Whether religious or not, churches are always interesting to visit when traveling.
Magnificent churches and basilicas built hundreds and thousands of years ago using the most rudimentary building techniques. Yet, they are often some of the most prominent and commanding structures in the world’s greatest cities.
Others are so unique they remind us that not all faith is a gesture of grandeur. A simple cave can hold as much spiritual and historical relevance as impressive cathedrals and the most famous churches in the world.
Places of worship also hold much of the historical narrative of the places we visit. We can learn about past rulers and some of history’s most fantastic characters. How a community evolved, and critical moments in a city’s history.
Sometime’s, churches have played essential roles in history’s most significant events. Even if a communities faith is no longer entrenched in a particular place of worship, they are still culturally and historically significant in ways few other buildings can hope to be.
Churches are also one of the most magnificent representations of architectural styles through the ages, making them impressive attractions in their cities.
15 of the Most Unique and Beautiful Churches in the World
The churches on this list are all ones I have found to be particularly noteworthy for their beauty, creativity, and uniqueness.
1. St Peter’s Basilica Vatican City
The largest Catholic church in the world and the holiest site in Christianity, St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City is one of the most popular attractions for those visiting Rome.
It is the burial site of St. Peter, the head of the twelve Apostles of Jesus, the first Bishop of Antioch, and later the first Bishop of Rome, rendering him the first Pope.
It is a significant pilgrim site drawing crowds in the tens of thousands to the cathedral and St Peter’s square to hear liturgies presided over by the pope. St Peter’s Basilica can accommodate 20,000 people.
A place of incredible beauty, the cathedral holds many rare and important religious relics and priceless works of art and frescos from artists such as Bernini and Michelangelo.
Not to be confused with the Vatican Museums, St Peter’s Basilica is free to enter, but expect long lines to enter, sometimes as long as 2 hrs. You may wish to purchase a reserved entry slot and admission to other attractions, such as the dome or the Vatican museums. See a full range of Vatican tours and tickets here.
2. Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
Not just an icon of Barcelona but one of the world’s most famous churches. Sagrada Familia is as famous for being unfinished as it is for its striking design.
Designed by the famed architect Antoni Gaudí, construction began in 1882. Gaudí died before his design could be realized, and the magnificent cathedral remains in a state of construction.
The plan is to complete La Sagrada by 2026 to commemorate the centenary of his passing. Despite its unfinished state, the Art Noveau basilica is one of Barcelona’s biggest attractions. Make sure you book well in advance to see the interior of this magnificent church, as it is often sold out.
Pre-book your entry to La Sagrada with Audio Guide.
3. Church of the Assumption, Lake Bled, Slovenia
From the heights of Bled Castle, you have the most magnificent views of one of the most enchanting churches in Europe. The Church of the Assumption sits on a tiny island in the middle of Lake Bled and is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful churches in the world.
While the views from Bled Castle are outstanding, a serene ride in a traditional pletna boat to the island is a treat for visitors.
A tradition passed down from generation to generation, local men row between the church and shore. Each son must learn how to build and row the boats to keep the tradition alive.
Climb the baroque staircase from the dock to the 17th century church to ring the church bell three times. Local superstition says those who do will have a single wish granted.
4. Hallgrímskirkja Church Reykjavik, Iceland
The most visited attraction in Iceland, the Hallgrimskirkja church in Reykjavik, Iceland, is one of the more unique churches in the world.
It is designed to represent the ubiquitous basalt columns throughout the country, a glorious creation of volcanoes and glaciers. The cathedral incorporates this natural feature into its design quite elegantly.
The tallest building in Reykjavik, you can climb up to the church’s top for beautiful views over Iceland’s capital. At the front of the church is a statue of the Norse explorer Leif Erikson, the first known European to set foot on the North American continent before Christopher Columbus.
5. Ostrog Monastery Montenegro
Ostrog Monastery, the burial place of Saint Basil, is one of the fascinating places to see in Montenegro. Located in the mountains between Podgorica and Niksic, Ostrog is visited by more than 100,000 pilgrims yearly.
Carved into the vertical cliff face, it is a tradition for pilgrims to make the 3km journey barefoot from the lower monastery to the top of the mountain to pray in front of the body of Saint Basil. It is quite an astounding place.
6. Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen Bogota, Colombia
The Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen in Bogota, Colombia, is affectionately known as the “Candy Cane church.” It is unique because the entire church is constructed in alternating rows of red and white stone, and curlicue designs are painted on the outside doors.
This church is even more unique because the whimsical theme continues inside. The columns and pillars are red and white bricks, and the ceiling is painted blue, with little decorative flowers and little carved details throughout.
In many ways, this church almost feels like it belongs in a magical world, like something out of a fairytale. Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen is a delightful visit during your days in Bogota.
7. Sacre Coeur Paris France
Besides the Eiffel Tower, the Sacré Coeur Basilica is one of the most distinctive buildings in Paris. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart sits above Paris on the hill of Montmartre (Mountain of the Martyrs) with beautiful views over Paris.
Sacré Coeur is instantly recognizable by its iconic domes and the beautiful white travertine stone used to construct the church.
Entry to the basilica is free, but going up into the domes will cost €8.
This is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Paris, France, for a good reason – the church is quite remarkable and should be on any Paris itinerary.
8. Metropolitan Cathedral Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Catedral Metropolitana de São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, dedicated to Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of Rio de Janeiro, is one of the most unique churches in the world.
The fusion of modern futuristic design took inspiration from the ancient Mayan pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, to solve some of the architectural challenges of the church. One of the main challenges in the interior is the long 200-foot-long rectangles of stained glass on each of the four sides, which start at the ground and end at the very top of the ceiling, where they form a cross.
The cathedral is constructed in the shape of a Mesoamerican pyramid but is made of reinforced concrete instead of stone. The concrete design allows the cathedral to have a much larger interior than a traditional pyramid, creating an airy feel inside with one large unified space.
In many ways, it resembles a conference center or an auditorium more than a “classic” cathedral style with its wide doors and open seating.
9. Mont St Michel Normandy, France
Mont St Michel is a small island off the coast of Normandy, France, with a tiny village and Benedictine abbey dating back to the 10th century.
The Abbey became a significant place of religious pilgrimage but earned the nickname “City of the Books” as it became a center for medieval culture thanks to the number of manuscripts being produced and collected at the abbey.
One of the oldest UNESCO sites, the abbey has withstood over 13 centuries of history on its unique island location.
Mont St Michel cuts a very impressive picture with the abbey rising up from the center of the tiny island that is entirely at the mercy of the tide. Always accessible by the causeway built in the 1800s, give or take a few times a year, it is possible to take a walk around the island at low tide.
10. Washington National Cathedral USA
Washington National Cathedral, in Washington DC, USA, is an incredibly eclectic mix of sacred and secular in a building that looks very old but is relatively new.
This Episcopalian church was constructed in the 1900s and wasn’t finished until 1990. Designed in the Gothic style, the cathedral was intended to play a role similar to Westminster Abbey – a national shrine and a venue for great services, “a house of prayer for all people.”
There have been a lot of state services at the Washington National Cathedral, including burials and memorials for notable Americans, including Helen Keller, George Dewey, and Woodrow Wilson.
President Wilson, the only president interred here, was buried in the cathedral’s crypt in 1924 but was moved up to the nave in 1956. The cathedral has also hosted funerals and services for Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford, Bush, and other notable Americans, including Helen Keller, George Dewey, and Woodrow Wilson.
The cathedral has a fascinating mix of religious, patriotic, and secular symbolism. Look to the 240 stained glass windows to see representations of Bible verses, the three arms of the US government, and some otherworldly celestial features. One has a rock from the moon in the center of it.
The exterior boasts unique features, including a small Darth Vader gargoyle on the northwest tower. You may need binoculars to see it.
11. Zipaquira Salt Cathedral Bogota, Colombia
About 1.5 hours from Bogota, Colombia, is the Zipaquira Salt Cathedral. It’s incredibly unique, as it’s located 200 meters underground in a working salt mine. It was constructed in the 1950s by miners, who worked overtime to create this salty cathedral.
There are several large soaring rooms for worship and 14 individual chapels leading up to the main worship areas, depicting the last days of Christ’s life through carvings on the rock.
This cathedral is still a functioning mine, a tourist attraction, and a working Catholic church. Zipaquira Salt Cathedral welcomes up to 3000 worshippers every week and thousands of tourists daily.
12. Cologne Cathedral Germany
The Cologne Cathedral in Germany is the second tallest church in the world, with towering twin steeples, classic Gothic architecture, and a notably dark exterior (thanks to the sandstone reacting with sulphuric rain).
Besides its height, there are two other notable things about the Cologne Cathedral. The city of Cologne suffered heavy bombing during World War II – in particular, one night, there were over 1500 tons of bombs dropped on the city. The Cologne Cathedral took 14 direct hits that night but somehow remained standing.
The cathedral also holds the relics of the Three Magi or Three Wise Men. A very ornate, golden shrine houses these relics behind the cathedral’s high altar.
Entry to the church is free, but for €6, you can climb over 500 steps up the south tower for a beautiful view over the city.
13. Cathédrale Saint-Nicolas Nice France
The Russian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Nicholas is one of the most important and oldest Russian Orthodox buildings outside of Russia.
Classified as a “Historical Monument,” the Orthodox cathedral is inspired by the churches of Russia with unique onion domes and richly decorated interiors.
You can stop by the cathedral and explore the inside between 10 am-6 pm when services are not on. Note that no pictures are allowed inside.
14. Black Church of Budir Iceland
The tiny wooden black church in Budir, Iceland, on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, is popular with photographers thanks to the minimalist church set in one of Iceland’s striking flat lava fields.
Built in 1703 and rebuilt in 1848, the iconic Black Church is covered with tar to protect the wood from deteriorating.
15. Basilica of St John the Baptist Georgia, USA
Located in Savannah, Georgia, USA, The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist combines traditional French Gothic style with a heavy dose of Southern charm.
Founded in 1700 by the first French Colonists, the original early structures were destroyed by fire in 1898 but was quickly rebuilt to incorporate magnificent gothic features such as the twin spires and stained glass rosary in the center.
The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist is consistently in the top 10 historic sites in the United States and a “must-see” in Savannah.
The church is open for self or guided tours except during mass times. A donation of $3 is requested.
16. Tan Dinh Church Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tan Dinh Church, formally known as the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus but to locals as the Pink Church, is considered one of the most beautiful churches in Ho Chi Minh City.
A rare sight in a predominately Buddhist country known for its temples and pagodas, Tan Dinh was built during the late 1800s, during the French colonial period of French Indochina.
Built-in a combination of Gothic, Romanian, and Baroque styles, the church received its first coat of vivid pink with white trim inside and out in 1957 during a major restoration, and the beloved hue of the pink church has remained.
17. Borgund Stave Church Norway
A Stave Church is built with wooden vertical boards (or staves). During the middle ages, when impressive stone cathedrals were being built throughout Europe, a similar style took root in Norway on a smaller scale using wood instead of stone.
It is estimated as many as 2000 stave churches existed, intricately carved to combine Christian motifs and Viking themes. Today, there are 28 remaining churches across the country, the oldest preserved wooden churches in Christianity.
Borgund Stave Church is one of the more famous stave churches, built around 1180 and dedicated to the Apostle Andrew. The church is a unique example of impressive medieval architecture and is exceptionally well preserved.
18. Thorncrown Chapel Arkansas, USA
Nestled in Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains forest among maples, pines, and oaks, Thorncrown Chapel is a tranquil yet majestic design by architect E. Fay Jones.
It is the most celebrated architecture in Arkansas, winning five design awards and being named the fourth–best building of the twentieth century. Less than 35 years old, it is already on the U.S. Historic register.
Bringing the outdoors inside, the 48-foot tall structure comprises wooden trusses supporting 425 windows and over 6000 square feet of glass, evoking a peaceful feeling of melding with nature. It is undoubtedly one of the more unique churches in the world.
Final Thoughts on the Most Beautiful Churches in the World
The churches on this list are varied – From colorfully painted churches to underground cathedrals and futuristic designs that play on the landscape.
But all of them evoke a sense of awe and wonder at the design and magnificence of the building and surroundings.