Long before the construction of One World Trade Center and the Empire State Building, the New York City skyline's tallest buildings were churches. While skyscrapers now tower over even the biggest steeples in the City, these houses of worship remain fascinating places to visit for their religious services, historical heritage and ornate interiors. Here are some of our favorites.
Abyssinian Baptist Church
Claim to fame: New York City's first African-American Baptist church
The details: Founded in 1808 in Lower Manhattan, the Abyssinian Baptist Church moved uptown in 1902 and served as the spiritual center for the Harlem Renaissance. Adam Clayton Powell Jr.—the City's first African-American city council member and a 12-term Congressman—was a preacher here for many years. Due to the church's large congregation and its popularity as a tourist spot, only some Sunday services are open to the public; also note that there is a dress code (along with other restrictions).
Cathedral Church of St. John The Divine
Claim to fame: World's largest Anglican church
The details: This stunning cathedral broke ground in 1892 and is technically still unfinished (take that, Second Avenue Subway!). Still, you can—and should—visit it. The structure is the largest Anglican church in the world and the fourth-largest church overall. Poke around the Morningside Heights building on a guided tour; options include a so-called vertical walk that allows you to ascend the spiral staircases of the building’s tall towers. Don't miss the lush grounds, which include a biblical garden and three roaming peacocks.
Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims
Claim to fame: Abolitionist hub
The details: This Brooklyn church was founded in 1847, and its first pastor was prominent abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. He set the tone for the church's activist history, which included a role as a key hub for the Underground Railroad. Today, thousands of visitors a year tour its serene grounds and sanctuary.
Claim to fame: Tallest church in the United States
The details: This interdenominational, neo-Gothic wonder towers over Hudson River Park at 122nd Street, situated just across the street from another famous site, Grant's Tomb. Since Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the Vietnam War there in 1967, the church has had a strong history of famous orators and political activism; even before that, it was known for its progressive attitudes toward civil rights and other social issues. The church offers free tours after Sunday services; you can also arrange for paid group tours on weekdays.
Claim to fame: Largest pipe organ in NYC; outdoor café
The details: Given the reverence with which many New Yorkers treat brunch, it's fitting that there's a church where you can enjoy the cherished weekend meal. St. Bart's, as it's known to locals, offers a true only-in-New-York experience with its own restaurant: Inside Park features an outdoor terrace on Fifth Avenue for light fare and an indoor space for a gourmet sit-down dinner. The current incarnation, built in 1918 and designed by Bertram Goodhue, incorporates the Stanford White portal from its former Madison Avenue location. Free Sunday tours, held after services conclude (usually around 12:15pm), give visitors the chance to admire its art and architecture—not to mention NYC's largest pipe organ. You can also arrange group tours ($7 per person) by appointment during the week.
St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery
Claim to fame: Progressive politics and cultural events
The details: The origins of this house of worship stretch back to the origins of the City itself. Peter Stuyvesant bought the land on which the church sits back in 1651 and soon built a private chapel there, making it the oldest site of continuous religious practice in New York City; the current structure, built in 1799, is Manhattan's second-oldest church (St. Paul's, below, is first). Given its extraordinary history, it's fitting that St. Mark's became one of the City's first landmarked buildings in 1966; it's also on the National Register of Historic Places. In recent years the community-oriented space has served as a gathering place for antiwar and Occupy Wall Street gatherings. You can explore via a self-guided walking tour, stop by for services (Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays) or check out some of the theater, poetry and arts-related events held there year-round.
St. Patrick's Cathedral
Claim to fame: Home to the Archbishop of New York; the City's most-visited religious site
The details: This landmark cathedral, located just across Fifth Avenue from Rockefeller Center, is one of Midtown's most popular attractions. The neo-Gothic structure has recently been cleaned and renovated to closely resemble its pristine condition when it opened in 1879. The cathedral hosts daily Catholic mass and other services, all of which are open to the public; you can also show up for one of the weekday morning tours, which are free. And don't forget to check out our detailed St. Patrick’s guide.
St. Paul's Chapel
Claim to fame: Oldest public NYC building in continuous use; role in September 11 recovery
The details: Part of the Trinity Church parish, this historic building dates to 1766 and is famed for a visit by President George Washington after his inauguration on nearby Wall Street in 1789. The church, located just a block from the World Trade Center, also played a significant role in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, by providing meals, shelter and other services to hundreds of recovery workers at Ground Zero.
The Tabernacle of Prayer for All People
Claim to fame: Movie palace turned church
The details: This house of worship started life back in 1929 as the Loew's Valencia, the first of five “Wonder Theaters” in the NYC area. It boasted seating for upwards of 4,000 movie patrons in an over-the-top setting resembling a Spanish villa—with an ultra-ornate lobby and theater equipped with a trompe l'oeil ceiling that appears open to the sky. When the theater closed in 1977, Loews donated the space to the Tabernacle of Prayer; the new tenants have kept it in pristine condition and run tours usually once a month between May and October; check scoutingny.com for dates and times, and make sure to call the church in advance (718-657-4210).
Claim to fame: Burial ground, iconic steeple and stained-glass windows
The details: The current Trinity Church, completed in 1846, is the third version to stand on its site since the original charter from King William III in 1697. For more than 40 years, the church's signature steeple was the tallest structure in the City; the colorful stained-glass windows were also eye catching for the time and remain a conspicuous feature. The church hosts multiple services every day, and outside in the adjoining cemetery you can find the final resting place of former treasury secretary and (sort of) current Broadway star Alexander Hamilton.