While you may think the thing that delineates a church from a cathedral is its size or age, the only real defining factor is that a cathedral seats a bishop. Europe, having adopted Christianity early on, certainly has its fair share of incredible cathedrals, but its churches can be just as, or more so, magnificent. While some of these were later deemed minor basilicas by the Pope, some were left titleless, or even turned into museums or tourist attractions by the state.
Nonetheless, many of these buildings are incredibly impressive and well worth a visit. Even if you’re already familiar with Europe’s most famous cathedrals, you may want to give Europe’s architecturally stunning churches a second look.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
The jewel of Barcelona and the magnum opus of famed Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, La Sagrada Familia has been in construction since 1882 and is still not completed. Despite its massive size, height, and the years of extraordinarily detail-oriented work that has gone into its creation, Sagrada Familia is only a minor basilica, dubbed so in 2010.
Working in the style of Spanish Modernisme, Gaudí blended styles like Art Nouveau with elements of Gothic Revival to design this utterly unique masterpiece. While many tourists visit merely to see the church’s exterior, those who do brave the crowds are rewarded with the basilica’s dreamlike interior design. Emulating a forest, its pastel-hued stone pillars are artfully shaped to resemble trees.
Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
Built in response to an exceptionally bad Venetian outbreak of the Black Plague, this church was formally dedicated as Our Lady of Health as an invocation of better times to come. Just one of many “plague churches,” the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute contains an inordinate amount of art that either depicts or was inspired by elements of the plague.
A Baroque masterpiece, it is positioned right at the end of the Punta della Dogana, making it the first thing you see when entering the port by water. Its dome, in particular, has become iconic to the Venetian skyline.
St. Mary’s Church, Gdańsk
This brick Gothic church on the Baltic Sea is one of the largest of its kind in the world and dominates the skyline of Gdańsk. It can hold as many as 25,000 people, and the particular way the nave is vaulted makes it appear even larger.
Inside St. Mary’s Church is one of the worlds’ best examples of a gothic astronomical clock. Built over six years in the mid-1400s, it shows much more than just the time, incorporating many other metrics like the phases of the moon and a calendar of saints. It was damaged during World War II but remains functional thanks to a meticulous restoration.
Church of the Holy Cross, Perissa
Santorini’s blue-domed churches have become emblematic of the island, with Perissa’s being the largest of them. Flanking the town’s main square near their famed volcanic sand beach, the Church of the Holy Cross was originally erected in the 19th century, though it had to be completely rebuilt following an earthquake in 1953.
It is a prime example of classic Cycladic architecture, featuring the same white-washed walls and cobalt accents you might expect. To add to its impressive stature is a many-tiered bell tower which you can climb when it’s open.
Santa Maria della Spina, Pisa
Though small, the Santa Maria della Spina is a pitch-perfect example of Pisan Gothic style and packs an incredible amount of artistry despite its small footprint. It is swathed in incredibly ornate relief and sculpture, with its exterior walls completely composed of Italian marble.
It is named for the principal relic once housed by the church: the spina, or thorn said to be part of the crown placed on Jesus’ head at his crucifixion. It was brought there some years after its consecration in the mid-1300s but was later moved to the Chiesa di Santa Chiara for display.
Church of the Transfiguration, Kizhi Island
On just one of the 1000+ islands that dot Russia’s Lake Onega lies the deceptively humble Church of the Transfiguration (Kizhi Pogost). From a distance, it might appear to be merely a small wooden building, but further inspection reveals the incredible craft and deft skill with which this church was created.
Remarkably, no nails were used in its principal construction; interlocking logs and dovetail joints were utilized in its structure. The only nails that can be found in the entire building merely affix the decorative aspen-wood tiles to its 22 onion domes.
Church of the Assumption of Mary, Lake Bled
One of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Slovenia, the Church of the Assumption of Mary is on a small island inside Lake Bled. Colloquially called Mary on the Lake, it was badly damaged in an earthquake in the 1500s, though it was restored in the 17th century in the Baroque style we see today.
The only way to reach the church is by pletna, a style of wooden boat that is known to bear colorful awnings. Once there, you can climb the bell tower for awesome views of the rest of the island, the lake, and the town surrounding it.
Borgund Stave Church
Formerly of the Church of Norway, this Sogn-type triple-nave stave church has been converted into a museum for a long time: since 1868. Currently operated by the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Norwegian Monuments, it is characterized by its cascade of over-hanging roofs topped with a tower.
Because it wasn’t originally built under the authority of the Christian Church, there are many vestiges of Norway’s “pagan” past on display in its design, most notably several carved dragons that protrude from its ridges.
Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, Saint Petersburg
A former Russian Orthodox church, today The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood operates as a museum. Funded completely by the Romanovs, it was built to honor assassinated Emperor Alexander II on the very site that he was murdered.
Though its iconic design is certainly in line with other Russian churches, the rest of St. Petersburg is mostly Neo-Classical and Baroque architecture. The Church of the Savior was fashioned with nostalgia in mind, hearkening back to the styles of hundreds of years previous.
St. Peter’s Catholic Church, Vienna
Built on the same site as at least two – and possibly three – churches before it, St. Peter’s in Vienna was inspired by its even more famous Roman namesake. It was consecrated in 1733 and was the first domed structure of any kind in the city.
Inside is a treasure trove of Baroque-era art; the gilded high altar alone attracts thousands of visitors a year. The works collected here over the centuries had become aged and discolored, but a full-scale restoration of the church and its contents beginning in 1998 returned everything to its former glory.
Perched precariously on the island of Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, this Abbey is one of the most postcard-perfect sites in the entire country. It’s easy to see the clear evidence of the feudal history of France here, with a literal terraced hierarchy of buildings reaching the sea, the Abbey at its apex.
It has been the scene of several different occupations, battles, and for a brief time even became a prison. Today it is still in operation for services and other ceremonies, though its chief role is that of a tourist attraction for well over a million visitors a year.
Westminster Abbey, London
The site of all English coronations since the mid-11th century, Westminster Abbey is often called just “the Royal Church”, noting its affiliation with the British monarchy and proximity to Buckingham Palace. Somewhat morbidly, over 3,000 people are buried there that are of note to the crown, including former monarchs, prime ministers, and titans of the arts and sciences.
Several iterations of the church have sat on this site for over a thousand years, with the last major renovation being the construction of the western towers in the 18th century.
A Lutheran church in Reykjavik, the Hallgrimskirkja is one of the tallest buildings in the country and appears even taller due to its location on a hilltop. Because of its ideal location, it bears what is easily the best observation deck in Iceland, offering panoramic views of the city.
It was designed by state architect Guðjón Samúelsson to resemble the harsh but beautiful natural landscape Iceland is so famous for. Total, it took 41 years to build and has been splitting public opinion long before it was even completed.
St. Stephen’s Basilica, Budapest
This Catholic basilica is named for Saint Stephen I, the first King of Hungary, and is largely considered to be the most important church in the country. It took a whopping 54 years to construct, delays largely caused by the collapse of the dome mid-build, after which most of the structure had to be demolished and re-erected.
The bell in the St. Stephen’s Basilica’s south tower is the largest in the country and is usually only tolled twice a year: once at midnight to mark the new year, and again on August 20th, the day it was consecrated.
The Frauenkirche is a Lutheran Baroque church in Saxony that originally dates back to the 18th century, though the building you see today is the result of a complete reconstruction.
It was nearly destroyed during World War II in the bombing of Dresden and sat untouched for 50 years, the reconstruction effort finally began after Germany’s reunification in 1994.
While some material was salvaged from the original building, much of what was used to rebuild it was sourced brand new. Because the salvaged stone has a decidedly different patina, visitors can easily distinguish between the two.