Living in: Spiritual cities

Imbued with a sense of the divine, these five locales are known for their religious histories and sacred spaces that attract visitors and devotees from around the globe.

There are thousands of religions practiced around the world, from the ancient to the relatively new. Certain cities are closely linked to the faiths practiced by their residents, and have been imbued with a sense of the divine. Known for their religious histories, houses of worship and sacred spaces, these locales connect the faithful and attract visitors and devotees from around the globe.

Chiang Mai
Thailand’s second city is the former capital of the Lanna Kingdom that once ruled the northern part of the country. It is home to hundreds of Buddhist temples, including the famed Wat Chedi Luang with its ruined chedi, (or stupa, top) where visitors can bless Buddha by pulling a container of water to the top of the temple with a rope and emptying it. At the 14th-century Wat Phra That Doi Suthep atop the Doi Suthep mountain just outside of town, Buddhist monks bless the faithful as well as the curious, and temple workers advise visitors on donating to the Buddha statue appropriate to their birth date. But Chiang Mai is not a city preserved in amber: it is a vibrant metropolis packed with locals, students, expats and retirees who fill the lively markets and streets and the restaurants that line the Ping River.

The walled inner city is the core of ancient Chiang Mai, home to bars, cafes, temples and the crafts-filled Sunday Market; while the modern city, which surrounds the core, is where Chiang Mai University and other colleges are located as well as many apartment blocks. In the city suburbs, some expats live in moo baan, Western-style gated communities. “We have around 40,000 expats here,” said Pim Kemasingki, owner and publisher of Chiang Mai Citylife magazine. According to a recent Citylife survey, nearly a third of residents move to Chiang Mai for the culture and another 15% for the cost of living. In or near the inner city, monthly rents are around 5,500 to 8,000 Thai baht for a studio or share. Condos rent for around 20,000 to 31,000 baht, and a luxury property with four bedrooms and a pool in the modern part of town rents for around 56,000 baht per month.

Considered by Hindus and Jains to be the holiest city in India, ancient Varanasi on the banks of the river Ganges is the country’s spiritual capital. Also known as Benares, the city has been in existence for approximately 3,000 years, making it one of the oldest inhabited places on Earth. The many ghats (stone steps) leading down to the sacred river are filled in the early mornings with bathers cleansing their sins by immersing themselves in the water. The two funeral ghats where bodies are cremated are so holy that the dead can achieve moksha, when the cycle of reincarnation is broken and the soul goes straight to heaven. Many festivals are celebrated throughout the year, such as Dev Diwali, held during November’s full moon when the ghats and the river are lit with thousands of diya, or floating candles.

Varanasi has a population of 1.4 million, plus an annual influx of more than three million tourists and pilgrims. Neighbourhoods to the north of the city are quieter and greener than the areas closest to the river, such as the Cantonment area which was where the British lived and worked and is now home to international hotels and a hospital. Families also look in Sarnath, a village just outside Varanasi where Buddha first taught and where the Central University of Tibetan Studies is located. American colleges like Smith hold study-abroad programmes here and the Dalai Lama is sometimes in residence. A three-bedroom apartment in the city centre rents for 17,500 rupees and for 12,000 rupees outside of town. A 90sqm apartment in Sarnath sells for around 2.5 million rupees.

This city is holy three times over, as the great monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all consider the Old City of incredible religious importance. Home to the Temple Mount, which includes the Western Wall (the only surviving part of the Second Temple), the al-Aqsa Mosque (the third holiest site in Islam) and the Dome of the Rock (the Muslim shrine that houses the Foundation Stone), as well as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that stands on the site where Jesus was crucified, this tiny parcel of land, less than 1sqkm, contains some of the holiest spots on Earth. Devotees come from all over the world to pray and follow in the footsteps of King David or to retrace Jesus’ path to crucifixion. The current city, of which the Old City is a part, is divided into West Jerusalem, mostly Israeli, and East Jerusalem, heavily Palestinian and Arab. There are significant differences in services and standard of living between the two sides, as well as the separation barrier that is currently cutting off parts of East Jerusalem from the rest of the city and the West Bank.

For those moving to Jerusalem, one of the biggest decisions to make is whether to live in the east or west part of town. Some expats who work for NGOs or charitable organisations might have their decisions made for them depending on what type of work they are doing and where. In West Jerusalem, the German Colony is one of the most popular areas to live, with boutiques, cafes and restaurants lining Emek Refaim, the high street. Nearby, the Baka neighbourhood is very desirable due to its traditional Arab houses and architecture. In East Jerusalem, the Shuafat district has excellent transport links, containing three stations of the Jerusalem Light Rail that runs from east to west through the city. A three-bedroom apartment in areas such as German Town and Baka rent for 5,000 shekels a month, while a two-bedroom in German Town starts at 1.5 million shekels to buy.

Salt Lake City
The state capital of Utah and spiritual home to the world’s Mormon population, Salt Lake City was founded in 1847 by Brigham Young and other leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The many-spired Salt Lake Temple sits on the 10-acre Temple Square, which is also home to the famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and the Family History Library, which contains the world’s largest cache of genealogical material.

About half of the city’s population is Mormon and membership in the church is one of the fastest growing in the world, due to its missionaries proselytising and the high birth rate in Mormon families. But Salt Lake City is also home to a diverse population of followers of other religions, gays and lesbians and outdoorsy types. The city hosted the 2002 Winter Olympics, and is within minutes of the Wasatch Range with its four ski resorts, and just half an hour from the Park City and Deer Valley ski resorts. “People move here because of the Mormon headquarters and retirees move here because they want to be close to church and family,” said David Anderton, director of communications for the Salt Lake Board of Realtors. “Not to mention the quality of life, access to five national parks and ski resorts.”

The downtown core got a boost with the 2012 opening of the City Creek Center, a shopping mall and mixed-use development of rentals and condos across the street from the Salt Lake Temple, financed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The most desirable downtown neighbourhoods are in the foothills of the Wasatch Range, such as The Avenues, Oak Hills and Sugar House. Much of the housing stock is Victorian and turn-of-the-century beauties on shady tree-lined blocks, and houses here can cost more than $500,000. To the south, houses in the lower-priced areas of Taylorsville and Kearns start at around $150,000, while rent is $900 to $1,000 a month. The in-demand suburbs of Draper and Sandy are about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City and single-family homes cost around $450,000, while a two to three-bedroom rental starts at $1,200.

With thousands of temples, zen gardens, Shinto shrines and traditional Japanese arts and crafts, the past is still deeply present in Kyoto. Once the capital of imperial Japan, iconic spots such as the To-ji Temple, Kinkaku-ji Temple and the Golden Pavilion, are deep in the national consciousness and are also Unesco World Heritage sites. Surrounded by green hills with trees that turn crimson in the autumn months and crossed by rivers and canals lined with pink cherry blossoms in spring, Kyoto has a tranquillity and peacefulness far removed from the hectic pace of Tokyo, drawing those looking for a change of pace.

Still, the city of 1.4 million is no sleepy village. The streets around Kyoto Station in the city centre are bustling, and the central areas of Pontocho, Gion and Kiyamachi are where many of the restaurants and nightlife are to be found. The most popular expat neighbourhoods are Okazaki (Sakyo-ku) in the northeast, Iwakura, Kitayama, Shimogamo and the Demachiyanagi north of the centre, all with good transport links. Small 20sqm one-bedroom flats rent for around 50,000 to 60,000 yen a month in these neighbourhoods, while a two- to three-bed apartment in Demachiyanagi goes for around 110,000 yen a month. A three bedroom property in a new building in the same neighbourhood sells for around 30,000,000 yen. Those looking for lower taxes and more space move east of Kyoto to the Shiga prefecture near Lake Biwa.