Churches were once, not only a symbol of religious fervency but also a symbol of power for the rulers and royal authorities. Hence, several ambitious churches were built in the name of the Lord over many centuries and they continue to gain attention because of their iconic architecture and sheer size. Many of these churches were important sites in their times and witnessed some of the most dramatic and important events in human history. While most of them are in Europe, the seat of many imperial powers, some also travel to the Middle East to find the root of Christianity and be blessed by the grand churches there.
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Most famous churches in the world
Here are the top 12 most famous churches in the world.
1. SAGRADA FAMILIA, Barcelona, Spain
This Roman Catholic Church started construction in 1882, and never finished, due to its sheer size and complexity of the original plan. Located in Barcelona, Spain, the Sagrada Familia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was originally funded purely through private individuals. The good news is that the church was just recently (June 2019) given permission to resume construction, after 137 years. It is estimated that it will finish its long due construction in 2026, just in time for the death centenary of the original architect Antoni Gaudí. Gaudi’s work in the church is wildly inspired by the nature that surrounds it, with the columns in shape of twisted branches and other intricate interior details in the design that invoke similar naturalistic art.
2. SAINT BASIL’S CATHEDRAL, Moscow, Russia
One of the most recognizable structures in Russia, this church is located in the capital, Moscow, marking the center of the city. The unusual and colorful architecture is meant to make it look like the flame of a bonfire rising in the air. Built under the orders of Ivan the Terrible, it was completed in 1561 and was the tallest building in the city at the time. Because of its fame and mentions in several movies, it is often confused with the Moscow Kremlin, which is right across from the cathedral. But it is a part of the Kremlin along with the Red Square as a 1990 UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3. NOTRE DAME, PARIS, France
This church attracts more visitors than the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre in Paris. It was under construction for more than 100 years in the medieval period; between 1163 and 1345 AD. It is designed in gorgeous Gothic fashion, with two towers in symmetry, numerous statues, world’s largest church organs, a 13-ton bell and a tall central spire that burnt down in April 2019. The church overlooks the river and was the site of Napoleon’s coronation as Emperor of France in addition to funerals for several Presidents of the Republic. A huge part of French history, literature, culture and emotion, the cathedral is vital to the French people in terms of history and religion alike.
4. ST. PETER’S BASILICA, Vatican City
Probably the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture, this Roman Catholic Church is the seat of Papal power and the holiest Catholic church. It is located in Vatican City, an enclave within Italy and is said to be the site of St. Peter’s tomb, making it a pilgrimage spot for many devotees. The church, including the famed Sistine Chapel, and the basilica were designed and constructed at the height of the Renaissance by artists like Michelangelo and Bernini. With a capacity of holding 60,000 people, St. Peter’s Basilica has the tallest dome in the world at 136 meters. Originally the Old St. Peter’s Basilica stood at that site from the 4th to 16th century AD, before the current one was constructed from 1506 to 1626. Access to Vatican City is the easiest from Rome since the enclave resides within the city.
5. WESTMINSTER ABBEY, London, UK
Westminster Abbey is a famous Gothic church in the City of Westminster in London and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A church was originally found there in the 10th century and since 1066 it has been the site for coronation of English monarchs, for 16 royal weddings and 3300 burials of prominent people of British history. The Thames River and Westminster Palace are both located near this church and the Gothic architecture itself attracts many tourists and enthusiasts every year.
6. ST PAUL’S CATHEDRAL, London, UK
Cathedral Church of St. Paul the Apostle is also in London and sits on Ludgate Hill at the highest point of the entire city. It was also the tallest building in the city till 1967. The church dominates the skyline of its entire area and holds prominence as the seat of the Bishop of the Church of England. The original St. Paul’s Cathedral was built in 604 A.D., while the current church was built in the 17th century. The wedding of Lady Diana and Prince Charles, several royal celebrations and important funerals have been held here in the past, and it continues to hold significance culturally and religiously.
7. CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY, Bethlehem, Palestine
Located in Bethlehem, Palestine, this site is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus and is the oldest site of worship in Christianity which has continuously been used. The church was constructed under Constantine the Great in 327AD, and with numerous reconstructions and restorations through centuries today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. One would expect it to be more popular, being the birthplace of Jesus Christ himself, but the ongoing conflict in Palestine refrains many worshippers from traveling to this sacred site. Due to lack of proper care, the site is also on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.
8. CHURCH OF THE HOLY SEPULCHRE, Jerusalem, Israel
Also called the Church of the Resurrection or Church of the Anastasis, the church site is said to be where Jesus was crucified and then resurrected. Since its creation in the 4th century in the Old City within Jerusalem, it has been a site of pilgrimage for generations of Christians. The two of the holiest sites in Christianity are found here, the crucifixion site of Jesus and the other with Jesus’s empty tomb where he was buried and then resurrected. It is a part of the Status Quo agreement among religious agreements to keep different places of worship intact and free from conflict.
9. SAINT MARK’S BASILICA, Venice, Italy
The gorgeous cathedral of Saint Mark’s Basilica is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice in northern Italy. Although the first church was established in 832 A.D., the present basilica was completed in 1071 with several reconstructions and renovations over the centuries. With its pristine Byzantine architecture, the church attracts a lot of tourists and it is the most famous one in Venice. Golden mosaic overheads, stunning statutes and impressive architecture in the dome add to the beauty of this cathedral.
10. HAGIA SOPHIA, Istanbul, Turkey
Translating to Holy Wisdom, the Hagia Sophia is a unique place as it has been both a Roman Catholic Church and a Mosque in its long history. It is currently a museum and overlooks the crossing between Asia and Europe. It is also one of the Famous Churches around the world. Hagia Sophia was finished 537 and was the largest building in the world at the time, a true marvel, and remained the largest church in the world for almost 1000 years. After secularization, it was converted into a museum in 1935. Its massive built and a mixture of Islamic, Greek and Catholic art attracts millions of tourists each year, also with its beautiful Byzantine architecture. The nearby Blue Mosque also adds to the serene beauty of this historic region.
11. SALT CATHEDRAL OF ZIPAQUIRA, COLOMBIA
Located 200 meters in the ground and at a height of 8700 ft. the cathedral is located in Zipaquirá, in Cundinamarca Department of Colombia, 30 miles north of Bogota. Although it doesn’t have a bishop, the church is a Roman Catholic church constructed within the salt mines underground in a Halite mountain which was previously a salt mine. The mines were active back in the 5th century, while the church was built in 1932. Being one of the most notable achievements of Colombian architecture, the church holds religious importance to the community and hosts nearly 3,000 visitors on Sundays. In addition to the church, the town is also recognized for the nearby El Abra archaeological site which shows one of the earliest human settlements in the Americas.
12. HALLGRÍMSKIRKJA, REYKJAVÍK, ICELAND
The largest church in Iceland, this uniquely built church is a landmark visible from everywhere in the city of Reykjavík. The church’s peak is at a height of 74.5 meters. Designed with an expressionist architecture to resemble the landscapes and valleys of Iceland, it was finally completed in 1986 after 40 years. There’s an entry fee for adults and kids both to enter the cathedral, with elevator service to reach the top and the entry is open almost throughout the year.
From Gothic and Roman to Byzantine and modern expressionist, the architecture of these churches is varied and still studied by several students and experts across the globe, while they hold equal importance in the religion and the pilgrims who travel across the globe to reach them.