Some spaces feel inherently sacred, having been the site of worship or prayerful contemplation for hundreds of years. Here are some of the best places to breathe, reboot and discover your spiritual side.
Camino de Santiago, Spain
Best for: Sacred strolling
Pilgrims have been following the Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela since around the ninth century when the apostle’s remains were allegedly found here in a long-lost tomb. For the most sociable sacred stroll walk the Camino Frances, a popular hike of 780km from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago. For a quieter pilgrimage try the Caminho Portugués, which begins in Lisbon, or the Camino Inglés, which starts at the Galician port of Ferrol.
Easter Island, Chile
Best for: Remote religion
Adrift in the Pacific, 3,700km off the South American mainland, Easter Island (Rapa Nui) is one of the most remote places on Earth – the perfect place for a singular sort of sculpture worship to evolve. Moai statues were part of an ancestor cult, representing the spirits of their forefathers, which could be called upon to help in times of need. However, moai-making became such an obsession that the environment suffered as a result. Take a five-hour flight from Chile to walk amid the remaining moai – almost 900 of them – to discover how the statues supposed to safeguard the population were ultimately central to its decline.
Mauna Kea, Hawaii, USA
Best for: Volatile veneration
To native Hawaiians, Mauna Kea isn’t simply a volcano – it’s the umbilical cord connecting the land to the gods. It certainly reaches up to the heavens: this behemoth on Big Island rises 4,207m above sea level, and if measured from its base on the ocean floor it’s more than 10,000m tall, making it the highest mountain on the planet. Mauna Kea is also marvellous for astronomy. Head to the visitor centre on the volcano’s slopes to look at the skies – free stargazing sessions are held from 7pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, weather permitting.
Mount Kailash, Tibet
Best for: Good karma
Mount Kailash is sacred four times over. Bons, Jains, Hindus and Buddhists all revere the remote 6,638m peak. The most devout make the long journey across the Tibetan plateau to complete a kora, a circular pilgrimage around the mountain. Performing one kora is said to clear the bad karma of one lifetime, while 108 koras leads to full enlightenment. The 52km route starts from the trailhead village of Darchen, which is a long, rough but spectacular 1,400km road trip from Lhasa.
Best for: Mass en masse
Ever since 14-year-old Bernadette Soubirous had a vision of the Virgin Mary here in 1858, the little town of Lourdes in the Pyrenean foothills has become big business. More than 200 million people are thought to have visited since the 1860s. The Sanctuary now encompasses many chapels and churches, the Cave of the Apparitions (where the Virgin appeared) and 17 baths where pilgrims can dip in the supposedly healing waters – so far, the Lourdes’ Bureau of Medical Observations has recognised 69 cases as official miracles. For a chance to pray with pilgrims from all over the world, attend the International Mass, held at 9.30am on Wednesdays and Sundays, April to October, in the Underground Basilica of Saint Pius X.
Saut d’Eau, Haiti
Best for: Vodou devotion
Haitian vodou is what happens when west African religious practices and enforced Catholicism rub together on a spirited Caribbean isle. One of the most important dates in the local calendar is the day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, when devotees descend on the Saut d’Eau waterfall, around 100km north of Port-au-Prince, to worship the Virgin Mary (who once appeared here in a leaf) and her vodou counterpart, Erzulie Dantor. There’s chanting, bathing and lots of rum, with the festival reaching a climax on 16 July, the Virgin’s feast day.
Old Jerusalem, Israel
Best for: A meeting of many faiths
One of the world’s oldest cities, Jerusalem has been attacked, besieged, destroyed and resurrected many times over the millennia. It continues to have its troubles but also continues to be sacred to the three big monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Admire the mosque on Temple Mount, watch Jewish pilgrims push kvitlach (little notes) into the cracks of the Western Wall, and follow the Via Dolorosa – “way of suffering” – the path said to be the route Jesus walked to his crucifixion.
Best for: River reverence
The River Ganges is India’s most sacred waterway; so revered, in fact, that it’s become the first non-human entity in the country to be granted the same legal rights as a person. Varanasi, on the left bank of the Ganges in the state of Uttar Pradesh, is one of the holiest tirthas – spiritual crossing places that allow humans to access the divine. Millions of Hindus come here to bathe, pray – and die. Take in the atmosphere on a slow rowboat trip, passing temples and diyas (floating candles), as well as people bathing on the ghats, and bodies burning on the funeral pyres.
Cape Reinga, New Zealand
Best for: Access to the afterlife
Cape Reinga, at the far north of North Island, is one of the Maori’s most spiritual sites. This wind-blustered cape is where the souls of the deceased are said to descend into the underworld. Standing on the wild promontory, you can look out to the spume, where the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean collide, and down to the gnarled old pohutukawa tree clinging to the rock – said to be where the souls slide into the deep.
Best for: Ancient enigma
This little village of Avebury is sliced by the world’s biggest stone circle – and here, unlike at Stonehenge, you’re allowed to touch. You can walk right in amid the mighty sarsens, which were erected between 2,850BC and 2,200BC for Neolithic rituals. Then explore the greater landscape: mull over the meaning of Silbury Hill, the largest manmade mound in Europe, and duck into West Kennet Long Barrow, a tomb almost 100m long and built around 3,650BC. If your interest in ancient landscapes is piqued then set off along the Ridgeway, which starts here and is said to be the country’s oldest road.