World Heritage: Religious

Click here for the background on my World Heritage Sites roundup.


14 sites


Kyoto’s Monuments

Last visited: April 3, 2014

A truly amazing fact about Kyoto and its neighboring area is the preservation of temples from different eras in Japanese history. Unlike in Europe where in most instances there is a millennium gap between the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, an architectural trail remains in Kyoto and Nara from the beginning of Buddhism’s introduction in the 6th century onward to the relatively recent past.

Even after numerous visits, I we remain captivated by how much more there is to explore in the ancient capital.


Itsukushima Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine

Last visited: June 15, 2008

I arrived Miyajima on low tide and spent an entire afternoon waiting for the water to once again flow to the base of the shrines. I waited until the tide was creeping on to the main shrines. The lure of seeing Itsukushima Shrine at high tide kept me waiting for something I had never paid attention to before, which turned out to be less boring than I once thought. The more time I spend on something, I find out, the more likely I might be able to appreciate it.

Vatican City

Last visited: March 31, 2012

The tiny Papal state of Vatican City, the smallest sovereign state, is home to two extravagant buildings – St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums. Even Louis XIV would be embarrassed by their level of lavishness.

In the Vatican Museums infallible proof of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church’s corruption is everywhere. The Gallery of Maps, Raphael Stanze and the Sistine Chapel are more than just artistic masterpieces; they represent the clerical abuses Martin Luther emphatically stated in the Ninety-Five Theses. Leaving aside personal views, however, the Vatican Museums are without a doubt one of the finest showcases of art in the world.


Assisi’s Franciscan Sites

Last visited: May 30, 2016

Assisi revolves around one person — St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in 1208 and has put the town on the pilgrimage and tourist maps ever since. The Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi began construction immediately after St. Francis’ canonization in 1228 and took 25 years to complete. The entire structure can be divided into three sections — the Upper Church, the Lower Church, and a crypt where the remains of the saint are interred.

Assisi is not a one-trick pony. After visiting the magnificent Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, walk to the other side of town for the Basilica di Santa Chiara. St. Chiara was a follower of St. Francis and the ceiling of her namesake church is filled with beautiful frescoes. The plaza outside of Santa Chiara offers fine views of the surrounding countryside.

Ravenna’s Early Christian Monuments

Last visited: May 28, 2016

Ravenna and its Byzantine mosaics stand out even in Italy, the country with the most World Heritage Sites. The art of mosaic peaked during the Byzantine era, and by the Renaissance it had gone mostly out of fashion, but for a myriad of factors this slice of history remains in this otherwise nondescript eastern Emilia-Romagna town.



Last visited: June 18, 2008

Horyu-ji receives relatively little visitors and offers a sense of tranquility that’s absent in many other famous temples in Kyoto. Even if you are getting tired of temples, Horyu-ji is unlike any other in the area and merits a visit.

When Buddhism was introduced to Japan from China via Korea in the year 538, that marked the beginning of the Asuka period. Only a handful of buildings from this era survive to this day, most outstanding is the Horyu-ji complex in Ikaruga, two train stations away from Nara. First constructed in 607, only the pagoda survived a devastating fire in 670 when much of the complex was burned down. The complex was rebuilt in 711. The pagoda is now one of the oldest wooden structures in the world.

Potala Palace


Temple of Heaven

Last visited: May 18, 2013

The Temple of Heaven is arguably Beijing’s most recognizable icon, meaning it is impossible to find a sliver of space up close among the crowd to study the architecture. This is one of those sites, after taking the mandatory tourist photo, you will leave immediately with a feeling of both mission accomplished and a colossal waste of time.


Cologne Cathedral

Last visited: June 8, 2011

Renowned around the world for its twin spires, this cathedral took 632 years to complete. For four centuries a huge crane at the unfinished site dominated Cologne’s skyline, and when it was finally completed in 1880 the entire nation celebrated, even though Prussia had long turned to Protestantism by then. For four years the cathedral was the world’s tallest structure and it has retained the title of having the largest façade of any church in the world to this day.

Located next to the train station, the first thing that struck me about the Cologne Cathedral was its massive size. The dark and Gothic façade gave the colossal structure an imposing and uninviting appearance. The cathedral’s oversized scale was even more apparent inside, giving the interior a brooding and hollow feeling.

Pisa’s Piazza del Duomo

Last visited: June 6, 2016

Without a doubt, Pisa was by far the ugliest town we came across in Tuscany and Umbria. The Leaning Tower is the only attraction in town and nothing else is there to divert the crowd. No matter your method of travel, whether you are traveling on your own or joining a tour, your impression of Pisa will invariably be the same as everyone else’s.

The majority of people has one goal in mind in Pisa — take a generic photo where they appear to be propping up the tower from collapsing. They leave. Then a new wave of people show up to do the exact same thing. Soon your perception will change — what’s standing in front of you is no longer a seven-century-old medieval masterpiece but one of the world’s tackiest photo background.

Nara’s Monuments

東大寺 Tōdai-ji, Nara

Last visited: June 18, 2008

Multiple friends of mine prefer Nara over Kyoto, stating the compact town has everything Kyoto has to offer with half the traffic. My visit was less favorable — the crowd was even worse than Kyoto’s, but with the exception of Todai-ji I didn’t find Nara to offer much to justify spending time away from Kyoto.

One of the Seven Great Temples and home to the largest bronze statue of the Buddha in the world. Todai-ji was founded at a time of great political and social turmoils, and soon it took on a role as the head of all the provincial temples. The 16 m tall Great Buddha was completed in 751, built through eight castings over three years and required the manpower of 350,000 laborers.


Last visited: February 11, 2013

The Palace of Westminster is extremely troublesome for a foreigner to arrange a tour. I also have never bothered to pay the hefty sum to get inside Westminster Abbey. While I have always find the Palace of Westminster’s distinguishable Perpendicular Gothic style to be oddly entrancing, I have yet managed to make the site anything more than a famous photography subject.


Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik

Last visited: May 1, 2006

If there is one category that is over-represented on the WHS list, it has to be European cathedral. Built entirely of stone, this cathedral was completed in 1536 and is the most important Renaissance building in Croatia. The highlight is the 74 little stone sculptured heads of important contemporaries that adorned the apses on the outside. This is the only time I have seen where a church is not decorated with figures of saints or gargoyles. With relatively few windows, the interior is extremely dark.



Last visited: April 30, 2010

After the wholesale calamity that was the Cultural Revolution which uprooted millennia of Chinese heritage, it is often said Confucianism is today best preserved in South Korea. One prime example is Jongmyo, located next to Changdeokgung and according to UNESCO is the oldest royal Confucian shrine and annual ritual ceremonies have continued since the 14th century.

I missed the annual Royal Shrine Ritual by a few days. Alas, I have a difficult time understanding how Jongmyo, even taken into account its status as one of the longest wooden shrines in the world, belongs on the WHS list. You will be hard-pressed to tell Jongmyo apart from thousands of temples and shrines all over East Asia.


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