The 14 Best Catholic Pilgrimages in Europe
Taking a spiritual pilgrimage is a part of almost every Catholic’s bucket list.
Pilgrimage is an incredible tool for spiritual growth and taking a Catholic pilgrimage in Europe can be a powerful spiritual experience. Whether you take a walking pilgrimage to sacred sites or join a group pilgrimage, a Catholic pilgrimage in Europe is a unique opportunity to grow your faith and deepen your spiritual life.
If you are a Catholic or Christian considering a pilgrimage in Europe, here are 16 of the best Catholic pilgrimages in Europe for 2023. 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.
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1. The Camino de Santiago in France and Spain
The Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, 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 pilgrim routes in Western Europe, starting from different points all over Europe and converging upon the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Without a doubt, the Way of St. James is one of the best and most famous Catholic pilgrimages in Europe and should be at the top of any pilgrim’s bucket list.
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, which just happens to be one of the most beautiful Cathedrals in Europe. 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 – hence why the Camino is also called the Way of St. James.
In recent years, the Camino has seen throngs of pilgrims. Most pilgrims choose the Camino Francés, with a starting point in France and continuing 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. Once you get to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, there are so many lovely places to stay in Santiago from budget to luxury!
If you’d prefer a more off-the-beaten-track Camino experience, consider walking the Camino Primitivo instead. This was the original European pilgrimage route walked by King Alfonso II of Asturias in the ninth century and sees far fewer pilgrims, allowing a more private spiritual journey. However, 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.
2. Medjugorje Pilgrimage, Bosnia and Herzegovina
One of the more contemporary Catholic pilgrimages in Europe, 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 phenomena in Medugorje, including seeing the sun spin in the sky and change colors before their eyes.
In the centre of the small town of Medjugorje, 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 pilgrimage tour. You can stay in Mostar as well for a lovely weekend near Croatia!
3. The Shrine of Fatima, Portugal
One of the most beautiful Catholic pilgrimage sites in Europe is the Sanctuary of Fátima 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 Catholicism. Fatima is easy to get to from the central Portugal town of Coimbra and Coimbra is a great place to stay in Portugal to visit the Shrine of Fatima.
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.
4. Pilgrimage to Lourdes, France
Lourdes is one of the most important Roman Catholic pilgrimages in the world and certainly one of the most famous pilgrimages in Europe.
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 organized groups, or on group pilgrimage tours (see here for day-trip options to Lourdes from San Sabastian and other nearby French towns!)
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.
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 130 acres and has 22 places of worship. There is a traditional upper and lower basilica as well as a modern magnificent 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 pilgrims in Europe who visit. The nearest international airport is Toulouse which is a two-hour drive to Lourdes. You can stay in Toulouse and take a day trip to Lourdes, and you can also easily reach Lourdes by train from Paris and find plenty of comfortable accommodations in Lourdes from “pilgrim” class to luxury.
5. Pilgrimage to the Basilica of Saint-Denis in France
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. Over the years Saint-Denis was one of the most important pilgrimages in Europe and remains a top place to visit for all pilgrims with an interest in French history.
Denis is the Patron Saint 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 Denis, where he finally died.
Over the years, the 5th-century chapel built next to the cemetery evolved into the beautiful cathedral it is today. In fact, it’s one of the most important cathedrals in Europe! The place became an important pilgrimage site, with people coming from all the corners of France. 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. There are many places to stay in Paris where you can easily visit Saint-Denis. Saint-Denis is also one of the most important churches in Paris!
6. Pilgrimage to Assisi, Italy
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 Century. 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.
The Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi is the main attraction in Assisi, where you can venerate the saints as well as view extraordinary frescoes by early Italian Renaissance artists.
It’s a good idea to spend at least 3-4 nights in Assisi to get the most out of your pilgrimage. There are lots of budget and comfortable accommodation options in Assisi, all within walking distance of the Basilicas of Francis and Clare.
7. Pilgrimage to Rocio, Spain
The Pilgrimage of Rocio in Southern Spain is one of the largest Roman Catholic pilgrimages in Europe. This beautiful and important European pilgrimage is 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 village has its own pilgrimages, for its patron saint or the Virgin Mary. However, the El Rocio Pilgrimage is more important than the local saints. It’s also one of the most colorful pilgrimages in Europe.
The Pilgrimage of Rocio 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 place on Whitmonday.
However, you don’t need to wait until 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.
El Rocio is also a beautiful town to stay in and make a base during your trip to Andalucia! You can also take a day-trip from Seville which includes the Doñana National Park.
8. Pilgrimage on the Via De La Plata, Spain
The Via de la Plata or the Silver Way is an old pilgrimage route in Europe 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, the incredible cathedrals of Seville and Salamanca and the small rural villages of Andalusia and Extremadura. This gorgeous pilgrimage in Europe follows an old Roman road.
In 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, so it’s easy to find 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 this European pilgrimage 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.
9. Pilgrimage to Chartres, France
Located just 60 miles southwest of Paris is the small town of Chartres, France in the Loire Valley. Though the town is small, its 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 this iconic 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 Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and ends at Chartres Cathedral (formally known as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres). This has become one of the most important pilgrimages in Europe, and because it’s not as long as other European pilgrimages like the Camino de Santiago, it’s a wonderful one for new pilgrims!
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. There are many wonderful day-trips you can take from Paris that include Chartres, or you can stay in Chartres itself which is a really lovely small town in France!
10. Pilgrimage on the Via Francigena, in the UK, France, & Italy
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 Cathedral 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 one of the most important religious pilgrimages in the world.
Along with Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, and Jerusalem, Rome is by far one of the best pilgrimage sites in Italy and best pilgrimage sites in Europe. But let’s be honest, Rome (or the Vatican) is probably the first in the ranking by the number of annual visitors.
Today, the Via Francigena 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.
11. The Turas of Glencolmcille, Ireland
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 and stay in any of the beautiful hotels in Donegal.
12. Pilgrimage to the Vatican, Italy
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 Holy See is the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, where Pope Francis resides.
There are so many amazing churches in Rome, but the Vatican is an absolute must!
With an are of merely 49 hectares, Vatican City is officially the smallest country in the world. Citizenship is less than 1,000 people and the population is composed of 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. There are many ways to get tickets to the Vatican and participate in organized tours. If you are interested, you can participate in a number of liturgies presented by the Pope within the basilica or at the adjoining Saint Peter’s Square.
Of course, there are many places to stay in Rome, from budget hostels to 5* luxury hotels! You won’t have a problem finding great accommodation in Rome for your Italian Pilgrimage that fits your budget and travel style.
13. Pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, England
Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most important Christian pilgrimage sites in the world and certainly one of the most important pilgrimages in Europe!
Canterbury Cathedral, along with St. Augustine’s Abbey and St. Martin’s Church, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Pilgrimage to Canterbury has been important since medieval times. Geoffrey Chaucer’s famous work, “The Canterbury Tales,” is a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury Cathedral. This literary masterpiece provides a vivid and often humorous portrayal of medieval life and pilgrimage culture.
Aside from being a beautiful example of Gothic Architecture, with some of my favorite cloisters in Europe, Canterbury Cathedral has played a pivotal role in English and European history. It was the site of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170, which led to his canonization as a saint and made the cathedral a significant pilgrimage destination.
Following Thomas Becket’s murder, a shrine was established in his honor within the cathedral. Pilgrims from across Europe came to visit the shrine, making Canterbury one of the most important pilgrimage sites during the Middle Ages and it remains a top pilgrimage in Europe.
There are various pilgrimage routes in England leading to Canterbury, but the most famous is the Canterbury Pilgrims’ Way, which traditionally starts from Southwark Cathedral in London and ends at Canterbury Cathedral. This route is approximately 60 to 70 miles (about 97 to 113 kilometers) and can take anywhere from 4-7 days – so is a wonderful pilgrimage if you only have a week off from work for a pilgrimage in Europe!
Once you get to Canterbury, it’s such a beautiful town you should stay in Canterbury for a few days to rest and enjoy the wonderful British environment!
14. Pilgrimage from Rouen to Mont Saint-Michel in France
There are so many incredible pilgrimage sites in France, but by far one of the most famous (for good reason!) is Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy!
Mont Saint-Michel has had huge religious significance for France since the Middle Ages. The first church was built on the small island in the 8th century. Legend has it that the Archangel Michael (“Michel”) appeared to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the mount. Later, in the 10th century, Benedictine monks settled on Mont Saint-Michel and established a monastery. Over the centuries, they expanded and improved the abbey’s structures. The island played a very important role in the Hundred Years War and throughout French history.
Rouen Cathedral is another of the most important religious sites in France – so by doing this pilgrimage in Europe, you will get to experience two of Europe’s most important holy places! Aside from having an absolutely magnificent 12th-century Gothic Cathedral, the Rouen Cathedral was the site of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc in 1431. Joan of Arc was imprisoned in Rouen and underwent her trial in the archbishop’s palace adjacent to the cathedral.
There isn’t a single prescribed pilgrimage route from Rouen to Mont Saint-Michel, so you have some flexibility. Many pilgrims follow a combination of walking and public transportation routes, while others walk the whole way. If you choose to walk, the GR22 and GR223 hiking trails can take you through picturesque Normandy landscapes and lead you to Mont Saint-Michel. The distance from Rouen to Mont Saint-Michel is approximately 240 kilometers (149 miles) – so this pilgrimage will likely take at least a week or more if you walk the whole way.
Once you get to Mont Saint-Michel, its a good idea to stay a few days in Normandy and enjoy all that the coast of France has to offer. There are beautiful hotels near Mont Saint-Michel for every pilgrim!
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