Please don’t be THAT traveler. Please. Learn the etiquette for visiting religious sites and use it every time you enter a sacred place.
There are plenty of reasons to include religious sites in your travels. They’re where you find art, architecture, and history. They’re where families come and important holidays are celebrated. They’re where famous people are buried and artifacts are displayed. They’re rich sources of culture and tradition.
The rules aren’t difficult. In fact, common sense prevails. But the fact that we’re in a relaxed-vacation mode is no excuse. Respect for others is a universal principle.
We could all share examples of bad behavior from tourists who disregard culture or ignore posted signs, because…well, because they want that selfie! Or they must touch that sculpture! Or they can’t restrain their free-spirited children! Feel free to add your own experiences in the comment box…
Basic etiquette for visiting religious sites
Let’s agree that etiquette for visiting religious sites is both necessary and practical. I offer a few “gentle guidelines” for those who are unsure about what to do in different situations.
Plan ahead: As a responsible traveler, you already know that you’ll get the most from your trip when you take time to study your destination. You expect to be visiting churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, or other holy places. You’ve checked what’s expected of visitors, because you want to honor the beliefs of the local people. This alone allows you to skip to the end of the article.
Dress appropriately: Sure, it’s Southeast Asia and you’re melting as you wait in line to see that temple. Or you suddenly decide to pop into an interesting cathedral or mosque listed in the guidebook. Let me be blunt: there is zero-tolerance for not wearing proper attire. The fix is easy: carry a scarf or shawl to cover your bare shoulders and head. No profane or gaudy messages on t-shirts. No skimpy shorts or skirts; use another scarf to create temporary cover. Men should pack a skullcap (kippah in Hebrew; yarmulke in Yiddish) if they know they’ll be entering Jewish synagogues; otherwise, look for a supply at the entrance–usually for a donation. You can be turned away or escorted out if you don’t pass muster–and the decision is not debatable.
Photography: This is a biggie, especially as taking photos gets easier and sneakier with devices. Check to see if photos are even allowed–there’s usually a picture or instructions before entering. If it’s prohibited, don’t sneak a few snaps anyway. Absolutely no photos during services–it’s a private time devoted to worship. Call me a killjoy, but I’ve warned others who were taking contraband pictures. And always, NO flash. Two more obvious rules, but I feel the need to be specific: First, if there’s a cord or barrier, such as in front of the altar or ark, don’t think you’re so special that the rules don’t apply to you. Second, no humorous poses with statues. Period. One last thing: Good Karma for leaving a donation if you take any photos.
Inside voices: Even better, no voices. If you’re with a tour group, the guide will talk quietly. If you’re with other companions, keep conversation to a minimum and speak in whispers. Make no mistake, religious sites can be fascinating, but you simply can’t chatter away or call someone over. During religious services, silence is expected. Think of it this way: If you were attending a service at your chosen place of worship, would you want to be distracted by a jabbering tourist? Probably not.
Watch and follow: In some religions, shoes must come off before entering a place of worship. Sometimes there is someone at the door to tell you. If not: Is there a heap of footwear at the door? Add yours! Do men remove hats? Are worshippers backing away from Buddha? You might want to do so, also. While you’re not expected to know and follow unfamiliar religious rituals, it’s wise to see what others do, so you don’t unintentionally offend. Some religions have complicated rules, such as facing a certain direction or only using a certain hand for touching, giving, or other actions. You can’t be expected to know all these things, so a mild demeanor and respectful actions will be sufficient.
See? It’s not so hard, is it? Comes down to the Golden Rule. Even if you don’t practice a religion or believe in a deity, you do know how to treat others. And we’re all visitors to these fascinating places…we’re there to learn and understand.
More travel etiquette? Yes, Please!