Spiritual and metaphysical experiences come in many forms, from the religious and intellectual, to those centered on art and nature.
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And so often, these moments are brought on by travel—sometimes unexpectedly, and sometimes because we journey in search of sacred sites, through pilgrimages, sabbaticals, and even solo trips, usually in times when we need an awakening the most.
From Rome to Bethlehem, in the shape of natural landmarks and houses of worship alike, these are some of the world’s most beautiful sacred places.
Whether you’re planning a future visit, or simply looking to appreciate the grandeur of these sacred sites from afar, read on for our favorites.
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Ghats of Varanasi, India
India’s Ganges River, although notoriously polluted, is believed to have healing, purifying properties—a belief bolstered by tests conducted on the water.
In Varanasi, one of the country’s seven sacred cities, locals interact with the river via ghats—stepped platforms leading down into the water—and use them as sites for multiple ceremonies.
There are bathing rituals for “purification of sins,” pilgrimages to collect sacred water, and even designated ghats for cremations, where pyres burn 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
You can see the phenomenon for yourself if you take a boat tour along the Ganges.
This Buddhist monastery and temple, also known as “The Tiger’s Nest,” sits perilously on a cliff, 900 meters (2,952 feet) above the Paro Valley in Bhutan, making it worth a trip for the views alone.
Taktsang was built in 1692, at the site of a cave where Guru Rinpoche—or second Buddha—meditated for “three years, three months, and three hours” to ward off evil.
The site has been sacred ever since, and you can reach it via a steep, two-hour climb from the valley. Once you get to the temple, you can explore the grounds after removing your shoes.
Wat Rong Khun, Thailand
This temple in Chiang Rai is one of the more recent constructions on our list, having been built by Thai artist Chalermchai Kosipipat just two decades ago in 1997.
The gleaming white structure is an ode to Buddha’s purity, as well as samsara—the cycle of birth, existence, and death.
There’s a sculpture of hands rising up from the earth, seemingly from the underworld, beside the bridge leading into the temple, with warrior sculptures flanking each side.
But Wat Rong Khun also shows its modernity in many art installations, including nods to superheroes and aliens.
Located in Java, Indonesia, Borobudur is an iconic Buddhist temple with construction dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, during the Syailendra Dynasty.
The UNESCO World Heritage site comprises three tiers, and 72 small stupas—dome-shaped structures containing relics usually related to Buddha—plus one larger central stupa at the top.
The structure is specifically designed to represent the path to enlightenment: Each level represents a level of the universe, and the higher you climb, the closer you are to nirvana.
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Iran
Also known as “The Pink Mosque,” Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, is famous for its stunning array of colors—thanks to a unique combination of stained glass windows and mosaics.
When Nasir al-Mulk was built in 1888, it was specially designed to take advantage of morning light, and the sun filtering through the windows creates a rainbow effect, highlighting the jewel-toned tiles and rugs in the interior.
If you’re able to visit the mosque, make sure you go early for the best view.
The true purpose and origin of Stonehenge remain a contested mystery: Theories range from the legendary Welsh wizard Merlin having transported the rocks from Ireland to the stone circle being a model for female fertility, to a calendar used for seasonal rituals, and an astronomical prediction tool for phenomena like solar eclipses.
Regardless, the spiritual landmark remains one of the U.K.’s most popular attractions, drawing some 800,000 visitors annually.
There are ties to Druidic and pagan culture, too, and some groups of them still gather at the site to celebrate equinoxes and solstices.
To visit, you can take a day trip from London—about two and a half hours by bus.
Abu Simbel Temples, Egypt
The Abu Simbel Temples were built by Ramses II of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt during his reign from 1279-to 13 B.C.E.
The complex, in southern Egypt, includes two temples: both the Great Temple and the nearby Small Temple.
Carved out of a sandstone cliff, the Great Temple’s main entrance is flanked by four statues of Ramses himself, with likenesses of family members at his feet.
Supposedly, the structure is dedicated to the ancient sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhte, though Ramses is also depicted as a god.
On two days of the year—usually February 21 and October 21—the sun hits the Great Temple just right and illuminates the inner shrine.
Much like Indonesia’s Borobudur, the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, is designed with levels that symbolize enlightenment.
The bottom plinth represents earth, the dome represents water, the tower represents fire, and the top spire represents air.
All-seeing eyes mark the tower on each side, representing Buddha’s all-knowing gaze.
Between the glimmering gold and white colors and the imposing spire, which draws your eyes up to the sky, the structure is truly spectacular to witness.
Boudhanath is a popular pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists, and a huge tourist attraction in Kathmandu.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
This famous twelfth-century temple in Cambodia is modeled after the mythological Mount Meru, where Hindus believe the ancient gods live.
At its highest point, Angkor Wat reaches more than 700 feet tall. The temple complex, which has ties to both Hinduism and Buddhism, has walls covered with carvings, including over 3,000 asparas (nymphs) and many other mythological events and figures.
It’s a vastly popular tourist attraction: in 2018, short of 3 million tourists paid a visit, which was a third of all who stepped foot in Cambodia.
Tourists begin lining up as early as 4:30 a.m. for tickets, so make sure you get there early—or be prepared to wait.
Uluru (aka Ayers Rock, or Big Red Rock) is an iconic Australian landmark. Considered sacred by native Anangu Aboriginals—the custodians of the land—they believe that Uluru and its surrounding area were created by their ancestors and that their spirits continue to inhabit the land today.
In light of this cultural significance, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management voted in 2017 to ban visitors from climbing onto the rock—which was a popular tourist activity during sunrise and sunset, often accompanied by a champagne toast.
Ever since October 2019, tourists have had to go around Uluru’s base instead, out of respect for the Anangu and the rock’s protection.
Spanish Synagogue, Czech Republic
Prague’s Spanish Synagogue is a sight to behold. The jewel-toned interior design is representative of the Moorish Revival style, influenced by the Alhambra Palace in Granada—hence, the moniker.
The structure was built in 1868 for a local Reform congregation, and in addition to being a synagogue, it also hosts two permanent exhibitions: one on the history of Jewish people in Bohemia and Moravia, and the other of silver artifacts from a synagogue in the same region.
The synagogue has a rich history as well. During World War II and the Holocaust, the seized possessions of local Jewish communities were stored within.
Cenote Sagrado, Mexico
Cenotes—which are natural sinkholes or wells filled with water—were sacred to the Maya people, and used as communication portals with the gods.
The Cenote Sagrado in Chichén Itzá, Mexico, is believed to have been the site of rituals, and offerings. Jewelry, incense, pottery, and copious remains of bodies—suggesting human sacrifices to the gods were made—have been discovered at the bottom by archaeologists.
White this cenote was a pilgrimage destination for the Maya, today visitors can freely swim or take a dip in it.
Church of St. George, Ethiopia
In northern Ethiopia, the small town of Lalibela is known for its eleven medieval churches carved out of monolithic rock.
Dating back to the twelfth century, the churches were built on orders of King Lalibela, who envisioned the creation of a “New Jerusalem” during a time when pilgrimages to the holy land were hindered by Muslim conquests.
Today the site still sees many pilgrimages, largely from Coptic Christians. The structures, complete with catacombs and ceremonial passages, are fascinating; the Church of St. George, or Biete Ghiorgis (pictured), is particularly famous for its cross-shaped design and network of trenches, which connects it to the other churches.
Western Wall, Israel
Israel is acknowledged as the Holy Land in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and Jerusalem’s Western Wall is its holiest site.
The limestone structure has been a place of worship since the 11th century, as the closest place to Temple Mount (where it’s said God created man) from which worshippers can pray.
It’s common practice for visitors to write their prayers, hopes and wishes on slips of paper, then slide them into the cracks of the walls.
The memos are collected throughout the year, before being buried in a Jewish cemetery on the nearby Mount of Olives.
Monasteries of Meteora, Greece
Though Meteora isn’t name-recognizable like the Notre Dames of the world, you’ve likely seen images of these mountain-top monasteries before.
The set of stone buildings is set atop steep, jagged cliffs in Central Greece, creating a scene seemingly out of a fairytale.
Eastern Orthodox monks first occupied the region’s caves in the 11th century, before the monasteries were even built.
Now, after a thousand-year history of much turmoil—including the Turkish invasion, the creation of the complex and its frescoes, and efforts to use it as a refuge from the Ottoman Empire—six of the 24 monasteries remain active.
The Ypapanti monastery is usually open to the public, and well worth the four-and-a-half-hour train ride from Athens.
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The story of Jesus’s birth is oft-retold throughout the world, and crucial to the telling is the cave where the birth took place.
That very grotto in Bethlehem, submerged beneath the oldest basilica in the Holy Land on the West Bank, is open to visitors today.
A silver star lies on the ground, supposedly marking the exact point where Jesus was born.
While this site is Bethlehem’s most popular tourist attraction year-round, there are even larger festivities come to Christmastime, including crowds of carolers and midnight services. It’s a World Heritage site, too—the first one UNESCO listed under Palestine.
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