Whether or not you're religious, there's no denying that churches are among man's most spectacular creations. From a modern glass-and-pine place of worship deep in the Arkansas countryside to a wooden stave church dating back to the Middle Ages in Norway, we scoured the globe to identify the most breathtaking churches in the world.
Borgund Stave Church
The country best known for fjords and otherworldly Arctic landscapes is also the only place in Northern Europe with Middle Ages–era wooden churches that are still intact. Norway has 28 in all—each attractive in its own right—but the loveliest of them is the Borgund Stave Church in western Norway, which dates to 1180. Named for the vertical wooden boards (called staves) from which they are built, stave churches are famous for their nail-less construction of interlocking notches and grooves. The result often looks like an upside down Viking ship. The Borgund is a wonderful example of stave architecture, with four carved dragonheads sprouting from its rooftop gables—like something you'd see in the Far East—and steeply pitched rooftops that mirror the dramatic plunges of the surrounding mountains. Apart from a row of benches, a simple altar, and a cupboard for storing religious vessels, there's not much to see inside the church, but the fantastical exterior is well worth a look.
How to go: Laerdal is 183 miles—and an easy four-hour drive—northwest of Oslo, Norway's capital city. There is an entry fee of 70 Norwegian kroners (about $13) for adults.
Church of Hallgrímur
No matter where you are in Iceland's capital city, chances are you'll be able to spot the towering steeple of this most unusual concrete structure. At 244 feet tall, the Church of Hallgrímur—or Hallgrímskirkja, as locals call it—is the tallest building in Reykjavík and the largest church in all of Iceland. Viewed head on, Hallgrímur resembles a jagged arrowhead or spaceship, erupting from the ground. The design is meant to conjure the rugged mountains, volcanic basalt, and glacial landscapes of Iceland's supernatural scenery. Hallgrímur was under construction for over 30 years and finally completed in 1974, inspiring much controversy along the way thanks to its radical form. And while the architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, did not live to see the church's completion, he'd surely be honored by its presence on nearly every Reykjavík postcard. For a small fee, you can ride an elevator up into the steeple for fabulous views across the capital and out to the Atlantic (rides are 500 Icelandic króna—or about $4.40—per person). The minimalist interior is in keeping with the church's Lutheran heritage, save for one bold element: an enormous organ with some 5,000 pipes that tower up to 50 feet high.
How to go: Hallgrímur is centrally located downtown in Reykjavík. There is a suggested donation of 50 kr (about 44¢) for entry.
La Sagrada Família
This gorgeously macabre Gothic cathedral, designed in the 1880s by celebrated Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí, is Barcelona's most famous tourist site. La Sagrada Família is constructed of stones and rocks, and the jumbled way they're pieced together resembles a melting house of wax or mineral deposits inside a psychedelic, stalagmite-rich cave. Situated at the end of a bustling city street lined with cafés and shops, the towering cathedral appears to have been plucked from a fantasy animation flick, with its cavern-like nooks and crannies, decorated with gargoyles and monsters and columns that completely ignore the right-angle-to-the-floor norm. Gaudí worked on the project for some 40 years but died before construction was completed. He's buried in a crypt beneath the nave. It's easy to imagine the eccentric artist overseeing the ongoing work of his masterpiece. Construction on the cathedral, including the east-facing main face, is scheduled to continue for another 20 to 30 years.
How to go: La Sagrada Família is located in the Barcelona neighborhood of Eixample, in the center of city. There is an entry fee of €12.50 (about $18) per person.
Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel
Aiguilhe, near Le Puy-en-Velay, France
The approach to this sky-grazing church is as breathtaking as the views from the top. To reach Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel, which is set atop a 269-foot-high volcanic peak near the village of Le Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne, France, visitors must walk up 268 stone steps carved into the church's needle-like rocky mount. The odd geological formation is actually a basalt volcanic plug, formed when lava hardens inside the vent of an active volcano. Thanks to its sheer geological curiosity, the site was considered sacred long before the church was built in 962 A.D. The climb to the top is well worth it: The church is a Medieval classic, its façade dominated by multicolor stonework and Islamic-influenced tiled mosaics. While fairly plain, the interior is interesting, too, and noteworthy for its uneven flooring (due to the nature of its rocky foundation), frescoes, and cave-like atmosphere. Legend has it that Joan of Arc's mother made a pilgrimage here in the early 15th century to pray for her daughter.
How to go: Le Puy-en-Velay is in south-central France, a four-and-a-half-hour train ride from Paris on France's national train line (prices vary). Admission is €3 (about $4.30) per person
Duomo di Milano
Much has been written about the Duomo di Milano—one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world—but Mark Twain, perhaps, described the marble church's beauty best, in his 1869 classic The Innocents Abroad: "A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems in the soft moonlight only a fairy delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!" Most of that airy appeal is conveyed in the church's exterior—135 elegant spires and 3,400 intricate statues grace the building. In true Gothic style, the ambience of the interior is rather dark thanks to the stained-glass windows and heavy stone columns. Not to be missed is a schlep up the stairs (or catch a lift up on the elevator) to access the rooftop terraces. Here, surrounded by the cathedral's eerie marble towers, you can see across Milan, all the way out to the peaks of the Alps.
How to go: Set in Milan's city center, the Duomo di Milano has free admission but charges for access to the roof. To ride the elevator, it is €10 (about $14) per person; to climb the stairs is €8 (about $11) per person.
Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood
Saint Petersburg, Russia
This onion-domed, rainbow-hued, riverside behemoth in Saint Petersburg isn't quite as famous as its similar-looking cousin, St. Basil's Cathedral, in Moscow—but the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood has a much more storied history. It was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Construction began just a few years later, in 1883, and was funded almost entirely by the imperial family. Then, in the 1930s, the Bolsheviks shuttered it and reportedly used it as a storage facility for potatoes in World War II. The church only reopened in 1997, after 27 years of restoration. Thought to house the world's largest collection of mosaics within a church, the interior is covered from floor to ceiling with intricate tile work depicting biblical scenes. And while no regular services are held here, the site does lure pilgrims of the art variety from the world over who come to stare, slack-jawed, at the more than 75,000 square feet of mosaic marvels.
How to go: The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is in the center of Saint Petersburg, just steps from Nevsky Prospekt, its main thoroughfare. Visitors are charged 200 rubles (about $7) for admission.
Las Lajas Sanctuary
Deep in the mountains of southwestern Colombia, this church sits at the end of a bridge that stretches over a dramatic gorge—cloaked in lush trees and the occasional veil of a waterfall—over the rushing muddy waters of the Guaitara River. Its name, Las Lajas, refers to the flat rocks found in the surrounding Andes, with which the church was built, and the stones seem to glow against the backdrop of the steamy mountains. Its precarious placement is no accident—it was built here as a tribute to Mother Mary. In 1754, a woman and her deaf-mute daughter were walking in the area when they got caught in a storm and took shelter in a nearby cave. Sometime that night, the Virgin Mary allegedly revealed herself to the daughter—and she began to speak for the very first time. Soon after, a chapel was erected here to honor her. The Gothic Revival–style Lajas Sanctuary was later built, between 1916 and 1949, to replace the 19th-century chapel. The pilgrims who continue to arrive to this day from Colombia, Ecuador, and beyond often leave behind personal plaques, which you'll see lining the cliff walls, to thank the Virgin for miracles.
How to go: Las Lajas is just outside the small city of Ipiales, near the border of Colombia and Ecuador. From Ipiales, it's best to take a taxi from the city-center bus station to reach the church; expect to pay about $2 for the taxi one way. Admission is free.
You might recognize Ely Cathedral from the big screen. In the 2010 movie The King's Speech, the inside of the cathedral was transformed into the interior of Westminster Abbey to such effect that we awarded the film our own Budget Travel Oscar for inspiring a desire to travel to England. The church has also had cameos in 2008's The Other Boleyn Girl and the 1998 film Elizabeth. The history of the Ely Cathedral is fascinating enough for Hollywood in its own right. The foundations for this spectacular stone church, set amid poppy fields in the countryside outside of Cambridge, were laid by Benedictine monks in the 11th century. But for hundreds of years prior, the site lured religious pilgrims to visit the shrine of Etheldreda, a Saxon princess who left her husband to pursue a religious life. Etheldreda established a monastery here in the 7th century and is said to have planted a staff in the ground that then blossomed into a tree overnight—a miracle that led people to believe she was a saint. For hundreds of years after, pilgrims made their way to a shrine to Etheldreda inside the cathedral; a plaque now marks where the shrine once stood. Today, the church is best known as a shining example of Norman architecture, marking the Romanesque style's arrival in Britain (the cathedral's nave and south transept are considered perfect Norman examples).
How to go: Ely is an hour's train ride north of London (£23.50 or about $38.25). Admission for adults, including a guided ground-floor tour, is about $9.30.
Church of the Assumption
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Unless you're a fit swimmer (and don't mind cold water), you'll have to hire a local pletna boat to make the short crossing to the Church of the Assumption, perched on a fairy-tale island in the middle of Lake Bled in northwest Slovenia. The first masonry church on the island was constructed in 1142, though the structure you admire today was built in the 17th century following an earthquake that destroyed the prior incarnation. The popular mountain resort town is surrounded by scenic Alps and has long lured tourists, visiting dignitaries, and world leaders (none other than Marshal Tito had his private retreat here during Yugoslavian times). During the summer months, in particular, a steady stream of lovebirds flock to the island church to say their vows in the idyllic setting (from afar, the church appears to float in the lake). Local tradition dictates that grooms must carry their brides-to-be up the 98 steps from the boat dock to the church—if they fail, locals say, then they aren't yet fit for marriage. To improve your own luck, whether you're married or single, you can follow the locals' lead and ring the church's bell before boarding your boat back to town.
How to go: Lake Bled is a one-hour train ride northwest of Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana (€4.80 or about $6.90). To reach the island church, arrange a pletna ride with the boatmen stationed at both the Health Park and the Rowing Center in town. For about $17 per person, you get a pleasant boat ride and half-hour stop on the island. Church admission is free.
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
Deep in the Ozark Mountains, near the community of Eureka Springs (one of the coolest small towns in America according to Budget Travel's 2011 poll), lies Thorncrown Chapel. The church is so far off the beaten path that even the best new GPS devices don't quite get the coordinates right—but it's worth seeking out. The stunning pinewood structure seems to be built almost entirely of glass (425 windows stand in for walls), which brilliantly illuminates the interior with natural light and seems to pull the surrounding forest right inside the church. In fact, many call Thorncrown a "forest within a forest." It was built by the Frank Lloyd Wright–trained architect E. Fay Jones in 1980. Jones himself liked to call his creation "Ozark Gothic" because he based the design and use of natural light on the classic Gothic Sainte-Chapelle, in Paris. Still, he seemed to have the Eureka Springs area in mind, as well: Jones used only local pine, and in pieces no larger than what could be carried through the woods by two men, all in an effort to preserve the church's natural setting.
How to go: Thorncrown Chapel is about a mile-and-a-half west of Eureka Springs, on Highway 62 West. As stated, neither GPS nor Google Maps correctly show the chapel's location, but the Thorncrown's website has an accurate map. There is no admission fee.