Humanoid statue trail marker for the Caminho de Santiago, Ponte de Lima, Portugal

Lead image: Santiago trail marker in Ponte de Lima, Portugal [CC BY-SA 4.0 Xatofrido via Wikicommons]

The Portuguese Caminho de Santiago routes are some of the prettiest options available to pilgrims. With good weather, excellent food and scenic countryside, you can’t go wrong with any of the Portuguese routes.

The Caminho de Santiago (Camino de Santiago in Spanish), also known as the Way of St. James, is a network of medieval pilgrim trails leading to the shrine of St. James the Apostle in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, northwestern Spain.

Who was St. James?

Saint James the Great, Dijon fine Arts Museum [CC BY-SA 4.0 by Hakjosef]

St. James is the patron saint of Spain and of pilgrims. He was one of the 12 apostles of Jesus and was martyred in 44AD in Jerusalem, at the hands of King Herod.

Before his death, St. James travelled throughout Spain and Portugal preaching the gospel of Christ.

After his death, two of St. James’s loyal disciples fled with his remains, escaping in a rudderless boat. They prayed for God to see them to safety and eventually drifted onto the shores of northwest Spain where St. James was buried.

The burial site was lost for several centuries until the Apostle’s relics were supposedly rediscovered in the forests of Galicia in 813AD. The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was constructed over the tomb.

Today St. James’s relics are housed in a silver casket on the cathedral’s high altar.

Pilgrims have been travelling to the site of St. James’s relics for hundreds of years to pay homage to the martyr and lessen the punishment for their sins.

Walking the Caminho de Santiago Pilgrim Trail

The Caminho de Santiago is one of the world’s most famous Christian pilgrimages. It has been by far the most popular pilgrimage route in Western Europe since the Early Middle Ages.

The Caminho is not just one trail, but rather a a network of interconnecting routes through France, Spain, Portugal and other parts of Europe (even England). It attracts more than 200,000 pilgrims per year – a figure that increases annually.

A pilgrim on the long road to Santiago de Compostela [CC BY-SA 4.0 by Anila Amataj]

Who Walks the Caminho de Santiago?

While in the past the Caminho de Santiago was travelled mainly for religious reasons, today it is increasingly popular as a secular journey.

The Pilgrim Office in Santiago de Compostela estimates that in 2021 roughly 36% of travellers walked the route for exclusively religious reasons; 43% for mixed reasons and 21% out of purely secular motivation. Many consider their journeys to be ‘thoughtful’ or ‘spiritual’ without being directly linked to religion or Christianity, for example those seeking catharsis or self-discovery.

Santiago pilgrims on the trail [CC BY 2.0 by Caminando]

Whether your interest is spiritual or sporting, you are sure to have a unique experience as you walk the ancient ways, travelling through significant historic landscapes, cultural hotspots and natural parks.

Some pilgrims choose to travel alone, enjoying the introspective nature of a solitary journey, but just as many walk with friends. The trails are renowned for their camaraderie and the strong sense of kinship felt between pilgrims; even if you don’t start out in the company of friends, you’re likely to have made some new ones by the end.

Trivia: In the past, the Caminho de Santiago was also walked for judicial reasons. In Flanders, Belgium, an old tradition persists: one prisoner a year is pardoned on the condition that he walks the Santiago trail with a heavy backpack, accompanied by a guard.

The Santiago pilgrim demographic is made up of equal parts men and women. The majority are Spanish, with Portuguese, Italian and German the next most common nationalities.

Traditionally many people completed the route on horseback or with a donkey – a few still do, although these days following the route by bicycle is becoming increasingly popular. 93% of all pilgrims simply travel by foot.

Many set out from their front door, while others first travel to one of the well-known trailheads in France, Portugal or Spain – often marking their official ‘departure point’ at a significant church or cathedral.

The Caminho de Santiago Pilgrim Trail in Portugal

Portugal offers several routes to Santiago de Compostela, each of them quite different and lovely in its own way.

The Portuguese routes are the second most popular after the favoured French trails, seeing over 34,000 pilgrimages in 2021 (while France saw 98,000). The Portuguese routes are commonly usually divided into those starting from Lisbon and those starting from Porto, however there are also routes from other cities.

The majority of pilgrims in Portugal begin their journeys in Porto, which offers the most direct and best-serviced routes.

Porto Routes

Most pilgrims following the Porto routes depart from Se Cathedral. It takes approximately 12 days to walk to Santiago de Compostela from Porto.

1. Caminho Portugues Central (Central Portuguese Way)

Porto to Santiago leads to Santiago inland all the way, totalling around 260km. This route has several variations including the Central via Tejo and the Central via Atlântico.

  • Passes through many historic towns and villages
  • Of all the Portuguese routes, this one offers the most hostels/albergues along the way
  • Well developed infrastructure (shops, etc.) along most of the route
  • Shortest Portuguese route
  • Busiest route (which could be a pro or a con depending on your disposition and reasons for travelling)

2. Caminho da Costa (Coastal Way)

Porto to Santiago, keeping near to the coast. ~280km

  • Offers sea views at times, but in reality leads through scenic inland areas most of the way
    • Less busy
  • Passes through less touristy areas
  • Many opportunities to dine on wonderful seafood (including scallops)

3. Senda Litoral (Litoral or ‘shoreline’ trail)

Porto to Santiago by the beach, merging with the Coastal Route at Redondela. ~280km

  • Similar to Coastal Route in places but hugs the beach, offering Atlantic sea views most of the way
  • Less well marked than the other two routes from Porto

Lisbon Routes

Pilgrims departing from Lisbon generally begin at Lisbon cathedral, from whence it takes approximately 25 days to walk to Santiago de Compostela. There are two main routes from Lisbon.

1. Caminho Portugues (Portuguese Way)

  • Very beautiful with a great variety of landscapes
  • Passes through many pretty villages and towns
  • Not always straightforward to follow

2. Caminho de Fatima (The Way of Fátima)

  • Lisbon to Fátima is a distinct pilgrimage in and of itself and is extremely popular in Portugal, however some pilgrims may wish to carry on to Santiago after visiting the Sanctuary of Fátima, rejoining one of the mainstream routes.
  • Follows the same route as the Caminho Portugues but diverts to the Sanctuary of Fátima in Ourém.
Sanctuary of Fátima [CC BY-SA 4.0 by LLEW]

Viseu Route

One of the least well-known but most beautiful routes departs from Viseu, Central Portugal. ~208km

Caminho Portugues Interior (Portuguese Interior Route)

  • Travels through lesser known regions of Portugal in areas known for friendly locals, incredible food and spectacular scenery
  • Includes many picturesque bridges and stepping-stone crossings
  • One can also start this route in Coimbra – one of Portugal’s most beautiful cities
  • Passes through Douro wine country

Tavira Routes

Bell tower, Church of St. James (Igreja de Matriz de Santiago) in Tavira [CC BY 4.0 P. Burian via Wikicommons]

These lesser known routes begin at the Church of Santiago in Tavira, although some pilgrims chose to start a little further north near Alcoutim.

Caminho Nascente (Eastern Way)

  • One of the longest routes in Portugal at around 650km. It runs the length of the country before joining the Camino Torres in Spain. Final arrival in Santiago is over 1000km away from Tavira in total.
  • Start by the sea in the lovely Algarve
  • Travel up through Portugal’s central provinces, from the sunny south to the mysterious north.
  • Follows the course of the Guadiana river for part of the way

Caminho da Raia (Way of the Sunbeam)

  • Begins the same as the Caminho Nascente but divides at Mértola, leading even further east into the wild country adjoining the Spanish border.

The Sacred Scallop Shell of St. James

Scallop Shell [CC BY-SA 2.0 by Amanda Slater]

Upon their arrival at Santiago de Compostela, medieval pilgrims would be presented with two items:

  • A ‘Compostela’ certificate testifying that the pilgrim had made the journey – still given today for those able to present their completed ‘pilgrim passport’
  • A scallop shell – the traditional symbol of St. James – for the pilgrim to wear about their person as proof of their completed journey

The origin of the scallop shell is uncertain, however many legends and ideas are shared by pilgrims to explain its significance. For example:

  • Galician merchants sold the shells to travellers as a symbol of the area and proof that they had indeed reached Galicia.

  • St. James performed 23 miracles in his lifetime – one of which involved curing a knight’s throat disease by placing a scallop shell on the affected area. Subsequently, people began to hang scallop shells above their beds, by their doors and beside important water sources in order to ward off ailment.

  • The origins of the scallop shell’s significance could also be traced to arrival of St. James’s remains in Galicia by boat. According to legend, the vessel carrying St. James’s body and his disciples was destroyed by a storm shortly before making landfall. St. James’s body was later recovered, however, having been found washed up intact on a beach, covered in scallop shells.

  • A conflicting legend says that as the disciples approached the shores of Galicia, a wedding was taking place on the beach. The groom was mounted on horseback. The horse was spooked by the arrival of the ship and ran into the sea with its rider. They later re-emerged, unharmed, and miraculously covered in scallop shells.

  • The scallop shell is also associated with the Roman goddess Venus, in which context it represents rebirth, renewal, beginnings and endings – appropriate connotations for pilgrims on the trail.
The Birth of Venus by Botticelli depicts Venus’s arrival on shore after her emergence, fully formed, from a scallop shell.

The scallop shell is still used by pilgrims to identify themselves and one another on the trail. It is also used on milestones and way markers to help pilgrims find the route.

[CC BY-SA 2.0 by Jacilluch]

The Cross of Saint James

The other symbol you will see on the trail is the Cross of Saint James – a Fleur-De-Lys styled sword on a white field, representing the blood of Christ and purity of spirit.

This is said to have originated in the Crusades. Crusaders carried cross with a sharpened base that could be planted into the earth, that they might kneel and pray before it.

You will often find the two symbols together when the cross of Saint James is painted onto scallop shells.

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