This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
We know cathedrals for their beauty in design, as well as their astounding histories. We often hear about the towering churches in Venice and Paris – their incredible architecture, artifacts, frescoes, and mosaics. A cathedral is a church that houses a bishop, and there are many throughout the world.
I’ll describe five cathedrals throughout the globe, worth visiting – not only for their powerful spiritual presence, but for their history, culture, and art. We’ll travel to five different countries, each with their own unique flavor and style, and each with their own amazing cathedral.
#1 Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence, Italy
Our first destination lies in the heart of Florence, Italy – a country well-known for their beautiful churches, from small village places of worship to the massive basilicas of Venice and Rome. The Santa Maria del Fiore, which translates to the “Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower”, lies in the heart of Florence and was built in the mid-1300’s. Although you can witness the Italian Gothic architecture from the outside, the true magic of this cathedral is inside its walls.
This massive building is home to countless pieces of art which date back centuries, including frescoes, intricate clocks, stained glass, and sculptures – in fact, the Florence Cathedral was the original home of Michelangelo’s “Pieta”. The bell tower and dome are stunning on their own, but even more amazing are the finely detailed stone reliefs that adorn the walls.
The Santa Maria del Fiore is far from the only church to see in Florence, but it is among the most beautiful in the world. After visiting here, take a walk through the city to see other historical buildings, art galleries, and, of course, sample the famous Italian cuisine.
#2 St. John the Divine Cathedral, New York, USA
New York City may not seem like a hot spot for major church sightseeing, but the St. John the Divine Cathedral is certainly worthy of our list. This Episcopal cathedral is the largest in the world and one of the biggest church buildings in the world – top five, to be exact. Its size doesn’t sacrifice quality over quantity, however, and this church is home to a rich architectural and cultural history.
The building itself offers art and architecture lovers hours of fascinating discovery, and features styles ranging from Gothic Revival and Romanesque to more modern Masonic construction. The interior hosts stained glass and statues that explore many of humanities’ greatest feats.
While the history may be enough to satisfy any curious visitor, St. John the Divine Cathedral doesn’t live in the past. The church is home to a congregation of 400 members, hosts baptisms and weddings, and has an active Gospel choir. The thriving spiritual community of St. John’s is definitely not one to miss.
#3 St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, England
Our next cathedral calls London its home and, like St. John’s, has an active and vibrant spiritual community. St. Paul’s Cathedral sits at the highest point in London and towers high into the sky with its prominent dome – which was the tallest building in London for nearly 200 years. This Anglican cathedral holds a deep religious history, and offers visitors access to unique historical and artistic collections from all around the world.
Once again, this church is far from a relic. In addition to guided and independent tours of the building, the church hosts regular services, blessings, and even adult learning courses to bolster the faith and education of its congregation and the public.
#4 Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France
We take our journey back to the more traditional destinations for architectural and religious travel – France. The Chartres Cathedral in Chartres, France, is widely acclaimed as one of the most beautiful cathedrals – if not buildings – in France. In addition to traditional Gothic style, you’ll also see neo-Gothic architecture that is truly stunning.
While the Chartres Cathedral holds stained glass, sculpture, and history worthy of full exploration by any visitor, some of the most incredible features of this cathedral are far more unique. The construction allows no direct light inside, only light filtered through stained glass, which leaves visitors with a heightened sense of spiritual intensity and connection to the interior. At the center of the building lies a labyrinth – which is still open for walking. Only an hour away from Paris, this is a worthy excursion for any European venture.
#5 Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
Our final destination takes us to Istanbul, Turkey – a city with a rich religious and cultural history which still shapes the city. Hagia Sophia, which translates to “Holy Wisdom” is a Greek Orthodox cathedral that is known worldwide for its impressive Byzantine architecture and vibrant, and sometimes tense, history.
Hagia Sophia is no longer used for religious services. However, it remains a deeply spiritual location for many, and is located in an area of Istanbul where many different faiths meet. For those interested in a more in-depth look at Turkey’s religious history, start up the GPS (like one of these best ABC watches for the money) and make your way to the nearby Blue Mosque – another building of Byzantine construction that features many similar (and many unique) features, as well as its own impressive history.
We’ve taken you on a journey around the world to some of the most incredible cathedrals ever built – but there are many more we didn’t list. You can explore the churches, basilicas, and cathedrals where you are, too. The histories you’ll find may surprise you!
Guest Author Bio:
Rebecca Crawford lives in the USA, but loves hiking all over the world. Her favorite is Everest Base Camp Trek in Nepal. It usually takes 16 days, but she likes to slow down, enjoy the mountains, the company of other adventurers and take more pictures, so it took her 28 days the last time. Another passion is the ocean, so she loves hiking along the ocean shore. Rebecca also writes for HikingMastery.com.
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I realize how much I’ve seen….and how much I haven’t seen! I’ve seen most of these, but the others are now on my list.
I’ve toured St. John’s in NYC. I was bummed because I didn’t take a wide angle lens with me and couldn’t fit in the entire front of the cathedral in my frame! New York has 18 cathedrals (I think that’s the correct number) and I want to see them all. I’ve stepped foot in four of them but I have quite a few to go.
I so love seeing historic cathedrals when I travel so I appreciate this round-up. I haven’t seen any of them, and they are all beautiful. I particularly like Hagia Sophia.
I’ve been to the Duomo in Florence! Absolutely loved it. Photos can’t even do it justice – it’s just so giant and majestic and beautiful!
I agree! I’m currently reading a book about the building of the dome and it’s a fascinating architectural feat! I wish I’d read the book before I went to Florence!
I’ve seen all of these except for the one in New York! Adding it to my list now 🙂
Oh Wow, I am actually quite a cathedral buff but can you believe it, I haven’t been inside any of these churches yet! I have been outside St Paul’s in London but I don’t think that that counts…? I have seen Michelangelo’s “Pieta” though which is now houses St Peter’s Basilica. It’s behind glass because some madman once tried to destroy it with an axe, can you believe it?
I know — isn’t that crazy!? Such a beautiful sculpture; why anyone would want to destroy it, I can’t fathom. I have also seen the Pieta!
I loved Florence Cathedral when I visited – a stunning place, but then the whole of the city is amazing. As a Londoner, St Paul’s is my personal favourite – and I’d recommend going for evensong because whether or not you are religious the music is wonderful (and free!).
I usually skip churches as I suffer from the ABC (Another Bloody Church) Syndrome. But none of these fall into that category. They’re all must-see! I’ve only been to the Duomo and Hagia Sofia, so I still have some traveling to do.
Wow! It’s the first time I saw and hear about Hagia Sophia and it looks so “different” and it’s probably the one that caught my attention.
Nice list! I’ve seen three of those in person. Though Istanbul was a trip of a lifetime, I really love St. John the Divine in NYC. We have visited it many times.
I’ve seen three on your list 😀
Hagia Sofia may have been my favourite of all. I find its history fascinating that it’s been a mix of different faiths over the years. Istanbul is incredible from a history point of view.
I love Chartres as a day trip from Paris, but I also recommend Reims which has a nice cathedrale too. To be honest, my favourite place for these kinds of monuments near Paris is Rouen. Cathedrale + Abbatiale + many other churches (and buildings) all in the town centre within 15 minutes walk of each other.
There’s something so special about Santa Maria del Fiore. The Duomo was one of the first places I ever visited overseas and it hold such precious memories for me. And I have to agree with you that it it would have to be one the most beautiful cathedrals in the world
I love exploring cathedrals. It’s amazing the details and workmanship that went into these. They’re just gorgeous.
That’s an interesting list of cathedrals. I’m surprised you didn’t list the Vatican, Thanks for the fun fact that the Florence Cathedral first housed the “Pietra.” Love the architecture of the Hagia. Once the Turkey situation dies down, I’m planning a visit.