The world is dotted with beautiful cathedrals. These spaces of Christian worship range from the medieval gothic flying buttresses of Notre Dame in Paris to the lofty concrete modernism of Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília in Brazil.
Classically, a cathedral is a church that hosts the seat of a bishop, a church from which he leads his diocese. Many (but not all) are arranged in a cross pattern—a transept lies across a long nave containing aisles. A large cathedral typically contains a main altar in the apse (end of the nave) as well as multiple chapels alongside the nave or the ambulatory which surrounds the apse. Whether you are hoping to spend some time in prayer or examine impressive vaulted ceilings, cathedrals make both beautiful and spiritual destinations for travelers.
Scroll down for some of the most beautiful cathedrals around the world.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia
Also called the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, construction on the cathedral began in 1555 under the tsar Ivan the Terrible. Today, the building sits on the Red Square in Moscow. Since the early Bolshevik years, the space has not been used as a regular religious site; it was lucky to escape the urban-planning whims of Stalin in the 1930s. Today, the colorful spires house a museum—although occasional Russian Orthodox services are still sometimes held inside.
Notre Dame Cathedral de Reims in Reims, France
This cathedral site dates to the early 5th century CE when a Merovingian bishop established a church on the site of ancient Roman baths. Although France was not yet its modern unified political entity, a tradition of Frankish (then French) kings being coronated at Reims began with Clovis I in 496 CE. The modern cathedral dates to the 13th century and is gothic in style with necessary restorations made over the years. Today, the French government owns the church and the Catholic Church is allowed to use the space.
The Duomo di Milano in Milan, Spain
In 1386, Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo began building the Duomo in Milan. The clever priest collaborated with his cousin who controlled Milan to get the locals on board and rake in donations for the cathedral’s construction. What those people may not have known was that it would take 600 years until the final completion of the building in 1965. The roof is full of gorgeous spires, and tourists can purchase tickets to wander among the lofty sculpture.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Brasília, in Brasília, Brazil
From 1958 to 1970, this modernist concrete cathedral was constructed in the city of Brasília. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer and engineered by Joaquim Cardozo, the building can hold 4,000 worshippers under levitating angel statues. For a concrete building, the airy interior and lofty, abstract bell-tower are shockingly different from gothic (or neo-gothic) cathedrals. However, the structure allows for a glass roof and a clear line of sight to heaven for believers.
Notre Dame de Paris, in Paris, France
The most famous Catholic cathedral in the world, Notre Dame sits on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine River. An iconic landmark of Paris, in 2019 the world watched in horror as the gothic medieval structure burned in an enormous conflagration. Thankfully, precious art and relics were preserved—including the Crown of Thorns.
Notre Dame has long haunted the work of artists and writers—Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame has captivated generations, while Matisse and Hopper sat below its gargoyles to paint the facade.
Seville Cathedral, in Seville, Spain
A UNESCO World Heritage site, the Seville cathedral is the largest gothic church ever constructed. The gothic structure was built in the 15th century to replace the adapted former-mosque which had long served the Christian conquerors of Spain. The Giralda, a 105-meter tall bell tower, is a remnant of the 12th-century mosque. The cathedral is full of ornate stonework and contains a stunning 80 chapels for worship.
St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England
After the Great Fire of London, the architect Sir Christopher Wren was given the honor of building a new St. Paul’s Cathedral on the site of the damaged medieval gothic structure that was Old St. Paul’s. Work began in 1669 and continued into the 1720s. The magnificent dome remains an important and distinctive element of the London skyline—it even survived the Blitz in World War II. Tourists can climb impossibly thing stairways to reach the walkway which encircles the dome; some of the best views of London can be seen from the roof of St. Paul’s.
Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral in Mexico City, Mexico
A church has stood on the site of the modern cathedral for hundreds of years—since the conquest of the Aztecs by the Spanish. Work on the current building began in the late 16th century and continued over the next 250 years. The interior features lofty vaults and the exterior boasts two bell towers with 25 bells total.
In 2007, a box hidden in 1742 was discovered in one of the towers. The box was found inside a hollow stone ball and contained religious talismans to protect the church. There are plans to place another time capsule to be left for future generations.
Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec in Quebec City, Canada
The first cathedral built on the site was a 17th-century building that was later burnt during the Battle of Quebec during the 7 Years’ War. The present structure dates to the late-18th century rebuilding efforts; the facade is a 19th-century neo-classical addition. The church lies in Old Quebec City, the only present-day walled city in the Americas, and it has long been an important pilgrimage destination. Visitors can also hope to see a chalice given as a gift by Louis XIV of France.
Winchester Cathedral in Hampshire, England
One of the grandest cathedrals in England, the oldest architectural elements date back to the 11th century in the Norman period of British history. Remains of Saint Swithun and old Saxon kings were moved from a nearby church and interned at the cathedral. While the structure is largely gothic, the high altar dates to the 15th century and the wooden choir screen to the 19th century. Visitors can pay their respects at the graves of Jane Austen, ancient kings of Wessex, and King William II of England.
Cathedral Saint Alexander Nevsky in Sofia, Bulgaria
This Bulgarian Eastern Orthodox cathedral was built from about 1882 to 1912. It contains the relics of the medieval Kievan (Rus’) warrior Saint Alexander Nevsky, Prince of Novgorod. Inside the crypt, visitors will find a vast collection of Orthodox icons that are part of the National Art Gallery of Bulgaria. The church’s interior is full of Italian marble and other luxurious furnishings.
Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain
The Romanesque building was constructed initially in the 11th century. The church lies along the Way of Saint James, an ancient yet still popular pilgrimage route. The church was built over the relics of St. James, Christ’s apostle. As a result, pilgrims followed the way to reach this especially holy site. Pilgrims will also find relics of Saint Theodorus and Saint Athanasius, as well as the remains of medieval kings.
Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, USA
This modern cathedral was built in the early 20th century in neo-gothic style. The facade is reminiscent of Notre Dame de Paris with the dual towers. Under the Episcopal denomination, the church has hosted the funerals of four presidents and the late Senator John McCain, among other notable figures.
In 1968, Reverand Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his final Sunday sermon from the pulpit; in World War II, monthly services were held as part of a spiritual effort to boost morale.
Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany
This World Heritage Site was begun in 1248 but not completed until 1880, although the gothic style was used throughout. A Catholic church still in use, the structure suffered from Allied bombing in World War II. Its magnificent flying buttresses, dark carved stone exterior, and lavish treasury of gold and silver are major tourist draws. Visitors will find the golden Shrine of the Three Kings, one of the largest Christian reliquaries.
Papal Basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, Vatican City
Christ called Saint Peter the rock upon which he would build his church; as such, St. Peter’s is considered by many as of the holiest sites in Christendom. The Tomb of St. Peter lies under the high altar, and a church has stood on the site since the Christian conversion of Rome. The current domed basilica dates to the 16th century. The interior includes furnishings by Bernini, while the building’s dome was largely designed by Michelangelo in the last years of his life. The magnificent St. Peter’s Square upon which the basilica sits was also designed by Bernini and fills to the brim with the faithful for enormous Papal audiences.
It should be noted that technically, St. Peter’s is not a cathedral as it has no bishop.