27 spiritual travel experiences

Centuries-old abbeys, churches, and cathedrals to see around the world.

50170 Mont Saint-Michel, France
It’s safe to say there’s nothing in the world quite like this magical island, topped by a medieval monastery that rises out of the bay like a heavenly apparition. It’s said that, early in the 8th century, a bishop in nearby Avranches was visited by the archangel Michael, who told him to build a church atop an island out to sea. From 966 onward, the dukes of Normandy, supported by French kings, oversaw the development of a major Benedictine abbey on Mont St-Michel. Massive buildings were added throughout the Medieval period, and the abbey became a renowned center of learning, attracting some of the greatest minds in Europe. To access this UNESCO World Heritage site, you must park in an off-site lot and take a shuttle or walk over a footbridge. Recent improvements have made the process much easier, but you should expect crowds in most seasons, as Mont St-Michel is the third most-visited monument in France. After touring the abbey, head to La Mère Poulard restaurant for the signature omelets and butter cookies. There are also several hotels on the island, though most visitors tend to spend the night elsewhere.
20 Deans Yd, Westminster, London SW1P 3PA, UK
William and Kate’s wedding brought a 21st-century focus to this 700-year-old abbey, which is built on the same spot as a Benedictine monastery enlarged by Edward the Confessor in the 1040s. The site of every coronation since 1066, it boasts an ornate Gothic architecture that gives it a statuesque presence, dominating Parliament Square; it’s easy to combine with a visit to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament next door.
Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı No:1, 34122 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Walk into Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) and look up to the heavens to see why so many conquerors and their respective religions claimed this basilica turned mosque turned museum as their own. Visitors will swoon over the Byzantine gilded mosaics, hanging chandeliers, purple marble columns, Islamic calligraphic slates, and tiled seraphim. The existing structure is an architectural wonder in itself, having stood the test of time since the 6th century.
III. nádvoří 48/2, 119 01 Praha 1-Hradčany, Czechia
The Prague Castle complex, which sits on the top of the hill above the city, dominates the skyline, and houses multiple palaces, churches, halls, and museums. The crown jewel of the complex is St. Vitus Cathedral. Construction of this Gothic and neo-Gothic masterpiece began in 1344 and took nearly six centuries to complete. The largest and most important church in Prague, which is surrounded by smaller chapels, is also the spiritual heart of the city. Bohemian and Czech kings and queens have been coronated here and are also laid to rest here underneath the cathedral. The exterior with its heavy bronze doors and carved stone is massive and imposing, but once you enter, the soaring Gothic ceiling overwhelms you with a feeling of lightness. The interior is filled with golden sunlight and glowing colors from the stained glass windows, designed by prominent 20th-century Czech artists, including art nouveau master Alphonse Mucha.
Rooseveltplatz 8, 1090 Wien, Austria
Inside of the Votive Church (Votivkirche) in Vienna, Austria. Absolutely stunning gothic church with gorgeous stained glass--a must-see in Vienna.
00120, Vatican City
Painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, the frescoes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling are considered some of the finest art ever produced. These religious paintings include nine scenes from the Book of Genesis, of which The Creation of Adam is undoubtedly the most iconic.
Largo do Carmo, 1200-092 Lisboa, Portugal
In 1755, Lisbon was all but devoured by an earthquake so strong that it still ranks as one of the most destructive in recorded history. One of the few structures to survive somewhat intact was the Carmo Convent—an impressive feat, considering it was built in the 14th century. Today, you can still tour its beautiful skeleton, complete with soaring archways that cut a majestic path across the sky. Also worth visiting is the open courtyard, which houses spillover ruins from the attached archaeological museum.
6 Parvis Notre-Dame - Pl. Jean-Paul II, 75004 Paris, France
A devastating fire on April 15, 2019, has closed the interior of the cathedral to visitors. Plans to rebuild and reopen the structure are being made, but at present, visitors are not allowed near the site.
For a first-time visitor to Notre Dame, investing in the audio guide is essential to understand this overwhelmingly significant Paris icon. There’s a lot to see and absorb—history, architecture, artifacts, theology—and the audio guide gives a much-needed sense of direction and context. Even without spiritual ties, the awe-inspiring grandeur of the cathedral is not to be missed from every angle—tour the naves, stroll around the entirety of the exterior, take in the city from the top of the towers, walk along Quai de Montebello to view it from across the water, or admire it from a river cruise down the Seine. The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is everything everyone says it is and more.
Calle de Bailén, 10, 28013 Madrid, Spain
After paying your patriotic fee of 10 Euro to enter the Royal Palace, you will notice the Almudena Cathedral beyond the courtyards gates. While I was too late in the day to be graced with the inner divinities of this structure I did in fact, get into its reticent crypt. This Church intially desired by King Philip II in 1561, didn’t not receive approval for building until 1868. Yes, obviously King Philip never saw his desires come to fruition but I am almost positive he would have been happy with the outcome. In 1883 construction for the church had finally began but one year later Madrid becomes a diocese thanks to Pope Leo XIII and a-not-so-simple church was transformed into a cathedral. Construction, still staggering in its progress, came to a halt in the 30’s during Spain‘s civil war. Then in 1944 they had to stop construction altogether as the cathedral’s neo-gothic style clashed with its neighbor, the royal palace’s soon to be neo-classical design. Only 383 years in the making at this point anyhow. Consecrated by John-Paul II in 1993 the cathedral was finally considered complete after its redesign. Its crypt however still displays unearthed Moorish and medieval city walls.
Before reaching this incredible castle, you will be astounded by the beautiful pastures and lakes along the roadside. Lambs occasionally trot across allowing a great opportunity for photos. Upon reaching Kylemore, you will enter through a quaint cafe for lattes, tea and delicious pastries. The tour begins walking through this enormous castle turned legendary private school that was originally owned by Mitchell Henry who built it for his wife. After taking in the luxuriousness of the manicured walls and decorations, you can then walk to the little cathedral. The cathedral is just as impressive as the castle. The pillars inside are made up of five different types of marble. Following the cathedral, you can choose to walk to the walled Victoria gardens or take the shuttle that runs to and fro the castle. The gardens have several green houses and a vast amount of exotic plants that dazzle the eyes and invigorate the nose! Here you can sit down for a coffee or tea and simply enjoy the man-made beauty that has lasted over a century. There are also several nature walks to allow more time for one to take in Ireland’s beauty. This is a fascinating place to admire historic architecture and learn about the love story that started it all!
Exo Gonia 847 00, Greece
Yes, Vegas would do the trick, but a 12 days hopping between the Greek islands of Santorini, Folegandros, and Sifnos will be a matrimonial send-off you’ll actually want to remember. Cannonball into clear coves reachable only by boat, and party under the stars as you toast to good luck in love. By Lisa Trottier.
Agiou Dimitriou, Thessaloniki 546 33, Greece
Hagios Demetrios is known as the largest church in all of Greece, and while this interior doesn’t look as large as other European churches, the entire building and grounds are a true showing of historic periods coming and overlapping one another. You’ll find ancient ruins with Christian worship, and many relics and antiquities to see.
Orval 1, 6823 Florenville, Belgium
You cannot visit the current Orval Abbey but for a small fee you can visit the Orval Abbey ruins. By the 12th century, this Cistercian abbey isolated in the Gaume Forest had become one of the most famous and richest in Europe. After a film on monastic life, the tour takes visitors round the ruins of the 14th century cloister and 18th century cellar. Note the medicinal herb garden in front of the Monks’ Pharmacy Museum. The ruined late 12th century Notre Dame Church stands near the Mathilda Fountain in green surroundings. Note the north transept rose window and Romanesque, Gothic or Renaissance capitals adorning the pillars. The tomb of Wenceslas, first Duke of Luxembourg, is in the chancel. The apse dates from the 17th century. It’s a wonderful place to visit. The restaurant offers a wide selection of dinner options, starting at 6pm. Until then you can enjoy Orval beer, sandwiches made with local ham and Orval cheese also made at the Abbey. Beer and cheese can also be purchase at the Abbey’s store and other food items like local fruit jams. Religious art objects can also be purchased there. There is the possibility of staying the night in the guesthouse next to the Abbey. It is open to young and old, men and women, single travelers, families or groups.
Domkloster 4, 50667 Köln, Germany
One of the most famous sights in Germany, the Cologne Cathedral (known locally as the Kölner Dom) lives up to the hype. Its Gothic exterior, and especially its soaring twin spires, can be seen from all over the city, and its immense interior—measuring a whopping 66,370 square feet—brims with religious and cultural treasures. While its first stone was laid in 1248, the cathedral wasn’t finished until 1880. Today, its highlights include the Altar of the Patron Saints of Cologne by Stefan Lochner, the carved oak choir stalls, and the stained glass windows, which range from 13th-century examples to a more recent (and striking) addition by contemporary artist Gerhard Richter. The real treasure, however, is the Shrine of the Three Kings—an impressive work of medieval gold craftsmanship that’s bigger and grander than any other in Europe. Take it all in, then climb the 533 steps to the viewing platform on the south tower for a look over the city and, on a clear day, out to the Siebengebirge. Also be sure to visit the treasury, which holds artworks made from gold, silver, bronze, and ivory, as well as holy relics and sculptures from the Middle Ages.
Place de l'Evêché 1, 7500 Tournai, Belgium
Tournai is the perfect place to spend a Saturday afternoon. Visit the amazing Notre Dame Cathedral, go up in the Belfry which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List or just have a coffee at a cafe in the square and watch the world go by. Looking forward to the next visit.
Calle Cardenal Herrero, 1, 14003 Córdoba, Spain
The landmark cathedral in Cordoba, Spain is the Mosque of Córdoba. You might be amazed by the bell tower, the stone path, and the orange trees. However, the moment you stepped into the prayer hall, it will take your breath away.
Carrer de la Marina, 253, 08013 Barcelona, Spain
The art nouveau buildings of Antoni Gaudí, the 19th-century architect whose works are some of Barcelona’s most iconic sights, can be seen throughout Catalonia, but Barcelona has the best examples of his genius at work. Former residences of upper-class families, the Casa Milà (or La Pedrera), at 261-265 Provença, and Casa Batlló, at 43 Passeig de Gràcia, have their fair share of intricate wrought iron balconies and striking mosaic work to catch the eye. They can’t compare, however, with Gaudí’s imposing, and to date unfinished, church, the Sagrada Família. At a minimum, take a tour of one of these buildings—we recommend making time for all three.
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