VACATION IDEAS

World's Most Beautiful Churches

Just in time for Easter, we've rounded up 10 of mankind's most miraculous odes to faith. Consider this slide show a little piece of heaven on earth.

Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel

Aiguilhe, near Le Puy-en-Velay, France

The approach to this sky-grazing church is as breathtaking as the views from the top. To reach Saint Michel d'Aiguilhe Chapel, which is set atop a 269-foot-high volcanic peak near the village of Le Puy-en-Velay in Auvergne, France, visitors must walk up 268 stone steps carved into the church's needle-like rocky mount. The odd geological formation is actually a basalt volcanic plug, formed when lava hardens inside the vent of an active volcano. Thanks to its sheer geological curiosity, the site was considered sacred long before the church was built in 962 A.D. The climb to the top is well worth it: The church is a Medieval classic, its façade dominated by multicolor stonework and Islamic-influenced tiled mosaics. While fairly plain, the interior is interesting, too, and noteworthy for its uneven flooring (due to the nature of its rocky foundation), frescoes, and cave-like atmosphere. Legend has it that Joan of Arc's mother made a pilgrimage here in the early 15th century to pray for her daughter.
How to go: Le Puy-en-Velay is in south-central France, a four-and-a-half-hour train ride from Paris on France's
national train line (prices vary). Admission is €3 (about $4.30) per person

Duomo di Milano

Milan, Italy

Much has been written about the Duomo di Milano—one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in the world—but Mark Twain, perhaps, described the marble church's beauty best, in his 1869 classic The Innocents Abroad: "A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems in the soft moonlight only a fairy delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!" Most of that airy appeal is conveyed in the church's exterior—135 elegant spires and 3,400 intricate statues grace the building. In true Gothic style, the ambience of the interior is rather dark thanks to the stained-glass windows and heavy stone columns. Not to be missed is a schlep up the stairs (or catch a lift up on the elevator) to access the rooftop terraces. Here, surrounded by the cathedral's eerie marble towers, you can see across Milan, all the way out to the peaks of the Alps.
How to go: Set in Milan's city center, the Duomo di Milano has free admission but charges for access to the roof. To ride the elevator, it is €10 (about $14) per person; to climb the stairs is €8 (about $11) per person.

Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood

Saint Petersburg, Russia

This onion-domed, rainbow-hued, riverside behemoth in Saint Petersburg isn't quite as famous as its similar-looking cousin, St. Basil's Cathedral, in Moscow—but the Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood has a much more storied history. It was built on the site where Czar Alexander II was assassinated in 1881. Construction began just a few years later, in 1883, and was funded almost entirely by the imperial family. Then, in the 1930s, the Bolsheviks shuttered it and reportedly used it as a storage facility for potatoes in World War II. The church only reopened in 1997, after 27 years of restoration. Thought to house the world's largest collection of mosaics within a church, the interior is covered from floor to ceiling with intricate tile work depicting biblical scenes. And while no regular services are held here, the site does lure pilgrims of the art variety from the world over who come to stare, slack-jawed, at the more than 75,000 square feet of mosaic marvels.
How to go: The Church of Our Savior on Spilled Blood is in the center of Saint Petersburg, just steps from Nevsky Prospekt, its main thoroughfare. Visitors are charged 200 rubles (about $7) for admission.

Las Lajas Sanctuary

Ipiales,Colombia

Deep in the mountains of southwestern Colombia, this church sits at the end of a bridge that stretches over a dramatic gorge—cloaked in lush trees and the occasional veil of a waterfall—over the rushing muddy waters of the Guaitara River. Its name, Las Lajas, refers to the flat rocks found in the surrounding Andes, with which the church was built, and the stones seem to glow against the backdrop of the steamy mountains. Its precarious placement is no accident—it was built here as a tribute to Mother Mary. In 1754, a woman and her deaf-mute daughter were walking in the area when they got caught in a storm and took shelter in a nearby cave. Sometime that night, the Virgin Mary allegedly revealed herself to the daughter—and she began to speak for the very first time. Soon after, a chapel was erected here to honor her. The Gothic Revival–style Lajas Sanctuary was later built, between 1916 and 1949, to replace the 19th-century chapel. The pilgrims who continue to arrive to this day from Colombia, Ecuador, and beyond often leave behind personal plaques, which you'll see lining the cliff walls, to thank the Virgin for miracles.
How to go: Las Lajas is just outside the small city of Ipiales, near the border of Colombia and Ecuador. From Ipiales, it's best to take a taxi from the city-center bus station to reach the church; expect to pay about $2 for the taxi one way. Admission is free.

SEE THE CHURCHES

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