Gothic architecture

Gothic architecture is a type of architecture that is very striking and a major reason for tourism and pilgrimage to and within Europe. In the form of much later neo-Gothic architecture, it also exists after a fashion in various cities around the world.

View of the Cathedral of Bourges, showing the flying buttresses on the back and sides


Façade of the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, showing the tympana and one of the rose windows

The Gothic period followed the Romanesque period in Europe, and though both periods are considered more broadly part of the Middle Ages, there are striking differences visible to travelers. Gothic styles existed in all the arts — music, painting, sculpture, and literature among them — but first of all, in architecture. Though there is important Gothic secular architecture, Gothic architecture is defined above all by the great cathedrals, and was invented by the Abbot Suger (c. 1081–1151), who designed a new, grand Cathedral of Saint Denis to replace the preexisting one. The great engineering achievement of the Gothic cathedral is the creation of flying buttresses which distribute the weight of the very high vaulted ceilings outside and enable them to stand. The Gothic cathedrals were some of the tallest skyscrapers of yesteryear — often visible for a very long distance while pilgrims approached on foot — and their high, vaulted ceilings were meant to create a microcosm of the heavens and strike the worshippers with awe at the power of God and wonder of the Creation, but even atheistic visitors of the present day can be impressed by the invention, skill, and beauty of the buildings' construction.

It is still worth seeing the cathedral at Saint Denis, which is a short Metro ride plus a bit of a walk from Paris, though because of later additions, it no longer appears as it did when it was the prototype for all other Gothic cathedrals. However, there are many other great Gothic cathedrals to see throughout France, and in various other European countries.

Though the Church was at the peak of its power during the Gothic period, secular life also flourished, and quite a number of lovely secular buildings from those times are still with us today, as well. Belgium seems to be a particular hotbed of Gothic secular buildings, including city halls in Brussels, Leuven, Mons, and Oudenaarde. Poland, Italy, France and Germany also have a number of very striking Gothic secular buildings.

Elements of Gothic architecture

Interior of the Reims Cathedral, showing the vaulted ceilings

Brick Gothic

In parts of Northern Europe where building stones were not available (due to being "buried" in hundreds of meters of ice age sediment), including Northern Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Lithuania, and parts of Poland, clay was plentiful, and therefore bricks were used to build Gothic buildings in those areas. The much lesser weight of the bricks made flying buttresses unnecessary, so they were not used even for very large brick Gothic edifices. Also, bricks cannot be carved like stone, so brick Gothic buildings do not have statues that were carved into their façades after the stone was laid. Instead, all ornaments had to be built separately, and statues of figures (e.g., from the Bible or of saints) are usually not present in their exteriors.


View from the altar of the Winchester Cathedral, showing the immense interior, vaulted ceilings, and long nave

Religious Gothic architecture

As Gothic architecture is primarily religious, the fan of Gothic architecture usually seeks out great Gothic cathedrals and chapels, above all.


There are Gothic mosques as well, usually housed in Catholic churches after the change of rulers and official religion. Examples include:

Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, Famagusta, Cyprus

Czech Republic



Rose window from the transept of the Sens Cathedral


Saint Ann's church and Bernardine Monastery, a group of brick Gothic buildings in Vilnius





Copernicus House, Toruń, Poland, a notable brick Gothic building





Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
Malbork Castle

United Kingdom

Secular Gothic architecture

The Palace of Westminster, probably the world's most famous neo-Gothic building

The boundary between sacred and secular was not always a hard line in the Gothic period, as cities and their governments (such as in Siena) were consecrated to the Virgin Mary, and hospices were run by the Catholic Church as an act of sacred charity and contained chapels and works of sacred art inside. For the purposes of this guide, everything not primarily intended as a house of worship or a monastery has been defined as secular.

In addition to the specific buildings mentioned below, the unique town of Pienza in Tuscany was completely redesigned in a Gothic style at the command of Pope Pius II, and its historical center, a UNESCO World Heritage site, remains an intact Gothic town to this day.

Defensive Gothic architecture

Neo-Gothic architecture

Interior of Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Montréal, showing the altarpiece

In the 19th century, there was a fascination with the Middle Ages that included a revival of interest in medieval tales like the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Tristan and Iseult (Tristan und Isolde in German), and the Norse tales that were famously set to music by German composer, Richard Wagner in Das Ring des Nibelungen, informally known as the Ring Cycle of four operas. It is in this context that neo-Gothic or Gothic revival architecture, born in the mid-18th century in England, became an almost irresistible force. The Gothic revival has flourished ever since and given many people far beyond Europe the experience of an echo of the Gothic past, with its sense of monumentality, authoritativeness and appeal to tradition, but without the Crusades, black death, and inquisitions that caused suffering in Medieval times. Since the Gothic revival began in England, it is especially in the UK and English-influenced lands like Canada and the United States that neo-Gothic buildings were built in large quantities. However, neo-Gothic edifices can be found throughout Europe and as far afield as Jakarta, Indonesia.

Parliament building in Budapest
Munich's Neues Rathaus



In a few places, it is possible to stay inside Gothic or neo-Gothic structures which have been converted to hotels or other forms of lodging.

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