Catholic Monasteries are some of my Favorite Places
As a history lover and former Catholic, I adore visiting Catholic monasteries for their history, art, and architecture. From the nunnery where the real Maria von Trapp lived in Austria to the stunning Kylemore Abbey in Ireland, I’ve spent many days on the road visiting these spiritual and holy places. While researching where to head next, I decided to ask some of my favorite travel bloggers to share their favorite Catholic monasteries around the world.
Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey in Spain
The Benedictine monastery at Montserrat has been around since the 9th century when it was built into the side of the mountain, around its sacred statue of the Black Madonna. It’s located about 30 miles northwest of Barcelona in the Montserrat mountains (so named for their serrated look) and makes for the perfect day trip from Barcelona. After taking either the gondola or the railcar up the mountain, you can visit the monastery, the basilica (don’t forget your long pants!), an art and archaeology museum, tackle a handful of hiking trails, shop the outdoor market (get the local goat cheese, you won’t be disappointed), and wait your turn in line to touch the orb on the statue of the black Virgin Mary. Having been built in place around the immovable statue, Montserrat’s mountaintop location is truly unique and almost mystical as it appears to be part of the mountain itself.
Contributed by Ashley from My Wanderlusty Life
Rock of Cashel in Ireland
All over the British Islands are ruins of monasteries. One that is worth a visit is just down the hill from the Rock of Cashel in Ireland. When we visited this significant Irish site, we were drawn to this lonely ruin. It turns out to be the ruins of a Cistercian monastery, the white monks. This was the Hore Abbey (1270) which was the last of the Cistercian monasteries founded in Ireland before the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in 1540.
The Cistercian, sometimes also known as the Bernardines, started as a reform movement to the Benedictine order. They felt that the Benedictines had become too worldly and tried to return to more austerity. The Cistercians would have been self-sufficient so it is likely that they used to til the very green fields you will traverse to visit the ruin. The Cistercians started in France in 1098 near Dijon.
Contributed by Chris from Amateur Traveler
Jerónimos Monastery in Portugal
Lisbon is one of the prettiest cities in Europe. Along the Tagus River, in the parish of Belém, the highly detailed Jerónimos Monastery compound was completed in the early 1600s.
Together with the nearby Tower of Belém, the Jerónimos Monastery became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. These two sites are some of the best examples of Portuguese late Gothic architecture style. Inside the main church, visitors can find the tomb of famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama.
Belém district is the symbol of Portuguese bravery and exploration of the New World. Ironically, because these majestic structures were funded by the wealth and new money of the New World, they are now also viewed as symbols of New World exploitation.
The Jerónimos Monastery and Belém district are definitely must visits for visitors to Lisbon. If you are visiting in mid-June, don’t forget to check out Portugal’s biggest celebration: Lisbon Sardine Festival to honor St. Anthony, Lisbon’s patron saint.
Contributed by Halef and Michael from RTW Guys
St. Märgen’s Abbey in Germany
In 2018, the small village of St. Margen, in Baden-Wurtemburg, Germany, celebrates the 900th birthday of the former monastery. Founded by Augustinian Canons, the monastery has a torrid history, with border disputes, destruction by fire on five separate occasions, murdered abbots, exile and thievery. Through all of this, the faith has remained, and the miraculous image, a Romanesque Madonna has survived.
Located in the Hochschwarzwald, the upper Black Forest, about 30 miles east of Frieberg im Breisgau, some winding back roads are required to get to St Margen. Once there, the panorama is stunning. One understands why this location was chosen. The cloister itself makes every twist on the road worthwhile.
The abbey church has a stunning baroque interior. Dedicated to St Mary of the Assumption, it holds the miraculous image and brings pilgrims from around the world. The monastery is no longer active but has been transformed into a cloister museum. Here, the works of famed sculptor Matthias Faller, who once lived in the abbey, can be seen, as well as the story of Black Forest clock making. Many of the monks in the 17th century were clockmakers. The Cloister Museum is a stop on the German Clock Route tourist trail.
Contributed by Roxanna from Gypsy with a Day Job
Mont-St-Michel in France
Most people with a bucket list, a Pinterest account, or a dream of traveling to France know of Mont-St-Michel, the “castle on the island” between Normandy and Brittany. But what many might not know is that the “castle” is actually the Roman Catholic Mont Saint-Michel Abbey and has been since the year 708. It’s true that Mont-St-Michel from a distance is striking and otherworldly, but visiting the island and heading up to the mountaintop monastery is such an interesting experience. Since the island of Mont-St-Michel is a city in and of itself, there are several shopping, dining, and accommodation options as well as the highlight—touring the seaside abbey. Winding your way through the narrow streets of Mont-St-Michel is truly a treat as it’s a perfectly preserved medieval town seemingly trapped in time (there’s an actual drawbridge). And if you think Mont-St-Michel from a distance is cool, checking out the surrounding quicksand landscape from the top (and knowing this dangerous route has been taken by religious pilgrims for centuries) is even more amazing.
Contributed by Ashley from My Wanderlusty Life
Baroque Iglesia de Santa Clara in Colombia
The beautiful Baroque Iglesia de Santa Clara was the church of the convent of the Poor Clare Sisters in the center of colonial Bogota this is one of the city’s oldest and most decorated churches and definitely worth paying a visit if you travel to Bogota. The Museum is located in the old temple of the Royal Convent of Santa Clara and was built in 1647. It is now run as a museum by the government in the Historic Centre of Bogotá near Plaza Bolivar. The church is a single nave construction of which the roof is coated in golden floral motifs with walls entirely covered by paintings and sculptures of saints. The beauty and intricate design of the chapel is unbelievable. Computer-based interactive screens which describe the objects is very handy and are available in multiple languages. Even though the church is located in a busy part of the city it is very quiet and peaceful inside.
Combine the Museo De Santa Clara with a visit to the Museo de Arte Colonial, which is considered one of the best examples of colonial architecture in Bogotá.
Contributed by Alya from Stingy Nomads
Royaumont Abbey in France
Royaumont is an ancient abbey located at 30km of Paris. It was founded in the XIIIth century by King Louis IX, also known as Saint Louis. At that time, the abbey was easily reachable from Pontoise (where the link lived) by boat following the Oise River, and the king enjoyed spending time there. Thanks to its royal guest, the abbey was rich and very renowned. During the following centuries, Royaumont declined and in 1771 the church was demolished and the materials used to build workers’ quarters. Later, it was used as a monastery, a textile factory, a village and a novitiate. Since 1964, the abbey is managed by the Royaumont Foundation the purpose of which is to conserve and enhance this fantastic heritage site.
Royaumont is one of the most beautiful Paris day tours. The abbey is located in a beautiful and peaceful park crossed by a spring which provided the monks water for drinking and ablutions. The church’s remains, spread on one side of the abbey, give a romantic touch to the ensemble. Inside, the original cloister, monks’ refectory, and the kitchens are really beautiful spaces. Don’t miss the abbey’s garden inspired by the Middle Ages. It was designed in 2004 to showcase plants of that time and their uses.
Contributed by Elisa from World in Paris
Convent of St John in Müstair in Switzerland
The Convent of St John in Müstair (also known as the Benedictine Abbey of St John) is a monastery located in far eastern Switzerland. Nestled in a dramatic setting amongst the Alps near the Italian border, the monastery was founded in the 8th century AD and has operated more or less continuously since that time. The main church building at the monastery contains an absolute treasure trove of Carolingian-era religious artwork that may have been ordered or inspired by the great king Charlemagne himself. His statue stands in a position of prominence behind the altar and keeps watch over the incredible frescoes and paintings that decorate the church.
The paintings inside are in excellent condition, and depict scenes from both the Old and New Testaments, the youth, life and Passion of Jesus Christ, the Last Judgement, and the execution of John the Baptist. It’s little wonder that the site was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1983, with UNESCO calling it “Switzerland’s greatest series of figurative murals, painted c. A.D. 800”.
Access to the site is tightly controlled in small ticketed groups, available on-site only. The site is accessible via public transport, though I would recommend using a car to visit.
Contributed by Joel from World Heritage Journey
Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland
Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin in Scotland is home to a community of Catholic Benedicitne monks and is the only medieval British monastery still being used for its original purpose.
I am used to exploring ruined abbeys and using my imagination to envisage what the building originally looked like and what life was like for the monks that resided there. At Pluscarden Abbey, no imagination is needed and it feels like you have stepped back through the centuries. The ornate building has been restored to a fully working monastery and visitors are welcome to look around, attend Mass in Gregorian Chant or stay for a longer retreat.
In historic tradition, the monks keep their own bees and visitors should pop in to the shop to pick up fresh honeycomb or soap and balms handmade from beeswax.
It has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows that I’ve seen and no matter what belief you hold, Pluscarden Abbey is a peaceful place for reflection while the community of resident monks go quietly about their daily routine.
Contributed by Susanne from Adventures Around Scotland
The Monastic Ruins of Glendalough in Ireland
Glendalough Ireland is a fascinating place, not just because of the beautiful landscape but also because it is home to what might be the most important monastic site in Irelands: The Monastic Ruins of Glendalough. This Monastic city was founded by St. Kevin and dates back to the 6th century, though the ruins as can be seen today are mostly from the 10th and 12th century. Glendalough thrived for years, surviving many Viking attacks, however, it was finally destroyed in 1214 AD by the Normans.
Today, the Monastic ruins of Glendalough are one of the country’s most visited sites. If you go, be sure to look for the Round Tower, the Priest’s House, and St. Kevin’s Church (commonly called St. Kevin’s Kitchen) as these are some of the most impressive remains. Glendalough can be visited on your own or with a tour, and is an easy day trip from Dublin that can also be combined with the beautiful Wicklow Mountains.
Contributed by Hannah from Ireland Stole My Heart
Holyrood Abbey in Scotland
Holyrood Abbey was founded in the 12th century and you can visit the ruins directly behind Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh. The abbey included more buildings (cloisters, dormitory, etc) than the Holyrood Abbey ruins you see today. This church was also used for royal ceremonies, including the coronation of James V (Mary Queen of Scots father) and Charles I. By the 16th century, the Abbey was one of the largest and most impressive monasteries in Scotland. In the 18th century, the roof collapsed and they never repaired it since there was another church not too far away.
Even just seeing the ruins, you can tell that Holyrood Abbey must have been magnificent. The columns that still stand are huge and detail design of the windows is impressive. The stained glass must have been beautiful. In the back corner, you can see the Royal Vault which holds the remains of James V and other royals. Surprisingly, it is not an elaborate tomb.
A visit to the abbey is included in your admission to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The Holyrood Palace Wardens give tours of the Holyrood Abbey every hour, just ask a warden for details.
Contributed by Anisa from Two Traveling Texans
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What’s your favorite Catholic monastery? Did it make the list?