Top Ten Cathedrals in Spain

Mezquita Cordoba

Don’t Miss the Mezquita in Cordoba

A few months ago I was sitting in the ‘Patio de los Naranjos’ outside the Mezquita in Cordoba when I overheard an American lady telling her friend that she wasn’t going to go inside the building because she was “all cathedraled out”. Now if you’ve been travelling around Spain at length I can appreciate that after a while you become overwhelmed by the sheer number of incredible churches and historical monuments that you come across. At some point you can’t help but struggle to appreciate the beauty of these buildings as you travel from city to city. Time permitting that’s when you need a couple of days off.

Kirsty and I have travelled extensively in Asia and Australasia. On every trip we’ve both ‘hit the wall’ at some point when one of us has simply had enough of travelling and sightseeing. For us the solution is always to check into a nice place to stay, preferably with a pool, and just chill out for a few days. This shouldn’t be an issue in Spain unless you’re travelling for weeks on end but if it does happen to you don’t make the mistake of missing out on some of the country’s greatest sights because you’re getting tired. I spoke to the American lady and suggested that she did go inside the cathedral in Cordoba as there is nowhere like it in the world – after the Christian reconquest part of the mosque was converted into a Catholic church – but I suspect her mind was made up and she missed out on one of Spain’s great attractions.

I’ve been to churches and cathedrals all over the country and after being on the road for a while can get that blasé feeling of being underwhelmed by incredible sights. Now what I’d like to do is list my top 10 cathedrals in Spain. Of course, this is once again a completely subjective selection based on my own travel experiences so I welcome you to add any additional recommendations in the comments section at the end of the page. Having said that, if you’re visiting Spain and really want a definitive ‘Top 10′ then my list won’t be far off. So here goes … in no particular order:

(1) – Cathedral of Córdoba
The Great Mosque of Cordoba is at the historic centre of this beautiful city. If you stay overnight (and you should) take a walk around in the evening when all the day visitors have gone. It’s incredibly atmospheric.

(2) – Seville Cathedral
Built on the site of the city’s mosque, you’ll be overawed by the enormity of this building which is one of the world’s largest religious buildings. If you’re fit enough climb the steps of the Giralda bell tower which served as the mosque’s minaret for great views all around Seville.

(3) – Toledo Cathedral
It took more than 250 years to build this cathderal which is simply stunning. A variety of architectural styles are in evidence within the building that once again was built on the site of the city mosque from the days of Moorish rule.

Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

Toledo Cathedral

(4) – Palma de Mallorca Cathedral
Overlooking the Bay of Palma is Mallorca’s La Seu Cathedral which again has Moorish origins. If you’re staying in one of the popular resorts of the south coast it’s well worth a day excursion into Palma. Also check out the former Moorish fort at Palau de l’Almudaina which today serves as a royal residence.

(5) – Santiago de Compostela Cathedral
Every year Santiago de Compostela is the final destination of thousands of pilgrims who have walked the ‘Camino de Santiago’ (Way of St James). The city’s stunning cathedral houses the tomb of Saint James (Santiago) and at certain masses the enormous ‘botafumeiro’ incense burner swings up and down the main aisle.

Palma Cathedral

Palma de Mallorca Cathedral

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral

(6) – Léon Cathedral
I’d read in a Spain travel guide that the highlight of this cathedral is its stained glass window which didn’t sound a big deal. How wrong I was! Whilst the building is quite stunning both inside and out the multicoloured scene of the ‘Last Supper’ is quite breathtaking and unique amongst Spain’s many fabulous religious buildings.

(7) – Burgos Cathedral
If you ever take a ferry from the UK to or from Spain and are planning an overnight stay within proximity of the ports of Bilbao or Santander then I’d recommend that you consider Burgos which is an attractive city in its own right but the fabulous Gothic cathedral is enough to justify a visit on its own.

Salamanca Cathedral

Salamanca Cathedral

Zaragoza Cathedral

Zaragoza Cathedral

(8) – Salamanca Cathedral
Salamanca’s “new” cathedral dates back to 1513 and encompasses the old cathedral within its walls. Take a wander down at dusk when the building’s sandstone walls seem to glow in the setting sun and try to spot the sculpture of an astronaut and an ice cream cone which appeared in the outer walls during a restoration in the 1990s. It’s true!

(9) – Zaragoza Cathedral
If you’re travelling between Barcelona and Madrid by road or rail you should consider taking a look at Zaragoza. The cathedral sits on the banks of the river Ebro and is home to the statue of El Pilar, the city’s patron saint. Seeing the building illuminated across the river at night is simply stunning.

Segovia Cathedral

Segovia Cathedral

(10) – Segovia Cathedral
Dominating the old Plaza Mayor in Segovia is my final recommendation which just had to make my list considering the number of times I’ve been there on a Sunday morning jaunt from the village where I used to live in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Take a walk down to the fairy tale Alcázar then look back towards the cathedral for a stunning view, especially in winter when there’s snow on the distant mountains.

I’m sure you have your own additions and I look forward to reading them below. Please note that an obvious addition would have been Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona but this is in fact a church and not a cathedral. Barcelona Cathedral is another fine building located in the Barrio Gòtico (Gothic Quarter) of the city which I could easily have added to my list.

What Are Your Favourite Cathedrals in Spain?

Of course there are many other stunning cathedrals that could easily be included in such a list. Please recommend any of your own personal favourites in the comments box below. Our community of followers always welcome travel tips from fellow readers.

Reader Comments:

  1. James Bucknall says

    Hi Gerry:

    Having walked both the Camino Frances and La Via de la Plata, I have been fortunate enough to have seen six of these cathedrals. Walking through the surrounding countryside and city to get to them, makes them even more delightful.

    Like you, I have travelled a lot for work and pleasure, and like all travellers I have sometimes hit the wall (but never enough not to get off my bum while in the Orangerie and peek inside the Mesquita). I now restrict my travels to England, France and Spain in Europe and Mexico in north America because I prefer being in countries where I speak the local language. To overcome the “hitting wall” problem, I now limit my holidays to 3-4 weeks. This means I go to Mexico to study Spanish for 3-4 weeks in January, return to Canada and then go back to Mexico in mid February for another 3-4 weeks of study in a different city.

    James

    • Svein says

      Granada cathedral should not be forgotten. It’s a beautiful building and the inside is lighter and more “cheerful” than the others. It surprises me a lot it’s not in your top 10.

      • Gerry Kerkhof says

        Hi Svein

        Granada Cathedral has a Royal Chapel where Ferdinand and Isabella – Los Reyes Católicos – are buried. As a building it is impressive but it doesn’t inspire me enough to make my top 10.

        Regards

        Gerry

  2. Maria Farrell says

    The cathedral of Valencia together with the church of Ntra Sra de los Desemperados are not to be missed . I also like the church of the Macarena in Sevlle.

  3. HY says

    When I saw your mailer in my mailbox I could already tell ‘where you are coming from’.

    I did Barcelona-Madrid/Toledo/Segovia-Seville-Barcelona in 2008, so I’ve covered at least 3 cathedrals on your list, and more (all cathedrals included in each walking trail in the guidebook I’ve obtained from the Spanish Tourism Organisation in my country)! The only reason I didn’t visit the rest on your list is that I wasn’t passing through. Haha.

    Anyway, I wanted to share my anecdote: I think we were just entering Seville Cathedral when my travel mate hinted that she’s cathedraled/churched out. When I told her I read somewhere that it’s the 3rd largest in Europe(/Catholic world?), she happily followed my quest. As we’d been to St. Peter’s a week before in the same trip (and herself before to St Paul’s), she actually got to strike off all 3 by the end of that trip!

    So I’ll say, yes I probably shouldn’t try to cover that many cathedrals/churches in my next trip in case of burn-out, but there’s no stopping me from marking out the top MUST GO ones! I’ll definitely be covering the others in your list if I ever do get to those areas!

  4. Mike Chauffourier says

    Would like to mention Burgos Cathedral. Holds the tomb of one of Spain’s most well known heroes. What I remember most is seeing – in the open bell tower – bell ringing youngsters lifted off their feet so much effort were they putting into their task. Much more than just worth a visit.

  5. Isabel says

    While I accept one can get ‘cathedralled-out” while visiting Spain – as I know from experience – the Mezquita in Cordoba is required viewing, certainly worth a detour or even worth journey. It’s arguably one of the most beautiful sacred buidings in Europe, possibly in the world.

  6. Sharron Young says

    Have recently visited Seville Cathedral, but nearly didn’t as I was feeling a bit “cathederalled out” but so glad we took that first step inside. It was stunning in fact so much to see that sorry we did it on our last day as there was no time for another visit. However we will definitely return and next time visit Cordoba as well. We had intended to go there on this visit, but had to cut our stay a day short, so will be a “must see” on the next visit.

  7. Dee says

    We have been fortunate to see 9 of the 10 mentioned already & will return to Spain this fall as 1st time pilgrims on El Camino. (Frances, we think). Thanks for a thoughtful article

  8. Angela Sayadian says

    I have really enjoyed two Cathedrals that were not on your list. Murcia is a bit like the Tardis. It looks smaller from the outside that when you get inside. And it has a delightful atmosphere. And the Cathedral of Caravaca de la Cruz is quite special too. It is the resting place of a relic of the true cross. It is sited on the top of a hill which overlooks the whole city and can be reached by a little Tourist Train, which is delightful. It is set in a courtyard and is a very beautiful building both internally and externally. It also has a Museum with the Relic of the Cross, this however is only open certain hours. Every 7 years there is a festival to celebrate that it is one of the 5 most important Cathedrals in Christendom, along with Santiaga de la Compostela and St Peters, Rome. Thank you for the Top Ten, I have seen some of them, but it has helped me to make a list of ‘must see’ cathedrals in future that I have so far missed.

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Angela for these valuable recommendations. I’m hoping to get to Caravaca this summer during a major Spain tour we’re planning.

      All the Best

      Gerry

  9. jane says

    Fantastic list – I’ve been lucky enough to visit 5 of these so far. The Mezquita is probably my favourite – just spectacular but i also very much liked the cathedrals of Salamanca too. One day i hope I will get to visit the others on the list!

  10. Vicky Millward says

    While on holiday in Seville I took the train to Cordoba a great journey for the day I wish I could have stayed longer there .The Mezquita was a sight to see,I would love to go back to Seville one day. As I am now 82 my dream would be to take an organized coach trip to the various cities. I must say that I look forward to your letters each week and I have cooked some of your spanish dishes. Bye…..

  11. Marie M says

    Hi Gerry,
    Fancy missing the Mezquita in Cordoba! It is like an Islamic refuge within a Christian church. It is wonderful that they built on to the moorish architecture instead of ripping it down and starting again.I found it a place that you just wanted to stand there and absorb the history and culture. Haven’t been to Northern Spain yet and a lot of your cathedrals are there. Thanks for the tip.

  12. Octavio Robles says

    HELLO GERRY:
    I am startled that neither you in your top ten list nor anyone reading it and later commenting on it, has mentioned what I believe is by far, the most stunning church in Spain. I believe that La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is in a league of its own and should be number one on any list of top Spanish cathedrals. It is far along enough in its completion to qualify for such a list… Just my opinion.

  13. Lynne Burgess says

    Hi Gerry,

    Just wanted to say I have visited the Mezquita 3 times and the Giralda in Seville at least 4 times and have never tired of them. Because we have a holiday home in Ayamonte on the Costa de la Luz we are not that far away and tend to take our visitors at the very least to Seville which in my opinion competes with St. Peters on Rome. The Mezquita truly is amazing and definitely unique and a must see. when in the area. Still loving the website and have recommended it to some friends ours who have just bought a property in Murcia. Thanks again for all the great information

    • Gerry Kerkhof says

      Thanks Lynne … your home really is in a beautiful part of the world & with such great access to so many attractions.

  14. vanessa clapes says

    Very interesting and informative. There is a small Cathedral in Alicante called San Nicolas and its beautiful inside.

  15. Judith Harvey says

    I read this on the train to León, the only cathedral on your list that I hadn’t yet visited. And as you say the stained glass is wonderful. All the cathedrals are magnificent, though there is nowhere else like the mesquita in Cordoba. But other places that stick in my mind are as follows. Palma – wonderful to arrive or leave by sea and see the cathedral from the harbour, and the cathedral feels so spacious because Gaudi insisted that the coro be removed before he would agree to creating his canopy, and Miquel Barceló’s chapel is wonderful. Toledo – like it or loathe it, the transparente is unique. Coria – a small cathedral off the beaten track in Extramadura wouldn’t make the top ten but the plateresque panels on the exterior are fascinating and some are distinctly bizarre!

  16. Terence King says

    Hi Gerry –

    I do enjoy your E-Mails. This one is of particular interest. I travel widely in Spain mainly walking the Camino de Santiago and wonder at the great cathedrals along the way as well as in other regions of Spain.

    Stupid woman!!!!! The Mezquita is one of the most stunning sights in the world. Not much to look at from the outside but stunningly beautiful inside. I visit Cordoba frequently and on each occasion visit – early before the “tourists” arrive.

    Top of my list is Santiago de Compostela – the Pilgrim Mass with the swinging Botafumeiro is a sight worth seeing – even for the non-religious.

    Next would come the cathedral of Leon – the stained glass is a wonder to behold.

    After that Seville – for the sheer scale. How on earth did the build that in those days? Let us build something so grand that the world will think we are mad!! I paraphrase.

    What next – the cathedrals of Toledo and Segovia must come near the top of any list.

    Next, must be the resting place of El Cid – Burgos.

    One of the most stunning locations isthe Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar , with its magnificent tile roofs standing on the banks of the Ebro in Zaragoza.

    And many, many others:

    Regards and best wishes

    Terence King
    Peregrino

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