12 famous churches around the world that tourists should visit

Las Lajas Shrine in Ipiales, Colombia. — DIEGO DELSO/Wikimedia Commons

Some of the most famous churches and cathedrals around the world are not just houses of worship, but also buildings that hold priceless works of art like paintings, murals, sculptures and mosaics.

Many also have historical significance, while some played important roles during global conflicts by offering shelter to the wounded and displaced.

Often, too, churches and cathedrals offer beautiful vistas from their rooftops or bell tower, so don’t be afraid of climbing up the steep steps if you ever visit one.

We’ve listed 12 churches around the world – where history, art, faith and culture come alive – that are worth checking out.

(Narino, Colombia)

Officially, its name is the National Shrine Basilica of Our Lady of Las Lajas, but it is more known locally and among parishioners as the Las Lajas Shrine.

This is one of the more unusual cathedrals in the world as it was built inside a canyon and stands over the Guaitara River gorge in Narino, south of Colombia.

Its humble beginnings as a shrine trace back to the 1700s, when sightings of a Marian apparition were reported. In 1916, construction of a bigger, sturdier structure began; it is said that construction work for this Gothic-style church took over 30 years to complete!

(Valencia, Spain)

Built in the 13th century, this cathedral houses a bejewelled chalice that is believed to be the Holy Grail (said to be used in the Last Supper).

In fact, this is one of the main reasons why this cathedral receives so many pilgrims and curious tourists from all over the world each year.

If you ever visit this place, make sure to look up at the ceiling where you will see a gorgeous painting, and climb up the bell tower known as El Miguelete, to see sweeping views of the city of Valencia.

(Palma de Mallorca, Spain)

La Seu was built on the shores of Spain’s Palma Bay in the 14th century. It is one of the tallest gothic structures in Europe, and one of Mallorca’s most popular tourist attractions.

Also known as the Cathedral of Light, La Seu features 61 stained glass windows, which, as you can probably imagine, looks spectacular in the mornings when the sunlight hits the building.

A part of the cathedral was badly damaged during an earthquake in 1851, after which it underwent some changes at the hands of famous Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi.

One of the changes was the addition of a giant illuminated canopy that hangs over the altar. This canopy was actually created by one of Gaudi’s students, but somehow people always attribute it to the architect himself.

When you’re done checking out La Seu, take a walk around the narrow streets that form the gothic quarter of Palma to discover more cool architecture and the local culture.

La Seu in Mallorca, Spain. — THOMAS WOLF/Wikimedia Commons La Seu in Mallorca, Spain. — THOMAS WOLF/Wikimedia Commons

(Florence, Italy)

This is the third largest church in the world, after St Peter’s in Rome, Italy and St Paul’s in London, England. In fact, upon its completion in the 15th century (construction began in the late 14th century), it was actually the largest in the world for a while.

It measures 153m long, 90m wide, and 90m high. It has a distinctive red roof, designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, and inside you can see beautiful marbles in pink, white and green hues.

Look for these gems when you’re there: An amazing fresco of the Last Judgment by Italian Renaissance painter Giorgio Vasari, and the clock above the entrance that was made in 1443 and still works perfectly today.

(Barcelona, Spain)

Another one of Gaudí’s masterpieces, La Sagrada Familia is probably Spain’s most visited attraction, and it is not even completed. Gaudi himself was not able to finish the work (construction work began in the late 1880s; he died in 1926), but over the century and decades, many had tried to continue his legacy.

Today, there is a dedicated team of architects and builders who are working on the project. Although unfinished, La Sagada Familia does hold Sunday mass every week and all Catholic worshippers are welcome to attend.

You can also buy tickets (money collected will be used to fund the construction work) to tour one of the towers – don’t worry, you don’t have to climb the steps here, as there is a lift for visitors.

(Mykonos, Greece)

At the entrance of the Mykonos island in Greece, lies the Kastro neighbourhood. Here, you will find a cluster of five small white chapels called the Panagia Paraportiani (aptly, “our lady of the side gate”), built in the 16th century.

This church is not really open to the public, but you can still appreciate its special Cycladean architecture from the outside. Plus, the backdrop of cerulean blue ocean and skies makes this place a great spot to take pictures.

(Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

At 75m high, the Metropolitan Cathedral looks out of this world. No, really. The building, designed by architect Edgar de Fonseca in the 1970s, has a conical shape which may look like a space rocket, especially if you’re just seeing pictures of it.

The design is actually based on the Mayan pyramids and if you ever get to see the cathedral in real life, you will discover just how phenomenal the building is. Undoubtedly, this is one Brazil’s most famous landmarks.

Metropolitan Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. — CYRO A. SILVA/Wikimeda Commons Metropolitan Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. — CYRO A. SILVA/Wikimeda Commons

(Reykjavik, Iceland)

Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland. — Someone35/Wikimedia Commons Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland. — Someone35/Wikimedia CommonsDesigned by Gudjon Samuelsson in 1937 and completed in 1986, the Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik is a modern church that features a stepped concrete facade.

This is a representation of the basalt columns around the Svartifoss waterfall, and a reminder of the lava flows that can be found in Iceland.

The 75m-tall church is named after the 17th-century author of the song Hymns Of The Passion, Hallgrimur Petursson.

A visit to the top of the church will reward you with breathtaking views of the city, as well as the Snaefellsjokull glacier, if the weather is on your side.

Sometimes, the church hosts classical music concerts as the acoustics in the building is excellent.

(Borgund, Norway)

One of the oldest structures on this list, the Borgund Stave Church was built around 1180. A stave church is a wooden structure defined by their corners and timbre frames.

Today, this building is no longer used as a house of worship but rather a visitors’ centre on Norwegian stave churches. Here you can get information on the history of stave churches in Norway, as well as the remaining structures that you can visit around the country.

Borgund Stave Church in Borgund, Norway. — Zoetnet/Wikimedia CommonsBorgund Stave Church in Borgund, Norway. — Zoetnet/Wikimedia Commons

(Cologne, Germany)

St Peter’s Cathedral in Cologne, Germany. — MELODY L. GOH/The StarSt Peter’s Cathedral in Cologne, Germany. — MELODY L. GOH/The StarThe twin-towered St Peter’s Cathedral ( also known as the Cologne Cathedral), located near the Rhine river in Cologne, Germany, is a Unesco World Heritage Site (inscribed in 1996) and stands at 157m.

An older cathedral initially stood on the same site, but was completely destroyed by fire in 1248. Shortly after that unfortunate incident, work on a new structure began but then stopped sometime in mid-1600s.

The project remained untouched for centuries, with a wooden crane left standing 56m above ground, at the top of the south tower. In the 1790s, it is said that troops of the French Revolution used the unfinished cathedral as a base, even turning it into a barn.

Finally, in the 1820s, restoration work began, initiated by Sulpiz Boisseree, a German advocate of the Gothic Revival movement. In 1842, King Ferderick William IV of Prussia put his support behind the project and proper construction of the cathedral finally took off. The building was completed in 1880 and it has been a functioning church ever since, but today, a big part of it is undergoing restoration work so you may not be able to see every nook and cranny of the place.

(Kizhi Island, Russia)

Church Of The Transfiguration, Russia. — MELODY L. GOH/The StarChurch Of The Transfiguration, Russia. — MELODY L. GOH/The StarOn a good month, there are probably around 20 people living on Kizhi Island. Located on Lake Onega in the Karelia republic of Russia, the remote island can get very cold at times, making it a less-than-ideal place to live in.

But those who do stay there throughout the year have plenty of stories to tell the steady stream of tourists who head there to visit the fascinating Church Of The Transfiguration.

The 22-dome wooden structure was built in 1714 without using a single nail, which is quite an engineering feat even by today’s standards.

The church has been undergoing conservation work so you can’t really see inside the main building, but there is a smaller parish nearby that you can check out.

(Amhara region, Ethiopia)

Ethiopia’s Lalibela is not exactly a church but rather a centre in which a collection of 11 truly unique churches are found. These churches were built around 800 years ago, and they were all carved out of rock underground.

According to documents, each church was carved out of solid red granite. Workers first had to dig trenches around large blocks of rock and then carve and shape steps, doors and windows. The churches were even decorated with arched ceilings.

There are two groups of churches at Lalibela, which are connected via tunnels. The largest structure, called House of Medhane Alem, or Saviour Of The World, is 33m long and 23m wide.

It was first known as Roha, but then later renamed Lalibela after King Lalbela, who ruled the area in the 1100s and 1200s. A Unesco World Heritage Site (inscribed in 1978), Lalibela is looked after by Coptic Christian priests.

Lalibela in Amhara, Ethiopia. — Sailko/Wikimedia CommonsLalibela in Amhara, Ethiopia. — Sailko/Wikimedia Commons

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