The 12 Best Catholic Pilgrimages in Europe
Taking a spiritual pilgrimage is a part of almost every Catholic’s bucket list. Roman Catholic or not, taking a Catholic pilgrimage in Europe by walking the Camino de Santiago or walking the San Vili Path are life-changing experiences everyone should do in their lives.
If you are a Catholic or Christian considering a pilgrimage in Europe, here are 12 of the best Catholic pilgrimages in Europe. Combine these with a visit to some of the beautiful Cathedrals in Europe or visiting a monastery, such as Grandchamp in Switzerland, and you can have the trip of a lifetime.
Here are 12 of Europe’s must-see Catholic pilgrimage routes and pilgrimage sites.
CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
Contributed by Wendy Werneth of The Nomadic Vegan
The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage trail that has been sacred to Roman Catholics since the 9th century. Actually, the Camino de Santiago is not just one pilgrimage route but many pilgrimage routes, starting from different points all over Europe.
Traditionally, pilgrims would just start walking from out their front door, wherever they happened to live. But all of the routes lead to the same place — Santiago de Compostela. Located in the far west of Spain, this is where the remains of St. James (“Santiago” is his Spanish name) are said to be kept inside the Cathedral.
In recent years, the Camino has seen a resurgence in popularity. Thousands of modern-day pilgrims make the journey each year. Most of them choose the Camino Francés, which starts in France and continues all the way across northern Spain. There’s plenty of pilgrim infrastructure on this route, including hostels (albergues) and other comfortable hotels, water fountains, and even a surprising number of restaurants serving vegan and vegetarian options.
If you’d prefer a more off-the-beaten-track Camino experience, consider walking the Camino Primitivo instead. This was the original route walked by King Alfonso II of Asturias in the ninth century and sees far fewer pilgrims. Although keep in mind that, as this is a pilgrimage rather than a hike, complete isolation is not necessarily desirable. Indeed, the people you meet along the way may be the best part of the experience.
MEDJUGORJE, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
By Emily from Wander-Lush
One of Europe’s more contemporary Catholic pilgrimage sites, Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina was officially authorised by the Vatican in May 2019. It has been a popular destination for pilgrims since 1981, the year when six local teenagers reported seeing an apparition of the Virgin Mary.
Our Lady of Medugorje, as she became known, conversed with the group, delivering them a prayer mission. Some of the teenagers (now adults) still report regular visits from her. In the years since, pilgrims have observed other phenomenon in Medugorje, including seeing the sun spin in the sky and change colours before their eyes.
In the centre of the small town, a white statue depicting Our Lady of Medugorje has been erected in front of the Church of Saint James the Greater Apostle. Nearby, Cross Mountain (also known as Apparition Hill) takes around an hour to summit by foot. At its peak, you can see a large cross and another statue of Our Lady, along with sweeping views of the town and valley below.
Medjugorje attracts more than one million visitors every year, including Catholic pilgrims and tourists alike. It is truly one of the best Catholic pilgrimages in Europe.
There are six or seven official pilgrimages every year for Catholics and non-believers, including a week in June to mark the anniversary of the apparitions. The town is located 35 minutes’ south-west of Mostar, close to the border with Croatia. When planning a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s a good idea to add a few extra days in Mostar for a day trip to Medjugorje, either independently by bus or by joining a guided tour.
SHRINE OF FATIMA, PORTUGAL
Contributed by Stephanie of History Fan Girl
An often overlooked Catholic pilgrimage site is Fatima in central Portugal. While Portugal is dotted with monasteries like Jerónimos Monastery in Belem and the Monastery of Batalha also in central Portugal, Fatima is uniquely alive with a modern version of Portuguese Catholocism. Fatima is easy to get to from the central Portugal town of Coimbra.
Fatima was originally the site of a Marian Apparition, which is what the official term is for when the Virgin Mary appears on Earth to deliver a message to humanity. Our Lady of Fatima is how Mary is referred to here, and she is believed to have visited three shepherd children in 1917. She brought messages about World War I. The three children were later canonized as saints, and the church built the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima to commemorate the events.
This is one of the largest Marian shrines anywhere in the world. Inside the main church, the Basilica of Our Lady of the Rosary, you’ll find the tombs of all three children. Unfortunately only one lived into adulthood. Francisco and Jacinta Marto died a year after the appearances during the Spanish Flu pandemic. Lucia became a nun and author, living until 2005. Pilgrims visit year-round today, but the most popular day is to visit on the 13th of the month since Mary appeared on the 13th of May and October.
Whatever time of year your visit, one of the best parts of visiting Fatima is getting to pair it with a trip to the coast of Portugal and all of the beautiful villages in central Portugal. For a wonderful pilgrimage, stay centrally in Coimbra or closer to the coast near Nazaré.
Contributed by Sobha of Just Go Places
Lourdes is one of the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world.
On average six million people visit Lourdes on pilgrimage every year. Sick people are often brought in groups to visit the Shrine. Tourists may arrive individually and in organised groups.
This town in southwest France is famous because the faithful believe that the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl, Bernadette Sobiros, in a grotto in Lourdes a total of 18 times. In this grotto, the Virgin Mary proclaimed her Immaculate Conception to Bernadette. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was born without sin) was only proclaimed recently by the church.
When Bernadette told her priest about the Immaculate Conception he was shocked because there was no way a peasant girl would have known about this doctrine. The Virgin Mary also told Bernadette to dig near the grotto and a fountain appeared. The spring water from the fountain is supposed to have curative properties.
In Lourdes, you can visit the home of Bernadette. You can also visit The Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes which covers about a 130 acres and has 22 places of worship. There is a traditional upper and lower basilica as well as a modern basilica which can hold 25,000 worshippers. You stand in line to visit the grotto where Mary appeared to Bernadette and can touch the spring water. Next door to the grotto are pools in which the faithful can be submerged into the holy spring water.
Lourdes, itself, has turned into a tourist town to accommodate the vast number of people who visit. The nearest international airport is Toulouse which is a two hour drive to Lourdes. You can also easily reach Lourdes by train from Paris and find plenty of comfortable accommodations from “pilgrim” class to luxury.
BASILICA OF SAINT-DENIS, FRANCE
Contributed by Elisa from World In Paris
The Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, is one of the most sacred places in France. This magnificent gothic-style cathedral was built on the exact spot where Saint-Denis was buried.
Denis is the Saint patron of Paris and France. He was the first Bishop of Paris martyred around 250 AD. by the Romans. Saint-Denis was beheaded on the hill that we know today as Montmartre. The Saint, without the head, managed to walk all the way from Montmartre to Saint-Denis along the path that we know today as rue du Mont Cenis, where he finally died.
Over the years, the 5th century chapel built next to the cemetery evolved into a more important construction. The place became an important pilgrimage site, with people coming from all the corners of France and a monastic community settled and founded an abbey in Saint-Denis.
It was the French King Dagobert (603 – 639) the first King to be buried in Saint-Denis and his successors and the royal dynasties that followed continued with the tradition. Saint-Denis was also the place where the French Kings came to pray and take the oriflamme before going to war.
The old pilgrimage to Saint-Denis started at Notre-Dame-des-Champs, in Paris 14, and went through different churches and chapels related to the Saint. Today this pilgrimage is done only on special anniversaries but the Saint is still much venerated by the Parisians.
Contributed by Tom of Travel Past 50
One of the most important Catholic pilgrimages in Europe is a pilgrimage to Assisi, the hometown of Saint Francis.
Before you start ticking off your list of things to see on your visit to Assisi it would serve you well to take the time to learn just a little about the two saints, Francis and Clare, that make this Umbrian town the destination that it is.
First, of course, is Saint Francis, the patron saint of Italy, and known here by his Italian name, San Francesco. To say he changed the Church, and with it the history of Western philosophy is probably not overstating his influence.
Francis lived from the late 12th to the early 13th Centuries. He was the son of a prosperous silk merchant who renounced his father’s wealth and took the vow of poverty. His first task, as a result of a vision he had, was to restore ruined chapels in the vicinity of Assisi. Among them was the so-called Portiuncula which became the home of the Friars Minor, the first religious order founded by Francis.
Soon after forming his order, Francis was approached by a noblewoman, Clare of Assisi, who wished to follow him. She was prohibited by her father from doing so, but she escaped his castle one night and came to Francis, who gave her a simple habit like his own. A female complement to the Franciscan Minor Friars was established and eventually took the name the Poor Clares.
Both saints have basilicas in Assisi, where you can venerate the saints as well as view extraordinary frescoes by early Italian Renaissance artists.
Contributed by Paulina by Paulina On The Road
The Pilgrimage of Rocio in Southern Spain is one of the largest Roman Catholic pilgrimages in Europe. On top, it’s the perfect opportunity to get a unique insight into the Andalusian culture.
The El Rocío pilgrimage attracts nearly a million people from across Andalucia and the entire country, and beyond. Every Andalucian city, town, and the village has its own pilgrimages, for its patron saint or virgin However the El Rocio is more important than the locl saints. It’s also one of the most colorful pilgrimages in Europe.
It follows on from Semana Santa (March/April), and the various spring ferias, of which Seville’s Feria de Abril (April) is the biggest. The climax usually takes places on Whitmonday.
However, you don’t need to wait to that day to witness the beauty of El Rocio shrine. Being one of the most beautiful churches near Cadiz, El Rocio is a must on any Cadiz itinerary.
VIA DE LA PLATA, SPAIN
Contributed by Campbell and Alya of Stingy Nomads
The Via de la Plata or the Silver Way is an old pilgrimage route that starts in Seville in the south of Spain and finishes 1000km later in Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims walking the Via can see the impressive Roman ruins of Merida and Italica, incredible cathedrals of Seville and Salamanca and small rural villages of Andalusia and Extremadura. The route follows an old Roman road.
There is evidence that the road was extensively used by local inhabitants before this period. In the Roman times the road was used to connect Merida and Seville, the main cities in the region, with the metal mines. The route has nothing to do with silver; the name comes from the modified Latin word “platea” which means “wide road”. The first pilgrims followed the Via to Santiago in the 10th century shortly after the tomb of Apostle St.James was discovered.
The route is easy to follow, the entire 1000kms are well-marked with yellow shells and arrows. There are many public and private albergues (hostels for pilgrims) along the way, no need to worry about accommodation. To walk the Via every pilgrim needs a Credential, a pilgrim’s passport. The Credential is a small book where pilgrims collect stamps from every albergue they stay. It can be obtained at one of the albergues along the route or at the Pilgrim’s Office in Seville.
For modern pilgrims who seek tranquility and solitude the Via de la Plata is a great route to follow, even in the peak season there are very few people here. The best time for walking the route is April-May and October-November. In winter there is a lot of rain and in some parts snow. In summer it gets unbearably hot, daily temperatures rise up to 40-45°C.
Contributed by Ashley Smith of My Wanderlusty Life
Located just 60 miles southwest of Paris is the small town of Chartres, France in the Loire Valley. Though the town is small, it’s cathedral is anything but. Chartres Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is famous for being one of the most well-preserved Gothic cathedrals in Europe. Almost all of the stained glass is original and features a shade of blue signature to that cathedral and that one only.
But the most important aspect of Chartres Cathedral is what it holds inside, one of the most important religious relics in existence—the Sancta Camisa. Otherwise known as the tunic worn by the Virgin Mary on the night of Christ’s birth, this piece of cloth is the reason Chartres Cathedral is so well-known in the world of Catholic pilgrimage sites today.
The modern Pilgrimage to Chartres is an annual pilgrimage that begins at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Paris and ends at Chartres Cathedral (formally known as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres).
This current pilgrimage (though there have been pilgrimages to Chartres even long before the cathedral was built) began in 1983 and takes place each year around the time of Pentecost in early summer—about 50 days after Easter. The journey takes between 8,000 and 10,000 pilgrims three days and crosses 62 miles door-to-door.
You can apply to join the Chartres pilgrimage on the official pilgrimage website where you can also view the official itinerary and some helpful tips.
VIA FRANCIGENA, UK + FRANCE + ITALY
Contributed by Imma of A World to Travel
As usually happens with pilgrimage routes throughout the world, in this case, the name does not lie. The Via Francigena takes its name because, after leaving Canterbury in the UK, it crosses France before reaching northern Italy and, finally, St. Peter’s Square in Rome. This makes it one of the longest Catholic pilgrimages in Europe, and perhaps the most amazing!
Along with Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, and Jerusalem, Rome is one of the cities in the world that most Catholic Christians have received on pilgrimage for centuries and centuries. But let’s be honest, Rome (or the Vatican) is probably the first in the ranking by the number of annual visitors.
Today, the path is significantly different from the one that our ancestors once traveled since the Middle Ages.
With amenities that make it possible to do it in short stages and enjoying good food and accommodation, it has never been easier to fulfill the dream of enjoying the via Francigena as a pilgrim for a few days – whatever reasons you might have for becoming a pilgrim, weeks, or months and dedicate yourself to simply walking, each at their own pace, towards Rome.
As the saying goes: ‘All roads lead to Rome’.
Well, so be it.
THE TURAS OF GLENCOLMCILLE, IRELAND
Contributed by Faith Coates of Xyuandbeyond and Theworldskitchens
A lesser-known but incredibly beautiful Catholic pilgrimage in Europe is to the Turas of Glencolmcille, in Ireland.
Glencolmcille is named after Saint Columba, the name Glencolmcille translates into English as the Valley of Com Cille. Saint Colm Cille, is one of Ireland’s three patron saints and he and his followers lived in the Valley where there are several church ruins. The valley is located in Donegal in what is now called Glencolmcille.
A Tura is a set walk, or pilgrimage, called in Irish ‘an Turas‘, literally ‘the Journey’. Every June 9th the local folk and some pilgrims walk the 15 stations. This is a religious procession that includes 15 different stations or stáisiúin that are within 9 different townlands.
The journey through the Turas begins at a court tomb built in around 3000BC. A true pilgrim will walk the Turas barefoot beginning just after midnight on June 9th. The trek takes around 4 hours through 5 and a half kilometres of bogs and the rock-strewn hillsides of Donegal. The after-midnight start is because this is the time it is believed that Saint Glencolmcille took his last breath.
For a long time, the Turas went into decline but the Catholic community began embracing its Celtic past and traditions and was supported by the Catholic Church joining in the pilgrimage. You will find information about participating in the Turas when you visit the village of Glencolmcille.
THE VATICAN, ITALY
Contributed by Kenny from Kyncx Journeying
If you are going on a Catholic pilgrimage in Europe, you simply must include the Vatican on your route. Better yet, this is the very place that should be the beginning of the end of your pilgrimage – as the country, or, the city-state enclave, is the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, where the Pope resides, and where the highest state functionaries of all Catholic clergy.
With an are of merely 49 hectares, the Vatican is officially the smallest country in the world. Citizenship is less than 1,000 people and the population is composed of main clergy, religious members, and the Swiss Guard.
Having said that, the entire country is a holy site, also an attraction that welcomes millions of visitors every year. The Vatican Museum showcases great works from big names including Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci – Just to name a few.
You simply must enter the Sistine Chapel and gawk at the ceiling, walk through the Gallery of Maps, and visit the Raphael Rooms. Worship in Saint Peters Cathedral, the largest church in the world. I promise that you don’t know where to look as you walk in because of its sheer volume of intricate artwork. If you are interested, participate in a number of liturgies presented by the pope within the basilica or at the adjoining Saint Peter’s Square. All walks of life are welcome.
A few tips for the best possible Pilgrimage:
Travel Credit Cards – Having a card with a 0% foreign transaction fee saves so much money when traveling internationally, and helps you build points for free travel. I use American Express Platinum and have been so happy with their service, and concierge that has helped me plan last-minute trips or changes numerous times. Right now they are offering $200 in travel reimbursement for any travel booked through AMEX to help during the current situation and reimbursement up to $40 a month for streaming like Netflix.
Want to brush up on your language skills before your Pilgrimage? – I’ve made huge progress with my French using private tutors through italki. With rates as low as $4 per hour (seriously!) and friendly, highly experienced tutors you can make quick progress and have fun while doing it. Sign up for italki here to check out their teachers. It only takes a few lessons to learn enough of your new language to make your pilgrimage even more meaningful!
Travel Insurance – It’s so important to travel knowing you are covered for accidents, delays, lost-baggage and the works. I always use World Nomads Travel Insurance. The best part? They cover your electronics too!
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