3 ways to plan a Camino de Santiago hiking pilgrimage

Pilgrims have been tracing trails to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela for centuries. Modern travellers can follow the tradition in search of their own personal fulfilment.

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To begin at the end: the remains of the apostle Saint James (or Sant Iago, in Spanish) are believed to repose in an urn, in a tomb, in a crypt, in the looming medieval cathedral of the city named after him. Santiago de Compostela was built around the saint’s burial site, as revealed to a shepherd by a guiding star almost a millennium after the body was carried here by stone boat from Jerusalem, with angels guiding the way. Or so the story goes. It has since led more than 1,000 years’ worth of pilgrims to this convergence point of myth and history, via the network of cross-country trails known as the Camino de Santiago. In 2022, a record 438,000 people completed one of those routes, some of them covering only the final 62 miles (or 124 miles for cyclists) required to qualify for the official pilgrim certificate, the Compostela. It’s a measure of how popular the pilgrimage has become, drawing not just the Catholic faithful but recreational trekkers, mountain bikers, group tours and solo travellers, coming to work off their worries — or a few extra pounds — in the wilds of the Iberian peninsula.

There are seven main caminos (ways) and while they all end in Santiago de Compostela, they’re not all confined to Spain. The French Way, from the foothills of the Pyrenees, has some of the best infrastructure and is by far the busiest. Lesser-travelled alternatives, meanwhile, trace the Portuguese coast, the Cantabrian Mountains and the inland plains of Castile and León. Each route offers its own distinct pleasures in terms of climate, landscape, physical challenges and regional cultures. But there are recurring features, with all paths marked by holy ruins, shrines, monasteries and albergues (simple hostels that have served the routes since the Middle Ages). There’s always camaraderie among the wayfarers. A bottle of water or wine shared with strangers in the ruins of a hilltop hospital built for early pilgrims might be the defining moment of your trip. There’s also solitude, if that’s what you want, and the profound satisfaction of moving through all this natural beauty under your own steam. If you don’t find God, or even yourself, on the way, there is at least the promise of deep peace and quiet.


Itinerary one: The Coastal Portuguese Way

The classic Portuguese Way from Porto is a largely inland option, but there’s also a 170-mile coastal alternative that skirts the Atlantic coastline through northern Portugal and Galicia — the edge of the known world in Roman times.

Days 1-3 

With its Romanesque facade and ethereal blue azulejo tiling, Porto Cathedral makes for an eye-catching starting point. Divert to Matosinhos and follow the ocean along wooden walkways through landscapes of dunes, flowers and market gardens. Browse for lace in the old naval town of Vila do Conde, sample cod in 18th-century fishing port Póvoa de Varzim and watch kitesurfers off the protected shores of Esposende, en route towards Marinhas in far northern Portugal. 

Days 4-7

This stretch turns from the sea to follow the Neiva River inland on a long, stone pathway. A magnificent iron bridge by Gustav Eiffel takes travellers over the Lima River into Viana do Castelo, where a funicular ascends to the Templo do Sagrado Coração de Jesus (‘Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus’), reminiscent of Paris’s Sacré Coeur. The path winds upward into eucalyptus forest, then back down to the ocean, passing coastal bastions and windmills to reach yet another river, the Minho, where a ferry crosses into Spain. On the far bank is A Guarda, famous for its lobster and for its ruins of an ancient Celtic shrine. Finish on the coast in Mougás.

Days 8-11

Further up the coast is the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Oia, once defended from attacking Turkish ships by Cistercian monks handy with cannons. The route here is nicknamed the Monastic Way in their honour. It weaves across to Baiona, the port that received first word of the New World from the returning ship La Pinta in 1493. Soak up the sea views, across floating mussel farms and the misty Cíes Islands in the Vigo estuary, before turning inland to join the classic Portuguese Way. Stop for oysters in the village of Arcade, then cross Ponte Sampaio bridge to the former Roman road that leads to Pontevedra. 

Days 12-14

Pontevedra’s historic centre is worth exploring before the last push. Wander the gothic basilica of Santa María la Mayor and the Santo Domingo convent ruins before crossing bucolic Galician farmlands toward Caldas. Soak tired bones in thermal springs and refuel with a lamprey-filled empanada, then carry on to Padrón, the river port where the disciples are said to have first brought the body of Saint James. The end of this route follows the footsteps of Bishop Teodomiro, who found those remains some 900 years later and brought them to the resting place now known as Santiago de Compostela.

Itinerary two: The Original Way

This 200-mile trail is said to be the oldest of the Camino de Santiago routes, the first pilgrimage having been taken by Asturian King Alfonso II around 820 CE. It’s also the toughest way to go, but pilgrims are rewarded with glorious mountain views and hearty food.

Days 1-3 

King Alfonso II commissioned Oviedo’s basilica, on the site of which now stands the Cathedral of San Salvador, marking the start of this route. From there, it’s into the hills, fortifying yourself with regional stews. Look across the valleys from the Nuestra Señora del Fresno (‘Our Lady of Fresno’) Sanctuary and rest beneath the fortified walls of Salas, the riverside ‘gateway to the west’ of Asturias. The path proceeds to Tineo through chestnut forest, passing vintage hórreos (stilted grain stores) and the ruins of a pilgrim hospital.  

Days 4-7

Continue via Pola de Allande, where locals still speak Eonaviego (old Galician-Asturian). Stop to behold the 14th-century hilltop Palace of Cienfuegos de Peñalba, and try local Oscos cheese in Puerto del Palo. Then it’s down again to the Salime Reservoir and across to Grandas de Salime, the last stop in Asturias.

Days 8-11 

Head onwards across Galicia on paths that are often monkishly hushed. A quiet trail through ancient oak groves leads to Castroverde’s 14th-century, 65ft-tall tower. Then Lugo rises like a vision, the evening sun glowing on Roman walls that encircle a town known for its good food and wine.

Days 12-14

Dirt roads flanked by chestnut trees pass by late-Roman ruins, including those of the temple of Santa Eulalia de Bóveda. Galician seafood is reliably terrific even this far inland, with octopus grilled to perfection in villages like Melide. Pilgrims connecting from the Northern and French Ways make the last stretch much busier, and groups pause, wonderstruck, at the oak-fringed hermitage of San Pedro and the monument atop Monte do Gozo. From there, you’ll see the spires of your final destination at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral — a sight that moves some to tears of religious humility or sheer, exhausted relief.

Itinerary three: The Sanabres Way

This 200-mile trail is said to be the oldest of the Camino de Santiago routes, the first pilgrimage having been taken by Asturian King Alfonso II around 820 CE. It’s also the toughest way to go, but pilgrims are rewarded with glorious mountain views and hearty food.

Days 1-3 

King Alfonso II commissioned Oviedo’s basilica, on the site of which now stands the Cathedral of San Salvador, marking the start of this route. From there, it’s into the hills, fortifying yourself with regional stews. Look across the valleys from the Nuestra Señora del Fresno (‘Our Lady of Fresno’) Sanctuary and rest beneath the fortified walls of Salas, the riverside ‘gateway to the west’ of Asturias. The path proceeds to Tineo through chestnut forest, passing vintage hórreos (stilted grain stores) and the ruins of a pilgrim hospital.  

Days 4-7 

Continue via Pola de Allande, where locals still speak Eonaviego (old Galician-Asturian). Stop to behold the 14th-century hilltop Palace of Cienfuegos de Peñalba, and try local Oscos cheese in Puerto del Palo. Then it’s down again to the Salime Reservoir and across to Grandas de Salime, the last stop in Asturias.

Days 8-11 

Head onwards across Galicia on paths that are often monkishly hushed. A quiet trail through ancient oak groves leads to Castroverde’s 14th-century, 65ft-tall tower. Then Lugo rises like a vision, the evening sun glowing on Roman walls that encircle a town known for its good food and wine.

Days 12-14

Dirt roads flanked by chestnut trees pass by late-Roman ruins, including those of the temple of Santa Eulalia de Bóveda. Galician seafood is reliably terrific even this far inland, with octopus grilled to perfection in villages like Melide. Pilgrims connecting from the Northern and French Ways make the last stretch much busier, and groups pause, wonderstruck, at the oak-fringed hermitage of San Pedro and the monument atop Monte do Gozo. From there, you’ll see the spires of your final destination at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral — a sight that moves some to tears of religious humility or sheer, exhausted relief.

How to travel: a practical guide

How fit do I need to be? 

Some routes are harder than others, but a 14-day pilgrimage requires some conditioning. A few months before setting off, start taking incrementally longer walks (up to 15 miles per day), ideally with an ever-heavier backpack if you plan to carry your own bags.

Do I have to carry my own luggage?

Only if you want to. There’s no shame in booking luggage transfers via Spain’s state-owned postal service, Correos, or private providers like Pilbeo, which pick up and drop off bags for around €5-10 (£4-8) per stage of the route, leaving you to carry only a day pack. The first pilgrim, King Alfonso II, probably didn’t haul his own gear around either.

What essentials should I pack? 

Waterproofs, sunscreen, a sun hat, a water bottle, a first-aid kit and comfy footwear are essential. For albergues (simple Camino hostels), pack a sleeping bag, a headlamp, earplugs, an eye mask and bed bug spray. Also bring plasters and merino wool socks.

Where will I sleep?

Most public albergues are run by the local municipality and charge less than €10 (£8) a night for a dorm bed, but they don’t take reservations. In busy season, consider booking into private albergues or guesthouses along the way.

Is walking the only way?

No. Cycling is a popular option, but only serious mountain bikers should try the Original Way. Horse-riding is doable, and fittingly old-fashioned, but takes experience and planning, so an organised tour is easiest. The Sail The Way initiative has also opened up the possibility of travelling between stages by yacht along the coast. 

How does the accreditation system work?

The Credencial (pilgrim passport) is a document that confirms your pilgrimage. Order one from the UK’s Confraternity of St James, or download the app version, then collect physical or virtual stamps at albergues and other marked locations along the way. Present on arrival at Santiago de Compostela Cathedral to collect your Compostela. To qualify, you need only show you walked the final 62 miles (or cycled the final 124 miles) of any of the Camino routes.

Published in the July/August 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine click here. (Available in select countries only).

Read This Next

Omega-3s are more critical for your health than we thought
New museum reckons with Charleston’s role in the slave trade
How Barbie’s signature pink took over the world

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet