The 9 Most Beautiful and Awe-Inspiring Churches and Cathedrals in California

Written by Erica Scassellati
Published: September 14, 2023
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You might know California for its sunny beaches and vast national parks, or perhaps as the home of Hollywood — the cinema center of the country. However, California is also home to a rich history and a wide variety of architectural styles.

In the mid-1800s, the California Gold Rush brought hopeful miners to the state in the hopes of gaining immense wealth. While many weren’t successful, they remained in California and needed a place of worship.

Many immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Mexico who settled in California also sought out places to practice their Catholic faith. These nine churches and cathedrals in California are some of the most awe-inspiring places to worship while appreciating history and architecture.

1. Cathedral of Christ the Light

The Cathedral of Christ the Light is truly one of the most uniquely designed places of worship in California. Located in Oakland, Christ the Light is a Roman Catholic Cathedral that is overseen by the Bishop of Oakland — the Most Reverend Michael C. Barber, SJ.

According to The Institute for Sacred Architecture, architect Craig Hartman designed the Cathedral of Christ the Light. He drew inspiration from the work of artist Richard Serra and the Gothic-style Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California

The Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland has a unique design of overlapping glass and wooden panels.

©Lynn Watson/

The Cathedral is made up of a number of overlapping wood and glass panels, allowing light to filter into the place of worship. The panels are purposely meant to resemble the scales of a fish. This image took inspiration from the loaves and fish story in the Bible. At the Cathedral’s center lies an altar, a central tabernacle, and an enormous Christ Pantocrator.

Christ the Light’s grounds also include a Mausoleum, an event center, and a healing garden for survivors of clergy sexual abuse. Terrie Light and Jennifer Chapin, members of the “No More Secrets” diocesan support group, presented the idea for the garden, according to The Catholic Voice. The pair opted for an outdoor space in deference to the many survivors who no longer feel comfortable entering a church.

2. The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi

The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi dates back to the mid-19th century. In those days, the California gold rush caused a boom in San Francisco’s population and a need for more places of worship. U.S. Army personnel built a wooden shack, eventually replaced by an adobe church and consecrated in 1851.

St. Francis parish quickly grew and eventually, a new church was built over the old structure. After a devastating earthquake struck San Francisco in 1906, the diocese decided to rebuild a new church within the original walls. The Catholic community rededicated the new church in 1919.

The National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi, beautiful old church with trees and blue sky as a background San Francisco, California, United States

The National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi contains relics of several saints.


Today the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi holds weekly services and is known for its stunning murals and stained glass windows. The church contains relics of Saints Francis and Clare of Assisi, and St. Anthony of Padua. It is also home to a scaled replica of Saint Francis’s Porziuncola in Assisi.

Finally, the National Shrine of St. Francis of Assissi houses an acclaimed pipe organ installed by the Schoenstein Organ Company of San Francisco. In October 1972 the church officially became a California historical landmark.

3. Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano

Saint Junipero Serra is an important figure in many of California’s Catholic churches. The Spanish Catholic priest established Mission San Juan Capistrano on November 1, 1776, and is the patron saint of vocations to Church ministry.

According to Catholic Vote, the Serra Chapel is the only remaining building in which St. Junipero Serra celebrated the Holy Mass. The chapel continues to hold mass daily. Mission San Juan Capistrano Historic Museum holds thousands of historic objects. Explore the area’s grounds, exhibits, and architecture with guided tours and even field trips.

A long building with arches sits between palm trees.

Serra Chapel at Mission San Juan Capistrano is the only extant building where Saint Junipero Serra celebrated mass.

©Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons – License

4. Grace Cathedral

Another place of worship in San Francisco, Grace Cathedral‘s beginnings are similar to that of the National Shrine St. Francis of Assisi. Known then as simply, Little Grace Chapel, the small building opened its doors in the midst of the California Gold Rush.

Little Grace Chapel’s parish eventually moved to a larger church building. A number of notable individuals visited the Gothic brick church, including Leland Stanford and Mark Twain. Unfortunately, the church also suffered when the great earthquake of 1906 hit San Francisco.

Grace Cathedral at Twilight in downtown San Francisco

Grace Cathedral in San Francisco lies on top of Nob Hill.

©Chris LaBasco/

Work soon began on a new place of worship. Construction began on the present cathedral in 1927. However, delays such as the onset of the Great Depression stalled the building’s completion. In fact, the cathedral close wasn’t fully finished until 1995. However, the place of worship was consecrated in 1964 and even visited by Duke Ellington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today Grace Cathedral itself is a work of art with a Carillon and stained glass windows. The Gothic-style cathedral is nestled on top of Nob Hill and is home to two Chartres-style labyrinths. Explore the building’s beautiful architecture and history with a self-guided or docent-led tour. You may also partake in yoga on the labyrinth, a monthly sound bath, organ recitals, and more.

5. The Immaculata Church

The Immaculata Church in San Diego, California dates back to 1959. It is located on the University of San Diego campus and was originally designed to serve as the main chapel for the school and the Immaculate Heart Seminary. Today the Immaculata Church is a separate parish.

Spanish styling dominates the building’s exterior architecture. These influences can be seen in the red Cardova tile roof. A statue of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception sits atop one of the building’s blue domes.

Inside the church contains 20 side chapels, with Stations of the Cross imported from Italy above them. A hand-carved crucifix constructed in Oberammergau, Germany also adorns the interior. The Immaculata Church seats 900 and is commonly used for Catholic weddings.

The Immaculata Church, University of California.

The Immaculata Church lies on the University of San Diego’s campus in California.


6. Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the most historically significant buildings in Sacramento. In the late 19th century, Bishop Patrick Manogue, an Irish immigrant, began plans to build a cathedral near the state capital building in Sacramento.

This new place of worship would showcase “Church and State, two important institutions, each pursuing the common good for society, but from different angles,” Manogue said, according to the cathedral’s website. Construction began in 1887 and the church was dedicated two years later. Monague took special inspiration from the Eglise de la Trinité Church in Paris.

Since its dedication over a century ago, the cathedral has undergone a number of renovations and restorations. Today it features beautiful chandeliers, stained glass windows, and a baptismal font and well. Another feature includes one of two copies made of Raphael Sanzio’s The Sistine Madonna, gifted to the church by a benefactor named Jane Stanford in 1891.

Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament located in Sacramento California

The Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in Sacramento took inspiration from the Eglise de la Trinité Church in Paris.

©Randy Miramontez/

7. Our Lady of the Rosary

Our Lady of the Rosary is a Catholic church in San Diego. According to Catholic Vote, Italian immigrants constructed this place in 1925 as a tribute to their homeland. The church served as a place to come together and worship in a new and strange land.

Today our Lady of the Rosary remains as a beacon of light in San Diego’s Little Italy. In preparation for its Centennial, the church underwent a $2.5M restoration, according to Little Italy San Diego.

This included remastering the original paintings and replacing the carpet with Calcutta marble. The updates also involved restoring the confessional rooms with new stained glass. Finally, the church added Rojo Alicante marble to the center and side aisles.

Historic Little Italy Sign, San Diego, California, USA

Our Lady of the Rosary is located in San Diego’s Little Italy.

©Billy McDonald/

8. St. Andrew Church

St. Andrew Church in Pasadena is an architectural wonder. Built in 1927, the Romanesque church tower and facade are a replica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The interior is modeled after the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome, according to the church’s website.

The church features an altar baldachin constructed from white Carrara marble. Above them hangs a mural depicting the legend of St. Andrew. Venetian artist Carlo Wostry, a descendant of Italian mural painters of the Renaissance, painted the mural.

The church underwent careful restorations following earthquakes that occurred during the 1970s and 1980s. St. Andrew continues to be recognized for its stunning architecture and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to masses in both Spanish and English, the church also holds concerts such as the Bach to Broadway.

Saint Andrew catholic church with its Romanesque revival campanile, bell tower. This is a landmark of the City of Pasadena and one of the most beautiful churches in Southern California.

St. Andrew’s Catholic Church gained recognition for its incredible architecture and became a National Historic Place.

©Angel DiBilio/

9. Wayfarers Chapel

Wayfarers Chapel, also known as “The Glass Church,” is too beautiful not to include on this list of California churches. This sacred space in Rancho Palos Verdes, California is surrounded by natural beauty. It also hosts a number of events and worship services, such as the New Year’s Renewal service, Easter Sunrise service, and more.

According to their website, “Wayfarers Chapel is a Swedenborgian church that welcomes people of all faiths.” It is an extremely popular site for weddings and is an inclusive church that performs same-gender ceremonies. Thanks to the beauty of the chapel and its grounds, the church has been featured in several TV shows. Some examples include The O.C. and Lucifer.

Lloyd Wright, son of Frank Lloyd Wright, designed the Wayfarer Chapel in the late 1940s. However, the idea for the chapel began years before in the mind of Elizabeth Sewall Schellenberg, a member of the Swedenborgian Church. Schellenberg dreamed of a place on the hillside above the Pacific Ocean where wayfarers could stop to rest and give thanks to God. Her dream was completed in 1951.

Wayfarer's Chapel California

Wayfarer’s Chapel is a popular wedding venue in Rancho Palos Verdes.

©CC BY-SA 4.0 – License

Summary of Beautiful Churches and Cathedrals in California

1Cathedral of Christ the LightOakland
2National Shrine of St. Francis of AssisiSan Francisco
3Serra ChapelSan Juan Capistrano
4Grace CathedralSan Francisco
5The Immaculata ChurchSan Diego
6Cathedral of the Blessed SacramentSacramento
7Our Lady of the RosarySan Diego
8St. Andrew ChurchPasadena
9Wayfarers ChapelRancho Palos Verdes

The photo featured at the top of this post is © BetsyB~commonswiki, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons – License / Original

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About the Author

Erica is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on history, food, and travel. Erica has over 3 years of experience as a content writer and holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which she earned in 2018. A resident of Kansas City, Erica enjoys exploring her home town and traveling around the world to learn about different cultures and try new food.

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