8 religious wonders to see in the U.S.

Story highlights

Some beautiful and historic U.S. religious sites are scattered across the country

New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral and Temple Emanu-El were European inspired

With their exotic designs, Palace of Gold and Hsi Lai Temple seem to belong in Asia

CNN  — 

People visit Jerusalem for the rich history, interwoven religious narratives and crumbling holy walls. They visit Europe for ornate churches with painted ceilings and golden trim. They visit India for peace of mind, finding serenity in its carved and colorful temples scattered along the sacred Ganges River.

But people rarely travel the United States in search of such sanctuaries. After all, what religious wisdom could America, a country still in its relative youth in terms of history, have to offer?

Although the country may not have a reputation for religious landmarks, the USA is home to more than just secular city halls and strip malls.

Whether or not you practice a faith, visiting these eight beautiful and historic U.S. religious destinations may provide inspiration.

1. Bahá’í House of Worship: Wilmette, Illinois

This Bahá’í House of Worship is one of just seven Bahá’í temples in the world and is the only of its kind found in North America. It’s just 30 minutes north of Chicago in Wilmette, Illinois.

Although the house of worship was created with a mixture of quartz and cement, the intricately carved temple looks as if it’s made of white lace. Like all Bahá’í houses of worship, the circular temple has nine sides and is surrounded by fountain-filled gardens.

The temple services members of the Bahá’í faith, a religion founded in 19th-century Persia that stresses unity of all humankind. Anyone is welcome to visit the space – its auditorium and gardens are open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day free of charge.”We don’t ask what your religion is – we don’t even care,” the temple’s summer tour coordinator, Gwendolyn Clayborne, said. “It’s a place for people to come and meditate and pray and just get in touch with their spiritual sides.”Clayborne said people are surprised such a temple, which was completed in 1953 and took more than 30 years to construct, can be found in Illinois.”A few people from Chicago will admit it’s the best kept secret,” Clayborne said.

2. Hsi Lai Temple: Hacienda Heights, California

With its traditional Chinese design, this Buddhist temple looks like it came from the Far East. Although it was completed in 1988, the temple’s architecture is faithful to the Ming and Ch’ing dynasties, which ruled in China from the 14th to 20th centuries.

The Hsi Lai Temple features golden tiles in its buildings, protective figurines on its roof and a peaceful courtyard at its center. A bird’s-eye view shows the building is shaped like a bodhi leaf, symbolic of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Inside the temple, an art gallery includes both Eastern and Western paintings, ceramics, photographs and Buddhist artifacts.

“People come here and say, ‘I don’t know I’m in Southern California. It seems I am in another part of the world,’” said the temple’s director of outreach, Miao Hsi.

The temple is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day free of charge, and tours are offered on weekends. For a $7 donation, visitors can enjoy the temple’s Chinese vegetarian buffet.

3. Islamic Center of America: Dearborn, Michigan

The design of the Islamic Center of America in Dearborn, Michigan, is distinct.

Although it is a modern mosque in Michigan, inspiration for the Islamic Center of America came from venerable houses of worship in Turkey, India and other countries.

With a stone-carved edifice and fiberglass dome, the mosque’s design is distinct. Inside, visitors will find crystal chandeliers, imported granite and a prayer room decorated with Islamic motifs and calligraphy of Quranic verses created by a Lebanese artist.

The 65,000-square-foot facility services nearly 5,000 families in a city with one of the largest Arab-Muslim populations in the United States. This site has only been open since 2005, but the Islamic Center of America has been serving America’s Muslims since 1962.

Guests often are impressed with the mosque’s beauty, but what they are most awed by is the center’s openness, said Kassem Allie, the center’s executive administrator.

“What people are kind of surprised about is we are so open to visitation and dialogue and collaboration,” he said. “I think they think we’re a closed organization. … They find out who we are and the fact that we have an open house.”

The Islamic Center of America is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to about 11 p.m. daily and free tours of the facility can be scheduled on its website.

4. Memorial Presbyterian Church: St. Augustine, Florida

Memorial Presbyterian Church may be beautiful, but it’s the story behind the building that often touches visitors the most.

The church is dedicated to Jenny Louise Benedict, the daughter of tycoon Henry Morrison Flagler, who built the church in 1889. Flagler had always had a special place for St. Augustine in his heart, investing heavily in the city after visiting with his first wife, Mary. And when his beloved daughter died after complications from childbirth, Flagler knew the Presbyterian church he was planning to build in town would be erected in her honor.

Flagler, along with Mary, Jenny Louise and his granddaughter, Marjorie, are all entombed at the church.

The structure’s detailed design draws influence from the churches of Europe, including Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica. It features wood-carved walls, stained-glass windows, a peaceful sanctuary and a prominent dome that inspires guests to lift their eyes toward the heavens.

“People walk in, and they see a little piece of Europe,” church historian Jay Smith said. “I wouldn’t say it rivals the European cathedrals, but it has its own unique beauty and majesty, and people are very surprised by that.”

Smith said people must remember to appreciate the rich history of Memorial Presbyterian Church and the city that surrounds it. Founded in 1565, St. Augustine is the longest continually inhabited city founded by Europeans in the United States.