Monasteries are places where you can breathe more spirituality than in any other place on Earth. Whether they are Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or dedicated to any other cult, they are highly respected by those who enter. Apart from having utmost respect towards the monastery, visitors also pay respects to the believers and those who have designed, built, live, and take care of them.
There are monasteries in almost every country in the world. Some of them are located in barely accessible places while others have such a unique architecture they are considered a tourist destination as well as a pilgrimage destination.
In this ranking, we look at the 15 most beautiful monasteries in the world!
15. Osiou Grigoriou – Greece
Religion: Orthodox Christian
This monastery, dedicated to St. Nicholas, is built on the south-eastern slope of Mount Athos, Greece. Built in the 14th century, it takes the 17th place in the hierarchy of the monasteries of the “Holy Mountain”. It’s considered one of the most organized and rigorous monasteries, based on tradition and community life. While the monastery has been inhabited by 70 monks since 1990, its katholikon, the main church of the building, was built in 1768 and frescoed by the monks Gabriel and Gregory of Castoria.
14. Taktsang or Tiger’s Nest – Bhutan
Religion: Himalyan Buddhism
It’s one of the most sacred and spectacular places of the Buddhist religion. It includes a complex of buildings and temples the construction of which began in 1962. A legend related to this monastery tells of how Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche, a sacred man) has arrived from Tibet at the original cave that gave life to this place on the back of a tiger.
13. Pečerska Lavra or Monastery of the Caves – Kyiv, Ukraine
Religion: Ukrainian Orthodox Chruch
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1990, this complex better known as the Kyiv Caves Monastery is a veritable temple of Ukrainian Orthodox memory. Erected on Mount Brestov in the first decades of the year 1000, today, this monster is an integrated part of the urban area of the capital. Destroyed several times by the Mongols and heavily damages after the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, it’s awaiting restoration.
This monastery houses museums displaying objects and symbols of Ukrainian culture. There are also catacombs where the remains of leading exponents of the Ukrainian Orthodox religion, mummies of saints, and relics are preserved.
12 – Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel – France
Religion: Roman Catholic Christian
It is a fortified abbey and it certainly looks like one! The construction of the site began in the year 966 when the abbey location was a rocky island protected from marauders coming to land from the highest tides in Europe.
The reclamation of the marshes and the construction of a causeway in the 19th century disrupted the natural flow of the water, thus allowing the silt to gradually surround Mont Saint-Michel on three sides. However, a reclamation project currently underway should restore the isolation of the monastery.
11. Alcobaça – Portugal
Religion: Christian Catholic
It’s an immense construction that leaves you breathless, known as one of the most beautiful and majestic Cisterian monasteries in the world, which is declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Built in Gothic style, it has very large at the same time simple and almost bare interior spaces, which is unusual for the architectural style it belongs to.
Fun fact: The construction of this monastery is related to a painful story. Dom Pedro, mad with rage after his father-in-law killed his wife, Ines de Castro, had built a sumptuous tomb for his beloved after having her body exhumed, crowned, and forced the nobles to hiss her hand.
10. Rumtek – India
Religion: Tibetan Buddhism
Nestled among the lush hills and periodically lashed by the powerful monsoon rains of the Himalayas, the Rumtek Monastery is home to monks of all ages, even boys. This monastery presents itself to visitors in bright colors and with a gold shimmer, a glorious mandala graces the ceiling of a portico leading to the main temple.
9. Taung Kalat – Burma
This monastery is located on the top of Mount Popa, considered by the local population to be the spiritual home of the 37 “Nats” of Myanmar or the spirits of an animist cult very widespread throughout the country. The temple, which houses Buddhist and animist sacred altars of worship, still has some mysterious aspects, including the date of construction. Although visitors have to climb up 777 steps to reach the top of the mountain, they will be rewarded with the spectacular view it offers. But, beware of your personal items, especially the food you bring with you, as there are many macaques ready to steal anything!
8. Xuánkōng Si or Hanging Temple – China
Religion: Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism
Xuankong Sì monastery was built on a rock face near Mount Heng in Shanxi Province, China, about 1400 years ago. Hanging 50 meters above the ground, it was originally built without the help of the wooden poles that support it today; they were added later because, as it’s said, no one had the courage to enter it at that time since it was unstable. However, in reality, the monastery has never had problems, on the contrary, it has overcome dozens of serious seismic events very well, including the deadliest earthquake recorded in history which occurred in 1556 when about 830,000 people died.
7. Sumela – Turkey
Religion: Greek Orthodox Christian
Here’s another sanctuary suspended on a cliff. This one is located in the Turkish province of Trabzon (Trebizond to the ancient Greeks and Byzantines). Its construction dates back to the year 386. A legend says that a couple of priests, walking east of Athens, saw the steep cliff overlooking the Altindere valley and thought it would be a good place to build a monastery. It was, at least, an extravagant choice! However, this decision provided the building with “natural” protection.
6. Saint Catherine – Egypt
Religion: Orthodox Christian
The Monastery of Saint Catherine is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in Egypt. It’s located near Mount Sinai and it’s the place where the roots of monasticism have grown. Today, its walls, built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, are still formidable and in great condition. In fact, they most probably hold the second largest collection of manuscripts in the world, right after the Vatican Apostolic Library.
There are about 4,500 volumes in various ancient languages including Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Georgian, and Syriac. Among them is also the oldest preserved Bible, which dates back to the 4th century. Furthermore, numerous unique works of art are kept there, including mosaics, religious vestments, chalices, reliquaries, and about 2,000 Byzantine icons made with the encaustic technique which date back to the 5th and 6th centuries.
5. Skelling Michael – Ireland
Skellig Michael is an inhospitable rocky island located 17 km off the coast of County Kerry, Ireland, and hosts one of the oldest and most famous monasteries in Ireland, which is as extraordinary as it is inaccessible.
Built in 588 and a World Heritage Site protected by Unesco since1996, it is an austere and bare monastery, which housed no more than a dozen monks who chose to live here depriving themselves of every comfort and in an absolutely adverse environment. Image of asceticism and rigorous life, the monastery is formed by small circular cells (clocháns) made of embedded dry stone. They are built on the top of cliffs overlooking the sea at about 60 meters of height.
4. Khor Virap – Armenia
Religion: Armenian apostolic church
The Monastery is located near Mount Ararat and it’s the closest and most suitable place to observe or take photos of the biblical mountain on the Armenian territory. The building is of fundamental importance in the cult of the founder of Christianity in Armenia, Gregory the Illuminator.
Fun fact: Legend has it that the pagan king Tiridates III imprisoned the Saint in a well for 12 years, accusing him of having professed and spread Christianity (Khor Virap means “deep well”). St. Gregory was released by order of the sister of King Khosrovidukht to heal the ruler from lycanthropy, an illness into which he had fallen after the Christian virgin Hripsime refused to marry him. When St. Gregory healed him, the king was so grateful that he converted to Christianity and St. Gregory began building churches over the pagan temples and teaching his own doctrine.
At the monastery, you can visit the 6-7 meters deep well, above which the Church was built.
3. Palchor – Tibet, China
Religion: Tibetan Buddhism
The role of this monastery in Tibetan Buddhism is unique as it represents all three sects at the same time: Gelugpa, Sakkyapa, and Bhutan. It originated in 1418 and, during its heyday, it housed within its walls not only a thousand monks but also an entire town. Some of the numerous constructions have survived, inside which you can admire the lacquered statues of 84 saints and a fantastic collection of 15 mural mandalas.
2. Glastonbury Abbey – England
The ruins of this ancient abbey hide the mortal remains of numerous Saxon kings, including King Arthur and his wife Guinevere, as it’s said.
Fun fact: Legend has it that King Arthur slept under the pinnacles of the abbey with his equally famous knights. The place is also known for the “Glastonbury hawthorn”, which blooms both in May and at Christmas. According to a legend, this shrub has sprung from the stick of Joseph of Arimathea (believed to be the founder of the abbey) who arrived there in about 60 AD to convert the Britons to Christianity.
1. Metéora – Greece
Religion: Greek Orthodox Christian
In Greek, Metéora means “hanging in the air” and this is one of the largest and most important complexes of Eastern Orthodox monasteries in Greece, second only to Mount Athos.
The monasteries are located on unusual columns, real natural rock towers suspended in the air. Of the 24 monasteries, built with enormous sacrifices, only 6 are still inhabited and recovered after years of neglect. Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, these monasteries represent a unique artistic and architectural achievement, as well as a place of retreat, meditation, and prayer.
In the past, the monasteries could only be reached through precarious roads, with ladders or pulley systems, but today there are more modern masonry or rock-cut stairs. Once at the top, it is possible to enjoy the atmosphere that reigns in this spectacular place immersed in an imperious nature and made of mystical sacredness.