15 Inspiring Cities to Celebrate Orthodox Epiphany

Epiphany is an important religious celebration among Orthodox Christians. While the tradition varies slightly among countries, the rite always involves water, symbolizing the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. With religious tourism growing every day, let’s explore some of the best cities to celebrate Orthodox Epiphany.

Why Religious Tourism is Growing

Now, more than ever, there seems to be an emptiness, or a disconnection surrounding humanity. For example, factors like global instability, financial struggle, and technology addiction are causing people to seek out something more meaningful, drawing them closer to God.

Today’s Christians are seeking out opportunities to rekindle their faith, whether it be taking a pilgrimage walk, visiting holy sites, or participating in religious ceremonies. Hopefully, sharing experiences where humanity can connect on a deeper level with God, will continue to help religious tourism bloom.

Russia is Europe’s most religious nation with 82% of people believing in God.

Celebrating Orthodox Epiphany

Being a witness to, or even participating in an Orthodox Epiphany can be a very moving experience for many.  Specifically, there are two variations of the Orthodox Epiphany celebration that one may expect—the Blessing of the Waters service or an ice swim.

The Blessing of the Waters Service

The Blessing of the Waters ceremony typically involves a religious service led by clergy members. Generally, the ceremony is held near a body of water, such as a river or lake.

A cross is blessed and then thrown into the water, symbolizing the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. Afterward, members of the community, typically men, dive into the water to retrieve the cross.

The Blessing of the Waters ceremony is a significant part of the Epiphany celebrations. Kumanovo, Macedonia (2023)

After the Blessing of the Waters service, the consecrated water is considered holy. Next, it is distributed to the congregation. Participants often collect small amounts of the blessed water to take home, as it carries special religious significance.

Generally, the celebration is not only a religious event but also a communal one, often accompanied by social gatherings, feasts, and other festivities. Indeed, the Blessing of the Waters is an important cultural and religious tradition for Orthodox Christians around the world, especially Greeks, Romanians, Serbians, and Macedonians.

The Ice Swim

To recreate the baptism of Jesus, Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox Christians celebrate Epiphany by submerging themselves in water. However, unlike the warm waters of the Jordan River, these devout believers take the plunge in frigid winter temperatures, proving their faith!

Traditionally, Russians take the plunge in a cross-shaped dipping pool.

Traditionally, priests carve out a cross into the ice. Before it is deemed holy and suitable for immersion, the water undergoes a process of sanctification and purification through prayer.

Once the water is consecrated, participants immerse themselves three times in the icy water. This symbolically pays homage to the Holy Trinity. Also, this act is seen as a way to ceremonially cleanse themselves of sins from the preceding year and to undergo a symbolic spiritual rebirth.

Best Cities for Orthodox Epiphany

For travelers who want to be a part of this meaningful, exciting Christian event, there are opportunities worldwide. Here are 15 cities where the faithful can witness Orthodox Epiphany celebrations.

1. Ohrid, Macedonia

The Lake Ohrid region is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a significant and picturesque location for various cultural and religious events, including the Blessing of the Waters ceremony. Lake Ohrid is considered one of the best destinations in the world to witness this moving religious event.

Ohrid Macedonia is one of the most coveted destinations in the world to witness the Blessing of the Waters celebration. As a UNESCO site, the stunning Lake Ohrid combines religious significance with natural beauty. For instance, epiphany is a time when the local Macedonian community comes together to observe a sacred tradition and celebrate a shared cultural and religious heritage.

Catcher Of A Cross Monument

The Catcher Of A Cross Monument sits near the Epiphany site in Ohrid, Macedonia.

The Catcher of a Cross monument occupies a prominent position near the harbor and city center, symbolizing a meaningful tribute to Vodici, the Baptism of Jesus Christ, and the sanctification of Lake Ohrid’s waters. Uniquely, this monument stands as the sole statue worldwide depicting the Blessing of the Waters ceremony, highlighting its significance to the Macedonian community.

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2. Athens, Greece

In Greek tradition, the Blessing of the Waters ceremony involves the consecration of the sea waters.

The Blessing of the Waters ceremony in Greece is a vibrant and symbolic event bringing together both the devout Christians and community onlookers. Typically, Epiphany is held at the port of Piraeus, the main port of Athens. As the nation’s capital, the cross is thrown three times to accommodate the huge number of eager swimmers.

The presence of Hellenic Navy ships during the Blessing of the Waters ceremony adds a ceremonial and symbolic aspect to the event. However, some suggest it emphasizes the connection between religious observance and the maritime traditions of the region.

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3. Sydney, Australia

While most Orthodox Christians around the world submerge in icy waters, Australia celebrates in their summertime. Lucky!

For Epiphany celebrations, most Orthodox Christians must plunge into icy waters. Luckily for Australians, the Blessing of the Waters service takes place in the summertime. Just outside Sydney, Yarra Bay Beach is a popular swimming beach, known for its white, soft sand and calm waters. For this reason, this is one of the nicest, and most family-friendly destinations to participate in the festivities.

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4. Moscow, Russia

Some Russian cities use pools for Epiphany instead of bodies of water as seen here in Kaliningrad.

Russians are notorious for braving the icy plunge. It is estimated that over two million people participate in the tradition. Moreover, there are over 60 official bathing sites spread across Moscow alone. Two of the most popular locations include Revolution Square, just outside the Kremlin, and Severnoe Tushino Park which hosts over 10,000 Christians during the city’s 24-hour Epiphany celebrations.

5. Belgrade, Serbia

This tradition is rooted in the belief that plunging into icy waters during Epiphany bestows good health upon worshippers and symbolically purifies them of their sins.

In Belgrade, Serbia, the Blessing of the Waters ceremony is typically celebrated at various locations. However, the primary location is at the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Also, the Sava Lake is another host site. In short, Belgrade’s celebrations are organized by the Serbian Orthodox Church and often feature patriotic flags and flares.

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6. Thessaloniki, Greece

Orthodox Epiphany is a Christian feast day that commemorates the revelation of Jesus Christ as the Son of God through his baptism in the Jordan River.

In Thessaloniki, Greece, the Blessing of the Waters ceremony for Epiphany is typically celebrated at various locations, primarily in the city’s Thermaic Gulf. To ensure safety, vessels from the Coast Guard, Fire Brigade, and the Greek Rescue Team sail in close proximity. In particular, one popular gathering site to witness the ceremonial throwing of the cross is in Nea Paralia, situated behind the Royal Theatre.

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7. Kyiv, Ukraine

In Kyiv, the celebration of Epiphany is often marked by special events and religious services at various Orthodox churches and cathedrals across the city. The Dnipro River, which flows through Kyiv, is a notable location for the Epiphany celebration.

In Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the Blessing of the Waters ceremony is typically celebrated at various locations, including the Dnieper River.

Remember, one of the key elements of an Epiphany celebration involves the blessing of water. Ukrainian Christians gather near bodies of water, such as the Dnipro River, where priests conduct ceremonies to bless the water. Some may also participate in the custom of plunging into the icy water as a symbolic act of purification and the renewal of baptismal vows.

St. Sophia’s Cathedral, St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, and Kyiv Pechersk Lavra are among the significant religious sites in Kyiv where Epiphany celebrations may take place.

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8. Tarpon Springs, USA

Tarpon Springs stands out as one of the most European cities in the United States, distinguished by its lively Greek community. Notably, the Epiphany celebrations in Tarpon Springs are among the largest and most renowned in the United States. The event attracts both locals and visitors eager to engage in the cultural and religious festivities.

The Blessing of the Waters ceremony is a significant annual event in sunny Tarpon Springs, Florida.

The focal point of the celebration is Spring Bayou, a natural spring situated at the heart of Tarpon Springs. Moreover, this location holds particular significance for the vibrant Greek community, serving as a central venue for the Epiphany celebrations and bringing together people from near and far to partake in the event.

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9. St. Petersburg, Russia

A powerful image of a Christian showing his devotion in more ways than one.

In St. Petersburg, the Blessing of the Waters ceremony is typically conducted in various locations. Nevertheless, one of the notable sites for devout Christians is along the Neva River, which flows through this beautiful Russian city.

10. Struga, Macedonia

Epiphany celebrations are monumental in Macedonia, as seen here in Struga.

In Macedonia, Epiphany is known as Vodici. Struga is another popular site for the Blessing of the Waters service where swimmers jump into the cold waters of the Drim River. Finally, Struga’s unique design, with overwater bridges and riverside promenades, makes for excellent viewing opportunities for onlookers.

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11. Podgorica, Montenegro

While some countries like Romania are selective on who many fight for the tossed cross, Montenegro welcomes all, even women and small children. One year, a 9-year-old child found the cross.

In Montenegro, Epiphany ceremonies are arranged throughout the country, with notable gatherings in towns such as Bar, Herceg Novi, and Nikšić. Also, Bar’s beach ceremony is distinctive for its inclusion of children, some as young as three years old. However, the most extensive ceremony takes place in Podgorica, along the Moraca River.

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12. Skopje, Macedonia

Spectators wait for the tossing of the cross into the Vardar River. Photo courtsey Dule Damjanovski.

Organized by the Macedonian Orthodox Church, the Vardar River is the site of the Epiphany celebrations in Skopje. Furthermore, the event is located in the heart of the City Center, with bridges and promenades offering a more elevated view.

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13. Melbourne, Australia

In Australia, major cities such as Sydney and Brisbane conduct Blessing of the Waters ceremonies. Nevertheless, Melbourne stands out as the prime location to observe this event. This is attributed to Melbourne being home to the largest Greek population in Australia, especially in the suburb of Oakleigh.

The Blessing of the Waters event takes place along the coastline.

Within this community, a number of Greek businesses, restaurants, and religious institutions thrive. Therefore, cultural events, such as the Blessing of the Waters are celebrated annually.

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14. Constanța, Romania

In Romania, Epiphany is known as Boboteaza. One of the country’s largest Epiphany celebrations is in Constanța. Moreover, Constanta is Romania’s fourth largest city, which serves as the country’s main port on the Black Sea. Historically, it also is one of the oldest cities in Europe, founded around 600 B.C.

Holy water plays a significant role in Romania’s Orthodox community.

In traditional Romanian Epiphany celebrations, wooden barrels of holy water are pulled by carts and oxen through the city in a religious procession. There are ice crosses prepared and a cross toss. It is considered an honor to be the one who successfully retrieves the cross.

In Constanța, there is a heavy emphasis on the distribution and blessing of holy water with over 100,000 liters consecrated in wooden barrels. Afterward, the holy water is distributed to believers in over 13,000 specialty-labeled plastic bottles. In recent years, over 20,000 people participated in the festivities in Constanța.

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15. Kalofer, Bulgaria

In the small mountain town of Kalofer, Bulgarians celebrate the Apparition of Christ, with clergymen leading the people in prayer and the tossing of the crucifix, However, celebrations in Bulgaria come with an ice-dancing twist.

Along with drums and bagpipes, Bulgarian Orthodox Epiphany includes the century-old ritual where nearly a hundred men in traditional white embroidered shirts will wade into the Tundzha River to engage in a slow men’s dance.

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Find an Epiphany Celebration Near You

These 15 cities offer a unique opportunity to gather with a larger group of believers, on a grander scale. However, if you’re interested in witnessing an Epiphany celebration, connect with the local Orthodox church in the community near you. Also, from Canada to Australia—to the United States and Great Britain, there are small-scale ceremonies organized everywhere. Finally, it’s a meaningful way to celebrate together, sharing the faith and beliefs, with other like-minded Christians.

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