While their practical reason for existing is to provide a path across water, these bridges also have a fascinating history. They have been the scene of battles, fires, bombings and community restoration efforts. The history of some European bridges goes back centuries.
Here are some of my favorite bridges to visit in Europe, not only because of their beauty, but also because of the echoes of what happened at these romantic sites.
1. Chapel Bridge, Lucerne, Switzerland
This pretty bridge is a popular tourist attraction. The Chapel Bridge and its water tower are symbols of Lucerne and Switzerland. Also known as the Kapellbrücke, it was built in the 14th century and is the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. It is also the oldest truss bridge in the world.
Located right in the center of town, the Diagonal Chapel Bridge connects the north and south banks of the Reuss River. Brightly colored flower baskets hang from the sides of the quite picturesque 700-foot-long bridge with the river, town, and mountains as a backdrop.
The separate water tower predates the bridge and boasts quite a history. The 111-foot tower served as an archive, treasury, prison, and torture chamber.
The Chapel Bridge suffered a major fire in 1993. The tower and the ends of the bridge are all that have survived. The Swiss people, heartbroken by the devastation of their national treasure, raised funds and restored the bridge about a year later.
As you stroll over the wooden covered bridge, look at the pictorial panels depicting scenes from Swiss heritage. These colorful paintings make walking the bridge a cultural experience. First painted in the late 1500s, many of the original paintings were destroyed in the 1993 fire. The good news is that there were professional photographs of each painting, so authentic reproductions were possible.
Pro tip: I walked back and forth across this bridge, going back and forth to take in different views. I also walked through it at sunset to see the changing light on the water and the shadows on the mountains. If you are in Lucerne for even a day, plan several trips through this national monument.
2. Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic
In the early years, Charles Bridge was the only connection between Prague’s Old Town on one side of the river and the Castle on the other side. It is the oldest bridge over the Vltava river in Prague. Today, Charles Bridge is a privileged place to visit, both for the bridge itself and for the magnificent view of the city.
When flooding damaged the original bridge long ago, a new bridge was built and opened in 1402. Later it was named after Charles IV, who oversaw the construction. The Small Town Bridge Tower and the Old Town Bridge Tower anchor the ends of the bridge.
The colorful history of Charles Bridge includes flood after flood, battles, beheadings, and saints. Between 1683 and 1928, 30 statues of saints were carved to decorate the bridge, the most famous of which is the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk. Some of the earliest statues have been lost over time. What you see today are replicas – the originals are safely kept in a nearby museum.
The bridge suffered from more than floods and battles. The constant traffic of horse-drawn carts (and later streetcars, buses and cars) wreaked havoc on the monument. After an essential restoration in 1978, all car traffic was banned. So today you can walk on this pedestrian bridge without dodging traffic. You can pause to look at the historic buildings on the Old Town side, and you can look up the hill in the other direction towards the castle, with the spiers of St. Vitus Cathedral rising into the sky.
Pro tip: Go early in the day or at sunset for the best light and to avoid the crowds of people who flock here. I visited at sunset and there were only a few travel companions on the bridge. A string band provided live music and the rippling river was delightful.
3. Old bridge, Heidelberg, Germany
The Old Heidelberg Bridge inspired me to plan a visit to this old German town. Once there, I found so many fascinating historical sites – including an intriguing castle! – but the bridge captured my heart.
Built over the River Neckar, the arch-shaped sandstone bridge is one of the last surviving examples of a classical stone bridge. The previous eight bridges over the river, all constructed of wood, have not survived. So in the 1780s Prince Karl Theodor ordered the construction of this sturdy bridge. It is distinguished by the medieval white ramparts on the town side. These were once part of the city walls and are reminiscent of life in Heidelberg centuries ago.
So many German bridges fell victim to the destruction of WWII, but the Old Bridge has remained intact. This is probably because the Allies planned to save Heidelberg for use as a post-war base.
Pro tip: If you’re staying in Heidelberg’s Old Town, plan to walk to the Old Bridge at sunrise, before it fills up with visitors. It’s a spectacular time of day to see the Bridge and the Neckar River, and I was on my own except for a couple. I returned later and mingled with the crowds, but my time on the bridge in the calm of a new day remains a magical memory.
4. Pont Alexandre III, Paris, France
The Seine winds gracefully through the city of Paris and 37 bridges span its banks. The Pont Alexandre III is known as the most ornate and beautiful. It connects the Champs-Élysées district on the Right Bank with the Invalides district and the Eiffel Tower district on the Left Bank. Anchored by four tall golden sculptures, the bridge is classified as a French monument.
The golden sculptures are striking as they sparkle in the sun. Each is made of bronze and covered with golden plaques. These winged horses represent the arts, sciences, commerce and industry.
The bridge is the symbol of peaceful relations between France and Russia. The first stone of the bridge was laid in person by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1896. The completed bridge, named after Nicholas’ father, Tsar Alexander III, was inaugurated in 1900 for the Universal Exhibition in Paris.
At just over 500 feet long and 150 feet wide, the Pont Alexandre III is spacious and easy to find. Plan to cross so you can stop to admire the view of the flowing river, the Golden Dome of the Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais.
5. Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest, Hungary
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its design is fascinating, as is its history.
Buda and Pest had long been separate towns located across the Danube. Hungarian hero, Count Széchenyi decided that a solid stone bridge over the water would be the perfect way to connect cities and form what we know today as Budapest. In 1849, the first Széchenyi chain bridge opened with great fanfare.
This first Hungarian permanent bridge required extensive negotiations and fundraising. It took about nine years to build this imposing and complex structure.
Iron chains support the platform. They are suspended between high pillars and anchored underground at the ends of the bridge. The original design exists, although it has been reinforced to increase traffic.
Notice the majestic stone lions guarding the entrances. These sculptures were added in 1852. The lion on the side of Buda features the coat of arms of the Széchenyi family.
The bridge suffered serious damage when the Nazis blew it up during World War II. After the war, the beloved bridge was restored. It reopened in 1949, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.
Pro tip: For amazing views of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, head to the Castle side of the River (Buda) and walk up the hill. You can do this on foot or by funicular. Get up and look at the bridge and the Danube for a memorable experience.
These are just a few of the amazing bridges in Europe. Knowing a little about the history of bridges will enrich your visit. And you will likely find yourself looking for other bridges to explore on your travels. For inspiration, consider: