VACATION IDEAS

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.

By Sandra Ramani, Friday, Apr 27, 2012, 7:00 AM

The dark-blue tile roofs on all the buildings at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, China symbolize heaven, of course.

(Zhiwei Zhou / Dreamstime.com)

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.

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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.

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.

How to Go: Though notables from Rudyard Kipling to Hillary Clinton have visited the pagoda, travel to Myanmar is still not easy for the average tourist. Once in Yangon, the capital, take a taxi (about $3) to the Pagoda, which is on a hill outside town. Entrance is $5, and ticket booths are located at the southern and eastern entrances. (The southern entrance has both stairs and elevators.) Visitors must remove their shoes before entering (bring a plastic bag to carry them with you) and tourists are requested to wear at least knee-length shorts and to cover legs and arms halfway; sarongs are available if needed. Note that the terraces above the stupa's base are only open to men.

Ramanathaswamy Jyotirlinga Temple, Rameswaram, India

The island village of Rameswaram, in southern India, has become a major pilgrimage destination thanks to this famous temple dedicated to the god Shiva. Located near the sea on the island's eastern side, the site has a connection to the ancient Hindu epic the Ramayana; it's said that Lord Rama himself placed the Shivalinga, or diety, at this location at the urging of the saints. The temple itself was built in the 12th century, then expanded in the 1500s and 1600s, and has the hallmarks of ancient south Indian temple architecture, including a high compound wall, huge gopurams (flat-topped, carving-covered towers), tanks of holy spring water (there are 22 here), and various shrines and inner sanctums. Most breathtaking are the corridors: the interior ones run between colonnades and sandstone pillars, while the outer set—the longest in a temple in India, at about 4,000 feet—is lined with thousands of carved pillars and sculptures. The complex is one of the holiest sites for Hindus—particularly those who worship Shiva and Vishnu.

How to Go: Rameswaram is linked by train to major southern cities like Bangalore and Chennai, which have international airports. Entrance to the temple complex is free, though visitors will likely be approached by guides offering their services for about $8-$10.

Wat Rong Khun, Chiang Rai, Thailand

Where do important Buddhist relics live alongside images of Keanu Reeves from The Matrix? At this unconventional temple in northern Thailand. Built by artist Chalermchai Kositpipat between 1998-2008, The White Temple, as it's known, looks like the winter palace of some fairy tale queen, with its intricately carved all-white structure and elaborate, icicle-like towers. The temple honors the Buddhist faith: The white color represents Lord Buddha's purity, the white mirrored glass in the facade the brightness of Lord Buddha's wisdom, and the entryway bridge the crossing over from the cycle of rebirth. Inside, the walls, floor and ceiling of the assembly hall are adorned with gold-toned paintings of subjects from the spiritual and natural worlds, as well as the modern—so you'll find Batman, Superman, Predator and, yes, Keanu among the images. Eventually, the complex will contain nine buildings, including a hall for relics, monks' cells, meditation areas, and an art gallery.

How to Go: Chiang Rai is located in northern Thailand, and is linked by regular flights from Bangkok. The temple is located about nine miles south of town, and is accessible by taxi, tuk-tuk, or shared public vans. The temple is open daily until 5 p.m.; entrance is free.

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto, Japan

Not a single nail was used in the construction of this Buddhist temple—a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site—in eastern Kyoto. Though there has been some type of temple on this site since the late 700s, this current structure was built in 1633, and named Kiyomizu—or "pure water"—in honor of the waterfall located in the complex. The main hall features 139 tall pillars, and houses a statue of the eleven-faced, thousand-armed god Kannon, and spacious terraces that jut out over the surrounding hillside, and overlook cherry and maple trees. (It was once thought that if you could survive a jump off one of these platforms your wishes would be granted, but that practice is now forbidden.) Below the hall, three streams come together to form the Otowa waterfall, which is said to have healing properties, and visitors are welcome to take a sip—though it's considered greedy to drink from all three streams. The complex also houses shrines to various gods, including Jishu, the god of "matchmaking," plus 200 stone statues of Jizo, protector of children and travelers, and a three-storied pagoda where one can pray for safe childbirth. Vendors around the site peddle items like good luck charms and incense, and the temple gets lit up for special events throughout the year.

How to Go: Take bus number 100 or 206 from central Kyoto to the Gojo-zaka stop, then walk about 10 minutes uphill to the site. The temple is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; entrance is about $3.60 regularly, $5 when they have the lighting decorations. Note that various parts of the complex will be undergoing renovation through March 2013.

Ulun Danu Bratan Temple, Bali, Indonesia

Along with Tanah Lot, this water temple in central Bali is one of the most iconic and photographed spiritual sites in Bali—which is saying something on an island renowned for its pious destinations. (The temple even appears on Indonesian paper currency.) Built in 1633 on the western shores of Lake Bratan, for which it is named, the Balinese Hindu temple pays homage to the god Shiva as well as local lake and river goddess Dewi Batari, to whom the locals appeal to protect this important irrigation region. The lake and its goddess also watch over fertility, so many ceremonies are conducted at the temple in the name of fertility and prosperity. Set on a plateau and backed by views of the lush tropical mountains, the four-temple complex is centered around an 11-tiered tower, or pelinggih meru, that honors Shiva and his wife, Parvati. Elaborate ceremonies are conduced here every six and 12 months, based on holy days in the Balinese Hindu calendar.

How to Go: Also known as Pura Bratan, the temple is located near the village of Bedugal in central Bali, about 32 miles from capital city Denpasar and its international airport, and about a two-hour drive from Ubud. Driving or taking a taxi is the easiest way to find the serene site. Opening times are 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; entrance is about $1. Sarongs are available for visitors who arrive with bare arms or legs.

Taoist Temple, Cebu, Philippines

Three separate, winding entries lead to this colorful, multi-tiered temple set 984 feet above sea level on the beautiful island of Cebu, one of the top vacation spots in the Philippines. Funded primarily by Cebu's Chinese community, the temple was built in 1972, and serves as a center for Taoist practices. Past an entrance designed to evoke the Great Wall of China, the complex includes a chapel, wishing well, library and shop, as well as elaborate dragon carvings and panoramic views over downtown. Once inside, you may spy worshippers following rituals like dropping two blocks of wood inside the chapel (if the blocks land face up you may make a wish) or, on Wednesdays and Sundays, climbing 81 steps (representing the number of Taoist scriptures) to have their fortunes read by the monks.

How to Go: Cebu is a 75-minute flight from Manila. The temple is located in Cebu City's Beverly Hills Subdivision, which is outside of the city center; taxis are your best bet. There is no entry fee, but depending on the crowds your visit may be limited to one hour.

Malibu Hindu Temple, California, United States

Spread out over 4.5 acres in the Santa Monica Mountains, this much-photographed temple has been serving Southern California's Hindu community since 1981. The temple was built in the traditional South Indian style, with a carved flat-topped tower, or gopuram; unlike many in India, though, this example is all-white instead of colorfully painted, giving it an elegant air and making for great photos against the blue SoCal skies. The upper part of the complex is dedicated primarily to the god Venkateswara and the lower to Shiva, though both sections also have shrines to a variety of deities. The rest of the property includes areas for meditation and picnics, performance and cultural event spaces, and housing for the priests. There is also a temple kitchen that serves a vegetarian lunch on Saturday and Sunday.

How to Go: The temple is located at 1600 Las Virgenes Canyon Road, a short drive from the town of Calabasas. It opens daily at 9 a.m. and closes between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., depending on the season; note that on weekdays, it is also closed from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. Aarathi blessing ceremonies are conducted by the priests twice a day and cost $5. Admisson is free and all are welcome (Britney Spears even had one of her sons blessed here).

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