The Unexpected Effect Travel Can Have On Your Spirituality, According To Rick Steves

Travel can impact people in many different ways; some return inspired to adopt a new diet, perhaps Mediterranean or Okinawan, while others might consider a new routine, like taking compulsory siestas. However, the profound influence of travel can extend far beyond exploring exotic cuisines or different ways of living. According to Rick Steves, travel can have an unexpected effect on your spirituality.

First and foremost, it's crucial to clarify one concept: religion and spirituality are different. Religion is external, involving a pre-determined set of organized beliefs and practices, whereas spirituality is internal, focusing on an individual sense of purpose and solace. That doesn't mean you have to choose between one or the other — both are important and can work hand in hand. A 2018 study indicates that if someone is religious but not spiritual, their mental health can potentially suffer.

Spirituality can help people increase their compassion for themselves and others — and for Rick Steves, traveling is inherently spiritual. In a 2010 interview with Christian Century, he reinforced this idea: "People have a lot of fear. The flip side of fear is understanding. When you travel to new places, you understand more, so you are fearless. And then you can love people, as a Christian should." This realization is essential for travelers, especially in industrialized countries like America. It can be easy to slip into an economic or cultural prejudice over countries that aren't represented in a certain "attractive" way.

How do you pursue spiritual experiences when traveling?

How often have you visited a new place with preconceived notions about the people, only to discover that your initial ideas were far from the reality of what this place and its culture are all about? As a Christian, Rick Steves is embarrassed by this idea of ethnocentrism and wants to show American travelers that there are different, open-minded, spiritual ways to experience the world.

How would he do it? Rick Steves expresses that he would "put them in a lousy hotel, make them talk to people who don't speak their language, give them some history to read and hope they can recognize that people have dreams other than [the American dream]" (via Christian Century). This is one of many ways to overcome any prejudice and begin interpreting your religion and spirituality from other people's perspectives, even if their religion differs from yours.

Rick Steves emphasizes avoiding merely being a cog in the tourist machine. Instead, he advocates spending time with locals and seeking experiences that foster relationships with the people around you. While booking a local cooking class is a good start, it merely scratches the surface. Try opting for more immersive options like staying in a hands-on farm stay, volunteering for a cause you care about, or going on a hiking trek to meet people in remote villages with a local guide. "You will come home changed; that is being a traveler," asserts Rick Steves. 

Spiritual destinations around the world

It may seem daunting to access the travel experience that Rick Steves describes, but it's more attainable than one might assume. The initial, non-negotiable step towards gaining a profound understanding of people around the world is to travel with an open mind and heart. The next step is to select a destination renowned for its spiritual presence. Jerusalem is one of the most famous spiritual destinations, hosting three of the world's major religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — within its city limits. Every year, it welcomes millions of pilgrims.

For those curious about going further east, Kyoto, Japan, is known for its Zen Buddhist gardens and traditional tea ceremonies. This mindful spirit is evident even in everyday interactions with locals, such as when a vendor might present you with an origami bird as a gesture of good luck. At the banks of the Ganges River lies Varanasi, one of India's oldest and holiest cities in Hinduism, with non-stop cremations and chanting happening at its ghats.

Rick Steves also highly recommends Assisi, a bucket list city in Italy. This picturesque town is home to the stunning Basilica of Saint Francis and offers a taste of the simple yet profound staples of Umbrian cuisine — bread, cheese, and wine — that once sustained Saint Francis of Assisi himself. But remember, no matter how many houses of worship you visit, spirituality lives not outside but inside you. Travel the world, conquer your fears, learn from others, and love thy neighbor.