Thousands of Catholics flocked to see the Pope on his recent U.S. tour. But, if you’re like me—a heathen with a penchant for traveling—you’d much rather enjoy the pomp and grandeur of religion by flocking to holy sites, not holy men. The following religious sites are culturally, architecturally, and spiritually fascinating; most are open to both faithful and secular, and none will leave you wanting a man of the cloth.
Golden Temple, Amristar, India
The Golden Temple, also called the Harmandir Sahib, is the holiest shrine in Sikhism and is an active place of worship and prayer. Like most Sikh temples, it is open to visitors; I had the opportunity to visit the temple while I was in India. After covering my head and removing my shoes, I was able to wander the marble corridors and gaze at the gold gilded dome while the sunset turned the sky a radiant pink. It is no wonder so many visitors come here for both pilgrimage and spiritual renewal.
Photo courtesy of voobie (cc)
Salt Lake Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah
In 1847, the Mormon prophet Brigham Young decided a plot of land in the Great Salt Lake Valley would make a great place for a temple; the Salt Lake Temple is now the headquarters for the Mormon religion and a focal point for the city. The huge, granite structure is a pilgrimage for Mormons, but unfortunately is not open to the public. However, the temple is surrounded by Temple Square, a 10,000-acre complex that contains gardens, two visitor centers open to the public, and hosts events and concerts. Even for non-Mormons, the site is culturally and architecturally fascinating.
Salt Lake Temple, photo courtesy of KM Photography (cc)
St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Italy
Within the confines of Vatican City is St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the holiest sites in Catholicism. Because Michelangelo and other renowned artists and architects designed and painted the Basilica, it is also of great historical and artistic importance. Saint Peter, one of the twelve apostles, is buried here, as are numerous Popes. It is easy to spend an entire day at the Basilica, touring St. Peter’s square, admiring the external architecture, wandering through the nave, viewing Michelangelo’s pieta, looking under the baldacchino canopy … and that’s just for starters. Admission is free and it is open to public—after they cover their shoulders and knees.
St. Peter’s Basilica, photo courtesy of air babble (cc)
Lumbini is the birthplace of Siddhartha Guatama, who later became Guatama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism. Within the town of Lumbini, a UNESCO world heritage site, is the Maya Devi Temple, named after Buddha’s mother; the temple is said to mark the exact spot where Buddha was born. There is also a sacred pool, where the newborn Buddha is said to have first been bathed. Lumbini, because it is not on a main tourist route, does not receive many visitors and is relatively difficult to get to; a small airport services Buddha Air, the obvious choice for the committed pilgrims who make the trek to this holy site.
The sacred pool in Lumbini, photo courtesy of Prince Roy (cc)
Varanasi is a holy site for Hinduism. Situated on the banks of the Ganges, the city has a shrine of Lord Kashi Vishwanath (a manifestation of Lord Shiva) and one of the twelve existing Jyotirlingas (or shrines) of Lord Shiva. The Ganges itself is considered holy among Hindus who believe that bathing in the water relieves sins and can purify one’s body before death. For tourists, Varanasi is a popular spot; though I never visited, almost every traveler I met in India had. The rituals performed along the waterfront—bathing, meditating, fire prayers, and cremations—combined with the numerous pilgrims and grieving relatives, make it an intense experience, not for those who easily get sensory overload.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Mecca is the most sacred city in the Islamic religion. The prophet Muhammad chose Mecca as the epicenter of Islam and deemed it the place to which all Muslims should point themselves during their daily prayers. According to the Five Pillars of Islam, it is a Muslim’s sacred duty to take a pilgrimage to Mecca during the season of the Hajj at least once in his lifetime. For non-Muslims, traveling to Mecca isn’t an option; the city forbids people with other faiths from entering. For Muslims, the most popular time to go is during Hajj, which occurs during the 12th month of the Islamic calendar and is the largest annual pilgrimage in the world.
Mecca, photo courtesy of Camera Eye (cc)
Baha’i House of Worship, Delhi, India
This magnificent building, which I also had the chance to see while in India, is a place of worship for the Baha’i faith. Shaped like a lotus flower, the Temple has won numerous architectural awards. It is used for worship and scriptural readings; the four daily prayer sessions feature prayers from an array of religions, something unique among holy sites. Secular visitors are also welcome and many come just to admire the architecture. Admission is free; open daily except for Mondays.
Baha’i House Of Worship, photo courtesy of tracyhunter (cc)
Western Wall, Jerusalem
The Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, is a Jewish holy site located in the Old City of Jerusalem. It is the only remaining part of the Temple Mount, which was a place of Jewish worship until the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD. Prayers take place every day and it’s common to see Orthodox Jews chanting and swaying at the wall, or a bar mitzvah taking place. All religions are welcome; men must cover their heads, women their knees and shoulders, and men and women must pray separately. Popular times to visit—and the most crowded—are during Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot.
Western Wall, photo courtesy of hoyasmeg (cc)
Ise Shrine, Ise, Japan
This Shinto shrine is actually a complex of many shrines in the city of Ise. Often referred to simply as “Jingu” (the shrine), many of the smaller buildings are dedicated to specific deities. The inner shrine contains the Sacred Mirror, both a national treasure and a religious artifact. According to the Ise Jingu Web site, it is custom for worshippers to move from the outer shrine to the inner shrine. However, wooden fences surround the plainly built shrines and visitors are not allowed to enter, making for a somewhat anticlimactic viewing experience. For Japanese Shintos, however, the buildings and grounds are the representation of their religion and are therefore important holy sites.
Ise Shrine, photo courtesy of Aleksander Dragnes (cc)
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
This Christian church stands on the grounds that contain Golgatha, the place where Christians believe Jesus was crucified. It is also houses the tomb (or sepulcher) where Jesus was buried. Christians have been making pilgrimages to this holy spot since the 4th century and many non-Christians now come to visit the elaborate church and the numerous chapels. Plan on spending an entire day. Admission is free; it’s open year round.