The Palace of Culture and Science ((Pałac Kultury i Nauki in Polish) was originally built by and named for its creator, Joseph Stalin. Much hated by the Varsovians, during the “destalinization” of Poland, Stalin’s named was effaced from the palace. It has many nicknames – Pekin (its abbreviation, PKiN, sounds similar); pajac (meaning clown), Stalin’s Needle, or my favourite, Chuj Stalina, which means (you guessed it) Stalin’s Dick. It is a hated monument. Varsovians joke that the Palace of Culture and Science offers the best view of Warsaw because it’s the only place in the city where the Palace itself doesn’t ruin the view! Erected in 1955 and meant as a “gift” from Stalin to the Polish people (thanks Stalin, much appreciated…), it was built in the Communist totalitarianism style common in USSR-controlled territories (the most famous being the Seven Sisters of Moscow). After WWII, Poland was under Russian rule. The war destroyed some 85% of Warsaw, leaving massive piles of rubble, en masse homelessness and thousands of displaced families. It was the Communist Russians who rebuilt the city (the Old Town is really only half a century old, though based on what the city looked like with smuggled blueprints, paintings and memories). But outside the old town, much of Warsaw has the typical “communist look” – concrete functionalist totalitarianism style favoured by the USSR – with the Palace of Culture and Science the biggest and baddest of all the Stalinist architecture. Today, the palace hosts exhibits, office space, an omniplex, museums of technology and evolution, a pool, a university, shops and of course the observation tower. Though some say that the Palace of Culture and Science is a symbol of Warsaw’s rebirth, persistence and strength in face of adversary, if you want to see this controversial tower, we suggest that go now as many have called for its demolition.
Pro tip: Want to know more about Warsaw in WWII? Visit the fantastic Warsaw Uprising museum. Then take a walk through what used to be the Jewish ghetto (marked with brass lines on the street) to get a wider sense of everyday Soviet-era architecture. There is also a memorial to a Gestapo prison in this neighbourhood (Muzeum Więzienia Pawiak). And of course as mentioned above, take the chance to get the lift to the 30th floor for the panoramic view of the city.
Kiev’s first UNESCO site, the 13 spires of the 11th century Byzantine St Sophia Cathedral contrast wildly with the more modern concrete blocks courtesy of communism. Named for the famous church-turned-mosque the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia is one of the best architectural relics of the Kievan Rus. With ground broken in 1011, St Sophia’s Cathedral celebrated its 1000th anniversary in 2011! Like many religious buildings, its history has been far from peaceful. St Sophia was pillaged in 1169 and again in 1240, leading to abandonment and disrepair, including the loss of irreplaceable wall paintings. It was later damaged again in the 1500s when Poland and Ukraine joined forces in a misguided (and doomed to fail) attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was claimed by several Orthodox communities – notably, the Ukrainian Greek Orthodox Church and the Moldavian Orthodox Church, who made repairs to St Sophia in the Ukrainian Baroque style. The Soviets wanted to destroy the cathedral and turn it into park, and indeed they managed to do so with St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery at the other end of the boulevard. But its popularity and reputation caused many to speak for the cathedral and St Sophia was saved, instead being turned into a history museum. And today, due to arguments over which branch of Orthodoxy should hold the rights to this ancient place, St Sophia remains a museum, frequented more by tourists than by members of the Orthodox community.
Pro tip: Things in the Ukraine follow their own rules and opening hours. Be sure to arrive early and be ready to wait if they say its not open. Special rates for students. Be sure to visit St Michael’s afterwards!
Tallinn is one of Europe’s most impressive medieval walled towns, with over a dozen watch towers, the beautiful Viiru Gate, and over a kilometre of walls still surrounding the exquisitely-preserved medieval houses and cobbled streets. In its height during the 16th century, Tallinn’s wall network was 2.4 km long, up to 16 metres high, and was protected by no less than 43 towers – an impressive and impregnable site to behold! Tallinn’s oldest wall structure is the Margaret Wall, commenced in 1265 on the orders of Margaret Sambiria, Queen of Denmark and reigning fief-holder of Danish Estonia. Her commissioned wall was far smaller than what we see today – just 5 metres tall and 1.5 metres thick (at its thickest part). Over the centuries, the walls of Tallinn have grown upwards and outwards, particularly in the 14th century as the Dark Ages were a time of turbulence. In fact, this medieval wall was actually guarded by a revolving roster of “voluntary” citizens of Tallinn, who were firmly invited to take turns parading the walls. Today, despite past demolitions, there are over 20 defensive towers and about 10 gates comprising of the Walls of Tallinn, nearly all of which are still in great shape, and able to be visited. All of this together is why Tallinn’s walls are a part – in fact, a significant part – of the UNESCO world heritage site that encompasses Medieval Tallinn. Even if you never stepped foot in to the city (which would be a mistake!), Tallinn’s impressive medieval walls would be reason enough to visit this incredible Baltic gem.
Pro tip: There is a small fee to visit the walls. Many of the towers are actually museums dedicated to Tallinn’s history. According to Visit Tallinn, the best places to see Tallinn’s walls from the outside are the Patkuli viewing platform on Toompea and Tornide väljak (Towers’ Square) near the train station.
Germany may have a reputation for being a bit dark, a bit gloomy, even a bit grim – but there’s one thing that Germany does just as well if not better than some of the loveliest parts of Europe: fairytale castles. One such castle is the lovely if little-known Hohenzollern Castle. Though not completely off the beaten track, beautiful Burg Hohenzollern doesn’t share the same overwhelming popularity or footfalls as its cousins Neuschwanstein Castle, or perhaps Eltz Castle or Schloss Lichtenstein, widely shared on social media. Crowning the top of Mount Hohenzollern, the towers of Hohenzollern rise majestically above the treetops. The ancestral seat of the once-powerful House of Hohenzollern, this castle only dates back to the mid-1800s although a castle has stood here since the 11th century. When the clouds encircle Mount Hohenzollern, it gives the effect the Burg Hohenzollern is floating in the air – an actual castle amongst the clouds! Though it’s possible to climb the hill by bus, we recommend that you take to the trails which weave in and out of the woods before depositing you on the doorstep of this amazing castle, where you’ll be greeted with a courtyard surrounded by thick, imposing walls and high towers. It’s not just the outside of Hohenzollern that is amazing – inside, admire the spectacular courtyard and towers, ivy-curtained walls, rich carvings and imposing stairways – not to mention the beautiful rooms indoors. A quiet blend of Loire Valley chateau and Gothic Revival, if you weren’t paying close attention, you might accidentally think you wandered into a Disney film!
Pro tip: Closest large city is Stuttgart. From there, take the train to Hechingen station (1 hour). Either take the shuttle bus or you walk through the town and up the wooded path – around 5km one way. Entrance is €7 for exterior castle visit or €12 to visit the rooms. More info here.
One of the best-preserved examples of medieval life and architecture is the walled city of Carcassonne in the south of France. Though La Cité started out as a Roman hilltop fort, it was in the Middle Ages that Carcassonne hit its peak. In 1067, Carcassonne fell into the Trencavel family through marriage, allying it with other great cities of the south, such as Albi, Nîmes and Toulouse – even Barcelona. The already-medieval city was further gothic-ified by the Trencavels – including the Chateau Comtal in the centre of Carcassonne. What Carcassonne is perhaps most known for its role in the horrid Albigensian Crusades. Carcassonne was a sanctuary for the ostracised Cathars of the Pays d’Oc. A gnostic offshoot of Christianity, the Cathars were not accepted by the Catholic Church, who attacked Carcassonne in 1209, killed Viscount Trencaval, and ousted the city’s citizens, with Carcassonne eventually passing into the Kingdom of France. 300 years later, the Huguenots of Languedoc, including those of Carcassonne, didn’t fare much better. Despite its troubled history, today Carcassonne is a beautiful medieval masterpiece, a living replica of what life looking like hundreds of years ago.
Pro tip: Carcassonne is a very popular tourist destination. Visit only in the off season to avoid the worst of the crowds. There are accommodations in La Cite as well as the more modern side of Carcassonne. Another (more cost effective) solution is to stay in the less-popular Béziers, and train in to Carcassonne.
Amidst Brexit shenanigans, London remains both irrevocably changed as well as the same wonderful place it has always been. One thing that London does so well – and so much better than any other city in Europe – is perfectly blend the old and the new. No where else can the Globe, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral sit together in perfect harmony on two sides of the mighty Thames River and seem to complement each other so perfectly. Here London is up to its old tricks again. Stroll through the ultra modern architecture of City Hall and the London Riverside to admire the light and airy glass and steel manipulated into curvy and wavy lines – which contrasts steadily with the Victorian-era and icon of English historical landmarks, London’s Tower Bridge. Built in the 1890s, this dual-functioning bridge allows pedestrians and vehicle to cross while also working as a drawbridge for passing ships and barges on the Thames. London may be a massive city but the best way to explore its nooks and crannies is by picking a direction and starting to walk – no matter how many times you visit, you never know what gem you may happen to find!
Pro tip: The Tower Bridge (not to be confused with London Bridge) is free to walk across but there is a fee of £9.80 to enter the towers (open 9.30 – 17.30) – once engine rooms and now exhibitions.
On the shores of Lough Neagh (Ireland’s largest lake, though far from its most interesting one…), Shane’s Castle is one of the most fascinating castle ruins on the Emerald Isle. Built in 1345 by the O’Neill dynasty (one of the major family clans in Ulster, the northern half of Ireland), the original name was actually Eden-duff-carrick – only becoming the far more catchier “Shane’s Castle” in 1722 when Shane MacBrien O’Neill changed its name to suit him. Today, the castle is famous for its many uses in HBO’s Game of Thrones TV series. Though largely ruins, most visitors to Shane’s Castle will miss the most fascinating part (only accessible through certain tours and events): the huge network of tunnels, caves and catacombs twisting underneath the castle’s foundations! Dark and windy, these tunnels featured in several GoT scenes. Not far way, the infamous Battle of Antrim was fought on on 7 June 1798 as an unsuccessful rebellion of Irish peasants against the British Rule (the Republic of Ireland only managed to get independence from Great Britain in 1922 after years of fighting, and obviously Northern Ireland is still a region within the UK). Though this can still be a contentious subject in Ireland (both north & south), a lot has changed in recent years making the whole island a fun and safe destination.
Pro tip: Every year in July, the grounds of Shane’s Castle holds Ireland’s largest Country & Game Fair, including living history and reenactments – well worth the visit! The event includes is a historical component showcasing ways of living in the past, from the Viking age through to modern times, with a reenactment of the Battle of Antrim.
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.
Frauenkirche & Cathedral of Munich – Munich, Germany
One of Germany’s most beautiful cities is Munich, capital of the famed region of Bavaria. Munich is a city filled with stunning architecture. Its skyline is pierced with spires of churches and cathedrals and towers and its ground is laid with cobblestones. The city centre is filled with architectural wonders – palaces, halls, great houses, beer halls, churches, towers. In the above photo, the spire to the right is from the Cathedral of Munich, while the twin spires to the left are from the Frauenkirche. It is in the Frauenkirche where you’ll find a footprint indented in the floor. Legend has it that this is the Devil’s footprint – the builders needed help finishing the church and the devil offered his aid to finish it. From the front door, the columns form an illusion to block all of the windows so the Devil thought that it would be a dark, damp church and no one would want to go there. When he realised that the builders tricked him, he was so angry he stomped his foot down in anger – hence the imprint of a foot on a stone by the door. (A less exciting explanation could be a the footprint of the master builder himself). Whatever you believe, it makes a good story!
Pro Tip: Take the free walking tour of Munich as you’ll learn about this legend and more – a perfect introduction to Munich!
Cobblestones underfoot reverberate with the echoes of footsteps, the clink of silverware at a local cafe and the laughter of children playing in the narrow alleyways. The perfectly preserved medieval streets and facades of ancient Tallinn directly contrast with the advanced techosphere hidden just beneath the surface of the city nicknamed the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe.’ It has one of the highest ratio of start-ups per population throughout Europe – Skype being the most famous of them all. The capital of Estonia has slowly become recognised as one of the main IT centre of Europe – Tallinn currently provides NATO’s cybersecurity (home to the NATO Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence), it is set to house the headquarters of the European Union’s IT agency, and has been ranked as the most competitive financial hub of Northern Europe. Quite the achievement for this beautifully small and oft forgotten capital tucked into a remote corner of Europe! Tallinn is perhaps the perfect blend of old and new: the medieval streets and architecture of Tallinn, including the Viru Gates in the photo, have merited the city a spot on UNESCO‘s list – and yet, it also catches the eye of many the enterprising digital start-up. The Viru Gate, a barbican within the ancient city walls, was part of Tallinn’s medieval defensive walls that still encircle much of the city. Though partially destroyed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages and trams, the Viru Gate still dispenses Tallinn’s unique flavour in the brisk Baltic air.
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.
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Red brick towers peek out of the forest to climb their way towards the heavens. Turaida Castle, a little-known medieval fortress erected in the early 12th century, is a Latvian national treasure, to the degree that when the castle was left to be reclaimed by Mother Nature, the Latvians pumped finances into saving it. A Teutonic castle made of red brick much like Poland’s immense Zamek Malbork, the crumbling Teutonic Turon Castle in central Poland or even Lithuania’s island fortress Trakai, Turaida Castle itself seems as if it was pulled out of a magical storybook and nestled into the forgotten woods of the Gauja River Valley deep within Latvia. Reached either by winding backroads or by a combination of foot and cable car through the quiet Latvian forest, the castle is set in one of Latvia’s most incredible backdrops. Turaida Castle was the home of the lovely Rose of Turaida, a love story with a not-so-happy ending. While the castle itself evokes thoughts of knights and princesses and dragons, a hike through the surrounding valley with the enchanted castle looming in the distance is one memory you will never forget.
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Here, one of Tallinn’s many terracotta-topped towers pokes through the mysterious mist. Unlike many other towns and cities across Europe, Tallinn has been able to keep true to its roots. In fact, Tallinn prides itself on the fact that many of the city’s buildings, churches, houses, warehouses, walls, and towers maintain their original forms. Some even date all the way back to the 11th century–impressive! Especially for such a small country under the constant shadow of nearby giants vying for control over its’ strategic position (namely, Russia, Germany, and Sweden). In fact, Estonia wasn’t even a country for much of its recent history, only gaining its independence in 1991 (and briefly just after WWI). Perhaps because of this loss, the Estonians want to make up for lost time and preserve as much of their history as possible. Tallinn has not been “improved” or “modernised” like so many other European capitals; (think anything from London to Berlin to Warsaw to Madrid). Not that there is anything wrong with this, but sometimes, we need that misty, magical, timeless place with tiny, winding cobblestone roads, local taverns and ancient churches that make us feel as if we’ve travelled back to the middle ages.