Before you get up in arms over the title, give me a moment to explain myself! Regardless of your religious (or non-religious) opinions and beliefs, when you are traveling I beseech you to visit the buildings representing the historical religious beliefs of the place. In Europe, this means visiting churches, and also ancient sites like Stonehenge.
I am not telling you to worship. You don’t even need to attend a service, although these can be quite beautiful and insightful even if they aren’t within the boundaries of your personal doctrines. What I am saying is to take a step inside every Church or Cathedral that you can, especially those ancient ones that tower over the nearby structures. Step quietly and respectfully inside, stand off to one side and just look.
***For the purposes of this post, I will mostly be talking about churches through Europe built and devoted to Christianity/Catholicism, as this is where the majority of my travel experiences so far lie. However my advice stands for all denominational structures, no matter the country. Take a minute to visit them when you are there!***
Talking to friends while I traveled, a few seemed surprised by how many churches and cathedrals I visited. There is an odd idea of “Seen one church, seen them all” and that they are these boring places where you must be silent and penitent. I find that quite the contrary is true. An old church is a view into the culture and styles of the time period in which it was built
Typically, the Church had access to the funds to hire the most exacting and talented of architects, designers, and artists. Everything you are looking at is the finest representation of art and architecture from the time, and it will all be of highest quality. In that respect, if you enjoy art, churches are some of the best museums that you can find. If you don’t believe that, spend a day at the Vatican! Many of the most renowned Rennaissance artist’s pieces are on display here in the museum, and in St Peter’s Basilica. One of the most famous of these is, of course, the Sistine Chapel. Painted by Michaelangelo from 1508 to 1512, this comission nearly cost him his eyesight. The piece boasts more the 300 paintings of various people, and covers over 5,000 square feet. I learned after my visit that this chapel is also where the new Pope is electedI was very lucky to view this masterpiece late in the day, when crowds were lessened and we weren’t rushed quickly through and out of the room, as many have relayed to me was their experience here. I think it helped that we did not visit on the weekend either, and it was still the “off-season” so keep this in mind if you want to have a few extra minutes to admire.
Besides the amazing artwork and architecture, churches will often give you a wonderful vantage of the city around you. Whether you are taking the elevator to the top of Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, or trekking up the worn stone steps in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, the view from those heights will stun you. Be forewarned that many such places charge you to enter the higher levels however, so be sure to pick and choose which ones to embark up with that in mind if you are on a budget! Some places, you may be able to find similar vantages without the cost. The benefit to the church views is usually their central location in a city.
The last reason that I think you should ignore naysayers when visiting churches, is that every single church has a different feeling to it upon entrance, evoked by the style, the structure, perhaps the music or hymns being chanted. While in Vienna, my delightful host took me on a quick tour of six or seven different churches throughout the city. Some were large and opulent, with rich woodwork and carefully manicured statues. Others were small, easily looked over buildings. We poked our heads in for a few moments in each one. It was such a unique way to experience this lovely city. Every single one had a completely different feel to it. Welcoming, quiet, familial, and even on occasion daunting! There’s something truly fascinating about comparing these places and how many differences you are able to note, in one city, throughout a country, or perhaps throughout many different cultures. What aspects overlap, and which are completely unique to one society?
What are your thoughts? As you have traveled, did you enjoy entering places of worship, or do you find them mind-numbingly dull? Let me know your favorite ones to visit (or least favorite!)