Regardless of your own spirituality, these great cathedrals are historic and architectural achievements you’ll find fascinating to see and explore.
St. Paul’s Cathedral – London, England
Designed by Sir Christopher Wren to replace a church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, St. Paul’s is one of the world’s most famous cathedrals. Built in a mere 35 years, the baroque-style church reveals inspiration and craftsmanship on a grand scale. Among its many treasures are mosaics from the Victorian Age, the Whispering Gallery, and numerous carvings and statutes.
Notre-Dame de Paris – Paris, France
Notre-Dame de Paris, a spectacular example of Gothic architecture, is another of the world’s finest cathedrals. Begun in 1163, the cathedral took more than 200 years to complete. No expense was spared to create an edifice that reflected the Church’s rising power—from the spectacular rose windows to the soaring flying buttresses to the intricately carved gargoyles.
Hagia Sophia – Istanbul, Turkey
Originally a Byzantine church built in the sixth century, the Hagia Sophia served as a mosque for more than four centuries after the Ottoman conquest in 1453. Many people consider Hagia Sophia the supreme masterpiece of Byzantine architecture. Much of the gilding has faded, but the original church’s grandeur still remains in its vast proportions, wall paintings, and mosaics.
Rouen Cathedral – Rouen, France
Begun in the 12th century and finished several centuries later, Rouen’s Cathedral displays with great majesty the evolution of Gothic architecture. Nineteenth-century Impressionist Claude Monet immortalized the West Façade, a confection of stone detailing and 70 statues, in several of his works.
Chartres Cathedral – Chartres, France
Chartres Cathedral (1194-1260) is quite possibly the most beautiful expression of Gothic architecture in all of Europe. This masterpiece contains superb stained-glass windows—many of which are original to the 12th and 13th centuries—and wonderfully preserved statuary. Built on the site of a Romanesque church, the cathedral incorporates elements of the earlier church in the west portal. The mismatched towers on the west façade resulted after the north tower burned down. The banks of the Eure River provide magnificent views of the copper-roofed cathedral.
Reims Cathedral – Reims, France
Harmonious, monumental, and richly adorned, the Cathédrale Notre-Dame (1211-1311) in Reims is magnificent. Taking its cue from a contemporary at Chartres, Notre-Dame exhibits the same quadripartite rib vaulting, three-story elevation, and pier structure found in that cathedral. The cathedral witnessed and ordained the coronation of several kings. The last, that of Charles X, was in 1825.
Santa Maria del Fiore – Florence, Italy
Although more commonly known as the Duomo, the cathedral in Florence formally bears the name Santa Maria del Fiore—Saint Mary of the Flower, which refers to the lily, the symbol of Florence. The cathedral, designed by Arnolfo di Cambio in 1294 to rival the magnificence of the new cathedrals in Pisa and Siena, is unquestionably beautiful. Brunelleschi, a master of Renaissance architecture, designed and oversaw the construction of the famed dome.
Canterbury Cathedral – Canterbury, England
St. Augustine founded the first Canterbury Cathedral in 597; however, the oldest part of the present cathedral—the crypt—dates back only to the 11th century. Over time the cathedral acquired a 12th-century Gothic quire, a 15th-century nave, and additions constructed in the uniquely English perpendicular Gothic style. In medieval times, the cathedral was an important pilgrimage site. Notable tombs within the cathedral include King Henry IV and Edward the Black Prince. Trinity Chapel memorializes Thomas Becker, the archbishop who was killed here in 1170. The cathedral sits amid the remains of cloisters, a monastery, a chapter house, and a Norman water tower.
St. Sophia Cathedral – Novgorod, Russia
Dedicated in 1037, St. Sophia Cathedral was commissioned by Prince Yaroslav the Wise. Byzantine in layout and design, St. Sophia sits inside Novgorod’s Kremlin walls; it was the spiritual heart of the early Russian state and is still regarded as a treasure and a symbol of Novgorod. The cathedral’s gold dome denotes its importance. None of the other cathedrals in Novgorod have gold domes. The exquisite 12th-century bronze gate of the west entrance, used only on select occasions, was brought back from Sigtuna, then the capital of Sweden.
St. John the Divine – New York, New York
Rising above Morningside Heights north of Central Park, the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine is a stunning masterpiece of medieval-style architecture against the backdrop of one of the world’s most modern cities. Begun in 1892, the interior is Romanesque with Byzantine overtones; the exterior has Gothic touches. The spectacular nave is 284 feet long and 128 feet high. The Cathedral was rededicated and its entire interior reopened to the public in November 2008.
THE GREAT SYNAGOGUE – Budapest, Hungary
Also known as the Dohány Street Synagogue, it is the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It seats 3,000 people and is a centre of Neolog Judaism. The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival style, with the decoration based chiefly on Islamic models from North Africa and medieval Spain (the Alhambra). The Synagogue complex consists of the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, the graveyard, and the fabulous Jewish Museum.
LA SAGRADA FAMILIA CATHEDRAL – Barcelona, Spain
Not sure whether it is beautiful or grotesque, it is definitely different. The first foundation stone was laid 144 years ago and came under the direction of Architect Antoni Gaudi shortly thereafter. A notable example of Gaudi’s innovation is the “leaning columns” (that is, columns which are not at right angles to the floor and ceiling). The ongoing construction of Sagrada Familia is paid for by tourism. When Sagrada Familia is complete in 2026, the church will have a total of 18 towers, each dedicated to a different religious figure, and each one hollow, allowing the placement of various types of bells which will sound with the choir. The architectural style of Sagrada Familia has been called “warped Gothic,” and it’s easy to see why.