Baroque, baroque and baroque – as in, art, architecture and music. More than 300 years after this exuberant aesthetic had its heyday, we still canʼt get enough of it. Splendiferous churches and palaces, dramatic paintings, kinetic sculptures and rhythms that invoke a slower, more civilized pace of life all exert an enduring allure. The only question is how deep you want to go into the past.

Or bring the past into the present. With the revival of early music in recent years, itʼs possible to hear historically accurate performances of baroque masters like Bach and Monteverdi played with modern enthusiasm. In settings that mirror the era, the experience can be immersive and more than a historical curiosity. The sights and sounds may be relics, but their synergy is as fresh as ever.

© Google MyMaps
© Google MyMaps

A number of cities in Europe offer such opportunities. The list below is selective, bypassing some choice locations like Bruges, home of the popular Musica Antiqua festival and competition, and Potsdam, with its incomparable Sanssouci Palace and gardens. Instead, these focus on cultural environments, places where baroque blossomed in several disciplines, or where early music festivals have become an intrinsic part of a cityʼs identity and character.

They also offer a cross-section of styles and tastes. Baroque is often treated as a monolith, but there were many variations in its forms and attributes as it grew and spread across Europe. Discovering these adds another dimension to an endlessly fascinating journey.

Sunrise at St Nicholas Church, Prague © Prague City Tourism
Sunrise at St Nicholas Church, Prague
© Prague City Tourism

1 For a full-on baroque fantasy itʼs hard to top Prague, where early music has never gone out of fashion and stunning architecture is to be found on literally every block of the cityʼs Old Town and Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana). With several resident period ensembles, an outstanding summer festival and a relatively small city center made for walking, the city is an attractive destination for baroque fans almost any time of year.

During the regular season (roughly September through June), Collegium 1704, Musica Florea, Ensemble Inégal and Collegium Marianum offer steady diets of baroque programming with an emphasis on lesser-known Czech composers. Itʼs also worth checking the schedule of the Prague Symphony Orchestra (FOK), which runs an early music chamber series at the Church of Sts. Simon and Jude. In May the Prague Spring festival always includes a refined early music segment, and in July and August Collegium Marianum stages a smart festival that brings baroque groups from around Europe to play in settings that match the music, like Troja Chateau and Strahov Monastery.

A good starting point for an architectural tour is the Loreta, a 17th-century pilgrimage site thatʼs extravagant even by baroque standards. Itʼs a short distance from Prague Castle, where the imposing Matthias Gate is considered the first baroque structure built in Bohemia. Below the Castle, Wallenstein Garden offers a green respite amid baroque architecture and statuary, and wandering through lower Malá Strana into Old Town will take you past baroque landmarks like the well-hidden Vrtba Garden, St. Nicholas Church, Church of St. Francis Seraph, the Clementinum and Clam-Gallas Palace.

Wallenstein Garden, Prague © Prague City Tourism
Wallenstein Garden, Prague
© Prague City Tourism

2 There is a direct line from Prague to Dresden in the person of Jan Dismas Zelenka, a Bohemian composer who did his best work in the court of Augustus II. Zelenka, who counted Bach and Telemann among his admirers, offers a reminder that there are still baroque musical treasures waiting to be discovered. For nearly 200 years after his death in 1745, his music disappeared. Since being revived and disseminated by Czech scholars in the 1950s, it has become a mainstay of the baroque repertoire in Central Europe and beyond.

Today the baroque tradition in Dresden is kept alive by groups like the Dresden Kreuzchor, Dresdner Barockorchester and Sächsisches Vocal Ensemble, along with occasional early music programming from the Staatskapelle Dresden and Dresden Philharmonic. The mammoth Dresden Music Festival, which runs in May and June, always has a tasty baroque component. And there are two venues that fuse sight and sound like nowhere else in Europe: the Frauenkirche, an early 18th-century Lutheran Church, and the Zwinger, a sprawling palace built by Augustus that is now a breathtaking museum. Both are Baroque architectural gems that were almost totally destroyed in World War II and have since been lovingly rebuilt. The Frauenkirche supports resident instrumental and choral ensembles, and both venues offer full season schedules with resonant programs.

Dresden is another walkable city with a wealth of baroque architecture thatʼs hard to miss, especially in such monumental sizes. Dresden Cathedral (the Hofkirche), the Landhaus, Coselpalais and Japanisches Palais feature some of the purest baroque styles. St. Anneʼs Church (the Kreuzkirche) blends baroque into neoclassical, and Dresden Castle shows its 500-year history with Romanesque and Renaissance elements underpinning the dominant baroque look. Just southeast of city center,  Großer Garten offers a splendid example of a baroque park anchored by a sumptuous palace.

Dresden, the Zwinger © Sylvio Dittrich
Dresden, the Zwinger
© Sylvio Dittrich

3 Polish cities were no less devastated by World War II, but thereʼs still plenty of architectural history on display, and the country has a strong early music scene. The two come together nicely in Wrocław (pronounced “Vrotz-waf”), a university town and home of the National Forum of Music, which supports the Wrocław Baroque Orchestra, a period ensemble that gives monthly concerts. In September, NFM stages the Wratislavia Cantans festival, a celebration of early music with the human voice as its focus. Polish composers are always in the mix and whenever possible, festival organizers like to make connections between early and modern music – tracing, for example, the evolution of Stabat Mater from anonymous medieval manuscripts to a contemporary version by Arvo Pärt. In spring, the May with Early Music festival offers a more modest but no less enthusiastic showcase for baroque music in historic settings.

The cityʼs central Market Square is dominated by Old Town Hall, which, like most of the other buildings ringing the Square, is a mix of Gothic and Renaissance elements. Pure baroque is best represented by the Ossolineum Library and the Royal Palace, the onetime home of Prussian kings, now the City Museum. The grounds of the latter include a handsome set of baroque gardens. But the best display of baroque is indoors, at Wrocław University, where the Leopoldine and Marianum Halls burst with a riot of murals and sculptures, electric in their intensity.

Ossolineum Library, Wrocław © Niedzielny leń | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 3.0
Ossolineum Library, Wrocław
© Niedzielny leń | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 3.0

4 Some cities merit a visit simply on the strength of their festivals. Innsbruck also offers spectacular scenery, with the Tyrolean Alps providing a breathtaking backdrop for the Innsbrucker Festwochen der Alten Musik. Over six weeks in July and August, the festival reclaims the cityʼs role as an important early music center with a smart lineup of concert programs, church services featuring sacred baroque works and punctilious re-creations of early operas. During nearly 20 years as head of opera and then artistic director of the festival, countertenor and conductor René Jacobs set a tone of serious scholarship and created a taste for forgotten works that has been continued by his successor, conductor Alessandro De Marchi.

Though not all baroque, the venues are also first-rate. Ambras Castle and Hofburg Palace revive the glories of the Habsburg era, and the Theological Faculty, the oldest building at the University of Innsbruck, takes visitors back to the schoolʼs 16th-century roots. Baroque frescoes and other decorative features are on vivid display in the church of Wilten Abbey and at the Cathedral of St. Jacob, which also houses one of the largest church organs in Austria as well as a famous “peace carillon” that rings out every day around noon. The Hofkirche is worth a visit just to see the remarkable Renaissance sculptures, and the Cistercian Monastery, with its signature onion domes, offers an interior blend of baroque and rococo decoration.

Seeing the church concerts is a good way to take in the best of the cityʼs baroque sights. On the secular side, the Helblinghaus, with its lavish facades, and Altes Landhaus, the crowning achievement of court architect Georg Anton Gumpp, match the rarefied air of this royal enclave.

Coronation Mass at Wilten Abbey, Innsbruck © Flatz print
Coronation Mass at Wilten Abbey, Innsbruck
© Flatz print

5 Leipzig lays claim to the legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, and never more than in June, when the Bachfest Leipzig festival fills churches, concert halls and public squares with the music of the baroque master and his contemporaries. Bach spent 27 years in the city, providing sacred music for four churches, most notably St. Thomas and St. Nicholas. Concerts held there during the festival provide unparalleled opportunities to hear his work at its source. 

While it revels in the music of an almost mythic figure, the festival is not stuffy about it. Performances are also given at a variety of other churches and chapels, as well as museums, concerts halls, an outdoor marketplace and the zoo. There are guided walking tours of Bach sites, excursions to nearby towns and concerts for children, including a Bach singalong. The programming occasionally pairs Bach with 20th-century composers, and always makes room for another musical luminary who spent significant time in Leipzig, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Bach devotees who canʼt make it to the festival can take advantage of year-round baroque programming at the Summer Hall, a former baroque ballroom, and visit the interactive Bach museum.

Architecturally, St. Thomas and St. Nicholas are more about soaring spaces than splendor, and in general Leipzig is noted for its modern rather than historic buildings. But a construction boom during the late 17th and early 18th centuries is still evident in private residences on Katharinenstraße and several commercial buildings along the Brühl. The most famous baroque building in Leipzig, Café Zimmermann, where Bach staged many chamber concerts, was unfortunately destroyed during World War II.

Thomaskirche (St Thomas Church), Leipzig © LTM/PUNCTUM
Thomaskirche (St Thomas Church), Leipzig
© LTM/PUNCTUM

6 Among baroque aficionados, Utrecht is akin to a pilgrimage site for 10 days in late August and early September, when Europeʼs largest early music festival convenes the continentʼs finest period performers for sophisticated explorations of a thematic repertoire. Somehow the organizers manage to squeeze in up to 200 concerts every year, including a “Fringe” segment spotlighting young talent, along with lectures, exhibitions, workshops, a competition and symposium.

The festival is sponsored by Organisatie Oude Muziek, formed in 1982 with a relatively narrow portfolio which has since expanded to additional programming that runs from February through June, with some concerts staged in other Dutch cities and historic sites like the Huis Bergh castle in ʼs-Heerenberg. The principal venue in Utrecht is the TivoliVredenburg, a modern music complex that opened in 2014. Short on atmosphere but brilliant in design, it offers five halls designed to accommodate a variety of music genres and acoustics. Festival concerts are also held at historic churches and public spaces throughout the city.

The most prominent and impressive buildings in Utretcht are not baroque, partly because the best architect the city produced during that period,  Tielman van Gameren, spent almost his entire career in Poland, designing more than 70 buildings for the aristocracy. Instead, the baroque style flourished in a school of painting known as “Utrecht Caravaggism.” The cityʼs Centraal Museum has works by two of its most prominent practitioners, Hendrick ter Brugghen and Gerrit van Honthorst. Later this year the museum is planning a special exhibition devoted to them and other Dutch followers of Caravaggio.

Utrecht Early Music Festival 2017 © Foppe Schut
Utrecht Early Music Festival 2017
© Foppe Schut

 7 The Valletta International Baroque Festival on the island of Malta is young – this yearʼs edition, which ran for two weeks in January, was just its sixth. But the site, a walled baroque city that has not changed much since the 17th century, is sensational. And the festival has had no problem attracting star soloists like Jordi Savall and veteran early music groups like Concerto Köln and the Huelgas Ensemble. For baroque fans, the prospect of a warm escape in the winter to hear mainstays of the repertoire in lush historical settings has quickly proved irresistible.

The historic venues include several resplendent churches; Verdala Palace, the royal summer residence; the outrageously ornate St. Johnʼs Co-Cathedral, whose floor is paved with the marble gravestones of 400 knights; and the opulently restored Teatru Manoel, which opened in 1732. This year the festival also ventured out to Mdina, a neighboring walled city, where the Maltese architect Lorenzo Gafà oversaw the rebuilding of St. Paulʼs Cathedral in baroque style after the original was destroyed by a 1693 earthquake.

Rather than seeking out specific buildings, the best way to soak up the baroque atmosphere in Valletta is simply to walk the streets and take in the grand palaces, gardens and churches that prompted aristocrats to nickname the city superbissima (most proud). The centuries have not dimmed its appeal. Valletta has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980, and was named a European Capital of Culture for 2018.

St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta © David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd
St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta
© David Karlin | Bachtrack Ltd

8 No country keeps the baroque flame burning more brightly than France, and no city in France – or for that matter, anywhere in Europe – offers a more extravagant combination of history and music than Versailles. Louis XIVʼs dazzling château and magnificent gardens may represent one of the worldʼs greatest exercises in excess, but fortunately the Sun King was also an enthusiastic supporter of the arts. He liked to dance in ballets staged at Versailles, and brought the greatest French composers and playwrights of the era to work there.

This legacy is carried on today by The Centre de musique baroque de Versailles, an organization devoted to researching, promoting and performing the music created there. Baroque concerts are given in the Royal Chapel from November through June, some featuring a period choir trained in a special school. The organization also sponsors projects like Vingt-quatre Violons du roi (the kingʼs 24 violins), an authentic re-creation of a string ensemble that was the premier orchestra at Versailles for nearly 30 years. Period dance and opera are also on the Versailles calendar.

As for what to see, the only question is where to start. In addition to the main palace, with its grand apartments, salons, galleries and the incomparable Hall of Mirrors, there are more than 800 hectares of gardens, fountains and statuary to explore. And the Palaces of Trianon on an adjoining estate are an attraction in themselves.

Opéra Royal, Château de Versailles © Agathe Poupeney
Opéra Royal, Château de Versailles
© Agathe Poupeney

9 Any serious exploration of the roots of baroque inevitably leads to Venice, where Claudio Monteverdi laid the foundation for modern opera, continuing work he had started in Mantua. During the 30 years he spent in Venice, Monteverdi also revolutionized sacred music, principally at the Basilica of San Marco, where he was maestro di capella. The Basilica is a good place to start retracing his steps and career, a tour that would include the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where his music was often performed, and Basilica dei Frari, where he is entombed. Teatro La Fenice, where many of his operas were performed, is still in operation and runs a full schedule of operas and concerts.

The cityʼs other favorite musical son is Antonio Vivaldi, who was born and trained there, then spent 30 years as maestro di violino at the Ospedale della Pietà music school and orphanage. (The building is now the Metropole, a luxury hotel.) Along with writing brilliant instrumental works like The Four Seasons, Vivaldi was also a prolific opera composer; late in his life he claimed to have written 94 of them. Unfortunately the primary venue where they were performed, the Teatro San Angelo, no longer exists. But his work thrives at the Italian Antonio Vivaldi Institute, which publishes critical editions of his scores and sponsors conferences, master classes and occasional performances.

In Venice concert halls and churches, the baroque tradition is kept fresh and vital by period ensembles like Interpreti Venziani and the Venice Baroque Orchestra. And every summer the Venetian Centre for Baroque Music stages a festival that focuses on overlooked works by Monteverdi and Vivaldi. Architecturally the city is a baroque feast, exemplified by stunning buildings like the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Caʼ Pesaro and Chiesa dellʼOspedaletto (Church of the Ospedaletto).

Santa Maria della Salute, Venice © Jakub Hałun | Wikimedia Commons | GFDL
Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
© Jakub Hałun | Wikimedia Commons | GFDL

10 Returning to the present is pleasant and easy in Antwerp, where AMUZ, a music organization devoted to historically informed performances, has converted a baroque church into a modern concert hall. Thanks to a sensitive restoration, the interior of St. Augustine looks much as it did when it was first built. But subtle alterations, like drapes that can be pulled across windows, shut out the noise of the city and provide optimal acoustics. Climate controls help preserve the instruments as well as altarpieces painted by Rubens, Jordaens and Van Dyck. With annexes remodeled to accommodate artistsʼ residences and the AMUZ offices, St. Augustine seamlessly combines baroque sights and sounds with all the features and functions of a contemporary music center.

AMUZ runs a full season of mostly early music concerts from July through April, and stages an annual summer festival, Laus Polyphoniae. The festival marks its 25th anniversary this year with a program of pre-1618 music (think Greogorian chants and polyphony) designed as a prelude to an ambitious baroque schedule in the fall. This is part of a larger project called “Antwerp Baroque 2018. Rubens Inspires,” a celebration of the cityʼs baroque riches and heritage that will include art exhibitions, concerts, theater performances, guided walking tours and a special focus on Peter Paul Rubens, who along with being one of the most influential baroque painters in Europe was also an accomplished sculptor and architect. Among the buildings he designed was Rubenshuis, the villa where he lived and worked, which is now a museum.

Some of the cityʼs other baroque architectural treasures are obvious – St. Charles Borromeo Church, the townhouse at No. 9 Keizerstraat. But many of its finest baroque decorations and furnishings are tucked away in Gothic churches like St. Paulʼs, St. Andrewʼs, St. Jamesʼs and St. Anneʼs Chapel. The interiors of the Museum Plantin-Moretus, Elisabeth Hospital and Cathedral of Our Lady also merit a visit. In Antwerp, baroque looks very much at home in the modern world.

Church of St Charles Borromeo, Antwerp © Visit Antwerpen
Church of St Charles Borromeo, Antwerp
© Visit Antwerpen