These days travel pilgrimages are more likely to involve trekking across town to worship at the best temple of caffeine than trekking up a sacred mountain, but believe it or not, there are still travelers who go overseas with the sole purpose of making a spiritual pilgrimage.
Several of the world’s most sacred sites can only be reached by first undertaking an arduous trek, which tests a pilgrim’s devotion and is of itself, a spiritual awakening. For many faiths, this literal and symbolic journey is just as important, if not more important, than the destination itself.
Even if you consider yourself nonspiritual or nonreligious, experiencing the atmosphere and devotion of pilgrims in some of the world’s most holy places is a remarkable and sometimes life changing experience.
Here’s our list of some of the world’s best-known spiritual sites:
1. The River Ganges, India
Many brave (and foolhardy!) travelers take a dip in the Ganges at Varanasi but the rivers holiest spot is at its source, way up in the Himalayas. Despite its inaccessibility, many pilgrims make the trek. If you wish to follow them you’ll need to make your way to Gangotri in the north Indian state of Uttaranchal and trek 24km (15 miles) through the mountains.
2. Bodhgaya (Bihar, India)
The Buddha is believed to have obtained enlightenment while meditating under a Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, a World Heritage Site. The Bodhi tree (considered a descendant of the original) and the Mahabodhi temple (one of the earliest temple constructions existing in the Indian sub-continent) are the focal points of this revered, and most important, Buddhist site.
3. Jerusalem, Israel
Jerusalem is sacred to not one but three religions. Followers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam make regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem to visit holy sites including the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the striking Dome of the Rock.
As a city that can trace its roots back to the first humans to leave Africa, Jerusalem attracts many travelers on historical pilgrimages too. The Western Wall alone (a surviving remnant of the Temple Mount, which was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE) is over 2000 years old.
4. Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Mecca is Islam’s holy city and the spiritual and geographical center for all Muslims. All practising Muslims pray facing Mecca five times a day and a trip here is a dream come true for the faithful. Unfortunately Mecca is off limits to non-Muslims so most of us have to be content with photos of the incredible Al-Masjid al-Haram (The Holy Mosque) and the Ka’ba, the shrine contained within the mosque.
5. Camino de Santiago, Spain
The Way of St James has existed as a Christian pilgrimage site for several thousand years and continues to attract travelers and worshippers the world over. ‘The Way’ starts from several points in Europe and commonly makes its way through northern Spain to the Santiago de Compostela Catedral del Apostol in Galicia, where the remains of St James, an apostle of Jesus Christ, are reputedly buried.
While the Camino de Santiago remains an important pilgrimage for Christians, these days you’ll find many travelers en route who are there purely for the challenge and adventure of walking one of the world’s most famous pilgrimage routes.
6. The Golden Temple, (Amritsar, India)
The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) of Amritsar is the holiest shrine in Sikhism. Described as one of India’s most spiritual places, visitors are welcomed to visit and learn more about the temple and Sikhism. The golden Hari Mandir (Divine Temple) gleams in the centre of the Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar) and is the most sacred part of the Golden Temple. Visitors make their way through the complex before crossing the Guru’s Bridge to reach the sacred and bejewelled Hari Mandir.
7. Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka
The imprint atop this mountain in the southern hills of Sri Lanka is believed to be a footprint made by Adam when he was cast out of the Garden of Eden. To Buddhists, the mountain is known as Sri Pada and the footprint belongs to Buddha, which he made as he ascended to the heavens. Whichever religious icon the footprint is attributed to (and there are several more, including St Thomas and Lord Shiva) Adam’s Peak is a much revered site of worship and pilgrims in their thousands snake their way up the mountain from December until May. The views from the top are worth the trek alone.
8. Mt Kailash, Tibet
Die-hard adventurers might wish to consider a trek to Mt Kailash in far western Tibet. This remote mountain is as hard to get to as it is holy—extremely! It’s a trek that requires weeks of overland travel, freezing weather and no public transport or supplies en route. And yet a trickle of ardent pilgrims and adventurers make the trek each year. They come to pay their respects and be blessed by the mountain that is believed, by several religions, to be the birthplace and center of the entire world.
9. Mt Athos, Greece
Step back in time on a visit to the monastic communities on Mt Athos, a mountainous peninsula in northern Greece. Inhabited entirely by monks since at least the 4th century this autonomous state consists of twenty Eastern Orthodox monasteries and twelve sketes (smaller communities of monks). The Holy Mountain is only accessible by sea and only men are allowed to visit and stay overnight in a monastery once permission and the appropriate documents have been obtained. Many of the ancient monasteries cling precariously to the rocky cliffs of the peninsula and are an incredible sight. Fortunately there are no restrictions on viewing Mt Athos from the ocean.
10. Mashhad, Iran
Iran’s second largest city is also considered one of the holiest cities in the Shia Muslim world. Twenty million pilgrims visit the city each year to worship at the holy shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Imam of Shia Muslims who was martyred here in 818.
The shrine is actually a huge complex that contains the immense Goharshad Mosque, a museum, a library, four seminaries, a cemetery, a University and other buildings. Non-Muslims are allowed in most of the outer courtyards but not into the Holy Shrine or Mosque. If you get a chance to peak through the gateways into the inner courtyards you’ll be rewarded with fantastical visions of gold and sapphire-blue domes and minarets, spouting fountains, gorgeous tiling and grand archways.