Spectacular, striking and downright strange: the world's most unusual buildings

24/02/2020 10:40

Written by Bradt Travel Guides

One of the joys of visiting another city is the chance to come across quirky, surprising and unexpected buildings – here's our pick of the best.

National Library, Prishtina

The National Library at the heart of the university campus in Kosovo's capital is one of the most architecturally interesting buildings in Prishtina, although not necessarily to everyone’s taste – a 2009 website classed it among the ten most ugly buildings in the world. According to urban legend, the head of the Communist Party asked one of his aides at the official inauguration ceremony why the scaffolding had not been taken down. 

National Library Prishtina Kosovo by Leonid Andronov, DreamstimeThe National Library is easily one of Kosovo's most interesting buildings © Leonid Andronov, Dreamstime

In the early 1970s, the decision was taken to construct a new National University Library of Kosovo. The actual construction was completed in 1981, with a six-year delay. There are in fact 99 small cupolas or domes to let natural light into the library, sometimes thought to be built to look like the traditional Albanian plis hat.

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Nur-Sultan

Palace of Peace and Reconciliation Pyramid Astana Kazakhstan By Maykova Galina ShutterstockThe pyramid was built to host the Congress of World and Traditional Religions © Maykova Galina, Shutterstock

Taking the form of a pyramid, as a structure with no denominational connotations, Nur-Sultan's Palace of Peace and Reconciliation makes for an impressive sight. On a 15m-high earth-covered mound the 62m pyramid rises up, constructed of a steel frame, its lower levels covered in granite. You enter from the east side of the structure, into the side of the mound. The first impression given on entering the pyramid is, like Doctor Who’s Tardis, one of much greater size inside than out. This is largely explained by the fact that the earth-covered mound is itself part of the structure.

Ryugyong Hotel, Pyongyang

Stabbing 330m high into the sky, the great unfinished Ryugyong Hotel can be seen from every viewpoint in the North Korean capital Pyongyang. It has been speculated that this 105-storey pyramid inspired the Shard in London. When construction started on what would be the world's tallest hotel in 1987, the plan was that it would be ready within two years, in time for the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in June 1989. However, dogged from day one by complications, many of which were down to overly complex design features such as diagonal lifts and not one but five revolving restaurants, the project slowly ground to a halt in 1992.

Pyongyang skyline Ryugyong Hotel Pyongyang North Korea by Viktoria Gaman, ShutterstockThe Ryugyong Hotel dominates the Pyongyang skyline © Viktoria Gaman, Shutterstock

Work on the Ryugyong resumed in 2008, with the revised plan that it would be ready for 2012, the 100th anniversary of Kim II Sung's birth. However, this grand-opening date came and went. Clad in glass but, as far as we know, essentially a hollow shell on the inside, little appeared to take place on the construction site for a few more years until 2017, 30 years after works started, when once more construction appeared to resume. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Ryugyong could finally be set to open its doors in the near future.

Atomium, Brussels

Atomium Brussels Belgium Flanders by bruno coelho, ShutterstockThe ultra-modern silver balls of the Atomium are modelled on an iron molecule © bruno coelho, Shutterstock

Towering over the Heysel Plateau, Belgium’s answer to the Eiffel Tower is a set of silver balls representing an iron molecule magnified 165 million times. Built for the 1958 World’s Fair, the 102m-high sculpture was never intended to be permanent but has become such a familiar fixture on the Brussels skyline that €27.5 million was raised to fund its renovation in 2006. It now includes an exhibition centre, classy restaurant and panoramic viewing station.

UFO Tower, Bratislava

UFO Tower Bratislava Most SNP Slovakia by DUOMEDIAThe UFO Tower is one of Bratislava's iconic sights © DUOMEDIA

Built in 1972, the UFO Tower is the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge that has one pylon and one cable-stayed span. The asymmetrical structure has a main span length of 303m, and the UFO-like spaceship hovering above the bridge houses a restaurant with observation deck which gives a magnificent view of the Slovakian capital from a height of 85m. The bridge and UFO Tower were declared 'Building of the Century' in Slovakia in 2001. 

Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík

The grey tower of Hallgrímskirkja defines the Reykjavík skyline in a most impressive way. At 74m high, this is Iceland’s tallest building and the city’s most prominent landmark – you can see the church from a good 25km away. Such totally unique architecture outweighs its very unique height. Indeed the church’s design has become a symbol of Reykjavík in its own right: an ancient theme that honours a past hero by invoking nature with modernism. The bold structure honours Hallgrímur Petursson, the country’s famous post-Reformation reverend and a man who authored so many classical Icelandic hymns.

Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland by VisitIcelandHallgrímskirkja is one of the tallest buildings in Iceland © VisitIceland

The distinct design was finalised in 1937, but construction only began after World War II in 1945. Made of reinforced concrete, the church’s tower was finished in 1974, and the entire structure only dedicated as part of the city’s bicentennial celebration in 1986. Like anything new and different, Hallgrímskirkja ruffled some feathers among the city’s conservative element, but nowadays, the church seems to serve as a universal source of pride and accomplishment for all of Reykjavík. It’s possible to climb to the top of this tower for an unforgettable panorama of the Icelandic capital.

National Library, Minsk

National Library Minsk Belarus by Kuprevich, ShutterstockThe National Library looks even more impressive at night © Kuprevich, Shutterstock 

Opened by the president himself on 16 June 2006, this most unusual building in Belarus's capital makes for a really eye-catching sight in all of its futuristic splendour. The correct term for its geometric shape is, apparently, a rhombicuboctahedron. Whatever the technicalities, it’s quite a sight. There is an indoor observation platform on the 22nd floor and it’s also possible to venture outside although, at 73m above the ground, you will need a head for heights. It’s well worth it, because the views over Minsk by night and by day are unsurpassed. 

The Blue Church, Bratislava

Blue Church, Bratislava, Slovakia by saiko3p, ShutterstockThe Blue Church is often said to look like it is covered in cake icing © saiko3p, Shutterstock

Although formally called the Church of St Elizabeth, this Art Nouveau building in Slovakia's capital takes its name from the little ceramic tiles that cover its concrete edifice. With its light blue 'icing' and decorative elements, this architectural masterpiece is considered the most beautiful church in Bratislava

Khan Shatyr, Nur-Sultan

At 150m-high, the Khan Shatyr is the world’s largest tent, designed by British architect Norman Foster. Although from the outside the tent appears to be leaning precariously, on the inside you can clearly see the intricate and surprisingly attractive latticework of steel that supports much of the structure’s weight. This view is not unlike the inside of a beehive, and the precision with which each glazed panel interconnects with the next is striking.

Khan Shatyr weird building Astana Kazakhstan by freedarst, ShutterstockKhan Shatyr is the largest tent in the world © freedarst, Shutterstock

The complex is maintained at 24°C year round and includes a waterpark, indoor canals with gondolas, a mini golf course, a miniature train, designer label boutiques, a cinema and spa, restaurants, apartments and a large central performance space.

Guggenheim, Bilbao

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Basque Country, Spain by Noradoa, ShutterstockBilbao has seen the 'Guggenheim effect' © Noradoa, Shutterstock

So much has been written about the unique building that single-handedly put Bilbao on to the tourist map. Bilbao and its surroundings in the Basque Country suffered in the 1980s as part of a global industrial decline, exacerbated by regional factors, but it has since sought to reinvent itself as a service economy. The ‘Guggenheim effect’ is held up as the flagship project in this process. The fact that this space-age museum was built on the site of a brick factory only emphasises how it wrested the city from its industrial past and placed it, almost prematurely, into the 21st century when it opened in October 1997. The ‘botxo’ – the ‘hole’, as then-polluted Bilbao was once called – is no more. 

Rathaus, Basel

Rathaus Basel Switzerland by Michael Will, Basel TourismThe 16th-century Rathaus is one of the most remarkable buildings in Basel © Michael Will, Basel Tourism 

The sienna-coloured Rathaus dominates Basel's Marktplatz. The three-storey central section with clock was built between 1503 and 1507, the left-hand part with oriel window from 1606 to 1608 and the tower from 1898 to 1904. Its courtyard is decorated by frescoes executed in 1608 by Hans Bock.

Ferenc Raichle mansion, Subotica

Ferenc Raichle House Subotica Serbia by Mikhail Markovskiy, ShutterstockFerenc Raichle mansion is Serbia's most striking example of Art Nouveau architecture © Mikhail Markovskiy, Shutterstock

In this Serbian city that is rich in Art Nouveau architecture, this is the most striking example. Although it seems like it came straight from the sketch pad of Gaudí, it is, in fact, the work of the eponymous Ferenc Raichle, the creative mind behind several other buildings around Subotica. Originally designed as a dwelling house, it has now found new life as a gallery of contemporary art.

Inspired to take a trip? Get 10% off our guides:

The Basque Country and Navarre the Bradt Guide Belarus the Bradt Guide by Nigel Roberts Bratislava 4th edition cover Iceland, The Bradt Travel Guide by Andrew Evans  

Kosovo the Bradt Guide North Korea the Bradt Guide by Henry Marr Northern Belgium: the Bradt Guide Serbia the Bradt Travel guide by Laurence Mitchell Switzerland A guide to exploring the country by public transport by Anthony Lambert 

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