Paro Taktsang, Paro Valley – Bhutan
The most famous and common picture of Bhutan is that of the ancient Paro Taktsang. This ancient Buddhist temple is literally on the edge of a long 3000 feet cliff drop. It takes a three hour hike to get up to this stunning monastery. The Paro Taktsang typifies the spectacular yet remote nature of the Himalayas and is unlike any other place of worship. It has been visited by not only tourists but also famous world leaders.
Nasir-Ol-Molk Mosque, Shiraz – Iran
Iran might not be high on your agenda for a leisurely trip, but it is home to one of the most incredible places of worship. The Nasir-Ol-Molk or the Pink Mosque can be described in one word as psychedelic. The extensive use of coloured glass, combined with ancient Arabic expertise in geometry results in a stunning and intense play of colours inside the mosque. This mesmerizing ambience, created naturally, adds to the spiritual feel of the mosque. But do take note that the best time to visit is early morning when the morning sunlight shines through the coloured glass. You will not see very good light effects after 10 am, so plan accordingly.
St Basil’s Cathedral, Moscow – Russia
Located in the famous Red Square next to Kremlin, St Basil’s Cathedral is a treat to the eye. What looks like colourful candy swirls painted on onion-shaped domes were originally non-existant. The domes of the cathedral were completely white in colour when St Basil’s was first constructed. However, nearly 200 years after the cathedral was built (to commemorate a military victory), the domes were painted with the famous colours that we see today. St. Basil’s Cathedral is now a UNESCO World Heritage site and is visited by lots of tourists of all faiths every year.
Sultanahmet Mosque, Istanbul – Turkey
The Sultanahmet mosque in Istanbul is an Ottoman masterpiece. The mosque is also known as the Blue Mosque because of the 20000 hand-painted ceramic tiles featuring 16th century Iznik design. These tiles adorn the mosque’s interiors. In addition, there are 260 windows which light up the mosque beautifully. An interesting story about the mosque is that it has six minarets as opposed to the traditional 4, due to a miscommunication between the Sultan and his architect. This fact caused some controversy because the most holy Islamic mosque in Mecca also had six minarets. So, the Sultan actually ended up sending his architect to Mecca to add a seventh minaret there.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon – Myanmar
The most sacred Buddhist temple in Myanmar, the Shwedagon Pagoda is about 100 meters tall. The most striking feature of this Pagoda is its rich gold colour. The colour on the Pagoda isn’t just paint, but real gold! The bricks of the Pagoda are actually covered with real solid gold plates. And even more interestingly, people all across Myanmar and monarchs of the country donate gold even today for its maintenance. The Shwedagon Pagoda allows you to truly experience the power of strong religious beliefs that the people of Myanmar have in Buddhism today.
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap – Cambodia
Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. This ancient 900 year-old Hindu temple is spread across more than 160 hectares. Though it was originally constructed to be a Hindu temple, it gradually turned into a Buddhist temple. The most noted feature of Angkor Wat is surprisingly its dilapidated nature. The entire complex has gradually turned into ruins due to neglect, wars and thefts. The jungle-like ambience, together with 900-year old carvings on crumbling stone faces and the humongous overgrown roots give it a mythical ancient feel. In fact, the movie Tomb Raider was shot there. When in Cambodia, Angkor Wat is truly a must visit.
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Mecca is the holiest place of worship for the most followed religion in the world. Though almost impossible to visit for non-muslims, it is still an iconic religious place of worship. The most incredible sight of Mecca is a sea of people going around a building (which looks like a stone with inscriptions) called the Kaaba. Kaaba is the “house of god” and Muslims around the world face the Kaaba while offering prayers. Just watching a video of tens of thousands of worshippers moving inside the Mecca is an incredible sight.
Golden Temple – Amritsar, India
One of the most magnificent sites of worship in the world is the Golden Temple. Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple is the most sacred site in the Sikh religion and it is located in the middle of a man made lake called the Sarovar. Besides the beauty of the partially gold plated main building on the outside and the intricately designed interiors (also covered in precious stones and gold), the temple is famous for its Langar (clean and freshly prepared meal). As in most Sikh temples, there is a community kitchen at the Golden Temple and free food is served to every person that visits the temple (regardless of their religion or background). Unlike many other places of worship around the world, the Golden Temple gives you a chance to not only learn about religious values, but also practice them right away by volunteering or eating a meal with fellow visitors.
Dome of Rock and Western Wall, Jerusalem
The Western Wall in Jerusalem is the holiest site in the Jewish religion. The western wall is centuries old, with some sections built more than 1200 years ago and others even earlier. The Dome of Rock near the Western Wall is an important religious site for Muslims and Jews. These areas are often in the news for controversial/political reasons, but their significance is so big that they have to be part of any list of places for worship.
Basilica Sagrada, Barcelona – Spain
Under construction for 127 years and still not complete, the Sagrada Familia is so unique that even in its incomplete state, it is worthy of being included in the list of famous religious places. Originally designed by famous Spanish architect Gaudi and now being worked on by other architects from Spain and New Zealand, the Basilica Familia is critically acclaimed for its Gothic design.
Great Mosque of Djenné, Djenné, Mali
Perhaps one of the most unique religious places in the world is the great mosque Djené Djené in Mali, Africa. What makes it unique is the fact that is has been made completely out of mud bricks. It has nice rounded edges and looks like it could be mistaken for a set of the movie Star Wars. Due to a controversy arising out of a Vogue fashion shoot, non-Muslims are presently not allowed to enter the mosque any more. But regardless, it is the most unique structures seen anywhere in the world.
Akshardham, Delhi – India
The magnificent Akshardham Temple is situated on the banks of the Yamuna river in Delhi. It is officially listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest comprehensive Hindu Temple in the world. The entire temple, with it’s beautiful and intricate marble carved designs, was built by more than 11000 artisans in less than 5 years using Italian marble and Rajasthani pink stone. Nearly 70% of all visitors to Delhi visit Akshardham, which is quite staggering. The temple complex features not only the temple, but also an IMAX film on the early life of a religious figure called Swaminarayan, a cultural boat ride, various exhibitions and a water show. It is almost like a religious theme park.
Stakna Gompa, Ladakh – India
Last but not the least, Stakna Gompa is a Buddhist monastery perched on a hill in the Himalayan region of Ladakh in India. While the monastery may not be spectacular, its location certainly is. Overlooking the Indus river, it is surrounded by rugged snow capped Himalayan peaks, all at an altitude of 17000 feet above sea level. On the inside, Stakna Gompa houses 400 year-old Sandalwood statues and a few Buddhist monks live at the monastery too. It is a great place to meditate or just sit and relax.