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Travel can spark a spiritual awakening. When we’re taken out of our day-to-day to enjoy a new environment, we’re often observing with relaxed intention, and glimmers of enlightenment can sneak up on us, revealing things about ourselves and the universe that get clouded in the day-to-day. Certain settings, however, are well-known for transforming visitors in a spiritual (and sometimes religious) sense, and are sought out for that very purpose. Here are some of the most revered spiritual settings around that are open to all (sorry, Mecca).

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Vatican City

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This smallest country in the world (only .2 square miles and located within Rome) is the center of the Roman-Catholic Church. No need to be religious to find inspiration in its amazing feats of architecture and art, however. From St. Peter’s Square to St. Peter’s Basilica to the Vatican Museums—where Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel continues to wow visitors—the setting awakens an internal reverence as much as it does a holy one for devout Catholics. Just make sure you’re dressed appropriately for the visit: shoulders and knees must be covered to enter St. Peter’s.

Insider tip Come see the Pope as he gives a free public papal audience every Wednesday morning. Or time a trip when you can get tickets for an exclusive experience in the maze of catacombs beneath St. Peter’s Basilica (where St. Peter himself is said to be buried). Only 250 people are allowed each day on the Scavi Tour; reserve months in advance to guarantee a spot.

 

Bodh Gaya, India

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The Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya is the holiest of Buddhist temples. It’s here where the Buddha found enlightenment, under a sacred Bodhi tree. Perhaps you will, too? Legend says Prince Siddhartha Guatama spent 49 days in meditation beneath the tree before awakening as the Buddha – this was more than 2,600 years ago. Today, pilgrims from around the world travel to Bodhgaya to meditate, pray and study.

Insider tip: Time a trip in December or January, when the Dalai Lama is in Bodygaya and gives public talks.

 

Sedona, Arizona

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The New Age mecca has been attracting mystics, yogis and meaning-of-life seekers since the 1970s, thanks in large part to its concentration of vortexes, or earthly sites said to release powerful psychic energy.

Insider tip: As one of only 14 dark sky communities across the USA, Sedona gets very, very dark at night, which makes it ideal for stargazing. Contemplate your significance in this vast universe by spending time looking up at the night sky.

 

Old City of Jerusalem, Israel

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Wandering the narrow, maze-line pathways of this ancient city that is home to three of the world’s biggest faiths—Christianity, Islam and Judaism—is like traveling back in time. Its swirl of sights, sounds and smells are steeped in history and provide an ideal setting to contemplate your own faith (or lack thereof).

Insider tip: The Temple Mount, a holy site within the Old City for all three religions, is open to visitors Mon–Thu at specific times. Dress modestly, bring your passport and arrive early. Another unique opportunity: walking the Via Dolorosa with the Franciscans. This solemn walk follows the footsteps of Jesus Christ as he carried the cross to execution. It’s free and happens every Friday at 3pm.

 

Camino de Santiago, Spain

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Think of it as a very, very, very long walk to clear the head. El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is a network of ancient pilgrim routes with Christian roots. Traveling 500 miles through Spain’s 15 regions, it’s since become a popular journey for those seeking spiritual growth.

Insider tip: A great piece of advice echoed by seasoned travelers of the Camino is to walk slow—much slower than you’re used to. Not only does it prevent exhaustion, but the sheer act of slowing down can foster contemplation and/or connection with fellow pilgrims on the path.

 

Machu Picchu, Peru

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This ancient Incan citadel perched atop a tropical mountain forest attracts more than 1 million visitors each year. Whether you arrive by train from Cusco or do a multi-day hike, the first glimpse of this mystical mountain setting invites awe and wonder.

Tip: The classic Inca Trail (also affectionately known as the “Gringo Trail”) is full of travelers trekking to Machu Picchu, with 500 people permitted each day, many of whom book months in advance for the privilege. For a less-crowded experience through the Andes, and more space to embrace the quiet of the expansive landscape, consider one of the alternative trails, such as the Salcantay or Choquequirao treks.

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Varanasi, India

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Varanasi is not for the faint of heart. Among the holiest cities in India with some 2,000 temples, it’s a colorful and intense setting that attracts Hindu pilgrims from around the world. A focal point is the sacred Ganges River, where many bathe to wash away their sins. The river is also the site of public cremation ceremonies.

Insider tip: Wake up at 4:30am to walk along the ghats and experience what many describe as the most magical and peaceful hours of Varanasi (as it goes from quiet to a colorful swirl of chaos as the day awakens).

 

Easter Island, Chile

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Getting here ain’t easy—it’s 2,300 miles off the coast of Chile, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But those who make the journey reap benefits of time on the world’s most remote inhabited island, where its 80-ton Moai statues add to the mystical appeal.

Insider tip: It pays off to plan in advance. The island is only 63 square miles, so there are a limited number of accommodations, and only one airline services the island from Santiago, Chile. January and February will be the hottest to visit (up to 85 degrees Fahrenheit); May is often the wettest.

 

Uluru, Australia

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Uluru is a massive sandstone rock that rises dramatically above Australia’s Outback. Also known as Ayers Rock, it’s a sacred spot for several Aboriginal tribes. Legend says it was formed during the time of creation, or Dreamtime. Rituals are still performed today in caves around its base. Uluru looms, mystically, over the arid desert, with the rock changing hues of red with the rising and setting of the sun, until nighttime, when it is cloaked under a canopy of stars and silence. In short: It’s a magical setting for introspection.

Insider tip: Join a tour with an Aboriginal guide to learn about the myths and legends attached to this special place. While climbing isn’t prohibited, signs around the rock ask visitors to respect Aboriginal culture by not climbing Uluru.

 

Mount Sinai, Egypt

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This is where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. Spiritual seekers and everyday tourists alike come to hike or take a camel up to the remote peak that overlooks the harsh terrain. It’s a setting particularly dramatic at sunrise when the landscape is bathed in a magical red glow.

Insider tip: In the courtyard of St. Catherine’s Monastery, at the base of the mountain, is a plant that pilgrims flock to see. It’s said to have descended from the Burning Bush from which the voice of God spoke to Moses.

 

Have you experienced a destination that inspired a spiritual shift in YOU? Share your memory and tips in the comments below. Perhaps it will help a fellow traveler.

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