St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow, Russia
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It’s hard to believe someone with the nickname Ivan the Terrible ordered the construction of this beautiful building. Known for its multi-coloured towers and turrets, the cathedral (officially the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Virgin by the Moat) was originally a vibrant white with golden domes and didn’t get its famed colours until a rebuild in the 1860s.
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia
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Looming over the city below from its position on Toompea Hill, this Russian Orthodox Church is a relative newcomer on the European church circuit, having been completed only 118 years ago. Its showstopper is the 11 cathedral bells, including the city’s largest, which weighs in at 15 tonnes and required 500 soldiers to secure it in place.
Church of the Assumption, Lake Bled, Slovenia
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Though the church itself is typical of those found in Eastern Europe, what makes this church in a northern Slovenian special is its location on tiny Lake Bled Island, which can only be reached by a covered Pletna boat, rowboat or – if you’re feeling athletic – swimming.
Borgund Stave Church, Borgund, Norway
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There’s nothing rickety about this wooden church. Built in 1180 using staves – large wooden posts slotted into the ground – it’s one of the country’s best-preserved timber structures. Though the gables and surrounding headstones look magical when covered with a dusting of snow, the visitor’s centre is only open between April and September.
Cathedral of St Sophia, Kiev, Ukraine
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The gilded golden domes atop this building were in part added in an attempt to rival the beauty of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, way back in the 11th century. It’s now a World Heritage site, alongside the Pechersk Lavra monastic area on the other side of the city.
Church of St George, Sofia, Bulgaria
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Book a room at the Sofia Hotel Balkan and there’s a good chance you’ll get a great view of this circular church, considered the oldest building in the city. A rotunda constructed by Romans around the fourth century, its interior walls are layered with medieval Christian frescoes.
Grundtvig's Church, Copenhagen, Denmark
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Over five million yellow bricks make up this Gothic cathedral, built to remember Danish priest Nikolaj Frederik Severin Grundtvig, who gave the Lutheran church new energy in 19th-century Denmark. As much detail was paid to the inside of this church as the exterior, with 750 specially designed beech chairs lining the pews.
Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain
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What will happen when this church is actually finished? A work in progress for over 135 years, this is the quirky cathedral everyone snaps photos of when visiting Barcelona. One side – the one that most resembles a sandcastle – was the vision of original architect Antoni Gaudi,¬ while the other side is modern in style. Hopes are high it will be completed in the first third of this century.
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey
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Though no longer a place of worship, this architectural marvel was used as an Orthodox Christian church for around 900 years, then as an Islamic mosque for five more centuries. A museum since the 1930s, visitors can still gaze upon the intricate Byzantine mosaics and hexagonal Sultan’s Loge within – once they’re done staring at the four perfectly formed 60-metre-high minarets outside, of course.
Kizhi Pogost, Kizhi Island, Russia
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On an island in the deep northwest of Russia is this pair of squiggly log churches – The Church of the Transfiguration and The Church of the Intercession. Apparently built without using a single nail, the former was used for summer services while the smaller Intercession church was used during winter.
Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, Cordoba, Spain
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Charles V, King of Spain in the early 1200s, gave special permission for the centuries-old Mosque of Abderraman I to be transformed into a church. Consequently, the sprawling structure is a mix of Visigoth horseshoe arches, Baroque altar vaults and a Renaissance dome. Alternating brick and stone pieces create a mesmerising red-and-white striped pattern atop most of the arches.
Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, Paris, France
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You probably first heard of this grand dame, where the cornerstone was laid in the 12th century, as the home of the legendary hunchback who haunted its halls. While you won’t actually spot this tragic figure hovering near the bell tower, you will see all manner of terrifying gargoyles positioned along its stonework and if you look very carefully ¬– really, really carefully – you might glimpse the recently installed beehive on the sacristy roof, part of the effort to conserve the buzzing creature.
St Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy
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Ignore the pigeons and gaze upon the 8000 square metres of golden mosaics on the exterior of this Byzantine masterpiece that tell the story of St Mark and tales from the old and new testaments of the Bible. Inside, the treasures are just as incredible – especially the Pala d’Oro behind the high altar, which is set with pearls, precious stones and silver. It’s Venetian decadence at its best.
St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
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This papal enclave and home to the Roman Catholic Church was built on the burial site of St Peter, one of Christ’s apostles. The Renaissance structure – partly designed by Michelangelo, including the vaulted domed ceiling – is 187 metres long and opens up unto the enormous St Peter’s Square, where worshippers gather in the thousands to hear papal addresses.
Westminster Abbey, London, England
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Though monarchs have held their coronations at a church on the banks of the Thames for almost 1000 years, the construction of Westminster Abbey proper began in the 13th century. In the seven centuries since the first brick was laid, the home of the Church of England has been the final resting place of most royals (including all the Tudors bar Henry VII), Charles Dickens and Isaac Newton and played host to score of royal weddings, including the 2011 nuptials of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
St Mark’s Church, Zagreb, Croatia
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This church wears its patriotism on its sleeve – or its roof, as it were. Atop the 13th century church is a red, blue and white tiled roof, added at the end of the 19th century, showcasing Croatia’s medieval coat of arms with seriously impressive execution.
Trier Cathedral, Trier, Germany
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As the oldest bishop’s church in the country, this cathedral is a mixture of different styles including Medieval, Baroque and, within the core of the structure, the remains of the fourth-century building that once stood there. Its spires were restored in the ‘60s and legend has it the architect of the original building tricked the devil into procuring the heavy columns that help hold it up.
Up Next: The Most Beautiful Fairytale Villages in Europe
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You’d hardly be surprised if you came across a witch offering you a shiny red apple in one of these medieval villages. Though time has ticked on, these enchanting towns retain their past character through crooked stone buildings, thatched roofs and narrow cobbled laneways.