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Photos of sacred spaces incorporated into the architecture of an illustrated building.
(Patrick Hruby / Los Angeles Times)

11 incredibly beautiful sacred spaces in Southern California that inspire awe

Here in Southern California, we don’t need opulent churches or glimmering temples to commune with God, the divine or our higher selves.

Watching the rhythmic roll of the ocean might do it. Finding a quiet spot on a hike. Lighting a candle in your bedroom. Noticing a flower blooming in a crack in concrete.

And yet, if you’re like me, you can acknowledge that there’s something special about stepping into a vast and beautiful space built for collective and private worship that causes your heart to swell. It might be the architecture, or the sheer size of the structure. Maybe it’s the resonance of all those collective prayers. Maybe it’s the deep hush. The dim lights.

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Listed here are some of the sacred spaces I’ve visited in and around Los Angeles that made me say “Wow,” over and over again.

Many of the buildings had some extremely wealthy donors. It takes serious money to build monumental spaces that convey the permanence of the divine. Sometimes that money can be assembled through many small donations, but having congregants with deep pockets helps.

Visitors of all faiths and no faiths are warmly welcomed at every place mentioned below, and questions are encouraged.

A final note: This is not an exhaustive list and it does not include all of the region’s many different religions. Treat this guide as a first step into this awe-inspiring world and a small slice of what’s out there. If you have a suggestion for a missing location, email me at deborah.netburn@latimes.com and it may be included in future coverage.

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A woman makes sand art in the BAPS Swaminarayan Mandir in Chino Hills.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Chino Hills Temple
The BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, which opened in 2012, rises like an ornately carved sand castle just off the 71 Freeway in Chino Hills. It is open to the public daily from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. and welcomes visitors. After pulling into the ample parking lot, you’ll start at the Welcome Center with its intricately carved teak interior. (Look for elephants with their trunks raised in greeting; peacocks, which are the national bird of India; and so many lotuses.) Across a courtyard is the Mandir itself — its exterior made of carved pink sandstone imported from Rajasthan, India. The closer you get, the more staggering it becomes as the exquisite detail in the carvings comes into focus. (Look closely and you’ll see the names of the deities and swamis are written in English, which is very helpful for an English-speaking guest.)

There’s a small museum on the ground floor detailing the making of the Mandir, which was built with the help of 900 volunteers. On the second level, you’ll find the heart of the Mandir itself, with even more intricate carvings, this time in white Italian marble. Small plaques with QR codes provide more detail about the carvings and the colorful murtis (sacred images) along the perimeter of the shrine. If you time your visit right you can witness the Arti ceremony, a veneration of the sacred images through fire that takes place daily at 11:15 a.m. and 7 p.m. At the end you will be invited to wave in consecrated candlelight. (You can confirm the times at the visitor center.)

The Mandir has a dress code — tops must cover the shoulder, back, chest, navel and upper arms, and legwear must be below knee-length. However, sarongs are provided if you need one.

Pro tip: Be sure to check out the on-site Indian grocery store and vegetarian cafe before you leave.
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The Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights
(Jesse Goddard / For The Times)

Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple

Hacienda Heights Temple
On a hill in Hacienda Heights about 20 miles east of downtown L.A., you’ll find the Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple — one of the largest Buddhist temples in the United States. Designed in the traditional style of Chinese monasteries, it was completed in 1988 and is the North American regional headquarters of the Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Order, which was founded in Taiwan in 1967.

No appointment is needed to visit the temple complex, which spans 15 acres. After passing through the Welcome Gate you’ll ascend several steps to the Bodhisattva Hall, which holds five large statues representing different desirable aspects — discipline, benevolence, compassion, wisdom and the desire to save suffering beings. On the day I went, visitors were invited to pull a small piece of paper from a jar marked Dharma Words, which were translated and interpreted by a volunteer. (My slip of paper, which suggested I talk less and stop comparing myself to others, was weirdly accurate, and very humbling!)

A small information center provides self-guided audio tours upon request, and bilingual volunteers are available to answer questions seven days a week. As you make your way through the temple you will encounter gardens, fountains and lots of statues, most of which include plaques in English and Chinese explaining their significance. I can think of fewer more peaceful places to meditate than in the main shrine room, surrounded by 10,000 small Buddha statues that serve as a reminder of the Buddha nature in every one of us. The temple also serves a $10 vegetarian buffet lunch on weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and on weekends from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
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Wood and glass create triangular shapes inside Wayfarers Chapel.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Wayfarers Chapel (Currently closed to visitors)

Rancho Palos Verdes Church
Update Feb. 15, 2024: The Wayfarers Chapel and grounds are closed indefinitely to the public because of accelerated land movement in the local area.

The 100-seat Wayfarers Chapel in Rancho Palos Verdes doesn’t need grandeur to inspire awe. In this intimate seaside church made almost entirely of glass, it is the beauty of nature that ignites the spirit: the plantings that mimic a forest floor, the redwood pillars that rise like tree trunks to support the glass structure, the stone baptismal font that resembles a burbling spring. Built as a national memorial to the 18th century mystic and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, it was designed by Lloyd Wright (one of Frank’s sons) and completed in 1951.

Visitors also are invited to tour the 3.5-acre chapel grounds, which include landscaped gardens, a hillside stream, a reflection pool, a visitors center and gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean. The chapel and the grounds are open daily to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you want to spend time inside the glass building (you do), call ahead to make sure there are no events scheduled for when you plan to arrive. It’s often booked for weddings and memorials.
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A man takes a picture of the Christ Cathedral.
(Spencer Grant / Weekend)

Christ Cathedral (formerly the Crystal Cathedral)

Garden Grove Church
The interior of the world-famous Christ Cathedral in Garden Grove has gone through some changes since the Diocese of Orange bought the 34-acre campus in 2012, but it’s still pretty outrageous. One of the biggest changes is the addition of about 11,000 triangle-shaped aluminum quatrefoils lining the cathedral’s steel and glass walls. Though they do interfere with the openness of architect Philip Johnson’s original design, they also reflect the sun’s rays and provide insulation for the air conditioning the diocese installed in the 2,100-seat building. It turns out that a glass building in Southern California with no air conditioning made for an uncomfortably hot space.

The original cathedral was completed in 1980 and was designed as a hybrid church and television studio for televangelist Rev. Robert H. Schuller. It is home to the fifth-largest organ in the world, and is located on an expansive campus that includes a striking 18-story stainless-steel mirrored bell tower and the elegant 13-story Tower of Hope, designed by Richard Neutra. Free tours of the cathedral are available Monday to Thursday at 1 and 2 pm. Also make sure to check out the Lady of La Vang Shrine located on the opposite side of the chapel from the memorial gardens, which opened to the public in 2021. It depicts a 12-foot-tall Virgin Mary as she is believed to have looked to persecuted Catholics in Vietnam’s La Vang forest in 1798.

Pro tip: The gargantuan women’s bathroom is pure 1980s fabulousness in black, gold and mahogany and not to be missed!
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Stained glass windows glow in the Shatto Chapel at the First Congregational Church.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

First Congregational Church of Los Angeles

Westside Church
With its stately neo-Gothic architecture and massive tower reminiscent of Oxford University’s Magdalen College, the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles might seem out of step with the city’s modern ethos and rapidly changing landscape. In fact, this graceful, historic monument on Commonwealth Avenue in Koreatown is L.A. all the way — especially now as it hosts an increasing number of concerts, lectures, book signings and other creative events in its many beautiful spaces.

In the 800-seat sanctuary you’ll find one of the largest working church pipe organs in the world, as well as a state-of-the-art sound system. An array of colored LED light options enhances the drama of its classic architecture, modeled on the great cathedrals of France and England. The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles rehearses here. So does the women’s choir Vox Femina and the Key Change Ensemble, a trans choir — and they all perform occasional concerts at the church as well. When you visit, be sure to check out the more intimate Shatto Chapel, with its towering stone pillars, vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows.

Perhaps the best way to see the church is to attend an event on its premises. It hosts a free organ concert each Sunday morning from 10:30 to 11 a.m. before services start. Other events are listed on the church’s calendar.

Pro tip: Parking at the church is usually free but a few events do charge for parking (between $10 and $20), so check the church’s website before you go.
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A blue and white turret at the King Fahad Mosque at sunset.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

King Fahad Mosque

Culver City Temple
The King Fahad Mosque in Culver City opened in 1998 and has been an iconic cultural landmark there ever since. It was the first mosque in Southern California to be built from the ground up with full Islamic architecture, including two domes and a 75-foot high minaret, or tower, that shines like a beacon on Washington Boulevard. (Encircled by bands of blue and red neon, it literally shines at night.)

The building was a gift to the Los Angeles Muslim community from King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the late king of Saudi Arabia, and his son His Royal Highness Prince Abdul Aziz Bin Fahd, and designed by the mosque’s founder and executive chairman, Khalil Alkhalil. It is slightly askew to the street because it is oriented east toward Mecca in Saudi Arabia.

Inside you’ll find a round lobby ringed with custom Turkish tile. A library off to the right includes a beautiful and expansive collection of books in Arabic and English, as well as a framed piece of gold-embroidered silk cloth that once covered the Kaaba — a square shrine near the center of Mecca. The main prayer room, where up to 2,000 men can pray at a time standing shoulder to shoulder, has walls of marble and pillars covered in tile and is capped with a gorgeous tile dome and a large chandelier. Women pray in a smaller, carpeted room upstairs, also adorned with tile and marble, with windows that look out on the main prayer room.

Guests are warmly welcomed to visit the mosque. You can make an appointment for a tour on its website or call the office. Women will be asked to enter through a separate entrance, and modest dress is required — long pants or skirts, no tank tops. Women do not need to cover their hair to enter the mosque, but it is a sign of respect and appreciated. Also: Get ready to take off your shoes.
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The Golden Lotus Archway stands across the water at Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine

Pacific Palisades Chapel
Whether or not you’re familiar with the work of Paramahansa Yogananda, who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship in 1920, if you live in Los Angeles you owe him a debt of gratitude. In addition to being among the first Indian gurus to popularize the ancient practice of yoga in the United States, Yogananda also created a smattering of lush, meditative gardens in Southern California that are still open to the public today. Among those is the Lake Shrine, a beautifully landscaped 10-acre property in the Pacific Palisades surrounding a spring-fed lake. It is free to visit, but you will need to make a reservation online before you go. (Reservations open each Saturday at 10 a.m. for the week ahead, and they can fill up quickly.)

Yogananda believed in the underlying unity of all religions, and the Lake Shrine property includes a “Court of Religions” where you’ll find monuments to the five major religions of the world: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. Other highlights include a reproduction of a 16th century windmill that houses a small carpeted chapel (photos are not permitted inside); a radiant white temple without walls; and the Gandhi World Peace Memorial, which contains a portion of Gandhi’s ashes.

Pro tip: For an especially beautiful meditation spot, head to the sunken garden, where you will feel enclosed by greenery.
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The ornate interior of St. John's Episcopal Cathedral with a large cross and intricate mosaics.
(Deborah Netburn / Los Angeles Times)

St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral

University Park Church
Just off the 110 Freeway, a few blocks from the USC campus and across the street from Popeyes, you’ll find the stone edifice of St. John’s Episcopal Cathedral enclosed behind a wrought-iron fence. It’s not a particularly picturesque location, but don’t let that deter you: The interior of the 700-seat church will take your breath away.

St. John’s organized as a congregation in 1890 and erected a small wooden church that same year in an orange grove on what was then the edge of town. Construction on the current building, right next door to the original church, began in 1922; it was consecrated in 1925.

It’s a lovely cavernous space, with towering rounded arches, dark handmade floor tiles and painted wood beamed ceilings modeled on an 11th century church in Florence. But the highlight is the glimmering and expansive high altar at the front of the church. Here, layers of recessed arches decorated in intricate mosaics draw the eye deeper and deeper to the figure of the ascending Christ in a carved triptych in the apse. A large mosaic of a radiant light beaming against a blue sky on the dome above it was meant to represent the creation of the world, but to me it felt like divine energy shining down on all of us.

The church is open on Sunday mornings from 8 a.m. to noon and welcomes all visitors.
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A large painting of the Virgin Mary looks over the pews at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral.

St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral

Pico-Union Church
The interior of St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in the midst of Koreatown is glittering, ornate and almost overwhelming. Every inch of the 1,000-seat church is adorned with stained glass, mosaics, gilded woodwork with gold-leaf detail and other flourishes. An enormous painting of the Virgin Mary, arms outstretched, dominates the front of the church in the apse. (Some say she was modeled after a classic actress.) From the top of a dome painted into the ceiling, an even larger painting of Jesus gazes down on the pews — a reminder that the all-knowing one is always watching.

The church was built by Charlie Skouras, a Greek immigrant who became president of National Theaters, which operated thousands of cinemas across the country. The story goes that early in his career, Skouras vowed that if God granted him success in the entertainment industry he would build a majestic cathedral in God’s honor. St. Sophia, which opened in 1952, is that cathedral.

The cathedral is open for services beginning at 9 a.m. on Sunday. If you’d like to see it during off hours, you can call the office and schedule a tour. Weekdays between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. is best. Everyone is welcome.
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Stained glass shines inside Stauffer Chapel at Pepperdine University.
(Deborah Netburn / Los Angeles Times)

Stauffer Chapel at Pepperdine University

Unincorporated Santa Monica Mountains Chapel
Built in 1973, the 180-seat Stauffer Chapel on Pepperdine University’s Malibu campus is intimate, sparse, quiet and dazzling. That dazzle comes courtesy of the two enormous walls of swirling stained glass that enclose both ends of the quonset-hut-shaped building. The window facing the Pacific Ocean represents the Tree of Life with a Bible in the center, and is made up of 105 distinct hues. The walls of the chapel are lined with smaller stained glass windows that reach from floor to ceiling. The rest of the chapel — floors, pews and ceiling — is in soothing neutral earth tones, allowing those glorious, glowing walls to shine.

The chapel is used by two different congregations on Sundays, and by the university community throughout the week for lectures and concerts. Tim Spivey, associate vice president for spiritual life at Pepperdine, said it’s a room built for the human voice: Very rarely does anyone need a mic. The chapel used to be available to the public for weddings and memorials, but not anymore.

Spivey is especially partial to the small prayer garden at the back of the chapel that looks out over the Pacific Ocean. On a clear night, when the moon is hanging low in the sky, he said, there is no better view in Los Angeles.

Guests are welcome to visit the chapel, but Spivey asks that you call ahead. Hours vary.
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Ornate circles and stained glass decorate the towering interior of Wilshire Boulevard Temple.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Koreatown Temple
There is technically no such thing as a cathedral in Judaism. If there were, it might look something like the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Koreatown. Completed in 1929, the 1,800-seat main sanctuary is grandiose and imposing, with heavy dark-wood pews and a towering ceiling modeled on the Pantheon. A large mural painted around the room’s perimeter depicts the history of the Jewish people from the story of creation in Genesis until their arrival in America. Enormous bronze chandeliers resembling the spice boxes observant Jews sniff at the end of Shabbat hang from the dome-shaped ceiling. At the apex of the dome, the words of the Shema — the watchword of the Jewish faith — are painted in gold surrounding an oculus of the most beautiful blue.

Much of this grandeur was paid for by some of the most powerful Hollywood moguls of the 1920s. The murals were sponsored by three of the Warner brothers and painted by their studio artist Hugo Ballin. Carl Laemmle donated the bronze chandeliers. Louis B. Mayer of MGM was responsible for the east and west stained glass windows. Film executive Irving Thalberg covered the cost of the painting of the Shema.

On the opposite end of the architectural spectrum, you’ll find the Rem Koolhaas-designed Audrey Irmas Pavilion sitting right next to the 1920s temple building. A hyper-modern 55,000-square-foot events space, it was completed in 2019 and houses more intimate spaces for worship and gathering.

If you’d like to see the temple yourself, call the tours department at (213) 835-2195 for more information.
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