As they are designed and built to hold religious services and invoke and inspire the worship of God, churches have long counted amongst society’s most important and impressive buildings. This is because religious leaders built large churches with spires reaching towards the heavens, and monumental facades covered in scenes from the bible to convey the majesty and power of God.
Over the centuries and millennia, aesthetics slowly changed: Romanesque and Gothic architecture gave way to Renaissance and Baroque features. The glittering treasures and divine artworks within their chapels and naves also changed with the times. Nowadays, these beautiful churches make for some of the most important architectural and historical landmarks around, with millions of worshippers and tourists visiting them every year.
17. Our Lady of the Rocks
Lying on a small islet in the Bay of Kotor with gorgeous mountains rising all around it, Our Lady of the Rocks really is set in a stunning spot. Legend has it that the artificial island was slowly formed over the centuries by seamen throwing rocks into the bay in thanks to the Madonna for their safe return.
While the church and its lovely location make for some wonderful photos, its interior is no less special. This is because the walls are covered with beautiful paintings by the 17th-century baroque artist Tripo Kokolja, with The Death of the Virgin being his most famous.
16. Mont St. Michel Abbey
Perched atop a tidal island that lies just off Normandy in the northwest of France, Mont St. Michel Abbey makes for one of the most arresting sights imaginable. The massive abbey with its charming chapels and cloisters lies above the cluttered historic buildings and halls of the town that tumble down the hillside.
This is because the feudal society placed the abbey – and therefore God – above all else. While monks and a monastery have been welcoming pilgrims to the mount since at least the 9th century, much of the abbey and its delightful Romanesque church were only completed in 1523. Nowadays, however, it is primarily Mont St. Michel’s spectacular setting and astounding historical sights that draw visitors to the abbey.
15. Chapel of the Holy Cross
Built into the side of a rocky red hill in the Arizona desert, the Chapel of the Holy Cross looks out imperiously over its surroundings from its prominent viewpoint. Located just a short drive from Sedona, the church was built in 1957.
Its simple design and the materials used were modeled on the Empire State Building, which was erected in New York in 1931. The modern church’s angular shape and colored windows make it stand out delightfully against the sandstone rocks, with its defining feature being its 27-meter-high iron cross that overlooks the valley.
14. Borgund Stave Church
Nestled in a verdant valley in Norway, Borgund Stave Church looks as if it has stood in the same spot since time immemorial. Made out of wooden staves, the triple-nave church is topped by rickety roofs with carved dragon heads guarding the gables, all of which lends it a very Viking-like look and feel. Built sometime between 1180 and 1250, the well-preserved medieval church is now a popular museum and tourist attraction.
13. Gergeti Trinity Church
Set in a serene and secluded spot in the Caucasus, with Mount Kazbek towering over it, Gergeti Trinity Church is one of Georgia’s most revered and renowned landmarks. Located atop of a 2,170-metre-high mountain, the church boasts breathtaking views, with marvelous mountains all around it and the glimmering Chkheri river below.
To reach the church, which was built all the way back in the 14th century, visitors can either hike up the steep mountainside or drive to the summit. Due to its isolated setting and the outstanding beauty on show, Gergeti Trinity Church is a photographer’s dream.
12. San Andrés Xecul Church
With its bright facade and vivid colors, San Andrés Xecul Church in the Western Highlands of Guatemala certainly threatens to overwhelm the senses. Dotted across its outside walls are over two hundred painted figures and sculptures, with angels and jaguars lying alongside images of fruit, corn, and birds. These agricultural scenes reflect the importance of nature and the local Mayan people’s connection to their land. Built in 1900, the Baroque church showcases a fascinating mix of local and colonial influences and is very unique in terms of its aesthetics.
11. La Sagrada Família
Another church that is sure to be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before is La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Designed by the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, work began on the beautiful basilica in 1882. Remarkably, it is still ongoing to this day. While the outside, with its ornate facades and towering spires, almost looks like a gigantic sandcastle, its interior is bathed in colors and light, which floods in through its delightful stained glass windows.
In addition to this, enormous columns reminiscent of trees prop up the church, while gorgeous geometric designs can be found wherever you look. One of the most innovative and inspired buildings on Earth, La Sagrada Familia is a work of art like no other.
10. Church of St. George
Built by King Lalibela to be the ‘New Jerusalem,’ Lalibela, in the Ethiopian highlands, is home to eleven incredible monolithic churches. These were hewn from the top down into living rock, between the 7th and 13th centuries, with an intricate series of tunnels and passages connecting them.
Of these, the Church of St. George is undoubtedly the most important and impressive of the lot as it is so finely carved out of the mountainside. Set in the shape of a Greek cross, the church reaches a height of 12 meters, with amazing artworks found within its atmospheric interior. To this day, the church and Lalibela still act as an important pilgrimage site and are one of the highlights of any visit to Ethiopia.
9. Las Lajas Sanctuary
Hidden in a canyon on the Guaitara River in Colombia, Las Lajas Sanctuary’s gorgeous Gothic Revival style architecture certainly makes for a magical sight. Built between 1916 and 1949, the spectacular sanctuary lies on a 130-foot-high bridge that spans the river, with a beautiful waterfall twinkling beside it.
Located not far from the Ecuadorian border, the church was founded following a miraculous sighting of the Virgin Mary and is now one of Colombia’s most popular pilgrimage sites.
One of the most famous and recognizable landmarks in Paris, Sacré-Coeur boasts breathtaking views out over the city from its prominent setting atop of Montmartre. The gleaming white basilica was built in 1914 and features some exquisite Byzantine architecture, with two cupolas flanking a mighty dome.
As it is an important national monument, two equestrian statues of Joan of Arc and Louis IX, both of whom are French saints, can be found lying above its arched entrance. Inside is just as magnificent; one of the world’s largest mosaics coats its cavernous dome. Now a popular tourist attraction, millions of people visit Sacré-Coeur every year.
7. Mezquita of Cordoba
As the name indicates, the marvelous Mezquita of Cordoba was a mosque for a large part of its history. In 784, the Muslim rulers of Cordoba built a majestic mosque atop of what was a small Visigoth church, erecting a multitude of columns and arches. Coating the interiors were magnificent mosaics and ceramic tiles.
Following the Reconquista, the mosque was converted into a Catholic church, and its minaret was turned into a belltower. In addition to this, a Renaissance cathedral nave was placed in the middle of the complex. A sanctuary and home for both faiths over the centuries, Mezquita of Cordoba is widely regarded as one of the most arresting examples of Moorish architecture around.
6. Church of the Assumption, Lake Bled
Set in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable, the Church of the Assumption lies on a small island in the center of Lake Bled, with the Julian Alps towering behind it. Built towards the end of the 17th century, the lovely little Gothic church is decorated with fine frescoes, and can only be reached by taking a boat trip across the lake.
The church’s white spire looks even more majestic reflected in the glittering waters of the lake, with trees rising all around it. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Slovenia, the church and lake certainly make for some fantastic photos.
5. Duomo di Milano
Boasting an incredibly ornate and intricately designed facade, the Duomo di Milano took almost six centuries to complete. One of the largest churches in the world, the massive Gothic masterpiece exhibits lots of fabulous spires and arches, while elegant flying buttresses line its naves.
A huge number of splendid sculptures dot both its exterior and interior, with the statue of Saint Bartholomew and Pellegrini’s divine altars counting amongst its most monumental artworks. With the baptistery below its floors dating back to the year 335, the Duomo di Milano is one of the most important architectural, cultural, and historical monuments in Italy.
4. Hagia Sophia
One of the most impressive and iconic landmarks in Istanbul, the gorgeous Hagia Sophia is widely considered to be the pinnacle of Byzantine architecture. Built all the way back in 537 AD by emperor Justinian I, the Orthodox cathedral was later converted into an imperial mosque by the Ottomans. Once the largest building in the world, Hagia Sophia sports an enormous dome flanked by four slender minarets.
Now a popular museum, its cavernous interior boasts lots of exquisite columns and arches, with fantastic frescoes and mosaics on display. Lying on the banks of the Bosphorus, just a stone’s throw away from the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia is not to be missed out on when in Istanbul.
Hallgrímskirkja’s distinctive design is believed to mimic the mountains, glaciers, and basalt columns found dotted around Iceland’s glorious landscapes. Towering to 74.5 meters, it is one of the tallest structures in the country and looks out over Reykjavik from the hilltop it lies upon.
Built between 1945 and 1986, the modern church is named after the Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson, while a striking statue of the explorer Leif Erikson can be found in front of it. One of the Icelandic capital’s main attractions, Hallgrimskirkja also has stunning panoramic views from its tower for visitors to enjoy.
2. St. Basil’s Cathedral
One of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, St. Basil’s Cathedral really does look like it has just emerged out of a book of children’s fairytales. Built in 1561 at Ivan the Terrible’s command, the beautiful building with its enchanting spires and colorful onion domes dominates and defines Red Square in the heart of Moscow.
Consisting of 10 different churches connected together, St Basil’s proudly showcases lots of unique and unusual architecture, with bright colors and swirling patterns wherever you look. Although it is famed for its distinctive appearance, inside is just as magical as icons and murals cover every surface. Secularised in 1929 by the Soviets, who actually considered demolishing it, St. Basil’s Cathedral is now an important symbol of the country.
1. St. Peter’s Basilica
As Vatican City is home to the pope and is the seat of the Catholic church, it only stands to reason that it also boasts the largest church in the world: St. Peter’s Basilica. Commissioned by Pope Julius II to be the grandest building in Christendom, the basilica was built between 1506 and 1626, with legendary figures such as Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo all contributing.
Named after the venerated saint whose tomb lies within, the spectacular Renaissance style basilica proudly exhibits a colossal facade and dome, with the colonnade-lined St. Peter’s Square leading up to it. Covered in marble, its floors stretch endlessly away before you, with breathtaking statues, centuries-old artworks, and glittering treasures all on display. Undoubtedly one of the most beautiful churches in the world, St. Peter’s Basilica is an architectural masterpiece with incredible artworks for you to enjoy.