a city-state surrounded by Rome
Vatican City, a city-state surrounded by Rome, Italy, is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. It's home to the Pope and a trove of iconic art and architecture. Its Vatican Museums house ancient Roman sculptures such as the famed “Laocoön and His Sons” as well as Renaissance frescoes in the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel, famous for Michelangelo’s ceiling.
Expansive, colonnaded St. Peter’s Square is the Vatican’s main public area, where crowds gather for papal appearances and to see the colorfully uniformed Swiss Guard. Inside the massive, marble-and-gold St. Peter’s Basilica is Michelangelo’s marble Pietà sculpture and Bernini’s bronze altar canopy. Visitors can climb to the top of the church’s dome for panoramic views of Rome or descend to the Grottoes to see tombs of saints, popes and monarchs. The Vatican Gardens take up about half of the city’s 44 hectares and are protected by 16th-century walls, but can be toured with advance arrangements.
When to visit?
High travel season runs May–Sep. Peak summer (Jul–Aug) can be very hot and humid, while winter (Nov–Feb) is cold and wet. Important annual events and holidays include Holy Week and Easter (Mar/Apr, dates vary), the Feasts of Saints Peter Paul (Jun 29) and Christmas Day (Dec 25). The Vatican Museums are closed on several major holidays.
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The World's Most Popular Religious Destinations
Mecca is the holiest city in the religion of Islam. It's located on the Arabian Peninsula 210 miles to the south of Medina. An average of 13 million people visit Mecca every year, nearly all of them Muslims. Devout Muslims are encouraged to make the journey to Mecca (the Hajj) at least once in their lives if they are able, but many make the trip every year. The final month of the Islamic calendar is the busiest. Approximately two million Muslims come to celebrate Hajj. Mecca's holiness derives from the fact that it is the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the site of his first revelation about the Quran.
Sadly, non-Muslims are not allowed inside the city of Mecca; failure to observe this rule will lead to fines or deportation. However, non-Muslims are allowed in Medina, another of Islam's holiest cities.
Israeli police estimate that over 11 million people visited Jerusalem's Old City and the Wailing Wall (Western Wall) in 2016. That's quite the increase from the mere three million people who visited in 2003. Followers of the Jewish faith are the most frequent visitors, with some making more than one trip a year. The wall is also a holy site for Muslims, so control of the wall has long been a subject of contention between the two groups.
The Wailing Wall is a place of prayer that has long been sacred to Jewish people. The original wall dates back to the second century BC, when it was part of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. The temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and the wall is today all that remains. The extant section of the Wailing Wall connects to a larger wall which encircles the Muslim Dome of the Rock. The Wailing Wall that stands today measures 160 feet long and is 60 feet tall.
Approximately 20 million people visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year. The Basilica was built on a sacred Aztec site that was once devoted to the temple of Tonantizin Coatlaxopeuh. The history of this epic structure is wrought with violence. Spanish conquerors destroyed the temple upon conquering the city of Tenochtitlan (modern-day Mexico City).
In 1921, a bomb was planted in a flower vase in the basilica, and much of the building's interior was damaged. The Old Basilica was closed for many years following the incident. It still stands, but it's now joined by its neighbor, the New Basilica, which can hold up to 50,000 people for mass.
The Senso-ji Temple sees about 30 million annual visitors; it's a must-see for any traveler passing through Tokyo. Senso-ji was built in 628 AD and is the city's oldest temple. The five-storied pagoda glows with accent lighting come evening time. During the day, street vendors sell food to tourists on the temple's Nakamise Street. The Senso-ji Temple is a hotspot for celebration during New Year celebrations, consistently ranking in the top 10 for temple attendance during the new year.
Not far from the Senso-ji Temple is the Meiji Shrine, located in Shibuya, Tokyo. Construction began in 1915 and was finished in 1916. The shrine is dedicated to the spirit of the Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken. It was erected in an iris garden where the emperor and empress were known to spend time. The original structure was destroyed during World War II, but it has since been restored. The new building that stands in a 170-acre forest. The surrounding evergreen glade contains over 365 different species of trees, all of which were donated by people from different parts of Japan.
The Kashi Vishwanath Temple in India is located on the western bank of the river Ganges. The river itself is thought to have healing powers, and the temple is one of the most famous in the Hindu religion. It is dedicated to the Shaiva philosophy -- a metaphysical concept of a supreme being or Brahman. The Kashi Vishwanath temple attracts 22 million visitors a year, 3,000 people each day on avrage. On busy days, nearly 10,000 pass through its doors. The current structure was built in 1780 after being destroyed and reconstructed several times throughout history.
The best part about places of religious pilgrimage is that they tend to feature stunning architecture and a vibrant social life. Taking in the architecture is just a bonus to soaking in the history of these ancient sites - or the spiritual significance if you're religiously inclined.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame is another magnet for tourists and a site of pilgrimage for Catholics. Located in Paris, Notre Dame is the most visited attraction in France and the thirteenth most visited tourist destination worldwide. Annual visitors to Notre Dame are estimated to number 13.7 million. The cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, combining naturalistic sculptures and glowing stained glass with earlier Romanesque architecture.
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