When thinking about the Middle Ages, it's usually destinations likes Britain or France that come to mind. After all, it is in Europe that the iconic events of the Middle Ages occurred, with ancient castles looming in the countryside and 1000-year-old churches still standing tall in busy city centres. However, despite its relatively short history, New York City is home to some stunning medieval-inspired architecture.
The neo-Gothic buildings of Manhattan may not represent the centuries of history that Europe's medieval architectural wonders do, but they can evoke similar feelings. Visiting Europe often mimics going back in time, and similarly, these New York buildings feel like artifacts of eras long past. You might think the honking taxis and buzzing clatter Manhattan would prevent serious reflection, but they actually enhance it, offering a constant reminder of the yawning gap in time that separates us from those who would have called the Middle Ages home.
Here are 8 New York destinations that will take you back to medieval times:
8 The Cloisters
A museum dedicated to the art of the Middle Ages, the Cloisters is located in Washington Heights and is only a short subway ride away from midtown Manhattan. Offering a large collection of medieval artifacts, from sculptures to tapestries to illuminated manuscripts, this museum allows visitors to immerse in the artistic tradition of a bygone era, but it's not just its impressive selection of artwork that makes this museum unique.
The building itself reflects the architecture of the Middle Ages, and at the core of its design are four cloisters that were dismantled in Europe and brought to New York City in the 1930s. Wandering the museum feels very much like visiting an ancient monastery in Europe, complete with peaceful chapels and quiet medieval gardens. Its atmosphere allows visitors to contemplate not just the art and culture of the Middle Ages, but also what it would have felt like to exist in medieval spaces.
7 St. Patrick's Cathedral
St. Patrick's Cathedral is one of New York City's famous landmarks. Located in Midtown on 5th Avenue, it is close to many of Manhattan's most-visited tourist attractions like Rockefeller Centre and Times Square. While the skyscrapers that tower above it draw the eyes upwards, St. Patrick's Cathedral pulls attention backwards, encouraging quiet reflection and a return to eras past.
Built from the 1850s to the 1870s, this church exemplifies the Gothic Revival style that was so popular during this period, boasting towering spires, stained glass windows and decorated bronze doors. When it was built, the most populous areas of the city were located further to the south, but nowadays, St. Patrick's Cathedral stands in one of the busiest areas in Manhattan. Set amidst the clamour of Midtown, this cathedral offers a peaceful, introspective atmosphere where visitors can retreat from the hustle and bustle of New York City.
6 Belvedere Castle
Given its location in Central Park and the era of its construction, it should come as no surprise that Belvedere Castle was not built for defensive purposes (unless protecting visitors from the sweltering heat of New York summers counts).
Rather, this beautiful structure is classified as a "folly," or an ornamental building built primarily as a decoration. Mixing Gothic and Romanesque styles, Belvedere Castle was built from 1867 to 1869 and stands in the middle of Central Park, home to exhibition spaces and the Central Park weather station. It sits atop the highest point in the park, with its two balconies offering stunning views of the park and skyline beyond.
5 Cathedral of St. John the Divine
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine boasts not only beautifully designed Gothic Revival architecture, but a layered history as well. Its construction began in 1892, but work halted during the two World Wars and its design shifted with changing times. Initially, the church was to be built in the Byzantine-Romanesque style, but in the early 1900s, the design was changed to Gothic.
To this day, the church remains unfinished, with numerous structures included in the plan still unbuilt. However, visitors wouldn't know, with the intricate sculptures, stained glass windows and ornamental entryways making up for any missing spires. Located in the northern part of Manhattan near Columbia University, a visit to the church is best combined with a tour of Columbia's gorgeous campus and something delectable from The Hungarian Pastry Shop across the street on Amsterdam Avenue.
4 Fordham University
Ever wondered why so many universities in North America look like they belong on a Game of Thrones set? In a word, it's because of the Collegiate Gothic style (okay, in three words). During the 1800s, building universities in the Gothic style was all the rage, with the gargoyles, buttresses and towering spires serving to emulate Oxford and Cambridge.
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Fordham University boasts many such features, including ivy-covered buildings and stretching lawns to relax (or cram) on. It is located in the Bronx and, although it was founded in 1841, visiting its campus feels like stepping back several hundred years in time to the heyday of the Middle Ages.
3 Woolworth Building
Skyscrapers and the Middle Ages aren't exactly complimentary. The two are the definition of contrast; they're just not ideas you'd normally consider together within the same sentence. However, the architect behind the Woolworth Building in Manhattan's Tribeca neighbourhood managed to marry the modern trends of the early 19oos with medieval styles that rose to prominence almost a millennium prior.
Built in the neo-Gothic style, the Woolworth Building resembles a European cathedral as much as a modern skyscraper, boasting spires, crosses and an intricately carved entryway. Despite its Gothic design, it's difficult to imagine such a structure standing amidst the churches and castles of the 1200s, but that is part of the wonder of the Woolworth Building. It embodies a direct juxtaposition between old and new, bringing together two architectural ideas separated by hundreds of years.
2 City College of New York
The City College of New York was founded in 1847 and feels like something you'd be more likely to see in the depths of the British countryside than Manhattan. Built in the Collegiate Gothic style, this campus boasts gorgeous Gothic designs, overseen not just by professors but also by staunch gargoyles that adorn corners and archways.
Although the campus also includes more modern structures, the Gothic Revival buildings at the City College of New York shape the mood of the campus, with school's imposing centrepiece, Shepard Hall, designed to emulate a Gothic cathedral. The architecture creates a beautiful learning environment for students and offers a nice escape from the towering skyscrapers of downtown Manhattan for visitors.
1 Trinity Church
Truly historic, Trinity Church has been central to life in New York City since the late 1600s. The current Trinity Church is actually the third version of the building, with the first a victim of fire and the second torn down after it was weakened by a severe winter. Particularly significant to Manhattan's story was the second Trinity Church, as some of the Founding Fathers were known to worship there.
Indeed, American history buffs (and Broadway musical fans) are known to frequent the site, as it is within the expansive graveyard of this church that Alexander Hamilton is buried. Finished in 1846, the third and current church is a perfect example of Gothic Revival architecture, and at the time of its construction, its lofty spire was a defining feature of Manhattan's skyline. With the imposing skyscrapers of the Financial District towering above, Trinity Church may not dominate the skyline anymore, but its backstory will always loom large as a central chapter in New York's history.