. Admission costs vary, see more here. Free admission is on Mondays from 9:30am – 1pm in April – October, and Sundays 10am – 4pm in November – March. Don’t miss the nearby fire-breathing dragon, a monument to the Wawel Dragon legend (it breathes fire in 5 minute intervals and can be activated by SMS).
Alte Brücke (the Old Bridge) of Heidelberg, Germany
A walk down the cobblestoned streets of old Heidelberg on a rainy Sunday morning is the perfect way to explore this gorgeous ancient city. Baroque buildings parade their beautiful facades to onlookers, the medievalcastle looms up on the hilltop, and a dark forest crowns the hills. The world is quiet, the streets are empty, windows are still shuttered – quite the change from the night before. Heidelberg is one of Germany’s most famous student cities, making it very fast-paced and lively by night. Wandering the quiet lanes of Heidelberg in the early hours of the weekend, making this the perfect time to have this romantic city all to yourself. From the centre of this fairytale city, break out of the narrow network of historical streets to the picturesque riverfront. Spanning this river are the six arches of the Alte Brücke, or the Old Bridge – simply a beautiful spot on this rainy German morning. Crossing the Neckar River, the Alte Brüke is a stunning stone bridge dating back to 1788. It connects the castle and old town of Heidelberg to the newer streets and the still-wild hills on the other side of the Necker. In fact, this is where the gorgeous Philosophen Weg pathway is – the forest track that eventually leads to the ruins of St Michael’s Monastery deep in the German woods. All in all, whether you are looking for fun and nightlife or quiet meandering, Heidelberg is your ideal destination.
Pro tip: If you like beer, be sure to try some of the delicious German weissbier (wheat beer) – available throughout the region! As explained in the post, be sure to cross the Alte Brüke and hike up the hill to the forgotten monastery! But… bring a map.
Church of Our Saviour, or the Spiral Church in Copenhagen, Denmark
Denmark‘s capital is a fascinating place. There are a few things that make it so – including fancy food, the sleek and elegant Nyhavn neighbourhood, the famous Christianshavn neighbourhood, the remodelled brick factories and the fact that there’s a statue based on a fairytale in town. Another thing that makes Copenhagen cool is this bizarre and beautiful place, the Church of our Saviour. Not the most exciting (or memorable) name, but when you say that “spiral church,” everyone knows exactly what you mean. In fact, that spiral is also a staircase, which people can follow to the top for aerial views of Copenhagen (provided they don’t have vertigo, that is!). This Baroque beauty was built in 1695 (though the spire not fully completed until 1752) and is home to an interesting urban legend. Supposedly, the architect committed suicide by jumping from the spire’s summit when he realised the spirals twist upwards in an anticlockwise manner (something you’d think he’d realise during the years it took to build the spire!). While this isn’t true of course (the architect died of natural causes nearly a decade later), it doesn’t stop the urban legend from being latching hold – helped along by the notorious part of Copenhagen where the spiral church is found. Tucked into the infamous Christianshavn, a series of artificial islands, the locale started life as a 17th century fortified and purpose-built merchant town but was quickly consumed by the much larger Copenhagen. In the late 20th century, Christianshavn gained a reputation as a working-class and bohemian town à la Charles Aznavour’s Parisian Montmatre of the late 1940s and 50s. Today it has become one of Copenhagen’s hippest quartiers – where a blend of businessmen, students, young families and hippies happily reside together – though that does not stop the reminiscing of those nostalgic for the romantic bohemian atmosphere of Christianshavn’s past life.
Pro tip: The Church of the Saviour is also noted for its carillon (a musical instrument consisting of a collection of 20+ bells), which is northern Europe’s largest. If you’re curious to hear what it sounds like, it plays melodies every hour from 8 am to midnight.
Ah Salzburg. This is a city famous for music in two forms: Mozart was born here in 1756, and then about 200 years later, the hills became alive with the Sound of Music, filmed entirely on site in Salzburg and its surroundings. The city itself is stately, elegant and beautiful. At its heart is the Residenzplaz, crowned by the lovely Hohensalzburg castle on the hill above the city. As the city’s main square in what was once part of the Holy Roman Empire, it only makes sense that the Residenzplaz would house Salzburg Cathedral, a jewel of Baroque achievement (and although this building dates to the 17th century, a church has stood here since 774). The square is a hubbub of elegance, with Baroque, Renaissance and medieval styles fusing together to form one of Salzburg’s most beautiful and popular spots. As the heart of the city, from here it is easy to visit the castle (tip: head there in the morning to avoid the crowds!), Mozart’s house, the great Danube River and Salzburg’s Altstadt (old town). For those looking for a romantic visit of the city, a twilight horse carriage ride is a must. If that’s not your cup of tea, just give the horses a friendly pat to say hello before setting off to explore the Altstadt on foot!
Pro tip: The Salzburg Christmas Market is noted as one of Europe’s best seasonal markets and is a lovely time to visit the city. Other notable Christmas markets can be found in Vienna, Prague, Strasbourg and Dresden.
The Austrian capital is beautiful under a dappled sunrise, on a canvas of blue sky, even misted in soft rain. But perhaps Vienna’s loveliest time of day is by night, when the city comes alive with lights of all shapes and sizes. The ancient palaces and churches of Vienna are illuminated in multi-coloured brilliance. Cafes and restaurants spill brightness onto the pavement, streetlights bathe ancient cobblestones in soft yellow lamplight, and pop-up markets exude a soft glow. Vienna comes alive in the evening – people pour out of the Opera, they frequent the crowded markets, stroll down romantic alleys, enjoy evening meals on cafe terraces, sit in the lamplight on the Danube, or share drinks and cigarettes in the floodlight of the city’s many bars. This is not a place where one should have a healthy fear of the dark; rather, Vienna is place where night is the time to socialise. The Austrian capital is a place to embrace the night as you enjoy its many wonders. Seen here is Karlskirche, an 18th-century Baroque wonder, found just outside the famous Ringstrausse of central Vienna.
Pro tip: Visit Vienna in December for its amazing decorations and Christmas markets located all over the city centre!
The impressive baroque facade houses is Stockholm‘s Gamla Stan (old town) contains the official residence of the Swedish royal family, although the family actually resides in Drottningholm Palace, a countryside palace on the island Lovön in Lake Mälaren on the outskirts of Stockholm. The Swedish Royal Palace has been in the same place on the Gamla Stan since the 13th century, where medieval monarchs built the Tre Kronor Castle, which housed the royal family until May 7th, 1697, when the castle was gutted by fire. War prevented re-construction, and the present castle wasn’t finished until 1754. The exterior of the massive palace has an impressive total of 28 statues, 717 balusters/columns, 242 Ionic volutes topping columns, 972 windows, 31,600 windowpanes and about 7,500 windows, doors and gates. The facade is covered with circa 9,500 m2 of stone and 11,000 m2 of plaster containing an incomprehensible 1,430 rooms – some impressive figures! A castle is bound to have a few skeletons in the closet – two in particular! There is the kindly oracle Grå Gubben (the Old Grey Man) who inhabits the cellars and guards the spirit of the palace. The other is the infamous Vita frun (translating to the imagination-lacking White Lady), who appears just before death. Said to be the Hohehzollern German Duchess Agnes of Merán who killed her family to marry another (predictably, this tactic did not warm the heart of her would-be suitor), and she now haunts the castles connected to the Hohenzollern family.
Pro tip: Stockholm Royal Palace is open to the public, with five museums inside its massive interior (price 160SEK).
The fantastic Jabłonna Palace (pronounced yah-bwoana) inhabits a lush, green estate-turned-park on the outskirts of Poland’s capital of Warsaw. Built in a joint neoclassical and baroque style in the 1770s by the Polish King Stanislaw’s brother, it was meant from the start as a stunning royal palace and park complex to stun and awe Poland’s elite. Like most of Warsaw – and Poland – the building is newer than it looks. Jabłonna Palace was burnt by angry Germans in 1944 and the resilient Polish of Warsaw reconstructed it as accurately as possible in the years following the war. Today, Jabłonna Palace’s beautifully Baroque ballroom, elegant dinning areas and classy guest rooms regularly hold concerts, art exhibitions, scientific shows, conferences and – you guessed it – weddings, as well as being open to the public. Even if you aren’t attending a wedding or concert, the grounds of Jabłonna Palace make for a great escape to the outdoors. Offering a much-needed breath of fresh air from the hustle and bustle of Warsaw, Jabłonna Park is a perfect place to spend a spring or fall day to jog, stroll, picnic or simply relax.
This glittering white walls and towers of this massive fortress are both ancient and modern at the same time. Built and rebuilt and rebuilt, this castle has seen more re-constructions than any castle should. Figuring into the 10th century Annals of Salzburg, the first reference of both castle and city, Bratislava Castle stands on an ancient site once home to a small fort built by the Celts. Later the Romans occupied the site, and then the Moravian Slavs who built a new fortress. When it became part of the Hungarian Empire, the Hungarians built a stone palace to replace the old Moravian fortress. That stone castle and chapel was later replaced by a 15th century Gothic-style fortress. One century later, it was rebuilt again, this time in Renaissance design. In the 17th century, it was – wait for it – rebuilt (again!), this time in Baroque style. Elaborate artistic redecorations were redone during the rule of Maria Theresa, including new castle gates and rococo interior decor. A terrible fire in 1811 and subsequent ruinous state of the struture meant that the castle, today considered a national treasure, had to be renovated and rebuilt by the Hungarian government (though it almost was decided to destroy it completely). Today, Bratislava Castle is both national museum and testament to the changing forces, rulers and styles that overshadowed this little capital city of the central European country of Slovakia.
More European Castles Near Budapest Worth Exploring
Few places can supersede Vienna for splendour or elegance, and one of reasons for this comes in the shape of the splendid Belvedere Palace. Baroque to the core, the massive estate comprises of the Upper and Lower buildings, the Orangery, the Old Stables, the beautiful jardins francais modelled on Versailles and many intertwining paths amongst the flower beds, marble sculptures, tree-lined paths. In a way, we can thank the Ottoman Empire for this marble monument: the Belvedere was built during a period of renewed construction by the Hapsburg family after the successful end to the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Central Europe. Much like the Belevedere, the city of Vienna itself isa work of marble and art: from the soaring grey towers of St Stephen’s Cathedral to the massive Staatsoper opera house, from the seat of power at the Hofburg Palace to the many marble and bronze statues scattered around the broad avenues and finally to the many cafes that have made this city famous. Walking Vienna’s avenues and boulevards and gardens is like visiting a living museum, one dedicated to Baroque and Art Nouveau and Gothic styles. From the historic extravagance of the cafes to the vast grandeur of the palaces, Vienna will make you feel like royalty in another era.
White and gold-wrapped Hershey Kisses turban the top of the magnificent Smolny Cathedral and Convent in the glittering Russian cultural capital. Originally built to be a religious palace (or prison, depending on how you look at it) for Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, she later rejected monastic life after her predecessor Ivan VI became the victim of a coup d’etat, instead opting to accept the throne in his stead. Smolny Cathedral is the jewel in the crown of the surrounding Smolny Convent, built by famed Italian architect Rastrelli between 1748 and 1764 (the same man who designed the Winter Palace and many other glittering St Petersburg landmarks). Catherine the Great, who did not approve of gaudy Baroque styles, later halted the work on the complex, but it still remains one of the cities finest gems. Today, it houses a concert hall, government offices, and several departments of the St Petersburg State University.
This pink church is the first and oldest Baroque church in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Built 1604 to 1635, it was dedicated to the patron saint of Vilnius, Prince Casimir Jagiellon from the lat 15th century. For its relatively small size, Vilnius seems to have an awful lot of churches. Baroque towers with intricate facades and gilded tips, orthodox churches with fancy Cyrillic writing, Gothic churches covered in spires. Red brick facades or painted in pastel colors, Vilnius’s churches are beautiful, tranquil, non-imposing. They seem nature, as if they are exactly where they are supposed to be. For an often-overlooked city, Vilnius has plenty of charms up its sleeves. It will never beat Tallinn (one of Europe’s most beautiful cities), or Riga, an Art Nouveau masterpiece. Yet, there is still something very special about this beautiful Baltic gem!
You might be surprised to discover that this magnificently medieval Translyvanian building was built less than 100 years ago, and not only that, but it stands in the middle of the Hungarian capital. Built for an annual fair, the building was so well-liked that the populace requested it remain intact; and so the obliging Hungarian government rebuilt the castle using more permanent materials (i.e., not plaster!). Situated in the middle of Budapest’s central park less than 400 metres from the famous Schenyi Baths, the castle is certainly an oddity. Making a full rotation around the campus reveals Vajahunyad’s four very different faces: each section is based on a different style (Baroque, Romanesque, Renaissance, and Gothic). Therefore, the structure looks completely different depending on one’s momentary perspective. The Gothic part in particular (the main section pictured here) was modelled on a Transylvanian castle—so if you can’t make it all the way to remote Transylvania (which one day I will, and bring back countless photographs of this infamous region to you!), you can still visit a replica here. In fact, the American TV drama, Dracula–which bears the name of Translyvania’s most famous resident–uses this castle as the infamous count’s residence for the series, though how much historical truth there is between Stoker’s vampire and the real-life Vlad Dracul is somewhat suspect. Regardless, the castle seems a fitting backdrop!
Андріївська церква, or, St Andrew’s Church, Kiev, Ukraine
In light of Kiev‘s recent, rather negative ascent to the spotlight, I thought I’d turn tables and show the beautiful side of the Ukrainian capital. Here is St Andrew’s Church (which also happens to be my favourite church I’ve so far visited), reaching for the heavens with its beautiful bejewelled turquoise dome. According to legend, St Andrew had planted a cross on this exact site, proclaiming that one day, it would be the site of a ‘great Christian city.’ Not exactly a cathedral, St Andrew’s namesake is no ordinary church either. Commissioned by the famous Catherine the Great, built by the famed Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli who had a penchant for extravagance and opulence (architect of St Petersburg‘s Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral), and named for St. Andrew, the patron saint of Kiev, St Andrew’s Church was constructed in the years 1747-54 in Baroque style. However, for some reason, Catherine wasn’t pleased, and poor Rastrelli was fired. Apparently, she had no taste for beauty because today, Андріївська церкваone is one of the most beautiful buildings not only in Kiev, but in the entire continent.
Ah, Belvedere. What would a trip to Vienna be without a promenade around these beautiful gardens? Comprised of two main complexes, the Upper and the Lower, the area also includes a few very lovely gardens. The area surrounding the palace is neatly manicured (in the French style) while the other is far more wild and natural. The oldest sections of the Baroque palace, which date back to 1717 (completed 1723), was built for Prince Eugene who, like all monarchs, wanted a nice, cozy place to relax outside of his taxing duties of being a prince. Various important people have entered these doors , including Franz Ferdinand, Marie Antoinette’s daughter Marie Thérèse Charlotte, and Maria Theresa, though she never lived here. Instead, she decided it would make a nice place to store the Imperial family’s art collection. After the first world war, the Palace officially became a museum, and was eventually opened to the public. Most people go here to visit a particular piece, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. Even though the piece is surely worth your attention, don’t miss the rest of the exhibits, or the architecture, and especially not the gardens–because it is the whole experience that will make your visit special!