Sacred sites can be quite a difficult topic. There are countless different religious beliefs and even more places that are sacred to those. These sites don’t only captivate due to their magical aura, but also because of the extraordinary architecture. Every corner, every color, and every little detail was thought out to the core to guarantee them serving their purpose of honoring the religion.
There is a vast collection of modern temples, monasteries on top of the most beautiful mountains, architecturally perfect mosques, and breathtaking churches. If you visit one of the following places, I can guarantee, they will leave you in awe.
Disclaimer: They are in no particular order and do not – I repeat, NOT – focus on any culture or religion and do not intend on putting one over the other.
Ghats of Varanasi, India
The water of the Ganges River in India is said to have healing, even purifying properties, even though it is one of the most polluted waters worldwide. There are many rituals involving human interaction with the sacred water of the river. One of them is in Varanasi, which is one of the seven sacred sites in India.
Adjacent to the water, there are a lot of platforms leading into the river. Those platforms are called ghats. During their rituals, people use those ghats as an entryway into their bathing rituals.
Taktsang is a Buddhist monastery and temple which is sometimes referred to as “Tiger’s Nest”. This sacred site sits on top of a 900 m deep cliff above Paro Valley in Buthan, and it was built in 1962. Guru Rinpoche, who is seen as a “Second Buddha”, supposedly meditated right in this spot for three years, three months, and three days to fight off evil.
Visitors can come here via a very steep two-hour climb, but trust me, the view and the atmosphere are absolutely worth it. And keep in mind, once you enter the temple you must take your shoes off.
Wat Rong Khun, Thailand
Wat Rong Khun is a sacred site Chiang Rai, Thailand. It is a temple designed by Chalermchai Kosipipat in 1997. The overall white and clean structure is supposed to be an ode to Buddha’s purity.
Moreover, the whole area represents Samsara. Samsara is the cycle of birth, existence, and death. There also is a sculpture of hands rising from the earth with warriors fighting them. The hands could be the hands of the devil, which needs to be fought.
Even though it is a traditional temple, there are many art installations which bring a modern feel to them. Furthermore, they are a way of making religion more timeless.
The Borobudur Buddhist temple in Java, Indonesia, dates back to the Syailendra Dynasty. For those of you who don’t immediately know what time that implies, don’t worry, me neither. However, we do know that it was built around the eighth and ninth centuries. Borobudur sacred site is even a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
It includes three tiers and over 72 stupas. They are mostly built at different heights to represent the path to enlightenment – the higher you climb, the higher you get to Nirvana. This temple also owns many relics related to Buddha.
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Iran
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Iran, which was built in 1888, is also called the Pink Mosque because of its unique color palette. The interplay of stained-glass windows and mosaics creates the most wonderful shades of color.
It was specifically designed for morning light. When the first sunrays shine through the windows and hit the jewel toned tiles and mosaics, it looks as if someone had shined unnatural party light into the rooms.
The true origin of Stonehenge remains a mystery. However, there are many legends concerning this topic. They go from the legendary wizard Merlin transporting rocks from Ireland to model female fertility, over to it being a calendar for seasonal rituals, or an astronomical prediction tool for solar eclipses.
Maybe the mystery is exactly what pulls in over 800,000 visitors yearly. And maybe you can create a story of origin for yourself.
Abu Simbel Temples, Egypt
The Abu Simbel Temples of Egypt are directly adjacent to the sea. Ramses II ordered his UNTERTANEN to build them during his reign from 1297 to 1300. He thought one might not be enough, so he wanted two – The Great Temple and The Small Temple.
Both are dedicated to the sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhte, and obviously to Ramses, who was considered to be a god as well.
BTW: The entrance to the Great Temple is flanked by four gigantic statues of Ramses himself – talk about self-love right there.
The best time to visit them is either on the 21st of February or the 21st of October every year, since the sun hits the Great Temple at an angle which enlightens the inner shrine.
The Boudhanath in Nepal is also built at different levels to symbolize the path of enlightenment. The bottom plinth of the sacred site represents the earth, while the dome symbolizes water. Moreover, the tower represents fire, and the top symbolizes the air. All-seeing eyes mark the tower.
All-seeing eyes are often used as a symbol of Buddha’s all-knowing gaze. The whole ANLAGE glimmers in gold and white, once again symbolizing Buddha’s purity.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Angkor Wat in Cambodia was modeled after Mount Meru, which is where Hindus believed the ancient gods to live. The height of this site reaches up to 900 meters and many of the walls are covered in carvings which represent mythological events and figures.
The interesting thing about this sacred site? It is a temple for two religions: Hinduism and Buddhism. If you don’t know the difference, let me elaborate on the biggest one. Buddhists believe that every single person can reach the path of enlightenment. Hindus, on the other hand, believe that he who does good deeds that stem from kindness and a path of devotion and knowledge in the religion of Hinduism can achieve enlightenment.
Uluru in Central Australia might ring a bell if you call it by its second name, “Ayer’s Rock”. It is a sacred site to the native Anangu Aboriginals. They believe it was created by their ancestors and their spirits still inhabit the area.
One of the most popular activities once was the climbing of the rock, but in 2017, the complaints of the Aboriginals hit their peak. Nowadays, it is prohibited to climb Ayer’s Rock to preserve it and as a sign of respect.
Church of St. George, Ethiopia
The Church of St. George in Ethiopia is a combination of eleven medieval churches out of monolithic rock in Lalibela. King Lalibela, who was (obviously) the name-donor of the city, envisioned a “New Jerusalem” when he ordered this sacred site to be built.
Most visitors are Coptic Christians, and the complex includes many of the aspects which most Christian churches include. Some of them are the cross-shaped design, the catacombs, and the ceremonial passages.
Devils Tower, Wyoming
The Devil’s Tower in Wyoming is a popular climbing destination for all rock climbers worldwide, but what most don’t know is that it is a sacred site to more than 20 Native American tribes.
Worshippers come here to fast and celebrate rituals. Some of them include purification rites and sun dances, a few even building small tone houses for dream quests.
Western Wall, Israel
Israel is the Holy Land for three of the biggest religions in the world – Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. The Western Wall is one of the most famous sacred places worldwide, and most definitely in Israel. It is the closest place to the Temple Mount, which is where God created humankind.
People can write down their prayers, words of wisdom or whatever it is that is most important to them. Once the words are on paper, they stick the pieces into cracks of the Western Wall. All papers are collected regularly and will then be buried in a Jewish cemetery in Israel.
Monasteries of Meteora, Greece
The Monasteries of Meteora are in Central Greece. Eastern Orthodox monks occupied the place first, before the monasteries were even built. Although there are 24, only six of them remain active till this day.
One of them, the Ypapanti monastery, is open to the public and you can gain access to one of the most sacred sites in the world. Don’t let the 4.4-hour train ride to get here keep you from coming, it is an experience of a lifetime.
Church of Nativity, Bethlehem
Although, purely seen from a statistical background, only 31,5 % of the world population are Christian, I guess most do know the bible and its story of how Jesus was brought to this world. For those of you who don’t: according to the bible, Mary and Joseph had to come to Bethlehem for a census. Once they arrived, they were not able to find a place to stay, which is why they had to rest in a cabin outside of the city. That night, Maria gave birth to Jesus in a feeding trough.
Today, outside of the Church of Nativity, you can find a star on the floor. This star supposedly marks the exact place Jesus was born. The whole area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Sistine Chapel, Italy
The Sistine Chapel in Italy isn’t solemnly interesting for its religious purpose, but simply from an artistic background as well. Michelangelo’s renaissance frescoes tell biblical tales. The most famous one might just be the Creation of Adam. You know, the one where God touches Adam and breathes life into humankind? Yeah – that one.
Michelangelo worked on the Sistine Chapel from 1508 until 1512 and the results are absolutely extraordinary. There are strict restrictions on photography and noise pollution, which is why it is most likely you can stare up in complete silence.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, United Arab Emirates
The Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in the United Arab Emirates is one of the largest mosques in the entire world and it is a landmark of architectural exquisiteness. Over 41,000 worshippers can be accommodated in the area of over 30 acres. There are 82 domes, 1,000 columns, 24 karat gold chandeliers and some of the largest handmade carpets ever.
It is encircled with deep pools and the exterior is a blend of gold and white, reflecting the sunlight. Every little detail intensifies the magical aura.
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan ordered this Grand Mosque to be built because he wanted a structure that unites the cultural diversity of the Islamic world with the historical and modern values of architecture and art. See for yourself whether he achieved it, or not.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Mecca in Saudi Arabia definitely belongs on this list. It is one of the most religiously sacred places on earth. Islamic people believe that Muhammad, who is the founder of their religion, was born here. Also, you can find the Hira Cave right outside the city. This place supposedly marks the spot where Muhammad was first introduced to the Qur’an, which is the Holy Scriptures of Islam.
Duomo di Milano, Italy
The Duomo di Milano isn’t just candy for your eye, but it also has a great history. It was dedicated to St. Mary of Nativity and is now the seat of the Archbishop of Mila. As of today, it is Mario Delpini. It was built in a Gothic and Renaissance style and belongs to the Roman Catholic church.
It took nearly six centuries to finish this extraordinary sacred site. Work started in 1386 and it wasn’t until after 1965 until it was ready. The Duomo is the largest church in Italy (yes, even bigger than the ones in Vatican City), the second largest in Europe and the third largest in the world.
Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Russia
Saint Basil’s Cathedral is what most people think of when they have to imagine a site in Russia. Well, at least it’s for me. It is a gorgeous Orthodox church in the middle of Red Square in Moscow. Its nine domes are supposed to represent a bonfire rising towards the sky and, since it is absolutely gigantic, colorful and special, it should represent a heavenly city.
However, it “only” took about 6 years, from 1555 – 1561 to be built, which is not very much compared to other architectural superlatives. As of today, it is not in use as a church, but it remains a museum.
Why you should visit sacred sites
One of the most important reasons for visiting these sacred sites is to meet other saintly people who follow the same religious beliefs that you do and to see how they live. You can even see if you want to align your lifestyle with the ones you see on your journey. Moreover, it is a way to get back to the roots of your beliefs and to ground yourself, and to be a little bit closer to your religion than you usually are.
For those of you who do not believe in any religion, have you seen the pictures of the sites? Isn’t that reason enough? And hey, who knows, maybe you will develop some sort of belief.
Feature image credit: Karanvir Pathania / Unsplash