The 38 Greatest Churches In The World

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Architecture BY Robert James

If you’re building a temple to God, you’ll want it to look good. You’ll probably want what you’re building to be the greatest thing you ever did. This is likely why churches are some of our most beautiful and inspiring creations. Because, let’s be honest, you want God to be impressed with your work. You can’t just throw something together at the last moment and hope it’ll work out. It takes time (800 years sometimes), and it’s never going to be easy. This is God, after all. The guy who created galaxies and the solar system, grilled cheese sandwiches and bicycles. And that was just Tuesday. Later he created a universe and life to go in it. God set the bar high. He’s probably not going to be easily impressed. But we try to do our best, and sometimes we get pretty close. Here are our picks for  the greatest churches in the world.

St. Peters Basilica Rome

St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

What list comprised of the world’s greatest churches would be anything without St. Peter’s in it? So let’s get this off to the right start. It’s the capital of the Catholic Church. The house of the rising smoke. Home of the Big Man. No, not quite that big. Well, maybe, what do we know? St. Peter’s is also the location of St.Peter’s tomb, which may account for the name. [Details]

The Basilica Of The Sacred Heart Of Paris Paris

The Basilica Of The Sacred Heart Of Paris, Paris

Also known as the Sacre-Coeur. After the Eiffel Tower, this is the highest point in Paris, so long as you’re standing on top of the dome. Sitting’s ok, too. Its construction was inspired by Bishop Fournier, who suggested that France had lost the Franco-Prussian war as a punishment for their moral decline. Well, yeah, judging by some of those beaches in the south, who would argue? [Details]

Westminster Abbey London

Westminster Abbey, London

A World Heritage Site and Britain’s coronation church since 1066, the Abbey is also a kind of old folks home for dead famous white people. A smorgasboard of the renowned either buried or memorialized here. Here’s a smattering to whet your taste buds: Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, Laurence Olivier, Dickens, and Thomas Hardy (though his heart is apparently buried somewhere else). Yes, it’s mostly men, but Jane Austen gets a mention in Poets’ Corner. [Details]

Salt Cathedral Of Zipaquira, Cundinamarca Colombia

Salt Cathedral Of Zipaquira, Cundinamarca, Colombia

An underground Roman Catholic church built 600 feet down inside the tunnels of a salt mine. If you ever find yourself down on your knees on a Sunday morning praying to God with a bag of unsalted pretzels beside you, this is the church to be in. [Details]

Church of the Holy Sepulchre Jerusalemx

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Located in the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, the Holy Sepulchre is believed to be the site of Calvary and the crucification of Jesus. But not everyone believes this, which is a surprise as usually in this part of the world everyone is in agreement. [Details]

Cologne Cathedral Cologne Germany

Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

It has the world’s largest church façade, which may go some way to explaining why it took from 1248 to 1880 to get it finished. Even so, that is 600 years. Surely a missed deadline somewhere. Still, this is Germany’s most visited landmark, and a survivor of seventy bombings during WWII. Shouldn’t there be more urgent things during a war than counting how often a church gets hit? Like running? [Details]

Las Lajas Sanctuary Colombia

Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia

If it hadn’t been for Rosa, a deaf mute, and her mother, who in 1754 saw the Virgin Mary in a rock formation during a storm here, this would probably still be a cliff. The inspiration for the church was not fast moving, as it wasn’t completed until 1949, about 200 years after the vision. [Details]

Church Of The Nativity Bethlehem

Church Of The Nativity, Bethlehem

Christ was born here, though back then it was just a stable. A minor event about two thousand years ago. You probably didn’t hear about it. Go in December when it’s still celebrated. Manger Square. Lots of people. It’s on UNESCO’s list of endangered world heritage sites. [Details]

Cathedral Of Brazilia Brazil

Cathedral Of Brazilia, Brazil

Designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer in a desperate attempt to overcome the success of his younger, hotdog-making brother, Oscar Meyer. [Details]

Borgund Stave Church Norway

Borgund Stave Church, Norway

A stave church is a medieval wooden church. This one was built between 1180 and 1250 with some refurbishing done afterwards. Of all the 28 stave churches in Norway, this one at Borgund is the best preserved. [Details]

Notre Dame Cathedral Paris

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

After sketching his new idea for a great Paris cathedral in the dirt outside the original cathedral, so the legend goes, Bishop Scully had the original demolished. A hundred years later, long after the Bishop’s death, Notre Dame stood in its place. The current organ at Notre Dame has 7,374 pipes. [Details]

Basilica Of Our Lady Of Lichen Poland

Basilica Of Our Lady Of Lichen, Poland

The biggest temple in Poland and one of the largest in the world, the building was only completed in 2004. It contains the painting of Our Lady of Lichen. The story is that a wounded Napoleon soldier invoked the Virgin Mary begging her not to let him die in a foreign country. She agreed, so long as he arranged to have a painting done of her and have it hung in a public place. [Details]

Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro Rio de Janeiro

Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro

Sometimes known as the New Cathedral, from the inside this cone-shaped church looks more like a stadium than a cathedral. From here in 2013 on World Youth Day Pope Francis called young people to radical witness.  [Details]

St. Sophia Cathedral Kiev, Ukraine

St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine

Lots of churches are named after Saint Sophia. She’s a big name martyr in Eastern Catholicism. She had three daughters: Faith, Hope, and Love, who were each killed by Hadrian before they hit their teens. So that didn’t work out too well. [Details]

Hagia Sophia Istanbul

Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

Like this one, for example. Three churches were built on this site, the first in 360AD, before Mehmet II, going on Muhammed’s prophesy that the first muslim to pray in Hagia Sophia would be beamed straight to paradise, conquered Constantinople in 1453 and made a beeline to the Great Church. Once there, he turned it into a mosque. Today, though, it’s a museum. [Details]

St Alexander Nevsky Cathedral Bulgaria

St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Bulgaria

You’ll find this in the city of Sofia, which is named after the Church of Saint Sophia, which in turn is named after Saint Sophia of Italy. For more about Sophia and her three daughters, take a look at the St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, which if you’ve come this far you should have already seen. [Details]

St Pauls Cathedral London

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

St. Paul’s is the seat of the Bishop of London. Now we don’t mean to be rude, but if you happen to be reading this, Mr. Bishop, you might want to think about cutting down on the carbs because, jeez, this place is big. Designed by Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London destroyed the Old St. Paul’s, the cathedral was completed in 1697. It is one of the most recognizable buildings in London, but equally famous as the spot where the bird lady sat on the steps surrounded by pigeons and Mary Poppins sang that song. [Details]

Chapel Of The Holy Cross Arizona

Chapel Of The Holy Cross, Arizona

Unusual among churches as it’s been wedged into the side of a rocky hill in the middle of the Arizona desert. The original idea was to have Frank Lloyd Wright build it in Europe but World War II broke out so that plan got shelved. [Details]

St Patricks Cathedral New York

St. Patricks Cathedral, New York

St. Patrick’s opened in 1879, twenty one years after the first cornerstone was laid, an even which followed Archbishop Hughes’ proposition that a cathedral be built in New York for glory, exhaltation, dignity, and a number of other attributes. At the time, the location was considered too far outside the city, but Hughes believed the site would one day be the heart of the city. He was right. It’s about smack in the center now, close to Times Square and Broadway. It’s a beautiful building. If you can’t go in person to light a candle, you can light one online for $5. [Details]

Hallgrimskirkja Iceland

Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland

This is either Iceland’s largest church designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of the rugged Icelandic landscape, or the new heaven-seeking christian stealth jet ready for lift off. [Details]

Cathedral Of St John The Divine New York City

Cathedral Of St John The Divine, New York City

The fourth largest church in the world and a tranquil, meditative spot. Visit during Sunday vespers when the men and women of the choir fill the echoey chamber with their haunting, lilting voices. [Details]

Chartres Cathedral France

Chartres Cathedral, France

Rising grandly up from the town center, French Gothic architecture never looked so good as in the cathedral at Chartres. After 800 years we should all hope to be so well preserved. Chartres has long been an important destination for christian pilgrims, in large part because it houses the Sancta Camisa, reckoned to be the tunic Mary slipped into before Christ popped into the world and changed everything. [Details]

Sagrada Familia Barcelona

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Designed by Antoni Gaudi this is one of the world’s spectacular churches and, perhaps not surprisingly, it is a little bit gaudy in places. Construction began in 1882 and um… well it’s still not finished yet. In 2010 it was about half done, so at this rate it should be finished around 2150. Not sure if we’ll get to see that. [Details]

Kamppi Chapel Helsinki

Kamppi Chapel, Helsinki

A Lutheran church made of different types of wood such as alder, ash, and spruce. It was constructed as part of the World Design Capital program in 2012 but won the International Architecture Awards in 2010, and we’re not quite sure how it managed that. [Details]

St. Vitus Cathedral Prague

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

St. Vitus was persecuted by Romans and died as a martyr. St. Vitus’ Day is 15 June, or 28 June on the Gregorian Calendar, which is the one we have. In the Middle Ages the feast of Vitus was celebrated with dancing. The Saint Vitus Dance, or Sydenham’s chorea, is a disorder that affects the nervous system. Everything is connected, no matter how tenuously. [Details]

St Basils Cathedral Moscow

St. Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow

Not actually the entrance to a Disney theme park, but a church smack in the center of Red Square. Though now it’s a museum. [Details]

Florence Cathedral Florence

Florence Cathedral, Florence

Originally, at the base of the dome, an eight-sided balcony was planned. After one side was completed someone asked Michelangelo what he thought. He didn’t like it. To this day, the other seven were never completed, and are still rough brick. But it didn’t affect the view from the top, which is spectacular. [Details]

Milan Cathedral Milan

Milan Cathedral, Milan

Took over 600 years to complete and should we really be surprised? Just look at all the detail. That’s Gothic detail, by the way, as you can probably tell by all the pointy bits and black eyeshadow. This is the fifth largest cathedral in the world, and in part, also one of the oldest. Underneath, sort of in the basement, is the old baptistry, which you can still visit, and which was built in the year 335. [Details]

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Cathedral Colorado Springs

United States Air Force Academy Cadet Cathedral, Colorado Springs

This is one of the newest. Originally there were to be nineteen spires, but due to budget constraints, the academy could ultimately only spring for seventeen. The design won an American Institute of Architects award in 1996 and in 2004 became a US National Historic Landmark. Historic? It was built in 1962. [Details]

Canterbury Cathedral Canterbury

Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury

This is the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican communion. That’s sort of like the Mother Ship in the movie Alien, except there are more Christians and there’s no monster that gets on board the ship and kills everyone except Sigourney Weaver. [Details]

St Marks Basilica Venice

St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

No. Not Venice Beach. This Byzantine piece has been around since 1650, but the original building on the site was here in 828. That would be the same year that merchants snuck the body of St. Mark out of Egypt in order to house him in his own Basilica. One of the mosaics inside depicts this story, which involves a storm at sea and St. Mark appearing at the last moment to save everyone, kind of like Superman. Even though at the time he was supposedly in a pork barrel. [Details]

Mont St Michel Abbey France

Mont St. Michel Abbey, France

The church and the island it’s sitting on are located half a mile off the northern coast of Normandy. The allies probably ran past it on D-Day. You used to be able to walk to it at low tide, but not at high tide. Now there’s a bridge. [Details]

Vienna

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

One of Vienna’s most famous attractions, the cathedral is the jewel of Austria’s capital, the icing on the cake of this Alpine metropolis, the chunkiest piece of chocolate in the Rocky Road of Gothic church architecture. Also, there’s an indentation in the wall at the entrance where dissatisfied customers measured the size of their loaf of bread. [Details]

Rouen Cathedral Rouen

Rouen Cathedral, Rouen

Claude Monet must have really thought highly of Rouen Cathedral, and that’s a good enough recommendation for us. He painted more than thirty paintings of the cathedral’s façade, from different angles, in different lights, at different times of the year. To be honest, it sounds a little obsessive. [Details]

The Cistine Chapel Rome

The Cistine Chapel, Rome

The original idea was for an off-white eggshell finish. But Michaelangelo went all crazy and painted a lot of naked people and God reaching across like he was Dumbledore or something with Adam coming out of his finger naked. White, Michaelangelo. White would have been just fine, and you could have had it done over the weekend. [Details]

Reims Cathedral France

Reims Cathedral, France

The kings of France all used to be crowned here. But Louis Philipe was the last french king in 1848, so they don’t do that any more. [Details]

Paoay Church Philippines

Paoay Church, Philippines

This church in the Philippines is an example of Earthquake Baroque architecture. This is essentially European Baroque but with the ability to withstand heightened seismic activity, or rather big friggin’ earthquakes that in the past have destroyed churches and various other buildings throughout the country.
[Details]

The Pantheon Rome

The Pantheon, Rome

Rebuilt by Hadrian around 125 AD and used as a Roman Catholic Church since the 7th century, The Pantheon sounds much better going by its more informal name, the Santa Maria Della Rotonda. Though this is hardly fair to Maria because really she’s not that big. More comfortably plump. Part of the problem may be the Piazza della Rotonda out front, where you can get some really big round pizza. [Details]

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