Throughout the world and across virtually every faith, few structures bring out the kinds of architectural feats that we devote to churches. From simple chapels to massive cathedrals to inaccessible pilgrimage sites, the world is filled with beautiful churches and places of worship.
Here are a few of the most beautiful churches in the world that every tourist should visit at least once. Although few can venture out of doors in the current landscape, these awe-inspiring buildings should definitely be added to your traveling wishlist. Some are easy to find—located in the midst of metropolitan areas—while others are tucked out of the way, accessible only by boat or by narrow passages carved into volcanic rock. All of them are breathtaking wonders of ingenuity, architecture, and devotion.
St. Basil's Cathedral
One of the most recognizable churches in the world, the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, more commonly known as St. Basil’s Cathedral, sits in Moscow’s Red Square. Over the years, the brightly-colored onion domes of the church have become synonymous with the Russian capital. Its outline is probably more well-known to people around the world than any of the other landmarks that occupy the square, including the Kremlin itself.
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Church of the Assumption
Lake Bled, Slovenia
If you want to see one of the most beautiful churches in the world, you had better not be afraid of water. Nestled on an island in the midst of Lake Bled in the Julian Alps of Slovenia, the Church of the Assumption can only be accessed by handmade rowboats.
While the current church was built in the 17th century, it contains frescos dating back to 1470 as well as a Baroque stairway from 1655. Tourists and pilgrims from around the world come to visit the fairytale church, and weddings are still held there. It’s considered good luck for a groom to carry his bride up the 99 stone steps leading up to the building.
Construction on this landmark Lutheran church in Iceland’s capital began in 1945 but wasn’t completed until 1986. One of the tallest structures in the country, this striking church houses a massive pipe organ that is 15 meters tall and weighs more than 25 tons. Composed of 5,275 pipes, the organ was designed by Johannes Klais.
The massive church tower also features an observation deck that provides a beautiful view of Reykjavík, the ocean, and the surrounding mountains.
Basílica de la Sagrada Família
Designed by famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, there is no other church in the world quite like the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia. Begun in 1882, the massive church remains under construction to this day. Combining Gothic architectural styles with Art Nouveau forms and rainbow-hued glass, the basilica is just as striking on the inside as it is without. It was also Gaudi’s life’s work—so much so that his body is entombed within the church’s crypt.
Rebuilt many times since it was first completed in 1577, the Harmandir Sahib is one of the holiest sites in the world for followers of Sikhism. In 1830, its marble and copper construction was overlaid with gold foil, giving it the nickname the Golden Temple. Jutting out into a pool of water, the Golden Temple is striking during the day. It’s even more beautiful at night, when the light from the gold foil reflects in the water of the pool. Today, this beautiful holy site is an open place of worship for individuals of all faiths.
The Chapel of the Holy Cross
Sedona, Arizona, United States
Inspired by the then-newly-completed Empire State Building, Arizona sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude set out to construct a chapel like no other. Built directly onto the region’s distinctive red rock buttes, the chapel sits on public ground in the Coconino National Forest thanks to a special-use permit issued by Senator Goldwater. The massive cross that dominates the view of the chapel is both an aesthetic and a structural feature, incorporated into the design of the church to hold the building up even as it gives the beautiful church its unique appearance.
Las Lajas Sanctuary
Built spanning a canyon of the Guáitara River, this striking Gothic Revival church was completed in 1949, but its legend dates back far longer. The story goes that the church was built in the very spot where, almost two centuries earlier, Maria Meneses de Quiñones and her daughter Rosa were traveling when they were caught in a terrible storm. In the midst of the storm, Rosa, who was deaf and had never spoken before, said that she saw the Virgin Mary calling to her. Since then, various miracles and sightings of the Virgin Mary have become associated with the site, which was home to a shrine for years before the precariously perched Sanctuary was constructed over the river.
The Church of St. George
One of several churches in Ethiopia’s Lalibela region that are hewn directly from the local volcanic rock, the Church of St. George is cut forty feet straight down. Like the other rock-hewn churches in the region, the roof of the Church of St. George is at ground level, while the rest has been excavated downward. The roof forms the shape of a cross, and the rest of the building follows suit. At a glance, the Church of St. George and the other rock-hewn churches of Lalibela seem inaccessible. They can only be reached by a narrow, man-made path.
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The Church of the Good Shepherd
Lake Tekapo, New Zealand
Not every beautiful church is a grand, imposing, or even unique structure. Some, like the Church of the Good Shepherd which stands on the shores of New Zealand’s Lake Tekapo, achieve their beauty simply by taking advantage of the beauty of their natural surroundings. This simple church has become one of the most photographed sites in New Zealand in the years since its construction in 1935, when the Duke of Gloucester placed the foundation stone.
Heddal Stave Church
Once upon a time, many of Norway’s places of worship were beautiful, distinct wooden churches known as stave churches. Today, only around 30 of the historic structures remain. Of those, the Heddal stave church isn’t the oldest, dating back “only” to the 13th century, but it is the largest. There’s also a legend that the triple nave church was built in only three days with the help of a mountain troll.
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Feature photo of Las Lajas Sanctuary: Wikimedia Commons