Top 10 awe-inspiring European cathedrals

European cathedrals are among the world’s great architectural monuments and, apart from their religious significance, are crammed with first-class art. Here are 10 of the best.


St Vitus Cathedral is a rearing Gothic edifice in Prague Castle complex, begun in 1344 and not completed until 1927, which perhaps explains its chaotic architecture. The interior is a treasure-trove of Czech art and stained glass and contains a glorious chapel to King Wenceslas, the Bohemian monarch immortalised in a Christmas carol. From the tower, a brilliant view of Prague unfolds over gargoyles and flying buttresses. See


Vienna Cathedral str25-trav10-cathedral

St Stephen’s roofs are a cheerful zigzag of orange and green tiles, the pulpit features leering faces, and hobgoblins prance around the tomb of Frederick III. Yet the Gothic interior is also gloomy, patched with awkward baroque-era additions. The morbid can tour the catacombs, filled with bones from Vienna’s former plague pits and urns containing the intestines of imperial Hapsburgs. The tower provides a cheerful view as far as the Vienna woods. See


Salisbury Cathedral ceiling str25-trav10-cathedral

Of all this country’s great cathedrals, Salisbury’s seems the most English, rising above water meadows and the Austen-esque buildings of The Close, and immortalised in Trollope novels and Constable paintings. Its chapter house displays the original Magna Carta. The cathedral has never looked better after emerging from a 30-year renovation that has polished its harmonious early-Gothic architecture. Linger for Evensong to hear the famous boys’ choir in action. See


St Basil's str25-trav10-cathedral

St Basil’s on Red Square has an instantly recognisable exterior of candy-cane colour and popping domes. Ivan the Terrible supposedly had the architect’s eyes put out so its beauty would never be surpassed. It’s a shame so few people venture into the sombre interior, whose nine chapels recall an old, mysterious Russia of bearded prophets and mad monks. The red-and-gold tomb of St Basil is studded with jewels. See


This enormous cathedral is a fabulous concoction of turrets, statues and opulent ornamentation in white marble. English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning called it ”a sort of romantic snow dream”. A crystal coffin in the crypt holds the embalmed body of St Carlo Borromeo, rather eerie in stiff vestments and a silver mask. A lift and 50 steps will take you to rooftop terraces for a close-up look at spires and saints. See


Valletta str25-trav10-cathedral

This co-cathedral has a bare, fortress-like exterior, but erupts inside in over-the-top baroque flamboyance. The marble floors are covered in 300 coats of arms, military trophies and figures of angels and grinning skeletons. Malta’s Grand Masters are buried in baroque tombs, and the nave is draped with Flemish tapestries. Caravaggio’s light-infused, dramatic masterpiece The Beheading of St John, which hangs in the oratory, is one of European art’s great masterpieces and alone worth the visit. See


This early 20th-century orthodox cathedral dedicated to St Alexander Nevsky – a piece of whose rib is a proudly displayed relic – is a humungous neo-Byzantine pile topped by a gold-plated dome, and the symbol of Bulgaria. The interior is an explosion of onyx, alabaster and marble, Venetian mosaic work, mighty chandeliers and rows of sloe-eyed, sad-looking saints. Head down to the museum in the crypt for a collection of beautiful icons. See


Altar Toledo str25-trav10-cathedral

This gargantuan High Gothic cathedral preserves 700 years of art, much of it gilded in plundered Americas gold. The result is menacing, sensual and exhilarating: the preoccupations of fanatical Catholic Spain in stone. Paintings by Goya, El Greco and Velazquez hang in the sacristy. Other highlights are royal tombs, gaudy Gothic statues and wood-carved choir stalls. Side chapels the size of churches are ornate with baroque renovations in gold and blue. See


Cologne Cathedral and Great St Martin's church. str25-trav10-cathedral

Foundations were laid in 1248, but it wasn’t until 1880 that finishing touches rounded off this whopping building. It was famous in the Middle Ages for housing the supposed relics of the Three Kings, which lie in a jewel-encrusted box. The cathedral’s stupendous facade – easily admired from a cafe table in the square – is like some incredible waxen model that has started to melt, dripping Gothic ornamentation and a congregation of saints. See


Constructed in the 12th century within just 25 years, Chartres cathedral sits above the Eure River, medieval town roofs and wheat fields southwest of Paris. It has a remarkable, pleasing unity and highlights the features of the Gothic style. Thousands of carved saints, angels and animals enliven the interior and fabulous west portico, but the highlight is the glowing stained-glass windows The ”Chartres blue” has never since been replicated. See

Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of various tourism offices and cruise lines, and at his own expense.

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