Music Pilgrimages: Hitting All The High Notes

Pilgrimages come in all flavours – religious, spiritual, gastronomic and yes, why not musical? Those of us who love music are quite capable of chasing it around the world and paying homage to extraordinary sites that honour those high notes.

Like these, for example.


You may not be an Elvis fan but unless you’ve been living on Mars, you’ve heard of Elvis – and if you’ve ever been to Memphis then you’ve visited Graceland, which leads the list of must-do musical pilgrimages. It’s the home of the undisputed King of Rock’N Roll, Elvis Presley, possibly the most popular singers of the 20th century. His home is a magnet to thousands each year despite its increasing tackiness (read souvenir stalls and Elvis impersonators) – it’s the most beloved attraction in Memphis.

Why so popular? His songs and his voice and his films, of course, but… sex. He made music sexual, tight pants, hip thrusts and all. Before him, music was clean-cut (sensuous perhaps, but something you could watch with your children or grandparents). Elvis was… bannable. Shows refused to televise him, and parents kept their teenage girls home. He was Hot, he was Dangerous, and he changed the face of the century’s music.

music pilgrimages - Graceland gate

Once you’re in Memphis it’s only a hop, skip and a jump to Nashville, home of country music, the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame. If you like stomping your feet to the fiddle and the harmonica, just head to Tennessee.


If Elvis is too ancient for you, perhaps you remember (or have rediscovered) the rock group The Doors. Their lead singer, Jim Morrison died at 27 of a probable heroin overdose and is buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, where countless fans pay their respects to one of the most venerated figures of rock history. Still today the strains of Riders on the Storm or Light My Fire will drift out of a window in an unlikely city, like Johannesburg or Bangkok, oldies but goodies whose original authors few remember but whose strength everyone recognizes.

Jim Morrison's grave

The list of rock musical pilgrimages could be a long one. If you’re on the Isle of Wight (remember the rock festivals of the sixties here?) you could drop by Dimbola Lodge and see Jimi Hendrix’s statue. Or you could follow The Beatles to their birthplace and to the (renovated) Cavern Club in Liverpool or why not do the touristy thing and cross Abbey Road, where they lived and recorded in London?


To many of us The Beatles’ album Abbey Road is so familiar we can sing every word in our sleep.  My own special anthem was Here Comes The Sun but I’m also fond of the quirky Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Octopus’s Garden. And then there was Something, possibly one of the group’s best songs ever, and the inimitable Come Together. No, choosing a favorite is nearly impossible but to many of us coming of age in the 60s and 70s, these weren’t songs or albums, they were anthems and mission statements.

music pilgrimages - abbey road


Next time you’re California Dreamin’, why not stand at the historic corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco, where hippies ruled in the late 1960s and where such eternal stars as Janis Joplin and Jefferson Airplane lived? It’s changed a bit. Actually, a lot. Nowadays it is more about manufactured nostalgia than counterculture and free love but for those of us who love rides down memory lane, simply standing under that sign takes us back decades… I’m glad I went and as I walked around the head shops I couldn’t help but hum Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco, and think of wearing flowers in my hair…

music pilgrimages - haight ashbury


With the smell of flower power barely out of our hair we were catapulted into disco and ABBA, another group whose every word was memorized and repeated. At one point whenever Fernando came on the radio my friends would heave a collective groan. “Not again!” Oh yes. Again and again and again. I wasn’t much of a concert-goer but I did go see ABBA, wearing my bell-bottoms, my paisly blouse and my platform shoes.

And for those of you who care about such things, their song Waterloo was chosen as the most loved of Eurovision’s 50-year history. Did you miss all the ABBAmania but still want to know what it’s all about? There’s always – the ABBA Museum in Stockholm! And now, for a bit of fun and nostalgia…

But there’s more than rock music in the air and your music pilgrimages might be of another kind.


If your taste runs to tango, which has made a huge comeback, you won’t have to look much further than any well-populated corner of Buenos Aires, where the scratchy sounds of Carlos Gardel – tango’s greatest legend – will get necks snapping and hips swivelling in no time.

Tango, the people of Buenos Aires or ‘porteños’ like to say, isn’t a dance, it’s a lifestyle, and that lifestyle is protected by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Mankind. Once in Buenos Aires, you can’t hide from it – but why would you want to?

music pilgrimages - tango buenos aires


If Spanish flamenco is what causes you joy (I was brought up in Spain so I’m definitely a flamenco fan) why not combine faith and flamenco and head for the Feria de Sevilla in April? Two weeks after Easter, the riverside gets covered by small wood stalls filled with partygoers who spend an entire week drinking sherry, eating tapas and, of course, dancing and singing flamenco. 

music pilgrimages - flamenco


If you’re in the Austrian Alps, you could follow Rogers and Hammerstein’s the Sound of Music and the Von Trapp family’s daring escape from the Nazis in World War II. This is so popular the city of Salzburg really lays it on with Sound of Music tours, bike rides, musicals…

Austrian Alps


Of course while you’re in Salzburg, you can take in a Mozart concert – he was born there after all. 

Or visit Vienna, where you’ll have a choice of music pilgrimages – after all, this is where Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and many others lived… and died. There’s Heiligenstadt, the lovely village that was a home to Beethoven, or follow the Haydn Trail, a walking circuit linking four famous sites across Vienna.

music pilgrimage - concert in a church

There is so much to see – and hear: fado in Lisbon, that plaintive lovelorn wail, or Africa – the entire continent is a musical pilgrimage, with singing on every corner, drawing us to tap our feet, only to snap back hours later wondering where the time flew.

Whether through sound on music pilgrimages or taste through food tourism, travel is often about exploring other senses that sight.

Just close your eyes and listen. Chances are you’ll hear something drifting through the air that moves you.

As Toto sang in the song Africa, “I hear the drums echoing tonight.” And if I’m not careful I’ll be on a plane by nightfall.

— Originally published on 31 July 2011


Music pilgrimages - pin

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