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.
Though the poet John Keats didn't write his famous lines declaring "beauty is truth, truth beauty" until the 1800's, many of the world's religions have long understood that spiritual truth—as well as inspiration, strength, and peace—can be encouraged by a lovely setting. From a remote monastery that clings to the side of a cliff to a lotus-shaped marvel of modern architecture, we've put together a list of some of the world's most beautiful temples. Some are ancient and out of commission, others continue to welcome worshippers, but all are sure to inspire a moment or two of reflection—and plenty of clicks of the camera.
Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia
Just outside the city of Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia, lies a vast complex of ancient temples so breathtaking they've become a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a national symbol. In the 1960s, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy ventured here despite the Vietnam War raging across the border just to see the site; more recently, portions of Angelina Jolie's first Tomb Raider movie was filmed in one of its tangled, tree-filled ruins. The main "city temple" is a 12th-century structure that began as a homage to the Hindu god Vishnu, then switched to a Buddhist sanctuary in the 16th century. An example of Cambodian Khmer architecture—with three rectangular galleries, central towers, a moat, and elaborate bas-relief carvings illustrating scenes from Indian mythology—Angkor Wat is the best-preserved of the region's temple complexes and has been in fairly regular use since its creation. Today, visitors flock here during sunrise and sunset for the best photos of the towers—an iconic view featured on Cambodia's flag.
How to Go: Angkor Wat is about two-and-a-half miles north of Siem Reap, and can be reached by taxi (about $25 per day) or tuk-tuk ($6-$9 per day). Passes to the Angkor Archeological Park, which includes the Angkor Wat temple, are U.S. $20 for one day, $40 for three days; passes can be purchased at the main entry gate.
Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar, India
Commonly known as the Golden Temple, this shimmering holy place is the most famous gurdwara, or "gateway to the Gurus," for Sikhs in India. Initial construction began on the temple in 1588; the signature external gold plating and marble—and internal Islamic-style frescos and gemstone work—were added in the early 1800s. Surrounded by a sacred lake known as Amrit Sarovar (Pool of Nectar), the gurdwara features four entrances to symbolize the importance of being accepting and open. Inside, you'll find shrines to Sikh gurus and saints, decorative marble work, and plaques commemorating historical events, including a memorial to Sikh soldiers from the world wars. Still in daily use and a popular pilgrimage destination, the temple is open to all. Guests can view the nightly processional of the holy scripture, join with the 35,000 or so people per day who are fed for free in the communal dining hall, and even volunteer to help with temple chores.
How to Go: Harmandir Sahib is located in the Punjab city of Amritsar, in northwestern India; it's about a one-hour flight from New Delhi. Entrance to the temple complex, which includes several buildings and a museum, is free. Visitors are asked to show respect by covering their heads (bandanas are available for free and for sale), removing their shoes, and washing their feet before entering.
Temple of Heaven, Beijing, China
Centered around a triple-gabled circular structure that points to the sky, this temple complex in southeastern Beijing was built in the early 1400s by the same Ming Dynasty Emperor Yongle who oversaw the creation of the Forbidden City. Over the following centuries, emperors and noble folk would visit the Taoist site (renamed Temple of Heaven in the 1500s) to pray for a good harvest, until various armies (including the Anglo-French Alliance) occupied the buildings during times of war. Declared a public park in 1918 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, the grounds feature the iconic Hall of Prayers for Abundant Harvest, a colorfully painted three-story circular wooden structure constructed without the use of nails, as well as a prayer hall and a round altar surrounded by carvings of dragons. Note the dark-blue tile roofs on all the buildings, symbolizing heaven.
How to Go: The East Gate entrance to the complex is accessible via Beijing's subway line (take No. 5 to Tiantan Dongmen Station) and several public bus lines (including numbers 6, 35, and 36.) Opening times vary by season, but the historical buildings are typically open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. It's about $2.50 to visit all three sections of the park, including the temple.