Cathedrals of the World

Touring the world’s most magnificent religious monuments
Castles, fortresses, and palaces are wonderful examples of art and architecture from the days of yore, but travelers seeking to explore an area’s history should not overlook the massive houses of worship that grace the world’s cities and landscapes.
 
Historically, symbolically, and architecturally, they rise as monuments to the faiths of millions across the globe. Here’s a glimpse into some of the most magnificent religious structures in the United States and overseas that continue to be treasured by devoted parishioners, historians, and curious tourists.
 
St. Patrick’s Cathedral
New York City
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, also known as America’s Parish Church, stands directly across the street from Rockefeller Center in New York City. The original site was designated as a cemetery, but eventually became the property of the Roman Catholic diocese. Work on the building started in 1858, stopped during the Civil War, then was completed in 1878.
 
The 330-foot spires were added in 1888 and made the cathedral the second highest structure in the United States at the time. Built of brick and clad in marble, it takes up an entire city block. One of the main attractions is William Partridge’s sculpture, “The Pieta,” which is three times larger than Michelangelo’s version.
 
Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul
Washington, D.C.
The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul in the city and diocese of Washington, D.C., usually ignores its given name and simply goes by the Washington National Cathedral. Modeled after the English Gothic style of the 14th century, it is the sixth largest cathedral in the world. Construction began in 1907 and officially ended in 1990 when the final finial was placed. 
 
The cathedral’s Gloria in Excelsis Tower rises 675 feet over the nation’s capitol, making it the highest point in the District of Columbia. It features 215 stained glass windows, including the Space Window, which contains a lunar rock fragment. State funerals for presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Gerald Ford have been held within its walls.
 
Tabernacle on Temple Square
Salt Lake City
The Tabernacle on Temple Square allegedly was designed by Brigham Young after he contemplated a hollowed-out eggshell cracked lengthwise. According to the legend, Young wanted the tabernacle roof to be self-supporting so no pillars or posts would obstruct concert-goers’ views. Bridge builders created a domed roof using steam to bend massive beams. Construction lasted from 1863 until 1875.  Famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright called it “one of the architectural masterpieces of the country and perhaps the world.” The building’s acoustics are the main reason the Mormon Tabernacle Choir calls it home.
 
St. Peter’s Basilica
Vatican City, Italy
The thousands who tour St. Peter’s generally are in awe of the massive dome that rises 448 feet above the basilica floor. And, no doubt, many of them wonder how Renaissance architects and engineers figured out how to create it, considering the tools they had. Work began in 1506, but the basilica wasn’t opened for services until 1626. The dome is surrounded by a multitude of chapels, each containing magnificent statuary, overwhelming arches, and awesome open space lit by the sunbeams that filter through the stained-glass windows. One highlight is Michelangelo’s version of “The Pieta,” enclosed in a plexiglass case near the entrance.
 
Il Duomo di Firenze
Florence, Italy
Perhaps the most-photographed religious structure in the world is Il Duomo di Firenze, Italy’s Florence Duomo. The magnificent Renaissance dome was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi, who began work at the end of the 13th century. But once the dome was in place, the rest of the church remained unfinished until the 19th century. The exterior is a mix of pink, white, and green marble; by contrast, the interior is rather plain except for Giorgio Vasari’s fresco of “The Last Judgment.”
 
Siena Cathedral
Siena, Italy
The Siena Cathedral was built between 1215 and 1263, using white and greenish-black marble in alternating blocks inside and out. The cathedral is in the form of a Latin cross. Its facade is the work of many artists who adorned the exterior with hundreds of symbolic sculptures. Inside, ornate inlaid mosaics cover most of the floors. They were laid by about 40 medieval artists and represent scenes from the Old Testament.
 
St. Paul’s Cathedral
London, England
St. Paul’s Cathedral is notable not only for its architecture and interior artwork, but also because it survived the daily rocket attacks launched by Germany during World War II. At least three rockets hit the cathedral, but the damage was repairable. The cathedral’s construction began in the 1670s and was completed in 1697. The dome rises 365 feet, one of the tallest features of the London skyline, and those who choose to climb to the top are rewarded with a 360-degree panoramic view of the city. The interior is adorned with sculptures, dignitaries’ tombs, and a near life-size statue of the Duke of Wellington astride his horse.
 
Notre-Dame de Paris
Paris, France
Notre-Dame de Paris is one of the world’s finest examples of French Gothic architecture. Work on the city’s famous landmark began in 1163 and continued until 1345, although towers and chapels were added for centuries after. It was one of the first cathedrals to use flying buttresses to support the structure so it wouldn’t collapse on itself. Much of the building was destroyed during the French Revolution, resulting in a major restoration that lasted from 1845 to 1870. Among the precious artifacts held sacred in Notre-Dame are the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and a Holy Nail from the cross.
 
St. Basil’s Cathedral
Moscow, Russia
Drawn by the nine brightly colored onion domes and an exterior that resembles something from Disneyland, tourists descend upon St. Basil’s in hordes every year. Commissioned by Ivan the Terrible and erected between 1534 and 1561, the cathedral was designed to represent the flame of a bonfire rising to the sky. St. Basil’s now functions more as a museum and tourist attraction, and very few religious ceremonies are held there. Legend says that Josef Stalin wanted to tear it down during the 1930s because it interfered with troops moving out from the Kremlin. Stalin relented after architect Pyotr Baranovsky threatened to commit suicide on the church steps, but Baranovsky spent the next five years in prison.
 
Cologne’s Cathedral
Cologne, Germany
The foundation for Cologne’s Cathedral was laid in 1248, but it wasn’t completed until 1880. It is another survivor of World War II bombings. It was hit 14 times during the conflict but remained standing in an otherwise flattened city. Considered one of the most beautiful examples of neo-Gothic design in the world, the structure houses the Shrine of the Three Magi.
 
St. Stephen’s Basilica
Budapest, Hungary
St. Stephen’s Basilica, named after the country’s first king, is a neo-Gothic structure with a facade dominated by two bell towers that contain six bells, the largest weighing around nine tons. Its dome reaches 315 feet, making it one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest, the other being the opulent Hungarian Parliament. The mummified hand of its patron saint is kept in the chapel.  
 
Dohany Street Synagogue
Budapest, Hungary
Within walking distance of St. Stephen’s, twin onion domes mark the Dohany Street Synagogue, which combines elements of Moorish, Byzantine, Romantic, and Gothic architecture. Brightly colored both inside and outside, the synagogue was used as a stable and as a radio communications center by the Germans during the Nazi occupation. On the grounds, the Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs stands in the shape of a willow tree whose metal leaves bear the names of about 400,000 Holocaust victims.