8 of the best European cities for architecture


From Unesco-protected wonders to contemporary masterpieces, Europe has something for every traveling architecture buff. 

Here’s Lonely Planet’s roundup of the best the continent has to offer.

A shout of the NEMO science center of Amsterdam, in the evening. The futurist building is reflecting off a river in front of it.
The futurist NEMO Science Museum was originally built in 1923 © stacyarturogi / Shutterstock

Amsterdam, The Netherlands 

Don’t miss: Renzo Piano’s NEMO Science Museum.

Amsterdam’s world-famous Royal Palace is the hallmark of the Dutch Golden Age, originally built as the city hall.

But the Netherlands’ capital also has some outstanding contemporary buildings, including Renzo Piano’s copper-green NEMO Science Museum and Benthem Crouwel’s streamlined, ultramodern extension to the Stedelijk Museum of contemporary art and design (completed in 2012), which looks like a giant bathtub. 

Hop over to Rotterdam so that you can form your own opinion of the controversial modern buildings of local starchitect, Rem Koolhaas, including De Rotterdam and Timmerhuis. Then try and make it to Utrecht to see the ground-breaking 1930s Rietveld-Schröderhuis by Gerrit Rietveld.

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The exterior of the MAS Museum, Antwerp, on a sunny day. To its let, a ship is being dwarfed by the building.
The MAS Museum is 10 storeys high, with 5700 m² of exhibition space © Michael Jacobs / Art in All of Us / Corbis news

Antwerp, Belgium 

Don’t miss: The Axel Vervoordt–designed Kanaal district

Located in Antwerp’s northern docks district, museum-gallery MAS, by Dutch architects Neutelings en Riedijk, is among the city’s most popular attractions.

Formed of ten red sandstone blocks, its undulating walls of glass give visitors the impression of looking through waves. The MAS contains the multi-floor ‘MAS Boulevard’ that anyone can explore for free, the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Zilte (very definitely not free), a smart cafe and 360-degree views that visitors on a budget can enjoy with a picnic. 

Just outside the city, the Kanaal district – masterminded by architect and interior designer Axel Vervoordt – is a place of pilgrimage for design-lovers. Book a tour of the art gallery, where each artist’s work is featured in a separate room, or take a tour of Vervoordt’s low-key showroom.

Vincent van Duysen’s stripped back, contemporary design is found all over Antwerp. Check out his restaurant-concept store, Graanmarkt 13 (great food) and sneak a peek at the Hotel August, located in a former convent. Hotel Julien is another of van Duysen’s buildings. Maison Guiette in Antwerp, one of Le Corbusier’s ‘white villas’, was the architect’s first commission outside of France and is a 1950s classic.

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The exterior of the Barcelona Pavilion, which was designed by Mies Van Der Rohe for the 1929 World Exposition. A shallow pool filled with stones is visible in front.
Barcelona City Council reconstructed the incredible Barcelona Pavilion in 1980 © Torval Mork / Shutterstock

Barcelona, Spain  

Don’t miss: Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s Pavelló

The architect most associated with Barcelona is, of course, Gaudi, and a visit to the Sagrada Família is an essential part of any visit. But Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich’s Pavelló is also a must-see. Designed for the 1929 World Exhibition in Barcelona, it was reconstructed in the 1980s. The modernist gem features an apparently hovering roof, and the ostensibly simple construction uses lavish materials such as marble, red onyx and travertine. 

The city has plenty to interest students of contemporary architecture: from Jean Nouvel’s Torre Glòries (formerly Torre Agbar), to Herzog & de Meuron’s El Fòrum and Frank Gehry’s golden Peix (Fish) – something between a sculpture and a building – which can be seen from the beach.

Also worth looking at are EMBT’s Mercat de Santa Caterina near the cathedral, Norman Foster’s Torre de Collserola telecommunications tower, Santiago Calatrava’s Olympic Flame and, one of Richard Meier’s best buildings, the Museum of Contemporary Art, which some have likened to a Mondrian painting. The square to the front has become a popular gathering spot.

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The outside of the Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut, in Ronchamp France
It is said that Le Corbusier styled the Chapelle de Nortre-Dame du Haut with the

Basel, Switzerland 

Don’t miss: Le Corbusier’s Chapelle de Notre-Dame du Haut

These days, Basel is known for hosting ART Basel, an international art fair held in June each year. But the city also hosts some stunning architecture: works by Mario Botta (the Bank for International Settlements) and Richard Meier (the Euregio Office Building) are here, as well as home-grown darlings Herzog & de Meuron, whose website helpfully lists all the buildings they’re responsible for in Basel with a map showing the location of each. The Vitra Campus in nearby Weil Am Rheim has works by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Alvaro Siza and Tadao Ando, among many others.

The city is also a gateway one of the most important works by a master anywhere in the world. Basel is a short drive from Le Corbusier’s extraordinary Chapelle de Notre-Dame du Haut, located in the quiet Ronchamp, which just over the border with France.

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A winding stair in the interior of the New Helsinki city library, which is called Oodi. People are walking up and down the stair, and writing is visible on its inside.
Helsinki’s architecturally stunning library was built in the city’s cultural district © Subodh Agnihotri / Shutterstock

Helsinki, Finland 

Don’t miss: ALA Architects’ Oodi library 

Helsinki covers many architectural bases, from the romantic Kansallismuseo (National Museum) with its grey granite stonework and green-tinged copper roof, to the Nordic classicism of the Yrjönkatu Swimming Hall. The tiny Temppeliaukio – or the Church of the Rock – was designed by brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen in 1969, and built directly into the surrounding granite bedrock which forms the walls of the chapel. Meanwhile, while the contemporary ecumenical Kamppi Chapel of Silence, designed by K2S Architects, resembles a giant wooden bowl.

The city’s Oodi library sets the standard for libraries of the future. Located in the Töölönlahti neighborhood, the library incorporates a café, restaurant, cinema, recording studio and 3D printing room. With more time, consider a road trip a couple of hours outside the city to the iconic Villa Mairea in Noormarkku, by Aino and Alvar Aalto, built in 1939 as a home for art collectors, Maire and Harry Gullichsen or staying for a week and touring the full spectrum of Aalto buildings.

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A night view of the Pompidou Centre. A stair that resembles a tube is visible going up the side of the building.
The Pompidou Centre is the largest modern art museum in Europe © robert napiorkowski / Shutterstock

Paris, France 

Don’t miss: Centre Pompidou by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers  

For devotees of Le Corbusier, the prospect of day walking around Paris going from one building of his to the next is a charming one. Start with Villa La Roche and Villa Jeanneret in the 16th, hit Hôtel Molitor for lunch overlooking the restored Art Deco swimming pool, and in the afternoon swing by the Ozenfant House, the Swiss Pavilion, Maison Planeix and the Fondation Armée du Salut (Salvation Army Hostel) which is open to the public.

You can even visit the architect’s own restored penthouse apartment and studio, on the top two floors of the Immeuble Molitor — the world’s first apartment building with fully glazed facades and among the architect’s 17 Unesco-listed buildings. Take a train out to Poissy and visit what many regard to be his masterpiece, Villa Savoye.

If you’d like to introduce some balance to your trip by visiting the works of other architects, the Arab World Institute by Nouvel, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France by Perrault and the Pompidou Centre by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, should also be on your list.

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The skyline of Malmo, Sweden. The brightly-lit Turning Torso building is visible.
Sweden’s Turning Torso building stands at a dizzying 190m © kimson / Shutterstock

Malmo, Sweden and Copenhagen, Denmark

Don’t miss: Arne Jaconbsen’s SAS Royal Hotel

At 190m and 57 storeys high, Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso is the tallest building in Sweden. It was also the first twisting building in the world to be fully built – there are now at least thirty others around the world, from Shanghai to St. Petersburg to Milan. Completed in 2005, the mainly residential building is divided into nine segments of five-story pentagons, which rotate 90 degrees as the height increases, all connected by a steel exoskeleton.

The tower is located beside the landmark Öresund bridge, familiar to fans of the Scandi-noir crime drama series The Bridge featuring the detective Saga Norén. Across the bridge in Copenhagen, buildings by Arne Jacobsen include the Danish National Bank and the SAS Royal Hotel. Try and fit in a visit to Louisiana, designed by Vilhelm Wohlert and Jørgen Bo, probably the most beautiful art gallery in the world.

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A shot of the inside of the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Germany. The floor is green and support beam is visible in the middle of the photo.
In addition to its stunning architecture, the Staatsgalerie also hosts Annibale Carracci’s ‘Corpse of Christ’ painting © Claudio Divizia / Shutterstock

Stuttgart, Germany

Don’t miss: Jim Stirling’s Music School and Neue Staatsgalerie 

Stuttgart, the capital of the southwest German state of Baden-Württemberg, is a mecca for both architectural buffs and anyone with an interest in automotive design. Two adjacent buildings by Jim Stirling – the Music School and the Neue Staatsgalerie – are among the British post-modernist architect’s finest; Corbusier also made it to Stuttgart back in the 30s and has a beautiful house in the model village at Weißenhofsiedlung in the hills above the center of Stuttgart. 

Petrol-heads will find it hard to contain themselves in Delugan Meissl’s Porsche Museum and UNStudio’s Mercedes-Benz Museum; the latter firm also designed The Centre for Virtual Engineering, completed in 2013.  

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