There are 34 words for “church” in the English language but whether you use “cathedral,” chapel,” “mosque,” “shrine,” “synagogue,” “temple,” or any of the others, one thing is certain – it’s a place of beauty. From stained glass windows to artfully crafted deities to polished pews and lofty domes, churches are arguably the most stunning buildings on earth.
And while many churches conform to a certain style (Christian ones tend to be designed in the shape of a cross while mosques display minarets), most all are unique. Guided tours of churches divulge the ins and outs of their architecture, but, in the interim, here’s the lowdown on the world’s most lofty spaces of worship.
5 Fun facts about Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrim’s Church):
- It’s the tallest building in Iceland
- In front of the church (and predating it by 15 years) is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson (c. 970 – c. 1020), the first European to discover America
- The concrete exterior is inspired by the basalt formations found throughout Iceland, while the modern-meets-Gothic lines of the inside are reminiscent of ice formations
- The three bells in the tower represent Hallgrímur (the Icelandic poet and clergyman the building is named after), his wife, and their daughter who died young
- It took 38 years to build
Besides Las Lajas Cathedral’s beautiful setting – the sanctuary rises 100m from the bed of a canyon – what makes this building so special is how it came about. Legend has it that in the 18th century, Maria Mueses de Quinones was making one of her regular six-mile walks to the neighboring village when, weary from carrying her deaf-mute daughter on her back, she stopped at Las Lajas to rest. Maria didn’t like stopping at these rocks along the Guaitara river because they were rumored to be haunted, but her fears were replaced with elation when her daughter who had never before uttered a word emerged from the cave shouting, “Mama, there is a woman in here with a boy in her arms.” Shocked, she and her daughter quickly left, and though it was miraculous that the child could finally speak, nobody believed what had happened in the cave.
In the following weeks, Maria’s daughter would often disappear to Las Lajas, claiming that the Lady was calling her. One day, Maria went after her daughter, only to find her playing with the Child (the Divine Infant, Jesus Christ) that had come down from the noble Lady’s arms (the Blessed Virgin). Maria kept quiet about the circumstance, but when her daughter died soon after of a grave illness, she took the girl to the cave and asked the Lady to restore Rosa to life. Together, the Lady and her Divine Son resurrected Rosa, and when the villagers caught on to what had happened, they went to the grotto where they found a picture of the Virgin Mary on the wall. With that, the cave became a sanctuary that eventually turned into a cathedral.
Almost as sweet as the church itself that sports onion domes and a red domed roof is the origin of its name: St. Bartholomew’s Church is named after Saint Bartholomew the Apostle, patron of Alpine farmers and dairymen. Located on Königssee lake in Germany, St. Bartholomew’s Church dates back to 1697, and is only accessible via boat or foot (by way of the surrounding mountains). Once you’ve been there, done that at Königssee lake, be sure to check out the area’s other breathtaking sites with Bavaria-based guides
With buildings like St. John’s Church on the Feuersee (“Fire Pond”), it’s no wonder Germany’s tour guides
choose to live and work in the country. Don’t be shocked to see that the tower of this Gothic Revival-style building built over a 12 year period between 1864 and 1876 has an unfinished tower; it was left incomplete to memorialize World War II when the building was nearly destroyed.
Although touring Askja volcano and Kverkfjöll mountains with one of Iceland’s five-star guides
is a must; so is visiting the whimsical church at Vík í Mýrdal, the Nordic country’s southernmost village. Warning: Vík is the wettest coastal town in Iceland, but, to redeem itself, it is home to one of the most beautiful black basalt sand beaches in the world, and one of the most picturesque churches too.
Our Lady of the Rocks is one unique must-see if you find yourself in Montenegro. Legend has it that local seamen constructed the islet by laying a rock in the bay after returning from each voyage, a tradition that started after they found the icon of Madonna and Child on the original rock in the sea. To this day, every July 22nd, for an event called fašinada, local residents boat to the Church of Our Lady of the Rocks and throw rocks into the sea to further widen the islet.
More than 250 churches dot the island of Santorini, but what makes these domed Grecian churches in Oia and Fira stand out is their striking blue and white contrasting colors. Not only is the blue aesthetically pleasing, it is meaningful for the Greeks because it reflects the sea and sky, and thus stands as the color of their everyday life. A visit to these stunners is only bettered after enjoying a food and wine tour of the area with one of the many incredible tour guides in Greece
Besides its beautiful looks, what makes the Basilica of Our Lady of Covadonga so special is what’s inside: a statue of the Virgin Mary that was secretly hidden in one of the caves where the basilica now stands, and that was believed to have miraculously aided the Christian victory during the Battle of Covadon in 722.
who lead guided tours around the Big Island will show you some epic cliffs, but the cliff that the Church of St. John at Kaneo sits atop gives Hawaii’s a run for her money. St. John at Kaneo, built before 1447, overlooks Macedonia’s Lake Ohrid, takes the shape of a cruciform with a rectangular base, and is said to have an Armenian influence, as depicted from the double-intersecting stone arches spanning the interior, as well as the pyramidal dome.
From going on architectural tours of traditional log houses in Suzdal to exploring Novodevichy Convent with a veteran guide who likes to venture into inconspicuous side streets to explore Moscow’s authentic beauties and treasures, Moscow-based guides
guarantee showing you every nook and cranny of their fascinating city, including the jaw-dropping Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed (more commonly known as St. Basil’s Cathedral). Why so many colors? During the 17th century, the use of vivid colors boomed in Russia, which saw the original red, white, and golden color scheme get built upon with blues and greens. And why is it shaped like the flame of a bonfire rising into the sky? Your guess is as good as anybody’s; because the church has no analogues, the sources that inspired the design are unknown.
As one of the most painted and photographed churches in the world, San Francisco de Asis is a site to add to your list if you’re America-bound. And may we also suggest saddling up to one of New Mexico’s photography guides if you are making the good choice to travel to the Taos area. Photography tours of Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, and Plaza Blanca, as well as 100+ year old Hispanic adobe structures and dozens of old western movie locations, ensure you will return home with meaningful (and magnificent) memorabilia.
A tour of Marseille takes you to the likes of the Old Port and the Palais Longchamps that currently houses the Natural history Museum, as well as antique markets and the area’s best restaurants, but if you want to see something outside the city that truly is a sight to behold, head to Sénanque Abbey, a Cistercian church from 1148 that captivates its audience with its stone walls and vibrant lavender fields.