When making your way through South America, you’re never too far from a stunning church — or the history, artifacts, and beauty they contain. Whether you’re a religious person, or simply an admirer of iconic landmarks, South America’s spiritual houses of the holy offer a perfect balance to the hustle and bustle of the continent’s major metropolises.
While it would be impossible to chronicle every church on the continent, we’ve put together a list of our favorites — many of which you can visit when you travel to South America. Their exteriors range from simple to striking. Inside, they’re filled with beautiful works of art, ornately detailed alters, and mysterious notes on the past that offer fresh perspectives on these iconic places of worship.
Cathedral of La Plata in Argentina
Our look at South America’s churches begins with the Cathedral of La Plata in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is the 6th tallest church in the Americas and 58th tallest in the world.
The city of La Plata is something of a planned community, carefully laid out by engineer Pedro Benoit. And at the heart of his city, the Neogothic Cathedral of La Plata towers over a public square. On the other side of the square? La Plata’s government buildings — a deliberate decision that makes clear the separation of church and state.
Benoit and Buenos Aires governor Dardo Rocha conceived the cathedral’s design, who believed a towering gothic edifice would be a pure expression of the divine will. And while construction began in 1882, the cathedral was not opened until 1932. And even then, it did not include its famous towering spires. Progress wasn’t made on this iconic element of the cathedral until 1987, when the governor of Buenos Aires narrowly escaped injury after a window shattered on a chair he was sitting in only moments before. Perhaps it was an act of God, or maybe it had to do with the cathedral’s deteriorating condition. Either way, revitalization efforts were put into place, and in 1999, the spires — as well as Pedro Benoit’s vision for the cathedral — were complete.
Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral in Argentina
Nestled in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires city center, the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral is somewhat subdued, especially compared to the towering structures featured here. It boasts a Neoclassical design that seems like it would be more at home in ancient Greece than Argentina. Look more closely, however, and you’ll discover the cathedral’s twelve Neoclassical columns represent Christ’s apostles. Also, catholic iconography embellishes the front wall. For many, however, it won’t be the exterior aesthetic that draws them to this historic church.
Until 2013, Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio performed mass at the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral. A popular and humble figure, his dedication to the church was rewarded on March 13, 2013, when he was elected to succeed Pope Benedict XVI. He chose the name Pope Francis and assumed the papacy. Inside the cathedral, explore the Pope Francis Museum, where you can view exhibits documenting his life and work, as well as personal items belonging to him.
Venetian mosaics depicting passion flowers and other religious symbols cover the cathedral floors, while the main giltwood altarpiece offers an impression of the Holy Trinity. Continuing through the cathedral, you’ll find the marble mausoleum of San Martín and the Unknown Soldier.
Sports fans should note that the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Cathedral is also home to an image of Cristo de Buen Amor (the Christ of Good Love) donated by Héctor Scotta and Daniel Bertoni in 1979. These Argentine soccer players believed this Christ — known as the football player’s Christ — would bring the Argentinian National Team luck. They may have been right, as a few years later, the Argentinians, lead by the late great Diego Maradona and his infamous “Hand of God” goal, were World Cup champions.
The Church of Jesus in the Garden of Olives in Olivos
We would be remiss if we didn’t include this mysterious abbey — affectionately known as the Garden of Olives — on our list. Located in the Buenos Aires suburb of Olivos, its name refers to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the base of the Mount of Olives, where the apostles Matthew and Mark mention Jesus went to pray.
The most striking feature of this church is its exterior which is covered in ivy — giving it a distinct organic aesthetic in stark contrast with the modern world that surrounds it. When you visit, be sure to bring your camera, as it is indeed a unique sight to behold.
You can visit all three of these churches on your Azamara cruise to Argentina.
Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian in Rio de Janeiro
At first glance, you might mistake the Metropolitan Cathedral of Saint Sebastian for an ancient pyramid. And that makes sense, considering Edgar de Oliveira da Fonseca — the designer of this megachurch — took distinct visual cues from Mayan styles of architecture. Inside, however, the Roman Catholic influence shines through.
Four floor-to-ceiling rectangular stained glass windows tower 210 feet above the cathedral, meeting to form a Greek cross that acts as a skylight. These stained glass windows represent the Four Marks of the Church — Una, Santa, Catholic, and Apostolic — and depict God descending to Earth from above.
There are 5,000 seats for parishioners in this church, but it has a standing-room capacity of 20,000 under normal circumstances. Considering this is Rio’s most famous church, the extra space certainly comes in handy. In the basement, you can make your way through the church’s Sacred Art Museum, where a captivating assortment of artwork and historical artifacts are on display.
São Francisco Church and Convent in Salvador De Bahia
From the outside, this 18th-century church seems relatively simple, but it shines on the inside — literally.
Ornate gilded wood carvings and paintings adorn much of the cathedral’s interior — from the pillars and archways to the vaulted ceilings — while golden foliage, angels, and birds decorate the altarpiece. Nicknamed “The Golden Church”, São Francisco is also considered one of the best examples of the Brazilian-Portuguese Baroque style of design. Of particular note here are the ceiling paintings in the entrance hall, created in 1774 by José Joaquim da Rocha, and the azulejo tiles by Bartolomeu Antunes de Jesus. Running along the lower walls of the main chapel, these tiles depict St. Francis of Assisi’s life and times. They are particularly notable for their size (they’re much larger than traditional azulejo tiles) and stand out in contrast to gold you’ll find elsewhere.
Believed to be the wealthiest church in all of Brazil, São Francisco Church and Convent offers a golden opportunity to tour one of the most elaborate cathedral interiors in all of the Americas.
São Paulo Cathedral in São Paulo
The cathedral of the Archdiocese of São Paulo, Brazil, São Paulo Cathedral is the city’s largest Catholic church. Designed by the German architect Maximilian Emil Hehl, the church features a Neogothic structure and a Renaissance-style dome that takes direct inspiration from the Cathedral of Florence.
Work on the cathedral began in 1913, with all the mosaics, sculptures, furniture, and even the enormous organ (complete with five keyboards and 12,000 pipes) shipped across the Atlantic from Italy. In the end, over 800 tons of marble were used in the construction of the church, which stands as the fourth largest neogothic temple in the world.
Even with that impressive accolade, it’s what lies beneath that draws people to this church when visiting São Paulo. The Crypt of the São Paulo Cathedral is so massive, it could be considered its own underground cathedral. Situated under the main altar, the crypt features Gothic-style arches and columns. It depicts the story of Job and Saint Jerome on sizable marble slabs. This crypt, which is open to the public, is the final resting place of some of São Paulo’s most influential people, including Bartolomeu de Gusmão, a Portuguese priest remembered for his visionary 18th-century airship design.
Browse our upcoming cruises to Brazil to plan your visit to these beautiful churches.
Christ Church Cathedral in Port Stanley
In the town of Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands, the Christ Church Cathedral stands on Ross Road. Designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield and built between 1890 and 1892 using local stone and brick, the church is the southernmost Anglican cathedral in the world.
You will undoubtedly recognize this church if you’ve spent any time in the Falkland Islands, as it appears on the reverse side of each of the country’s pound banknotes. However, if this is your first time, you’re more likely to identify it for the giant monument made of bone that stands outside it. Known as the whalebone arch, this monument is made from the jaws of two blue whales. Since 1933, it has stood outside the church to commemorate 100 years of British rule (though Argentinians — who also claim the Falkland Islands as their own — may have a few things to say about this).
While the major draw here is the bone monument, this church has earned its reputation as one of the most iconic buildings in all of the Falkland Islands. Its stained-glass windows that tell the story of the Falklands are especially beautiful. It’s also home to a few interesting curiosities, most notably, the Shackleton Banner. This banner gets its name from the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, who preached the value of being British to the people of the Falkland Islands, and his influence brought great economic success to the region. Shackleton was a member of the Order of the Garter — regarded as the highest order of chivalry bestowed in the United Kingdom. As a member of this order, he was entitled to hang his heraldic crest and banner in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor, England. However, Shackleton’s son bequeathed his father’s banner to the Christ Church Cathedral. To this day, it remains the only banner of its kind in South America.
Join us in the Falkland Islands, where you can visit the Christ Church Cathedral and more.
Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral in Santiago
Occupying the northwest corner of the Plaza de Armas, the Metropolitan Cathedral is one of Santiago’s top historical destinations. The base of Chile’s Archdiocese, this cathedral has been located on the Plaza de Armas for over 400 years, though the building that stands here today is not the building that was first built around 1600.
The current structure was consecrated in 1775, with architect Joaquín Toesca taking over the project in 1779 and giving the building a distinctly Neoclassical style. Tuscan and Roman influences can also be found in the cathedral, thanks to Ignacio Cremonesi’s liberal use of stucco and paintings of the sky on select sections of the ceiling.
When you visit the Metropolitan Cathedral on your Azamara cruise to Chile, save some time to take in the beauty of ornate frescos that adorn the ceiling. You’ll also want to view the main altar — built in Munich and shipped to Santiago in 1912 — which is crafted of white marble with bronze accents.
Monasterio de San Francisco in Lima
The bright yellow exterior of the Monasterio de San Francisco in Lima certainly makes it hard to miss. However, underneath this impressive example of Spanish Baroque beauty lies something much darker — a series of forgotten catacombs only rediscovered in the 1940s. These bone-lined catacombs are equal parts thrilling and chilling to tour, and it is believed more than 75,000 unique remains are housed here — making this the second-largest known catacombs in the world. If you see small grates while touring the cathedral, be sure to look down, as you may happen upon a collection of artistically arranged bones that will undoubtedly stick with you.
Above ground, the monastery and church also have plenty to offer, including an extensive library that is home to more than 25,000 ancient texts — some of which predate the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. The refectory is home to 13 paintings by Spanish painter Francisco de Zurbarán of Jacob and his sons. There’s also a painstakingly restored cupola above the main staircase. Crafted in a Moorish style, the cupola is nearly 400-years old, having been carved in 1625 out of Nicaraguan cedar.
The church is also home to an interesting painting that showcases a distinctly Peruvian take on the last supper. Painted by Diego de la Puente, it depicts a meal that consists of favorite Peruvian dishes and ingredients, such as guinea pig, potatoes, and chilies. Take a closer look at the details and notice a devil hovering over the shoulder of Judas.
You can see the Basilica and Convent of San Francisco, along with many other churches when you visit the City of Kings with us.
Santuario Nacional del Corazón de Jesús in Montevideo
Situated high atop Cerrito Hill in Montevideo, Uruguay, the Santuario Nacional del Corazón de Jesús certainly stands out. However, we think its unique design would be an eye-catcher anywhere.
The building takes its cues from a Byzantine style, with specific influences drawn from the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Paris, France, and the Hagia Sophia — a former Greek Orthodox church in Istanbul. However, what will really draw your attention is its red brick facade that is unlike any other church in the country.
Constructed in 1889, this church — as its name suggests — is a shrine to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and one of the National Shrines of Uruguay. Adoration and Mass take place here daily in the afternoon, so if you wish to attend an authentic South American service when you visit Uruguay with us, you’re in luck.
Basílica Santa Catalina de Alejandría in Cartagena
More commonly referred to simply as Catedral, this church holds the dubious honor of being partially destroyed by a cannon attack from notorious English pirate Sir Francis Drake. In fact, this attack was one of the motivating factors behind the construction of Las Murallas, the iconic wall that surrounds Cartagena’s Old Town.
One of the oldest episcopal sees in the Americas, Catedral was designed by Simón González and finished in 1612. In the early 1900s, French architect Gastón Lelarge added the church’s distinctive terracotta dome, which dominates the skyline of Old Town. Between 1912 and 1923, additional alterations were made, including painting the exterior to look like marble.
Stepping into Catedral, it’s impossible to miss the massive stations of the cross on either side of the nave. Hand-carved in stone, the details here are awe-inspiring. Also housed here are statues of San Pedro, San Pablo, San Gregorio, and San Sebastián. These statues once decorated the exterior of the church, but were carefully restored and safely put on display near the interior entranceway at the turn of the century.
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver in Cartagena
Cartagena is also where you can visit the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, as well as the convent of the same name. Spanish-born monk Pedro Claver lived and died in this convent, where he spent most of his life ministering to people brought to Colombia from Africa against their will. This work earned him the nickname “Slave of the Slaves.”
The facade of the church is carved in stone brought to Cartagena from the island of Tierra Bomba and is regarded among the most impressive in all the city. Inside, take in the colorful stained-glass window situated above a towering altar crafted from Italian marble. At the foot of this altar is a glass urn accented in a golden bronze—a gift of Pope Leo XIII—where you can catch a glimpse of the remains of San Pedro Claver himself.
While in the area, be sure to visit the connected convent to tour the cell where San Pedro Claver lived (and died), and browse the expansive museum housed within the facility.
The Churches of South America Await
To visit some of the most beautiful and interesting churches in South America, you don’t need to say a Hail Mary — you just need to travel with us! Take a look at our upcoming cruises throughout South America today.