By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination Specialist and Europe River Cruise Expert
For most of us growing up, Europe was about famous sites, palaces and castles, and unique cultures. We all like lists of places, to compare what we have experienced and to keep score. Some are very competitive and will claim a visit to a country or site by merely stepping across the border but for me, the significance is what the landmark or country means. So, I thought I’d give you a list of what I consider the best 10 landmark sights in Europe, explain why they are significant and ask you to tell us how many you have been to, or want to see. I have decided not to try to rank them, so the sites will be listed alphabetically. Here goes:
The Acropolis, Athens, Greece
The Acropolis means “upper city”. It is the symbol of the golden age of Greece.
The largest building on the Acropolis is the Parthenon. The buildings here were built between 447BC to 420 BC. The Parthenon was built as a temple to worship the goddess Hera. It is 31m wide, 70m long and 10.5m high. It was built between 447 and 438 B.C. This is the most important monument of the ancient Greek civilization. While this a stunning achievement of human engineering and construction for that time, for most the Acropolis is the symbol of birthplace of democracy.
Alhambra, Grenada, Spain
The Alhambra is the Moorish citadel formed by a complex of palaces, gardens and forts in Granada, Spain. Today it consists of 4 areas. The defensive area, including the outer walls, is known as the Alcazaba.
Inside the walled area there are 2 palaces. Nazaries Palace is the Moorish palace and is a work of outstanding beauty. It is the most important surviving remnant of the period of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula (711–1492).
After the Moors surrendered in 1492, the Spanish later built the Palace of Carlos V & added a church.
Outside the defensive walls are the Genalife gardens.
The Alhambra is the symbol of the struggle between Christians and Islam on the Iberian Peninsula.
Big Ben and England’s Parliament, London, England
Big Ben is a 315 foot high clock tower on the Houses of Parliament (also known as the Palace of Westminster) in London England. Big Ben is a symbol of the British Parliament and one of the most accurate clocks in the world. If the chimes are off by even two seconds per year, it makes the news. The English Parliament is perhaps the best symbol of democracy in the world. Staring with the Magna Carta in 1215, the English parliament became the role model for constitutional monarchy. England spread their form of government throughout its vast colonial empire and today many countries use the same model to govern.
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Brandenburg Gate has become the symbol of a reunified Berlin. It was originally part of a wall surrounding Berlin and was the main entrance to the city. The Quadriga statue sits atop the Brandenburger Tor (gate). The statue is called the Goddess of Victory.
It is the only gate that remains of this former city wall. In its 200 year history, this gate has become a political symbol. First, it was a symbol of German unification in 1870. Later in WW II, it was a symbol of the Nazi regime. Later it became the symbol of the cold war. President Regan’s famous speech, to “Tear Down this Wall” was delivered here in 1987.
Colosseum and Roman Forum, Rome, Italy
The Colosseum is in Rome Italy. This 2000 year old building was an arena for gladiator contests and public spectacles. The Colosseum was so well designed, that modern stadiums use the concepts to get large crowds into an arena efficiently. It became a symbol of power and majesty of the emperor, Rome and Roman society. The Roman forum was the political, religious and economic center of ancient Rome. Seldom can one walk where so much history was made to see the many ruins of an empire that ruled Europe and at one time was the definition of civilization.
The Roman Empire was so large it dominated over 400 years of European history and has become the basis for many of today’s customs and traditions.
The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Some call this the most popular landmark in the world–every year over 6 million people come to visit it! Inaugurated on March 31, 1889, this grand tower was built for the Universal Exhibition in celebration of the French Revolution. Including the flagpole, the tower is 324 meters tall. Certainly it is one of the most recognizable man-made structures ever built.
Hagia Sophia Istanbul Turkey.
The Hagia Sophia was built as an Orthodox Church later was converted to a mosque with the fall of the Byzantine Empire and is now a museum. The massive dome is considered to be the best example of Byzantine architecture and it was the world’s largest cathedral for over 1000 years. No other religious structure can be called the largest house of worship for both the Christian and Muslim faiths.
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican
The Vatican is a tiny independent county and it is the religious capital of about 1.1 billion Roman Catholics. From the middle Ages to present, the Vatican City, the world’s smallest independent state, has been the seat of the papacy. The Vatican is the worldwide headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. It is the smallest state in the world (.17 square miles). The area is a walled city that is inside Rome. There are several famous sites—St. Peter’s Square, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Papal Gardens & the Museum (which has the Sistine Chapel).
Versailles Palace, Versailles, France
Every King in Europe wanted a palace like Versailles. This place is huge, opulent, furnished with the best of everything and has acres of gardens and fountains that have to be seen to be believed!
It is the symbol of the absolute monarch–home to Louie XIV–the Sun King. Every morning when this guy woke up, several nobles surrounded him to wish him good morning–they waited for their king to wake up!
Probably the most famous room is the Hall of Mirrors–nobles could admire themselves constantly in their elegant clothes–unheard of, as mirrors where not widely used in homes even by monarchs. It is easy to imagine what court life was like seeing this palace–it is a world us common people could only dream about. It is 250 ft long with 17 windows with stunning garden views. The 17 arched mirrors combined with 24 candelabras & busts of Roman emperors & painted ceilings telling the story of the sun king’s battle victories that make it special. It was often filled with nobles in silk gowns, wigs and fine clothes who loved to look at themselves– mirrors were a luxury. This is the room were the treaty of Versailles was signed that ended World War I. This palace is the symbol of the absolute monarchy and its downfall with the French Revolution.
The Walled City of Carcassonne, France
This was my hardest choice—there are so many good walled cities in Europe—Dubrovnik, Tallinn, Rothenburg, and several in Spain come to mind, but I selected the largest, Carcassonne. Why did cities put up walls around their city? Simple–a defensive wall is a fortification used to protect a city or settlement from potential aggressors. In ancient to modern times, they were used to enclose settlements. Almost every town in medieval times that could build defensive walls did so for protection, as medieval cities were often attacked. Since the pre-Roman period, a fortified settlement has existed on the hill where Carcassonne now stands. In its present form it is an outstanding example of a medieval fortified town, with its massive defenses encircling the castle and the surrounding buildings, its streets and its fine Gothic cathedral. It is the largest walled city in Europe. There is 52 towers and over 2 miles of walls.
Walled cities were important as Europe transformed from primarily rural society to one of large urban centers in medieval times. Modern weapons changed their role and now are a relic of the past. The ones that survived have left us a glimpse into the past lives of Europe.
Now Your Time
So how many have you been to? How many would you like to see? Please respond to Our survey . We will publish the results. Until then, we hope this little lesson about key landmarks in Europe will inspire you to visit one or more. We would be honored to help in any way possible—consider calling Hank at 713-397-0188 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org so we can help you Savor life . . . make memories . . .Visit Dream Destinations! Your journey begins here!