World's Most-Visited Sacred Sites

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    You don't need to have faith to be drawn to these temples, churches, and shrines, popular for their spiritual and cultural value.

    From January 2012 By

    Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood is famous for its loud street fashion (embraced by singer Gwen Stefani, among others), but it’s most popular attraction is hardly a household name. The tranquil Meiji Shrine attracts roughly 30 million annually, as does the Sensoji Temple, making them the world’s most-visited sacred sites.

    These Japanese sites no doubt benefit from their location in Tokyo, a major metropolitan area and significant tourist destination. Most of the local population adheres to Shintoism or Buddhism or both, and religious and cultural traditions encourage families to go to shrines and temples at least once or twice a year, especially around New Year’s, a time called hatsumode.

    While each religion has its holy seasons, there’s always a reason to visit these sites, whether you’re intrigued by the history, art, or simply following a packaged tour. Whatever the day, you’ll find Catholics attending mass at Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (No. 3), among casual tourists and others who’ve traveled here expressly to pay their respects to an image of the Virgin Mary.

    Pilgrimage is indeed one of the oldest motives for travel and going strong. The Hajj to the al-Haram mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is one of the most famous, with 2,927,717 Muslims participating in 2011—an unusually precise tally provided by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. For the annual Hindu pilgrimage to Sabarimala in Kerala, India, the visitation estimates varied so widely (anywhere from 3 to 50 million), we felt it was too unreliable to rank officially. We couldn't get a reliable confirmation for India’s Sikh Golden Temple of Amritsar, suggested to receive 10,000 visitors daily, or for Temple Square in Salt Lake City, though, tellingly, the Mormon site purports to be the No. 1 tourist attraction in Utah.

    But we kept digging to determine as best as possible the most travel-inspiring sacred sites—read on for the top results.

    The Methodology:

    We made no distinction between devout religious pilgrims and secular tourists, or between domestic and foreign visitors. Because most of these sacred sites are free and open to the public, it’s impossible to get a completely accurate count of visitors or their reasons for coming. We used numbers and estimates from the sites themselves, tourist boards, government agencies, local newspaper reports and reputable media outlets.

    We restricted our list to holy places associated with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and other religions that are still commonly practiced, which ruled out ancient sites such as temples to pagan Greek gods, the Mayan pyramids of Central American pyramids, and Stonehenge. And we focused on actual, physical structures, which eliminated items like the Shroud of Turin—shown only every few years—and gatherings like the Kumbh Mela festival, which can draw more than 60 million Hindus when held every 12 years.

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Meiji Shrine

    Photo: Julie Nassiet

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    No. 1 Meiji Shrine and Sensoji-Temple, Tokyo

    Annual Visitors: 30 million each

    Built 100 years ago to honor the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the tranquil Meiji Shinto shrine is surrounded by a holy forest of 100,000-plus trees. Gardens feature spring azaleas, summer irises, autumn foliage on Japanese maples and gingkoes, and black pines dusted with winter snow. Sensoji, also in central Tokyo, was dedicated to Bodhisattva Kannon, the most compassionate Buddha, in 628. Its five-storied pagoda is dramatically lit at night. Continuing centuries-long tradition, stalls along the temple’s Nakamise Street sell food and goods to visitors—whose numbers swell around New Year’s. meijijingu.or.jp; senso-ji.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Kashi Vishwanath Temple

    Photo: Robert Harding Picture Library Ltd / Alamy

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    No. 2 Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi, India

    Annual Visitors: 21.9 million

    This temple with its two golden domes sits along the western bank of the Ganges River and, with the Ganges, is the most holy site for all sects of Hinduism. Believers bathe in the river to cleanse their souls and reduce or eliminate the need to be reincarnated. Recently the government has worked to improve the quality of the water, where many millions also make offerings of flowers, food, and floating oil lamps. shrikashivishwanath.org

    Source: India Tourism Office

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Basilica of Our Lady Guadalupe

    Photo: Jayda Tham

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    No. 3 Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City

    Annual Visitors: 20 million

    The Old Basilica, begun in the 1500s and completed in 1709, stands in stark contrast to the massive new basilica that was built in the mid-1970s and looks like a sports arena. It is, in fact, designed to hold 50,000 people, who come for mass—celebrated several times daily—and to see an image of the Virgin Mary that is said to have appeared on an apron in 1531. sancta.org

    Source: Mexico Tourism Board

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanams Temple

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    No. 4 Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanams Temple, Andhra Pradesh, India

    Annual Visitors: 18.25 million

    A Hindu sect called Vaishnavism that emphasized equality and love began this imposing temple perhaps 1,200 years ago. Legends mentioned this area, and pilgrims and visitors still come to see or worship at the many shrines, halls, and statues throughout the 10-square-mile complex on the 3,200-foot-high Sacred Hill. tirumala.org/maintemple_main.htm

    Source: India Tourism Office

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Notre Dame Cathedral

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    No. 5 Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

    Annual Visitors: 13.65 million

    The most-visited tourist attraction in France (and No. 13 worldwide) hardly has a space that’s not filled with statues of saints and angels, 30-foot-diameter stained-glass rose windows depicting Bible stories, or symbolic geometric shapes representing both limits and boundlessness. It’s weathered evolving styles and renovations since its 1345 debut and today is as much an art gallery as a place of worship. notredamedeparis.fr

    Source: Office of Tourism and Congress in Paris

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Sacré Coeur Basilica

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    No. 6 Sacré Coeur Basilica, Paris

    Annual Visitors: 10.5 million

    Druids, Gauls, and Romans who once worshipped their gods Mercury and Mars chose this scenic hilltop for their temples. A brilliant white, 19th-century Romano-Byzantine basilica crowns this Hill of Martyrs—with the intent to cleanse it from a violent historical past while wowing visitors with a panoramic view of the city below. sacre-coeur-montmartre.com

    Source: Office of Tourism and Congress in Paris

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Naritasan Shinshoji Temple

    Photo: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy

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    No. 7 Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, Chiba Prefecture, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 10 million

    Proximity to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport makes this Shingon Esoteric Buddhist temple, founded in 940, an easy stop for air travelers with long layovers. For a fee, soothsayers and vending machines promise to reveal your fortune. The temple itself is dedicated to the god of fire, and fire rituals are carried out several times each day. chiba-tour.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

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    No. 7 Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 10 million

    The pleasant walk through gardens, beside cherry trees, under torii gates, and past two ponds with three small bridges and seven islets belies the Shinto shrine’s 12th-century origins as a homage to the god of war. The site’s two-and-a-half-acre Peony Garden is at its most vibrant from mid-April through May, but it also nurtures 500 peonies that actually bloom during January. asahi-net.or.jp/~qm9t-kndu/hachiman.htm

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji Temples

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    No. 7 Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji Temples, Kyoto

    Annual Visitors: 10 million and 6 million

    The ancient UNESCO-listed Kiyomizu-dera or “Pure Water Temple” is on the side of Otowa Mountain. Springs feed the Otowa Waterfall, and Buddhist pilgrims drink the sacred water by following strict ritual. Visitors also take in the panoramic view of Kyoto’s city center. On the opposite side of the city, gold leaf covers the top two floors of Kinkaku-ji, a three-story Zen Buddhist temple originally built in the early 15th century for a shogun. While visitors are not allowed inside to see the statues of the Shaka Buddha, Kannon Bodhisattva, and the Four Heavenly Kings, these can sometimes be glimpsed from the far side of the pond in front of the temple. Bring binoculars. kiyomizudera.or.jp; japan-guide.com

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Ise Jingu

    Photo: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy

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    No. 10 Ise Jingu, Ise, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 8.5 million

    Nearly 14,000 acres of this Shinto shrine complex is a “divine forest” of Japanese cypress, but the trees were worshipped here long before temple construction began in the third century. Three museums covering local history, agriculture, and fine arts are on a hill near the center of Ise Jingu, which the Japanese government has designated as a National Treasure. isejingu.or.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: St. Peter’s Basilica

    Photo: Eye Ubiquitous / Alamy

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    No. 11 St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome

    Annual Visitors: 7 million

    One of the world’s largest sacred buildings and one of the holiest of Catholic sites, the basilica teems with ornate gold, marble columns, paintings of angels, iconic statues, and works created by a who’s who of Renaissance artists—including Raphael, Brunelleschi, Bernini, and Michelangelo, who sculpted the marble Pietà and designed the basilica’s massive dome. vaticanstate.va

    Source: Italian Government Tourist Board

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Dazaifu Tenmangu

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    No. 12 Dazaifu Tenmangu, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 6.6 million

    Six thousand plum trees from 197 species—blooming white, pink, and red in January—surround this Shinto shrine to Michizane Sugawara, a poet and scholar who was deified as the god of calligraphy and literature after his death in the year 903. The site also has camphor trees as old as 1,500 years, fields of iris, and a double-arched bridge over a pond shaped like the ideogram character meaning “heart.” dazaifutenmangu.or.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Cologne Cathedral

    Photo: Dennis Cox / Alamy

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    No. 13 Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

    Annual Visitors: 6 million

    This Gothic monument was a 600-year work in progress completed only in 1880. The payoff is a glorious interior whose arches reach more than 140 feet high and whose dramatic pointed towers soar more than 50 stories—and remain the city’s most notable symbol. Stop to admire the Shrine to the Three Magi, and climb all 533 steps to reach a platform overlooking the Rhine and distant mountains. cologne-tourism.com

    Source: Cologne Tourism Office

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

    Photo: David Nicolas

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    No. 13 Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, Lourdes, France

    Annual Visitors: 6 million

    A 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous experienced 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in the Grotto of Massabielle back in 1858. Later, her friend’s arm was said to be healed by spring water in the cave. Now the cavern and surrounding area form a Catholic sanctuary that includes the original spring, two basilicas, three museums, nine chapels, and other places of worship and meeting rooms. lourdes-france.org

    Source: Atout France — French Government Tourist Office

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Shrine of Padre Pio

    Photo: ian stuart / Alamy

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    No. 13 Shrine of Padre Pio, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy

    Annual Visitors: 6 million

    The relatively modest Our Lady of Grace church (Santa Maria delle Grazie), built in the 1950s, displays the saint’s preserved body, while the adjacent Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church, completed in 2004, vies for your attention with its soaring arches and modern glass façade. conventosantuariopadrepio.it

    Source: Italian Government Tourist Board

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: St. Mark’s Basilica

    Photo: Jeff Siebert

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    No. 16 St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

    Annual Visitors: 5–6 million

    This intricate masterpiece with an elaborate five-domed roof and nearly two acres of mosaics with gold backgrounds covering the walls, arches, cupolas, vaults, and floors is regarded as the finest example of Byzantine art. And no wonder: many of the sculptures and mosaics were stolen directly from Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire during the Crusades. basilicasanmarco.it

    Source: Patriarcato di Venezia

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Basilica of St Francis Assisi

    Photo: Peter Barritt / Alamy

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    No. 17 Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

    Annual Visitors: 5.5 million

    This 13th-century Italian-Gothic basilica was frescoed and painted by some of the most noted artists of the time: Giotto, Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini. Two hilltop churches plus the crypt with the fully intact body of the saint lure pilgrims from around the world. The grand interior of the upper church stands in contrast to the life of poverty and renunciation of earthly pleasures that, as a simple friar and accomplished poet, St. Francis lived. assisionline.com

    Source: ENIT, the Italian Government Tourist Board

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: St. Patrick's Cathedral

    Photo: D. Hurst / Alamy

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    No. 18 St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City

    Annual Visitors: 5.5 million

    This mid-19th-century Neo-Gothic cathedral—with rose windows from Chartres, France, and two 33-story-tall spires—occupies an entire city block among some of the world’s most expensive real estate. This location in the heart of a major city less than half a mile from Grand Central Station and a mile from the United Nations gives plenty of locals and visitors easy access to its splendors. saintpatrickscathedral.org

    Source: St. Patrick’s Cathedral

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Western Wall

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    No. 19 Western Wall, Jerusalem

    Annual Visitors: 5 million

    One of the holiest sites in Judaism is a 187-foot-long stone-block bulwark, the last remaining section of the retaining wall surrounding the courtyard of the Temple Mount begun by King Herod in 20 B.C. and destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Women and men have separate areas of worship along the wall (also called the Wailing Wall and the Kotel), and they must wear particular modest clothing. The adjoining Western Wall Plaza, built in 1967, holds thousands of worshippers. english.thekotel.org

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism (taken from monthly statistics in newspaper articles)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Blue Mosque

    Photo: skywalker

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    No. 20 Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), Istanbul

    Annual Visitors: 5 million

    Intricately patterned blue and white Iznik ceramic tiles depicting cypress trees, fruit, tulips, and calligraphy from the Koran adorn the interior walls, columns, arches, and domes of this early 17th-century house of worship. Built by Sultan Ahmet with the goal of exceeding the beauty of the nearby Hagia Sophia (which was originally a Byzantine church), the Blue Mosque remains one of the few sacred sites in the world with six minarets. kultur.gov.tr

    Source: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion Temple)

    Photo: John Elk III / Alamy

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    No. 21 Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion Temple), Kyoto, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 5 million

    Like the Golden Pavilion less than five miles west, this Zen Buddhist temple was originally built in the late 15th century as a shogun’s retirement villa. But unlike its golden counterpart, Ginkaku-ji isn’t covered with any precious metals. The grounds’ carefully raked white-sand gardens cast their own sparkle in the moonlight and are known as the Sea of Silver Sand; under gray winter skies with thick white snow blanketing the surrounding rocks and trees, the temple’s name seems to fit. japan-guide.com

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Hikawa Shrine

    Photo: Blitzjp / Alamy

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    No. 21 Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine, Saitama, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 5 million

    Legend has it that the fifth emperor, Kosho, established this Shinto shrine more 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. scvb.or.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Lotus Temple

    Photo: iStockphoto

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    No. 23 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. bahai.uga.edu

    Source: Baha’i Temple

  • most-visited sacred sites: Sistine Chapel

    Photo: Brianeuro / Alamy

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    No. 24 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. vaticanstate.va

    Source: Italian National Tourism Office (ENIT)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Church of the Holy Sepulchre

    Photo: iStock

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    No. 25 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. 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. goisrael.com

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Itsukushima Shrine

    Photo: iStock

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    No. 26 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. miyajima.or.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Po Lin Monastery

    Photo: LOOK Die Bildagentur der Fotografen GmbH / Alamy

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    No. 27 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. discoverhongkong.com

    Source: Hong Kong Tourism Board

  • most-visited sacred sites: Trinity Wall Street, NY

    Photo: Leah Reddy / Trinity Wall Street

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    No. 28 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

    Source: Trinity Wall Street

  • most-visited sacred sites: Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)

    Photo: iStock

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    No. 29 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.

    Source: Hagia Sofia Museum

  • most-visited sacred sites: Al-Haram Mosque, Mecca

    Photo: iStock

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    No. 30 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. saudiembassy.net

    Source: Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia

  • most-visited sacred sites: Sagrada Familia

    Photo: iStock

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    No. 31 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. sagradafamilia.cat

    Source: Basilica de Sagrada Familia

  • most-visited sacred sites: Basilica of the Annunciation

    Photo: National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy

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    No. 32 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. goisrael.com

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Mount of Beatitudes

    Photo: Duby Tal / Albatross / Alamy

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    No. 32 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. goisrael.comLyndsey Matthews

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal

    Photo: Hemis / Alamy

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    No. 34 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. chapellenotredamedelamedaillemiraculeuse.com

    Source: Office of Tourism and Congress of Paris

  • most-visited sacred sites: St. Paul's Cathedral

    Photo: Angelo Hornak / Alamy

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    No. 35 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. stpauls.co.uk

    Source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Britain)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Temple Mount

    Photo: Eddie Gerald / Alamy

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    No. 36 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. goisrael.com

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Westminster Abbey

    Photo: Neil McAllister / Alamy

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    No. 37 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. westminster-abbey.org

    Source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Britain)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Baha'i Shrine

    Photo: Jon Arnold Images Ltd / Alamy

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    No. 38 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. goisrael.com

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Mariazell Shrine

    Photo: Jozef Sedmak / Alamy

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    No. 39 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. basilika-mariazell.at

    Source: Mariazell Shrine

  • most-visited sacred sites: St. John the Divine

    Photo: Helena Kubicka de Bragança

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    No. 40 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. stjohndivine.orgLyndsey Matthews

    Source: Cathedral of St. John the Divine

  • most-visited sacred sites: Jokhang Temple, Tibet

    Photo: Best View Stock / Alamy

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    No. 41 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. chinaodysseytours.com

    Source: China Odyssey Tours, Lhasa

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    Tokyo’s Harajuku neighborhood is famous for its loud street fashion (embraced by singer Gwen Stefani, among others), but it’s most popular attraction is hardly a household name. The tranquil Meiji Shrine attracts roughly 30 million annually, as does the Sensoji Temple, making them the world’s most-visited sacred sites.

    These Japanese sites no doubt benefit from their location in Tokyo, a major metropolitan area and significant tourist destination. Most of the local population adheres to Shintoism or Buddhism or both, and religious and cultural traditions encourage families to go to shrines and temples at least once or twice a year, especially around New Year’s, a time called hatsumode.

    While each religion has its holy seasons, there’s always a reason to visit these sites, whether you’re intrigued by the history, art, or simply following a packaged tour. Whatever the day, you’ll find Catholics attending mass at Mexico City’s Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe (No. 3), among casual tourists and others who’ve traveled here expressly to pay their respects to an image of the Virgin Mary.

    Pilgrimage is indeed one of the oldest motives for travel and going strong. The Hajj to the al-Haram mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, is one of the most famous, with 2,927,717 Muslims participating in 2011—an unusually precise tally provided by the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia. For the annual Hindu pilgrimage to Sabarimala in Kerala, India, the visitation estimates varied so widely (anywhere from 3 to 50 million), we felt it was too unreliable to rank officially. We couldn't get a reliable confirmation for India’s Sikh Golden Temple of Amritsar, suggested to receive 10,000 visitors daily, or for Temple Square in Salt Lake City, though, tellingly, the Mormon site purports to be the No. 1 tourist attraction in Utah.

    But we kept digging to determine as best as possible the most travel-inspiring sacred sites—read on for the top results.

    The Methodology:

    We made no distinction between devout religious pilgrims and secular tourists, or between domestic and foreign visitors. Because most of these sacred sites are free and open to the public, it’s impossible to get a completely accurate count of visitors or their reasons for coming. We used numbers and estimates from the sites themselves, tourist boards, government agencies, local newspaper reports and reputable media outlets.

    We restricted our list to holy places associated with Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and other religions that are still commonly practiced, which ruled out ancient sites such as temples to pagan Greek gods, the Mayan pyramids of Central American pyramids, and Stonehenge. And we focused on actual, physical structures, which eliminated items like the Shroud of Turin—shown only every few years—and gatherings like the Kumbh Mela festival, which can draw more than 60 million Hindus when held every 12 years.

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Meiji Shrine

    No. 1 Meiji Shrine and Sensoji-Temple, Tokyo

    Annual Visitors: 30 million each

    Built 100 years ago to honor the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, the tranquil Meiji Shinto shrine is surrounded by a holy forest of 100,000-plus trees. Gardens feature spring azaleas, summer irises, autumn foliage on Japanese maples and gingkoes, and black pines dusted with winter snow. Sensoji, also in central Tokyo, was dedicated to Bodhisattva Kannon, the most compassionate Buddha, in 628. Its five-storied pagoda is dramatically lit at night. Continuing centuries-long tradition, stalls along the temple’s Nakamise Street sell food and goods to visitors—whose numbers swell around New Year’s. meijijingu.or.jp; senso-ji.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Kashi Vishwanath Temple

    No. 2 Kashi Vishwanath Temple, Varanasi, India

    Annual Visitors: 21.9 million

    This temple with its two golden domes sits along the western bank of the Ganges River and, with the Ganges, is the most holy site for all sects of Hinduism. Believers bathe in the river to cleanse their souls and reduce or eliminate the need to be reincarnated. Recently the government has worked to improve the quality of the water, where many millions also make offerings of flowers, food, and floating oil lamps. shrikashivishwanath.org

    Source: India Tourism Office

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Basilica of Our Lady Guadalupe

    No. 3 Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico City

    Annual Visitors: 20 million

    The Old Basilica, begun in the 1500s and completed in 1709, stands in stark contrast to the massive new basilica that was built in the mid-1970s and looks like a sports arena. It is, in fact, designed to hold 50,000 people, who come for mass—celebrated several times daily—and to see an image of the Virgin Mary that is said to have appeared on an apron in 1531. sancta.org

    Source: Mexico Tourism Board

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanams Temple

    No. 4 Tirupati Tirumala Devasthanams Temple, Andhra Pradesh, India

    Annual Visitors: 18.25 million

    A Hindu sect called Vaishnavism that emphasized equality and love began this imposing temple perhaps 1,200 years ago. Legends mentioned this area, and pilgrims and visitors still come to see or worship at the many shrines, halls, and statues throughout the 10-square-mile complex on the 3,200-foot-high Sacred Hill. tirumala.org/maintemple_main.htm

    Source: India Tourism Office

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Notre Dame Cathedral

    No. 5 Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

    Annual Visitors: 13.65 million

    The most-visited tourist attraction in France (and No. 13 worldwide) hardly has a space that’s not filled with statues of saints and angels, 30-foot-diameter stained-glass rose windows depicting Bible stories, or symbolic geometric shapes representing both limits and boundlessness. It’s weathered evolving styles and renovations since its 1345 debut and today is as much an art gallery as a place of worship. notredamedeparis.fr

    Source: Office of Tourism and Congress in Paris

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Sacré Coeur Basilica

    No. 6 Sacré Coeur Basilica, Paris

    Annual Visitors: 10.5 million

    Druids, Gauls, and Romans who once worshipped their gods Mercury and Mars chose this scenic hilltop for their temples. A brilliant white, 19th-century Romano-Byzantine basilica crowns this Hill of Martyrs—with the intent to cleanse it from a violent historical past while wowing visitors with a panoramic view of the city below. sacre-coeur-montmartre.com

    Source: Office of Tourism and Congress in Paris

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Naritasan Shinshoji Temple

    No. 7 Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, Chiba Prefecture, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 10 million

    Proximity to Tokyo’s Narita International Airport makes this Shingon Esoteric Buddhist temple, founded in 940, an easy stop for air travelers with long layovers. For a fee, soothsayers and vending machines promise to reveal your fortune. The temple itself is dedicated to the god of fire, and fire rituals are carried out several times each day. chiba-tour.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine

    No. 7 Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine, Kanagawa Prefecture, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 10 million

    The pleasant walk through gardens, beside cherry trees, under torii gates, and past two ponds with three small bridges and seven islets belies the Shinto shrine’s 12th-century origins as a homage to the god of war. The site’s two-and-a-half-acre Peony Garden is at its most vibrant from mid-April through May, but it also nurtures 500 peonies that actually bloom during January. asahi-net.or.jp/~qm9t-kndu/hachiman.htm

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji Temples

    No. 7 Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji Temples, Kyoto

    Annual Visitors: 10 million and 6 million

    The ancient UNESCO-listed Kiyomizu-dera or “Pure Water Temple” is on the side of Otowa Mountain. Springs feed the Otowa Waterfall, and Buddhist pilgrims drink the sacred water by following strict ritual. Visitors also take in the panoramic view of Kyoto’s city center. On the opposite side of the city, gold leaf covers the top two floors of Kinkaku-ji, a three-story Zen Buddhist temple originally built in the early 15th century for a shogun. While visitors are not allowed inside to see the statues of the Shaka Buddha, Kannon Bodhisattva, and the Four Heavenly Kings, these can sometimes be glimpsed from the far side of the pond in front of the temple. Bring binoculars. kiyomizudera.or.jp; japan-guide.com

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Ise Jingu

    No. 10 Ise Jingu, Ise, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 8.5 million

    Nearly 14,000 acres of this Shinto shrine complex is a “divine forest” of Japanese cypress, but the trees were worshipped here long before temple construction began in the third century. Three museums covering local history, agriculture, and fine arts are on a hill near the center of Ise Jingu, which the Japanese government has designated as a National Treasure. isejingu.or.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: St. Peter’s Basilica

    No. 11 St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, Rome

    Annual Visitors: 7 million

    One of the world’s largest sacred buildings and one of the holiest of Catholic sites, the basilica teems with ornate gold, marble columns, paintings of angels, iconic statues, and works created by a who’s who of Renaissance artists—including Raphael, Brunelleschi, Bernini, and Michelangelo, who sculpted the marble Pietà and designed the basilica’s massive dome. vaticanstate.va

    Source: Italian Government Tourist Board

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Dazaifu Tenmangu

    No. 12 Dazaifu Tenmangu, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 6.6 million

    Six thousand plum trees from 197 species—blooming white, pink, and red in January—surround this Shinto shrine to Michizane Sugawara, a poet and scholar who was deified as the god of calligraphy and literature after his death in the year 903. The site also has camphor trees as old as 1,500 years, fields of iris, and a double-arched bridge over a pond shaped like the ideogram character meaning “heart.” dazaifutenmangu.or.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Cologne Cathedral

    No. 13 Cologne Cathedral, Cologne, Germany

    Annual Visitors: 6 million

    This Gothic monument was a 600-year work in progress completed only in 1880. The payoff is a glorious interior whose arches reach more than 140 feet high and whose dramatic pointed towers soar more than 50 stories—and remain the city’s most notable symbol. Stop to admire the Shrine to the Three Magi, and climb all 533 steps to reach a platform overlooking the Rhine and distant mountains. cologne-tourism.com

    Source: Cologne Tourism Office

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes

    No. 13 Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes, Lourdes, France

    Annual Visitors: 6 million

    A 14-year-old girl named Bernadette Soubirous experienced 18 visions of the Virgin Mary in the Grotto of Massabielle back in 1858. Later, her friend’s arm was said to be healed by spring water in the cave. Now the cavern and surrounding area form a Catholic sanctuary that includes the original spring, two basilicas, three museums, nine chapels, and other places of worship and meeting rooms. lourdes-france.org

    Source: Atout France — French Government Tourist Office

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Shrine of Padre Pio

    No. 13 Shrine of Padre Pio, San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy

    Annual Visitors: 6 million

    The relatively modest Our Lady of Grace church (Santa Maria delle Grazie), built in the 1950s, displays the saint’s preserved body, while the adjacent Padre Pio Pilgrimage Church, completed in 2004, vies for your attention with its soaring arches and modern glass façade. conventosantuariopadrepio.it

    Source: Italian Government Tourist Board

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: St. Mark’s Basilica

    No. 16 St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice

    Annual Visitors: 5–6 million

    This intricate masterpiece with an elaborate five-domed roof and nearly two acres of mosaics with gold backgrounds covering the walls, arches, cupolas, vaults, and floors is regarded as the finest example of Byzantine art. And no wonder: many of the sculptures and mosaics were stolen directly from Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire during the Crusades. basilicasanmarco.it

    Source: Patriarcato di Venezia

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Basilica of St Francis Assisi

    No. 17 Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi

    Annual Visitors: 5.5 million

    This 13th-century Italian-Gothic basilica was frescoed and painted by some of the most noted artists of the time: Giotto, Cimabue, Pietro Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini. Two hilltop churches plus the crypt with the fully intact body of the saint lure pilgrims from around the world. The grand interior of the upper church stands in contrast to the life of poverty and renunciation of earthly pleasures that, as a simple friar and accomplished poet, St. Francis lived. assisionline.com

    Source: ENIT, the Italian Government Tourist Board

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: St. Patrick's Cathedral

    No. 18 St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City

    Annual Visitors: 5.5 million

    This mid-19th-century Neo-Gothic cathedral—with rose windows from Chartres, France, and two 33-story-tall spires—occupies an entire city block among some of the world’s most expensive real estate. This location in the heart of a major city less than half a mile from Grand Central Station and a mile from the United Nations gives plenty of locals and visitors easy access to its splendors. saintpatrickscathedral.org

    Source: St. Patrick’s Cathedral

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Western Wall

    No. 19 Western Wall, Jerusalem

    Annual Visitors: 5 million

    One of the holiest sites in Judaism is a 187-foot-long stone-block bulwark, the last remaining section of the retaining wall surrounding the courtyard of the Temple Mount begun by King Herod in 20 B.C. and destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70. Women and men have separate areas of worship along the wall (also called the Wailing Wall and the Kotel), and they must wear particular modest clothing. The adjoining Western Wall Plaza, built in 1967, holds thousands of worshippers. english.thekotel.org

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism (taken from monthly statistics in newspaper articles)

  • World’s Most-Visited Sacred Sites: Blue Mosque

    No. 20 Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), Istanbul

    Annual Visitors: 5 million

    Intricately patterned blue and white Iznik ceramic tiles depicting cypress trees, fruit, tulips, and calligraphy from the Koran adorn the interior walls, columns, arches, and domes of this early 17th-century house of worship. Built by Sultan Ahmet with the goal of exceeding the beauty of the nearby Hagia Sophia (which was originally a Byzantine church), the Blue Mosque remains one of the few sacred sites in the world with six minarets. kultur.gov.tr

    Source: Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion Temple)

    No. 21 Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion Temple), Kyoto, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 5 million

    Like the Golden Pavilion less than five miles west, this Zen Buddhist temple was originally built in the late 15th century as a shogun’s retirement villa. But unlike its golden counterpart, Ginkaku-ji isn’t covered with any precious metals. The grounds’ carefully raked white-sand gardens cast their own sparkle in the moonlight and are known as the Sea of Silver Sand; under gray winter skies with thick white snow blanketing the surrounding rocks and trees, the temple’s name seems to fit. japan-guide.com

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Hikawa Shrine

    No. 21 Musashi Ichinomiya Hikawa Shrine, Saitama, Japan

    Annual Visitors: 5 million

    Legend has it that the fifth emperor, Kosho, established this Shinto shrine more 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. scvb.or.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Lotus Temple

    No. 23 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. bahai.uga.edu

    Source: Baha’i Temple

  • most-visited sacred sites: Sistine Chapel

    No. 24 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. vaticanstate.va

    Source: Italian National Tourism Office (ENIT)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Church of the Holy Sepulchre

    No. 25 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. 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. goisrael.com

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Itsukushima Shrine

    No. 26 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. miyajima.or.jp

    Source: Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Po Lin Monastery

    No. 27 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. discoverhongkong.com

    Source: Hong Kong Tourism Board

  • most-visited sacred sites: Trinity Wall Street, NY

    No. 28 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

    Source: Trinity Wall Street

  • most-visited sacred sites: Aya Sofya (Hagia Sofia)

    No. 29 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.

    Source: Hagia Sofia Museum

  • most-visited sacred sites: Al-Haram Mosque, Mecca

    No. 30 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. saudiembassy.net

    Source: Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia

  • most-visited sacred sites: Sagrada Familia

    No. 31 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. sagradafamilia.cat

    Source: Basilica de Sagrada Familia

  • most-visited sacred sites: Basilica of the Annunciation

    No. 32 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. goisrael.com

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Mount of Beatitudes

    No. 32 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. goisrael.comLyndsey Matthews

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal

    No. 34 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. chapellenotredamedelamedaillemiraculeuse.com

    Source: Office of Tourism and Congress of Paris

  • most-visited sacred sites: St. Paul's Cathedral

    No. 35 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. stpauls.co.uk

    Source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Britain)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Temple Mount

    No. 36 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. goisrael.com

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Westminster Abbey

    No. 37 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. westminster-abbey.org

    Source: Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (Britain)

  • most-visited sacred sites: Baha'i Shrine

    No. 38 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. goisrael.com

    Source: Israel Ministry of Tourism

  • most-visited sacred sites: Mariazell Shrine

    No. 39 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. basilika-mariazell.at

    Source: Mariazell Shrine

  • most-visited sacred sites: St. John the Divine

    No. 40 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. stjohndivine.orgLyndsey Matthews

    Source: Cathedral of St. John the Divine

  • most-visited sacred sites: Jokhang Temple, Tibet

    No. 41 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. chinaodysseytours.com

    Source: China Odyssey Tours, Lhasa

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