Let’s go from church to church

This festive season, Joanna Lobo takes us on a trail of some of the most iconic churches of the world...

St. Stephen's Cathedral, Vienna, Austria

Gaudí-designed masterpiece in Barcelona, a cathedral built on the orders of Ivan the Terrible in the geometric centre of Moscow, a Roman basilica with the world’s tallest dome (designed by Michelangelo), a church in Calvary said to contain the tomb of Jesus: every church has a story to tell.

Though not on every traveller’s itinerary, churches make for interesting destinations. They have aesthetic value, are architecturally rich and grand, and often contain a little something extra. The latter could be a legend, a witness to wars, a rich history, or just a great pipe organ. Here’s a list of some of the most interesting churches in the world:

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna

A 12th-century Gothic structure is one of the city’s iconic buildings. Its most visible features are the two towers and the roof. The roof contains 230,000 glazed colourful tiles forming a mosaic of the royal double-headed eagle, the coat of arms of the city and of the Republic of Austria. Its tallest point is South Tower (Steffi), accessible by 343 steps. North Tower contains Austria’s largest bell, the Pummerin, accessible by an elevator. Entry is via a Romanesque Giant’s Door, decorated with dragons and demons. The three-aisled interiors have clustered pillars, stone statues, an ornate stone pulpit with a puppy at the top, and a high altar that depicts the stoning of St. Stephen. Below are the catacombs. Spend a little time exploring the chapels within because one of them contains a crucified Christ whose beard is made with real hair!

Holy Cross Basilica, Warsaw

An unassuming pit stop on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, this baroque church was once the largest Catholic place of worship in Warsaw. Today, it’s popular for being a resting place for composer Fryderyk Chopin’s heart, literally. An urn containing the composer’s heart rests within one of the church’s white pillars and is marked by a carved bust of the composer. The church’s history goes back to the 15th century. Once a small wooden chapel, it has been destroyed and rebuilt over the years — the last major reconstruction was after the Warsaw Uprising and WWII. The church has been witness to much of Warsaw’s history, including the January Uprising of 1863. Its organ, built in Salzburg, is considered the largest in Warsaw. Besides Chopin, there’s an urn with the remains of Nobel Prize-winning author Władysław Reymont, and tablets honouring various Polish icons.

Holy Cross Basilica, Warsaw
Holy Cross Basilica, Warsaw

Tân Đinh Church, Ho Chi Minh City

The second largest church in Saigon was built in 1874 by Father Donatien Éveillard. He supervised its construction and later invited the Sisters of Saint-Paul de Chartres to set up an orphanage and boarding school next door. The priest is buried beneath the church’s nave. Designed in Romanesque style with Gothic and Renaissance elements, Tân Đinh has a barrel-vaulted roof, an upper gallery, and two small chapels. Gothic-style pillars lead to the main altar — dedicated to Mary and Joseph, and St. Theresa. The church has seen many additions over the years. Most famously, the 1928-1929 reconstruction saw the introduction of ornately carved marble altars, paid for by a wealthy French parishioner. In 1957, the Roman Catholic church got its unique pink shade. It is salmon on the outside and strawberries and cream inside, and looks like a giant festive cake!

St. George’s Cathedral, Cape Town

The oldest cathedral in Southern Africa, this Anglican church is fondly called the People’s Cathedral — it was a meeting point for activists, and was open to people of all races. It was from here that Archbishop Desmond Tutu led a mass protest in September 1989, and first used the phrase ‘rainbow people’. The Gothic building was designed by Sir Herbert Baker using sandstone from Table Mountain. Its stained glass windows contain a black Christ, a visual counterpart to the white Christ of Calvary. The coolest thing about this church is its stone crypt, built in 1898, which is now a restaurant that hosts live jazz concerts. The garden has a labyrinth, and a paved circular walking path used for meditative prayer.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

The biggest church in Czech Republic is found within the confines of Prague Castle. In 1344, Charles IV started construction of the Gothic cathedral but it was completed only in 1929. You enter through a bronze door which is decorated with reliefs of scenes from the church’s history and legends about St. Wenceslas. Inside, it is breathtaking —stone walls, tall vaults and arches, and light streaming in through high, stained glass windows. It’s most arresting feature is St. Wenceslas Chapel built on the saint’s tomb. The walls surrounding it have 1,300 semi-precious stones and frescoes; nearby are stored the Bohemian Coronation Jewels. Below are tombs of saints, kings, princes and archbishops, including St. John of Nepomuk and King Charles IV. A climb of 297 steps to the clock tower introduces you to the largest church bell in Eastern Europe, and one of the best views of the city.

St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague
St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague

Dutch Reformed Church, Galle

One of the oldest Protestant churches in the country, De Groote Kerk or Dutch Reformed Church was built in 1755 on the site of a Portuguese Capuchin convent. Being the highest point of Galle Fort, it managed to escape damage during the 2004 tsunami. Constructed in the form of a cruciform, it has no central tower. There are two timbre doors that lead one into a small room with stained glass windows, original pipe organ, and a wooden pulpit with a hexagonal canopy. The church, on the inside and outside, is covered with tombstones, some dating back 300 years. They pave the interior floor, and the courtyard outside — each tombstone revealing a bit about the families that lived and died here, and the history of the region. Beneath, there’s also a tunnel that runs from the church to the Governor’s House and other parts of the city.

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