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Visiting Religious Sites: What to Know Before You Go

SmarterTravel

Travel is almost always more fun if you have a specific quest in mind. I’ve long since drawn that conclusion, both from my own experience and what I hear from others. And, to many of you, a quest might well involve some sort of religious pilgrimage. A reader recently asked me about it:

“What’s the best way to travel if I want to visit the important biblical sites in the Holy Land?”

The short answer is, “You can easily arrange your own tour, but if you prefer some assistance, a handful of tour operators specialize in religious travel.”

The main destinations

Whether Christian or Jewish, your prime focus is likely to be on one of a handful of sites in Europe or the Middle East: {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}

  • The “Holy Land” in and around Israel is of prime importance to both faiths, although locations within the region are likely to differ. Jerusalem, of course, is a magnet for Christians and Jews alike. But beyond that, Christians are likely to put Bethlehem (if they can get there) and Galilee on their “must” lists; Jews might head for Hebron (again, if it’s open at the time) and Masada.
  • Christians are likely to focus on Rome, as well as such secondary sites as Lourdes, Fatima, Wittenburg, and Santiago de Compostela. Jewish visitors often head for one of the Holocaust campsites in Germany or Poland.
  • Beyond those top sites, Christian and Jewish religious tourists may visit many other areas of the Middle East, including sites in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria that may or may not be accessible, depending on the current political situation. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit both the St. Catherine’s/Mount Sinai area and Damascus during periods of relative calm.

Many religious tourists like to time their visits to take advantage of the special services and festivities around major holidays. Of course, that’s when the sites are most crowded, too: Bethlehem at Christmas, Jerusalem during any of the several main Jewish holidays. Reserve early if that’s your aim.

Of course if you’re more of a mystic than a follower of a Christian or Jewish faith, you can find inspiration in locations as diverse as Machu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Canterbury, and the Matisse Chapel.

Traveling on your own

Except for occasional hostilities and political barriers, the main religious sites are easily accessible to independent travelers. Traveling independently, you can decide what you want to see and when you want to see it. And you can get plenty of help if you need it.

  • You’ll find plenty of specialized guidebooks noting exactly how and when to get to the various individual sites. A quick search of Amazon, for example, lists more than a dozen religious- and pilgrimage-themed guidebooks to the Holy Land, and it lists several books in a “Spiritual Traveler” series (by various authors) covering Europe.
  • If you’d occasionally like a personal guide, recruit one locally. We’ve located some great one-day guides after we arrived at a destination. For example, we arranged through the local American Express agency for a great moonlighting professor to show us around Damascus. And we’ve arranged guides in Jerusalem through local religious offices. You can also contact universities directly—many history and religion professors are happy to earn a few extra euros or shekels.

If you want to immerse yourself in the subject still further, various religious orders and groups operate guesthouses and hostels near many top attractions. My wife has used them in Jerusalem and Rome, and you can find them in other places, as well. Our earlier report lists several useful resources.
As we noted then, some are fairly strict about observing appropriate rites and rules, while others are pretty much “hang loose.” Some operate as retreats. You choose. As an added bonus, many feature budget prices.

Group tours

If you prefer to travel with a group, religious tourism occupies an important niche in the tour operator marketplace. An organized tour can provide several important advantages:

  • Group airfares and “per person double occupancy” hotel occupancy rates and organized group transfers between airport and hotel and among the various sites.
  • A well researched itinerary that hits the high spots, including some cases where a tour gains access to a site or area that is not generally open to individual members of the public.
  • Professional guides just about everywhere.
  • On many tours, an accompanying clergyman who may conduct special services for your group in some of your faith’s most featured sites.

Beyond the usual hassles of group tours—regimentation, inflexible hours, time wasted at souvenir shops, and such—religious group tours pose an additional problem: the potential for doctrinal incompatibility. There’s a huge orthodoxy-liberalism spectrum in both Christianity and Judaism, and you might find yourself at odds with the guide and accompanying clergyman through the entire trip. I suspect, for example, that if you’re a liberal Protestant, you could be very unhappy in a tour conducted by a clergyman who espoused a literal interpretation of the Bible. And if you’re a traditional Catholic, you might resent a clergyman who strongly advocates priesthood for women.

For that reason, choosing a compatible tour operator is especially important. If you don’t already have a contact, I suggest you start a search by checking with other members of your congregation who have taken such tours. Also, your denomination may even have an ongoing relationship with one or more operators. In fact, one of your own clergy may well be interested in organizing and conducting a group. If you can’t find what you want that way, I show a few religious operators on my “favorites” list:

This list contains a few examples; you can find many others. And, as in other cases, my listing does not constitute approval or recommendation. Over the years I’ve heard several reports about failures of small low-budget tour operators—I strongly recommend travel insurance.

Your Turn

Have you ever planned your travels around religious sites? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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