Top 10 fascinating churches

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As we approach one of the holiest dates on the Christian calendar, Easter, flocks of believers the world over will be heading to places of worship to commemorate this important spiritual event.

But you don’t have to be Christian, or even religious, to appreciate our top 10 fascinating churches from around the world. They are well worth checking out for their beautiful and quirky designs, intriguing histories and cultural importance.

Sedlec Ossuary, Czech Republic

Deep below a cemetery in Kutná Hora in the Czech Republic lies a small Roman Catholic chapel of decidedly spooky proportions.

The Sedlec Ossuary (Kostnice v Sedlci) in the Church of All Saints contains the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people, whose bones have been arranged into decorations and furnishings for the chapel including four giant bell-shaped mounds, a chandelier, garlands of skulls and a large coat of arms.

In the 13th century, earth from the Holy Land was sprinkled over the abbey cemetery, word spread, and the Sedlec cemetery became one of the most sought after burial sites in Europe.

After the ravages of war and the Black Death, the cemetery had to be enlarged, and when a new church was built on the site many bodies had to be moved into mass graves.

In the 16th century, the skeletons were exhumed and the bones stacked. Then in 1870, a woodcarver named František Rint was employed to put the bone into order, leaving the macabre, but strangely beautiful, sight we see today.

Visiting: Between April and September the church is open 8am to 6pm, October and March from 9am to 12pm then 1pm to 5pm, then from November and February between 9am to 12pm and from 1pm to 4pm. The Ossuary is closed on Christmas Day.

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Bone chandelier, Sedlec Ossuary. Photo by Lyn Gateley
Bone chandelier, Sedlec Ossuary. Photo by Lyn Gateley
Church of All Saints contains the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people. Photo by Alberto Carrasco Casado
Church of All Saints contains the skeletons of between 40,000 and 70,000 people. Photo by Alberto Carrasco Casado  

Temppeliaukio Church, Finland

What makes the Temppeliaukion Lutheran Church in Töölö, Helsinki, so special? It’s underground in the rock solid earth, that’s what!

Opened in 1969, the church was designed by architect brothers Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen and is also known as the Church of the Rock.

The church was built directly into solid rock and is lit by sunlight that pours through the glazed dome roof.

The church has excellent acoustics thanks to its rough rock surfaces and it’s frequently used as a venue for concerts.

Half a million people visit the Temppeliaukio church annually, making it one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city.

It is missing one key church item though – bells! To make up for this, a recording of bells composed by Taneli Kuusisto is played via loudspeakers on the exterior wall.

Visiting: Monday to Tuesday 10am to 8pm, Wednesday 10am to 6:45pm, Thursday-Friday 10am to 8pm, Saturday 10am to 6pm and Sunday 11:45am to 1:45pm and 3:30pm to 6pm.

Entrance to the Church of the Rock. Photo by Guillaume Baviere
Entrance to the Church of the Rock. Photo by Guillaume Baviere
Temppeliaukion is carved into solid rock. Photo by Guillaume Baviere
Temppeliaukion is carved into solid rock. Photo by Guillaume Baviere
Giant copper dome at Temppeliaukio. Photo by Jaakko Hakulinen
Giant copper dome at Temppeliaukio. Photo by Jaakko Hakulinen 

Gellért Hill Cave, Hungary

The turbulent times of the 20th century have left their mark on this unassuming church in Budapest.

The Gellért Hill Cave, also called “Saint Ivan’s Cave”, was transformed into a chapel and monastery by a group of Pauline monks (a Catholic order honouring St Paul the Hermit) in the 1920s.

It was used as an army field hospital by the Nazis during World War II and after a raid by the Soviet State Protection Authority in 1951, the monastery’s superior was condemned to death, and the remaining brothers imprisoned.

The chapel reopened after the Iron Curtain fell and by 1992 the Pauline Order had returned to the cave.

Today, the monks continue to perform religious functions and the cave has become a popular tourist attraction.

Visiting: Visitors are welcome outside of mass hours. Mass is held weekdays at 8:30am, 5pm, 8pm, and on Sundays at 8:30am, 11am, 5pm and 8pm.

View from the Cave Church. Photo by Alistair Young
View from the Cave Church. Photo by Alistair Young
The Alter in the Cave Church. Photo by B Romero
The Altar in the Cave Church. Photo by B Romero

Church of Saint George, Rock-Hewn Churches, Ethiopia

Carved from solid red volcanic rock in the 12th century, the Church of St. George is one of 11 monolithic churches in Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Referred to as the “Eighth Wonder of the World”, the church is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site the “Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela” and the area is also an important pilgrimage site for members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church

Visiting: The churches are open from 9am to 1pm and 2pm to 5pm. Guides are recommended and you can book them through your hotel and the local tourist board.

Church of Saint George, Ethiopia. Photo by Martijn.Munneke
Church of Saint George, Ethiopia. Photo by Martijn.Munneke
Roof of the Church of Saint George, Ethiopia. Photo by CT Snow
Roof of the Church of Saint George, Ethiopia. Photo by CT Snow

Borgund Stave Church, Norway

You’d be forgiven for thinking these Nordic Churches look like something directly out of the world of Harry Potter.

Built sometime between 1180 and 1250, Borgund Stave Church is the best preserved of Norway’s 28 surviving enchanting wooden churches.

On the roof, there are four carved dragon heads, similar to those found on Norse ships.

Visiting: The church is open from May and September from 10am to 5pm with extended hours from 11 June to 21 August (8am to 8pm).

Borgund Stave Church, Norway. Photo by Edward Dalmulder
Borgund Stave Church, Norway. Photo by Edward Dalmulder

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Arizona, USA

Built into the mesas of Sedona, Arizona, the Roman Catholic Chapel of the Holy Cross is impressive sight – rising from the red, desert rock.

Inspired and commissioned by sculptor Marguerite Brunswig Staude, the chapel is built on Coconino National Forest land and was completed in 1956.

The Chapel is one of the main tourist attractions in Sedona and in 2007 locals voted it one of the Seven Man-Made Wonders of Arizona.

Visiting: The chapel is open daily from 9am to 5pm and is closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, Good Friday and Easter.

Chapel of the Holy Cross, Arizona. Photo by Frank Kovalchek
Chapel of the Holy Cross, Arizona. Photo by Frank Kovalchek

Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, France

This fairy-tale church in France has it all: picture-perfect views, an awe-inspiring location, ancient history, and even a saint’s mother (main image by giulio nepi).

The rock where the Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe chapel is built has been a sacred place for thousands of years, first as a temple to the Roman god Mercury.

The chapel in Aiguilhe, near Le Puy-en-Velay was built in 962 on an 85m high volcanic formation to celebrate the pilgrimage of Saint James and it is said the mother of Joan of Arc prayed at the site in 1429.

The chapel is reached by climbing 268 steps carved into the rock and at the top visitors are greeted by sweeping views of Le Puy, the cathedral, and the surrounding countryside.

Visiting: The chapel is open from 1 February to 14 March 2pm to 5pm, 15 March to 30 April 9:30am to 12pm and 2pm to 5:30pm, Easter weekend 9:30am to 5:30pm, 1 May to 9 July 9am to 6:30pm, 10 July to 25 August 9am to 7pm, 26 August to 30 September 9am to 6:30pm, 1 October to 15 November 9.30am to 12pm and 2pm to 5:30pm, Christmas 2pm to 5pm, closed Christmas Day and 1 January.

Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, France. Photo by Peter Stevens
Saint Michel d’Aiguilhe, France. Photo by Peter Stevens
View of Le Puy-en-Velay. Photo by Ben17_34
View of Le Puy-en-Velay. Photo by Ben17_34

Thorncrown Chapel, Arkansas, USA

Within a beautiful, peaceful wood, the Thorncrown Chapel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas really welcomes the outside in. It’s hard not to feel at one with the world in this pristine location.

Designed by E Fay Jones, this inspiring glass creation has attracted over six million visitors since it open in 1980.

Constructed mostly of wood and other local materials, the building was selected for the 2006 Twenty-five Year Award by the American Institute of Architects.

Visiting: April to November 9am to 3pm (on weekends the chapel occasionally closes at 3:30pm for special events – please call ahead) and March and December 11am to 4pm. Closed all Saturdays in November and in January and February except for special events.

Thorncrown Chapel. At one with its surroundings. Photo by Clinton Steeds
Thorncrown Chapel. At one with its surroundings. Photo by Clinton Steeds
Thorncrown Chapel. Nondenominational and inclusive. Photo by Clinton Steeds
Thorncrown Chapel. Nondenominational and inclusive. Photo by Clinton Steeds
Bringing the outside in. Photo by Jon Rogers
Bringing the outside in. Photo by Jon Rogers 

Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland

At 74.5m, Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík is the largest church in Iceland and the sixth tallest structure in the country.

Completed in 1986, it took 38 years to complete and was designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.

A popular feature of Reykjavik’s cityscape, the church’s tower is also used as an observation point for views of the city and surrounding mountains.

The Lutheran church also commemorates important parts of Iceland’s history. It is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson and the statue in the front of 10th century explorer Leif Eriksson, thought to be the first European to set foot in America.

Visiting: The church and tower is open every day from 9am to 5pm.

Hallgrimskirkja Church, Reykjavik. Photo by Daniel2005
Hallgrimskirkja Church, Reykjavik. Photo by Daniel2005
Hallgrímskirkja and Leifur Eiríksson. Photo by LASZLO ILYES
Hallgrímskirkja and Leif Eríksson. Photo by LASZLO ILYES 

Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá, Colombia

The Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá is Roman Catholic church built 200m below ground within the tunnels of a salt mine in a Halite mountain near the town of Zipaquirá, Colombia.

The temple is divided into three sections representing the birth, life, and death of Jesus with all the icons, ornaments and architectural details hand carved in the rock salt walls.

In the 1930s, miners working in the area carved a sanctuary into the rock as a place for their daily prayers. In 1950, construction on a much grander scale took place, then, in 1954 the Old Salt Church was opened and dedicated to Our Lady of Rosary, the patron saint of miners.

Forty years later, the New Cathedral was opened 200m below the first containing 14 small chapels, a large dome, three naves and four large cylindrical columns.

Today, the church is a popular tourist destination and place of pilgrimage, receiving as many as 3000 visitors every Sunday.

The Cathedral has been called one of the most notable achievements of Colombian architecture and is part of a larger complex including “Parque de la Sal” (Salt Park), and a museum of mining and geology.

Visiting: Monday to Friday from 9am to 4:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 5pm. Sunday Mass at 1pm.

The main service area in the Salt Cathedral. Photo by Ratha Grimes
The main service area in the Salt Cathedral. Photo by Ratha Grimes 
Wall carving at the Salt Cathedral. Photo by Ratha Grimes
Wall carving at the Salt Cathedral. Photo by Ratha Grimes 
Top 10 fascinating churches was last modified: June 26th, 2019 by Kara Segedin
Author: Kara Segedin (88 posts)

Writer, traveller, Tweeter, blogger and part-time adventurer. A kiwi living in London off to explore the world! I can never travel enough!