20 Sacred Spaces to Transport You Around the World

Mar 31, 2020

For the faithful among us, visiting a house of worship when we travel can be a way of strengthening our community ties even as we stretch them: Every church, synagogue, mosque or temple, after all, is a home away from home, filled with compatriots who’ll welcome us with a mix of the familiar and the new.

But even for those of us who don’t practice, these spaces reveal the transcendence of the human spirit. Often, they represent us at our best: not just in aspiration, but also in ingenuity, craftsmanship and dedication. Above all, they're places where we come together to share what matters most in life, whether for celebration or mourning. And whoever and wherever we are, they always represent hope.

So as we approach this spring holiday season, we're paying tribute to some of the most inspiring sacred spaces around the world—places we’d visit for their spectacular beauty alone, but that, invariably, and especially in person, give us so much more.

Sacra di San Michele, Italy

Constructed on the bones of a military post astride the passage from northern Italy to what was once southern Gaul, the Sacra di San Michele crowns Piedmont’s Mount Pirchiriano like a brutally handsome sentinel. For centuries this sanctuary to the archangel Michael was occupied by the Benedictines. More recently, its dark medieval-meets-Byzantine beauty inspired Umberto Eco’s murdered-monk drama The Name of the Rose. The site is currently entrusted to the Rosminians, who maintain it for anyone willing to make the climb.

Western Wall, Israel

After the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem nearly 2000 years ago, a surviving section of retaining wall became, arguably, Judaism’s most sacred site—the lone accessible remnant of what had been the Holy of Holies. Known in Hebrew as ha’Kotel, this limestone expanse attracts millions of visitors annually, many of whom leave hand-written prayers in the cracks. And the period before Passover (which is to say, now) is one of two times a year when those notes are dutifully collected.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Turkey

Little wonder this Istanbul icon is known as the Blue Mosque: More than 20,000 azure İznik tiles adorn the inner walls. Commissioned by the namesake 17th century sultan to rival the neighboring Hagia Sofia, the complex also boasts hundreds of stained glass windows and six minarets—as many as Mecca’s Great Mosque is said to have had at the time. According to lore, Mecca didn’t look kindly on the move, and the sultan made good by funding a seventh minaret there.

St. Basil's Cathedral, Russia

Towering over Moscow’s Red Square, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was originally commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century to be the nation’s tallest structure. Between the kaleidoscopic colors and patterns—and the profusion of onion-shaped domes—the cathedral is nothing if not distinctive. Legend even has it that the tsar blinded the architect before the building was done so the design could never be replicated.

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, UAE

While borrowing liberally from Persian, Mamluk, and Indo-Islamic traditions, this masterpiece is thoroughly modern in its integration—with bold, stark domes offset by delicately wrought pillars and mosaics. And despite being the largest mosque in Abu Dhabi—and the busiest, especially during the upcoming Eid festivities—the space can feel remarkably weightless thanks to the artful use of light.

Vishwanath Temple, India

Any Hindu temple on the banks of the sacred Ganges—in the pilgrimage town of Varanasi—is going to be a big deal. But this 18th-century complex (on the site of a much more ancient original) is one of only 12 Jyotirlinga, the holiest of Shiva temples,  throughout India. Beyond the site’s religious standing, the gold-plated domes are a major draw—as are the gorgeous, candlelit aarti ceremonies.

 El Ghriba Synagogue, Tunisia

The Jewish community of Djerba goes back some 2,500 years, when a group of Kohanim (priests) reportedly fled the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem for this Tunisian island. Though some version of El Ghriba Synagogue has stood here since antiquity—and the current one still houses a stone said to have come from the First Temple—the Moorish structure you see above dates to the late 1800s. And while a small local community remains, its numbers swell in the spring, when the holiday of Lag Ba’Omer brings singing and dancing pilgrims.

Uluru, Australia

The most iconic element of Australia's Red Center, Uluru is sacred to the indigenous Anangu, who finally succeeded in having hiking banned on the rock late last year. But even walking around the perimeter (which is still allowed) is a staggering experience—particularly at sunrise or sunset, when the rock takes on a preternatural glow.

Wat Rong Khun, Thailand

A modern homage to the venerable Buddhist temple that once stood on this site in Chiang Rai, Wat Rong Khun is the brainchild of Thai artist Chalermchai Kosipipat. Better known as the White Temple (for obvious reasons), the thoroughly original—and not uncontroversial—space juxtaposes pop cultural icons from Spiderman to Hello Kitty against traditional Buddhist themes. And whether or not you actually need it, don’t miss the famed golden loo.

Church of St. George, Ethiopia

Carved from a single rock that rises from a trench in a volcanic hillside—and cloaked in rust and ochre bled by centuries of rain and sun—Bete Giyorgis is the best known of the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela and a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage site for the 45 million or so members of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church. But whatever your background, you can't help but be moved here: In few other places on earth are the borders between natural and supernatural so stunningly blurred.

Mosque of Muhammad Ali, Egypt

Dominating the citadel of Saladin—and beautifying the Cairo skyline—the so-called Alabaster Mosque is one of the best places to look out onto the sprawling city (and one of the most visited sites in Egypt). While you’re there, you can also see the tomb of the 19th century ruler who commissioned the namesake mosque.

Rio Urubamba, Peru

Zigzagging through Peru’s Sacred Valley—and paralleling almost any journey to Machu Picchu—the river also known as the Vilcanota or Vilcamayo has long been seen by locals as a sacred reflection of the Milky Way. But even modern adventurers who've come to ride the rapids (or mountain bike along the banks) are struck with a sense of reverence.

Paradesi Synagogue, India

A holdover of the once-thriving Yehudey Kochin community—the most ancient of India's Jewish populations—this 16th-century beauty is said to be the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth. Active, of course, is a relative term: With very few Jews remaining in the area, and a minyan hard to come by, services are extremely rare—but tours are easy to arrange.

Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia

Near Colombia’s border with Ecuador sits a Neo-Gothic basilica worth visiting for the setting alone: a dramatic river gorge, which the church surveys from about 150 feet up. But Las Lajas’ backstory—one 18th-century miracle begetting another—is equally compelling, whether you’re a believer or not.

Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Iran

This Shiraz icon is known, almost too simply, as the Pink Mosque, thanks to the countless rosy tiles that line its interior. And while they’re predictably stunning, it may well be the profusion of stained glass that pushes the viewing experience over the edge, especially in the early morning, when the light that streams through the kaleidoscopic panes turns the mosque into an out-sized jewel box.

Neue Synagogue, Germany

This domed Moorish revival monument is a fixture of Berlin’s skyline—and a poignant local symbol. Originally built during the mid-1800s to serve the burgeoning Jewish community—then heavily damaged during Kristallnacht and World War II—the synagogue was eventually reconstructed in the late 80s and early 90s. Today, the building is home to Centrum Judaicum, a museum dedicated to history of the synagogue—and of the greater Jewish community in Berlin. 

Fushimi Inari, Japan

Synonymous with its thousands of vermilion torii, or gates, this ancient retreat in the mountains of Kyoto honors the Shinto spirit of rice, agriculture and commerce. And while the resulting profusion of corporate-sponsored shrines here is striking (particularly to an outsider), they don’t make the hike along the 2.5-mile path any less ethereal.

Putra Mosque, Malaysia

Another famously pink mosque, this Putrajaya landmark is built largely of rose-tinted granite—with room for 15,000 worshippers. But non-Muslims can visit outside of prayer times, and if you do, consider going around sunset, when the reflections on the neighboring lake are transcendent.

Spanish Synagogue, Czech Republic

A second stunning example of the Moorish revival architecture that was popular in the 19th century—particularly among Central European Jewish communities—this elaborately wrought synagogue dates to the 1860s (though a medieval predecessor once stood on the site) and is now part of Prague’s Jewish Museum.

Basilica de la Sagrada Familia, Spain

Famously sprawling and unfinished, the Sagrada Familia climbs like a molten spirit dream from the center of Barcelona. And sure, the exterior, with its roiling figures spanning scriptural and artistic eras, is astonishing in scope, range, and inventiveness. But the inside’s where real transcendence comes. The impression is more forest than cathedral, with columns like lithe tree reaching up to a canopy where light and shadow dance through bursts of color. Gaudí was obsessed with natural forms as manifestations of the divine, and nowhere else in his work is that so palpable—or inspiring.

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