Travel as a vehicle for spiritual transformation is hardly a new notion – seekers have practiced the act of pilgrimage as long as they've looked to the skies to communion with a higher power. Even in today’s short-attention-span society, setting out to honor the divine or ponder the mysterious is a time-honored tradition, one that refuses to wane with the changing tides of our tech-driven lives. This list of 10 sacred places showcases points of perceived power and peace around the globe. In these places, the physical seems to meld seamlessly with the metaphysical whether due to awe-inspiring natural settings, reported ties to great gods or holy humans, or long-standing consecration as sites of worship and ritual. Use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, packages, and more travel deals.
Recovered from the verdant jungles fringing the tourist-hub town of Siem Reap, Cambodia’s Angkor Archeological Park consists of dozens of wats (temples) consecrated to Hindu deities like Shiva, Brahma, and Vishnu. Built between 880 and 1200 as temple-complex capitals for the kings of the Khmer Empire, the site is the soul of ancient Hindu and contemporary Buddhist Khmer society (some 90 percent of today’s population practices Buddhism).
Modern pilgrims flock primarily to Angkor Wat. The place’s most famous temple was erected in the early 12th century to honor Vishnu, the Hindu god of preservation and peace. Look for ancient Sanskrit poems, prayers, and exquisite etchings depicting Hindu gods and goddesses and apsaras (dancing nymphs) on the temple’s sandstone walls. The wats, having evolved from their Hindu roots to serve as contemporary sacred sites for Buddhism, today are swarmed with orange robed Buddhist monks, who meditate, work, and sometimes live at the modern temples on the outskirts of the complex.
Chichén Itzá, Mexico
Each year during both the spring and fall equinoxes, visitors from the world over make way for Chichén Itzá, on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, to witness this venerated place's unique, time-honored phenomenon: A combination of shadows and sunlight produces the illusion of a Mayan deity, the serpent god Kukulkan, slithering along the side of the El Castillo pyramid. Located about 120 miles west of Cancún, the enormous stepped pyramid dates from approximately the 7th to 9th centuries, and its extraordinary construction incorporates aspects of the Mayan solar calendar. Each side of the pyramid contains 91 steps, totaling 364, with the platform at the top adding up to 365 – the number of days in the year.
El Castillo is the main attraction at this UNESCO World Heritage Site, also designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. But Chichén Itzá holds many wonders. Other standouts include the largest ballcourt in Mesoamerica and the Warrior’s Temple, another stepped pyramid topped by a Chac Mool statue, whose likeness appears on many Mexico tourism brochures. The city of Chichén Itzá served as a spiritual, cultural, and administrative center for the Mayans and later the Toltecs (who introduced the ritual of human sacrifice to the region) until it was abandoned in the mid-13th century.
Most visitors to Chichén Itzá make it via a day trip from Cancún (a number of local companies offer tours to the site). Those on the West Coast of the U.S. can now reach Cancún and neighboring Chichén Itzá even easier, thanks to new direct flights, launched January 2011, from Los Angeles and San Francisco on budget airline darling Virgin America.
Turkey’s alluring Istanbul straddles two continents (Europe and Asia), three empires (Byzantine, Latin, Ottoman), and several religions (Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Roman Catholicism). Layers of history and past civilizations reveal themselves upon wandering the cobbled streets of Old Istanbul and around the old fishing neighborhoods lining the Bosphorus. Yet nowhere else is Istanbul’s ancient soul more palpable than at the Sultanahmet, home to the city’s holiest, if not most awe-inspiring, vestiges: Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
Built nearly 1,500 years ago as a Byzantine cathedral, then converted into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, the interior of the brick-domed behemoth Hagia Sophia is fascinating. Beautifully preserved mosaics above its entry archways and the soaring 180-foot domed ceiling stun visitors as they enter. Sophia was christened as a museum by the Republic of Turkey in 1935, which means everyone can marvel at the building’s sheer beauty, as well as the artifacts of both Christian and Islamic faiths entangled under one massive roof.
On the other side of the park is the Blue Mosque. Bewildering and beguiling, it’s hard not to lose yourself inside this multi-domed mosque, with its endless rows of Iznik tiles, sweeping arches, and hundreds of stained-glass windows. Built to rival the Hagia Sophia by Sultan Ahmet I in the early 17th century, the Ottoman beauty still serves as a place of worship for Muslims during the day’s five prayers (the only times when the mosque is closed to visitors). Even with the throngs of tourists craning their necks to stare up at the sunlit tiles, one can’t shake the feeling of a spiritual presence.
Although it’s difficult to go anywhere in Jerusalem without tripping over a sacred place, the most impressive sites are concentrated within the Old City. For Jews, the Western Wall (also called the Wailing Wall) is one of the few remainders from the period of the Second Temple (destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD). Today, it’s a must-see for Jews and non-Jews alike, who offer prayers and leave messages in the stone wall’s crevices, set below the Temple Mount. Not to be missed, the Kotel Tunnels tour takes visitors deep underneath the Temple Mount to view parts of Jerusalem dating back 2,000 years.
According to Islamic tradition, the gold-topped Dome of the Rock that now crowns the Temple Mount is the site of Muhammad’s ascension to heaven at the end of his Night Journey; after Mecca and Medina, it is the third holiest site in Islam. Though non-Muslim visitors are strongly restricted, travelers can catch a glimpse of the dome and the nearby Al-Aqsa Mosque from several vantage points throughout the city – the walkways overlooking the Western Wall and atop the Mount of Olives are two particularly good viewing spots.
Nearby, the Via Dolorosa traces a symbolic pilgrimage path, near where Jesus is said to have walked when carrying the cross on the day of his crucifixion. The route winds through several sections of the Old City, denoting the 14 Stations of the Cross along the way, and culminating at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where Jesus is believed to have been buried.
The very name of this Tibetan city, perched among the Himalayas at an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, means “sacred place,” so it’s no surprise spirituality pervades Lhasa’s history. With Lhasa’s designation as capital of the Tubo (Tibet) kingdom in 633 AD, construction began on the Potala Palace, a magnificent mountain-top complex covering over 100 acres. The palace later served as the winter residence for the Dalai Lamas (said to be the reincarnated manifestations of the Tibetan Buddhist's enlightened being of compassion), and the tombs of several Dalai Lamas are found here, along with Buddhist shrines and other artifacts.
Introducing Buddhism to Tibet in a major way with its completion in 647, the Jokhang Monastery is the ultimate pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists. Less imposing than the Potala Palace, but no less impressive, the gold-topped monastery contains the Jowo Sakyamuni – a Buddha statue considered to be the most sacred object in Tibet. Today, the monastery is abuzz with monks, pilgrims, and visitors.
Note that independent tours are prohibited in Tibet. Plan on traveling with an organized group or arranging your visit through a travel agency.
Editor’s Note: As in previous years, China has banned foreign tourists from visiting Tibet around the March 14 anniversary of 2008 riots in the region. Foreign tourists are restricted in February and March, but Tibet will begin offering permits to travel to the country in early April.
Sacred Valley, Peru
Situated on an Andean flatbed surrounded by jagged, tree-speckled cliffs, Peru’s Machu Picchu dazzles visitors as much for its natural beauty as for the mystery and mysticism surrounding the lost city’s history. Archeologists have quibbled over the function of the massive, pre-Columbian complex since Hiram Bingham happened upon it in 1911, but for visitors, its spiritual significance seems almost certain: Fastidiously constructed stone temples, expansive vistas of imposing mountain silhouettes, and the rushing Urubamba River below combine for a veritable cathedral to nature in this towering city.
June travelers can experience the Incans’ masterful celestial knowledge firsthand during the winter solstice, the only day of the year when rays of light shine through the Temple of the Sun’s trapezoidal windows and illuminate the central stone.
The surrounding Sacred Valley, a cluster of small towns set along the Urubamba River between Cusco and the Machu Picchu site, warrants its own exploration. The “living Incan” city of Ollantaytambo, revered as the Inca’s spiritual birthplace, is breathtaking, with narrow cobblestoned streets, perfectly preserved buildings, and its own set of pre-Columbian ruins. Or, make way for the unusual Incan ruins at Moray – marked by a series of circular terraces carved into the mountainside, this supposed agricultural experimentation site also purportedly emits special energy fields, according to the New Age-minded visitors who flock here.
Much of Sedona’s sacrosanct status stems from its “vortexes,” a term medium Page Bryant coined in 1980 to explain the perceived pockets of energy that have contributed to the sense of serenity and centeredness of this rust-hued section of the Arizona desert. Considered conducive to meditation, prayer, and even physical healing, these vortexes have sprouted a slew of spiritual tours, psychic centers, and holistic healing facilities throughout the Sedona area.
Skeptics will still find plenty of enchantment, as Sedona's four main vortex locations (Airport Mesa, Bell Rock, Boynton Canyon, and Cathedral Rock) also showcase the region’s jagged sandstone formations and soothing palette of blood-orange mountains, fiery sunset skies, and low-lying cactus green vegetation. Cathedral Rock, Sedona’s most photographed location – and, according to Native American legend, the revered birthplace of the first man and woman – is arguably one of the more impressive sacred places: Overlooking Oak Creek from a hill, its oversized sedimentary rock structures form a sort of outdoor nave, with bright blue skies making up this natural cathedral’s vaulted ceilings.
Giant calendar? Open-air temple? Astronomical observatory? No one is really sure what the original function of England’s Stonehenge was, but few can argue with the majesty of its construction. The site dates back 5,000 years, though the first stones of the structure we see today arrived from south Wales – 150 miles away – about 500 years later. Whatever its purpose, Stonehenge remains a sacred place today. For a truly spiritual experience (or just a giant party), join the large crowds that gather at the summer solstice to honor the ancient gods while watching the sun rise over the stones.
Stonehenge visitors should also be on the lookout for extraterrestrials. Some claim Wiltshire County (where the monument is located) is the “most active area for crop circles in the world.” These intricate patterns have mysteriously appeared in local fields, sparking debate over their hidden meanings and drawing alien hunters and curious onlookers. The Wiltshire Crop Circle Study Group offers full-day group tours in summer, which can be upgraded to include a flyover.
India's Ganges River, Hinduism’s holiest waterway, flows south from the soaring Himalayas before cutting through Varanasi. The city is nearly as old as Mesopotamia, and today serves as the heart of the world’s third largest religion and one of its most sacred places. According to Hindu tradition, the river itself is a goddess who washes away the sins of mankind – and draws thousands of pilgrims each day to seek spiritual cleansing and salvation in its waters. A walk along the Ganges exposes the city’s stirring ghats – imposing steps leading down to the banks of the water – where the faithful recite prayers, receive holy ashes from priests, and burn the ashes of deceased loved ones. One of the most sacred of these burning, riverfront ghats is the Manikarnika, a shrine associated with the goddess Parvati that’s said to provide “moksha” (freedom from Hinduism’s cycle of death and rebirth) for anyone burned there.
Travelers can also take in this ancient city’s some 2,000 temples representing Hinduism’s complex anthology of gods and goddesses (however, the most sacred of these, the gold-domed Vishwanath Temple, restricts entries for foreigners); shop for silk and flowers; or head 8 miles north to Sarnath, where Lord Buddha preached his first sermon on the tenets of the faith.
The independent city-state in the middle of Rome and the nexus of the modern Catholic Church has quite the history. According to Christian tradition, in 64 AD Roman officials executed St. Peter (recognized as the Catholic Church’s first pope) upside down on a cross and buried him in a tomb beneath what is now St. Peter’s Basilica. After Christianity went mainstream in the fourth century, this spiritually weighty location became a pilgrimage destination, ultimately giving birth to the Vatican we know today.
Twenty-first century followers travel to the Holy See to receive blessings from newly-selected Pope Francis (he presents an audience each Wednesday he’s in Rome); recite rosaries and light votive candles in the opulent St. Peter’s Basilica; and even pay their respects at the underground site of St. Peter’s tomb (excavation tours are available by request). Art enthusiasts encounter their own breed of worship in the Vatican Museums and Vatican Palaces, which house the stupefying collection of artistic and archeological treasures amassed by five centuries of popes. Of the dizzying assortment – Iron Age urns, Raphael’s famed “School of Athens,” and Leonardo Da Vinci’s “St. Jerome” are all on display – the Sistine Chapel commands the most attention: Wall panels by Renaissance masters Boticelli and Perugino mingle with Michelangelo’s magnificent ceiling frescoes depicting the biblical tales of creation and judgment.