From Stonehenge, England to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, here are some of the world’s most scenic spiritual destinations.
Whether you’re interested in spirituality, are a history buff, or are simply curious, these destinations offer something for every traveler. We’ve rounded up a list of sacred sites around the world—including natural landmarks and houses of worship—that are as beautiful as they are powerful, and definitely worth the visit. There’s Borobudur in Indonesia, the Cenote Sagrado in Mexico, the Spanish Synagogue in the Czech Republic, and much, much more.
Ghats of Varanasi, India
India’s Ganges River has long been thought to have healing, purifying properties—a belief bolstered by recent tests conducted on the water. In Varanasi, one of the country’s seven sacred cities, locals interact with the river via ghats—stepped platforms leading down into the water—and use them as sites for multiple ceremonies. There are bathing rituals for “purification of sins,” pilgrimages to collect sacred water, and even designated ghats for cremations, where, according to National Geographic, pyres burn 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can see the phenomenon for yourself if you take a boat tour along the Ganges.
This Buddhist monastery and temple, also known as “The Tiger’s Nest”, sits perilously on a cliff, 900 meters (2,952 feet) above the Paro Valley in Bhutan — and is worth a trip for the views alone. According to the country’s tourism council, Taktsang was built in 1692, at the site of a cave where Guru Rinpoche — or second Buddha — meditated for “three years, three months, and three hours” to ward off evil. The site has been sacred ever since, and, per Atlas Obscura, you can reach it via a steep, two-hour climb from the valley. Once you get to the temples, you can explore after removing your shoes.
Wat Rong Khun, Thailand
This temple in Chiang Rai is one of the more recent constructions on our list, having been built by Thai artist Chalermchai Kosipipat in 1997. The gleaming white structure is an ode to Buddha’s purity, as well as samsara — the cycle of birth, existence, and death—according to Atlas Obscura. There’s a sculpture of hands raising up from the earth, seemingly from the depths of hell, as tourists cross a bridge to get to the temple, with warrior sculptures flanking each side. But Wat Rong Khun also shows its modernity in many art installations, including nods to superheroes and aliens. It’s definitely an experience you won’t forget: Wat Rong Khun is “beautiful and terrifying all at once”.
Victoria Falls, Zambia and Zimbabwe
Victoria Falls may be known as an adventure travel hotspot, but it also has spiritual roots. Named Mosi-oa-Tunya (The Smoke That Thunders) by the Kololo in the nineteenth century, the formidable falls have been considered sacred by local tribes for hundreds of years. They introduced David Livingstone—the Scottish missionary and explorer—to the falls, according to Zambia Tourism, prompting him to write, “No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes, but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
Located in Java, Indonesia, Borobudur is an iconic Buddhist temple with construction dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, during the Syailendra Dynasty. The UNESCO World Heritage site comprises three tiers, and 72 small stupas—dome-shaped structures containing relics usually related to Buddha—plus one larger central stupa at the top. The structure is specifically designed to represent the path to enlightenment: Each level represents a level of the universe, and the higher you climb, the closer you are to nirvana.
Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Ethiopia
In northern Ethiopia, the small town of Lalibela is renowned for its eleven medieval churches—carved out of monolithic rock. Dating back to the twelfth century, the churches were built on orders of King Lalibela, who wanted to create a “New Jerusalem” during a time when pilgrimages to the holy land were hindered by Muslim conquests, according to UNESCO. Today, the site still sees many pilgrimages, largely from Coptic Christians. The structures, complete with catacombs and ceremonial passages, are fascinating; the House of St. George, or Biete Ghiorgis (pictured), is particularly famous for its cross-shaped design and network of trenches, which connects it to the other churches.
Nasir al-Mulk Mosque, Iran
Also known as “The Pink Mosque”, Nasir al-Mulk Mosque in Shiraz, Iran, is famous for its stunning array of colors—thanks to a unique combination of stained glass windows and mosaics. (It’s unusual for a mosque to feature stained glass, but when Nasir al-Mulk was built in 1888, it was specially designed to take advantage of morning light, and the sun filtering through the windows creates a rainbow effect, highlighting the jewel-toned tiles and rugs in the interior. If you’re able to visit the mosque, make sure you go early for prime viewing.
Devils Tower, Wyoming
Devils Tower, a massive rock structure and national monument, rises 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River and plains in northeastern Wyoming. It’s famed as a world-class climbing destination—but it’s also a sacred site for more than 20 Native American tribes and indigenous people, according to the National Park Service. The Crow call the tower “Bear Lodge,” and have been known to fast and worship there, even building “small stone houses for dream quests.” The Lakota also refer to the Devils Tower as “Bear Lodge,” among other names—the formation has been the site of one of their famous battles (including a bear), purification rites, and the tribe’s sacred Sun Dance. The Arapahoe, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Shoshone also have documented ties, and many ceremonies and prayer offerings still take place at the tower today. When you visit, you may see “prayer cloths or other religious artifacts,” but the NPS urges you to be respectful and not disturb anything.
The true purpose and origin of Stonehenge remains a contested mystery: theories range from Merlin transporting the rocks from Ireland, to the stone circle being a model for female fertility, to a calendar used for seasonal rituals, and an astronomical prediction tool for phenomena like solar eclipses. Regardless, the spiritual landmark remains as one of the U.K.’s most popular attractions. There are ties to Druidic and pagan culture, and the groups still gather there annually to celebrate equinoxes and solstices. To visit, you can take a day trip from London—about 2.5 hours by bus.
Abu Simbel Temples, Egypt
Another UNESCO World Heritage site, the Abu Simbel Temples were built by King Ramses II during his reign from 1279-13 B.C.E. The complex, in southern Egypt, includes both the Great Temple and nearby “Small Temple”. Carved out of a sandstone cliff, the Great Temple’s main entrance is flanked by four statues of Ramses himself, with likenesses of family members at his feet. Per Encyclopedia Britannica, the structure is dedicated to the ancient sun gods Amon-Re and Re-Horakhte, but Ramses is also depicted as a god. On two days of the year—usually February 21 and October 21—the sun hits the Great Temple just right and illuminates the inner shrine.
Much like Borobudur, the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal is designed with levels that symbolize enlightenment. The bottom plinth represents earth, the dome represents water, the tower represents fire, and the top spire represents air, per Lonely Planet —everything above is “beyond space.” (All-seeing eyes mark the tower on each side, representing Buddha’s all-knowing gaze.) Between the glimmering gold and white colors and the imposing spire, which draws your eyes up to the sky, it’s spectacular to witness. Boudhanath is a popular pilgrimage site for Tibetan Buddhists, and a huge tourist attraction in Kathmandu.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
This famous twelfth-century temple in Cambodia is modeled after the mythological Mount Meru, where Hindus believe the ancient gods live, according to Lonely Planet—at its highest point, Angkor Wat reaches more than 700 feet tall. The temple complex, which has ties to both Hinduism and Buddhism, has walls covered with carvings, including over 3,000 asparas (nymphs) and many other mythological events and figures. It’s a vastly popular tourist attraction, and there are now limits to how many people can visit daily: as of 2017, only 100 at a time can visit the top of the central tower. Tourists begin lining up as early as 4:30 a.m. for tickets, so make sure you get there early—or be prepared to wait (and wait).
Uluru (aka Ayers Rock, or Big Red Rock) is an iconic Australian landmark. Considered sacred by native Anangu Aboriginals—the custodians of the land—they believe that Uluru, in addition to the rest of the surrounding area, was created by their ancestors, and that they still inhabit the land today. In light of this cultural significance, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management recently voted to ban visitors from climbing on the rock—a popular tourist activity during sunrise and sunset, often accompanied by a champagne toast. Starting October 26, 2019, tourists will have to go around Uluru’s base instead, out of respect for the Anangu and the rock’s protection.
Spanish Synagogue, Czech Republic
Prague‘s Spanish Synagogue is a sight to behold. According to the city’s local Jewish Museum, the jewel-toned interior design is Moorish, influenced by the Alhambra Palace in Granada—hence, the moniker. The structure was built in 1868 for a local Reform congregation, and in addition to being a synagogue, it also hosts two permanent exhibitions: one about the history of Jewish people in Bohemia and Moravia, and the other of silver artifacts from a synagogue in the same region.
Cenote Sagrado, Mexico
Cenotes—natural sinkholes filled with water—were considered to be sacred to the Maya people, used as communication portals with the gods. The Cenote Sagrado, in Chichén Itzá, Mexico, was believed to be the site of rituals, sacrifices, and offerings. As reported by Afar, “jewelry, pottery, and even human bones” have been found when explorers dredged the bottom.