Travelers love Europe’s many grand, historical churches, basilicas, cathedrals and other places of worship found in practically all the capitals and larger cities. They are typically one of the most popular and high priority attractions, and they are certainly worth it! It’s hard for anyone not to be amazed at these remarkable and awe-inspiring structures. One tip: The skip the line passes are ALWAYS worth it!
While we certainly make a point to check-off all the big-name places of worship as we travel, we also really enjoy seeking out and even stumbling across some lesser known, out-of-the-way, smaller, and unique holy sites. Unlike the enormous, landmark sites that are always top 3 in every guidebooks, the sites below aren’t in the center of large cities and they aren’t the size of city blocks. These sites are special because of their surroundings, their history, and the journey you have to take to reach them.
Go! = Definitely worth going
Go!Go! = Don’t miss it or you’ll regret it
Go!Go!Go! = Bucket list; Trip highlight
Our Lady of the Rocks – Go!Go!
The Bay of Kotor is one of the most stunningly beautiful places we’ve been. It’s part Italy, part Norway, and part Riviera. Just off the coast of the now touristy village of Perast sits a small museum and church dubbed the Lady of the Rocks. It’s a manmade island crafted from sunken ships and rocks. It can get crowded so go early, late or off-season, and it’s worth a stop for the Instagram pics alone. You can take a little boat for a few euros from Perast, but you should rent a private boat for a day or half-day and make it just one of many wonderful stops.
The Church in the Cave – Go!
Budapest is one of, in our opinion, the most underrated cities in Europe and one that some will enjoy more than, say, Paris, Madrid, Rome, or other well known destinations. We did! On the Buda side of the Danube, tucked away nearby great hikes, mineral baths and viewpoints, is a church entirely hidden within the side of Gellert Hill. Formerly a monastery and a WWII field hospital, the Gellert Hill Cave church provided a secret place of worship for 6 years during Soviet occupation until it was discovered and shut down. It’s worth a visit and then either enjoy the hike up to the great views on top of Gellert Hill or cross the beautiful bridge and have lunch at the Market.
The Church in the Meadow – Go!
While its formal name is: The Pilgrimage Church of Wies, I think “The Church in the Meadow” both sounds more romantic and is certainly appropriate. Located along the famous “Romantic Road” in Bavaria, this church dates 1700s and was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983. While the church itself is perfectly lovely, what makes this such a great experience is the drive to get there and the surroundings. There are lots of worthwhile stops along the Romantic Road, and the Church in the Meadow is a worthy one.
Church of our Lady of Remedy – Go!Go!Go!
This Roman Catholic Church perched over the lovely, Medieval town of Kotor dates from the early 1500s. Only accessible by foot, and up a few hundred stone steps at that, locals still visit this church daily. This is a perfect stopping point where you can buy a bottle of water as you make your way up the 1300 steps or so to the fort at the top of the hill. The church is nice, but this one gets a Go!Go!Go! rating simply for the views of Kotor Bay along the hike.
Salt Mine Church – Go!Go!Go!
A short drive outside of Krakow are the salt mines. Originally excavated back in the 13th century, and a functioning commercial salt mine up to 1996, the “Wieliczka Salt Mine” is an extraordinary attraction to visit. They find a spot in this list because of the chapels are carved entirely of salt. Everything you see in these pictures are made of salt, and they are hundreds of METERS underground. The tour is great and full of interesting tid bits, facts and history.
The Church from Lord of the Rings – Go!
While there are many J.R.R. Tolkien related sites throughout the Cotswolds, The St. Edward’s Church in Stow-on-the-Wold is one of the more famous ones. Of particular note for fans are the doors at the back of the church which are said to be the inspiration behind the doors to Moria. Whether that’s true or not, they are remarkable doors of a beautiful, Medieval Church in my favorite town in the Cotswolds, so go see them! Bonus tip: Please, please, make reservations and don’t miss the scones and afternoon tea at the Old Bakery Tea Room while visiting Stow-on-the-Wold.
St Bartholomew’s Church – Go!Go!Go!
This church should be called the Sound of Music Church, because the landscape and surroundings will have you spinning around with your arms out and humming the soundtrack. An easy day trip from Salzburg, St. Bartholomew’s Church is nestled within a fjord in the Bavarian Alps, in the center of Lake Konigssee (King’s Lake). The crystal clear lake water is kept pure and pristine as the only boats allowed on the lake – the ones which shuttle you to/from the church and the little village of Konigssee – are electric.
The Mobile Alter – Go!
While the piece of furniture in the picture below may look like your everyday antique dresser, it actually opens up to reveal a portable alter. Found in the Casa Rocca Piccola in Malta, this alter was used to hold mass for the aristocratic owners until their proper chapel room could be built. It is one of only limited number (four I think) of these kind of alters that were approved by the Pope. I’m not 100% sure that’s factual but I seem to remember that from our tour. A pair of the Pope’s shoes are also on display in the room – kind of an odd gift but okay. The house itself is beautiful and absolutely worth the 45 minute tour, and you even get to visit the WW2 bomb shelter found underneath!
The Secret Church in the Attic – Go!Go!
The Ons’ Lieve Her op Solder, or “Our Lord in the Attic” is one of the rare examples of historical religious tolerance. When certain religions were banned from being practiced publicly in 17th Century Amsterdam, many of the homeowners (often of different religion) converted their narrow, multi-storied homes lining the canals into makeshift places of worship. These churches looked no different from the other houses from the street perspective, and had living rooms, kitchens, and everything else like other homes. However, you walk up the wooden, curving staircase and you find yourself in a beautiful church. The Ons’ Lieve Her op Solder is located right in Central Amsterdam, a block or two from some of the oldest (and best) pubs you’ll ever visit!
The Vic Churches – Go!Go!Go!
The little town of Vic, which is basically at the southernmost point on Iceland, has black sand beaches, lush green landscapes, flocks of adorable puffins, and a dozen other nature-rated reasons why it should be on everyone’s bucket list. While not particularly historic or interesting to visit, both the Vik I Myrdal Church in “central” Vic and the nearby Reyniskirkja church have stark white sides and a bright red roof, which add to the peaceful surroundings the way a red barn feels adds character to a midwestern farm. While they aren’t the reason you should travel to Vic, and they don’t deserve a Go!Go!Go! on their own, the drive to Vic and all the joys of Southern Iceland are absolutely bucket list travel.
The Church from Game of Thrones – Go!Go!Go!
Okay, so technically the church itself was not a part of any Game of Thrones episode, but the unique staircase and surroundings of this incredible San Juan Gaztelugatxe hike were featured in a couple of scenes. Regardless whether you were an obsessed fan or if you’ve somehow never heard of the show, this church, the winding staircase and the hike to get there are unforgettable. It’s about a 45-minute hike each way from the parking lot to the island where the church sits. There are some decent hills along the way (not even counting the upward winding staircase), but the path is clearly marked and there are also some great views to enjoy as you make the trek. Tip: there is a good restaurant with nice views at the start of the hike where you can grab a bottled water before you go and a nice drink and snack when you get back.
Stave Church – Go!Go!Go!
Norway used to be covered with these unique, wooden churches, but now only a handful remain. If you’re enamored with Viking culture these are a must visit as it almost feels like you’ve stepped back into the Viking Age as you explore the area and walk into the church. We visited the Borgund Stave Church by renting a car from Flam. It was an easy half-day round-trip and we also got to drive through the longest underground tunnel in Europe to get there. Beware if you’re claustrophobic… The Borgund Church dates back to 1180, and stands proudly in a beautiful green valley in rural Norway. Flam is one of my favorite places on Earth, and if you go it’s definitely worth the drive to see this incredible, endangered species.
The Chapel in the Street – Go!
While America might have perfected drive through dining, the Croatians have been using the drive through lane for blessings for around 300 years. Translated as the “Mother of God of the Stone Gate”, this chapel is known for the image of the Mother of God that survived a raging fire in the 1700s with the only damage being to its frame. The gates protecting the picture date to the 1200s. Regardless of the history, it’s just really a pretty unique experience to be in a chapel and have to step up onto the curb to let a bicyclist ride through. Definitely a cool spot and worth walking through as you explore the lovely and underrated old town of Zagreb.
Church in a Rock – Go!
The youngest of all the churches mentioned here, the Temppeliaukion Church in Helsinki, Finland was built/carved out of a giant rock in the late 1960s. The church is visually stylish with a striking copper dome and an organ with large, beautiful matching pipes. The church is renowned for its acoustics and is frequently the site of concerts. Whether you go for a show, a service, or just as a tourist to take some pictures, it’s a unique experience to put on your itinerary.
The Church with JFK – Go!
While the Galway Cathedral is one of the larger churches on this list, and is also just a short walk from central Galway so not very remote either, it does have a unique feature that some US tourists might get a kick out of seeing. One of the side chapels has a mosaic portrait in tribute of JFK. Completed in 1965, the Galway Cathedral was the last great stone cathedral to be built in Europe. JFK visited here in 1963, and clearly his visit left an impression. Even if you could care less about the JFK mosaic, the church is grand, stoic, and with a touch of color; meaning, it’s worth a visit.
The Major Synagogue – Go!
While we have visited other more architecturally impressive, grand, and historic Synagogues in cities like Prague, Budapest, Krakow, and Florence, the Major Synagogue in Barcelona is a better fit on this list of unique places of worship. Despite being in the center of Barcelona, it’s on a non-descript street with little signage, at least when we visited. While originally dating back to the 3rd or 4th Century, the structure was used for other purposes until recently reopening as a synagogue and museum in 2002. The museum has some interesting pieces and a small temple – it’s worth a quick stop as you make your way around the sites in Central Barcelona.
Santa Maria de Montserrat- Go!Go!Go!
Okay, admittedly, this site is pretty famous, is already on a lot of bucket lists, and probably doesn’t need to be included here, but I’m still amazed how many tourists make it to Barcelona and don’t make the trip out to this incredible Monastery. Whether you go for the surrounding vistas, the amazing visual of the Basilica and Monastery built into the enormous boulders, the hiking, or as a pilgrimage to see the Virgin of Monserrat, you will love the experience. The pictures here speak for themselves…if you are anywhere near Barcelona, don’t miss this site!
The Oldest Catholic Church – Go!Go!Go!
The history, legends and ancient landmarks found throughout Europe are a constant source of intrigue, fascination and interest for us. If you’re also drawn to past relics, then Split, Croatia should be higher on your bucket list than it is now! Diocletian’s Palace is woefully underhyped in terms of blockbuster European landmarks. In the center of the Palace stands the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. It’s regarded as the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world, with the structure originally build in AD 305 as the Mausoleum of Diocletian. Google it, then go see it!