The Middle Ages, or the Medieval Era, occurred from the fifth through the fifteenth centuries. Two main architectural styles dominated reign thought thousand years—Romanesque and Gothic. While surprisingly few day-to-day buildings from that time are still standing, the Medieval Era did leave us beautiful lasting monuments to a time of deep religious fervor.
Unfortunately, one of the most famous religious landmarks from the Middle Ages, the Notre-Dame of Paris, was nearly destroyed in a fire in spring 2019. Though it still stands, it can’t be entered for a while. What follows are 10 buildings from the Middle Ages that can still be visited.
10 Maria Laach Abbey: Andernach, Germany
Romanesque architecture is known by the sense of massive that it embodies: thick walls, sturdy pillars, barrel vaults, squat sloping roofs, and round arches. Maria Laach Abbey embodies all of these; indeed, it’s considered an archetypal example of the architectural style. It has several towers, a large arcaded gallery, and the rhythmic ornamental arches that make the style so distinctive. Particularly beautiful is The Paradise, a colonnaded porch that surrounds a small courtyard. It is richly carved with human and mythical features
The Abbey was initially founded in 1093 as a priory of the Affligem Abbey. The buildings grew in the 13th century. Today, it’s still in use as part of the Benedictine Confederation.
9 Reims Cathedral: Reims, France
At just an hour’s train ride from Paris, it’s hardly surprising that the beautiful Reims Cathedral (pronounced rahnse) is famous for being the Cathedral where French kings traditionally held their coronations. The grand scale of the facade is perfectly spectacular for just that sort of pomp and circumstance. The Gallery of Kings—statues of every king of France—stands in the center of the front facade over the rose window.
Reims Cathedral has many classic Gothic architectural features, including enormous rose windows, three decorative archways with statuary, and the two bell towers that rise above the main building of the cathedral. It receives over a million visitors each year.
8 Cologne Cathedral: Cologne, Germany
As the seat of the Archbishop of Cologne and a UNESCO World Heritage Monument, this Catholic Church is one of the most popular sites in Germany. Work on the cathedral was begun in 1248, but had to cease in 1473. For almost 400 years, the south tower remained only half complete and a huge crane soared above it, waiting to begin work again.
A resurgence of enthusiasm for the Middle Ages in the 19th century allowed the building to finally be completed. Of course, it was damaged during World War II but by some stroke of luck it never completely flattened, like the much of the rest of Cologne. After refurbishments the facade remains largely the same. Today it’s still an operating church. Thousands of visitors travel to it each year, and it is a popular site of Christian pilgrimage.
7 Krak des Chevaliers: Talkalakh District, Syria
The Crusader castles have a mixed reputation—they were established and occupied during the West’s repeated invasions into the Middle East as part of the Crusades in the 12th-15th centuries. Nevertheless, it is one of the most important preserved Medieval castle forts in the world.
It was initially built in the 11th century, but the castle’s current appearance was developed in the 13th century, when it graduated from military stronghold to concentric castle. It has been damaged in the ongoing wars in the Middle East, but it still stands and is home to around 9000 people. Reconstruction and conservation on the castle are ongoing, but the inner chapel and courtyard have been well-preserved. The tracery and delicate decoration present especially in the Hall of Knights are classic and beautiful examples of early Gothic architecture. However the chapel, with it’s barrel-style vault, is a callback to Romanesque architecture.
6 Angoulême Cathedral: Angoulême, France
While France is famous for her many Gothic cathedrals, the Angoulême Cathedral is an example of the beautiful Romanesque architecture that predates the Gothic style. Work began on this church in 1110 on the same site of a pre-Christian sanctuary from the 4th century.
While the conical tops of the towers are newer, the facade of Angoulême remains largely true to the original Medieval design. It is decorated with by than 70 sculptures, most of which focus on the Ascension and the Last Judgement, though sculptors also depicted scenes of everyday life, such as hunting. Catholic services still go on in the church today.
5 Salisbury Cathedral: Salisbury, England
This cathedral is regarded as one of the leading examples of English Gothic architecture. It took only 38 years to build (1220-1258), which is an astounding speed considering that many cathedrals have taken hundreds of years to build. Since the Lincoln Cathedral collapse in 1549, Salisbury has the had the tallest church spire in the United Kingdom.
There are so many reasons for history buffs to visit Salisbury Cathedral. In addition to simply having stood the test of time (and war), Salisbury is home to one of the oldest working examples of a clock in the world (it dates back to 1386) and is also home to the best surviving original copy of the Magna Carta (only four are known).
4 Church of St. Anne: Vilnius, Lithuania
The Church of St. Anne is a Late Gothic building, done in the rare and peculiar Brick Gothic style. Though it is missing some of the classic statuary ornamentation of Gothic churches, St. Anne’s does have the classic towers and spires that curve upward toward the sky in a vivid red brick. Because of the flame-like designs of the windows, some even consider St. Anne’s an example of the Flamboyant Gothic style, which was mostly a French trend.
The first church on this site, built with wood, was destroyed in 1419. The brick version was built by King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania Alexander I Jagiellon from 1495-1500, an impressively quick build. The exterior of the church has remained mostly the same since.
3 Leaning Tower of Pisa: Pisa, Italy
The famous freestanding bell tower of the Pisa Cathedral is of Romanesque design. Building on the site began in 1173 and continued for nearly 200 years. The tower began to sink quickly—just five years later, when the building was only 2 stories tall. The only reason the tower still stands is because construction was delayed for a century while the Republic of Pisa was at war with Genoa and Florence. The pause allows the topsoil under the foundation to settle better, saving the towers future (though still it sinks). The same topsoil also managed to save the tower during four strong earthquakes.
The ground floor of the white marble tower is a blind gallery, and the seven floors are decorated with classical Corinthian columns. There used to be seven bells inside, one for each note in a musical scale, but they were removed to relieve some of the weight.
2 Sainte-Chapelle: Paris, France
The Holy Chapel is a part of the Medieval Palais de la Cité, where the Kings of France stayed until the 14th century. (The Conciergerie is the other surviving building.) It was damaged during the 18th century French Revolution, but it was fully restored in the 19th century. It has the most extensive collection of 13th-century stained glass in the world—the fifteen huge windows fill the nave and apse. They windows are so large that the rib vault walls look truly like a thin bone structure to support the picturesque windows. Though the church itself is too early to be considered Flamboyant Gothic, the rose window that was added later follows this architectural style.
1 Basilica of Saint-Denis: Saint-Denis, Paris, France
The city of Saint-Denis was annexed into Paris in 1860 as part of the natural growth of the French capital. It had long been important to Paris, because the local basilica was (and still is) known as the Royal Necropolis. All but three French monarchs (and their families) are buried at the site. Fittingly, Saint-Denis has some fine examples of cadaver tombs. These remain, though the bodies entombed there were removed and mostly destroyed during the French Revolution.
Saint-Denis is an especially important landmark because it is considered the original Gothic church in the 12th century. The nave became the template for the Rayonnant Gothic style. The full building has provided the template for hundreds of cathedrals and basilicas around the world.