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Top 10: Spiritual Destinations

Posted on 2/6/2018 12:00:00 AM in The Buzz

Every morning at sunrise, devout Hindus descend the bathing ghats at Varanasi to bathe in the sacred Ganges River.

Regardless of our religious beliefs, there are certain places in the world with undeniable energy—the power to stir our emotions, inspire reflection, or fill us with a sense of peace. These are our 10 favorite destinations to get in touch with our spiritual side, from time-honored temples and rituals to ruins that time forgot. Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive. Is there a place you’d prefer to see here? Tell us where—and why—in an email to harriet@gct.com.

1. Varanasi, India

Settled over 4,000 years ago, Varanasi is perhaps the world’s oldest city. And in that time, it has become the spiritual heart of India. It is the epicenter of Hindu devotion, where pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges, offer prayers, and cremate their dead. But it is also here that Buddhists believe that Buddha gave his first sermon. For visitors of any faith, it is a powerful thing to witness the aarti ceremony at night, when sadhus show their devotion by raising flaming lamps and swinging incense, a ritual as majestic as it is mystical.

Explore Varanasi during …

Heart of India—17-day O.A.T. Small Group Adventure

2. Machu Picchu, Peru

Although it is Peru’s most well-known attraction, Machu Picchu is still shrouded in an aura of mystery. Much of the site is still claimed by the jungle, and archaeologists haven’t decided conclusively what the “lost city” was used for in its heyday; the two most common theories posit that it was either an estate for the Inca emperor, or a sacred religious site for the nobility. The site is located nearly 8,000 feet above sea level, set between two imposing Andean peaks. Visitors can walk among the ruins, discovering key sites like the Temple of the Sun and the ritual stone of Intihuatana; and hike to the Sun Gate for a panoramic view of the site as a whole.

Explore Machu Picchu during …

Machu Picchu & the Galápagos—16-day O.A.T. Small Ship Adventure
Real Affordable Peru—11-day O.A.T. Small Group Adventure

3. Kyoto, Japan

Kyoto was Japan’s capital for over a thousand years, from 794 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. When the capital was shifted to Tokyo, Kyoto had already been firmly established as a center of the arts and a city that embodied Japanese culture at its most refined—and Kyoto remains Japan’s spiritual and cultural heart. Never bombed during World War II, it is home to atmospheric lantern-lined streets, traditional wooden teahouses, and everything one associates with classical Japanese culture. There are some 2,000 Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples here, along with the iconic Golden Pavilion, a five-story wooden structure painted in shimmery gold.

Explore Kyoto during …

Japan’s Cultural Treasures—14-day O.A.T. Small Group Adventure
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4. Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

According to its founding tale, Ubud was established after Hindu priest Rsi Marhandya prayed at the confluence of two rivers, later the site of a sacred shrine. The city first gained notoriety as a medicine center—“ubud” is the Balinese word for medicine. In the 20th century, the people of Ubud requested the Dutch empire incorporate the city as a protectorate. While Ubud is the site of tranquil rice paddies and farms, the Ubud Monkey Forest brings spirituality and an appreciation of nature together. The reserve’s mission is to promote the Hindu principle of tri hata karana—“Three ways to reach spiritual and physical well-being”. These include harmony between humans, harmony between humans and nature (in part with the large monkey population) and harmony between humans and the Supreme God.

Explore Ubud during …

Java & Bali: Indonesia’s Mystical Islands—18-day O.A.T. Small Group Adventure

5. Jerusalem, Israel

Jerusalem is separated into three distinct districts. Behind walls rebuilt by the Ottomans in the 16th century, the Old City contains holy sites for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Temple Mount, the Western Wall, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, all call Jerusalem home. During the day, markets bustle with all kinds of goods—depending on whether in the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, or Armenian quarter. The New City—which is predominantly Jewish—is in the western part of the city. Yet, wherever you find yourself in Jerusalem, the centuries-old stone buildings and multitude of cultures and traditions will inspire awe.

Explore Jerusalem during …

Israel: The Holy Land & Timeless Cultures—17-day O.A.T. Small Group Adventure
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6. Uluru, Australia

The Outback, home to flat, arid plains located in central Australia, is also called the Red Centre. This remote location is also considered the heart of Australia’s original inhabitants, the Aboriginal people, who are among the oldest civilizations on Earth. They are the spiritual caretakers of iconic Uluru—or Ayers Rock—a natural phenomenon in the form of an awe-inspiring 1,142-foot-high natural sandstone monolith. The cave walls are adorned with colorful Aboriginal art depicting kangaroos, frogs, turtles, and the seasons. Uluru, the centerpiece of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, projects red-orange hues that glow, as if lit from within as the sun goes down and twilight sets in.

Explore Uluru during …

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7. Angkor Wat, Cambodia

There is perhaps no more iconic temple than the 12th-century Angkor Wat. Sprawling across 500 acres, it is the single largest religious monument on earth. The handiwork of Suryavarman II was dedicated to Vishnu and meant to invoke Mount Meru, the holiest of places in Hindu mythology. Approached by crossing a vast moat, the complex is a masterwork of balance, detail, and sculptural ingenuity. Among its well-known features are a series of more than 3,000 carved female figures, no two alike. By the 12th century, as Buddhism became the dominant faith, Buddhist details were added, and the temple has been Buddhist ever since.

Explore Angkor Wat during …

Ancient Kingdoms: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam—20-day O.A.T. Small Group Adventure

8. Bhutan

Called everything from “the last Shangri-La” to “paradise on Earth,” Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between India and China. Fiercely protective of its monarchy, culture, and ancient traditions, Bhutan remained almost completely cut off from the outside world for many centuries. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the country began to let in a trickle of foreign visitors. Today, it remains an isolated land of virgin forests, devout Buddhist monks, pastoral villages, ancient clifftop monasteries, and fluttering prayer flags—all more vital than modern innovation in this nation that measures its prosperity in terms of Gross National Happiness.

Explore Bhutan during …

Bhutan: Hidden Kingdom of the Himalayas—14-day O.A.T. Small Group Adventure

9. Ancient Egypt

Egypt is a land of profound majesty and mystery, and a magnet for treasure hunters, history lovers, and adventure seekers. At its heart is the mighty Nile, a true oasis in the desert and the life-blood for Egypt’s enduring history and culture. The first settlers were drawn to its fertile banks in the tenth millennium BC, making Egypt one of the world’s oldest nation states. Over time, these primitive hunter-gatherers evolved into a formidable civilization ruled by pharaohs and marked by incredible prosperity. During their dynasties, these rulers left indelible marks on the Egyptian landscape. Tombs, temples, and monuments sprung up all along the Nile, and relics of their reign are regularly uncovered by eager archaeologists and everyday Egyptians alike.

Explore Egypt during …

NEW! Egypt & the Eternal Nile by Private, Classic River-Yacht—16-day O.A.T. Small Ship Adventure
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10. Delphi, Greece

Perhaps no city epitomizes Greek mysticism better than mountainside Delphi. According to legend, Zeus determined the site to be the center of “Grandmother Earth,” and it was guarded by a faithful python for hundreds of years. Eventually, the python was slain by the god Apollo, who then claimed sacred Delphi as his own. Around the eighth century BC, the ancient Greeks began constructing a sanctuary here to honor their founding deity. The resulting Temple of Apollo was occupied by the Pythia, a high priestess who served as the mouthpiece of Delphi’s patron god with her cryptic, divine insights into the future.

Explore Delphi during …

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