The iconic, beautiful bridges of Europe come in all styles, shapes, and sizes. They are fashioned from wood, stone, iron, or steel. Historic towers still stand guard. Cascades of flowers may line the sides. Works of art decorate some, calling visitors to stroll over the river while enjoying world-class paintings and sculptures.
While their practical reason for existing is to provide a way across water, these bridges also come with a fascinating history. They’ve been the site of battles, fires, bomb raids, and community restoration efforts. The histories of some European bridges date back centuries.
Here are a few of my favorite bridges to visit in Europe, not only because of their beauty, but also due to the echoes of what’s happened on these romantic landmarks.
1. Chapel Bridge, Lucerne, Switzerland
This lovely bridge is a popular tourist attraction. The Chapel Bridge and its water tower are symbols of Lucerne and of Switzerland. Also known as the Kapellbrücke, it was built in the 14th century and is the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe. It’s also the world’s oldest surviving truss bridge.
Located right in the center of the city, the diagonal Chapel Bridge connects the north and south banks of the River Reuss. Baskets of brightly colored flowers hang from the sides of the 700-foot-long bridge, looking quite picturesque against the backdrop of the river, the city, and the mountains.
The distinct water tower predates the bridge and claims quite a history. The 111-foot tower has served as an archive, a treasury, a prison, and a torture chamber.
The Chapel Bridge suffered a major fire in 1993. The tower and the ends of the bridge were all that survived. The Swiss people, heartbroken at the devastation of their national treasure, collected funds and restored the bridge about a year later.
As you stroll across the covered wooden bridge, look up at the pictorial panels that depict scenes of Swiss heritage. These colorful paintings make walking over 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 professional photographs existed of each painting, so authentic reproductions were possible.
Pro Tip: I walked each way on this bridge, going back and forth to enjoy different views. I also walked across it at sunset to see the changing light on the water and the shadows on the mountains. If you’re in Lucerne for even a day, plan for multiple trips across this national landmark.
2. Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic
In early years, the 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 across the Vltava River in Prague. Today, the Charles Bridge is a prime place to visit, both for the bridge itself and for the magnificent views of the city.
When floods 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 Lesser Town Bridge Tower and the Old Town Bridge Tower anchor the ends of the bridge.
The Charles Bridge’s colorful history 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 Nepomuk. Some of the first statues were lost with time. What you see today are replicas — the originals are safely housed in a museum nearby.
The bridge has suffered from more than floods and battles. The constant traffic of horse-drawn carts (and later trams, buses, and cars) took its toll on the landmark. After a much-needed restoration in 1978, all vehicle traffic was banned. So today, you can stroll across 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 to the Castle, with the spires of Saint Vitus Cathedral soaring 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 fellow travelers on the bridge. A string group provided live music, and the rippling river was delightful.
3. Old Bridge, Heidelberg, Germany
The Old Bridge in Heidelberg inspired me to plan a visit to this old German town. Once there, I found so many fascinating historic sites — including an intriguing castle! — but the bridge captured my heart.
Built over the Neckar River, the arch-style sandstone bridge is one of the last surviving examples of a classical stone bridge. The previous eight bridges across the river, all built of wood, didn’t survive. So in the 1780s, Prince Karl Theodor ordered that this sturdy bridge be constructed. It’s distinctive for the medieval white ramparts on the city side. These were once part of the city wall and are a reminder of life in Heidelberg centuries ago.
So many German bridges fell victim to the destruction of World War II, but the Old Bridge remained undamaged. This is probably because the Allies planned on saving Heidelberg to use as a postwar base.
Pro Tip: If you stay in the Old Town of Heidelberg, plan to walk to the Old Bridge at sunrise, before it fills with visitors. This is a spectacular time of day to see the bridge and the Neckar River, and I was alone except for one couple. I went back later and mingled with the crowds, but my time on the bridge in the quiet of a new day remains a magical memory.
4. Pont Alexandre III, Paris, France
The Seine curves 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 links the Champs-Élysées area on the Right Bank with the Invalides quarter and Eiffel Tower area of the Left Bank. Anchored by four tall golden sculptures, the bridge is classified as a French monument.
The golden sculptures are striking as they glitter in the sunlight. Each one is made of bronze and covered with golden plates. These winged horses represent the arts, sciences, commerce, and industry.
The bridge stands as a symbol of peaceful relations between France and Russia. The foundation stone of the bridge was laid in person by Tsar Nicholas II of Russia in 1896. The finished bridge, named for Nicholas’s father, Tsar Alexander III, was inaugurated in 1900 for the Paris Universal Exposition.
At just over 500 feet long and 150 feet wide, the Pont Alexandre III is spacious and easy to find. Plan to walk across so you can stop to savor the views of the flowing river, the gold dome of the Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, and the Petit Palais and 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 were long separate cities lying across the Danube River from each other. Hungarian hero Count Széchenyi decided that a sturdy stone bridge across the water would be the ideal way to connect the cities and form what we know today as Budapest. In 1849, the original Széchenyi Chain Bridge opened with great fanfare.
This first permanent Hungarian bridge required extensive negotiating and fundraising to complete. It took about nine years to build this imposing, complicated structure.
Iron chains hold up the roadbed. They are suspended between tall pillars and anchored underground at the ends of the bridge. The original design exists, though it has been fortified for increased traffic.
Notice the stately stone lions guarding the entrances. These sculptures were added in 1852. The lion at the Buda side displays the coat of arms of the Széchenyi family.
The bridge suffered severe 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 a breathtaking view of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, go to the castle side of the river (Buda) and make your way up the hill. You can do this by walking or by funicular. Stand and look down on the bridge and the Danube for a memorable experience.
These are just a few of Europe’s amazing bridges. Knowing a bit of the history of the bridges will enrich your visit. And you will likely find yourself seeking out other bridges to explore on your travels. For inspiration, consider: