A beginner’s guide to great churches of the world
Even if you’re not particularly religious, visiting churches, mosques, synagogues or other places of worship can be a fascinating insight into the history of a place, the culture and its people.
Here’s some of the memorable churches that you may want to add to your travel wish-list.
Saint Peter’s Basilica, The Vatican
This is a massive cathedral located within the Vatican City. It’s one of the largest churches in the world and is a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.
There’s a couple of reasons why this is an interesting church to visit. It’s believed that this is the burial site of Saint Peter – one of the twelve apostles of Jesus Christ. His tomb is thought to be directly beneath the altar of the basilica.
There’s been a church on this site since around the 4th century. Construction of Saint Peter’s began in 1506, and was completed in 1626.
Michelangelo played an important role in the construction of the basilica, particularly in the construction of the enormous dome.
It’s the vast size of the basilica that never fails to impress, awash with marble and gilded with gold.
Il Duomo di Firenze, Florence
The official name of this beautiful church is the Basilica di Santa Maria del Flore, and it’s the main church in the city of Florence in Italy.
Construction began in 1296 and it was completed in 1436, making it a great example of Gothic architecture.
As its common name suggests, Il Duomo is famous for its massive dome – the largest brick dome ever constructed. The dome was one of the last pieces of the basilica to be built – one of the reasons for the delay was that the engineers were determined to find a way to build the dome without using the flying buttresses that are normally associated with Gothic architecture. The use of buttresses were forbidden in Florence as they were associated with the city’s traditional rivals to the north.
You can climb the hundreds of steps to the top of the dome for spectacular views across the city - a great way to work up an appetite before lunch.
Kölner Dom, Cologne
Construction of Cologne Cathedral began in 1248 and stopped in 1473 – unfinished. Work on the cathedral didn’t resume until the 19th century, and it was finally finished – to its original plan - in 1880.
Cologne’s cathedral is a unique example of the Gothic style of architecture, even though some of its key elements were constructed in a completely different era.
The most notable features of the cathedral are the massive spires that create the impressive facade of the church.
Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, Barcelona
The Sagrada Familia is recognised throughout the world as an architectural masterpiece. However, it’s not until you’re standing within it that you can really appreciate exactly what all the fuss is about.
The Sagrada Familia was designed by famous local architect Antoni Gaudi. Construction began in 1882, and it’s still not quite finished – current projections are that it will be completed around the year 2030.
While the Sagrada Familia is Barcelona’s number one tourist attraction, the history of this city is fairly complicated – particularly when it comes to religion.
One of the most famous periods of turmoil is referred to as the Red Terror. From around 1936 to 1939, Spain was engulfed in a bloody civil war – republicans versus nationalists. A major feature of the war was the anti-clerical violence. It was the summer of 1936 when tens of thousands of people were killed – including nearly 7,000 members of the Catholic clergy. The Catholic church was targeted by nationalist forces as it had publicly sided with the republicans - resisting social change. Churches and monasteries were burned and destroyed. In Barcelona, all of the city’s 58 churches were destroyed.
In that context, this astonishing folly of a construction is something quite spectacular. Now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Sagrada Familia is an incredible temple to the genius of Gaudi and his unique combination of Gothic and Art Nouveau styles.
From the beginning, construction of the Sagrada Familia progressed slowly – routinely interrupted by a lack of funds, and coming to a complete stop during the civil war. At the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926, the building was only one quarter completed.
Following the civil war, it wasn’t until the 1950s that construction could begin again – passing the half-way point of construction in 2010.
If you visit Sagrada Familia today, it looks to be almost completed. Gazing at the exterior, there’s such detail and decoration that it appears to be an exercise in surrealism - perhaps something that belongs in a theme park, with its tall towers and intricate storytelling.
It’s when you enter into the interior that you feel the emotional punch that this building delivers - a unique response that very few buildings, very few architects can achieve.
There is decoration inside the building, but the main features are the height and the light. Soaring ceilings create space and grandeur, and enormous stained-glass windows capture the brilliance of the Spanish sunshine and transform it into dazzling rainbows of colour that illuminate it all.