While there are plenty of religious destinations around the world worth exploring, a few stand out for their spiritual value, breathtaking design and extraordinary history.
Two professors from the Department of Religious Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — Jodi Magness, Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism, and Randall G. Styers, Associate Professor of Religion and Culture — share a few of their top must-see religious sites of interest, alongside some of the most recognized across the globe.
Whether visiting to pray, learn or simply be inspired, these are the religious destinations that scholars and globetrotters agree are anything but ordinary.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre
Christians around the world consider the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem one of the most sacred sites in Christendom.
Known to many as the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, the church was built by Constantine in the fourth century C.E. But as Magness explains, the church has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and much of what’s visible today is the result of a Crusader reconstruction.
The most fascinating item here is, without a doubt, the remains of the empty tomb that many Christians believe Jesus was buried in before he was resurrected. It is enclosed within a structure called The Edicule (Latin for "little house").
Different parts of the complex are currently occupied by several religious — including Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Egyptian Copts and Syrian Orthodox — and the church is open and enjoyed by visitors of all faiths.
Visitors do need to be dressed modestly to visit. The best time to come is early in the morning, as it gets more crowded later in the day, especially (not surprisingly) on Easter.
The Garden Tomb
Just outside the Old City in Jerusalem is The Garden Tomb. According to the Anglican Church, this — not the Church of the Holy Sepulchre — actually marks the site of Jesus' burial and resurrection.
Magness further explains, "This is a modern tradition that originated in the late nineteenth century when General Gordon visited Jerusalem and decided that this was the spot where Jesus was crucified and buried."
Garden Tomb officials are themselves quick to note that it is impossible to verify if Jesus’ tomb was actually located here, but they believe there is sufficient evidence to suggest this may be so. As the Garden Tomb website states, “The question as to whether this is the same tomb in which the Messiah was buried is ultimately unimportant. What is important is that visitors to this garden have an encounter with the living Messiah today.”
Free, guided tours of The Garden Tomb are offered, or visitors are welcome to enjoy quiet time or attend a worship service. Information brochures are available in 30 different languages.
This Tokyo-area memorial was built in 1920 to honor the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji, who reigned from 1852-1912, and his wife, Empress Shoken. The Emperor, who began his reign at just 15 years old, ruled during the Meiji Restoration, a time of colonial expansion and industrialization. Under his leadership, Japan became a modern state.
Meiji Shrine is the most visited religious site in Japan; at the dawn of the new year alone, some 3 million visitors come here for the year’s first prayers (hatsumode).
Stunning visual components are rooted in Japan’s traditional religion of Shinto. Upon entering, guests walk under two 40-foot-high torii gates, a passageway that symbolizes entering a sacred place, leaving the everyday behind. The path to the shrine is lined by cedar trees, and the grounds encompass the Iris Garden (Minami-ike Shobuda), believed to be designed by the Emperor for his wife. In late June, the garden blooms with over 150 species of iris.
The shrine is located next to Yoyogi Park, which was the site of the 1964 Olympics.
For Catholics everywhere, Vatican City is one of the holiest places in the world. Several renowned attractions are found here, the most celebrated of which are St. Peter's Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.
The Basilica is one of the largest religious buildings on the planet and is erected over the tomb of St. Peter the Apostle. It was named after one of Jesus' disciples, who was executed in Rome and buried where the Basilica stands.
At the top of the Basilica is a view of St. Peter's Square, where the Sistine Chapel is located. Inside the Chapel are several works by Michelangelo, including extraordinary fresco paintings like “The Creation of Adam,” which represents the story of Genesis when God creates Adam, and “The Last Judgment,” which signifies the Apocalypse. (Michelangelo’s works also grace the Basilica.)
Fun fact: Vatican City, an independent city-state, is technically the smallest country in the world!
The Bahá’í faith was started some 200 years ago by a Persian man named Siyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi. He was known as the prophet Bab and was shunned by Shia clergy. Just six years after his movement began, the Persian government orchestrated his execution.
Located on Mount Carmel in Haifa, The Bahá’í Gardens is a UNESCO World Heritage Site visited by more than 750,000 people a year. It is the holiest site of the Bahá’í faith and the most visited attraction in Haifa. At the center is a golden domed shrine of prophet Bab, who is laid to rest at the site.
The gardens feature a staircase with 19 terraces that extend up the northern side of Mount Carmel, offering panoramic views of the Galilee Hills and the Mediterranean Sea.
This spectacular site is open seven days a week except on holy days and Yom Kippur. Free daily tours are conducted in English, Hebrew and Russian, while a guided tour provides a more extensive experience and ends just before the shrine of Bab.
The Lotus Temple
More than 70 million people have visited the Bahá'í House of Worship in New Delhi, India since it was first opened to the public in 1986. Known for its extraordinary flowerlike shape, it is also called the Lotus Temple, and it is one of seven Bahá'í Houses of Worship across the globe.
The temple welcomes people from all religious backgrounds, a reflection of the Bahá'í faith, which focuses on the equality of all people and value of all religions. The temple explores the tenets of Bahá'í, including the Oneness of God, Oneness of Religions and Oneness of Mankind.
The structure’s stunning lotus design is no accident; the flower is considered a unifying symbol across Indian faiths, primarily Buddhism and Hinduism, further underlining the importance of religious harmony.
For those interested in attending a prayer service, they are held in the Prayer Hall at various times throughout the day. Visitors are free to take a self-guided tour; upon exiting, volunteers provide information on the Bahá’í faith and are available to answer questions.
Sepphoris in Galilee
Just a few miles from Nazareth is the "forgotten city" of Sepphoris. It was rebuilt by Herod the Great's son, Herod Antipas, after the original city burned. Due to its proximity to Nazareth, many scholars believe that Jesus and his father helped build Sepphoris. While Jesus is traditionally called a woodworker, wood was scarce in Israel, so it is more likely that he was a stonemason, as stone was quite prolific.
According to Magness, Sepphoris has been extensively excavated, revealing remains that include a Roman theater that held over 4,000 people, colonnaded streets, and several buildings with mosaics depicting biblical scenes and Jerusalem temple imagery.
In fact, Sepphoris is also known as the Mosaic City, with more than 40 mosaic floors in its buildings.
Also known as the "Wailing Wall," the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem is a significant site for Jewish people. Thousands come each year from all over the world to see the wall, built by King Herod in 20 BCE, and pray. Some write down their prayers and place them in the cracks of the wall.
The wall is divided into two sections that separate men and women. Visitors are expected to dress modestly when praying there, with women covering their legs and shoulders and men covering their heads.
The Western Wall is free and open to the public all day, year round, and tours are regularly given in both English and Hebrew. For a truly immersive experience, visitors can go on a private tour led by a licensed guide to explore areas of the wall underground that have been uncovered by archaeologists over the years.
Ceremonies like bar mitzvahs and military inductions also sometimes take place on the grounds.
While it is not mentioned in the scriptures, the village of Bodh Gaya in the Indian state of Bihar is where Buddha's Enlightenment took place. It is believed that Buddha visited Bodh Gaya during his time as a teacher and spent seven days after the Enlightenment meditating under the Bodhi tree.
The tree was a significant part of Buddhism, with Pilgrims seeking out its seeds and leaves as blessings for their homes. Many other sacred trees in India were born from seeds of the Bodhi.
Along with the Bodhi tree, the Mahabodhi Temple — founded by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka — acts as a place of devotion in Bodh Gaya. Inside the temple is an image of Buddha in the "touching the ground" pose. The image is said to date back 1700 years and faces east in the exact place where Buddha was enlightened.
While people can visit the Bodhi tree and Mahabodhi Temple any time of year, it is especially interesting to go when there is a surplus of Indian pilgrims who visit between December and March. They arrive on foot or by bus and offer prayers in several different languages. Many believe that this site offers people around the world the chance to experience enlightenment.
Karnak Temple Complex
Egypt's Karnak Temple Complex contains the Temple of Amun-Ra, dedicated to the Egypitan god who championed the poor. The massive temple covers nearly 200 acres and could fit the cathedrals of St. Peter's, Milan and Notre Dame within its walls. Two other temples in the complex are dedicated to Aman’s goddess wife Mut and their son Khonsu.
The Temple of Amun-Ra was known as the "most select of places" by ancient Egyptians. According to Egyptologist Heather Blyth, the temple was once quite extravagant and colorful in its design. In her book "Karnak: Evolution of a Temple," she writes, "Behind the high walls, glimpses of gold-topped obelisks which pierced the blue sky, shrines, smaller temples, columns and statues, worked with gold, electrum and precious stones such as lapis lazuli must have shimmered in the dusty golden heat.” Today, the temple has lost much of its luster, but it remains a fascinating place to explore.
Some 30 different pharaohs contributed to the building process of the temple complex and there are still carvings and inscriptions that can be seen on temple walls, though most have worn away.
Located in Yangon, Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the Union of Myanmar. It is covered with hundreds of gold plates and encrusted with 4,531 diamonds.
Stupas, statues and holy relics display the heritage and history of the Myanmar people. The most fascinating item enshrined here? Strands of Buddha's hair.
Like all the sites on this list, Shwedagon Pagoda boasts architecture and design with extraordinary history, dating back 2,500 years.
To visit Shwedagon Pagoda, visitors will need to arrange public transport. Conservative attire is recommended, and guests should be prepared to enter with bare feet.
Also in Myanmar is a recommendation from Associate Professor Randall G. Styers. He suggests the ancient city of Bagan (formerly Pagan) in Burma.
Between the 9th and 13th centuries CE, Bagan kings and other believers in Theravada Buddhism — the most ancient, conservative branch of Buddhism — built more than 10,000 Buddhist temples.
Today, more than 2,000 of these temples remain, the majority of which are located within the Bagan Archaeological Zone.
Styers notes the effect that the site has on visitors, calling it "breathtakingly beautiful and utterly magical." As with many places of worship, visitors are asked to be respectful by wearing modest clothing and removing footwear before entering.
There are several ways to explore Bagan. The least expensive option is to rent a bicycle. You can also take a horse-and-cart guided tour, though horses have to follow different tracks than bicycles and cannot reach all the areas. For a more modern way to travel, taxi cabs are available.
But without a doubt, the most memorable way to explore Bagan is via a hot-air balloon ride. These are usually around $305 per person and offer amazing views from the sky.
Regardless of how you get to the temples, the best time of day to go is at dawn or dusk, when the sun rises and falls over the plain.
al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock
In the Old City of Jerusalem is a 35-acre compound known as the Temple Mount by Jews and al-Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, by Muslims. The site has been the most contested piece of territory in the Holy Land since Israel occupied East Jerusalem.
The compound includes a silver-domed mosque officially called al-Aqsa that’s been designated a World Heritage site, as well as a domed shrine called Dome of the Rock. Together, they comprise Islam's third holiest site.
The dome is believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended into heaven. It is located on a rocky outcrop known as Mount Moriah where, according to Jewish tradition, Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice.
Magness also notes that the Dome of the Rock is the oldest standing Muslim monument in the world and was modeled in part after the Rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The inscriptions inside the building claim Islam as the true religion.
Built by the Sailendra dynasty between AD 780 and 840, Borobudur is the largest Buddhist monument in the world, created as a place to glorify Buddha and guide others into enlightenment.
There are three zones of consciousness represented at the structure — Kamadhatu, Rapudhatu and Arupadhatu — symbolizing the common people world, the transitional sphere and the abode of the gods, respectively. The temple was built in the style of Mandala, a Buddhist symbol representing the universe.
During a restoration in the early 20th century, two smaller temples, Pawon and Mendut, were discovered in the same region as Borobudur. When the annual Waisak Day Festival is held in April or May, the three temples are used to form a route. The festival celebrates the birth, death and enlightenment of Buddha.
Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela
After Muslim conquests stopped Christians from traveling to the Holy Land in the 13th century, King Lalibela declared a “New Jerusalem.” He sought the support of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to build several small churches in the town now named after him.
In a mountainous region of Ethiopia, these 11 medieval monolithic churches still act as a place of worship within the town of Lalibela. The impressive churches, which are carved out of rock, have cross-shaped chiseled openings and plunge down into the ground.
One of the churches, Biete Medhani Alem, is believed to be the largest monolithic church in the world. The churches were excavated with monolithic blocks which were used to form doors, windows, columns and roofs (at ground level).
There are also passages to hermit caves and catacombs, as well as extensive drainage systems and trenches that connect all of the churches.
Since the trek into the churches can be tricky, many visitors hire local tour guides to take them down the steep steps and show them around the main points of interest.