29 Jaw-Dropping Photos Of Holy Places Around The Globe, From Tantric Temples To Cliffside Monasteries
By Erin Kelly | Edited By Cara Johnson
Published December 9, 2022
Updated December 12, 2022
From Greece to Bali, these breathtaking sites around the world have attracted spiritual seekers for centuries — and they're still bringing in countless visitors today.
Have you ever found yourself somewhere that evoked a feeling of transcendence? Maybe it sent shivers down your spine or quickly moved you to tears. Perhaps it even made you feel enlightened in some way. The following sites and holy places from around the world tend to draw out these feelings in visitors.
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Encircled by mountains, Bali's floating 17th-century Ulun Danu Bratan Temple is a mesmerizing complex with four sacred buildings devoted to Hindu gods. A thin mist often hangs in the air over the stunningly clear Lake Bratan on which the 11-tier pagoda sits, creating a dreamy and surreal atmosphere. Besides worship, this iconic sanctuary often holds ceremonies dedicated to the Balinese water goddess, Dewi Danu. Pexels
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Surrounded by tropical rainforests and a wilderness sanctuary in southwestern Sri Lanka is Adam's Peak, a mountain referenced in poems and literature since the 6th century. It's revered by Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists — and has been a pilgrimage climb for over a millennium. At the summit is a five-foot-long, footprint-shaped depression in the bedrock that all four religions hold sacred. Three Sri Lankan rivers originate from this location, which is also rich in sapphires, rubies, and garnets.Eli Solidum/Wikimedia Commons
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The spatial dimensions of Cambodia's symbolic, art-filled, 12th-century temple of Angkor Wat parallel the lengths of the four ages of classical Hindu thought. Therefore, it's said that if you go through the main entrance of Angkor Wat and walk through the courtyards to the main tower, you are metaphorically traveling back in time — to the age of the creation of the universe. lecercle/Flickr
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One of the largest Buddhist stupas, the 14th-century monument of Boudhanath in Nepal features a pair of all-knowing eyes gazing outward in each direction. Legend says that the Tibetan king Songtsen Gampo built this temple as an act of atonement for accidentally killing his father. It is a testament to the Buddha’s path towards enlightenment, and some even say it contains one of the bones of the historical Buddha himself, Siddhartha Gautama.MichaelFoleyPhotography/Flickr
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The Borobudur Temple Compounds date back to the 8th and 9th centuries. The Buddhist monument is located in the Kedu Valley at the center of Indonesia's Java island. It's modeled after the conception of the universe in cosmology, wherein the three superimposing spheres of the Buddhist universe (kamadhatu, rupadhatu, and arupadhatu) are represented by the base, square terraces, and circular platforms. Borobudur Temple was utilized for worship from its construction until it was abandoned sometime between the 10th and 15th centuries. It's now an archaeological site. stuckincustoms/Flickr
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The holy Badrinath Temple in India contains a shrine of Badrinatha (the Hindu deity Vishnu), and people have made pilgrimages here and to the purifying waters of the Ganges River for over 2,000 years. Philosopher and saint Adi Shankaracharya is thought to have built the temple sometime during the 8th century. Badrinath also has a boulder said to have an imprint of the mythical snake-serpent Sesha Naag — a force of Vishnu who as the king of serpents brings balance to the earth and other planets.Sumita Roy Dutta/Wikimedia Commons
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The Baha'i House of Worship, dedicated in 1953, is the only temple of the Baha'i faith in North America and one of nine in the world. The Baha'i are rooted in the oneness of humanity and the abolition of racial, class, and religious prejudices. Interior mathematical lines, symbolizing those of the universe, and merging circles visually celebrate this oneness.
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The Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey is an imperial mosque constructed between 1609 and 1616 that contains the tomb of Ahmed I, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Its blue aura shines inside and out, with blue tiles on interior walls, 200 stained-glass windows, and blue lights illuminating the exterior at night. With Qur'an verses inscribed on the walls by the greatest calligrapher of the 17th century and floors adorned with carpets donated by patrons, the emotional and historical ties experienced here are strong. jlascar/Flickr
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People say that all of Arizona's Sedona area is an energy vortex but that four areas in particular hold special powers. Visitors revere Boynton Canyon as one of those places that is both sacred and powerful, a cathedral unbound by walls. Walk the trail to gaze upon the giant rock formations, burnished-red cliffs, and desert gardens — and maybe even have an uplifting and recharging experience.alanenglish/Flickr
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The Chilean Andes are akin to a backbone that travels 5,000 miles through South America — and in doing so has isolated Chile from the rest of the world by containing it on all sides. "While it has a geographic element," filmmaker Patricio Guzmán says, "it also has a deeper spiritual element that can transform the mountains into a metaphor, a door or gateway into the dreams." Indeed, people report seeing flashing or glowing lights here. Carlos Adampol Galindo/Wikimedia Commons
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The church of St. George in Lalibela, Ethiopia is a rock-hewn church carved directly into the ground. The volcanic rock structure represents the metaphorical heart of Ethiopia, and mythology states that King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela had an apparition of an angel that instructed him to build a structure which could draw the heavens down to Earth. People say that same angel visited and blessed all present on the day the church was completed and that the hoof prints of the white horse the king rode on that day are imprinted in the surrounding rocks.bryantighe/Flickr
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Kizhi Pogost, or the Church of the Transfiguration, in Petrozavodsk, Russia is an octagonal, ornate structure made entirely of wood and built by craftsmen using mysterious ancient techniques. (It is said to have been built without a single nail.) In fact, contemporary engineers cannot fully explain how the structure is supported, and this only adds to its other-worldliness. Since the church is unheated, it's used just once a year on August 19th, the Orthodox Feast of the Transfiguration.Wikimedia Commons
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As a sacred site to Native Americans, Wyoming's Devil's Tower represents the legend of a bear who chased two young girls onto a hill, which then grew in size to save the children. The bear tried to climb the tower — scratching the sides with its claws — before it gave up. Geologists found that Devil's Tower was formed as a result of a volcanic eruption, with the cooling magma creating its tell-tale lines. jamiedfw/Flickr
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It may just seem like hill with a tower, but the legendary Glastonbury Tor in the U.K. is home to all that remains of the 14th-century church of St. Michael, which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. In legend, the manmade terraces surrounding it form a maze imbued with magical symbolism, and the unusual geology of the rock mysteriously causes the two springs below it to run with different waters. Furthermore, it's believed that there's a hidden cave under the hill that leads to the fairy realm of Annwn, where the lord of the Celtic underworld lives.neilsingapore/Flickr
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The Great Pyramids at Giza were built to last forever, and the pharaohs entombed there expected to become equally immortal as gods in the afterlife. Some visitors view Egypt as a sacred homeland, and they visit in the hopes of experiencing a holy transformation. People who visit for this mystery and magic seem to rarely leave disappointed. The Giza Pyramid is not only a tomb but a celebration of life itself. Morhaf Kamal Aljanee/Wikimedia Commons
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Located in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, the small French village of Lourdes is known for miracles attributed to its holy spring waters. During a candlelight procession one evening, an onlooker noted, "There was an unexplainable power, a motivating strength emanating from their belief."Marschnell/Wikimedia Commons
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In the Sierra Madre mountains of Guatemala is Lake Atitlán, where turquoise waters are surrounded by green valleys, giant volcanoes, and seven Maya towns. The local spiritual traditions blend both ancient Maya and indigenous beliefs with a variety of Catholic traditions. Lake Atitlán is another example of what people call an energy vortex, and the lake — the deepest in Central America — is said to have healing powers. EdMar/Pxhere
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Inside the ancient Incan site of Machu Picchu, Peru, there are many places where people have a sense of awakening and powerful forces. An electromagnetic subterranean energy is specifically strong in the Inca Citadel. This ruin is thought to be responsible for many healings and spiritual awakenings. One of the more popular features here is the Sacred Rock of Machu Picchu, which many touch to internalize its powerful vibration. Diego Delso/Wikimedia Commons
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Perched on the huge cliffside of Meteora in Greece, there are six monasteries people visit to experience the serenity, spiritualism, and mysticism that few other places on Earth possess. These monasteries provide a unique perspective of the grandeur of nature — alongside the history of our desire to connect with something bigger than ourselves.Dan Lundberg/Flickr
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It's an active volcano that has the power to destroy the island if it erupts, but that's not why Mount Agung leaves people in awe. It's also Balinese culture’s most sacred mountain and is believed to be the home of the supreme manifestation of Lord Shiva, Mahadewa. It's said the mountain was once a part of Mount Meru, a cosmological summit considered to be the center of all the universes: the physical, the metaphysical, and the spiritual.Michael W. Ishak/Wikimedia Commons
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Jirisan is the largest terrestrial national park in Korea, and it contains the mainland's tallest mountain peak, at 6,283 feet. Along the valleys and ridges are trails that create a surreal and immersive landscape. There are seven Buddhist temples on Jirisan's mountain (the oldest being constructed in 544 C.E.), making the history here storied and the views awe-inspiring.
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Mt. Sinai is the sacred peak in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. It's here, according to the Bible, that Moses received the Ten Commandments. As such, it is a place of divine revelation in the history of both Judaism and Christianity. The spiritual history here is rich. The monastery of St. Catherine (built in 530 C.E.) still sits at the northern foot of the mountain and is likely the world’s oldest continuously-inhabited Christian monastery, with a few monks still residing there. alljengi/Wikimedia Commons
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The dense forest of the Osun Sacred Grove in southern Nigeria is regarded as the home of Osun, the goddess of fertility. The grove and its meandering river are populated with sanctuaries, shrines, sculptures, and artwork honoring Osun and other deities. It's an active religious site where worship takes place, and it's host to an annual festival that aims to re-establish the mystic bonds between the goddess Osun and the people of the town of Osogbo. jbdodane/Flickr
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The cliffside monastery complex of Paro Taktsang in Bhutan houses the lair in which a Tantric Buddhist named Padmasambava reportedly meditated for nearly four months back in the 700s. Called the Tiger's Nest, this lair is where the royal subdued local demons and began converting the Bhutanese to Buddhism.robert_glod/Flickr
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Sagrada Familia, the landmark cathedral in Barcelona, is one of the masterpieces of architect Antoni Gaudí, but it's also been over 140 years in the making. The intense, sculptural nature of this church always elicits a visceral response from visitors, and few leave without feeling captivated by its grandiosity, curvatures, and the play of color from lights streaming in from the stained glass windows. Liam Gant/Pexels
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The stunning Shwedagon Pagoda is one of the most sacred religious reliquary monuments in the world. Perhaps its most famous relic is eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama Buddha, but there are other relics from more recent Buddhas as well. The main stupa is covered in gold and diamonds, and the site's design is based in Hinducosmology (the Hindu-Buddhist cosmos) and reflects that cosmos here on Earth. Bjørn Christian Tørrissen/Wikimedia Commons
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The famous four Stones of Stenness in Scotland are all that remain of a great 12-stone hearth on an ancient ceremonial site constructed sometime during the third millennium B.C.E. People began noticing that sheep were drawn to the inside of the circle, and so in 1977, a team of experts in geology, physics, archaeology, chemistry, and electronics began studying ancient rings and found that there were measurable "anomalies in radiation, magnetism, apparent ultrasound, radio propagation, infra-red photography, and other areas" inside them. Wilson44691/Wikimedia Commons
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The walled city of Tulum is on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula and is one of the last places the ancient Maya called home. It's located on cliffs that overlook the Caribbean Sea and provokes a deep, mystical experience in visitors. People attribute this to the the energy of the Maya or perhaps the geophysical effects of a long-ago meteor impact. thewidewideworld/Flickr
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The giant, 550-million-year-old sandstone monolith of Uluru is one of Australia's most recognizable (and spiritually significant) landmarks. Aboriginal people here, the Anangu, view the whole national park as a place where the Earth and memories co-exist as one, and the color-changing of Ayers Rock between ochre and dark orange and intense red during sunrises and sunsets is said to be a life-changing experience. Corey Leopold/Wikimedia Commons
29 Jaw-Dropping Photos Of Holy Places Around The Globe, From Tantric Temples To Cliffside Monasteries
What is it, exactly, that causes this phenomenon? According to The Guardian, the Celtic Christians called these specific sites thin places — "rare locales where the distance between heaven and Earth collapses."
It's fairly easy to understand how someone may have a visceral reaction to certain religious sites. Traditionally, holy places are already hotbeds of heightened emotions: love, elation, guilt, fear. However, people with no religious affiliation also report that certain sites bring about that feeling of mysterious energy.
So what about those who visit the Andes or some ruins in Mexico and feel as though they could cross over into another plane of existence? Are thin places real, or are there other forces at play?
What If The Earth Itself Creates The Holy Place?
Perhaps it's an energy vortex that's weakening the walls at these sites. As explained by Dwight Garner for The New York Times, these are "spots where the earth's energy is supposedly increased." Furthermore, this could lead to a greater sense of awareness of the world and your place in it.
Many thin places happen to be outdoors, or at least in more remote areas. From as far back as Hippocrates, who claimed that "nature itself is the best physician," according to Harvard University, we've known about the restorative effects of simply being outside.
Why are certain sites or holy places more prone to these effects, though? Perhaps it's less of a vortex and more of a direct force: electromagnetism.
Vyacheslav Argenberg/Wikimedia CommonsA Buddhist temple at the base of Adam's Peak in Sri Lanka. Every morning at sunrise, hundreds of people climb to the top of the mountain to witness the magical view.
"We're electrical beings living in a magnetic environment," scientist Louis Slesin told Psychology Today. "Because we're finely tuned to subtle energy fields, when they vary, as they would on top of a mountain, we change biologically and psychologically too".
Beneath the surface of the Earth, geophysical forces interact and can cause shifts, the most violent of which cause earthquakes and increased seismic pressure. This can spread electrical fields across large landscapes and through the atmosphere.
"The resulting electromagnetic fields can directly stimulate some observers' brains, provoking psychological phenomena reinforced by their own personal histories," notes Michael Persinger, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario.
Radiation anomalies also exist throughout the universe. It is a natural part of the network of geological forces and at some level could deliver homeopathic doses that could be considered "healing."
How 'Emotional Residue' May Cause A Shift In Perspective
Like other types of energy, emotional residue is the idea that emotions can hang around a physical environment, oftentimes long after the original people who experienced those emotions are gone.
Those of Indian descent are more apt to declare their belief in the power of emotional residue. However, research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology indicates that when asked in subtle ways, most of the population agrees. Moreover, they do so intuitively, without being taught the concept.
David Spender/Wikimedia Commons Some visitors report that the Blue Mosque in Istanbul has such high levels of positive energy that they feel at peace even when amidst the crowd of tourists.
Neuroscience also proves that our actions and thoughts can easily be influenced not only by our genes and history but also by our environment. We readily accept that our development influences our behaviors and thought patterns but somehow discount that where we are in physical space plays into the mix.
Holy Spaces And Thin Places Are Exactly Where You Think They Are
There's also the simple power of suggestion — that a place is as mystical, spiritual, or meaningful as you think it is. If you go in expecting you'll be moved in some way, you probably will be.
Furthermore, Homo sapiens have always craved emotional stimulation, from our earliest artworks to our efforts to understand symbolism.
Going way back in history, most of us made our homes in dark huts with little stimulation surrounding us. Imagine what it would be like to walk into Armenia's 100-foot-long, 65-foot-tall Etchmiadzin Cathedral in 303 C.E., when it was built.
To say it would "blow your mind" is likely an understatement. Today, we can still be incredibly humbled by the sheer size or perceived importance of a place. However, now it takes visiting the peak of a tall mountain or a revered piece of architecture to achieve that same sense of awe.
An All That’s Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she’s designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.