World's Most Sacred Sites
Following the success of books like “Eat, Pray, Love,” it seemed like just about every destination in the world was offering the opportunity to “find yourself.” But some sacred sites have been offering this chance long before spiritual fulfillment became the latest trend.
At places like Machu Picchu in Peru and the Camino de Santiago in Europe, visitors can seek inspiration, healing and enlightenment; some even report extraordinary, unexplainable experiences that change them permanently.
Would you like to embark on a religious pilgrimage, harness mystical energy or simply find a serene environment in which to meditate? Whatever you’re seeking, the following sites — which include historic churches and temples, magical mountains and amazing ruins — are sure to leave you with memories you won’t soon forget.
88 Temple Circuit, Japan
For many Buddhists, the road to spiritual enlightenment runs through the Japanese island of Shikoku, where 88 Buddhist temples represent different human afflictions and weaknesses.
The good news? Visit one of these temples, and you’ll purge yourself of that particular issue, setting you on the path toward purity and enlightenment. Plus, you don’t have to cover this 932-mile temple circuit on foot, as you can temple-hop by bus. If you want to join the 2,000 pilgrims who walk the route each year, though, it is doable; it will just take about 40-50 days to visit all 88 temples.
Though originally a Buddhist endeavor, all visitors are welcome. It is recommended, however, that you go to each temple in a particular order, with Temples 1 – 23 representing awakening, 24 – 39 austerity and discipline, 40 – 65 the attainment of enlightenment and 66 – 88 entrance into Nirvana.
88 Temple Circuit Fast Facts
*Pilgrims tend to don traditional attire, including a white coat and conical straw hat.
*After the trek, you have to return to the first temple to complete the pilgrimage.
*Special "henro houses" along the trail offer sparse but cozy rooms at discounted rates for pilgrims. Some are even free.
The Camino de Santiago, Europe
This hiking trail spanning nearly 500 miles is built for some serious pilgrimaging. Originally used as a way to find the burial site of Saint James in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela, the trail became popular in the Middle Ages, when Christians believed that walking the route and finding Saint James would allow them to be spared from purgatory and sent to heaven.
Today, it more resembles the Pacific Coast Trail, a popular place for people of all beliefs who want to get in touch with nature, take a break from their daily lives, test their physical and mental strength, and have their own personal spiritual experiences.
There are a few different routes through the trail, but the most popular one begins in Saint Jean Pied-du-Port in France and weaves through Pamplona, Burgos and Leon before reaching Santiago de Compostela. The Camino de Santiago is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and takes about a month to complete.
Camino de Santiago Fast Facts
*It's estimated that nearly 350,000 walkers complete the trail every year.
*One of the most beautiful routes — among many — is Camino Portugues Coastal, which offers spectacular Atlantic Coast views.
*If you complete 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) on foot, you'll be rewarded with a "pilgrim certificate" called a compostela.
Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, Israel
A holy site in Judaism, Islam and Christianity, Jerusalem represents so much to so many. For people of the Jewish faith, this is the city of David, the capital of the Israelite nation and biblical Zion. Christians believe this is where the Last Supper, the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus took place. For Muslims, it’s where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
Though millions of visitors come here to honor their personal religious beliefs, faiths converge at the Western Wall. A surviving remnant of a temple built by King Herod in 20 BCE, this is a place for silent prayer and reflection. Some write down their prayers and stuff them in the walls' cracks. The papers are eventually collected and, when buried, become “eternal.”
Just 30 minutes away from Jerusalem is another highly spiritual site, the Dead Sea (Fun fact: it’s actually a lake). With the lowest elevation on earth (1290 feet below sea level), the Dead Sea is 10 times saltier than regular seawater and contains minerals such as magnesium, potassium and calcium.
Its water is said to have healing powers capable of treating conditions such as skin rashes, arthritis and respiratory infections.
Jerusalem and the Dead Sea Fast Facts
*Women who pray at the Western Wall should cover their legs and shoulders, while men should cover their heads.
*Visitors can also explore underground tunnels located beneath the Wall.
*The Masada fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site offering incredible views of the Dead Sea, is also well worth adding to the spiritual itinerary.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia
Walking among natural wonders is this famed national park is a favorite Australian pastime, but seeing Uluru and Kata-Tjuta in their blazing red glory may just stop you in your tracks. One of Australia’s most impressive and recognizable natural wonders, Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock) is a flat-topped monolith that is 1,100 feet high and almost six miles in circumference, while Kata Tjuta (commonly called The Olgas) is a collection of giant sandstone, granite and basalt rocks, with the tallest reaching an astounding 1,800 feet.
The Anangu, an Aboriginal tribe, believe that both sites are inhabited by ancestor spirits and represent the energy, life and storytelling of their land. As you walk around, you’ll find ancient paintings and rock caves that represent lives past, and rituals and ceremonies are still performed by tribespeople throughout the park. Tourists, too, have a ceremony of their own: gathering to watch the rocks change colors at sunrise and sunset. Those who experience this moment say they feel a deep connection with the land and sense otherworldly spirits. Many are moved to tears. (And it’s totally okay to blame that red dirt getting in your eye.)
In the past, some visitors went so far as to climb Uluru, but in part for safety reasons, this is no longer permitted. The site is still operating in the wake of the devastating brush fires that have swept across Australia.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Fast Facts
*80 rock-art sites have been carefully preserved for visitors to explore. Special viewing platforms ensure no damage is done to them.
*Ranger-guided activities include a presentation on the park's extraordinary native animals.
*Two galleries, both Aboriginal owned and operated, sell traditional paintings and jewelry, with profits funneled back into the community.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
The world’s largest spiritual complex, Angkor Wat is a collection of temples in northern Cambodia, about five miles north of Siem Reap. Dating back to the 12th century, it was initially built to serve as a Hindu temple to hold the remains of King Suryavarman II. Its design was intended to represent Mount Meru, the home of the gods, with five towers recreating the mountain’s peaks, walls that represented surrounding mountains and a moat to symbolize the sea. It was later transformed into a Buddhist temple.
Today, millions of people visit in search of spiritual connections, healing and energy, or just to stare in awe at thousands of reliefs representing important symbols and deities in the Hindu and Buddhist religions.
Miraculously, when Cambodia went into a civil war in the 1970s, there was minimal damage to Angkor Wat and it remains a spectacular, highly spiritual place today.
Angkor Wat Fast Facts
*The ancient city of Angkor is home to other impressive and important monuments to see as well, including the Terrasse Des Elephants, a platform used by Angkor's king Jayavarman VII to view his victorious returning army.
*Make sure to wear respectful clothing, including long pants and long-sleeved shirts, while exploring the complex.
*Pro tip: It's best to visit early in the morning, when there are fewer crowds and it hasn't gotten too hot. If you also want to watch the sun rise over the complex, a stunning experience, arrive by 5 a.m.
Crater Lake, USA
Oregon’s Crater Lake’s origin is a subject of debate. According to science, the deep blue lake was formed 8,000 years ago when Mount Mazama erupted and flooded the area. But if you ask the Native American Klamath tribe, it’s the result of a battle between the Chief of the Above World (Llao) and the Chief of the Below World (Skell).
No matter which story you choose to believe, there’s no denying that Crater Lake is a spiritual site to behold. Plunging almost 2,000 feet below sea level, America’s deepest lake (and the seventh deepest in the world) inspires visitors to think equally deep thoughts. Its beautiful and dramatic landscape is the perfect place to daydream, disconnect or, for members of the Klamath Tribe, perform vision quests.
Interestingly, all of its water comes directly from snow or rain, making it one of the world’s cleanest (and coldest) lakes!
Crater Lake Fast Facts
*About 50 miles away from the lake, the city of Klamath Falls was named after the native Klamath people and is an excellent place to explore as well.
*Jutting out from the center of the lake, you'll see Wizard Island, formed by volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.
*There's more to Crater Lake National Park than the lake itself. It's also home to gorgeous old-growth forests.
Hagia Sophia, Turkey
One of Istanbul’s most impressive sites, Hagia Sophia (or Ayasofya in Turkish) represents peace and religious harmony. Yet this architectural marvel also houses a tumultuous history.
The structure standing today is actually the third incarnation. The first two were built around 360 AD and 415 AD, but were burnt to the ground in uprisings during the Byzantine times. In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian set out to create a Greek Orthodox Church to rival the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, enlisting 11,000 men to build what would become the world’s largest Christian church, a record it held for 1,000 years.
In 1453, Mehmet the Conquerer led the Ottomans to capture Constantinople and declared Hagia Sophia a mosque. (They also renamed the city Istanbul.) It was used as Istanbul’s principal mosque for 500 years, then declared a museum by the Turkish government in 1935.
Today, millions visit to pray, reflect and view impressive artifacts, mosaics and other artwork reflecting both Christianity and Islam. Visitor favorites include a stunning 9th-century mosaic of the Virgin Mary with child and a beautifully carved pulpit and prayer niche facing the direction of Mecca.
Hagia Sofia Fast Facts
*The name Hagia Sofia is Greek in origin and translates, appropriately, to "Church of the Divine Wisdom."
*The Hagia Sofia dome is as impressive to witness as the artwork the building contains. After the Pantheon in Rome, it is the second-largest dome in the world.
*Before heading inside to explore the church, head to the fountain in the middle of Sultanahmet Square. It's an excellent spot to snap photos of the facade from.
Varanasi has many nicknames, including “India’s Oldest City” and “The City of Light” (not to be confused with Paris, also known as the “City of Light” or the “City of Lights”). But it’s “The Spiritual Heart of India” that best describes it.
One of the holiest cities in Hinduism, Varanasi attracts hordes of visitors who want to bathe in the Ganges River, which holds sacred waters believed to wash away sins. If you prefer to stay dry, going to one of the city’s 25 ghats (steps leading down to the water) is a memorable experience. At Dashashwamedh Ghat, one of the oldest and holiest ghats, you can experience the Ganga Aarti, home to a river-worship ceremony that combines prayer, dance and fire.
For a more intense experience, head to Manikarnika, the burning ghat, where a small fee gets you a front-row view of a cremation ceremony. Be warned, however, that this confrontation with life and death is not for the faint of heart!
Varanasi Fast Facts
*Near Varanasi you'll find Sarnath, a lovely and important park where the Buddha preached his first sermon.
*Just how hold is Varanasi? Records indicate it was inhabited as early as the 20th century BC, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
*Of the city's many temples, the most famous is Vishwanath. It was built in 1776 in dedication to Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism's supreme deities.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
According to Islam, when the Prophet Mohammed made his first pilgrimage to Mecca in 630 AD he was joined by 1,400 followers. Today, this holy site in Saudi Arabia sees millions of Muslim visitors every year. Many come to perform the hajj, a five-day journey that takes place during the last month of the Islamic calendar.
Muslims who are physically and financially able are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca — one of the five pillars of Islam — at least once in their lifetime. Men and women pray and participate in a series of rituals, including wearing special white garments. It’s also a time to seek redemption, to forgive and be forgiven.
Over 2.3 million people attended this year’s ceremonies. Thankfully, a new high-speed train in Saudi Arabia made the trek a bit easier.
Mecca Fast Facts
*The Islamic lunar calendar is about 11 days shorter than the 365 days of the standard Gregorian calendar. As a result, hajj takes place earlier each year.
*Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice — one of two major religious holidays celebrated annually by Muslims — takes place over the final three days of hajj.
*It hasn't been confirmed, but many Muslims believe a modest two-story structure in Mecca (now a library) is where the Prophet Muhammad was born, and inscribe blessings and prayers on its walls.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Machu Picchu is the kind of place where you’ll definitely want to spend some time with your head in the clouds (which you can literally do as part of a four-day hike up the Incan Trail). With its remote location high in the Andes Mountain, sweeping views and serene atmosphere, this sacred site practically demands that you have cathartic revelations and spiritual awakenings during your visit.
Created by the Inca Empire in the 15th century, Machu Picchu was hidden for almost 400 years but now attracts about a million visitors every year. Many come to connect with ancient energies known for their healing powers, while others want to explore the mysticism of Incan temples and carvings or simply enjoy this awe-inspiring enigma while standing 8,000 feet above sea level.
*For a long time, a favorite among travelers was the Intihuatana, a carved stone likely used by the Incans as a sun dial or astronomical observatory. In 2000, however, it was irreparably damaged during the filming of a beer commercial. Today, it’s partitioned off and looked over by a security guard.
*Those who pay extra can hike the nearby Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains.
*In response to complaints about overtourism, government agencies have implemented new guidelines for visiting the site.
Sedona is where spirituality and luxury intersect. Known for its spectacular red rock monoliths and other natural beauty, Sedona is also home to world-class spas, resorts, art galleries and holistic shops.
Originally a sacred site to Native American tribes, who called the area “Great Mother,” Sedona is now a haven for wellness retreats, aura cleansing, alternative medicine and healing rituals. Many visitors come in search of Sedona’s famed vortexes, which are said to give off powerful kinetic energy. Some are said to produce masculine energy (energy leaving the earth) that strengthens self-confidence and motivation, while others exude feminine energy (the kind that enters the earth) that helps with patience and compassion.
Visitors have described their vortex experiences as “recharging” “healing” and “life-changing.” Even if you’re not into this kind of stuff, Sedona boasts miles of fabulous trails — just be sure to tread quietly, so as not to disturb the people meditating.
Sedona Fast Facts
*Located about 18 miles outside Sedona, the Palatki Ruins feature pictographs and petroglyphs made by the native Southern Sinagua people. The spot is a designated World Heritage Site.
*For a deeper vortex experience, you can hire a healing practitioner to guide you at the sites.
*Many of Sedona's excellent spas appropriately offer Native American-inspired treatments.
Mount Kailash, Tibet
Earlier, we discussed the Ganges, so it’s only natural that we cover its source (as well as the source of some of Asia’s other mighty rivers, including the Karnali and Indus): Mount Kailash. Soaring over 22,00 feet high, this black-rocked mountain is considered to be the center of the universe and a pyramid of power for Buddhists, Hindus and Jains.
Hindus and Buddhists believe this is the home of either Lord Shiva or Buddha Demchog, respectively, who both represent eternal bliss. For Jains, it’s the site where they first obtained Nirvana.
All three groups (and several others) make pilgrimages around the base of Mount Kalish (the mountain itself is unclimbable). Buddhists believe that completing one full trip takes away a lifetime of bad karma. The most overzealous pilgrims finish the 32-mile circuit in one day, but it’s suggested you take your time to enjoy the scenery and serenity.
Mount Kailash Fast Facts
*Though it’s incredibly sacred, Mount Kailash is one of the least visited sites on earth due to its remote Himalayas location.
*In 2001, it was reported that the Chinese had granted permission to a Spanish team to climb the mountain. The news prompted outrage, with Chinese authorities ultimately denying the reports. Nobody ever ended up climbing the peak (and no one has since).
*According to the Buddhist and Hindu scriptures, just a few fortunate people are able to see sacred ancient caves housing holy sages.
Stonehenge, United Kingdom
There are few sites more mystical than Stonehenge. The iconic rock sculpture in Southern England has been credited to ancient tribes, Romans, Greeks, aliens and even Merlin the Wizard. It’s also debated as to whether this was a burial site, place of healing, megalithic calendar, prayer circle or memorial.
In any case, over 800,000 people circle around this UNESCO World Heritage Site every year in the hopes of uncovering more clues or connecting with its mystical energy. Many believe Stonehenge’s peak energy occurs during the summer solstice, and seeing the sunrise around the stones has been described as “otherworldly.”
One thing that may never be debated: Stonehenge is seriously impressive. Archaeologists and historians believe that its first pieces were built around 5,000 years ago and that it took 1,500 years to complete.
Stonehenge Fast Facts
*The site’s largest sandstone boulders weigh more than 40 tons and rise 24 feet.
*Some of the boulders have been traced back to Wales, 200 miles away!
*To learn more about the site, visitors can explore an exhibition featuring nearly 300 archaeological objects, collected from Stonehenge and other nearby monuments.
Adam’s Peak (Sri Prada), Sri Lanka
In the middle of Sri Lanka is a steep, cone-shaped mountain that reaches 7,000 feet above sea level. On its summit sits a dented rock that resembles a footprint. Why do so many pilgrims endure a strenuous climb to see such a thing?
Because, depending on who you ask, this is the sacred mark of a significant religious figure. Christians and Muslims believe it’s the footprint of Adam, created when he was exiled from the Garden of Eden and took his first steps on earth, while Buddhists maintain it was created by Buddha when he departed the earth and ascended to heaven. And for Hindus, this is where Shiva once walked.
Though divided on what it means, every year over 20,000 pilgrims climb 5,500 steps to the summit of the mountain to worship the footprint, widely considered a sacred site for prayer, worship and meditation.
Even if you’re not religious, the journey up the mountain can be quite moving as you pass tea plantations, shrines, wildlife and greenery and enjoy breathtaking views from the top.
Adam's Peak Fast Facts
*Carved stairs make the climb more manageable. Prior to them being built, many pilgrims were blown off the mountain by strong gusts of wind, plummeting to their deaths.
*During the Sri Lankan New year in mid-April, the site becomes so crowded that visitors wait hours in line to reach the peak.
*The best time to climb the mountain is at night, so you can reach the top in time to see the sun rise.
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichen Itza is an easy day trip from Cancun but feels worlds away. The site, one of the new “Seven Wonders of the World,” was a Mayan city that flourished from about 800 to 1200 AD. It is known for its world-renowned temples, which showcase the Mayans’ innovation in science and astronomy as well as their spiritual beliefs.
One of the most famous ruins is The Temple of Kukulkán. It has 365 steps, one for each day in the solar calendar, and features a pronounced carving of the serpent god Kukulkán.
The site also features underground pools that were believed to be sacred to Mayans; from here they communicated with their gods through rituals, sacrifices and offerings.
Mant travelers stand in awe of Chichen Itza, while others report goosebumps and feeling unusual energy.
Chichen Itza Fast Facts
*In addition to being a New World Wonder, Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
*Many report mystical experiences during the spring and fall equinoxes, when the sun casts a shadow believed to represent Kukulkán.
*Jewelry and human bones found at the bottom of the site’s underground pools helped validate the theory that Mayans used the pools for rituals and sacrifices.