The Bucket List: 8 Unconventional and Incredible Churches

Travel Lists

When it comes to the remarkable architecture of religious sites, the kind you travel to see, most will think of gothic cathedrals like Notre-Dame in Paris or the countless Buddhist temples that dot the Asian continent from Japan to Bhutan. But around the world there are churches that defy many of the traditional design conventions often associated with them to offer impressive architectural wonders worthy of a visit—regardless of what religion, if any, you follow. These are eight of the most unconventional and incredible churches in the world.

1. Cadet Chapel
Colorado Springs, Colorado

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CC BY-SA 2.0

Just north of Colorado Springs is the striking Cadet Chapel (also pictured at the top) at the United States Air Force Academy. Its facade features rows of 17 spires that form 100 tetrahedrons. Stained-glass windows fill the spaces between, which create a somewhat-psychedelic scene inside. The chapel has multiple areas of worship, including Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Islamic, as well as an all-faiths room and an exterior space for Earth-centered religions like Paganism. The chapel was designed by Walter A. Netsch of the renowned Chicago-based architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill and was completed in the early 1960s.

2. Church of Hallgrímur
Reykjavík, Iceland

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Standing at 244-feet-tall, the Church of Hallgrímu is the largest of its kind in Iceland. The architect, Guðjón Samúelsson, was inspired by the country’s lava flows and designed the facility to resemble them. Construction began in 1945 and took nearly 40 years to complete. Visitors can attend Lutheran services or simply marvel at the church’s architecture. You can also travel to the top of its observation tower for views of Reykjavík and the surrounding scenery.

3. Sagrada Familia
Barcelona, Spain

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Designed by Spain’s Antoni Gaudí, the Sagrada Familia is an architectural and cultural icon of Barcelona. It has also gained notoriety for its incredibly long construction schedule. Despite breaking ground in 1882, the church is still incomplete. News broke in October that the project is 70 percent finished and has entered its final phase of construction. It’s scheduled for completion by 2026 to mark the 100-year anniversary of Gaudi’s death. The church features Gothic, Modernist and Art Nouveau architectural elements and is complex inside and out. The intricate ceiling (pictured) is mesmerizing and to stare at it is akin to looking through a kaleidoscope.

4. Cathedral of Brasilia
Brasilia, Brazil

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The roof of the Cathedral of Brasilia consists of 16 concrete columns that form a hyperboloid surrounded by a nearly 40-foot-wide reflection pond, but the majority of the cathedral is underground. Visitors must pass through a tunnel and under the pond before entering the main hall. Aside from the concrete columns, the roof is mostly glass and features large stained glass work that fills the space with light and color. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the Roman Catholic cathedral was completed in 1970 and serves as the seat of the Archdiocese of Brasilia.

5. St. Basil’s Cathedral
Moscow, Russia

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CC BY-SA 2.0

As one of the most iconic sites in Russia, Moscow’s St. Basil’s Cathedral was confiscated and secularized in the late 1920s. Today, it continues to sit in Red Square near the Kremlin and lives on as a museum. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is unique architecturally and was designed to represent a flame. It was commissioned by Ivan IV Vasilyevich (Ivan the Terrible) and completed in 1561. St. Basil’s was designed by Postnik Yakovlev. A popular, but untrue, legend is that the tsar was so thrilled with the design that he blinded the architect upon the cathedral’s completion so he could never create anything as magnificent again.

6. Kizhi Pogost?
Kizhi, Russia?

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CC BY 2.0

The UNESO World Heritage-listed Kizhi Pogost consists of two separate churches, Transfiguration Church and Intercession Church. They contain a cumulative 31 domes, as well as a bell tower. Remarkably, they were built entirely out of wood and yet contain not a single nail.

7. Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian
Rio de Janeiro?, Brazil?

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CC BY-SA 2.0

Known informally as the Metropolitan Cathedral of Rio de Janeiro, this modern cathedral was designed by Edgar Fonseca and inspired by the Mayan pyramids. The 315-foot-tall structure serves as the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro. The cathedral includes four floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows and can accommodate up to 20,000 people.

8. Thorncrown Chapel
Eureka Springs, Arkansas

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CC BY 2.0

Since 1980 Thorncrown Chapel has served as a place of worship, as well as a respite for hikers in the wilderness outside Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The architect, E. Fay Jones, designed the chapel out of glass so visitors could still admire the surrounding Ozark Hills that surround it. A reported six million people have visited Throncrown Chapel and it was honored with a place on the American Institute of Architect’s list of top buildings of the 20th century.

Top photo: Kevin, CC BY-SA 2.0

Paste Travel’s Bucket List columnist Lauren Kilberg is a Chicago-based freelance writer. Her travels have found her camping near the Pakistani border of India and conquering volcanoes in the Philippines.

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