Compared to the pilgrimage-rich continents of Europe and Asia, the United States is a land with few opportunities to combine travel and a deeper, spiritual quest. So the unassuming New England town of Concord, Massachusetts -- which welcomes more than one million visitors annually -- is a uniquely fulfilling destination. As the birthplace of the American Revolution and Transcendentalism, an intellectual insurgency that occurred a century later, Concord is the holy land for an assortment of secular pilgrims, including professional and lay historians, philosophers and writers.

One of those pilgrims was photographer Annie Leibovitz, who pays homage to the town in her travelling exhibition, Pilgrimage, showing at the Concord Museum until 23 September. Leibovitz shot places around the world connected to those who inspired her, including Concord for its congregation of American Transcendentalists, most famously including writer and naturalist Henry David Thoreau, his friend and benefactor Ralph Waldo Emerson, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott, the father of writer Louisa May Alcott. The influential spiritual movement they popularised valued Gnostic insight over experience, championed a humanistic approach to civil rights and posited that all living things are bound together by a cosmic “Oversoul”. Leibovitz captures the corporeal details of their lives with photographs, including one of Emerson’s study and the wooden cot on which Thoreau died, 150 years ago this summer.

“Concord is a deep well of stories about people and places. You could spend your life studying them,” wrote Leibovitz in the exhibit’s companion book, also titled Pilgrimage. You could certainly spend a week in the small town visiting the houses and green spaces that incubated and inspired some of the United States’ greatest intellectual minds. But you can also distil your pilgrimage into five essential stops and happily fit them into a busy weekend.

Concord Museum
The Concord Museum is an ideal spot to begin your journey, thanks to a nicely-curated collection of historical items, including one of the church lanterns from Paul Revere’s famous ride and the world’s largest collection of Thoreau’s personal belongings. The permanent exhibition “Why Concord” explains how this once-important Native American settlement at the convergence of three rivers attracted European settlers who sought trade and industry, and later, a generation of literary and religiously liberal intellectuals who sought freedom from the mores of Boston but enjoyed having easy access to the city.

The highlight for many visitors to the museum is Emerson’s study. In 1930, every item was moved from his house across the street (28 Cambridge Turnpike; 978-369-2236) and reassembled in a recreated study, just as he had it. The museum’s collection of more than 250 Thoreau artefacts includes his copy of the translated Hindu epic, the Bhagavad-Gita, and his walking stick, notched with inch marks to measure heights and depths. The collection is further fleshed out in the book An Observant Eye, written by the museum’s curator, David F Wood.

Walden Pond
Thoreau began his famous experiment in mindful living on, fittingly, Independence Day, 4 July 1845. Like Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and other dharma bums before him, he sought solitude to find the simple yet revolutionary answers to the meaning of life. He was influenced by the same big ideas as his friends Emerson, Alcott and Hawthorne -- ideas such as nature being an ideal teacher, and that the divine was to be found by looking inward rather than up to a church pulpit. They all read Ancient philosophy, early Western translations of Eastern religious texts and contemporary German philosophers like Immanuel Kant, who coined the term “transcendental” in his 1781 work the Critique of Pure Reason. They also, importantly, made their philosophical goal the same as their method of learning: to live out their ideas.

For the native Concordian and New England prophet Thoreau, that meant subsisting in a tiny cabin on the edge of a pond in a bramble of nearby woods owned by Emerson. The book Walden chronicles in minute detail his two years there. It does not have much of a plot -- he builds the cabin, people wander by and stop to talk to him, he tends his garden, walks a lot and thinks even more -- yet its profundity is so electrifying that it has remained in print since 1854 and been translated into more than 50 languages.

Today Walden Pond is a beautiful state park, with many visitors coming just to swim and sunbathe on its tiny beaches. Without the book-heavy gift shop and a few markers, it would be indistinguishable from many other small lakes in the region. Weekend summer tours led by friendly and knowledgeable state rangers lead you from the recreated Thoreau cabin near the parking lot to the spot by a cove where the actual cabin once stood. There are two markers at the hallowed spot -- chain-linked granite pillars mark the cabin’s exact dimensions, and next to it is a rowboat-sized cairn of stacked rocks, a shrine to Thoreau started by Alcott in 1872. The original wooden cabin was taken apart by a local farmer after Thoreau’s experiment was over, appropriately reused and recycled.

“Walden is blue at one time and green at another… Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both,” Thoreau wrote in Walden. It seems metaphorically fitting that he picked this particular glacially-made kettle hole because, at 102ft (Thoreau surveyed it himself), it is one of the deepest natural bodies of fresh water in Massachusetts. The water remains clean and inviting (according to a ranger, some people believe the water has healing properties), densely bordered by trees and trails, and a satisfying place to end a pilgrimage, or begin one.

The Old Manse
History, philosophy and literature converge at the Old Manse, a home built by Unitarian minister William Emerson and later given its name by Hawthorne, who lived, wrote and started a family there. William was a vocal supporter of American Independence and while his family watched it unfold from a window in the house, he even participated in the war’s first -- and at only a few minutes long, remarkably short -- battle in 1775. His grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would later write Concord Hymn, a poem that would give the three-minute battle its nickname as “the shot heard round the world”.

Hawthorne, most famous for his novels The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, also wrote a short story collection called Mosses from an Old Manse, in which he christened the house. He moved in on the day of his 1842 wedding to Sophia, and as a wedding gift, Emerson hired Thoreau to create a vegetable garden for the couple. The garden, still tended today, was a present they sorely needed since they were broke after Hawthorne failed to secure a refund upon quitting the nearby utopian community Brook Farm.

About 500ft from the house is the (recreated) North Bridge where the battle took place, which spans the Concord River. Thoreau would leave on boat excursions from behind the house, and Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau skated on it when it froze. One winter, Sophia slipped on the ice and had a miscarriage, a sad milestone she poetically etched into, and is still visible on, a window pane glass in the Old Manse with her diamond ring: “Man's accidents are God's purposes. Sophia A. Hawthorne, 1843.”

Ralph Waldo also lived here for a time and wrote Nature, an essay that embodies the tenets of American Transcendentalism. In the same room where Hawthorne wrote, Emerson set up a writing desk looking out on the Concord River flowing behind the house and wrote lines such as, “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?”

Orchard House
The Hawthornes later moved to Concord’s Lexington Road, next door to a man who would sit outside on a bench built into a large tree and cajole passers-by to sit and talk with him. The man was Alcott, who applied his philosophies to teaching, the creation of several schools and Fruitlands, another failed community experiment in applied idealism. This home where he lived with his wife and daughters was Orchard House, named for the apple trees that once grew behind it.

Alcott’s house has been a public museum for the last 100 years, and is filled with objects from the Alcotts’ lives, such as a demure semicircle “shelf desk” in Louisa May’s bedroom. Alcott built it into an alcove in the wall between two windows and his daughter used it to write Little Women, a staple of young adult literature that chronicles the lives of four sisters and their home, based loosely on herself, her three sisters and Orchard House.

Sleepy Hollow
The town’s largest cemetery was a favourite walking spot for Louisa May and Hawthorne. Signs at Sleepy Hollow help contemporary wanderers find Author’s Ridge, the area of the cemetery where, on a hill overlooking a pond, the Hawthornes, Alcotts, Emersons and Thoreaus share their final home, together in death as they were in life. Each has a grave marker befitting their earthly gifts. Thoreau’s grave is a small, laptop-sized marble marker simply labelled “Henry”, where pilgrims leave notes of gratitude, personal items and pencils (he is credited with improving the machinery at his father’s pencil factory).

Across from the Thoreaus is Hawthorne’s marker, chained off in a family plot, fitting for a man who derived so much happiness from his wife and children. A few paces farther along are the Alcotts. Louisa May, who contracted typhoid pneumonia while working as a nurse during the Civil War, has a permanent marker for her veterans’ status and is surrounded by the siblings she made famous in Little Women. Emerson’s less-modest grave is set off a bit farther. As the rock that tied them all together, it is fitting that his plaque sits upon on a large white rose quartz boulder. In his contemporary travelogue, Walking Towards Walden, John Hanson Mitchell noted “Except for Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris or Westminster Abbey in London, no other burial site in the world contains so many authors interred in so small a space.”

Thoreau died in 1862 at age 44 without receiving any acclaim for his writing and its global influence. Like a pebble setting off ever-growing, concentric ripples on a pond, Thoreau’s simple ideas on learning from nature and resisting state injustice would beget pacifists such as Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, and other progressive movements including prison reform, suffrage, abolitionism and environmentalism. And it is in nature, and Concord, where these transcendental lessons become most clear.

The Colonial Inn, a hotel since 1889, is the closest you can get to staying at or eating where Thoreau did. He lived here with his aunts from 1835 to 1837 while attending Harvard in nearby Cambridge. The rooms are classically furnished with some looking out over the town square, and the dinner options range from traditional American fare to interesting options like fried tofu with roasted mushrooms. Two doors down is the North Bridge Inn, similar in style to the Colonial Inn and with large suites, but without the same historic pedigree and with cheaper rates.

Helen’s Restaurant is a popular upscale diner with satisfying staples like fish taco wraps and goat cheese paninis. Main Streets Market & Café is a cute coffee shop, decorated with old photos of Concord on its brick walls, that makes great sandwiches (the chicken breast with avocado is called the Walden) and many pastries.