11 Breathtaking Churches

Illuminated building against a dark night sky
Photo: Roberto La Rosa/Shutterstock

From glorious European cathedrals featuring massive stained glass windows and organs, to tiny chapels tucked away in the mountains, beautiful churches are in the eye of the worshiper. Some seat thousands of people who make pilgrimages from around the world to kneel at gold-covered altars. Others have room for only a few, weary travelers who have trekked mountainous terrain just to find some contemplative solitude.

Whether you're looking for classic Gothic masterpieces or unusual spiritual retreats, these churches all offer tremendous beauty from their bell towers to their amazing backgrounds.

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St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

Photo: Tomasz Wozniak/Shutterstock

Located in Vatican City, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome is the home church of the pope and, with a capacity for 20,000, it's considered the largest Christian church in the world. The basilica was designed and created by some of the greatest creative minds of the time: Bramante, Raphael, Michelangelo, Bernini and Maderno.

According to Catholic tradition, the basilica is the burial site of St. Peter, one of Jesus's apostles, as well as numerous popes. The basilica is home to famous art, including works by Bernini as well as the famous Pietà sculpture by Michelangelo. As a key part of Vatican City, St. Peter's was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

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Las Lajas Sanctuary, Narino, Colombia

Photo: Diego Delso/flickr

The Las Lajas Sanctuary is a Gothic church near Narino, Colombia, commonly referred to as “a miracle of God in the abyss." It was built in the Guáitara river canyon, precariously perched on the side of a cliff, with visitors having to cross a gorge-spanning bridge to get there. The imposing church sits 150 feet above the river below.

According to legend, María Mueses, a native woman, and her daughter Rosa, were hiding from brutal weather in the gorge in 1754 when they looked up saw the image of the Virgin Mary on the rocks above. This church is visited by people from all over the world. Some come for the religious significance, while others come for the architecture and jaw-dropping setting.

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Grundtvig’s Church, Copenhagen

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Built as a memorial to N.F.S. Grundtvig, a famous Danish priest, philosopher, historian, poet and politician of the 19th century, Grundtvig's Church is an Expressionist national monument and a Gothic cathedral.

A competition was held to choose someone to design and create the memorial, with master builder and architect Jensen Klint earning the honors. Klint built the church out of 6 million handmade yellow bricks, out of deference to Denmark's building style. The church itself is simple and devoid of ornamentation, with columns rising to pointed arches and little interruption in the streamlined design.

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Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

Photo: Robert Wirrmann/flickr

Now the focal point of the city, construction on the Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 and continued in phases, often stopping due to lack of money or lack of interest. Building on the Gothic church was eventually completed more than six centuries later.

Now Germany's most-visited landmark, the cathedral attracts 20,000 people every day. The city is dominated by the cathedral's famous towers, while the inside is dominated by five spectacular stained glass windows.

Visitors can climb 533 stone steps to a viewing platform to enjoy the impressive view across the Rhine River. In 1996, the cathedral was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List of culturally important sites.

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Borgund Stave Church, Borgund, Norway

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Borgund Stave Church is one of the most distinctive and well-preserved stave churches in Norway. Stave churches are Medieval wooden Christian church buildings with corner posts (staves) and a framework of timber and wall planks. Stave churches used to be found throughout Europe, but the remaining churches are nearly exclusively found in Norway.

Built around 1180 by members of the community, Borgund Stave Church was dedicated to Jesus' apostle Andrew. Although relatively simple, the portals are lavishly carved and there are four dragon heads on the gables of the roof, recalling the dragon heads found on Norse ships. The church is no longer used for religious functions and is now a museum.

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Gergeti Trinity Church, Gergeti, Georgia

Photo: Roberto Strauss/flickr

Located under Mount Kazbegi at an elevation of more than 7,110 feet, Gergeti Trinity Church in Georgia is in a location not for the faint of heart. Located a three-hour drive straight up a mountainside from the nearest major town, the tiny cross-cupola church with a detached bell tower is known more for its stunning setting. "Though briefly abandoned during the Soviet years, the enclave seems frozen in time," writes Atlas Obscura.

Because the road to the church is so untraveled, tourists will often hike the journey or hire locals to take them to the small church with the breathtaking view. (Some reports say the municipality considered building a ropeway to the church, but locals protested because they didn't want to lose the income they made taking tourists to the church.)

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Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris

Notre-Dame is considered by many to be the most famous Gothic cathedral of the Middle Ages. (Photo: Kirill Neiezhmakov/Shutterstock)

"Our Lady of Paris" is among the largest and most well-known churches in France and around the world. The medieval church is considered to be a prime example of French Gothic architecture and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Notre-Dame is known for its religious significance and is home to what are believed to be some of Catholicism's most venerable relics including a piece of Jesus' crown of thorns and a part of his cross. The cathedral is also known for its architectural importance from its groundbreaking flying buttresses (the church was among the first buildings in the world to have them) to its three great rose windows which still have their 13th-century stained glass.

The cathedral also earned literary (and later Walt Disney) status after the publication of Victor Hugo's novel, "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame," in 1831.

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Saint-Sophia Cathedral, Kiev, Ukraine

Photo: Serge Velychko/Shutterstock

Saint-Sophia Cathedral and its related monastic buildings were constructed to rival its namesake Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). The cathedral was built beginning in 1017 to celebrate Prince Yaroslav's victory in protecting the city from tribal raiders.

The church is a collection of white buildings with striking green roofs and gold domes. Visitors can climb the bell tower for 360-degree views of Kiev below. Artistic highlights within the complex include numerous mosaics, frescoes and cast-iron tile floors.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cathedral was also named one of the Seven Wonders of Ukraine.

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Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík, Iceland

Photo: Roberto La Rosa/Shutterstock

The largest church and one of the tallest buildings in Iceland, Hallgrímskirkja is Reykjavík's primary landmark. Its tower can be seen from nearly anywhere in the city. A relatively young church, construction on the building started in 1945 and ended in 1986.

Both a parish church and a national sanctuary, Hallgrimskirkja's exterior is stark concrete, built to resemble Iceland's mountain and glacier landscapes. Inside, the church houses a massive 25-ton pipe organ with 5,275 pipes. Outside the church, which also doubles as an observation tower, is a statue of Norse explorer Leif Erikson, a gift to Iceland from the U.S.

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Church of the Transfiguration, Kizhi Island, Russia

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Kizhi Island in Russia's Lake Onega is known for its pogost, an enclosed area surrounded by fencing, that contains two well-known historical churches. The 18th-century wooden churches, and an octagonal clock tower, are the 22-dome Church of the Transfiguration (above) and the smaller nine-dome Church of the Intercession.

The island itself has dozens of other wooden structures, forming a sort of outdoor museum, but these churches are remarkable in that they were built with interlocking wood, without a single nail. The towering Church of the Transfiguration is the larger and more notable and is known as a "summer church" because it was built without heat (and Russia is not a place you want to be without heat in winter). Locals call the church a true wonder of the world and tell the tale of Master Nestor, who allegedly built the church using nothing but an axe.

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Chapel of the Holy Cross, Sedona, Arizona

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Seemingly carved into the towering red buttes of Sedona, this Arizona church was a gift to the area by sculptress, philanthropist and devout Catholic Marguerite Brunswig Staude. While gazing upon New York City's newly completed Empire State Building in 1932, Staude says she saw a cross superimposed on the structure and thought it would be a wonderful idea for a church. Initially she envisioned the church as a skyscraper in Los Angeles, but eventually decided to create the chapel in the red rocks of Sedona as a striking part of the landscape.

Although the church is distinctly Christian, all sorts of visitors make the trek to marvel in the natural setting, especially in this city known for positive energy and new age mysticism. The church is too small for regular masses, but a Taize prayer service, modeled after monastic communities in France, is held there weekly.