Some people go around the world to visit beautiful and meaningful sacral buildings. The places where God is said to reside could be different, depending on the religion – mosques, churches, monasteries, chapels, synagogues.

Yet it is ubiquitous that the buildings dedicated on God are awe-inspiring and beautiful, almost always built in a certain tradition, with attention to detail and aestheticism.

Religious tourism has a long history

The trend for religious tourism is actually nothing new – pilgrimages date from long ago. The long journeys to sacred places where a saint or prophet was born or died, or where some sacred object resides, are part of every religious tradition. So when speaking of sacred religious buildings, we cannot but mention the pilgrimage places. Sometimes they are commemorated by a temple or a shrine, sometimes it is just a place marked by something.

To mention but a few places for pilgrimage – Nepal’s Lumbini – Buddha’s birthplace, Tibet’s Lhasa – traditional home of Dalai Lama, China’s Four Sacred Mountains, Rome’s places associated with saints and apostles, Spain’s Way of St. James to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Hinduism’s Kumbh Mela that is situated on the Ganges and is rotated among Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik, and Ujjain, Islam’s pilgrimage to Mecca, also known as the Hajj, etc.

The sacred buildings, on the other hand, are often visited not only for religious, but also for cultural reasons. Many tourists are attracted by the splendid religious edifices and simply want to catch a glimpse of their architecture and artistry.

So let us look at some of the most attractive sacred buildings. For more information, you can check some of the ecumenical guides.

Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican

We will begin with the Vatican city, the small city-state in Europe where the pope – head of the Catholic church, resides. Nowadays the whole Vatican is a beautiful place where every single building was designed by a famous architect. There are beautiful statues, fountains and monuments all over the place and the lovers of Catholic relics would find their heaven. Yet one building – the Basilica of St. Peter, has been attracting an astounding number of tourists. The basilica is situated at the centre of the Vatican City and is the place where the Biblical apostle St. Peter was buried after his crucifixion. The present building was constructed in the 16th century by eminent artisans - Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to replace the old St. Peter’s basilica that dated from the 4th century AD. The current basilica is claimed to be one of the masterpieces of Renaissance architecture.

Lotus Temple, India

The sacred place of the Baha’i religion has a form of a lotus. The splendid temple is especially beautiful at night, when its flower shape is alighted under the Indian sky. The Lotus Temple is located in the city of New Delhi, the Indian capital, and was finished in 1986. The place is an island of tranquillity amid the busy Indian city. Not only its flower-shaped form but also the beautiful gardens that surround it are meant to evoke meditative state in one’s mind.

The Lotus Temple, like all other Baha’i places of worship, is open to all visitors, regardless of their faith. The visitors, however, are expected to recite only Baha’I holy texts in any language, only choir music allowed and there are no sermons. There is a sacred space for meditation where anyone can enter. The surface of the House of Worship of the temple is made of marble from the Greek mountains of Penteli. This is relevant because marble of the same origin was used for the building of many ancient Baha’í houses of worship. The Lotus Temple is situated in the village of Bahapur, the building was designed by Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba. It is definitely a place worth visiting, both for its beauty and for its aspiration to instil stillness.

Al-Masjid al-Haram, Saudi Arabia

The Al-Masjid al-Haram, or the Holy Mosque, is one of the most important places for Muslims. The sacred building is situated in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is Islam’s holiest mosque as it is the destination for Hajj. Even the sheer size of the building is amazing – it could accommodate some 820 000 worshippers during the time of Hajj. The mosque was built in the 7th century, but has undergone numerous renovations. In addition to its size and beauty, what makes it really valuable to the Muslim population is that it is the home of the Kaaba – the black construction which all Muslims around the globe face when praying. According to the Muslims, the Kaaba contains the stone that bears the footprints of the prophet Abraham, as well as a black stone that is claimed to be a meteorite that fell on Earth from Heaven to indicate to Adam and Eve the exact place where an altar should be built. The mosque, however, can be visited only be men.

Kashi Vishwanath Temple

The temple of Kashi Vishwanath, dedicated to lord Shiva, is one of the most revered Hindu sacred bildings. It is a place for pilgrimage to many Hindus. Situated in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, the place that Hindu holy texts indicate as the home of god Shiva, it is expected to be visited at least once in a Hindu’s lifetime. Varanasi, standing on the western banks of the holy Ganges River, is believed to be the oldest town in human history and the waters of Ganges near Kashi Vishwanath are the place where the ashes of a dead Hindu are meant to be scattered by their relatives. Structurally, the temple has three domes made of pure gold, and a 15.5 meters long gold spire. The average number of Kashi Vishwanath visitors per day is said to be about 3000.

Hagia Sophia, Turkey

Hagia Sophia is located in Istanbul, Turkey. The building has a long and interesting history. Hagia Sophia, also known as Sancta Sophia, was built in 537 and until 1453 it served as a Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica and the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. From then until 1931 the building was a mosque. Nowadays it is a beautiful museum. The former church is considered among the finest representatives of Byzantine architecture and attracts with its massive dome. In the times of its being a mosque during the reign of Sultan Selim II in the 16th century the building was strengthened against earthquakes and equipped with two large minarets. Furthermore, a golden crescent was added on the top of the dome. The Hagia Sophia building was proclaimed a state museum in 1935 by the first Turkish president Kemal Ataturk. Nowadays both Muslim and Christian Orthodox want the building to be restored to its original purposes, but Hagia Sophia’s religious future is uncertain.

Mahabodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, India

The Mahabodhi Temple, whose name’s literal translation is Great Awakening Temple, is one of the most important Buddhist sacred places. The sacred building was erected where Siddharta Gautama, or Buddha is believed to have attained his Samadhi or enlightenment. In addition to the elaborate shrines and towels and beautiful garden, the Buddhist complex has the Bodhi tree under which prince Gautama attained his wisdom. The temple that is located in the Indian district Gaya, has been proclaimed one of UNECSCO World Heritage Sites. The Mahabodhi Temple complex was built to the east of the Bodhi Tree and is believed to be the ‘navel of the Earth’. The temple dates back to 260 BC. Its buildings are considered one of the finest examples of Indian brickwork. The central tower is 55 m high and the vault of the Mahabodhi temple is coated with gold.

Dohany Street Synagogue, Hungary

The Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, Hungary, is Europe’s largest and worlds’ third biggest synagogue. Constructed between 1854 and 1859, the sacred building strikes with its architecture. Its Moorish Revival architectural style was influenced by Islamic models from North Africa and the Alhambra, Medieval Spain. It is a curious fact that its architect based his design on a conviction that no distinctively Jewish architecture could be defined. The Dohany Street Synagogue complex includes the Great Synagogue, the Hero’s Temple, the graveyard and the Memorial and the Jewish museum. The latter was built at the place of the birth house of Theodor Herzl, an Austro-Hungarian journalist, playwright, political activist and writer considered to be the father of modern political Zionism. The Dohany street where the synagogue is, has Holocaust-related history. The synagogue hosts 3000 worshippers. Nowadays the complex is visited by thousands of tourists for both its religious and cultural significance.

Meiji Shrine, Japan

The Meiji Shrine located in Shibuya, Tokio, is a Shinto temple dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. The building is constructed on the site of a beautiful iris garden where the Emperor and his wife used to go for a walk. The temple was finished and opened in 1921 and the shrine is mainly made of cypress and copper, which is the traditional Japanese nagare-zuruki style. The original building that was destroyed during World War II Tokyo air rides, was restored in 1958.

The very ground where the shrine is erected is a place for recreation and stillness amid busy Tokyo. The Meiji Shrine’s site is now some 175-acre evergreen forest with more than 120 000 trees of 365 different species. The plants are donated by Japanese people from the whole country. The two major areas in the complex are the naien – where the shrine and a treasure museum of the possession of the late Emperor and Empresses are, and the gaien – a more secular area that includes the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery and a variety of sport facilities.

Sagrada Familia Church, Spain

Basílica i Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família, or Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family in English, is a large church designed by genius Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. This Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, Spain, though often thought to be a cathedral, is actually a minor basilica (because cathedrals should be the seat of a bishop, something which Sagrada Familia isn’t). The beautiful buildings of the Sagrada Familia attract tourists for religious, aesthetic and historic reasons. Their construction began in 1882 and it is a curious trivia to mention that Gaudi took over the project a year later, which means that he wasn’t the initially selected artisan. The project, however, was hard and strenuous to implement, as it was mainly funded by private donations and interrupted by the Spanish Civil War.

By the time of Gaudi’s death in 1926, only a quarter of the Sagrada Familia was finished. The fill completion of the building is scheduled for 2026, as a commemoration of Gaudi’s death. By then the magnificent spires of the church are expected to make it the tallest church building worldwide. The style of the building has been described as a mix between Spanish Late Gothic, Catalan Modernism and to Art Nouveau or Catalan Noucentisme. Yet one thing is indisputable – the cervical elements and the stretched spires of this church make it both unusual and significant in the sense that it really signifies humans’ efforts to reach for the unlimited.

Rothko Chapel, Texas, the USA

The Rothko Chapel in Huston, Texas, the United States, is a modern sacred space. It is a non-denominational chapel that was established as a place for devotion and a work of modern art. The place is decorated with fourteen colour-coded black paintings from the late period of the post-expressionist artist Mark Rothko. The shape of the building that is an octagon inscribed in a Greek cross, as well as the design of the chapel, were extensively influenced by the artist. The project started in 1964 when the painter was asked to create a meditative and retrospective place filled with his art. Nowadays the chapel bears the message of religious tolerance and freedom and serves as a place of meditation and meeting hall. There are books from several religions available. The Rothko Chapel bears a number of socio-political distinctions and attracts some 55 000 visitors a year.

Last modified: 26.03.2018, edited by: Nils