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.
While each religion has its holy seasons, there’s always a reason to visit sacred 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. But that doesn’t mean pilgrims’ destinations are necessarily the most-visited sacred sites. Some of the popular spots may surprise you. And the huge number of visitors they attract will make you a believer in their power.
No. 1 Meiji Shrine and Sensoji-Temple
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.
No. 2 Kashi Vishwanath Temple
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.
No. 3 Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe
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.
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.
No. 5 Notre Dame Cathedral
Annual Visitors: 13.65 million
The most-visited tourist attraction in France (see the world's top tourist attractions) 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.
No. 6 Sacré Coeur Basilica
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.
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.
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 an 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.
No. 7 Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji Temples
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.
No. 10 Ise Jingu
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.
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