On dry land, architecture is all around us. Hideous buildings, beautiful buildings, boring old functional buildings, innovative and eye-popping structures; buildings and architecture is a fact of life whether we’re conscious of it or not.
However, whilst out on a voyage with MSC Cruises, you’d think that all changes, but you’d be wrong. Sort of.
Sure, at sea, buildings and anything resembling architecture is conspicuous by its absence, but in port destinations, you’ll have the chance to absorb and appreciate some of the finest architecture Europe has to offer. Here, we’ve listed our favourites…
Italy’s third largest city is also one of its most artistic and this point is reflected in the gorgeous structures found around Naples.
Not far from the port sits Chiesa e Chiostro di San Gregorio Armeno - one of Naples’ most significant complexes.
Built in the 16th century, this richly ornamented church is a wonderful introduction to Italian architecture, boasting wood and papier-mache choir stalls, and Luca Giordano’s famous fresco ‘The Embarkation, Journey and Arrival of the Armenia Nuns with the Relics of St Gregory’, which depicts nuns fleeing persecution in Constantinople in the 13th century.
Arriving into Naples by sea means that you’ll probably miss the new Napoli Afragola train station at the north of the city.
It’s worth making the 12km journey though. This huge 30,000 sq m station, which took 14 years to build, features sweeping curves and crisp-white minimalist interiors, hallmarks of its designer Zaha Hadid.
While you’re in this region, the Reggia di Caserta is an 18th century Baroque palace and is rich with architectural grandeur.
It came into being when Charles VII, the Bourbon King of Naples and Sicily between 1734 and 1759, wanted to build a palace on a similar scale of that seen in Versailles and commissioned Neapolitan-born Luigi Vanvitelli - the most prominent architect of 18th century Italy - to deliver it.
Vanvitelli, who had worked on the Trevi Fountain and St. Peter’s Dome, died in 1773, 21 years after the palace’s first stone was laid, but the end result - completed by various architects over the next century - remains a majestic neoclassical palace.
Some 1,200 rooms are spread over five floors, split into representational spaces and the royal apartments, with vast ceiling frescoes, hanging chandeliers, Baroque furniture and gold decorations.
As if the palace wasn’t breathtaking enough, behind it lies a gorgeous park, with temples and statues scattered amongst its 120 hectares.
Other notable examples of outstanding architecture include Palazzo dello Spagnolo, Palazzo Sanfelice, Villa Volpicelli and Palazzo Pignatelli di Monteleone.
The capital of Catalonia is Spain’s second largest city and the largest metropolis on the Mediterranean Sea so it’s reasonable to expect some exceptional architecture.
Even those who have never set foot in Spain will almost certainly heard of La Sagrada Família. It may be an obvious entrant, but it’s also a must-see.
As with many of Barcelona’s most impressive attractions, this Roman Catholic church was designed by Antoni Gaudi, the same man behind the brilliant Park Guell who is actually buried within the church.
Ground was officially broken on the Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (its full name) in 1882, and construction work has been ongoing ever since with a completion date chalked in for 2028; a whopping 146 years later.
Still, it continues to excite experts. Art critic Paul Goldberger described it as "the most extraordinary personal interpretation of Gothic architecture since the Middle Ages”, while Rainer Zerbst believes it is “probably impossible to find a church building anything like it in the entire history of art".
Elsewhere in Barcelona, the Santa Maria del Mar - built between 1329 and 1383 - is regarded as an exceptional example of Catalan Gothic architecture that sets itself apart from other similar buildings by its element of purity and unity, something not found in large medieval buildings very often.
A more modern example of awesome architecture in Barcelona is the Torre Glòries, formerly known as Torre Agbar. This 33-floor cucumber-shaped skyscraper cost $130 million to build and bears more than a passing resemblance to London’s 30 St Mary Axe - aka the Gherkin - only without the pointy bit at the top.
Rather than the financial implications of 30 St Mary Axe, the Torre Glòries is a symbol representing Barcelona’s technological district.
Portugal’s capital city enjoyed its golden era in the 16th century when it was the European hub for commerce linking Africa, India, the Far East and Brazil, and it’s this period that birthed much of the city’s most notable architecture.
As such, many of Lisbon’s monuments from the 16th century bear an exuberant Manueline style.
Predating this though is São Jorge Castle, the earliest foundations of which date back as far as 48 BC, although a vast restoration project means that much of the castle’s current state dates back to the 1920s.
Sitting on Lisbon’s highest hill, it offers the best view over the city and is one of Lisbon’s most distinctive and important spots. After you’ve admired the view and the castle’s grandeur, you can venture within its walls and browse the museum and be clued-in with a history of Lisbon.
Another historic example of Portuguese architecture is Belem Tower. This fortified tower was built out of local beige-white limestone in the early 16th century on the mouth of the Tagus river as part of the city’s defence system.
It is split into two parts - the bastion and the four-storey tower on the north side of the bastion - and is deemed to be one of the principal works of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style. You’ll be able to spot this in the tower’s elaborate rib vaulting, crosses of the Order of Christ, armillary spheres and twisted rope.
Other architectural highlights worth checking out in Lisbon include Praca do Comercio, Carmo Convent, Lisbon Cathedral and Estrela Basilica.
Florence Cathedral is perhaps the most obvious spot to appreciate this region’s architecture. It is the largest duomo (shorthand for Italian cathedral church) in all of Italy and took 140 years to complete, such is its size.
Although construction of the structure began in 1294, the cathedral was without a dome for almost 124 years until a feasible engineering solution for the ginormous dome could be worked out. It was finally finished in 1436 and it remains as stunning today as it did six centuries ago.
Basilica di San Lorenzo is Florence’s oldest church, dating back to the early 1400s, and features some of the most impressive examples of Renaissance architecture thanks to its symmetry and harmony.
It has been altered and changed by a number of different artists over the centuries, most notably Michelangelo Buonarotti’s New Sacristy, which is a great example of the innovative, modern, Mannerist style of architecture that was gaining popularity in the 1520s.
Other recommended spots include Basilica di San Lorenzo and Santa Maria Novella, Palazzo Pitti, Palazzo Vecchio (or the ‘Old Palace’) and the relatively recent Piazza della Republica.
You may know the city of Venice for its romantic canals and waterways but it is equally famous for its Venetian Gothic architecture that combines use of the Gothic lancet arch with Byzantine and Moorish influences.
Doge’s Palace is one of the main examples of this blend. Built in 1340, it is one of the major landmarks in Venice and served as the residence of the Doge of Venice, but since 1923, it has been a museum. Its courtyard is simply stunning.
Basilica di San Marco is one of the world’s finest examples of Byzantine architecture and houses works of art from around the world that have been brought to the area by Venetians over time. Interesting fact: after its bell tower collapses in 1902, they simply recreated it as close as possible to the original.
If time allows, we’d suggest checking out Punta Della Dogana and the Peggy Guggenheim Museum.