Taking a trip across Europe is a mystical and awe-inspiring experience that combines astounding architectural wonders, breathtaking natural vistas, and amazing cultural traditions that are spread across hundreds and sometimes thousands of years. One of the most enlightening examples of this is the rich and vibrant heritage of the continent’s Jewish people, which is evidenced by the 17,000 synagogues that dotted the city and pastoral landscapes prior to WWII. Today, just over 3,300 of these sites remain, with fewer than 850 still housing active congregations.
The splendor, history, and indomitable human spirit to rise again are encapsulated in many of the best preserved of these historic houses of worship, which are home to both medieval ruins and beautiful art and design from the 3rd century A.D. on through to the 1800’s. Here are five of our favorite synagogues from across a few of Europe’s most alluring cities and provinces.
Greater Synagogue of Barcelona, Spain
For 2,500 years people of the Jewish faith have had a rich presence in Europe, and within the autonomous and free-spirited district of Catalonia their roots go deep. The 13th century wonder known today as The Greater Synagogue of Barcelona is located in the heart of the Mediterranean city’s old Jewish section, now called the Gothic Quarter. It was built on site of a 3rd to 4th century ceremonial complex that shows markings as a potential ancient Roman-era synagogue, making it a top contender for the oldest synagogue in Europe. Rediscovered by an Argentinian businessman in the late 20th century, the synagogue’s Barcelona Jewish Quarter Association now hosts fascinating guided tours which showcase the artifact-rich excavation site. This Sinagoga Mayor (Ancient Synagogue) is perfect for the intellectually curious because of its unfolding history that is just now being fully written. In fact, the entire Quarter is packed full of amazing architecture and cultural marvels such as the Gaudi-designed street lamps at Plaça Reial Square, the Roman Temple d’August, the Gothic Barcelona Cathedral, and city’s oldest restaurant, 1786’s Can Culleretes.
Bevis Marks Synagogue, London, UK
The opening of the vibrant Bevis Marks Synagogue in 1701 in London marked a rebirth of the Jewish culture in the United Kingdom. It was built for the descendants of those who had forcibly fled Spain and Portugal over 200 years prior, and its official name Kahal Kadosh Shaar Asamaim means ‘Holy Congregation The Gates of Heaven’. Today worshipers still holds regular services there, making it the oldest continually active synagogue in Europe. Stunning, intricate opulence plays against simple lines at Bevis Marks. This unique house of worship incorporates Spanish, Portuguese, and even some Puritan elements, the latter influenced by the main architect who designed the building, a Quaker named Joseph Avis. You can take weekday tours of the stunningly preserved building, and even enjoy lunch right on sight at the synagogue’s Middle Eastern inspired cafe ‘Zest’. With its quiet plaza location in the heart of the City of London’s financial district, it is a true historic gem that’s conveniently situated close to some of the city’s most iconic sights.
Scola Nova Synagogue, Trani, Italy
Trani’s quaint locale on the breathtaking Adriatic Sea in Italy’s southern Puglia district combines a rich cultural heritage with modern-day, sophisticated appeal. Its seamless merging of Old World enchantments and hip, upscale charm has earned it the nickname ‘The Pearl of Puglia’. Here the well-heeled set pack the active port city’s many marina hotspots, while yachts and pleasure boats cruise by on the glistening cobalt waters. Just steps away from this sleek and sophisticated scene stands a testament to Trani’s thriving medieval Jewish culture. The grand synagogue of Scola Nova was built in 1240 and was one of four in this bustling trade center, where pilgrims would meet up to make their religious quest to Jerusalem. Puglia’s locale at the crossroads of continental Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean helped usher in a unique architectural design at Scola Nova featuring Romanesque, Byzantine, and Islamic styles. Reopened as an active synagogue in 2006, this newly renovated medieval masterpiece features a pitched facade with bell gable, an interior rectangular gathering hall, and a fascinating Jewish art and history exhibit at the nearby Diocesan Museum.
Jewish Synogogue of Dubrovnik, Croatia
Just across the Adriatic Sea from Scola Nova sits another fabled treasure from the Middle Ages, known as the Dubrovnik Synagogue. It is the second oldest synagogue in Europe, with the current building dating back to just after the great earthquake of 1667. Some historical records indicate that the original synagogue was established there in 1408 well before the seismic event, while other sources set the date closer to 1652. Today, the small Jewish community in this glistening seaside city still meet at the Žudioska Street synagogue for services a few times each year, and much of the baroque interior houses an incredible museum on the second floor that is filled with centuries-old artifacts and ceremonial objects. A Jewish-oriented gift shop is located next door, with guided tours available throughout the week. Just minutes from the synagogue is Old Town Harbour, which showcases the extraordinary St. John Fort alongside a beautiful promenade and lighthouse. If you’re interested in exploring out further, Croatia’s glistening island beaches of Hvar and Brac attract sophisticated travelers from around the globe, and make a great day trip from Dubrovnik.
Carpentras Synagogue, France
A humble exterior belies the unbelievable splendor you’ll encounter once you walk through the small wood door of the this 14th century wonder. Carpentras Synagogue is located in its namesake city in the popular Provence region of southeastern France, and the 650-year old baroque interior features a spectacular blue-domed ceiling reminiscent of the night sky, a sweeping staircase, a 30-foot ritual bath, a natural spring-fed mikvah, two bakeries, and an entire room devoted exclusively to Jerusalem. Because of its significance as Western Europe’s oldest still-active synagogue, combined with its astounding architectural opulence, the World Monument Fund began preservation work on it in 2001 to help restore it to its original splendor. The astounding breadth of the sight is a testament to its past as a self-made community center created by Jews, who at the time were treated as second-class citizens with limited social options. Nowadays, an amazing array of sights, smells, and spiritual sounds greets visitors to this splendor of the Middle Ages.
We are experienced in helping you create singular European vacations that are unique to your tastes, style, and interests. From the breathtaking beaches of Italy and Croatia to the cultural icons of France, Great Britain, and Spain, our experienced and caring team helps you plan an opulent, intimate and adventurous sojourn across the ancient and awe-inspiring lands of Europe – one that is uniquely your own. We draw on our many years of personal and professional experience to provide you with unparalleled luxury and unmatched adventures during your journey, and help you create memories that will last a lifetime. We’d love to hear from you today and begin assisting you in creating your one-of-a-kind European experience.