Eight places that can change you as a traveller
It doesn't have to be religious. You can go on a pilgrimage and not believe in any gods, old or new.
For travellers, a pilgrimage can be a purely personal thing. All you need is a destination that's special, a place that means something to you.
Maybe it's a historical site, or a monument. Maybe it's a sports stadium or a restaurant. Maybe it's a city, or an entire country. It doesn't matter. As long as it has special meaning for you, and you have to travel to get there, then it's a pilgrimage.
And it might just turn out to be the greatest experience of your life. These are the pilgrimages that have meant the most to me.
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La Bombonera, Argentina
If you're a sports fan, then this is your Mecca, your Vatican City. La Bombonera – or, to give it its full name, Estadio Alberto J. Armando – is a sports stadium like no other, a cauldron of passion and madness, the home of Boca Juniors football club, and the seat of Argentinian sporting pride.
No-one supports their team like the Boca fans, who fill this compact stadium every week to sing, dance, cheer, throw streamers, light fireworks, and yell and scream for a full 90 minutes of unbridled insanity. Visiting is a must for any lover of the game.
Da Cesare, Italy
Most people visit Rome to see the Coliseum, or the Sistine Chapel. I visit Rome to go to Da Cesare, a suburban restaurant at the end of a tram line that does the best local cuisine around. In fact maybe the best cuisine, full stop.
I'd heard about this place from a similarly food-obsessed friend, and made it my mission to visit one day. And last year I made it, getting to try the best carbonara in the world while relaxing under the grape vines and enjoying a few glasses of wine. It was worth every cent to get there.
Machu Picchu, Peru
This is not exactly original, I know. But when you spend so long reading about a place, and looking at pictures of a place, and dreaming about a place, it starts to become special. And this is such a great travellers' destination: it's mystical and adventurous, it takes three days to get there on foot, it's set high in spectacular mountains, and the reality of it is just as impressive as the fantasy.
Again, this is a great destination for people who love travel: it's the final frontier; the last continent travellers usually have to tick off before they've visited them all. That's how it worked out for me, although that wasn't the only attraction.
Antarctica is as wild as it gets, a windswept, untouched land of icebergs and glaciers, snowy peaks and silence. Plus it's also a serious mission to get there, which gives it even more of a pilgrimage feel.
As a kid I was kind of obsessed with southern Africa, thanks largely to Wilbur Smith and Bryce Courtenay. In my mind I'd already lived out years of African adventure, trekking the plains, riding horses, building colonial empires, becoming welterweight champion of the world. By the time I actually made it there in person it had lost none of its appeal – and it more than lived up to the obsession.
San Sebastian, Spain
I didn't realise just how amazing San Sebastian was until the first time I visited and ate all of that delicious food, hung out in the bars, swam at the beaches, wandered the paved streets. From that point on it became a site of frequent pilgrimage, a place I've always tried to visit whenever I'm within striking distance. All it takes is that first bite of food, that first sip of wine, and it's immediately a religious experience.
Wrigley Field, US
This is another one for the sports fans, a quintessential experience that's worth the journey to get there many times over. Wrigley Field is one of the oldest, and definitely the most character-filled, baseball stadiums in the world, the home of the Chicago Cubs, a place to sit on an old wooden bench under a creaking rooftop and drink a beer and watch the ballgame.
There's so much history and tradition, which for any sports lover is always worth seeking out.
924 Gilman Street, US
There probably aren't many people who would count a visit to this dingy little music venue in an industrial area of Berkeley, California, as a pilgrimage.
On face value, the Gilman doesn't have much going for it: it's small, it's pretty ugly, you've never heard of any of the bands playing there, and they don't serve alcohol.
But pretty much all of my favourite bands in high school – Green Day, NOFX, Rancid etc – started their careers at 924 Gilman Street. For me, it has serious pedigree, which easily makes it worthy of a pilgrimage.