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Guide To Europe's 5 Most Famous Gothic Cathedrals

By Randy Yagi

Over a period of nearly 400 years, many of Europe's most famous churches were designed and constructed using Gothic architecture, a style originating in 12th century France and first known as French work or Opus Francigenum. A familiar architectural style that thrived during a notable period of expansion throughout Europe during the high and late Medieval period, Gothic architecture is typified by such fundamental characteristics a pointed arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. However, Gothic architecture is also renowned for creating many of the tallest and largest church buildings in the world, many of which remain standing after hundreds of years. Here are just five of the most famous Gothic cathedrals in Europe.

Cologne Cathedral

Once the tallest building in the world after its completion in 1880, Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) is by far the most visited landmark in Germany, drawing 20,000 visitors daily. Built over a period of more than 600 years, the medieval church marked by its soaring twin spires has a history dating back to the 13th century and more recently survived the allied bombings during World War II and named a World Heritage Site in 1996. At 474 feet long, 283 feet wide and with the spires extending 515 feet high, the Cologne Cathedral is one of the tallest Roman Catholic churches in the world and the largest Gothic church in the country. Located along the shores of the Rhine River, Cologne Cathedral is open daily, with special opening hours on holidays.

Visitors are free to explore the Gothic cathedral on their own except during Mass, and additionally can also choose to go on a guided tour, which includes a visit to the roof, for just €8 or climb on their own for €4. However, visitors must be able to climb 533 steps in order to enjoy the sweeping city and river views from the south tower. Also featuring the world's largest church facade, the cathedral's cavernous interior is graced with beautiful stained glass, two Klais pipe organs, an enormous domed ceiling and a collection of impressive works of art, including the Gero Cross (Gero-Kreuz), the oldest large crucifix north of the Alps and the Shrine of the Three Kings, which is believed to contain the bones of the biblical Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men.

Transportation to the Cologne Cathedral is served by reliable tour operators and by the city's U-Bahn (subway) to the city's central train station located adjacent to the church.

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Photo Credit: Thinkstock Photo Credit: Thinkstock
Florence Cathedral 

Located in the heart of the historic city center, Florence Cathedral is considered one of the architectural treasures of the Italian Renaissance beginning in the 14th century. Constructed over 140 years, groundbreaking actually began during the preceding High Medieval Period in 1296 and at the time was intended to be the world's largest Catholic church. With a nave height of 148 feet, it remains the third highest church alongside Barcelona's Sagrada Familia and Milan Cathedral.

Officially known as Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore but better known as Il Duomo di Firenze or simply il Duomo, this magnificent basilica extends 502 feet long, 300 feet wide and its iconic dome completed with the remainder of the church in 1436, continues to be the world's largest brick dome. On the western end opposite the dome stands the marble-laden bell tower Campanile di Giotto and the Baptistry of St. John, one of the oldest churches in the city. Open daily, admission to il Duomo is free although access to cupola and bell tower is €15 and requires visitors to climb 414 and 463 steps respectively.

However, this fee also includes admission to the baptistry, the cathedral's crypt and the Opera del Duomo Museum. Most of the prominent attractions within the city center is generally within walking distance but the Florence Cathedral can also be visited by tour buses, private tours or via public transit.

Notre Dame De Paris

Clearly one of most famous churches in the world, Notre Dame de Paris is a stunning example of French Gothic architecture marked by its archetypal facade, twin towers and breathtaking rose windows. Situated on Île de la Cité (island of the city), this beloved Paris landmark was built over a period of nearly 200 years commencing in the 12th century and measures 420 feet long, 157 feet wide and its two soaring towers reaches a height of 226 feet.

Open to the public daily from 7:45 a.m. to 6:45 p.m., this prestigious cathedral has been the setting for several monumental events in its history and is the most visited attraction in Europe, drawing nearly 14 million visitors annually and surprisingly, far exceeding the annual attendances of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum. There is no admission free to enter the church although there may be long lines at times, and there is a fee of €10 to access the 422 steps for a bird's-eye view of the towers and its legendary stone gargoyles and chimeras. In addition to the optional visit to the towers, first time visitors are urged to explore the interior of the church, with its three rose windows intricately made with stained glass, the magnificent pipe organ and its many superbly crafted altars.

Visitors should also walk to the eastern end of the church to see the famous flying buttresses, a beautiful garden and its single, 300 foot high spire. Located in what's considered the center of the City of Lights and marked by a Point Zero marker, Notre Dame de Paris can be easily reached by using the Paris Metro subway via Line 1 or the RER Line B.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock Photo Credit: Thinkstock
Seville Cathedral 

Extending across 124,000 square feet, Seville Cathedral is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world as well as the world's third largest church. One of the most beloved national treasures of Spain, this enormous structure fashioned with Moorish influences was founded on the site of a former mosque as a display of the city's enormous wealth and power in the years after the Reconquista during the Middle Ages. Standing adjacent is the cathedral's bell tower known as the Giralda, which was originally used as a minaret (lighthouse) and predates the church by more than 300 years. Completed during the Spanish Golden Age in 1507, Seville Cathedral also possesses the longest nave in Spain and holds 80 chapels and 15 elaborately designed doors across four lavish facades. It is also the final resting place for such immortal figures as Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand III, the leader of the Spanish Reconquista who later was canonized to become known as Fernando el Santo or San Fernando.

In addition to the Giralda and the Tomb of Christopher Columbus, other notable sites to see at Seville Cathedral  are the choir (coro) and church organ, Chapel of the Virgin Mary, Patio of Orange Trees and the treasury. The cathedral is open daily and general admission is €9 and €4 for students and senior citizens, and includes access to the Giralda tower via a series of ramps. Situated in the heart of the Andalusian capital of Seville, the cathedral may be reached via a city tour or public transportation, with a nearby light rail station at Archivo de Indias.

Westminster Abbey

The setting for royal weddings and the crowning of kings and queens for more than 1,000 years, Westminster Abbey is one of the most prominent and most famous Gothic churches in England and the world. First established in 960, Westminster Abbey has been the official site for the coronation of every English and British monarch since 1066, as well the host of nearly 20 royal weddings, including the marriage between Princess Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth II) and Prince Philip in 1947 and more recently the marriage between Prince Williams of Wales, now the Duke of Cambridge and Catherine Elizabeth Middleton, now known as Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge in 2011. Sadly, Westminster Abbey was also the solemn setting for the official funeral ceremony for Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997.

London's most visited church measures 530 feet long and 140 feet wide and its two prominent towers stands at more than 225 feet high. Visitors to the interior of the church will be able to view many of its priceless treasures within the 32,000 square foot nave, as well as the graves, monuments and memorials of more than 3,000 very famous people, including royal family members , distinguished scientists like Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton, and several notable writers and actors in the famous Poets' Corner. This includes Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Sir Laurence Olivier, as well as memorials for Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, T.S. Elliott and William Shakespeare. Tickets may be purchased online or at the main entrance, with discounts for children, students, seniors, families with children and groups.

Prominently located along the River Thames and within walking distance of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey is largely served by tour buses and the closest London Underground subway station is Westminster Underground station, just north of Big Ben.

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