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.
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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.
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.