Modern walkers are increasingly discovering the best routes trodden by ancient pilgrims. Now, more and more of these sacred treks are available to enjoy as holiday packages.
In part, this is due to the success of the Camino de Santiago, which has sparked a revival in exploring spiritual trails.
Travellers are finding that these opportunities for slow travel adventures are all the better because of their inspiring historical back-stories.
Increasingly, hikers like to ponder as they plod. We picked the traditional pilgrim routes that are a step ahead of the others.
A slice of Olde England
The Pilgrim’s Way is an ancient track from Winchester to Canterbury Cathedral (above) in Kent
Walking one of England’s most historic and holy trails, The Pilgrim’s Way, provides a medieval pilgrim’s view of classic downland countryside between St Swithun’s Shrine, Winchester, and the major pilgrimage site of Canterbury Cathedral.
Highlight: Start by claiming free traditional ‘wayfarer’s dole’ — rations of beer and bread — at Winchester’s Hospital of St Cross.
Don’t miss: Much of the 150-mile route to the murdered St Thomas Becket’s tomb follows that described in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written more than 600 years ago.
How to do it: A two-week self-guided walk along the entire route costs from £1,875pp with responsibletravel.com. This includes staying in historic inns, with breakfast and luggage transfers.
Celebrate Ireland’s patron saint by trekking St Patrick’s Way across lush farmland and misty mountains between Northern Ireland’s ecclesiastical capital, Armagh, and Patrick’s simple tombstone outside Downpatrick Cathedral.
Highlights: The best stretches wind along the spectacular coastline right beneath the beautiful Mourne Mountains.
Don’t miss: The landscapes around Rostrevor and Carlingford Lough inspired C. S. Lewis to create the Narnia fantasy world of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe.
How to do it: Spend eight days on this 80-mile pilgrim trail through some of Northern Ireland’s most spectacular landscapes, staying in small hotels and B&Bs. Waterproof maps and notes, luggage transfers and 24-hour phone support are included. It costs from £835 with thenaturaladventure.com.
Saxon trail to Holy Island
Walkers cross the tidal sands on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland
The 63-mile St Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders to Lindisfarne commemorates a much-venerated seventh-century Saxon hermit monk and saint who inspired thousands of medieval pilgrimages.
Highlight: The path across tidal sands to Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island is a memorable finale.
Don’t miss: Ancient ramparts stretch for three miles around the summit of Eildon Hill and offer the most acclaimed views in the Scottish Borders.
How to do it: Spend four days descending from the Cheviot Hills along the Northumberland coast to Holy Island, with your luggage helpfully transferred between your overnight B&Bs. With five nights’ accommodation, it costs from £565 via brigantesenglishwalks.com.
En route to the Vatican
Best foot forward: The hill town of Orvieto, Italy, is on the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route to Rome
The ultimate British Christian pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was trekking 2,000 miles from Canterbury to Rome. The truly dedicated then continued this ‘Via Francigena’ by boat to Jerusalem. Thankfully, today’s operators offer shorter sections, mostly between the Alps and the Vatican.
Highlight: The best stretch leads from the glorious Umbrian hills to a memorable finish at the Vatican in Rome.
Don’t miss: Collect the official ‘Testimonium’ pilgrimage certificate from a special office in St Peter’s Square — if you complete the last 60 miles of Via Francigena.
How to do it: A ten-day self-guided pilgrim walk from the Umbrian hill town of Orvieto to Rome costs from £945 with utracks.com. It includes luggage transfers, a dedicated phone app, route book and emergency hotline in case you get lost. You’ll stay in family-run farm accommodation or small hotels, with all breakfasts and many meals included.
Fairytale castle in the bay
For centuries, pilgrims have followed footpaths through Normandy’s flat farmland to the spectacular fortified island abbey of Mont Saint Michel in the middle of a tidal bay.
Highlight: The first awe-inspiring glimpse of the Mont’s fairytale silhouette as you approach across marshy fields.
Don’t miss: Ancient pilgrims without tide tables trusted God to protect them crossing the vast muddy bay. Many drowned as tides raced in. Today it’s easy to take safe but spectacular pilgrimage day walks across the bay using official guides.
How to do it: Spend eight days walking from Granville in Normandy to the Mont in Normandy on centuries-old pilgrim trails known as Les Chemins du Mont Saint Michel. They pass along beaches, round headlands and through pretty wooded valleys to end at the abbey on Mont St Michel. The cost is from £780pp with innwalking.com and includes B&B in small hotels, maps and notes, daily luggage transfers — and an official guide across the tidal mudflats.
St Michael’s Mount makes a rewarding spiritual finale to a coast-to-coast walk across Cornwall
Britain’s version of Mont Saint Michel sits in Mount’s Bay, Penzance — and makes a rewarding spiritual finale to a coast-to-coast walk across Cornwall. Modern pilgrims choose to start St Michael’s Way from Padstow (45 miles) or Lelant (14 miles).
Highlights: Bathe tired toes in four holy wells that still stand on this once-busy pilgrim route.
Don’t miss: The British Pilgrimage Trust advises you walk a traditional clockwise circuit of the outside of Lelant church, to properly ‘ritualise’ the pilgrimage.
How to do it: Follow St Michael’s Way from Padstow harbour to St Michael’s Mount with six nights’ B&B included. With baggage transfers, maps and notes, the holiday costs from £975 pp with macsadventure.com.
Trek to the fjords
St Olav’s Way is a 400-mile trek from Oslo north to St Olav’s shrine at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim (above)
Beautifully maintained, carefully signed paths wind through woods, lush valleys and rocky hills for 400 miles from Oslo north to St Olav’s shrine at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, almost in the Arctic Circle. The whole St Olav’s Way is a real undertaking — small sections of it make easier holidays.
Highlight: Authentic historical wooden pilgrim hostels are great value accommodation for Norway.
Don’t miss: The owner rows guests across a river to stay at his Sundet Gard hostel — and serves traditional pilgrim fare of potato and meatball soup, while dressed in period costume.
How to do it: The best stretch is descending from the Dovre Mountains to the end in the fjord city of Trondheim. A nine-night holiday covering this last 100 miles, with simple pilgrim accommodation and most meals supplied, costs from £800 with nordicpilgrim.com (luggage transfer are an extra £300).
Hikers on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, ‘Europe’s favourite pilgrimage route’
Europe’s favourite pilgrimage route is a network of St James paths starting in Portugal or France and collectively called the Camino de Santiago.
They converge on the apostle’s shrine in the far north-western corner of Spain and range from arduous Pyrenean hikes to easier coastal stretches.
Highlight: Celebrate your achievement with a unique daily pilgrim’s Mass at Santiago de Compostela’s Gothic cathedral.
The city of Camino de Santiago and its Gothic cathedral marks the end of the Camino
Don’t miss: Mix with a fascinating range of Camino walkers, from celebrities such as Martin Sheen to the one Belgian prisoner who is released each year on condition that they walk the route.
How to do it: Pilgrimage experts say the route through forests and valleys from Tui on the Portuguese border to Santiago is the most historically authentic. Worldwalks.com offers a six-night holiday walking this stretch from £595, with B&B in two or three- star hotels, luggage transfers and route notes.
Paths still trace St Paul’s Trail, which was taken through Turkey by the missionary apostle 2,000 years ago. The full arduous trail covers 300 miles from Antalya on the Med to rocky gorges and pine forests in southern Turkey’s Taurus Mountains. That takes a month — but thankfully much smaller sections are available.
Highlight: Walk on authentic Roman roads via the ruins of classical buildings that have existed since St Paul’s journey.
Don’t miss: Views of the sparkling 30-mile-long Lake Egirdir from the mountain path.
How to do it: A knowledgeable local guide can lead you from Selge to Sagalassos along sunny mountain paths as part of a group walking holiday. Seven nights’ en-suite accommodation in local pensions, all meals, entry fees and daily luggage transfers are included. It costs from £1,445, including flights from London and transfers, with ramblersholidays.com.
Maria Plain (above), a 400-year-old baroque pilgrim church high above Salzburg’s towers and spires, is a highlight of the St Jacob’s Way trail
Pilgrims have walked the gentle Alpine foothill paths of St Jacob’s Way around Salzburg for 1,000 years. It’s a chance to follow beautiful trails through Austrian and German landscapes of lakes, mountains and wildflower pastures.
Highlight: Walk up to Maria Plain, a 400-year-old baroque pilgrim church high above Salzburg’s towers and spires. It’s acclaimed as a spot for ‘spiritual contemplation’ (and good for picnics).
Don’t miss: For 1,100 years, Salzburg was an independent church state that attracted pilgrims from all over. It is still packed with beautiful churches and abbeys.
How to do it: A self-guided walking trail covers the traditional 70-mile pilgrimage from Seekirchen to St Johann. A seven-night holiday costs from £569 with pilgrimroutes.com, including B&Bs, luggage transfers and route notes.
- All holidays quoted are starting prices per person travelling as one of a couple, for accommodation and some meals, not travel to the start and finish.