Often nicknamed the ‘Gateway to the Alps’ and the ‘Capital of the Alps’ (though these are titles shared by other Alpine hubs like Chamonix and Innsbruck), Grenoble is a lovely town on the foothills of the French Alps. A university town as well as recognised hub of art, science and culture, Grenoble has a quaint old town populated with many historical buildings such as the pedestrianised and cafe-fringed Saint-André Square, the magnificent Dauphiné Parliament building tinged with Gothic and Renaissance styles, the Place de Notre Dame and its 13th century cathedral and a market square with a still-functioning daily market. In Grenoble, intrepid visitors will also find several “hôtels” or fancy houses and mansions, a fountain that has links to the French Revolution, several beautiful squares, and dozens of beautiful roads ranging from quaint alleys to grand boulevards. Overlooking the historic old town, on a backdrop of jagged Alpine silhouettes, is the impressive and impregnable Bastille of Grenoble, dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1590, during the final Wars of Religion, the leaders of the Daupiné branch of the Huguenots took over the previously-Catholic Grenoble via a 3-week siege attack. It was they, the Lesdiguières, who ordered the construction of the hilltop fortifications that would become the Bastille. Today, Grenoble remains an important cultural centre in the Alps on the edge of France, and the Bastille makes for an impressive piece of history, great views and a good workout to climb to!
Pro tip: Ok, so there is a cable car that goes up to the Bastille. But that’s cheating! Instead for the best experience, follow one of the numerous signposted paths cut into the mountain to the Bastille. The effort will make the views even more amazing! Back in town, there are many museums for you to visit, including: the Museum of Grenoble, the Archaeological Museum, Dauphinois Museum, Old Bishop’s Palace, Stendhal Museum, Museum of Isère Resistance, and more!
The destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral on April 14th 2019 has sparked a series on rebuilt structures. Of all the rebuilt places in Europe, Warsaw remains the crown jewel. During WWII, the city was decimated by the Germans, helped along by the Soviets (through inaction). 85%-90% of the city was flattened into shapeless rubble (largely a punishment/result of the Warsaw Uprising against the Germans). Most of the people of Warsaw were gone or dead – those who remained hid underground in the rubble. When the city was being rebuilt by teams of everyday Warsaw residents (with the “help” of the Soviets), debates ranged – how should we rebuild it? Should it look like it once did, or do we rebuild it using modern styles, or something in between? But the Polish and the Varsovians in particular are proud, and they wanted their city back – the same city they’d had for generations. The decision was made then to rebuild Warsaw as it was before. But how to do that? Luckily, though much was lost and the city itself was a pile of broken rubble, some of the blueprints had been saved by architecture students. Paintings that had been hidden away too were used, as were memories in some cases. Can you imagine? That door painted blue simply because someone remembered it being like that. In any case, Warsaw’s old town and new town were rebuilt in all their former glory – resembling the 18th and 19th century paintings used as a model more than anyone ever imagined possible! Today, the city centre of Warsaw (the whole city in fact) is less than a century old though you’d never know it. Authentic in its spirit, beauty, history and resilience, it is a testament of what can be accomplished through the pride, sweat and gumption of the residents who call this wonderful city home.
Pro tip: Interested in learning more about this period? Visit the Uprising Museum. Walk the streets of the Wola district and keep your eyes out for the markers in the sidewalk showing where the Warsaw Ghetto once was. In town, try eating at one of the traditional Milk Bars– the kind of eatery where workers of 20th century Poland would have eaten.
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).
One of Europe’s most fascinating Renaissance castles can be found tucked away under the Carpathian Mountains that march across the mysterious and beautiful country of Romania. Amongst Romania’s most famed sites, Peles Castle is actually a neo-Renaissance fortress. Built on what was once an important trade route linking Wallachia and Transylvania – Romania’s two principal trade regions – Peles Castle was inaugurated in 1883, making it one of Europe’s younger castles. Inside and out, expect grandeur, over-the-top luxury, and a clear exertion of King Carol I’s power. Peles Castle and the Alpine-esque resort town of Sinaia came about in the late 1800s when King Carol of Romania fell in love with the dramatic mountain scenery. It was under King Carol that Romania gained its independence (1877). The king wanted a regal yet original mountain resort, rejecting anything that wasn’t grand and unique. In the end, he went for German architect Johannes Schultz’s proposal, a grand palatial Alpine castle that combines the most distinctive and appealing features of classic European castles, including styles born of the Italian and later German Renaissance. In a way, this approach to locating the very best of European castles makes Peles Castle all the more fairytale!
Pro tip: Peles Castle and nearby resort town of Sinaia can be quite touristy – best to visit in the off season if possible. Take a stroll around the grounds of Peles Castle at sunset – the views will be stunning, and as the castle is closed at that hour, you’ll have the estate to yourself.
Other Neo Renaissance Fairytale Castles of Europe Built to Impress
Neuschwanstein Castle – similar to Peles, this castle was built in the 1800s by a king looking for a regal and quintessential fairytale castle
Kreuzenstein Castle – This castle is actually a hodgepodge of different castles, imported and re-constituted together after the original building was destroyed
Chateau de Chenonceau – One of the many chateaux of the Loire Valley, Chenonceau stretching over the river is the picture of elegance.
Chateau de Chambord– Another Loire Valley chateau, this massive castle takes the concept of royal hunting lodge to the extreme.
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.
Kremlin & St Basil’s Cathedral from the Moskva River at Sunset, Russia
If you had to chose one place to represent Russia, what would it be? High on most lists would probably be St Basil’s Cathedral (actually called Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed) and the Kremlin, just next door. Though both are worth exploring up close, for a unique way to visit both of these fantastic icons, consider a cruise of the Moskva River for a beautiful and unique view of Moscow – even better if its a sunset cruise! St Basil’s is as eye-popping now as it was when it was new – built in its own unique, trail-blazing style in 1561, no one quite knows where architects Barma and Postnik found their inspiration, though many say it is a combination of Greek, Byzantine, Islamic and Asian styles. Even the Italian Renaissance played a role (its surprising how influential Italian architects were in places like Russia, France and Eastern Europe). St Basil’s uniqueness is really what makes it so fascinating and its silhouette is unmistakable. The Kremlin, on the other hand, is more complex. A government building, a fort, the heart of Russia – the Kremlin is often also used metonymically to refer to Russia’s government. It is composed of five palaces and four cathedrals, enclosed by an imposing wall. Unfortunately, several heritage buildings in the Kremlin were destroyed to make space for ugly concrete Soviet-era buildings (before thankfully a law came into place preserving heritage sites). Once again, though it’s important to visit the site, a riverside visit to the Kremlin is a whole different – and much quieter and calmer! – experience. Get ready for some amazing waterscapes and skylines!
Pro tip: best time to go is certainly sunset on a clear day – especially in the off-season if possible. For amazing views of the Kremlin, St Basils and more, take a sunset cruise on the Moskva River.
The Loire Valley is one of the most spectacular castle regions in Europe. Full of what can only be described as French chateaux, the Loire Valley houses some 300 extravagant palatial buildings!! Among the most famous are the immense Chateau de Chambord and the spectacular Chateau de Chenonceau. Spanning the River Cher in a unique castellated bridge, the river literally runs through the castle. Though it has had many owners, Chateau de Chenanceau is really a tale of two women and their rivalry for King Henri: Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de Medici. Diane de Poitiers was a noblewoman – beautiful, talented, intelligent and elegant – who fall in love with young King Henri II. In order to take control of Italian states, Henri was married to the much younger Catherine de Medici. Despite his marriage, Henri spent his entire life dedicated to the beguiling Diane de Poitiers and their children, culminating in gifting her Chateau de Chenanceau. Though it took many years of delicate legal manoeuvres to make Diane the true owner of Chateau de Chenanceau, she loved the castle and was responsible for the phenomenal bridge across the Cher, as well as the flower and vegetable gardens. When Henri died in a jousting accident, his jealous widow Catherine de Medici illegally forced Diane to yield her the castle – though she was then forced to offer Diane Chateau de Chaumont in exchange. Catherine further renovated the gardens and the castle interior, as well as adding new rooms and a service wing (of course she did, she’s Catherine de Medici…). Unlike her more enlightened rival Diane, Catherine was a girlish socialite whose favourite activity was hosting lavish parties at Chenanceau, including France’s first ever fireworks show. Chenanceau’s third notable woman was the enlightened Louise Dupin, who hosted countless literary salons in the chateau – Louise saved the castle during the French Revolution by claiming that it was essential to commerce as it was the only bridge for miles. Though Catherine may have stolen the chateau from Diane and Louise saved it from demolition by angry hordes, Chateau de Chenanceau remains synonymous with Diane de Poitiers and her love for King Henri.
Pro Tip: Chateau de Chenanceau is far more lovely when visited in the off season – despite the lack of flowering gardens, the lack of tourist crowds allows you to feel the romance of the castle. No car? It’s a short and easy train ride from the town of Blois.
Transylvania, like Wallachia, is an ancient region of Romania – mountainous, disputed, oft-changing boundaries. Fortresses and castles had to be built for protection, defending land and people. Făgăraș Citadel is one of those places. Făgăraș was built in 1310 on the foundations of a 12th century wooden fortress that had been burned by Tartars in 1241. Then it was enlarged in the Renaissance style with the sole purpose of impressing visitors (in fact, Italian architects were brought in to add said Renaissance grandeur). Then – sadly – Făgăraș became a military garrison, meaning that the once-luxurious interior was ruined, trampled, lost. Encircled by a moat and a tree-lined garden, Făgăraș remains a beautiful and impressive place. However, do keep in mind that today’s Făgăraș Citadel is plopped in the middle of Făgăraș town, with cars and cyclists whizzing by, the din of city noise as its soundtrack. Făgăraș Citadel is now a history museum – entry 15 lei, open year round – and a fantastic example of a Transylvanian castle!
Pro Tip: Făgăraș Citadel is a great stop for anyone driving between Brasov and Sibiu! Whether you visit the interior of the castle or just stretch your legs along the walls, it’s worth the stop!
Haven’t heard of Damrak? Guarantee you’ve seen it! Damrak is probably the most photographed part of Amsterdam, and it’s easily found as it’s the first thing you see after alighting Amsterdam’s central station. Damrak is a grand avenue and partial canal at the centre of the old city. It has been the centre of the Netherlands financial hub since the early 1900s, when several financial buildings – including the stock exchange – moved in. In fact, the Damrak (so named as it used to be part of a dam that was later filled in), is Amsterdam’s version of Wall Street – though let’s admit, it’s far more picturesque. Amsterdam is renowned for its uber modern and contemporary architecture – contrasted with its beautiful and iconic 16th and 17th century canal-front row houses. Damrak’s canal and street are lined with grand Dutch buildings, products of the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century paid for mostly by the famed Dutch merchants who grew rich off thriving trade markets to faraway places. Tall, narrow and ornamented, these houses were built to stand out and impress – as well as take as little space as possible. These Dutch canal houses are loosely classified as Italian Renaissance style – but let’s face it, there’s something so impossibly dutch about them that makes this view easily and undeniably Amsterdam!
Pro Tip: If you’re ever choosing flights and see one with a 4+ hour layover in Amsterdam, go for it! Amsterdam is possibly the best connected airport-to-city-centre in Europe and you can be standing where this photo was taken less than 30 mins after you get off your plane! In the airport, follow signs for the train station and buy a ticket to Amsterdam central station, about a 15min journey with trains running every few mins. There is a place to leave luggage (for a small fee) at the airport near the train station.
Interior Statues of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Austria
Pure decadence, exorbitant elegance, genteel allure, stunning beauty. Welcome to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera House. The first of the extravagant buildings on Vienna‘s most famed street, the Ringstrasse (now a designated UNESCO site), the Staatsoper was opened to the genteel Austrian public in 1869. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building was surprisingly unpopular with said genteel Viennese. (It somehow was not considered grand enough. You have to wonder about that genteel 19th century high society…). Then on the fateful night of March 12th, 1945, inferno rained down upon Vienna’s opera house, dropped by US bombers. Fire poured from the sky, bombs exploded in the streets, and flames ate their way through the Ringstrasse. Though the angry flames could not get into the walled-off foyer and fresco-filled stairways, the auditorium and 150,000 costumes for 120+ operas went up in smoke. When WWII was finally over, it was debated: shall we rebuild the originally unpopular building as per original design, or do we redesign it to modern tastes? Thank goodness the former option was chosen, and the Wiener Staatsoper was rebuilt in all its former glory (and happily, it is now beloved by Viennese and foreigners alike). Today, you can’t visit musical Vienna, home (at one point or another) to such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and Mahler, without visiting the opera. Loiter inside the foyer for a bit and if you have time, buy yourself a ticket to the opera or ballet. If you’re a budget traveller, queue in the ‘standing’ line in the afternoon to buy a €3 or €4 ‘standing’ ticket (arrive 3hrs prior to the show’s start; once you’ve got your ticket, tie a scarf to mark your spot and head out for a bite to eat). Be sure to dedicate plenty of time to explore the palatial building – frescos, statues, paintings, vast staircases and awe-inspiring architecture await!
The 12th century Chateau des Adhémar remains one of the last true examples of Romanesque architecture, a style defined by rounded arches, thick walls, squat towers and sturdy pillars. This study, box-like castle was built atop a sunburnt hill which overlooks the orange-tiled, sunny town of Montélimar (located in the Drôme department in the south of France). Appropriated by the papacy in the 14th century until 1447 when it re-entered the Kingdom of France, the castle has been used as papal residence, an armament for several conflicts and wars, a citadel, a prison, a country residence, and now a contemporary art museum. In fact, Chateau des Adhémar was largely saved in the last few centuries as it was put to use as a prison. The famed loggia, or loge, with the striped design and rounded windows attached to the main keep was added during the Renaissance to ‘beautify’ what was considered a ‘plain’ Romanesque design. The beautiful Renaissance loggia was also built to add light to formerly gloomy rooms as well as show off the expansive countryside on Chateau des Adhémar’s toes. Located in the inner courtyard is the ancient 11th century St Pierre Chapel. Once a part of the wide-reaching monastic network centred at the Monastery of Ile Barbe in Lyon, the simple Romanesque chapel was later incorporated into the castle complex by the powerful Adhémar family. Today, the castle is a fine example of Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, as well as the modern art movement. It offers splendid aerial views of Montélimar and is a perfect stop on a road trip heading from Lyon to Nimes, Avignon, Montpellier or any other destinations in Southern France!
See Other Fascinating Places in the South of France
Chateau de Chambord, France as Seen From Across the Moat
As the most expansive and over-the-top chateau in the Loire Valley and among the most excessive of Europe, Chateau de Chambord is certainly the crowning jewel of the already castle-laden Loire Valley. Known for its rich (and royal or at least very noble) castles, the Loire Valley is full of lavish summer residences – the Chateau de Chambord is no exception. Built in 1547 in the extravagant French Renaissance style (a style which was, by definition, extremely extravagant), it was constructed for King Francis I of France as a hunting lodge, it was though never finished. Among the many distinguished guests who stayed there, the most important was Leonardo da Vinci, and it is to him that we attribute (though without proof) the chateau’s unique and fascinating double-helix staircase – i.e. two intertwined, parallel staircases that twist upwards around each other but never touch. 16th-century chateaux are in many ways faux chateaux. Architects used basic designs of castles – like moats, towers, turrets, crinolines, keeps, drawbridges, etc. – but they were never meant to be defensive, and indeed weaponry and war in this era had changed so dramatically that castles were of less use in combat (to be fair, most of Europe had settled down a bit to form some degree of stability, at least from one region to another, though there were exceptions like the French Revolution). If boiled down, Chambord is really composed of a central keep and four massive bastion towers, connected by high walls; the rest is elaborate design. Chambord is best visited in conjunction with other Loire Valley Chateaux like the Chateau de Chenanceau for example – try driving from one to the next, or if you’re feeling adventurous, consider biking from chateaux – the castles are close enough together to make this a relatively a feasible task!
Stately elegance, the central streets of the Austrian Capital of the Alps beckons both cultural and nature travellers. Despite the city’s terrifyingly clever name – ‘Innsbruck’ translates to the self-explanatory ‘Inn Bridge’ (referring to the Inn River) – today’s city is an internationally renowned winter sports centre, attracting hikers, cyclists, skiers and other athletically-motivated travellers from all over the world. Case in point, Innsbruck hosted the 1964and 1976 Winter Olympics, not to mention the 1984 and 1988 Winter Paralympics, making one of only three destinations to host the Winter Olympics more than once. Innsbruck owes much of its cultural significance to the fact that in 1429, it began the capital of Tyrol and thereby assigning a political and cultural importance to the alpine city for centuries to come. We have Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria and his successors to thank for the beautiful Renaissance buildings gracing today’s city centre, making a stroll feel both elegant and nostalgic. Today, Innsbruck remains a European pillar – a beautiful central European city (interestingly enough, one that resembles the not-too-far-away Croatian capital Zagreb just a little) that just so happens to be on the doorsteps of the Alps and Italian Dolomites making it a perfect starting point for anyone looking for adventure.
The biggest chateau in the Loire Valley, and one of the most distinctive chateaus in the world (thanks to its smooth blend of Medieval and Renaissance styles), the Chateau de Chambord, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is as absolutely magnificent as it is immense. The chateau (for there is no other word to use; Chambord and its fellow Loire Valley neighbours define the usage of the word ‘chateau’ in English) was built by Francis I as a hunting lodge – a break from his royal residences at Blois and Amboise (each no more than a stone’s throw away by modern distance standards). The castle rooms themselves are relatively simple – large, rectangular, few in number but large in size. The roof, on the other hand, is an intricate network of sculptures, buttresses, statues, odd angles, elevated passageways, elegant windows and pointed towers, all arranged together like a miniature city. But that’s not the most remarkable part of this structure. No, that honour goes to the intricate and astoundingly unique double helix staircase, serving as the centrepiece and central element of the building. Elegantly carrying visitors up three floors, the two entangled staircases curl around each other but never meet, making it an architectural unicorn. There are rumours that a one Leonardo da Vinci (who stayed there for a time) was the creator of the DNA staircase, and this is quite possible, as the inventor was known for his unique and often outlandish projects, though his involvement has not been proven. In any event, the massive and iconic chateau certainly merits its place on Loire Valley itineraries!
No, this is not the infamous Elsinore, whose claim to fame originates from none other than Shakespeare’s Hamlet. This fortress is actually the great Rosenborg Castle, built in the early 15th century (1606 to be exact). Commissioned by Christian IV as an extravagant summer residence, it was only used as an official royal residence during a few emergency situations. Today, this wonderful example of Dutch Renaissance architecture commands its awe-some presence in central Copenhagen, and its grounds create a cheery central park perfect for sunbathing (in the summer!), strolling hand-in-hand with your lover, picnicking with a group of friends, or a weekend afternoon out with the family. It is visited by an estimated 2.5 million people every year – clearly, a well-loved part of Copenhagen! One of the greatest things about European castles and fortresses is their sheer diversity – Danish castles differ greatly from much of what one finds in Germany, France, Italy, Austria, Poland, or any other European county, and each castle, no matter where it is, how big or small it is, or how famous (or not…) it is, holds a great value contained in its thick walls. In an era before computers, modern machinery, or the advanced science of today, castles were designed, built, and maintained purely by the power and ingenuity of men, providing today’s visitor with a window into the culture, history, architecture, and stylistic tastes of bygone eras.
Sweeping views of the Vistula River, piqued steeples of orange tiles on a church’s roof and slightly browning leaves as fall descends on the little medieval town of Kazimierez Dolny. Located in eastern Poland, Kaz. is well-known for being one of the few Polish towns to survive demolition during the war and the years that followed. Small, quaint, picturesque, it as historic as it is beautiful. Once an important merchant town in the 16th and 17th centuries, the die-down of the grain trade along its river coupled with invasions from the formidable Swedish army caused the town to be preserved in a Renaissance-shaped bubble. While this wasn’t particularly good for the Renaissance-era and post-Renaissance-era residents, this is great news for the modern tourist looking to catch a glimpse of the culture and history of Poland. As most of small-town Poland was destroyed and rebuilt in the styles of the 20th century, and most historic city centres of Poland were also destroyed and rebuilt following the guidelines of memories and paintings, the pockets of historically-authentic (and mightily beautiful!) towns such as Kaz. Dolny are a rarity. Kazimierez Dolny is a rare opportunity to glimpse the life of medieval and Renaissance Poland as they once existed in their golden heyday.
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!