Religious Tourism

Topics: Jerusalem

Than 2,400 years ago to honor gods called Myogin, who were believed capable of performing miracles. At least five deities are now worshipped here: Susano-o mikoto; his wife, Kushinada-Hime; her parents; and the couple’s son.

Lotus Temple, New Delhi

Annual Visitors: 4.5 million

The white lotus-flower-shaped Baha’i temple uses three layers of nine “petals” each to represent the world’s nine major religions and to accentuate the faith’s principles of peace, purity, and unity of all religions.

At the base of the eye-catching structure, nine curved reflecting pools create the illusion of lotus leaves lying flat on a pond’s surface.

Sistine Chapel, Vatican City, Rome

Annual Visitors: 4 million

Michelangelo painted his famous Creation of Adam (replicated on countless souvenirs and college-dorm posters) and more than 300 figures with sculptural precision on this 8,600-square-foot ceiling in the early 1500s. Two decades later, at age 60, the artist graced the altar wall with The Last Judgment, reflecting a grimmer style, even for the saved.

Other Renaissance masters like Botticelli, Perugino, and Rosselli contributed biblical scenes to the chapel’s side walls. As a result, the room feels like an art gallery—often crowded with visitors craning their necks—but it is still used for papal conclaves.

Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem

Annual Visitors: 4 million

Considered the holiest Christian site, this church was built above what many believe to be the locations of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Now visitors see walls built before the Third Crusade, 12th-century mosaics, and numerous chapels representing various sects.

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But the site has fluctuated throughout the centuries, having been a quarry, a temple to Venus, and a church in various states of desecration and neglect brought on by earthquakes, invaders, and clumsy crusaders.

Ikutsushima Shrine, Miyajima Island, Hiroshima Bay, Japan

Annual Visitors: 3.4 million

This dramatic 50-foot-tall vermilion torii gate stands a tenth of a mile out to sea from 37 overwater buildings that, at high tide, appear to float on the water. The first Shinto shrine here—dating from the sixth century—may have been designed to honor the goddess of the sea or to help souls sail to paradise. The current complex, built in 1571, shows off curved lines typical of the Shinden architectural style, and almost all of it is designated a National Treasure.

Po Lin Monastery and Tian Tan Buddha, Hong Kong

Annual Visitors: 3,242,730

The 85-foot-tall seated “Giant Buddha” on the Ngong Ping plateau of Lantau Island serenely surveys the surrounding lush mountains and raises his right hand in blessing to the visitors who climb more than 200 steps to reach the statue’s base. Cast in bronze, the statue took 12 years to make and was unveiled in 1993. The nearby Buddhist monastery, decked out in vivid reds, oranges, and yellows with icons to various gods, serves vegetarian lunches.

Trinity Wall Street, New York City

Annual Visitors: 3 million (1.7 million for St. Paul’s Chapel and 1.3 million for Trinity Church)

Downtown Manhattan fixtures since colonial times, the Gothic Revival St. Paul’s Chapel and Trinity Church—both belonging to the same Episcopal parish—stand out against the backdrop of modern high-rises now found in the surrounding financial district. Pay your respects at the historic cemetery (the final resting place of Alexander Hamilton) and within St. Paul’s, where caregivers tended to victims of the nearby 9/11 attacks. —Joshua Pramis

Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia), Istanbul

Annual Visitors: 2,952,768

The Byzantine mosaics within this cavernous space are so refined and subtle they practically look like paintings. Emperor Justinian completed construction of the then-named Church of the Holy Wisdom in the year 537. Minarets were added in 1453 after it was changed to a mosque. In 1935, Atatürk officially converted it into a museum, but it still retains an East-meets-West spiritual aura. The 102-foot-diameter dome appears even more commanding because two semi-domes on the north and south sides create a large space unencumbered by pillars.

Al-Haram Mosque, Mecca, Saudi Arabia

Annual Visitors: more than 2,927,717

The Black Stone, Islam’s holiest relic and a venerated icon long before Muhammad’s time, is enshrined in the Kaaba (or Ka’ba or al-Ka’bah), the five-story-tall, cube-shaped granite building in the mosque’s plaza. It is toward the Kaaba that Muslims pray five times a day, and Muslims are supposed to pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives. A total of 2,927,717 pilgrims arrived during the 2011 hajj; if visitor numbers were available for the entire year, this site would likely rank higher on our list.

Basilica de Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Annual Visitors: 2,317,349

A true work in progress, this expiatory church was begun in 1882 and is slated to be completed in 2026. Its gloriously fussy design bows to the vision of Antoni Gaudí, who infused the structure with elements of Catholicism. The intricate white interior illuminated through stained-glass windows denotes a heavenly Jerusalem with “Christian cities and continents” symbolized on columns standing for the apostles. The 18 bell towers represent Jesus, Mary, the four evangelists, and the 12 apostles.

Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth, Israel

Annual Visitors: 2.25 million

Traditionally revered as the location where the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would give birth to Jesus, this site has hosted wave after wave of churches, including a fourth- or fifth-century Byzantine one, another built by crusaders, and a Franciscan church torn down in 1955 to make way for the current, much larger basilica. The Grotto of the Annunciation and remnants of the Byzantine and crusaders’ churches are visible under the main church.

Mount of Beatitudes, Galilee, Israel

Annual Visitors: 2.25 million

Jesus is said to have delivered his inspirational Sermon on the Mount (including the “Blessed are” litany) on this very spot. Whether or not that’s historically accurate, the peaceful gardens, cooler air, and panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee make it a fine stop for quiet contemplation. The octagonal design of the Byzantine-style Catholic church on the top of the hill symbolizes the eight Beatitudes. —Lyndsey Matthews

Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, Paris

Annual Visitors: 2 million

Novice Sister Catherine said the Virgin Mary told her in 1830 to create medals for believers. Two years later a cholera epidemic killed 20,000 Parisians, but some who bought medals claimed they’d been protected or cured by them. The church sold 10 million in the first five years and a billion by the time Sister Catherine died in 1876. Visitors can pray at the chapel’s altar, see her well-preserved body, and, no doubt, buy a medal.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Annual Visitors: 1,892,467

Prince Charles and Lady Diana wed under the heavily decorated golden ceiling of the grand Neoclassical dome designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Unmistakable among the more sedate financial edifices in the City of London district, St. Paul’s dome served as a model for the U.S. Capitol. Built between 1675 and 1710 on land that was sacred even in pre-Christian times, the cathedral is still used for significant state functions, weddings, and funerals.

Temple Mount, Jerusalem

Annual Visitors: 1.5 million

Sacred to followers of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, the hilltop Temple Mount includes the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque. It’s the original site of the Temple of Jerusalem and said to be where Abraham bound Isaac. Jews typically choose not to enter due to its sacredness, worshipping instead at the surrounding Western Wall (No. 19)—which accounts for the lower number of visitors to the mount itself.

Westminster Abbey, London

Annual Visitors: 1,394,427

Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, the Unknown Warrior, and generations of royals were laid to rest at Westminster. But don’t just look down at the graves or you’ll miss the Gothic abbey’s magnificent vaulted ceiling, golden High Altar, and intricately patterned mosaic Cosmati pavement floor. This stunning thousand-year-old medieval cathedral also celebrates royal weddings, most recently that of Prince William and Kate Middleton, now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Baha’i Shrine and Gardens, Haifa, Israel

Annual Visitors: 1.25 million

In keeping with its faith’s tenets of religious unity and harmony, the 13-story gold-domed shrine features architectural elements from both East and West as well as nine sides representing the world’s nine major religions. Nineteen tiers of immaculate gardens surround the shrine and flow up and down the north side of Mount Carmel, creating the sense of waves emanating from the shrine.

Mariazell Shrine, Mariazell, Austria

Annual Visitors: 1-plus million

In 1157, a Benedictine monk strolling through the Alps searching for a place to build a monastery claims his path was blocked by a gigantic rock, so he laid a small wooden statue of Mary on the boulder, prayed, heard rumbling, and the rock broke in two. Locals built a chapel there, and a Gothic church with pink Baroque touches was added three centuries later. Now the pilgrimage site has been designated a minor basilica.

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City

Annual Visitors: 1 million

Even though the Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of New York draws about a million people a year for services and various events and concerts, it never gets too crowded. As the world’s biggest Gothic cathedral, St. John is larger than Notre Dame and Chartres combined, and its interior stretches the length of two football fields. You get a sense of its magnitude before even entering: the 3-ton bronze doors depict 60 bas-relief scenes from the Old and New Testament. —Lyndsey Matthews

Jokhang Temple, Lhasa, Tibet

Annual Visitors: 700,000

Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes Potala Palace, this holiest of Tibetan Buddhist temples draws pilgrims who prostrate themselves in front and spin golden prayer wheels inside. Built in 647 by King Songtsen Gampo, who unified Tibet, the four-story temple houses a myriad of chapels to gods and bodhisattvas, yak-butter votive candles, incense, and an ancient, jewel-covered, gilded statue of the Buddha called the Jowo Rinpoche.

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Religious Tourism. (2022, Jun 22). Retrieved from

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