10 Fascinating Places to Go to Learn About WWII and Christian History
From religion and politics to conflict and revolution, stories of the past create the richness of the present — which is why one of the best ways to get to know a culture or destination is by taking a walk through its history. We’ve put together this guide to 10 places around the world where you can learn about the history and consequences of religion, colonialism, and World War II through moving monuments, acclaimed architecture, and thought-provoking exhibitions.
Germany’s approach to reflection and healing after the atrocities of WWII has resulted in an array of thoughtful and deeply moving public monuments, museums, and memorials. In Berlin, you’ll find the Topography of Terror, one of the city’s most visited places of remembrance. Set on the former site of the Nazi’s primary instruments of persecution, the Gestapo and SS headquarters, the location has been transformed into a sensitive and poignant exhibition which runs alongside the longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall. Nearby, you can visit the deeply affecting Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, also known as the Holocaust Memorial. An accessible open-air structure spanning 19,000 square feet, the memorial is made up of over 2000 concrete slabs of different sizes, which you are invited to explore up-close, and engage with and interpret in your own personal way.
2. Dominican Republic
While most are aware of the beautiful beaches of the Dominican Republic, the real way to get to know this island is through learning about its colonial history. It’s important to understand the incredibly dark history of the country, with it’s long period of colonisation, African slavery, and the brutal dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the 20th century. These disturbing events have had a profound impact on modern day Dominican society, with racial issues still being prevalent. That being said, the country is now a melting pot of cultures and for the most part, Dominicans celebrate the mix of influences in their architecture, food, and art. The capital city of Santo Domingo was honored as the birthplace of Christianity in the New World, and served as the headquarters of the Catholic Church for a while. Here you can find fascinating colonial architecture, especially in the neighborhood of Ciudad Colonial, brimming with forts, churches, convents, and famous houses. Admire the Gothic architecture style and limestone walls of the cathedral of Santa Maria La Menor, located in Parque Colón, which was the main place of worship for the Catholic Church in the Americas. From here, you can take a 10 minute walk to the Alcazar de Colón, previously the residence of the son of Christopher Columbus, now restored to a museum filled with 16th century artwork, weapons, furniture, and much more.
Portugal is a unique European nation where historical sites and buildings have remained intact throughout history, due to its neutrality in WWII. In central Portugal lie three UNESCO-listed monasteries, Alcobaca, Batalha and Convent of Christ, all within a short distance of one another. The latter was once the headquarters and major stronghold of a knighthood called the Order of the Templar, and now is inhabited by a community of monks. Admire the intricate architecture, a blend of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance styles of this medieval castle and church. Another famous religious site in Portugal is the mysterious and charming town of Fatima, a popular pilgrimage destination and home to a colossal Basilica with an otherworldly aura.
A country bursting with Christian history, every city in Greece has a different story to tell. From ancient Byzantine churches to historic forts and poignant war memorials, learn about the birthplace of Western civilization. No religious history trip around Greece would be complete without a visit to Athens, the historical capital of Europe. The Kaisariani Monastery, which was built in honor of Aphrodite before being taken over by Christians, has been restored — take a day trip to admire the charming monastery or gentle hike in the forests around the area. The Jewish population of Greece is worth noting, and around Athens you’ll see many synagogues, as well as a Holocaust memorial to honor the memory of the thousands of Greek Jews who were killed during WWII. In multicultural Thessaloniki, discover diverse architectural influences, including Byzantine churches, Jewish buildings, and the famous Roman Rotunda. Meanwhile in central Greece, marvel at the breathtaking scenery of the UNESCO-listed Meteora monasteries, situated atop high cliffs, while learning about Greek Orthodoxy. To explore Greece’s WWII history, visit Fort Roupell in Central Macedonia, built as a line of defense against Bulgaria and today a museum with fascinating exhibits and friendly Greek soldiers who share their insight.
Brazil is home to the largest population of Catholics in the world, and an ideal place to learn about Christian history. The vibrant city of Rio de Janeiro, known for its carnivals, beaches, and lively neighborhoods, also boasts some of the most famous Christian sights. The iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, which towers over the city, has become a religious symbol all over Latin America. In Belo Horizonte, you’ll find the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, designed in an unorthodox modern style which scandalized the conservative society during its time of creation, but now stands as an important piece of colonial art. Learn more about the colonial period through a trip to the enchanting Ruins of São Miguel das Missões, a former Jesuit Reduction for the indigenous Guarani tribes and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Spain is home to a myriad of stunning cathedrals, castles and other medieval architecture, which reflects the fascinating history of the cultures within the country. A spiritually important city to visit is Santiago de Compostela, the end point of a pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago. While many make this journey for health or mindfulness reasons, traditionally this pilgrimage was important because Christians believed Santiago is where Saint James, an apostle of Jesus, was buried, and it gives the city a captivating history. For impressive Gothic-style architecture, take a trip to Barcelona and marvel at Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia basilica, which combines Gothic and Art Nouveau styles to stunning effect, while in the South of Spain, Seville is home to the largest Gothic cathedral in the world, and is where Christopher Columbus is buried. A city of significant religious interest is Toledo, just south of Madrid, which blends the cultural influence of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims who inhabited medieval Spain. This has made a mark on the city’s architecture, gastronomy, and art, with stunning cathedrals, synagogues, and mosques lining the streets.
7. Czech Republic
While walking around Prague, you cannot miss the iconic Klementinum, home to one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. One of the largest building complexes in Europe, it was founded by Jesuits as a chapel, and was later merged with the nearby Charles University to host theological studies. Take a tour to see the Baroque library and stand in awe of the spectacular paintings and the unique collection of globes, while a trip to the astronomical tower, which forms part of this complex, offers breathtaking panoramic views of the gorgeous city of Prague. Admire the 30 statues of saints as you walk along the nearby Charles Bridge, while a stroll around the city allows you to see many gorgeous churches, including the Gothic-designed St Vitus Cathedral.
Italy, with its prominence in WWII and role in Catholic culture, has a fascinating history. In the capital of Rome, stroll across one of the city’s oldest bridges, Milvian Bridge, where the Roman Emperor Constantine received a vision which led to the end of the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. It also comprises Vatican City, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, home to the Pope as well as interesting Baroque, Roman, and Gothic architecture and iconic artwork. Reminders of the war are prevalent all over Italy, from the Monte Cassino War Cemetery, which honors the British and Commonwealth soldiers who died during WWII, to the historical city of Messina in Northeast Sicily, a frequent place for bombings during the war.
Mexico is a fascinating country to learn about Christian history. Located in the north of Mexico City, the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the world’s most famous pilgrimage sites for Catholics and an example of the colonial architecture, mostly designed in the Baroque style, that fills Mexico’s buzzing capital. Outside Mexico City, you’ll find many colonial cities, such as the beautiful city of Guanajuato, with its vibrant buildings and winding alleyways, or Oaxaca, filled with Baroque-style churches and an incredible food scene.
France’s history in WWII is well known, but it’s also a country rich in religious Christian history. Paris is a haven of religious sites, such as the Saint Chappelle, whose interior has a magical atmosphere due to the stunning stained-glass windows, or the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, which offers breathtaking views of Paris. For more gorgeous religious architecture, take a trip to Lourdes in the South of France, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world for contemporary Christians, where a young Saint Bernadette reportedly saw visions of Mary. To explore France’s important war history, visit Normandy and learn about the D-Day landings through the many memorials along the beaches, honoring the thousands of soldiers who gave their lives to defend Western Europe from the Nazis.