Our travels have introduced us to some of the oldest and most fascinating churches in the world, especially in ancient destinations like Israel and Europe. While we know the Church is more than a building, of course, there’s still something moving about visiting a place where believers have spent centuries praying, worshiping and serving the Body of Christ.
Ancient civilizations are not the only place to find breathtaking and spiritually moving churches. This side of the Atlantic has cathedrals and chapels worth a visit—especially in the colorful Caribbean. You might even encounter some of them on our Christian cruise itineraries. Below is our insider look at the architecture, history and stories of a few of our favorite Caribbean churches.
Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of San Juan Bautista
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Celebrating its 500th birthday this year, this Roman Catholic cathedral is built on the site of the second-oldest church building in the Western Hemisphere. The original structure dates all the way back to 1521 and was little more than a wood building with a thatched roof.
A hurricane eventually destroyed it, but another structure was built in 1540—and that cathedral is the oldest in the United States. Visit the cathedral today and you’ll encounter ancient elements, like the Gothic stone edifice that is nearly 500 years old.
MUST-SEE: The cathedral is home to the tomb of Ponce de León, the famous Spanish explorer and conquistador who was also Puerto Rico’s first governor. He arrived in the Americas in 1493 as part of Christopher Columbus’s second expedition.
Alto Vista Chapel
Known as the “Pilgrims Church,” this small, bright yellow structure stands on the hills above the north shore of this small island in the far southern Caribbean. It’s located at the end of a winding, unpaved road lined with cacti. This building is a newer one, dating back to 1952, but it replaced a chapel built in 1750 by a Venezuelan missionary.
MUST-SEE: While several crosses line the walls of this church, the Spanish one represents one of the oldest pieces of European art in the Caribbean. But perhaps the best thing to see at Alto Vista is the surrounding ocean. Alto Vista means “high view” in Spanish, making this cliffside location a spectacular place to take in the sparkling blue Caribbean.
Cathedral of Santa María la Menor
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
Constructed with a golden-tinted coral limestone facade, this Gothic cathedral is the first and oldest cathedral built in the Western Hemisphere. Its foundation stone was laid in 1521. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Dominican Republic.
MUST-SEE: Right in front of the cathedral is a statue of explorer Christopher Columbus, positioned to overlook Parque Colon. Columbus was once entombed inside the cathedral, though his remains were later relocated to a mausoleum monument in Santo Domingo.
Church of St. Peter and St. Paul
Not far from the cruise port in Guadeloupe is this striking yellow church with bright white trim and columns. The color of the building sets it apart from the blue Caribbean sky. Adding to the color is the vibrant flower market that frequently gathers on the nearby square.
The original church was built in 1807 but mostly destroyed during an earthquake in 1843. Its three large doorways remained intact, however, and have endured multiple earthquakes and hurricanes since.
MUST-SEE: This cathedral is not always open to the public, but if you get a chance to peek inside you’ll better understand why it is known as the “Iron Cathedral.” Its wrought-iron construction, including metal girders framing the vaulted ceiling, were designed to endure the island’s frequent earthquakes and hurricanes.
Balata Cathedral (Sacré-Coeur de Balata)
This unique stone church on the island of Martinique was built in 1915 as a miniature replica of the landmark Basilica of Sacré-Coeur of Montmartre in Paris, France. The Byzantine Montmartre is situated at a high point in Paris, and Martinique’s version is located on a cliff and surrounded by the green, tropical, forested hills of Fort-de-France.
MUST-SEE: While the interior of this domed cathedral is beautiful, the most breathtaking views are outside the church. The elevation offers dramatic views over the bay and Fort-de-France, Martinique’s capital city.
San José Church
San Juan, Puerto Rico
The striking exterior of this church stands out against a blue sky. It will take your breath away when it comes into view as you stroll the streets of Old San Juan. San José Church was constructed in 1532 on land donated by Ponce de León. It is an example of 16th-century Spanish Gothic architecture.
Upon visiting, you realize that the simple minimalism of its design draws you in to focus on God instead of your surroundings. This church just reopened to the public after nearly two decades of restoration.
MUST-SEE: The $11 million restoration project used advanced technology to help workers peel away layers and layers of paint. In the process, they uncovered interior murals that are centuries old. On an outside wall, a framed section reveals damage from a cannonball that struck the church during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception
Castries, St. Lucia
The largest church in the Caribbean, this cavernous stone cathedral is more than 200 feet long and located in the heart of downtown Castries. While some cathedrals and chapels in the Caribbean are sparse in their design, this one is brilliantly colorful and ornate. It includes countless stained glass windows, artworks, biblical scenes and trompe l’oeil (“trick of the eye”) paintings, including murals from Dunstan St. Omer, the famous St. Lucian artist.
MUST-SEE: Missionaries to the Caribbean saw value in making the Christian story relevant to the people of the region, including the enslaved Africans who had been brought there in the 19th century. As a result, much of the artwork and stained glass inside the cathedral depict Jesus, Mary and Joseph with darker skin tones.
As our travelers often share, encountering these buildings, which represent powerful stories of history and faith, is a highlight of our Christian cruises and tours.
Which one do you want to visit first?