Going to Europe for the first time? The twelfth? You will see cathedrals, you will. And basilicas. And abbeys. And chapels. Despite what the guidebooks say, they aren’t all awesome, and they aren’t all worth seeing. Here are some that are worth seeking out. And some that… aren’t quite.
4 to See
Basilica Saint-Denis, Paris
Most visitors spend their churchgoing time in Paris winding around the nave of Notre Dame in a slow-moving river of tourists that runs about 10-deep on weekends, or annoying the priests at grim, cobwebby Saint-Sulpice with questions about The Da Vinci Code. Your first visit to Paris? By all means, go to these places. Your second? Take metro 13 to just beyond the peripherique and visit the incredible, and sorely overlooked, Basilica Saint-Denis. Flying buttresses? Check. Classic Gothic architecture? Check. Splashy stained glass? Check. You’ll see beautiful examples of all three, but the most important things you’ll see at Saint-Denis are the tombs. The entire French royal line was buried here from the 10th to the 18th centuries, and they’re entombed in everything from incredible marble sarcophagi (Francois I, Catherine de’ Medici and Louis XIV are given particularly grand treatment) to tiny gold boxes (what they could find of Marie Antoinette after the dust settled). Go on a weekday when the sun is out and enjoy this serene (and serenely uncrowded) place.
Thistle Chapel at the High Kirk of Saint Giles, Edinburgh
The church—located in the heart of Edinburgh’s famous (and famously touristy) Royal Mile—is just fine. It’s what’s in the back that really matters. It’s easy to miss, but don’t leave before you see the amazing Thistle Chapel, where Scotland’s Order of the Thistle convenes. Every inch of this shoebox-sized room is covered in ornate carvings, all of them symbolizing the members of the Order—Scotland’s oldest and most prestigious order of chivalry. Animals, ancient crests, and angels abound. Even the ceiling ribs are lined with thistles in full blossom. It’ll take you a minute, but don’t forget to look for the tiny carving of the angel playing the bagpipes—one of the only portrayals in Edinburgh.
Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseille
Here’s an easy way to find this wonderful church when you get to sunny, seaside Marseille: Look up. It is the most distinctive feature of this teeming city, crowning the hill just above the old city. The gold statue of the Notre Dame on the spire glimmers at midday and is visible almost everywhere. Take the bus to the top of the hill and visit this incredible place. A relatively small church, its insides are covered with glittering gold mosaics, and more, with the gifts and dedications of townspeople whose families have lived and died by the ocean. Model ships hang from strings on the ceiling. Tiny oil paintings portray men carried miraculously from shipwrecks. Prayers from seafarer’s wives and mothers are inscribed on plaques. Outside on the terraces, the view across the city, and the very blue Mediterranean, is incredible. From there, see if you can tell the difference between the real Le Corbusier, the architect’s iconic apartment building in the new city, and it’s many nearby imitators, or just watch the cruise ships lumbering by.
Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp
There is something about this cathedral. It’s stuffed with famous Rubins paintings, yes. And the bells in its tower make a noise that glistens and shimmers like a fairy tale. But something beyond that makes this church so wonderful—a lovely combination of restrained and ornate. On the inside, its walls are painted white, and the light streams through on even the grayest days (like the one on which I visited, in March). On the outside, its single dark spire towers over the city, every inch covered in Gothic flourish. Have a hot chocolate at one of the cafes and admire the view outside, explore what’s behind the doors.
3 to Skip
Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican
Yeah, it’s big. And it’s famous. And you have to see it, right? Right? Well, no. Not if you have little patience for clamoring, camera-wielding tourists, who jam themselves into every corner of the Pope’s church and then conspire, I swear, to all shout at the same time in 15 different languages. Add that to the staff’s charming tendency to let three times as many people up to the top of the dome as should safely and sanely be there, and the basilica’s oppressive ugliness (It’s pink. And gold. Lots of gold.) and you have yourself a recipe for a frustrating, exhausting day in Rome. And oh yeah, you have to wait in line for three hours during high season to even get in the door. Take pictures from the square and ask a security guard where you can get good pasta and call it a day. Or a lifetime.
Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
Really? This is the best Dublin can do when it comes to its most famous cathedral? Chilly and dark, this big stone church contains statues of dead people you’ve probably never heard of and some flags. For a better bet, grab a book and people watch on the lovely strip of green right outside the church. (Note: I took exactly zero photos in and around Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. The snapshot above is from the graveyard at the way-more-interesting Saint Audoen’s church.)
The Duomo, Florence
If you see it for the first time at sunset, like I did, your heart will probably fall out of your chest at the sight of its unfathomable beauty and elegance. Its perfect (and perfectly constructed) dome is Florence’s signature; its colored marble seems too intricate and harmonious to be real. And then you walk inside and it’s just a big empty room with some candles in it. Really. Save your money and your time and don’t even bother going inside the Duomo. There is some art, yes. A venerable painting or two. But it’s not worth braving the crowds and the real wonder—the thing worth seeing—can be had for free just by looking around you.