From the Vatican City in Italy to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in India and The Western Wall in Israel, holy sites and places of spiritual importance continue to draw pilgrims from across the world.
If you’re looking for something a little more meaningful than your typical fly-and-flop in 2020, we recently put our faith in a panel of local travel experts, who whittled down a list of religious destinations that you should visit in 2020, even if you don’t necessarily consider yourself religious.
#1 The Passion Play in Oberammergau
Location: The town of Oberammergau in Germany
Religion: Christianity, Catholicism
We’re kick-starting this list with The Passion Play, a top recommendation from the MD of Trafalgar South Africa, Teresa Richardson.
“The Passion Play only takes place once a decade in the town of Oberammergau in Germany from May through October, so if you skip this year you’ll need to wait a very long time to go again,” she explains.
During this momentous experience, locals perform a dramatic presentation depicting the Passion of Jesus Christ: his trial, suffering and death. It is a traditional part of Lent in several Christian denominations, particularly in Catholic tradition.
Trafalgar guests have been taking part in this event since 1970 and Richardson reveals that they are excited to invite more South Africans to experience it in 2020. “During the visit, guests will also get to meet the people from the town, learn about their local culture and discover this picturesque region of Bavaria like only a local could,” she adds.
#2 O Little Town of Bethlehem
Location: The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Religion: Christianity, Judaism
“For the millions of pilgrims who descend on the Holy Land every year, the Church of the Nativity is one of the main reasons for visiting Bethlehem,” says Richardson.
“The church, believed to be built on the spot where Jesus was born, is one of the oldest working churches in existence today, and the actual guardianship of this sacred site is shared by three Christian denominations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian,” she adds.
Inside, two sets of stairs lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity where a 14-point silver star marks the exact spot of Jesus’s birth. An inscription on the star states: Hic de Virgin Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary).
“As our Local Specialists will tell you, Bethlehem has a unique atmosphere and is definitely worth a visit for its variety of things to see and do, aside from its historical and religious significance,” explains Richardson. “There are some wonderful little eateries serving fresh mint tea and fond favourites like falafel, shawarma and hummus.”
#3 The Chabad Houses of Thailand
Location: Bangkok, Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Phuket
Thailand is very much a Buddhist country, but not many visitors know about its thriving Jewish communities in Bangkok and the popular tourism hotspots of Koh Samui, Chiang Mai and Phuket.
“Whilst Songkran, the Thai New Year, remains a major draw, each year, hundreds of Jewish travellers arrive in ‘the land of smiles’ to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah,” says Sue Garrett, General Manager, Marketing & Product, Flight Centre Travel Group.
“Hotels located in these areas accommodate Jewish guests’ dietary and religious needs, and numerous Jewish-run businesses, tour operators and kosher restaurants can be found operating nearby, all catering to Jewish travellers,” she adds.
While in Thailand, Garrett recommends a visit to the dedicated Chabad Houses. These Jewish community centres run social events and holiday programmes for all those looking for a unique experience and the chance to learn more about Jewish customs and traditions in this tropical paradise.
#4 Sri Pada (Adam’s Peak)
Location: Sri Lanka
Religion: Islam, Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism
Sri Lanka has a lot to offer travellers and Garrett mentions palm-fringed beaches,
UNESCO World Heritage sites, food that bursts with flavour and friendly locals.
She says: “Anyone in the world can appreciate the beauty of the holy mountain Sri Pada. Perhaps that is why four different religions consider the peak a sacred site worthy of pilgrimage. A rock formation near the summit takes a different shape in each belief system: Buddhists believe it is the footprint of the Buddha; Muslims believe it is the footprint of the prophet Adam; Hindus believe it is the footprint of Shiva; and, Christians believe it is the footprint of St Thomas.”
Garrett also recommends travelling by train through the island’s tea country to Gampola. “It’s a
fabulous way to see the hillside villages and observe how Ceylon tea is made.”
Flight Centre works closely with a responsible travel brand called Intrepid, whose tour highlights
include a chance to climb Lion Rock, a dramatic carved-rock fortress in Sigiriya, watch
orphaned baby elephants enjoy their breakfast at Udawalawe, and explore Jaffna in the north of the island, previously off-limits to foreign visitors.
#5 The Maya Devi Temple
Location: Rupandehi, Nepal
Jane Davidson, the MD of Development Promotions, believes the Maya Devi Temple, an ancient Buddhist temple situated at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Lumbini in Nepal, is a must for those adventure travellers seeking to learn and connect.
“At this spiritual heart of Lumbini, it is said that Siddhartha Gautama, who eventually became the Lord Buddha, was born in a garden here in 623 BC,” she explains. “During your visit to this temple, you’ll find this sacred garden along with the pillar of Ashoka, inscribed with a dedication to him. You’ll also witness the ancient ruins of stupas, and maroon-robed monks often seen congregating under a Bodhi tree decorated with prayer flags.”
Nepal is growing in popularity with South Africans, and while Mount Everest may be the country’s biggest drawcard, travel companies like G Adventures arrange hiking trips for less-experienced hikers, the most popular being the Annapurna circuit.
“Nepal ticks all the right boxes for those seeking a soul-searching holiday, and since South Africans can obtain a visa on arrival, travelling there is much easier than you think,” Davidson concludes.
5 Tips for visiting religious sites:
- Make sure you’ve done your research on appropriate clothing attire.
- Don’t take too many pictures, even if you’re allowed. Always ask for permission if you’re unsure.
- Be mindful and courteous to locals there to pray.
- Be discreet in your observations. Look without gawking, speak without shouting.
- If there’s a donation box, use it.