You don’t need to be religious to appreciate these grand churches

Quick Notes

  • Italy is home to more than 500 basilicas and France has nearly 200.

  • Churches can be basilicas because of their architecture, Catholic Church designation, or both.

  • Some of the world’s most famous statues and paintings are on display at St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Mark’s Basilica and Notre Dame Cathedral.

If you love architecture, history, religious sites, or any/all of the above, adding basilica tours during your European trip is a must-do. What sets these magnificent structures apart from other grand churches are their architectural design and certain ceremonial privileges from the Roman Catholic Church. Basilicas are oblong in shape and end in a semicircular apse at the back of the church. In pre-Christian Roman times, the apse also functioned as a niche for statues of gods. It is the most decorated portion of the church.

The location of the apse changed throughout the centuries. First located in the west of the basilica from the 4th to mid-8th century, it changed to the east between the 6th and 7th centuries. It continued to be a standard construct of traditional Latin cross-style churches through the 20th century. With 573 basilicas in Italy alone, there’s no shortage of European basilicas to explore.

St. Peter’s Basilica and beyond

With 573 basilicas in Italy alone, there’s no shortage of European basilicas to explore. St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is arguably the most famous basilica, it’s where the Pope celebrates numerous masses annually. The basilica was so named because it was built on St. Peter’s burial site. He was one of Jesus’ disciples and founders of the Catholic Church. The basilica also houses the sculpture of St. Peter on his throne and Michelangelo’s The Pieta.

Michelangelo also designed the basilica’s famous dome, which was completed by Carlo Maderno in 1614. Visitors can climb to the top of the 447-ft. dome to see a panoramic view of St. Peter’s Square and Vatican City.

St. Peter’s Basilica is the burial site of the apostle and is home to Michelangelo’s The Pieta.

Another famous Italian basilica is St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy. Located a short distance from the banks of the city’s famous canals, it features five cupolas and 8,000 meters of gold mosaics throughout the interior that represent Bible stories. Its most precious piece is the Pala d’Oro — the high altar of the church that houses St. Mark’s relics.

Basilicas outside of Italy

If Italy is not on your destinations list, there are other places where you can view European basilicas. The Netherlands is home to numerous, including the Basilica of the Holy Sacrament in Meerssen. It received the title basilica minor in 1938 to signify its standing as a place of pilgrimage, but the building itself has been standing since the 14th century.

Heading over to Eastern Europe, St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, Hungary, is another can’t miss. The largest church in Budapest, it can house up to 8,500 people. It is named after Hungary’s first king and contains a mummified right hand believed to be St. Stephen’s.

Located slightly northwest from St. Stephen’s is St. Lawrence Basilica in Enns, Austria. Visitors can take a 90-minute tour that will bring them back to the 2nd century as they explore the excavations beneath the building. Each tour takes visitors through 1,800 years of history.

Piet van de Wiel

Lastly, no European basilica tour would be complete without a visit to France. Like Italy, it has a high concentration of basilicas, with 167 officially designated as a minor basilica by the Catholic Church and many more that are considered basilicas in architecture only. The most famous of these is Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, which was designated a minor basilica by the Catholic Church in 1805. Its grand towers are stunning from afar whilst the ornate carvings on its façade wow visitors up close. Inside, visitors can appreciate various masterpieces from stained glass to paintings and organs.

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