While Italy and France often steal the title of ‘the most beautiful countries in Europe’, in our opinion, Spain should have a seat at the table too. Spain’s beauty is ever present. Pick your city and go for a stroll and there’s no doubt you won’t have to walk far before you stop and stare. From beautiful, ancient buildings all around to golden sunsets, blue cobblestone streets and miles of acorn tree-spotted hills, Spain’s beauty is awe-inspiring. And nowhere is this beauty more renowned than in it’s cathedrals. Read on as we look at our five favorite cathedrals in Spain.
Catedral Primada Santa María, Toledo
The majestic cathedral of Toledo is as awe-inspiring as it is massive. Started in the year 1226, this cathedral wasn’t completed until 1493, over 260 years later. The Cathedral of Toledo is of Gothic style and built of limestone from nearby quarries. The main facade has three portals, one each for forgiveness, the Last Judgement and hell. Enter the sanctuary and admire the massive pillars, ribbed ceilings and beautiful stained glass work completed between the 14th and 17th centuries.
The cathedral of Toledo is one of our favorites for two of its unique attributes. The first is the Baroque altarpiece called El Transparente. The El Transparente altar combines stucco, bronze and marble and is not to be missed. Once, you’ve admired the altarpiece, turn around and look to the sky to admire the cathedrals beautiful skylight. Yes, this cathedral literally has its own skylight and it’s magnificent! Beautiful rays of sunshine cascade onto the altarpiece. Aside from illumination, the skylight also serves as a metaphoric doorway to heaven.
The other reason to visit not only the Cathedral of Toledo but also Toledo in general, is to see the magnificent artwork of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, or as he’s commonly known, El Greco. Of Greek origin, El Greco spent most of his formative years painting masterpieces of Spanish Renaissance art in Toledo. He is best known for painting elongated figures often of vivid colors set apart from a muted background. One of his most famous works, the Disrobing of Christ was completed in 1579 and now sits on the high altar of the sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo. Christ, dressed in a vivid red robe, looks to the heavens as he awaits his crucification. Men and soldiers around him are in uprest while three Marys set the foreground showing remorse and distress. It is worth a visit in itself. And for more from El Greco, head over to the small church of Santo Tomé to view his work The Burial of the Count Orgaz or simply head to the El Greco Museum for more on his life and work.
La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Moving from the vivid colors of El Greco, we head to a cathedral which is itself bursting with light and color. La Sagrada Familia is the vision of the renowned spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. The first stone was laid on St Joseph’s day March 19, 1882 by the original architect Francisco de Paula del Villar. Shortly thereafter, Paula del Villar left the project and Gaudi stepped in and dedicated his life to La Sagrada Familia turning it into one of the world’s most unique and famous cathedrals. Gaudi would work on the cathedral for the final 40 years of his life until his untimely death in a streetcar accident in 1926. The work continues today under his vision with a hopeful completion date in 2026.
The work of Gaudi was influenced by his passions of nature and religion. His creations are filled with human forms, animals, food and nature. He relied heavily on geometric designs found within nature such as the hyperbolic paraboloid or the helicoid. He believed our world should be filled with joy and colors. All of this and more is evident in La Sagrada Familia. Gaudi set a new standard of Gothic Revival and Modernisme architecture.
From the outside, La Sagrada Familia is unmistakable with its numerous towers reaching toward heaven. With a total of 18 planned, they represent in ascending order of height the 12 Apostles, the Virgin Mary, the 4 Evangelists and Jesus Christ. The main entrance is under the nativity facade which took 36 years to complete and was finished in 1930. Ordained with countless statues and figures, the nativity facade tells the story of Jesus’s birth. Keep an eye out for a few strong turtles holding up the columns of the main doors.
Once inside, Gaudi’s use of light and color will take your breath away. Gaudi had a vision that the light inside La Sagrada Familia would be in harmony with of the nave and be conducive to introspection. And he succeed. Immediately upon entering your eyes will be drawn to the ceiling, which itself is held up with numerous branching tree-shaped columns. Stained glass windows and skylights shine a rainbow of colors on everything simply taking your breath away. Our advice? Find your way to a chair, look up and take in Gaudi’s visionary design; you won’t see anything like in Europe.
Be sure to make the climb up the towers to get an elevated view of Barcelona. You’ll notice, even hundreds of feet in the air, the detail of the nativity facade continues with birds, fruit and small carvings wherever one turns. Once back in the sanctuary, head out to the Passion Facade and make a left down to a series of small buildings. These Gaudi designed buildings were constructed in 1909 to serve as schools for workers and children in the neighborhood. Our final tip? Arrive early to see the sunrise paint the exterior in a golden orange, and as an added bonus, beat the crowds too.
Cathedral of Salamanca (old and new)
Salamanca was once the Catholic center of Spain so it’s no surprise that it is home to several stunning religious institutions. In fact, when you visit the Cathedral of Salamanca, you’ll get to see two for the price of one. The “old” cathedral was constructed between the 12th and 14th centuries in Romanesque and Gothic style while the “new” cathedral was completed between the 16th and 18th centuries in Gothic and Baroque style.
The old cathedral is accessed thru the new cathedral. Here you will find original frescos and tombs. The apse houses a large altar containing 53 tableaux and above them is a fresco of the Last Judgement. The new cathedral shares many of the gothic themes of its older relative as the city leaders of the time wanted the two to blend together. In a unique twist, instead of demolishing the old cathedral, the decision was made to add to it. In fact, the new and old cathedrals share a common wall in the middle. The new cathedral consists of three naves notable for their detailed vaulting, delicate cornices and slender pillars. The interior of the dome is brightly lit and decorated with lively frescos.
One option that is not to be missed is the opportunity to climb to the roof of the cathedrals. As you make your way along the rooftop tour, you’ll begin by climbing to the roof of the old cathedral which affords spectacular views of the new cathedrals exterior. Next, you’ll re-enter the new cathedral high up on one of the interior walkways. This provided an answer to my question of “I wonder what the cathedral looks like from up there?” From here you’ll climb the bell tower and be rewarded with awe-inspiring views of the city. Our tip? Shoot for an evening rooftop visit and watch the sun set over this beautiful city.
Once you’ve enjoyed both the old and new Cathedrals of Salamanca, spend an afternoon visiting some of the cities other amazing structures. The Convento de San Esteban is a Dominican monastery situated in the Plaza del Concilio de Trento. It was here where Christopher Columbus visited when he came to Salamanca to defend his idea of reaching the Indies by sailing west. The University of Salamanca, founded in 1218, is the oldest in Spain and the third oldest in the world still teaching the bright minds of tomorrow. Finally, in our opinion, the Plaza of Salamanca is the finest of Spain and worth your time.
Santa Maria de la Sede, Seville
The first thing you’ll notice when you enter the cathedral in Seville is how immense it is. And for good reason, it is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and the third largest overall after Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican and Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London. Upon entering you’ll have to crane your head way up to see the top of the 140 foot tall ceilings. The naive is surrounded by 80 chapels, each of which seem as big as my home church. But there is more than just size that make this place special.
Prior to the construction of the cathedral, the same space was occupied by the Almohad Mosque. Today, the only parts that have survived Giralda bell tower, the Patio de Naranjas and the Puerta del Perdon. Inside, the altar of the cathedral was the life’s work of a single craftsman, Pierre Dancart, and is the largest in Spain.
Head to the Giralda and climb the famous bell tower. Originally built as a minaret during the Moorish period, the Giralda stands over 340 feet tall and is a symbol of the city. As you make your way up, you’ll notice instead of climbing hundreds of steps you’re instead walking up a series of ramps. These 35 ramps were built to allow men or horseback to ride to the top. The view from the top is stunning as are the numerous windows you’ll pass on your accent. Keep a look out for the beautiful gardens of the Alcazar and the cafes lining the Guadalquivir river.
Make your way back to the naive and find your way to the the tomb of Christopher Columbus. While numerous other cities such as Havana in Cuba and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic claim to house the remains of Columbus, DNA testing has confirmed that Seville is in fact his final resting place. Finally, exiting the cathedral you’ll find yourself in a lovely courtyard filled with orange trees. This uniquely Seville space is spectacular offering views of the cathedral including its impressive gothic Door of Conception.
Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba
Our final pick for the top cathedrals in Spain is the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba in Southern Spain. Dating back to 784, the Great Mosque is considered a masterpiece of moorish architecture. Receiving several updates and expansions, the mosque was a place of Muslim worship until 1236 when Cordoba returned to christian rule.
Enter the great mosque and note it’s rich moorish history. The main feature of the mosque is its arcaded hypostyle hall, with columns of jasper, onyx, marble, granite and porphyry. Note the stacked archways, first in horseshoe pattern then semicircular. Unlike many cathedrals, the mosque is orientated with an emphasis on the horizontal space as opposed to vertical. At one time over 1,200 columns were in the main hall, of which over 850 still stand today. Note the fine detail in the columns and the alternating patterns of the archways. In this space Muslims, Christians and Jews all worshipped together. Make sure to find your way to the courtyard filled with palm and orange trees. Sit and enjoy this masterpiece of Islamic design.