Due to their place in society, churches have long had the wealth and power to preserve history and fund creative, often extravagant works of art. While it can get repetitive to visit churches time and time again, there are some churches that stand head and shoulders above the rest. The best churches in the world are often the ones that not only have a history or legend to them but are also the most beautiful churches in the world and dazzle with their extraordinary beauty.
1. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
One of the world’s most famous churches is known just as much for being unfinished as it is for its incredible beauty. Construction of the Sagrada Familia started in 1882 and is incomplete to this day. The architect who designed it, Antoni Gaudí, died before his vision could be realized, but there are now plans to complete La Sagrada by 2026 on the centenary of his passing. Despite being unfinished, this modernist basilica is a dazzling sight, especially from the inside.
Ticket Info: Tickets to the Sagrada Familia often sell out weeks in advance, so make sure to buy your skip-the-line tickets here as soon as possible.
2. Notre-Dame de Paris, France
Widely agreed to be one of the most beautiful catholic churches in the world, the Notre Dame suffered serious damage to its roof when it caught fire in April 2019 and will remain closed for up to 5 years while it is fully restored. Unfortunately, this means tourists will need to wait to admire this cathedral, which was finished in 1345, and to see its rose windows and vaulted ceiling. You can still view the medieval Cathedral from the outside though, and appreciate its iconic front facade – home to the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
3. Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Probably better known as the Florence Duomo, this majestic landmark dominates Florence’s skyline. The Santa Maria del Fiore took 140 years to finish and together with the neighboring Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile is a major part of Florence’s Renaissance history. The multi-colored marble that adorn its exterior contrasts powerfully with the large brick dome on top. Walking into the cathedral’s vast interior immediately establishes its importance, while the views from the cathedral dome and Giotto’s Campanile are the cherry on top of the whole experience.
4. St. John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta
St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta showcase the importance of Christianity to the country of Malta. From the outside, this 16th century cathedral may not look like much, but take a peek inside and you’re in for a real surprise. The cathedral was renovated in the 17th century and has an opulent Baroque decor, no surface is free from fresco, marble, or gold. St. John’s Co-Cathedral also houses two works of art by famed Italian painter Caravaggio, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing.
5. St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
Eastern Europe is no stranger to magnificent churches, and St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow is one of the most colorful and prominent churches in the world. Since being confiscated during the Soviet Union’s anti-theist campaign, the cathedral is no longer active, but it was for centuries an incredibly valued part of the Russian Orthodox religion. It’s exterior resembles a bonfire, while inside it is every bit as vivid and overwhelming with murals and icons covering every square inch.
6. St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
The largest church in the world is of course also one of the most beautiful. St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is the epicentre of Catholicism. The basilica is said to be the burial site of St. Peter, the favored apostle of Christ and so naturally has become quite a pilgrimage destination for devout Catholics. There have been churches on this very spot since the 4th century, however the basilica now standing dates back only to 1626. While already a wonderful sight from St. Peter’s Square, the cavernous interior and its elaborate decorations are the true highlight of the basilica.
Ticket Info: Although there is no entrance fee for the St. Peter’s Basilica, you may want to consider purchasing a reserved entrance slot here, as lines can be up to 1-2 hours long.
7. Duomo di Milano, Milan, Italy
Italy is home to countless major churches and cathedrals, but the Duomo in Milan is the largest church in the country. Also known as the Milan Cathedral, the Duomo is a gigantic Gothic masterpiece that took nearly six centuries to complete. Given that it’s the third largest church in the world, based on area, that’s hardly a surprise. Covered in incredible detail, you can actually see the overly ornate spires and pinnacles of the Duomo up close when visiting the roof. Inside you’ll find even more splendor with the elegantly tiled floor.
Ticket Info: Ticket lines can get quite long and it may be worth it to buy your skip-the-line ticket in advance here.
8. St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest, Hungary
Budapest is full of grand landmarks, and one of its most impressive is St. Stephen’s Basilica in the center of the city. This basilica has strong ties to Hungary’s culture and history as it is home to the hand of St. Stephen, the patron saint of Hungary. It may not be the oldest building, having been completed in 1905, but it makes up for that with its stately appearance inside and out. The building’s neoclassical facade gives it a real sense of authority and presence, while the interior is quite lavish thanks to the gilded altar and stunning cupola above.
9. Catedral Basílica Del Pilar, Zaragoza, Spain
The Catedral Basílica Del Pilar in Zaragoza is said to possibly be the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. That’s because, according to legend, the Virgin Mary appeared to St. James on this very spot and gave him a column of jasper and instructed him to build a church in her honor. Afterwards, chapels were built around the pillar, then churches, and finally the basilica seen today. While the stories about the basilica are fascinating, the cathedral is also an incredible sight. The exterior with four towers and a playful tiled roof are designed in a regional Mudejar style, while the immense halls inside are richly decorated in a Baroque manner.
10. Kölner Dom, Cologne, Germany
Did you know that the most popular tourist attraction in Germany isn’t found in Berlin or Munich, but actually in the city of Cologne? The most popular landmark in the country is actually the striking Gothic behemoth – Kölner Dom. Not only is it an iconic symbol of Cologne and a World Heritage Site, but it is also the tallest cathedral in the world and the second tallest church in Europe. Besides appreciating the towering spires and elegant main entrance of the pride of Cologne, be sure to head inside to see how spacious the high ceilings make it feel.
11. Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Among this list of churches, cathedrals, and basilicas, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul is the only building to have also been used as a mosque. In fact, the Hagia Sophia hasn’t been an active church for well-over 500 years and yet much of its Christian elements still remain. Finished in 537, the Hagia Sophia was a Christian place of worship for close to 1,000 years before its conversion, and was for a long time the world’s largest cathedral. Now a museum, you can see restored frescoes and mosaics that date from its time as a Byzantine Cathedral.
12. St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna, Austria
At the very heart of the Austrian capital you’ll find the gorgeous Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The church’s tower is a beacon for those trying to find their way in the city. The roof of the cathedral is covered in marvellous patterns made by multi-colored tiles, while the front of the building showcases its Romanesque origins. St. Stephen’s dates back to 1147 and is considered the most important Catholic landmark in the city.
13. Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik, Iceland
For a church with a unique style, look no further than the Hallgrimskirkja of Reykjavik. This modern church, which was finished in 1986, sits on a hilltop overlooking the Icelandic capital. The shape of the church is said to have been inspired by elements of Iceland’s landscape such as the stacks of basalt rock seen along the coast. Inside this Lutheran church you’ll find a sleek, minimalist interior, as well as an elevator that takes you up the central tower for views of the city and surrounding landscape.
14. St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czechia
Prague is a city known for its spellbinding views, and one of its best is the view looking up to the magnificent St. Vitus Cathedral which sits within Prague Castle. Watching over the Czech capital, St. Vitus Cathedral is not only a superb 14th century Gothic landmark but also a truly important one. Walking around the outside you can admire its ornate Gothic facade, while inside you’ll be struck by the vibrant stained glass windows. It’s in the St. Wenceslas Chapel however, where you’ll find the tomb of St. Wenceslas, one of Czechia’s primary patron saints.
15. Chapel Of The Holy Cross, Arizona, USA
Of all the places you may expect to see a church chapel, poking out of the side of a red rock cliff in the Arizona desert is probably not on the list. And yet, that’s where you’ll find the incredibly distinctive Chapel Of The Holy Cross outside Sedona. Created by Marguerite Brunswig Staude and completed in 1957, this modern church has an angular, rigid appearance which makes it stand out against the rugged landscape. It’s most notable feature is the 27 meter high cross that sits in front of colored glass at its southwestern end. While its exterior contrasts with the rocky landscape, the interior feels much more at home among the sandstone rocks.
16. St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, Bulgaria
Although they don’t feature heavily in this list, the Balkans have their fair share of magnificent churches and cathedrals, with the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia being a prime example. Boasting a Neo-Byzantine style and eye-catching gold-plated domes, this gleaming cathedral is understandably one of the most precious attractions in the Bulgarian capital. Completed in 1912, the St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral is one of the largest Eastern Orthodox cathedrals in the world and features a powerfully lavish interior of mosaics and murals to match its gilded exterior.
17. Westminster Abbey, London, UK
If you want to see a church fit for a king or queen, Westminster Abbey in the heart of London definitely fits the bill. This outstanding abbey church is where British Monarchs have been coronated for centuries and for a time was also where they were buried. The building that stands here today, by the Palace of Westminster, was built in 1065 and has had strong ties with the British Royal Family for just as long. There’s plenty to see inside this Gothic marvel, but many find the memorials and tombs to be the most interesting element of a visit here. Along with past royals, many poets and writers including Chaucer, Dickens, and TS Eliot, have been buried or memorialized inside the section of the church now known as Poet’s Corner.
Ticket Info: Skip the lines and buy your ticket to the Westminster Abbey here today.
18. Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey, France
Many will immediately recognize the sight of the Mont-Saint-Michel Abbey sitting on its island just off the coast of France, accessible by a tiny causeway. The city of Mont-Saint-Michel dominates the small island that it occupies, with the abbey the pinnacle above it all. Even from hundreds of meters away, the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel is an awe-inspiring sight and genuinely looks like something too unbelievable to exist. And yet, exist it has since construction started on it in the 10th century. Don’t just admire it from afar though, get up close and be transported back to the Middle Ages as you walk through the halls of the abbey.
19. Borgund Stave Church, Borgund, Norway
Because wood is far less suited to the tests of time than stone, there aren’t many ancient wooden churches left standing today. That’s partly what makes the Borgund Stave Church in Norway so special. Looking like it belongs in Frozen, this stunning medieval wooden church was built in 1250 and is one of the best preserved churches of its type in Europe. While it may not seem as elaborate up close as some stone churches, there are four dragon heads carved into the gables of the roof and carvings around archways inside. All of it gives the Borgund Stave Church a design of undeniable beauty.
20. Cathedral of Brasília, Brazil
While Christianity may have prospered in Europe, it also made its mark in South America, leading to the creation of modern landmarks like the Cathedral of Brasília. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer and finished in 1970, this cathedral is the epitome of modernist architecture. 16 concrete columns bend into the center of the cathedral, leaving space for a glass roof decorated with stained glass patterns. The interior is flooded with light thanks to all the glass, which makes for quite a first impression when entering the cathedral through a dark tunnel. There are even three angel sculptures suspended in the air, really making it a cathedral unlike any you’ve ever seen before.
21. Notre-Dame Basilica, Montreal, Canada
Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica is one of the many reasons to visit Canada. The basilica was finished in 1829 and designed in a Gothic Revival style. While the exterior is elegant, the true beauty of the Notre-Dame Basilica lies inside, where you’ll find a wonderfully vivid decor full of deep blues, reds, and gold. With a vaulted ceiling and hundreds of wood carvings within its halls, the basilica interior is a visual overload.
22. Church of the Transfiguration, Kizhi Island, Russia
The concept of the Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi Island is almost too strange to be real. Located in the rural countryside of western Russia on an island lake, stands a towering wooden church from the 18th century. This is the Church of the Transfiguration, said to have been built with a single axe and nails which were only used to fix the shingles to the roof. Across the roof of the church are 22 separate domes, giving the church an incredibly distinctive outline. The entire historical complex on Kizhi Island, which includes the church, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
23. Church of the Assumption, Lake Bled, Slovenia
Few churches around the world can claim as enchanting a location as the Church of the Assumption in the middle of Lake Bled. The church occupies a small island just large enough to fit it on the beautiful mountain lake near Slovenia’s Alps. Accessible by small, traditional wooden boats, a baroque staircase connects the island’s dock with the 17th century church. according to local superstition, visitors who ring the church bell three times are able to make a single wish come true. For the best views of the Church of the Assumption head to one of the viewpoints around the lake, such as Bled Castle.
24. Church of St. George, Lalibela, Ethiopia
There’s no doubt that the rock-hewn Church of St. George in Lalibela deserves its place on this list. This is a rare church which, rather than stretching into the sky above, actually digs down below ground level. The Church of St. George was carved out of the volcanic soil of Lalibela and stretches 12 meters down from the surface and has a clearing around it. Formed in the shape of a Greek cross, the church is believed to date from the early 13th century. The church is not alone either, with eleven rock churches in total found around Lalibela.
25. Wieskirche, Steingaden, Germany
Tucked away in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, the Wieskirche of Steingaden is not the kind of place tourists are likely to find themselves by accident. And yet, finding your way to Steingaden is worth it to see the wonderfully rich interior of the Wieskirche. This church was built during the mid-18th century in the rococo style, full of glamorous stuccowork and frescos. In fact, except for the expansive fresco across the ceiling, nearly the entire interior of this church is either white or gold which gives quite a glorious effect.
26. Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia
Right by the border between Colombia and Ecuador stands Las Lajas Sanctuary, one of the most incredible churches on the planet. This extravagant basilica was built inside a canyon on the Guáitara River after a local miracle in 1754 led to a series of shrines being erected there. It’s said that a deaf-mute girl named Rosa was cured of her impairment when the Virgin Mary appeared to her and her mother as they sought shelter in a storm. Soon enough, the site became a pilgrimage destination, and in 1949 this enchanting Gothic Revival basilica was finished. Las Lajas Sanctuary is at its most impressive when you can see how the church fits into the dramatic landscape, with its bridge crossing the precarious 50 meter drop down to the canyon floor.
27. Church Of The Nativity, Bethlehem
The city where Christ is said to have been born is also home to the monumental Church Of The Nativity in Bethlehem. One of the oldest churches in the world, the original church was ordered to be built in 326 by Constanine the Great on the grotto believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. What can be seen today belongs to the church rebuilt in the 6th century after a fire destroyed the original. As there is minimal light let in, the interior of the church has a sacred feel to it, featuring red limestone columns and restored sections of mosaics on the walls.
28. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, USA
Arguably one of the most beautiful churches in America is St. Patrick’s Cathedral. An iconic major attraction in a city full of attractions, the cathedral is located in Midtown Manhattan, opposite Rockefeller Center and the Atlas statue. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was finished in 1878 and was built in a grandiose Neo-Gothic style. The modern buildings that surround the cathedral somehow make it seem even more distinguished, while its wonderful interior is even more stunning.
29. St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy
St. Mark’s Basilica sits on the famous Piazza San Marco and is one of the best examples of Italian Byzantine architecture there is, and proof of Venice’s wealth and power. A huge amount of gold went into decorating the basilica during its construction in the 11th century, which earned it its nickname “the Church of Gold”. This is evidenced everywhere from the golden winged lion on the front facade of the church to the extensive golden mosaics that practically sheet the interior.
30. Sacré-Cœur, Paris, France
Watching over the city of Paris from the popular neighborhood of Montmartre, the Sacré-Cœur is the second most visited monument in the city. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Sacré-Cœur was built in 1914 as a Catholic place of worship. Its Byzantine architecture is quite unusual for Paris but its gleaming white stone makes it immediately memorable. Beyond its beautiful exterior, Sacré-Cœur’s is home to the world’s largest mosaic which covers the basilica’s apse.
Wow I’m surprised I’ve been to so many already.
Notre-Dame Paris, Santa Maria del Fiore, St. Peter’s, Hallgrimskirkja, Chapel Of The Holy Cross, Notre-Dame Montreal, St. Patrick’s, St. Mark’s and Sacre-Coeur.
9/30, hopefully I’ll get to see the others !