13 Most Beautiful Temples
Travelers of all faiths will be touched by these stunning sites, many of which are at the heart of some of the world's major religions. See what divine inspiration can produce—from well-known temples like Angkor Wat in Cambodia to hidden gems like Kiyomizu-dera in Japan.
Ta'er Monastery, Lusha'er, Tibet
Legend has it that Tsongkhapa, the 14th-century founder of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect of Tibetan Buddhism, was born under a sandalwood tree around which this holy site now stands. Considered one of the most important monasteries in Tibet, Ta'er, also known as Kumbum, was founded in 1560 as a place of meditation for seven monks; by the end of that century, and on the orders of the 3rd Dalai Lama, the main building was enlarged, a prayer festival inaugurated, and a protective temple built around the holy Tree of Great Merit. The complex includes more than 30 temples—the most revered of which is the four-storied Large Gold Tile Hall. Topped with a pure-gold paste roof, the temple is filled with silk brocade banners, gold and silver lamps, and important relics. The interior is lit primarily by the glow of countless small butter-burning vessels, creating a mystical, meditative vibe. The site is also a popular tourist attraction for its life-sized-and life-like-yak butter sculptures; new ones are created every Chinese Lunar New Year.
How to Go: Ta'eris set in a valley about 16 miles southwest of the city of Xining, in the historical Amdo province of Tibet. Taxis are the easiest way to get there. Entrance is about $13 per person, $7 for students.
Baha'i House of Worship (Lotus Temple), New Delhi, India
Known as the Lotus Temple for the flower it represents, the Baha'i House of Worship has attracted more than 70 million visitors since opening in 1986—making it one of the most visited buildings in the world. The structure was designed by Iranian architect Fariborz Sahba to feature 27 free-standing "leaves" arranged to form nine sides; the outer surface is covered with white marble panels from the Pentelikon Mountain in Greece. Nine doors lead to a vast, unadorned central hall, which is open to people of all faiths, while the grounds include nine ponds and extensive gardens stocked with indigenous plants and flowers. Often called "the Taj Mahal of the 20th century," the temple has earned numerous architectural and design awards.
How to Go: The House of Worship is located in southern New Delhi, about 11 miles from the international airport; taxis are the best way to go. Admission is free to the temple, which is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. (winter) and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (summer); the informative visitors' center opens 30-minutes later than the temple.
Taktsang Palphug Monastery, Paro Valley, Bhutan
A dramatic cliff's-edge location has helped make this holy site one of the most popular photo ops in Bhutan. Also known as the Tiger's Nest, this Himalayan Buddhist complex clings to the face of a 10,000-plus foot granite mountain looming over the upper Paro valley. Lore goes that it was in a cave (Paro Taktsang) on this site that Guru Padmasambhava (a.k.a. Guru Rinpoche)—an 8th-century holy man credited with introducing Buddhism to Bhutan—meditated for three months before re-emerging as eight spiritual incarnations. In the following centuries, many Tibetan saints and Lamas ventured here to meditate in the caves and establish monasteries, but it wasn't until 1692 that the formal Temple of the Guru with Eight Names was built by a man named Tenzin Rabgye, the fourth spiritual leader of Bhutan. Today, the complex includes a monastery, residences, four temples, and the meditation caves; the original Rinpoche cave how houses the holy scripture and a dozen paintings lit by butter lamps. The main monastery, parts of which were re-built in 2005 following a fire, also features dozens of notable artworks, such as the Copper-Colored Mountain Paradise of Padmasambahva, depicting local legends. The buildings are linked by steep stone steps and wooden bridges built in harmony with the stunning natural setting.
How to Go: The monastery is located about six miles north of Paro, and is accessible via paths and horse and donkey tracks cut through the pine forests and alongside waterfalls. It's about a two-hour trek to get there, but only practicing Buddhists are typically granted permission to visit the main monastery itself, and the holy cave is only open for viewing once a year. Most visitors trek up to a smaller monastery and temple—also set on a cliff—from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Tiger's Nest from across a ravine. There is a cafeteria here where hikers can rest and re-fuel.
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar
Known also as the Great Dagon Pagoda or the Golden Pagoda, this Buddhist site's golden stupa watches over the Yangon city skyline from its perch on Singuttara Hill. According to legend, the pagoda is over 2,500 years old, and was founded by two brothers who had journeyed to India, met Lord Buddha, and came back with eight strands of his hair. When the strands were placed here alongside relics of previous Buddhas, it is said that miracles began to happen, from the curing of the deaf to the blooming of the Himalayan trees. Historians and archeologists, meanwhile, date the pagoda to sometime between the 6th and 10th centuries, but all can agree that because of the presence of these major relics, this is one of the most sacred sites for Burmese Buddhists. Standing about 325 feet high, the pagoda and multi-tiered stupa are topped by a 76-carat diamond and covered with real gold donated by generations of Burmese people; the tradition began in the 1400s when a Queen donated her weight in gold, and continues to this day. Past vendors selling incense, candles, prayer flags and other items needed for ceremonies, visitors will find giant statues of mythological lions, a 19th-century bell, and various shrines and prayer pavilions, along with a steady stream of monks and worshippers.