Whether or not you're religious, visiting a cathedral can be an awe-inspiring experience. Here are 11 architectural masterpieces worth the journey.
1. ST. BASIL'S CATHEDRAL // MOSCOW
Originally known as The Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat, this Russian landmark's popular nickname comes from the saint buried on its original site, Basil the Blessed (a.k.a. the "holy fool"). The grand structure was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible to commemorate a victory over Mongol forces. The completed brick and wood cathedral debuted in 1561 with nine colorful, onion-shaped domes, arranged to mimic an eight-point star. Additions and renovations have been made over the years, including a hip-roofed bell tower added in the 17th century and a bold paint job of red, blue, green, and gold on the exterior. Today, this cathedral is a museum that offers incredible views, trips through once-secret spiral staircases, and a plethora of incredible artwork.
2. NOTRE-DAME CATHEDRAL // PARIS
One of the world's best-known churches, this cathedral took nearly 200 years to build. Its cornerstone was laid in 1163 and finishing touches were completed in 1345. Because the project changed so many hands over several centuries, Notre Dame boasts a blend of design styles. Its pointed arches, flying buttresses, and high walls make it one of the greatest examples of standing French Gothic architecture in the world. But it’s the traces of Renaissance and Naturalism that makes Notre Dame unique.
Notre Dame has also been a stage for great and terrible moments in the nation's history: Royals have been wed there. During the French Revolution of 1786, it was looted and vandalized. In 1909, it saw Pope Pius X canonize the long-departed national hero Joan of Arc. Today, it functions as a museum that displays centuries old artwork and artifacts as well as a house of worship, offering Mass three times a day.
3. SAGRADA FAMILIA // BARCELONA, SPAIN
Named for the Holy Family, this cathedral was built on donations diligently gathered by the Spiritual Association of Devotees of Saint Joseph. Fittingly, the cornerstone was laid on St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, 1882. But its construction has proved to be a true test of faith.
The first architect, Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano, quit within a year over creative differences. The second, Antoni Gaudí, spent 43 years pushing the Neo-gothic base into more organic architecture, like cypress tree-inspired pillars. But his tenure was cut short when he died after getting hit by a tram in 1926. Gaudí's trusted collaborator Domènec Sugrañes took on the responsibilities for his friend's self-proclaimed "magnum opus."
But unfortunately, the Spanish Civil War disrupted construction. After the war, a team of Gaudí's collaborators pulled together to finish the design he'd set out to manifest. The process is ongoing, with hopes to have Sagrada Familia completed by the early 2030s. Nonetheless, after more than 130 years, the in-progress cathedral is a site to see, and open to visitors.
4. HAGIA SOPHIA // ISTANBUL
Built on the same location three times, the Hagia Sophia is a tribute to change. Though no part of the first church, which burned down in 404, remains, ruins of the second church (demolished in 532) can be found in an excavation pit adjacent to the third church's entrance. The third construction was commanded by Emperor Justinianos, who demanded his subjects deliver their best to the Hagia Sophia to enhance its grandeur. It's the reason marble and columns from Anatolia, Syria, Marmara Island, and North Africa are part of the Istanbul wonder.
Its walls are ornately decorated with eye-popping mosaics made of gold, silver, glass, terra cotta, and colorful stones. Remarkably, this regal cathedral took only five years to build, a feat credited to lead masterminds Anthemios and Isidoros, who had an army of 100 architects with 100 workers apiece to do their bidding. This final version of cathedral has survived more than 1470 years, and in that time has transformed from a Greek Orthodox Cathedral to a Roman Catholic place of worship, back to a Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and then to an Imperial Mosque, before the 1935 renovation that made it a museum.
5. WESTMINSTER ABBEY // LONDON
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Founded in the 10th century, this gem in England's crown is not only the final resting place for its patron St. Edward the Confessor and 16 other monarchs, but also the ultimate stage for the nation's grandest celebrations. The former cathedral has been the backdrop for royal weddings and every coronation since William the Conqueror in 1066. Little wonder then that this landmark was re-designated in 1560, converting it from cathedral to "Royal Peculiar," meaning a church subject to the sovereign. What began as a humble monastery along the Thames River has been considerably expanded on over the centuries.
Today, Westminster Abbey contains 600 monuments and wall tablets, stunning stained glass rose windows, portraits of saints, and extraordinary stonework from floor to high ceilings. The royally appointed church is open to the public for worship and as a museum. But be sure not to miss its College Garden. Said to be one of the oldest in all of England, this respite from the hustle and bustle of London was first plotted by the long-ago monks for food and medicinal purposes.
6. ST. PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL // NEW YORK CITY
This house of worship is also a monument to the city's melting pot reputation. Archbishop John Joseph Hughes reached out to the poor and wealthy of his flock to give whatever they could, so together they might build "a Cathedral in the City of New York that may be worthy of our increasing numbers, intelligence, and wealth as a religious community, and at all events, worthy as a public architectural monument, of the present and prospective crowns of this metropolis of the American continent.”
When its cornerstone was laid in 1858, the would-be cathedral was dubbed “Hughes’ Folly,” because its location was so far north of the established (but growing) metropolis. Neither Hughes nor his flock was flustered. Through 21 years that saw the Civil War and expansion of the Big Apple, St. Patrick's was built by donations, brick by brick. Today this Gothic Revival cathedral sits at the heart of Manhattan, a beacon of hope and source of inspiration for New Yorkers and tourists alike.
7. KÖLNER DOM // COLOGNE, GERMANY
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Also known as the Cologne Cathedral, this landmark took 632 years to build—though it wasn’t six centuries of continuous work. Begun in 1248, work progressed in stages until 1473, when the place was all but abandoned. It wasn't until the 19th century that the people of Cologne supported a renewed effort to finish Kölner Dom according to the original medieval plans. Its long-awaited completion in 1880 was celebrated by the nation, including Emperor William I, who came in person to see the cathedral's grand opening. While its sky-reaching spires are beautiful to behold, they also made the place a literal target during World War II. Fourteen aerial bombs devastated Kölner Dom, yet it stayed standing. Repairs in 1956 restored it to its former glory. And in 1996, it made the rarified UNESCO World Heritage List for its artistic splendor and historical value.
8. SVETITSKHOVELI CATHEDRAL // MTSKHETA, GEORGIA
This UNESCO World Heritage site sits on land with a rich religious tradition. As the ancient capital of the East Georgian Kingdom of Kartli circa 4th century BC, Mtskheta was where the proclamation of Christianity as the official faith was announced, and it continues to thrive as the center of the Georgian Orthodox and Apostolic Church. More remarkable, St. Nino chose this place for Georgia's first church following a miracle, hinted to in the current cathedral's name, which translates to "The Living Pillar Cathedral." Georgian Christians believe the cathedral's history and its harboring of a relic of Christ makes Svetitskhoveli one of the most sacred places in the world, second only to the Church of Jerusalem.
9. DUOMO DI MILANO // MILAN
Among the largest Christian churches in the world, this 109,641-square foot cathedral took nearly six centuries to complete, beginning in 1386. As it developed, terra cotta stone gave way to more elegant Candoglia marble that now gives the place its unique pink hue.
The centuries' worth of craftsmanship show in the 3400 statues, 135 gargoyles, and 700 figures that decorate the interior and exterior of grand edifice located in the Piazza del Duomo. When visiting the Duomo, be sure to take in the sundial on its floor, which is surprisingly effective thanks to a strategically placed hole in an opposite wall. Climb to its rooftops to take in incredible views of the city and the snow-capped mountains. And be sure to look out for a small red bulb above the altar's apse—this subtle marker signifies where a nail believed to be from Jesus's crucifixion rests.
10. SAINT STEPHEN’S CATHEDRAL // VIENNA
Like several others on this list, this sacred structure, also known as Stephansdom, was built in place of former less imaginative churches. St. Stephen's as we know it today went into construction in the 14th century. Over time, its tall towers have been a crucial vantage point in times of war, like the Turkish siege of 1683. Unfortunately, they also made this cathedral a target.
At the ragged end of World War II, a fire ripped through St. Stephen's, brining it to the brink of annihilation. Residents banded together, and restored the place in seven short years. And by 1950, this Gothic structure also boasted its now signature ceramic tile roof, thanks to the donations. St. Stephen's is now one of the most popular attractions in the city, as well as "the emblem of Austria and symbol of Austrian identity."
11. CATHEDRAL OF OUR LADY // ANTWERP, BELGIUM
This massive monument to the Madonna began as a humble chapel in the 9th century. In 1352, construction on the largest gothic church in the Netherlands began. Though the original plans called for two towers, a gruesome fire in 1533 delayed the second's construction indefinitely. And despite being ravaged by rebelling Protestants during the Iconoclasm of August 20, 1566, looted in 1581, and damaged by French revolutionaries in 1794, the structure still stands.
The 19th century has been kinder to Antwerp and its cathedral. A number of stolen works from its walls were returned, including Peter Paul Rubens' The Raising of the Cross, The Assumption of the Virgin Mary, and The Descent from the Cross. The 20th century brought a thorough restoration that ran from 1965 to 1993, meaning this lopsided but lovely cathedral is better than she's ever been, welcoming visitors and worshippers alike.