The 10 Best Modern Pilgrimages (and No, You Don't Have to Be Religious)

Thought you had to be religious to be a pilgrim? Think again. Featuring beginner-friendly walks and scenic month-long hikes, these spiritual trails offer exercise, adventure and immersion in nature. Epiphany, optional.

Is it just us or are pilgrimages having a moment? They offer a decent amount of exercise, immersion in nature, a flourish of adventure and some good chat, all underpinned by the prospect of a transformational, spiritual awakening. We're into it.

The modern pilgrim doesn't need to be devoutly religious or even particularly fit to embark on one of these scenic trails. Featuring one-day jaunts and month-long reckonings with the powers that be (whoever they may be), this round-up covers the routes that we're eyeing up. Rucksacks at the ready.

These 10 trips will inspire the modern pilgrim.

The Old Way

England

While we're loathe to sound like total pilgrimage nerds, this route is a hot new entry. The British Pilgrimage Trust recently unearthed this ancient passage from the Gough Map - Britain's oldest existing map, which dates back to 1360 - and has set about rerouting it for the modern pilgrim. The rejigged trail skirts noisy thoroughfares (old pilgrimage routes form the foundations of many of today's main roads) and passes through some of England's most Instagram-friendly scenery. Download the interactive maps from its website to see exactly what we mean.

Duration: Two to three weeks

Distance: 400km

Madonna del Ghisallo

Italy

Upon a hilltop in Magreglio, not far from Lake Como, sits a chapel. The pilgrims stopping off here aren't carrying staffs or blessings, they're wearing lycra and chomping on energy bars. Yes, by virtue of its position at the top of a dramatic cycling route which is peppered with screensaver-perfect views out over Lombardy, the chapel of Madonna del Ghisallo has unofficially become a place of pilgrimage for ambitious cyclists. Inside, offerings by way of neon-coloured jerseys sit alongside walls stacked with old bicycle frames. It's absurd but intriguing.

Duration: Cycle from Rome in six days, with time for stop-offs en route.

Distance: 850km

Tinos

Greece

This pilgrimage doesn't require any hiking poles or isotonic energy gels, but it provides a fascinating insight into the idiosyncrasies of the Greek Orthodox Church. On the 15 August each year, pilgrims get down on their hands and knees and crawl from the azure harbour of Tinos up through the city to the Panagia Evangelistria Church at the island's apex where a bejewelled icon of Mary awaits. It's deeply moving, if not heart racing.

Duration: 20 minutes, at most, by foot; longer if you're crawling.

Distance: 1km

Croagh Patrick

Ireland

While the total length of this pilgrimage looks measly - a 8km jaunt through the pancake-flat plains of Kent typically takes an hour and half - this is known as Ireland's most treacherous climb, in part due to the moody miasma of cloud and fog that routinely descends on the peak of Croagh Patrick. Catholic pilgrims looking for the wobbly chapel perched on top ascend en masse on the last Sunday of July (a tradition which started 1,500 years ago). While we don't recommend hoiking yourself and a rucksack up this crag in the depths of winter, it's more temperate and fairly clear in August too.

Duration: One day

Distance: 8km

Rila

Bulgaria

The Rila Mountains - a bumbling area of fuzzy forest that cushions Sofia - are scored with hiking routes which culminate at the stripey, Byzantine-style Rila Monastery. Book ahead to spend the night in the monastery, though don't expect any chocolates on your pillow. Rooms here are as austere as you might expect from an Orthodox monastery lovingly known as the Jerusalem of Bulgaria, but bedding down under the frescoes is enchanting - more so after days spent pumping your quads through Bulgaria's brooding woodlands.

Duration: One to four days

Distance: Variable

Adam’s Peak

Sri Lanka

If you want a looming shrine or architectural colossus waiting for you at the end of your trek, scroll on. This pilgrimage culminates in a sunken patch of earth, a spot believed by some Buddhists to bear the sacred footprint of Buddha himself. Snake through whispering plains of long grass, up centuries-old concrete passages and through sticky, humid jungle on this five-hour trek. Pilgrimage season lasts from December to April. Bring layers: Sri Lanka's low-lying land might be balmy enough for bikinis but the climate shifts dramatically as you edge farther from sea level.

Duration: Five hours

Distance: 2km

Kumano Kodō

Japan

Once traversed by samurais and emperors, Kumano Kodō is a messy threadwork of paths which weave through the forests, waterfalls and temples of Wakayama, south of Kyoto. Pilgrims of yore devised routes of varying difficulties, so today pick and choose as you like. You'll catch us meandering towards the epic Nachi-no-taki, Japan's tallest waterfall, and Kumano Hayatama Taisha - a blood-red sacred temple that can only be reached by paddling out in a flat-bottomed boat.

Duration: Anything from one day to two weeks depending on your route.

Distance: Variable

Camino de Santiago

Spain

A classic. We couldn't have done this round-up without including this behemothic mesh of ancient paths. The official starting point of this pilgrimage is disputed, though most people today tend to start at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and then pass through Spain - over mountains and through vineyards - before climaxing at the towering Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. You needn't traipse the full length of this month-long trail. Head straight to Galicia and embark on a more manageable long weekend or two-week jaunt.

Duration: 35 days

Distance: 830km

St Cuthbert’s Way

England

We've included this one as a more manageable option - an aperitif to longer, meatier pilgrimages if you will. Start in the quaint Scottish town of Melrose (supposed birthplace of St Cuthbert), pass through a breadcrumb trail of villages and over the River Tweed on your way to the Holy Island off England's Northumberland Coast. You'll find a smattering of hotels on the way so there's no need to lug camping equipment and, providing you plan a summer trip, you might even catch a few rays.

Duration: Six days, or four if you're speedy.

Distance: 100km

Mount Kailash Kora

China

This short but gruelling three-day journey over the desolate hills of Mount Kailash is known as one of the world's most challenging pilgrimages. It forms a loop, beginning and ending in Darchen, which takes in the Dirapuk and Dzultripuk Monasteries en route. The landscape is not completely barren - there are hotels along the way - but being 5,000 m above sea level provides challenges anew for even the fittest, most peppy hikers.

Duration: Three days

Distance: 52km

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