Sunday, July 24, 2016

The 50 Most Beautiful Old Town Squares in Central and Eastern Europe


Although Central and Eastern Europe is a vast and diverse territory, large historical central squares are largely found in the core region of Central Europe with a few exceptions provided in outlying areas where German colonists settled and built towns (such as Transylvania, Romania's central region). The Czech Republic and Poland have more than their fair share of old town squares and dominate many of the places on this list, though twelve countries are represented. This assessment is based entirely on the attractiveness and uniqueness of the town squares, not on the rest of the city or town, hence a beautiful tourist hotspot like Český Krumlov doesn't crack the top 30 since its small central square, while pretty, is not the town's main drawcard. How many of these have you visited? Which are your favourites, have I forgotten any?


1. Kraków, Poland - This is Europe's largest medieval town square at 40,000 square metres, and certainly one of the continent's most beautiful. First established in the 13th century, the square is dominated by the famous 16th-century Renaissance Cloth Hall in its centre and overlooked by the steeples of the Gothic St. Mary's Basilica. Every hour a trumpeter plays the Hejnał from the basilica's highest tower, a tune which according to legend recalls the warning given to the city before a 13th century Mongol invasion. The Gothic Town Hall Tower on the western side of the square is all that remains of the former Old Town Hall, demolished in 1820.



2. Prague, Czech Republic - A marketplace has existed on the location of the Old Town Square since at least the 11th century, and today the space is lined by imposing arcaded facades and packed with historical monuments (and tourists). The Old Town Hall's astronomical clock (Orloj) draws crowds every hour on the hour to watch the procession of the Apostles. The town hall once had an additional north and west wing which was destroyed in the late stages of World War Two and never rebuilt. The Jan Hus memorial (1915) at the upper end of the square commemorates the 500th anniversary of the death of this Czech hero.



3. Wrocław, Poland - Europe's second-largest medieval town square, founded in the early 13th century. The large and decorative Gothic Old Town Hall in its centre is one of the most impressive anywhere on the continent. Much of the city formerly known as Breslau was destroyed in World War Two; Poles transferred from the eastern region of Galicia, particularly the city of Lviv, rebuilt the city and restored the square's former Baroque grandeur. In the north-west corner stands the red and green checker board-roofed St. Elisabeth's Church, while the south-west corner extends into the smaller Salt Square which is now used as a flower market.



4. Lviv, Ukraine - Planned out in the 14th century, today this square forms the centre of a UNESCO world heritage site in Lviv's old town. After a fire in the 16th century destroyed most of the city, the square was rebuilt with Renaissance mansions encircling the square and elaborate fountains placed in each of the four corners. The large 19th-century Town Hall occupies the central area and features a tower with an observation platform that provides a view of the entire old town.



5. Telč, Czech Republic - Sixteenth-century Baroque and Renaissance houses surround Zacharias from Hradec Square with no modern structures or imperfections to be seen. Since it is one of the most complete Renaissance town centres in Central Europe it has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site. A 17th-century Renaissance chateau sits at one end of the square, while large ponds for raising and harvesting carp surround the town.



6. Moscow, Russia - Red Square is a rather different sort of public space than Central European medieval squares, but the colourful domes of St. Basil's cathedral and the imposing bulk of the red Kremlin walls and towers make this one of the world's most recognisable locations. GUM department store sits opposite the Kremlin and Lenin's tomb, while the northern end of the square is occupied by the large State Historical Museum. In the northern corner the pastel red and green Kazan Cathedral provides a colourful counterpoint to St. Basil's.



7. Gdansk, Poland - The appropriately-named Long Market Square is just that, a narrow rectangle, and the colourful 17th-century Renaissance houses of wealthy merchants frame its edges. Neptune's Fountain (1617) and the tall tower of the 16th-century Old Town Hall are two of the most recognisable landmarks, while the Green Gate (which isn't actually green) forms an entrance way at the square's eastern end.



8. Slavonice, Czech Republic - Slavonice actually has two historic squares which are linked together by a narrow street, the larger Peace Square and the smaller Upper Square. Both squares boast an assortment of Renaissance architectural riches, especially the Upper Square which is decorated with many rare sgraffito murals on its building facades. The grandness of the houses reflects the town's heyday as an important market town in the 14th to 16th centuries on the trading route between Prague and Vienna.



9. České Budějovice, Czech Republic - Ottokar II square is one of the largest in Central Europe, ringed by well-preserved Renaissance and Baroque town houses. The 16th-century Black Tower and St. Nicholas Cathedral stand in the north-eastern corner, while the Old Town Hall with its decorative murals stands opposite in the south-west corner. The elaborate Samson Fountain occupies the central area, and in summer the square is filled with outdoor seating for the restaurants and pubs in the surrounding buildings.



10. Bardejov, Slovakia - The town's medieval central square is surrounded by Renaissance and Gothic burgher houses in excellent condition, earning it protected status as a UNESCO world heritage site. The enormous 13th-century Gothic Church of St. Aegidius dominates the square, while the 16th-century Renaissance Old Town Hall stands at its centre.



11. Tábor, Czech Republic - Žižka square features a large statue of the 15th-century Hussite leader Jan Žižka who used the city as a base for the movement. The streets leading to the square were intentionally designed in zigzag shapes to prevent attacking armies from quickly advancing. The 16th-century Renaissance Church of the Transfiguration of Christ on the Mount fills the north-west corner of the square, and its tall tower provides views of the entire town and the surrounding countryside.



12. Tallinn, Estonia - Town Hall Square has been a gathering point for the city's residents since its establishment in the 14th century. The large Old Town Hall has stood in the square since that time, and the tall Christmas tree displayed in the square each December is a seasonal tradition which has continued since the year 1441.



13. Poznan, Poland - Old Market Square was first established in the 13th century, and today boasts one of Poland's grandest buildings, the 16th-century Renaissance Old Town Hall with Mannerist decorations. Every day at noon two mechanical goats butt their heads together as part of the performance by the Town Hall's astronomical clock. Two small concrete communist-era buildings also stand in the central area, a reminder of an inept era of city planning.



14. St. Petersburg, Russia - Palace Square has been the setting for numerous historical events, including the 1917 October Revolution. The Winter Palace, once the home of the Russian Czars and now housing the famous Hermitage Museum, is the most memorable feature of the square. Czar Alexander I planned the square as a monument to Russia's victory over Napoleon's forces, and the central area is dominated by the tall Alexander Column (1834). He also commissioned the grand Building of the General Staff with its triumphal archway leading southwards towards the main boulevard, Nevsky Prospekt.



15. Třeboň, Czech Republic - Masaryk Square, named for the first President of Czechoslovakia, is one of the most architecturally complete medieval squares in the Czech Republic. Colourfully painted Renaissance and Baroque town houses from the 16th century provide a backdrop to the central Marian Column and the Old Town Hall.



16. Košice, Slovakia - The eye-shaped central square contains numerous monuments, foremost among them the 14th-century Gothic St. Elisabeth's Cathedral. The adjoining Urban's Bell Tower, national theatre, and town houses in Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance and Art-Nouveau styles complete the eye-catching collection of buildings.



17. Brașov, Romania - Council Square is dominated by the bulk of the 15th century Gothic Black Church which is visible from all parts of the old town. In the centre of the square, the bright yellow Old Council House provides a splash of colour which contrasts with the dark shades of the church. The square has been in use as a market since the 14th century and remains the hub of the city's daily hustle and bustle.



18. Warsaw, Poland - Rebuilt almost completely from scratch after World War Two, today the square feels completely authentic and has earned UNESCO world heritage status as part of the old town area. The square has existed since the late 13th century when Warsaw was first founded, though today's reconstruction follows the look of the surrounding houses and buildings as they appeared in the 17th century. The famous bronze Warsaw Mermaid statue has stood in the centre of the square since 1855.



19. Kazimierz Dolny, Poland - The market square has been in use since the 13th century, and today is widely considered one of the most picturesque town squares in Poland. St. John the Baptist church stands on a hill at one end of the square, while a ruined castle overlooks the town. Historic wooden town houses and Mannerist stone facades share space in the square, which has an old well with a wooden roof placed in the centre.



20. Zamość, Poland - A planned 17th century town in Renaissance style with a showpiece old town hall as the main draw card in its central market square. Arcaded Renaissance burgher houses surround the town hall with facades in brightly painted pastel colours. The square was designed to be exactly 100 metres in length and width, and it is intersected by a north-south street which links it to the town's two smaller squares.



21. Bratislava, Slovakia - The Old Town Square is surrounded by church towers and Baroque palaces, and the large Roland Fountain (1572) stands in the central area. The Old Town Hall dominates one side of the square, and views from its tower overlook most of the old town area. The square has been in use as a marketplace since at least the 14th century. Several quirky modern statues add character to the square, particularly the popular Napoleon statue leaning on a park bench.



22. Olomouc, Czech Republic - The city has two connected main squares, the Upper Square and Lower Square. The larger Upper Square contains the UNESCO-heritage listed Holy Trinity Column, a grandiose Baroque monument from the 18th century. The 15th-century town hall occupies the central area of the Upper Square, and on its side wall you can see a fascinating Communist-era astronomical clock with proletariat workers replacing the original 15th-century saints.



23. Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina - Sarajevo's old market square, known as 'Baščaršija', was originally constructed in the 15th century. Today the square is only half its original size due to a fire in the nineteenth century, yet it remains the heart of the city and is busy both day and night. The most important building in the square is the Gazi Husrev-Beg Mosque, while the centre is occupied by a well covered with a wooden structure.



24. Plzeň, Czech Republic - Republic Square is dominated by the 13th century Gothic St. Bartholemew's cathedral, which has the tallest church spire in the Czech Republic. The Renaissance-era old town hall features beautiful golden murals and decorations on its facade, while the rest of the square features Baroque, Renaissance and Art-Nouveau town houses which reflect the city's historical prosperity.



25. Cheb, Czech Republic - The architecture of George of Podebrady Square reflects its long history as a city inhabited by ethnic Germans; half-timbered buildings and eye-shaped windows on rooftops give it quite a different feel from other cities in Bohemia. The square has been a market area since the 13th century, and its most famous buildings, the eleven houses located in the centre, are all from the late-Gothic period.



26. Levoča, Slovakia - Master Paul Square contains several important landmarks, foremost among them the 15th-century Old Town Hall and the 14th century church of St. James. The church contains a large Gothic wooden altar from the early 16th century. Beside the Old Town Hall you can see the 17th-century iron Cage of Shame, used for public punishment of criminals. The square also includes several Renaissance and Rococo mansions which are notable for the decorations on their facades.



27. Sibiu, Romania - Grand Square has been the city's main market area since the 15th century, and is one of the largest squares in Romania. The most important buildings on the square are the 18th-century Baroque Brukenthal Palace and the 13th-century Council Tower. Many Renaissance and Baroque town houses with Saxon-style eye-shaped windows on their red rooftops surround the square.



28. Ljubljana, Slovenia - Prešeren Square dates from at least as early as the 18th century and is the central public space in the city. A large statue (1905) of Slovenia's national poet France Prešeren stands near the centre of the space. The entire square and its side streets were made a pedestrian-only area in 2007, enhancing its importance as the city's central meeting place.



29. Mikulov, Czech Republic - The small central square contains many Baroque and Renaissance town houses, and an elaborate series of sgrafitto murals covers both walls of a house in the south-west corner. A monument to the Holy Trinity stands in the centre, while the Dietrichstein Sepulchre on the eastern side is a large family tomb complex with many angel statues lining its roof.



30. Riga, Latvia - World War Two bombs and communist planning have left the Town Hall Square a shadow of its former self, yet the grandest building has been fully reconstructed and restored, the House of the Blackheads. Originally constructed in the 14th century, the building was rebuilt from the original architectural plans in the late 1990s.



31. Loket, Czech Republic - The long, narrow market square in Loket forms part of the main route to the castle which is visible on the hill at the top of the town. The large town hall with its clock tower and numerous Baroque and Renaissance town houses surround the Marian Column and a small fountain which stand in the central area.



32. Lublin, Poland - Most of the central space in Market Square is taken up by the old town hall, while the perimeter is composed of Renaissance mansions and burgher houses. Many of the rooflines have intricately carved decorations, and several facades are covered in murals. Traditional pubs and restaurants occupy many of the buildings, and in summer they move out into the square with outdoor seating areas on the cobblestones.



33. Prachatice, Czech Republic - The town's Large Square has been the heart of the settlement since its founding in the 11th century. The square contains an old town hall covered in murals and the surrounding arcaded burgher houses feature several sgrafitto facades. A small fountain sits at one end of the square while the tower of the nearby Church of St. James provides an impressive focal point in the town's skyline.



34. Pelhřimov, Czech Republic - Masaryk Square, named for the first President of Czechoslovakia, is a cobblestoned public space with a fine ensemble of Baroque and Renaissance buildings on its northern and western sides. Many of the arcaded houses feature decorative murals and are painted in bright pastel colours. The old town hall stands in the north-west corner while the Fountain of St. James occupies the central position in the square.



35. Český Krumlov, Czech Republic - The town's small central square is not one of the top attractions in this tourist hub, though it contains Baroque and renaissance town houses with beautiful facades. The old town hall fills most of one side of the square, while a tall Marian Column stands in the central part of the space.



36. Hradec Králové, Czech Republic - The city's large market square is actually triangular in shape, and is unusual in that most of it is paved and not a cobblestoned pedestrian area. The twin spires of the Gothic Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and the Renaissance White Tower dominate the western end of the square, with the Baroque Old Town Hall standing in front of them. A few parts of this square are still in need of restoration, but the many fine arcaded facades of the Baroque and Renaissance buildings make for a pleasant view from the top of the White Tower.



37. Pardubice, Czech Republic - The rectangular Pernštýn Square has been the centre of the city since its founding in the 14th century. The large Renaissance town hall occupies most of the northern side of the square, while a tall Marian Column occupies the centre. From among the many beautiful Renaissance and Baroque building facades in the square, the most unique one features a large mural depicting the biblical scene where Jonah is swallowed by the whale.



38. Banská Štiavnica, Slovakia - Holy Trinity Square reflects the historical prosperity of a town built with the profits from medieval silver mines, and several mine shafts still run beneath the town. A huge plague column stands in the central area, while the wealthy merchant's houses which line the square mostly date from the town's golden era in the 15th and 16th centuries. The southern end of the square is occupied by the 15th-century Church of St. Catherine, while one of the town's two castles can be seen on a hill in the distance.



39. Litoměřice, Czech Republic - Peace Square is one of the oldest central squares in Bohemia, as the town was founded as early as the 10th century. The All Saints Church, Old Town Hall and the Black Eagle House are some of the finest buildings in the square, while the most unique feature is the bizarrely shaped tower above the House at the Chalice.



40. Domažlice, Czech Republic - The narrow, ribbon-shaped Peace Square has existed since the 13th century. Its most unique features are the monumental entrance gate tower at the eastern end and the unusual round church tower which doubled as a medieval lookout and defensive stronghold. The Renaissance town hall and many arcaded Baroque and Renaissance houses make the square one of the most architecturally complete in Bohemia.



41. Banská Bystrica, Slovakia - The long and narrow Slovak National Uprising Square is dominated by its tall cream-coloured clock tower (1552), which leans by almost half a metre at the top. An 18th-century plague column, an early 20th century Art-Nouveau fountain and a monument to World War Two Soviet soldiers all stand in the central area. The Jesuit Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier and many well-restored Renaissance town houses complete the ensemble.



42. Spišská Sobota, Slovakia - The name of 'Saturday Square' reflects the day of the week when the town's market was held in medieval times. This former village square has now been absorbed as a suburb by the city of Poprad, but it maintains its own unique atmosphere from days gone by. The Church of St. George and its large separate bell tower occupy the central area, while the perimeter is lined with Renaissance buildings with tent-shaped wooden roofs which are unique to the region.



43. Tryavna, Bulgaria - Capitan Diado Nikola Square contains fine examples of 19th century Bulgarian architecture. The clock tower from 1814 stands in front of an ancient stone bridge, while slate-roofed two-storey houses covered in ivy surround the cobblestoned public space. Many restaurants offer outdoor seating in the square, an excellent spot for summer people watching.



44. Tartu, Estonia - The long and narrow Town Hall Square is the central feature of the city's old town area, with the Baroque Old Town Hall placed prominently at the upper end. At the lower end of the square a building now housing an art gallery tilts by more than a third of a metre from the perpendicular. One of the square's most well-known monuments is modern, the 'Kissing Students' fountain from the 1990s.



45. Jíčin, Czech Republic - Wallenstein Square, named for an early 17th-century Bohemian warlord who made the city his home base, is one of Bohemia's most beautiful public spaces. The tall Valdice Gate Tower overlooks the plague column and fountain which occupy the central area. Much of the southern side of the square is taken up by the Wallenstein Palace, still unfinished at the time of Wallenstein's death in 1634. The adjacent Church of St. James, similarly left incomplete in 1634, is still without a church spire or a cupola.



46. Nové Město nad Metují, Czech Republic - Hus Square, named for the 15th century Czech leader Jan Hus, contains a well-preserved collection of 16th century Renaissance town houses. In the central area stands a Baroque Marian Column (1696) and a monument to the Holy Trinity (1767). The beautifully arcaded 16th century Old Town Hall shares space on the northern side with the entrance to the town's castle complex.



47. Tarnów, Poland - This market square lies along the old Kraków to Lviv trading route in the historic region of Galicia. Many 16th-century Renaissance houses surround the cobblestoned area, while the highlight of the square is unquestionably the 14th-century Old Town Hall in the centre, with a tall brick tower once intended for defensive purposes.



48. Kroměříž, Czech Republic - The town's Large Square may have many fine arcaded Renaissance houses and a few Art-Nouveau facades, but the Archbishop's Palace on the northern side stands out as the most significant feature. A Marian Column occupies the centre, while the Town Hall stands in the southern corner of the square.



49. Prešov, Slovakia - Several ornately decorated Baroque and Rococo merchants' houses line the sides of this eye-shaped square which is dominated by its 16th-century Cathedral of Saint Nicholas. Nearly all of the building facades have been fully restored and repainted, and most of the square has been pedestrianized, though Main Street fills the eastern side with a steady flow of traffic and buses. A park area with large trees occupies the lower end of the square, featuring a monument to World War Two Soviet soldiers and Neptune's Fountain.



50. Opole, Poland - The town's Market Square contains a well-preserved set of Baroque and Renaissance houses, while a large and unusual 19th-century town hall with Italianate design features is placed in the centre. The town hall's tower is considered an attempt to replicate the style of the medieval town hall tower in Florence.