Top 16 Most Spectacular Cathedrals in the World

I have made over 200 blog posts here and it’s been a wonderful “Knycx journey”, recording my footsteps traveling around the world. Although I may have some serious backlog I am trying my best to get there. I hope that readers would find the information useful in some ways and do feel free to leave comments to me for any feedback or questions.

So…I wonder what should I be sharing this time, and I think it would be great to celebrate it with a compilation of the Cathedrals in Europe ~ 🙂 It is a list of my choices of the most “memorable” cathedrals in Europe. They are at the top of the list based on their look, their scale, or their uniqueness. It was quite difficult for me to narrow it down and pick them from thousands of cathedrals across Europe so maybe you have other recommendations. I am looking forward to hearing about your experience!

#16 Berliner Dom

Berlin, Germany

Highlight: The largest and most important Protestant church in Berlin

Berliner Dom is the largest cathedral in Berlin – it is the Evangelical Supreme Parish and Collegiate Church and it is a striking architecture that stood on the UNESCO heritage-listed Museum Island. Interestingly, Berliner Dom has never actually been a church because it has never been the seat of a bishop. The establishment of the “dom” dates back to the 14th century when Frederick II Irontooth of Brandenburg moved to the island and decided to elevate the chapel to a parish church. However, the colossal building that we see today was built between 1895 and 1905 (yes, this church was considered a Protestant counterweight to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City), with the order by Emporer William II, in neo-renaissance style. This is a fine example of Prussian Historicist architecture. It was devastated during World War II and closed during the GDR times. The restoration work only began to take place in 1975, and re-opened to the public in 1993, with a lot of decorations simplified.

I put this on the list because of its significance and representation of  Berlin in Germany these days. While it’s been badly destroyed, the interior has an opulent manifest, filled with marble columns and gilded ornaments. Another must-see inside the Dom is the pipe organ, built by Wilhelm Sauer, and has more than 7,000 pipes.

#15 York Minster

York, United Kingdom

Highlight: “Look back” to the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world

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York is one of the most visited towns in England as it screams “England” to the utmost. The well-preserved medieval galore in this city has attracted waves of visitors to feel the Harry Potter vibe as if everyone has traveled back in time to the 14th century. The magnificent York Minster is the focal point of York’s old town, and it is the second-highest office of the Church of England. Although it may look too much alike with any typical Gothic-style cathedral in the rest of Europe, the West Window and the Great East Window, finished in 1338 and 1408 respectively, are the largest expanse of medieval stained glass in the world! So, don’t forget to “look back” when you enter the Cathedral from the front door and that’s how I was amazed by the delicacy and refinement of an art piece that was preserved so for over 670 years.

For the photos and more places to see in York, check out The Best Things to Do in York… in English Style.

 

#14 Tuomiokirkko

Helsinki, Finland

Highlight: The unique presence of a Lutheran Cathedral and appreciation of “simplicity”

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The Helsinki Cathedral (or Tuomiokirkko) was originally called the Nicholas’ Church (from Tsar Nicholas) until the independence of Finland in 1917. It is also the most photographed building in Finland, as it uniquely stands in the heart of the city overlooking the majestic Senate Square.

True, the interior of the cathedral is not as “mind-blowing or jaw-dropping” as many other Roman churches but the brightening white exterior and green domes are one-of-a-kinds. The unique design makes it memorable. The church was built in the 1800s and I appreciate the simplicity of its Neo-classical style as the image of this church kind of stuck in my head ever since I saw a picture of it dominating the city’s skyline.

Having said that, there are some Russian orthodox-style churches in the city that are beautiful, yet the Helsinki Cathedral is still the center of attention.

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Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church) – a popular attraction in Helsinki

I would also like to take a moment and talk about the Temppeliaukio Church (Rock Church), which is another Lutheran church in Helsinki that was built directly into the solid rock. How cool is that? It has a copper dome and a pipe organ, making it another must-see in Helsinki!

For the photos and more places to see in Helsinki, check out How to Spend 4 Days Experiencing the Best of Helsinki’s Winter.

#13 St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Vienna, Austria

Highlight: The impressive artsy mosaic-tiled rooftop unlike anywhere else

The foundation of St. Stephen’s Cathedral dates back to the 12th century and it is the symbol of Austria’s capital, Vienna. Thirteen bells were hung in the cathedral, but the largest bell Pummerin is the second-largest free-swinging chimed church bell in Europe.

One of the most impressive features of the cathedral is definitely the artistic mosaic-tiled roof, 38-meter above ground, covered by over 230,000 pieces of glazed tiles. While it’s not the only church in the world (but only a few) that features an image or pattern (other examples are St. Mark Church‘s roof in Zagreb, Croatia, and Matthias Church in Budapest, Hungary), St Stephen’s Cathedral is definitely the most memorable and unique. The north side of the roof features two eagles (one represents the City of Vienna and the other for the Republic of Austria). The south side of the roof features an image of a double-headed eagle (it was a symbol of the Austrian empire when it was ruled by the Habsburgs).

While the roof is eye-catchy and impressive, the cathedral also a hidden message carved into a front door’s stone: O and 5. O5 which is interpreted as an abbreviation for Österreich (Austria), is a sign of resistance during WWII against the Nazis.

Today, the cathedral is also a performance venue for classical music concerts and the perfect location to enjoy a perfect city view of the city.

#12 St. Vitus Cathedral

Prague, Czech Republic

Highlight: The largest cathedral in Prague took 600 years to complete

St. Vitus Cathedral is the largest and the most important temple in Prague. Situated entirely within the majestic Prague Castle, this cathedral was built on top of a much smaller Romanesque church and it’s also the venue for numerous religious services, coronations of Czech kings and queens, and the burial place of many patron saints, sovereigns, noblemen, and archbishops. Charles IV, one of the most notable Czech kings, was also buried here.

The cathedral is literally the first landmark you will see entering Prague Castle. While you would think there is a church in Spain that takes forever to build – it is yet to be the world’s champion because St Vitus Cathedral took over 600 years to truly complete! The construction began as early as 1344 when the seat of Prague was elevated to an archbishopric. Then, because of the Hussite Wars (1419) and multiple fires, the development suffered from a series of setbacks. The cathedral was left unfinished for centuries and eventually finished in the year of 1929. While it stood unfinished, it still functioned as a place of worship, and a number of imperial events took place there.

The cathedral is filled with beautiful stain glass windows, the most notable one is done by Alfons Mucha. Don’t forget to see the sculptures and compartments behind the altar of the cathedral, and pay respect to St. Wenceslas Tomb in the St. Wenceslas Chapel.

To find out more about how to cover Prague’s Old Town on foot, check out Your Free City Walking Guide in Prague’s Old Town for Bohemian Rhapsody.

#11 St. Mark’s Basilica

Venice, Italy

Highlight: The flooding, the sinking… and ooh the pigeons, save Venice!

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Of course, the St Mark’s Basilica (or Basilica San Marco) has the sculptures, the frescos, the mosaic, and the treasures that many cathedrals have, but I am not sure if there’s any other cathedral in the world that has an uneven marble floor. The rise and fall of the mosaic were actually caused by flooding (which has been a constant struggle of Venice), but somehow it gave the pattern a nice effect and created ripples that look like waves in the ocean.

Piazza San Marco, in front of the Basilica di San Marco (btw, one of my fav cathedrals in the world)
It was the first time I traveled alone, and this was the first spot, the first SELFIE.

St. Mark’s Basilica was built in the 9th century (then burnt down and restored a couple of times) and it’s a fine example of Italo-Byzantine architecture – because both Byzantine and Italian architectures and craftsmen were employed in the construction and decoration. In some sense, the cathedral does look like a mosque (if you have seen the Blue Mosque in Instanbul, you will notice the resemblance). The interesting mix of design and its location at the “finest drawing room in Europe” definitely makes everyone give it a “WOW”.

For the photos and more places to see in Venice, check out Run! Run! Venice: How to Conquer the Floating City in One Day!

#10 Kölner Dom

Cologne, Germany

Highlight: The largest façade of any church in the world and how to take a picture of it bending backward

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Welcome to one of the world’s largest cathedrals – the mighty Cologne Cathedral (Or Kölner Dom), a Classic Roman Catholic Church dating back to the mid-13th century. It is definitely the most eye-catching landmark in Cologne and basically the first thing people would see as it is right next to the Cologne train station. The construction of the façade of the cathedral began in the mid-14th century and then it was halted in 1473, the cathedral’s south tower was left undone with construction cranes that remained on top for 400 years! The construction resumed in 1842 and finally completed in 1880.

The Cathedral was once the tallest skyscraper in the world for 4 years until the Washington Monument was erected and beat it by 4 meters. But still, the cathedral remained the tallest Gothic building in the world with the largest façade of a church. Therefore, “be warned”, taking a picture of the entire façade of the Cathedral could be a challenge without a lens wide enough.

For the photos and more places to see in both Düsseldorf and Cologne, check out A Blogger’s Guide of Things to See & Do in Düsseldorf and Cologne.

#9 Hallgrímskirkja

Reykjavík, Iceland

Highlight: The unique design that resembles basalt lava flows, not a space shuttle (as much as how extraterrestrial Iceland looks)

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother iconic Lutheran Cathedral (while the Helsinki Cathedral is the other one) in North Europe. Of all the classic extravagant churches that were built all over Europe, these churches managed to stand out from the “norm” with their futuristic and simplistic design, standing like a space shuttle in the city center of Rekjavik. Yeah, some say the cathedral looks like a space shuttle but in fact, the design resembles the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s extraterrestrial landscape. The tallest building in Iceland was located on a hill and could be seen almost anywhere in the capital of the country.

My experience of visiting the northernmost capital in the world was simply incredible, and I enjoyed a panoramic view of Reykjavík at the top of the bell tower with colorful rooftops, glaciers, the Atlantic Ocean, and beyond…

For the photos and more places to see in Venice, check out Exploring Reykjavik: Itinerary from the Capital to Southwest.

Panoramic view of Reykjavík at the top of the cathedral – can you also spot Harpa, the concert hall that’s one of the most impressive modern architecture in Europe?

#8 Duomo di Milano

Milan, Italy

Highlight: The cathedral with the most number of statues

The facade of the Duomo di Milano is for sure the most photographed and you won’t be mistaken with Milan to anywhere else. It is the fifth-largest Christian Church in the world, covering a surface of 109,641 square feet (the size of an entire city block). I think this is one of the few cathedrals in Europe that has a really high density of sculptures inside and out. Walk around the building from the outside, I was told there are more statues than any other building in the world (with a total of 3,400 statues, 135 gargoyles, and 700 figures). Like the St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague, the Duomo’s construction officially started in 1386 under the order of Bishop Antonio da Saluzzo. It took thousands of workers and 78 architects until the year 1418, the consecration put the project on halt due to lots of political and financial difficulties. The construction kept on for another 200 years, and the facade was only completed by Napoleon in the early 19th century.

Like many other cathedrals, visitors can climb to the top and enjoy a glorious view of the city and beyond. In Milan, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is on the right of the cathedral with a beautiful glass ceiling, and you will be able to see the snow-capped peaks of the Alps.

#7 Westminster Abbey

London, United Kingdom

Highlight: A connection with the royal family means everything

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Westminster Abbey was anything anyone could talk about. Located in the heart of Westminster in London next to the Parliament, Big Ben, and all iconic structures, Westminster Abbey has been there since 1000 years ago where countless monumental events were held at the Abbey. Since 1560, the building was no longer an abbey nor a cathedral, but a Church of England “Royal Peculiar” – which means instead of the diocese the building was subject to the direct jurisdiction of the monarch. From the coronations of kings and queens (with a few exceptions), royal weddings, funerals to burials, they were all taken place in the Westminster Abbey. Therefore it has a supreme status and close ties with the Royal families. On “usual” days, though, civilians like me could still enter the building for the daily service to worship, or a guided tour to marvel.

By the way, the Westminster Cathedral, which you might get mix up with, is a completely different building that looks completely different from the abbey! In case you want to know what it looks like – check out London in a nutshell and you might find a picture of it.

#6 Santa Maria Del Fiore

Florence, Italy

Highlight: The largest cathedral dome in the world painted with world-class fresco

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florence-1Standing at the Michelangelo Square, there’s the view of the city of Florence with a striking and eye-catching dome that dominates the skyline. The Giant dome of Santa Maria Del Fiore is the largest cathedral dome, and the largest brick and mortar one, in the world. How it was built remained a mystery as the architect Filippo Brunelleschi left no sketch or evidence about the know-how of constructing such a massive structure with only bricks and mortar 600 hundred years ago.

Not only the dome has incredible “hardware”, but also incredible “software” as it was painted by the architect’s student with the fresco of “Last Judgment”.

Besides, the polychrome marble panels in various shades of green and pink were marvelous. Not only that, the breathtaking experience of climbing up 463 stairs to the top of the dome for a gorgeous panoramic view of the city. I could take a really close look at the fresco on the way up there. Florence – Cathedrals, churches, mansions, and palaces… it takes days to look at them all! Check out The Birthplace of Renaissance.

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Honorary Mentions

Okay, before heading to the top 5 of my picks, let’s list out some of the honorary mentions: Bourges Cathedral and Chartres Cathedral in France, Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, Salisbury Cathedral, and Durham Cathedral (oh of course!) in England, St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, Porto Cathedral (and Tram #28), Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula in Brussels, Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, and Matthias Church in Budapest… the list goes on…

#5 Hagia Sophia

Istanbul, Turkey

Highlight: The building withstood 1400 years of chaos and it remained powerful and strong. Embrace changes and persevere!

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instanbul-1The Byzantine-style building has undergone quite a few transformations over the last 1400 years. Originally an Orthodox church, it then became a Roman Catholic church.

Later, it was again converted to a mosque, and finally (not many people actually realize that) it was secularized and converted into a museum. Although it’s not a place of worship anymore, I could feel the sense of sanctuary washed over me as I entered the museum and I could see traces of both Christian and Muslim religion here and there. In a city like Istanbul, the only transcontinental metropolis that straddles the Bosphorus Strait between Europe and Asia, it’s also a symbol of the mix of oriental and western culture. It is simply unique. We arrived at the museum early in the morning before it opened and immediately it was swarmed with tourists from all over the world.

Learn more about must-visit places in Istanbul, check out A Traveler’s Guide to Istanbul: The Best of Asia and Europe.

#4 Notre Dame

Paris, France

Highlight: Paris would always have a place in my heart 🙂 

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Of all the beautiful Gothic cathedrals in Europe, the Notre Dame is a classic and of its genre. Standing in the historic center of the city, Île de la Cité, the cathedral is a symbol of Paris’s culture and history. Notre Dame de Paris was built in the 1240s and every part of the structure was art. The north rose window, the flying buttresses, the gargoyle statue, the tympanum of the last judgment, and the altar… it would take days to appreciate them one by one.

I always stayed in the area every time I visited Paris and sometimes I could see the beautiful cathedral from the window. Hop on a Seine River Cruise to view the architecture from the water, or go in and climb the stairs to view the city from the tower. Either way, they just make my love of Paris grew more and more.

The fire in 2019 was devastating – by the time the structure fire was extinguished, the building’s spire had collapsed and most of its roof had been destroyed and its upper walls were severely damaged. But it won’t change my love for this epic architecture and I will keep it at rank #4.

More, the Île de la Cité has a lot of historic attractions and I would also like to recommend the La Sainte-Chapelle, simply because the royal chapel looks completely ordinary from the outside but it has the most extensive 13th-century stained glass collection anywhere in the world. Once I got in I was just “surprised”.

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#3 Saint Basil’s Cathedral

Moscow, Russia

Highlight: Amazing thing comes in a small package

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother Cathedral was converted into a museum yet its religious flavor didn’t quite fade away. The Red Square in Moscow was intense to me – simply because as grand as the square already is, every side and every corner of it stands an important Russian building or monument that was insane. Among these buildings, the Saint Basil’s Cathedral managed to be the most eye-catching and recognizable of all. I am not sure if it was the Kremlin or GUM that looked so massive, or it really was true; my first impression of the Saint Basil’s Cathedral was kind of …. tiny. Great things may come in a small package. Once I got into the museum it didn’t has a grand hall that most cathedrals had and instead, there were passages that connected us to different rooms of different churches (the churches actually consisted of seven churches around the central core.) Anyway, the small size was made up of amazing frescos and valuable artifacts on display. The museum has 2 floors – the ground floor is a foundation of the building and the churches are on the second floor.

Interesting, the layout of the cathedral was in perfect symmetry – a core in the center, four middle-sized churches built on the four compass points, and other smaller churches diagonally placed between the middle-sized churches. With multiple colors, sizes, and careful placements, the architectural wonder looks great and different from any angle and distance.

See the photos of Red Square and get more travel tips on visiting Moscow, check out How to Spend 4 Days Discovering Moscow’s Best with the City Pass and Moscow! Onion Domes!

#2 Saint’s Peter’s Cathedral

Vatican, Italy

Highlight: The LARGEST church in the world. Period.

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If you agree that size doesn’t mean everything then I am about to conflict with everything I just said. I have never seen anything that’s quite big (Of course, Saint Peter’s Basilica is the largest cathedral in the world, and it’s FOUR times larger than the second-largest cathedral in the world in terms of volume) and trust me: it was impressive, jaw-dropping, wowing. I had to gasp in awe as I enter because it was just so… huge. Every corner there is a sculpture, and every corner there is an art. My heading was spinning at all angles I was worried that I broke my neck. Of course, there were thousands of artworks worth admiration, and I would probably go back to Rome to appreciate them one by one.

Talking about sending a postcard back home and the Vatican and throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain over the shoulder…

About my trip to Rome in 24 hours – Check out Run! Run! Rome: How to Conquer the Eternal City in One Day.

#1 Sagrada Família

Barcelona, Spain

Highlight: If you have passion, you get inspired.

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Antoni Gaudi’s organic and unique style in architecture has influenced the world profoundly and I admire his work so much for a long time. “Organic” is such a great, and truthful word to describe Gaudi’s work. He regarded a building as a human body covered with skin, the structure itself was flesh and bones, so it’s curvy, and it has an element of randomness to the way he created art. Antoni Gaudi has countless masterpieces left behind and his final unfinished project, the Sagrada Familia, alone is already a lot to talk about.

It’s been under construction for 135 years and probably would take 20 more years to build. His organic interpretation of nature and how he applied it to his architectural work just amazed me profoundly. I am the MOST passionate (& fascinated :P) about the 2 façades – the Nativity Façade and the Passion Façade. One of them is complicated, classic, and busy. The opposite one is clean, simple, modern… The Nativity Façade depicts the birth of Jesus Christ, sculptures (plants and animals and saints) organically ornate the façade without an inch of blank space. The Passion Façade represents the Passion of Christ. The entire storyline is vividly laid out one by one on the façade with modern giant sculptures.

The 2 façades face Northeast and Southwest, forward and backward, covered and bare, hard and soft, organic and passionate, life and death…

Check out the 4 Gaudi’s amazing works in Barcelona and more photos at the 10 Greatest Gaudí Sites in Barcelona.

Must-see list of La Sagrada Familia:

  1. Passion Facade:
    Among the Fachada de la Pasion’s stand-out features are the angled columns, dramatic scenes from Jesus’ last hours, an extraordinary rendering of the Last Supper, and a bronze door that reads like a sculptured book. But the most surprising view is from inside the door on the extreme right.
  2. Main Nave
    The majestic Nave Principal showcases Gaudi’s use of tree motifs for columns to support the domes: he described this space as a forest. But it’s the skylights that give the nave its luminous quality, even more so once the scaffolding is removed and light will flood down onto the apse and the main altar from the skylight 75m above the floor.
  3. Side Nave and Nativity Transept
    Although beautiful in its own right with windows that project light into the interior, this is the perfect place to view the sculpted tree-like columns and get an overall perspective of the main nave. Turn around and you’re confronted with the inside of the Nativity Facade, an alternative view that most visitors miss: the stained-glass windows are superb.
  4. Nativity Facade
    The Fachada del Nacimiento is Gaudi’s grand hymn to Creation. Begin by viewing it front-on from a distance, then draw close enough (but to one side) to make out the details of its sculpted figures. The complement to the finely wrought details is the majesty of the four parabolic towers that for the sky and are topped by the Venetian stained glasses.
  5. The Model of Colonia Guell
    among the many original models used by Gaudi in the Museu Gaudi, the most interesting is the church at Colonia Guell. From the side you can, thanks to the model’s ingenious use of rope and cloth, visualize the harmony and beauty of the interior.

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