Famous cathedral spain: 12 Great Cathedrals of Spain

12 Great Cathedrals of Spain

The ceiling of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona at the intersection of the nave and transept. A riot of form and color unlike any other in the world.

The scores of cathedrals and lesser churches have always occupied a special part of my affinity for Spain. For it is in these ostensible houses of God that you get a sense of the country’s history and school of thought, providing a basis for understanding the essence of Spain. You certainly won’t get a complete picture. You’ll have to look at Goya’s etchings in the Prado, spend lots of time in bars, see Flamenco and fútbol, and maybe take in a bullfight to get a more catholic (small c) impression.

But cathedrals are a good place to start, because, in a way, they are monuments to the variety of life that makes up Spain. Keep in mind that everyone from kings to cardinals and skilled masons to ditch diggers participated in their construction. And, that the result of their patronage and labor was the literal and figurative centerpiece of any city or town.

And, of course, the Cathedrals are the embodiment and repositories of spectacular artistic and engineering achievements. The interior details are limitless: from the architecture itself to cast metal screens that surround carved choirs; to saints sculpted in marble and wood or painted on plaster, canvas, and stained glass; to their shards housed in elaborate if dubious reliquaries. And, don’t forget the gargoyles and all the other pure whimsical elements of the exteriors.

This is the artistic spirit of Spain, spread to every province and every corner of the kingdom for anyone to see. You don’t have to go to the Prado to see all the best art in Spain.

Table of Contents

The Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

The facade of the Sagrada Familia. No one currently alive has seen this sight without cranes.

Words begin to fail when you are asked to sum up Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Perhaps the best thing to say is “it’s fantastic” in the literal sense of that word. Gaudi was a visionary who utterly changed architecture in the early 20th Century. The façade, which seems to drip off the structure, the incorporation of animals and vegetables in the decoration, the fanciful geometry of the interior columns, and finally, the color of the windows: all elements are inspired.

Gaudi’s design was not finished at his death, and unfortunately many of his models and plans were deliberately destroyed during the Spanish Civil War.

But the models have been mostly restored from the shards left on the floor, and the style has been honored and amplified by subsequent architects, sculptors, and glass artists. If you go, allow hours to see it. And remember to occasionally close your gaping mouth.

The stunning color of the Sagrada Familia windows, as reflected in the pipes of the organ

We first saw the Sagrada Familia in its comparatively incipient form when we first visited Spain in 1975. It’s come a long way since then, and is actually scheduled for completion in 2026. One should note, though, that there’s a saying in Spain when something is taking a very long time. It amounts to: “It’s taking longer than the Sagrada Familia.”

One tip for visiting the Sagrada Familia: make your reservations in advance for a timed entry. Otherwise, you’ll be standing in line for as much as a couple of hours. And, don’t begrudge the entry fee. That’s how their paying for this. (Update: as of April 2021, the Sagrada Familia is closed to the public due to Covid restrictions.)

The Gothic Cathedral of Barcelona

Sun streaming through the windows of the old Gothic Barcelona Cathedral.

It probably should be mentioned that the actual Cathedral of Barcelona is the Gothic church in the old part of the city–the Barri Gòtic (in Catalan) or the Barrio Gótico in Castilian. The Sagrada Familia is a “mere” basilica. The Gothic Cathedral is the home church of the Bishop of Barcelona.

The cathedral was constructed from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, with the principal work done in the fourteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, the neo-Gothic façade was added over the original nondescript exterior.

Every Sunday afternoon Barcelonans gather to dance the traditional Sardana in front of the Gothic Cathedral.

As Spanish Cathedrals go, the Barcelona Gothic Cathedral is rather ordinary in its decor, if one can say any cathedral is ordinary. But it does provide the backdrop for one of the most charming Catalan traditions, the Sunday gathering to dance the Sardana, the Catalan national folk dance and a ritual worth viewing at least once on your visit to Barcelona.

The Cathedral of Sevilla

The choir of the Cathedral of Sevilla is flanked by two organs which, in turn, are topped by spectacular carvings.

At the time of its completion in the early 16th Century, the Cathedral of Sevilla was the largest church in the world, at the time overtaking the Hagia Sophia of Istanbul. Today, it’s the fourth largest church, and still the largest in Spain.

The enormous golden altar at Sevilla Cathedral.

The Sevilla Cathedral, in addition to its size, has several distinguishing features. Of particular note is the enormous golden altar, and the choir that is flanked by two organs. As you gaze up at the organs, be sure to take note of the decoration on the ceiling. Gothic artistry at its highest expression.

Aside from being a spectacular cathedral and the third largest Christian church in the world, the Cathedral of Sevilla also features the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

No matter what you might think of Christopher Columbus, or Cristobal Colón, as he’s known in Spain, you have to admit that he is perhaps the (non religious) person who most affected the history of the world–for good or bad.

The Cathedral of Sevilla hosts the tomb of Christopher Columbus. Or what is said to be his tomb after his remains were brought back from the New World. His grave his been around the world, so to speak. (The question of where Columbus is buried is still in dispute.)

The four kings of the four regions of Spain carry the tomb of Christopher Columbus.

There is no dispute, though, about the catafalque itself. It’s a lovely piece of art. The tomb of Columbus is carried by figures representing the kings of the four regions of Spain: Castilla, Leon, Navarra, and Aragon. The coats of arms on the kings and the surroundings are also full of symbols that require a separate article to elaborate. I invite you to check that out for yourself.

The Cathedral of Burgos

The façade of the Cathedral of Burgos, finally not covered in scaffolding.
Said by many to be the most beautiful Gothic cathedral in Spain, the Cathedral of Burgos was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984. It is the only Spanish cathedral that has this distinction independently, without being joined to the historic center of a city.

The intricate bars of the grill work enclosing the choir of the Burgos Cathedral.

The French style of delicate and intricate stone work is particularly evident in the exterior of the Burgos Cathedral, and in the proliferation of exquisite detail such as the iron bars that surround the choir.

Another feature of the Burgos Cathedral worth noting is the tomb of El Cid and his wife Dona Ximena which lies directly under the dome. El Cid was one of the Christian heroes of the Reconquest of Spain from the Moors. There is an epic poem, the Cantar de mio Cid, which is the oldest preserved epic poem in the Spanish language. When we toured the Burgos Cathedral in the 1990s, we had the pleasure of running into the sacristan of the Cathedral, who joyfully recited passages from the poem as he showed our family around the church. Unfortunately, when we returned to Burgos many years later, he had died. But his own book of poetry about the Burgos Cathedral was available in the Cathedral gift shop.

If you love European church art and architecture like we do, you might want to check out the book Europe’s 100 Best Cathedrals, by Simon Jenkins. Jenkins is a noted British journalist and has published several books of European and British history, concentrating on the art. The American edition of the book, with a title change to Cathedrals: Masterpieces of Architecture, Feats of Engineering, Icons of Faith, will be issued in February 2022. Two of my photos, of the Cathedrals of Salamanca and Toledo, Spain, are in the book.

The Mosque/Cathedral of Córdoba

The mihrab of the Córdoba Mezquita, thankfully not overwritten by the Christian conquerors.

The Mezquita, or Mosque of Córdoba, is one of the real wonders of Spain. Along with the Alhambra of Granada and the Alcazar of Sevilla, it makes up the trifecta of Moorish architecture left over from when the Muslims controlled the Iberian peninsula.

The Christian cathedral planted in the middle of the Córdoba mosque.

Regrettably, after the Reconquest of Córdoba by the Christian forces, the Christians eventually decided to repurpose the huge elegant mosque into a Christian cathedral, including filling in nearly all the niches around its interior walls with chapels and adding many sculptured scenes from the Christian stories as reliefs in the arches.

The original arches of the Córdoba Mosque.

But, much of the original mosque was preserved and you can still gaze at the mihrab and the remaining geometric perfection of the arched aisles and give thanks to the cooler heads which kept them intact.

The New Cathedral of Salamanca

The wildly decorated choir of the new Cathedral of Salamanca.

The “New” Cathedral of Salamanca is, as the name suggests, one of the newer massive cathedrals of Spain. Begun in the early 1500s, it was not consecrated until 1733, over 200 years later. It started out in a late Gothic style, with all the linear turrets and flourishes, but finished up as more of a Baroque exercise. So, in practical terms, that means the outside, except for the dome, is more in tune with the adjacent Old Cathedral while the interior is full-on decorous Baroque.

The dome of the New Cathedral of Salamanca, looking up from the transept. Here you get a sense of the gothic ribbed arches, with a bit of a baroque flourish in the cupola.

To get a sense of all Spain has to offer, we suggest checking out the official site of Spanish Tourism at www.spain.info.

The Old Cathedral of Salamanca

The apse paintings of the Old Cathedral of Salamanca.

One of the real joys of exploring Salamanca is the discovery of the “old” Salamanca Cathedral adjacent to the new version. It was customary to raze older churches and build new ones on top as tastes changed, but luckily that didn’t happen in Salamanca (perhaps because the city was a center of learning?). So, you get to enjoy the old Romanesque style smaller church by just walking down a stairway in the back of the new cathedral.

Older style tomb frescoes preserved in the old Cathedral of Salamanca.

The apse paintings, unfortunately behind a rope so you can’t get as close as you might like, are lovely examples of earlier styles of more “flat” didactic storytelling. If you want to get a real sense of the art of the old cathedral, spend some time with the frescoes and carvings on some of the tombs which line the walls surrounding the altar and lead to the cloister.

The Cathedral of Toledo

The spectacular gold of the altar at Toledo Cathedral.

As in most Spanish cities, the cathedral is the city center. The Toledo Cathedral is no exception.

The city of Toledo has always felt special to us. It was one of the first places we visited in Spain, and in a way, epitomizes the country. The Jewish and Moorish cultures that were so instrumental in the development of Spain are evident throughout the city.

The Jews and Muslims were tossed out of Spain or forcibly converted to Christianity by Fernando and Isabel after 1492. This, along with other significant events of that year, viz. the discovery of America by Columbus, and the final conquest of the Moors in Granada, is commemorated in an inscription on the back wall of the Cathedral of Toledo. The “winning” culture, Christianity, had the final say, and got to build the dominant monuments in every Spanish city. In Toledo and the other cities such as Sevilla, Granada, and Córdoba, Christians remodeled many palaces, mosques, and synagogues into Christian churches.

The transparente leading to heaven in the Cathedral of Toledo.

The Cathedral of Toledo exhibits many special features, including the spectacular golden altar overhung by an enormous crucifix and the unique transparente, a hole cut in the ceiling surrounded by sculpture and paintings done in a perspective that naturally leads your eye up to heaven. It’s a special effect found in no other church that I’m aware of.

The Cathedral of Avila

The beautiful reddish stone of the Avila Cathedral.

The stone of the apse and ambulatory of the Cathedral of Ávila , too, was unusual. Instead of the grey limestone or granite you usually find in medieval cathedrals–and what is used in the newer Gothic part of this one–the older Romanesque apse and transept of the Ávila cathedral features a locally quarried stone that is shot through with red coloring. This “bloodstone,” as it’s called, provides a beautiful warm tone to the otherwise thick and austere Romanesque construction.

The Ávila Cathedral is relatively uncontrived–especially when you consider its vastly more ornate Spanish sisters in Sevilla, Toledo, or Burgos. But it is a lot older, having been started in the 11th Century, right after Ávila was retaken from the Moors. The cathedral’s apse actually forms part of Ávila’s formidable defensive walls, so you can forgive a certain military simplicity.

A Madonna set against a column in the Avila Cathedral.

The Cathedral of León

The Cathedral of Leon is known for its windows–for good reason.

Of all the remarkable cathedrals in Spain, one of my favorites is the Cathedral of León. The windows are the best of any Spanish church, and rival the Sainte Chapelle of Paris. One of the early problems with church architecture was how to keep the walls up if the thick walls were given up to provide for non load-bearing windows. The problems were solved beautifully in Leon.

Some details from the Leon Cathedral windows.

I’m not sure how they did it really. Flying buttresses were the usual solution to hold up the thin walls against the massive pressure of the roof, and those are in evidence in León. But, they’re sort of hidden from the outside by building them into a cloister on one side. Anyway, Leon Cathedral is a beautiful cathedral, inside and out.

The Cathedral of Granada

The organ at the Granada Cathedral.

Because Granada was the last city to be captured from the Moors, it was the last of the major cities of Spain to get a cathedral. And, because it was almost the 16th Century when Christianity was reestablished here, styles had changed. No more Gothic, you see. There was now a Renaissance going on, and architects such as Michelangelo had changed the predominant style with such churches as St. Peter’s in Rome.

An image of Saint James the Moor Killer in Granada Cathedral.

And so, you have what is basically a Renaissance style, which borrowed its simplicity from classical, not Gothic architecture. But the classically simple architecture was later tarted up with a lot of baroque decoration, such as this chapel decoration and ornate organ.

One feature of the Granada Cathedral worth noting is that it is the home of the tombs of the “Catholic Kings” Isabel and Fernando. Their tombs, in an adjacent chapel, are beautifully sculpted, but unfortunately no photography is allowed. If you go be sure to visit them. And also note the tomb of their daughter, Juana, known as La Loca, or The Mad. She had her tomb built larger and higher than that of her accomplished parents.

The Cathedral of Málaga

The ceiling decoration of the Málaga Cathedral is its high point, so to speak.

The Cathedral of Málaga is a late Renaissance masterpiece, which distinguishes it from most of the cathedrals of Spain, which were built at least a few hundred years earlier. Like Granada, the Málaga Cathedral was started in the early 1500s, soon after Málaga was recaptured from the Moors in 1487 (and after the final reconquest in 1492 of the last Moorish outpost of Granada, just up the road a piece).

There’s a lot of Baroque work in here too. But what really stands out is the massiveness of the columns and their exaggerated classical capitals. The columns themselves lend a real sense of weight and grandeur to the cathedral, but unfortunately also make it really difficult to get any sense of the sweep of the lovely windows of the apse. They are set back from the altar, which is surrounded by the columns, so there’s no way to really get a look at them all at once as they peek out from between the massive supports.

At any rate, the ceiling, as you can see, is quite lovely, and perhaps that makes up a bit for hiding the windows.

If you like the spectacular architecture and decoration of Spanish cathedrals, be sure to see our post about the Seven Wonders of Spain.

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10 Iconic Churches in Spain

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The history of Spain is written in the architecture of its churches. Here are 10 of the most iconic ones.

Earlier versions of the descriptions of these churches first appeared in 1001 Amazing Places You Must See Before You Die, edited by Richard Cavendish (2016). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.

  • Burgos Cathedral

    Northern Spain’s Burgos Cathedral is a masterpiece of Gothic architecture dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Laid out in a Latin cross plan, the church is famous for its stained-glass windows, artworks, choir stalls, chapels, tombs, statuary, and the fine tracery of its open stonework. It drew its inspiration from churches constructed in northern France during the 13th century and is a fine example of how the Spanish adapted the French Gothic style, making it their own. The dissemination of French Gothic architecture and art was also aided by the fact that Burgos and its cathedral were then, as now, a stopping point for Christian pilgrims en route from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

    Work began on the church in 1221 with the bishop of Burgos, Mauricio, at the helm. The bishop had studied in Paris, and it was he who brought in a French master builder to manage the project. After the main structure was completed about 1277, there was a hiatus of almost 200 years before further work was done. Then embellishments were made to the cathedral, including spires of open stonework tracery on its two frontal towers. The cathedral was completed in 1567, although the Renaissance saw further additions, such as the golden staircase known as the Escalera Dorada.

    The cathedral is notable not only for being a flamboyant work of architecture but also for housing the remains of members of the Spanish royal house of Castile. But it is most widely known as the burial place of one of Burgos’s most eminent sons, the 11th-century soldier and military leader Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, better known as El Cid, and his wife, Doña Jimena. The couple’s remains were interred in the center of the cathedral in 1919. El Cid was a hero of the Reconquista of Spain, during which he seized Valencia from its Muslim ruler in 1094. El Cid went on to govern the city and surrounding region until his death. (Carol King)

  • Cathedral of Santiago

    The name of the city of Santiago de Compostela is known and revered throughout the Roman Catholic world. Its links with the relics of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) have made it the most important destination for pilgrims after Jerusalem and Rome.

    The city’s Cathedral of Santiago is certainly worthy of a visit in its own right. It has the unusual distinction of being a Romanesque building concealed within the shell of a Baroque exterior. The original church was founded in the 9th century, but this building was destroyed by the Moors in 997. The present core structure dates from the late 11th century, when an increased number of pilgrims provided ample funds for a new church. Much of the Romanesque building is well preserved in the interior, but the exterior was largely remodeled during the 18th century by a local architect, Fernando de Casas Nóvoa. The architecture, however, must take second place to the medieval legend that provided the raison d’être for the Cathedral of Santiago. According to this legend, the Apostle James preached throughout Spain before being martyred in Jerusalem. His remains were carried back to Spain and buried in Compostela. Then his grave was forgotten until 813, when it was rediscovered by a hermit who was led to it by a star. After this event, large numbers of pilgrims began to travel to Compostela to pay homage at the apostle’s shrine. When they arrived at the cathedral, then, as now, they passed through the Porch of Glory (originally Master Mateo’s doorway to the church) and went to embrace the saint’s statue behind the main altar and collect their “Compostela” (a confirmation of their pilgrimage).

    Pilgrims continue to flock to Santiago to this day. The number of visitors is particularly high in “Holy Years,” when the feast day of St. James—July 25—falls on a Sunday. (Iain Zaczek)

  • Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia

    Known locally as La Seu, the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and St. Eulalia in Barcelona is a large Gothic edifice whose sheer slender towers seem to pierce the sky. The cathedral took 150 years to complete: it was begun in the 13th century but was not finished until the mid-15th century. Much of its impressive Gothic facade was created in the 19th century.

    The church’s interior is stunning, with ornate wood carvings, paintings, sculpture, marble, and masonry. A plaque dating to 1493 records the baptism of six indigenous people from the Caribbean, brought to Spain by Christopher Columbus after his epic first journey to the Americas. When wandering around the cloisters, visitors are often surprised to come across a gaggle of white geese. They have been kept here for at least five centuries and are said to represent the purity of St. Eulalia of Barcelona.

    Eulalia was a Christian virgin who was martyred at the age of 13 or 14 by Roman soldiers. This occurred under the rule of the emperor Diocletian, who was notorious for his persecution of Christians. Eulalia died in the city of her birth in 304. Her bones were originally housed in a small church elsewhere in Barcelona. Now they reside in a beautifully ornate tomb inside the crypt of the cathedral that bears her name. Eulalia is a patron saint of mariners, and her name is also invoked in prayers against drought. (Lucinda Hawksley)

  • Cathedral of Valencia

    Not only is this beautiful cathedral a major part of Valencia’s outstanding Gothic architecture, but it also houses what is claimed to be the Holy Grail. This is the chalice often said to have been used at the Last Supper and subsequently by Joseph of Arimathea to catch blood from the wounds of the crucified Christ.

    The inspired hand of architect Pere Compte was responsible for the work on the Gothic heart of the cathedral. Although the Gothic style dominates, what helps to make the cathedral special is the mix of expertly executed styles showing the structure’s evolution over the centuries. One of its entrances is Romanesque (the oldest), one Gothic (the Apostles’ Door), and one spectacularly Baroque (the most recent).

    Valencia was a Moorish kingdom twice in medieval times, and the original cathedral—founded under Catholic monarchs in the mid-13th century—was built on the site of a mosque. The building features grand arches (rounded in the 1700s from their original pointed shape) and an adjoining 17th-century domed basilica. Within the cathedral—Gothic with Baroque and Neoclassical additions—the gold and agate Holy Grail lies inside the Santo Cáliz chapel. Also to be seen are valuable paintings by artists such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Francisco Goya. One fascinating oddity of this site is the meeting here of a traditional Water Court, where farmers settle disputes surrounding matters of irrigation. (Ann Kay)

  • Granada Cathedral

    This historic building took a staggering 180 years to create. Construction began in 1523, but the final stone was not laid until 1704. Part of the reason it took so long was the spread of the Black Death (plague), which claimed millions of lives across Europe. The cathedral’s epic timescale means that it was built by several generations of laborers and artisans from the same families and that it embraces varied architectural styles, from Gothic to Renaissance.

    Granada Cathedral was built on the site of the old Grand Mosque, built by the Moors when they ruled this area of Spain. The Moors had arrived in the 8th century, bringing the new religion of Islam with them. Under the Christian Spanish monarchs, the remains of the old Moorish building were turned into one of the finest churches in the kingdom, its interiors forming a masterpiece of Renaissance art, dominated by two huge ornately gilded 18th-century organs.

    The cathedral, which is surrounded by narrow streets and alleys—recalling the old souk (market)—has five naves and several chapels, including the Capilla Mayor (Main Chapel) and Capilla Real (Royal Chapel). It also houses a number of royal tombs made from Carrara marble and a royal art collection, including masterpieces by Sandro Botticelli, Alonso Cano, and Rogier van der Weyden. The cathedral is a monument to the era when Spain commanded a vast overseas empire. (Lucinda Hawksley)

  • La Sagrada Família

    Building La Sagrada Família in Barcelona was a labor of love for Catalonia’s most famous—and perhaps favorite—son, architect Antoni Gaudí. He all but abandoned his commercial work to construct what was intended to be his pièce de résistance and also an act of religious faith. He designed it to be what he called “a church for the poor,” and its construction was funded by donations alone.

    Building began in 1883, but the structure was not finished at Gaudí’s death, in 1926, nor was it complete at the turn of the 21st century. Some estimate that it may be complete by the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death, but even this is disputed. Whether the building can ever be completed to Gaudí’s original plans is a moot point, given that during the Spanish Civil War the workshop containing his drawings was set on fire. This led to a debate among a group of leading artists, intellectuals, and architects about whether building work should continue. They wanted the church to remain as faithful as possible to Gaudí’s original concept, and some even disputed the need for such a large church in what was an increasingly secular society.

    That said, La Sagrada Família is sufficiently complete to be seen as the ultimate expression of Gaudí’s unique architectural style. Although he drew on the contemporary vogue for Art Nouveau, Gaudí’s individual flourishes stamp his designs with a distinct flavor: organic curves and shapes that echo those found in nature, fantastical, almost fairy-tale forms, and highly colored tile work. Fittingly, the architect was buried in the crypt of the basilica after his tragic death, caused by falling beneath a tram. Gaudí’s disheveled appearance meant that no one recognized him when the accident took place, and he was taken to a pauper’s hospital nearby to die. When his identity became known, he was offered the chance to move elsewhere but humbly insisted on staying among the poor. (Carol King)

  • Royal Chapel

    The Royal Chapel in Granada is the final resting place of the two monarchs who united Spain. Isabella I of Castile’s marriage to Ferdinand II of Aragon joined their kingdoms. Their conquest of Granada, the last Muslim territory in Spain, was viewed as the greatest achievement of their reign. It contributed to Pope Alexander VI’s styling them as the “Catholic Monarchs.”

    The Gothic design of the chapel reflects Isabella’s dislike of the Renaissance style, whereas the neighboring Granada Cathedral, built between 1523 and 1704, is more in the Renaissance mode. The Royal Chapel was originally intended to house the tombs of all Spanish monarchs, although ultimately the palace of El Escorial became the main royal burial place. Isabella was not originally interred in the Royal Chapel; she was first laid to rest in a nearby friary, and Ferdinand joined her in 1516. The following year they were moved to the Royal Chapel by their grandson Charles V. Their tomb and effigies are carved in marble and alabaster by the Florentine Domenico Fancelli. Three other members of the royal family are interred in the chapel: Ferdinand and Isabella’s daughter Joan; her husband, Philip I, the first Hapsburg ruler of Spain; and Miguel da Paz, their grandson and the crown prince of Spain and Portugal. Unsurprisingly, since the capture of Granada in the latter part of the 15th century was a triumph for Ferdinand and Isabella, the altarpiece of the Royal Chapel includes four painted wooden panels commemorating the campaign. The chapel also contains Isabella’s art collection as well as artifacts from the conquest of Granada.

    The Royal Chapel is a monument to two of the founders of Spain. Before Ferdinand and Isabella, Spain was a collection of independent kingdoms. After their reign, Spain was on the road to becoming a unified nation and a major world power. (Jacob Field)

  • Seville Cathedral

    Seville Cathedral is an excellent example of Gothic architecture. Originally, it was the site of an Almohad mosque that was knocked down by the Spanish, who wanted to build a church on a suitably grand scale to reflect the city’s position as an affluent trading center.

    Construction began about 1400 on the rectangular foundations of the mosque, and the structure took more than 100 years to finish. All that remains of the original mosque is the Patio de los Naranjos (Orange Tree Courtyard), an entrance court where Muslim worshippers once washed their hands and feet in a fountain, and a minaret built between 1184 and 1196. In 1198 four copper spheres were added to the top of the tower, but they were destroyed by an earthquake in 1356. When the cathedral was built, a bell was added to the minaret, together with the Christian symbol of the cross, transforming the structure into a bell tower. The bell tower was finished in 1568 with the addition of an 11-foot- (3.5-meter-) high weather vane of a woman, representing the Christian faith, by Bartolomé Morel. Inside, the cathedral is impressive both for its artworks in the form of paintings, sculptures, and wood carvings and for its architectural mix of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Plateresque styles. (Carol King)

  • Toledo Cathedral

    Toledo Cathedral is one of Spain’s most impressive buildings. It was inspired by the vast Gothic cathedrals of northern Europe, such as Chartres, but added an exciting new ingredient—the rich combination of cultural styles that can be found only on the Iberian Peninsula.

    The cathedral was begun by a little-known architect, Master Martin, but most of the work was initiated by Petrus Petri, who died in 1291. The predominant style is Gothic, although building took place over such a long period that, inevitably, other influences can be found. There is, for example, the Mozarabic Chapel (1504), where mass is still celebrated using the old Visigothic, or Mozarabic, rite (Mozarabs were Christians living under Moorish rule). Conversely, the cloisters have some Mudéjar features—that is, features in the Moorish style that survived into the Christian era. The Gothic elements are best demonstrated by the intricate carvings above the three main doorways.

    The cathedral is most famous, however, for its two greatest treasures. The first of these is the Transparente (1721–32), a marvelously flamboyant marble and alabaster altarpiece by Narciso Tomé. He cut an opening in the vaulting above so that when his sculpted figures are struck by the rays of the Sun, they seem to float in a halo of spiritual light. An even greater artwork, perhaps, is the Espolio (The Disrobing of Christ), a magnificent painting by El Greco. Although born in Crete, the artist spent most of his career in Toledo, so it is fitting that the cathedral should house one of his greatest works. (Iain Zaczek)

  • Valladolid Cathedral

    King Philip II commissioned architect Juan de Herrera to design Valladolid Cathedral, or the Catedral de la Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, in the 16th century. Herrera was well known for his austere design of a combined palace and religious house northwest of Madrid, the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, which was also commissioned by the king. The great Spanish architect was responsible for spearheading a new style—Herreran, featuring carefully proportioned geometric lines and an absence of decoration and gesturing toward the Classical—whose influence can be seen throughout Spain. But after the death of both king and architect, the church was still incomplete. It finally opened in 1688, thanks to the efforts of Herrera’s pupil Diego de Praves, who was succeeded by his son. In 1730, architect Alberto Churriguera finished the work on the facade, aping the style of El Escorial. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 shook the cathedral, causing damage that resulted in the collapse of a tower in 1841. The tower was rebuilt, but the church remains unfinished.

    The cathedral was once home to a work by the painter El Greco and is notable for its ornamental wooden carvings and the reredos (decorative screen) housed in the great chapel. However, it is more famous for its magnificent collection of music manuscripts than for its artworks. The archive contains more than 6,000 original manuscripts dating from the 15th century. The church’s collection of 16th-century manuscripts of polyphonic sacred music, romantic madrigals, and carols, including those by the Franco-Flemish composer Josquin des Prez and the Spanish composer Juan de Anchieta, is unique. The collection was assembled over the centuries by the cathedral’s maestros de capilla, or chapel masters, whose duty it was both to supply and to compose new music for various religious festivals. (Carol King)

Meet the Cathedrals of Spain: the Sagrada Familia, the Cathedral of Santiago and many others!

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona


The temples, erected in different eras of the history of Spain, fill the city where they are located with a unique artistic meaning. Buildings included in the UNESCO World Heritage List, during which you can get acquainted with architecture, history and religion.

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  • Sagrada Familia is considered Gaudí’s masterpiece and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with his other buildings. If you like the architect’s naturalistic style, be sure to visit this temple. Here you get the impression that you are walking in a forest surrounded by giant stone trees, where each column is like a trunk, supporting the weight of the temple with its branches. When completed, the temple will have 18 towers, each dedicated to one of the most famous characters in the Bible. Some of the towers are already accessible and from there you can appreciate the beauty of Barcelona.

  • Aerial view of the Obradoiro square and the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, province of A Coruña, Galicia

    The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is the goal of all pilgrims following the Way of Saint James. It is the most protected cathedral in Spain in the world. A Romanesque building with the famous Obradoiro façade that invites guests to enter and experience it. It houses the Portico of Glory, the greatest work of Spanish Romanesque style, although the cathedral also reflects other important architectural styles. The portico includes more than 200 granite sculptures, rich in expression and symbolism, referring to Original Sin, Atonement and Judgment Day.

  • The Cathedral Mosque in Cordoba is a symbol of the city, the fame of which has spread far beyond the borders of Spain. For 12 centuries, this iconic building housed a Visigothic basilica, an Islamic mosque and a Christian cathedral, which began to operate here after the liberation of Cordoba from Muslims in 1236. Despite many transformations, the building has preserved a part of each of these cultures and has become a temple of inestimable significance for the history of art. Walking among the columns of the temple, topped with arches with white and red stripes, is like traveling through time.

  • View of the cathedral and Giralda tower in Seville, Andalusia

    This Gothic cathedral, the largest in the world, was built on the foundations of the ruined Alhama Mosque in Seville. However, some of its elements have survived, and now you can visit the beautiful Orange Courtyard and the minaret, which is better known as the Giralda. The Giralda is a bell tower crowned with a female figure of the Giraldillo, which gave its name to the tower and symbolizes the victory of Christianity. If you admire the charm of Seville, go upstairs to enjoy the beautiful views of the trees of the Orange Courtyard. The list of Spanish cathedrals, perhaps, has as many temples as there are columns inside them. Burgos, Mallorca, Oviedo, Zaragoza, Toledo and many other cities in Spain are famous for their cathedrals that are admired by all who visit them.

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10 most beautiful cathedrals in Spain

Spain has an enviable historical and architectural heritage. Not for nothing is it the third country in the world with the most World Heritage Sites, behind only Italy and China. Among these treasures scattered throughout the country, its cathedrals shine with their light: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque. They are of all styles, eras and tastes, but which are the most beautiful?

We have prepared a list of the 10 most beautiful cathedrals in Spain to try to answer this difficult and subjective question.

Seville Cathedral (Catedral de Sevilla)

Seville Cathedral is not only beautiful, but also boasts of being the largest Gothic church in the world (if you count other styles, it will be only behind St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and the Cathedral in London Catedral de San Pablo de Londres). In addition to its size, Seville Cathedral also boasts the largest altar in Christendom, the tomb of Christopher Columbus and impressive elements of his Muslim past (Seville Cathedral stands on an old large mosque): Patio de los Naranjos (Patio de los Naranjos) and Giralda (Giralda), symbols of Seville.

Burgos Cathedral (Catedral de Burgos)

The architecture of the Burgos Cathedral was inspired by the French Gothic patterns that made this temple an emblem, as well as the oldest Gothic cathedral in the Iberian Peninsula (it will be its eight hundredth anniversary in 2021). A large window with a pattern in the form of a six-pointed star and characteristic peaks stands out on its facade. Equally charming is the interior, which highlights, among other things, the impressive renaissance elements, the tomb of Cid Campeador and his wife Doña Jimena. This is the only Spanish cathedral, which, having such grandeur, is not located in the historical central part of the city.

Granada Cathedral (Catedral de Granada)

If the remains of Christopher Columbus rest in the Cathedral of Seville, then in neighboring Granada (Andalusia) are the graves of the Catholic Monarchs, who paid for his campaign in search of India. This is one of the great reasons to visit the Cathedral of Granada, but not the only one. It is one of the finest examples of Erreresco architecture in all of Spain and houses such artistic treasures as the Prayer in the Garden painting by the Italian genius Sandro Botticelli, created by the artist in 1500.

Catedral de Segovia

Somewhat more modern than the others on the list, Segovia Cathedral was built between the 16th and 18th centuries. It is considered the “Mistress of the Cathedrals” for its elegance and size. Once inside, the most prominent aspect of the temple is its choir and two large 18th-century Baroque organs. It is considered the last Gothic cathedral built in Spain in the late Gothic style.

Catedral de Leon

Leon Cathedral, or pulchra leonina (beautiful Leon), in addition to being one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Spain, is an exceptional museum of vibrant colors, as it contains one of the most important collections of medieval stained glass in the world. Its collection of crystals is 1800 square meters. It was built on the site of the Roman baths of the 2nd century, which 800 years later, King Ordogno II turned into a palace. Almost the entire building was built between 1205 and 1301, the north tower and monastery were built in the 14th century, and the south tower was built in 1472.

Mezquita-Catedral de Cordoba

Known in the tourist industry as the “Mosque of Cordoba”, this impressive architectural complex is also the city’s cathedral. Inside, you can admire both the Andalusian architecture when it was a mosque, and the Renaissance and Baroque styles that were introduced into the Muslim temple after the conquest of Córdoba by Fernando III el Santo in 1236. On the site of the current mosque-cathedral, stood the “Great Mosque”, which was built by order of Abd ar-Rahman I in 785 AD, when Cordoba was the capital of the Muslim-controlled region of Al-Andalus. The structure of the mosque is considered an important monument in the history of Islamic architecture and, according to many scholars, had a great influence on the subsequent “Moorish” architecture of the western Mediterranean regions of the Muslim world. It is also one of the main historical monuments and tourist attractions in Spain, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984 years old.

Catedral de Santiago de Compostela

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is one of the most important pilgrimage sites in the world. The religious route of the Camino de Santiago has made this temple one of the most visited in all of Europe. Combining Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque, this cathedral features the symbolic façade of Obradoiro and the famous botafumeiro, a censer that can hold up to 40 kg of coal. John the Evangelist (Theologian), along with Peter and James, belongs to the group of three privileged disciples whom Jesus Christ admitted to important moments in his life. Tradition says that he was buried in the forest where the cathedral stands today.

Catedral-Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar

The Baroque Temple of Nuestra Senora del Pilar, which shares the seat of the archbishopric with the neighboring Cathedral of Salvado (better known as La Seo), is one of the pearls of Spanish architecture. Thousands of people from Zaragoza gather in front of it every year on October 12, but this is not its only attraction, inside the temple you can admire the impressive ribbed vaults, the altar of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And even two bombs that fell on the cathedral at the beginning of the Civil War, fortunately did not explode, and today El Pilar is still the most visited monument in Zaragoza.

Cuenca Cathedral (Catedral de Cuenca)

Cuenca Cathedral is a mixture of Gothic, Baroque, Neo-Gothic and Renaissance styles, which is why many consider it one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Spain. There are many elements worth examining closely, but one of the most striking is its abstract stained-glass windows, inspired by those of Cologne Cathedral, a German city located more than 2,000 km from Cuenca Cathedral.

Cathedral of Palma de Mallorca

Mallorca Cathedral, also known as the “Cathedral of Light” because of its fifty-nine windows and five rose windows, is itself a symbol of the Balearic Island.