are having a moment. Across the world,
walkers are lacing up their boots and hitting ancient trails.
There’s no need to know your Hail Marys; 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), these are
the routes that we’re eyeing up. Rucksacks at the ready.
10 of the best modern pilgrimages to hike
The Old Way
We’re calling this pilgrimage a work-in-progress – a waypath
that’s been in the works since approximately 1360. Largely
forgotten about until The
British Pilgrimage Trust rediscovered it on the Gough Map,
Britain’s oldest road map, the Old Way, runs between Southampton and
Canterbury. It is now being replotted and reused, skirting away
from noisy thoroughfares (old pilgrimage routes form the
foundations of many of today’s main roads) and passing through
rolling hills, undulating downs and historic urban centres as it
snakes across the south of England via holy places and spiritual
sites. Head to the trust’s website for more information, including
rest spots, route ideas and guided walks.
Madonna del Ghisallo
Upon a hilltop in Magreglio, not far from Lake Como, sits a chapel flocked by pilgrims.
Only, the devout here aren’t carrying staffs or blessings; instead,
they’re wearing Lycra and chomping on energy bars. By virtue of its
position at the top of a dramatic cycling route peppered with
screensaver-perfect views out over Lombardy, the chapel of Madonna
del Ghisallo has unofficially become a place of secular pilgrimage
for ambitious Italian cyclists peddling their way from Rome.
Inside, offerings of neon-coloured jerseys sit alongside walls
stacked with old bicycle frames. It’s absurd but intriguing.
with time for stop-offs en route Distance: 850km
Camino de Santiago
This storied European pilgrimage is having a revival: around
400,000 people traipsed their way through northern Spain in 2022,
the most ever recorded on these meandering holy paths. The official
starting point of the Camino de Santiago is disputed, but most
people tend to lace up their boots at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in
southwestern France and then pass through Spain – over mountains
and through vineyards – before climaxing at the towering Cathedral
of Santiago de Compostela. You needn’t do the full length of this
month-long trail, though. Head straight to Galicia and embark on a
more manageable long weekend or one-week jaunt. And knowing your
Hail Marys isn’t a prerequisite; many take to the walk fuelled by
wanderlust rather than religious fervour.
This pilgrimage doesn’t require any hiking poles or isotonic
energy gels, and provides a fascinating insight into the
idiosyncrasies of the Greek Orthodox Church. On 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 to watch, but we’d recommend
waiting a day or two before enjoying a less-crowded (very) short
walk from the coast to the church.
longer if you’re crawling Distance: 1km
While the total length of this pilgrimage looks measly – the 8km
trail in County Mayo typically takes around four hours –
this is known as one of Ireland’s most treacherous climbs, 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 that started 1,500 years ago). We don’t recommend
hoiking yourself and a rucksack up this crag in the depths of
winter, though. Head over in August for temperate, uncloudy
The Rila mountains – a fuzzy forest-covered range that cushions
Sofia – are scored with hiking routes, and while we can’t confirm
the existence of any official pilgrimage paths through the peaks,
many trails pass the fortress-like, Byzantine Rila Monastery, the
largest Eastern Orthodox monastery in Bulgaria. Book ahead (via phone) to spend a night;
rooms are – unsurprisingly – austere, but you’ll be bedding down to
the monastic chants of compline prayers, surrounded by some of the
country’s most enchanting frescoes.
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.
Once traversed by samurais and emperors, Kumano Kodō is a messy
threadwork of paths weaving through the forests, waterfalls and
temples of Wakayama, south of Kyoto. Some still stroll these hushed forested paths
seeking spiritual enlightenment – most, however, are following the
ghosts of pilgrims past and seeking to understand the rituals and
romance of the region’s former inhabitants and visitors. Pilgrims
of yore devised routes of varying difficulties, so today you can
pick and choose how you explore, passing shrines, small towns and
excellent local restaurants en route. 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.
weeks depending on your route. Distance: Variable
St Cuthbert’s Way
We’ve included this one as a more manageable option – an
aperitif to longer, meatier alternative pilgrimages. Start in the
quaint Scottish town of Melrose (the supposed birthplace of St
Cuthbert, a prior allegedly responsible for spreading Christianity
through the north of England), then pass through a breadcrumb trail
of villages and over the River Tweed on your way to the Holy Island
of Lindisfarne, just off England’s Northumberland coast. Those keen to go the
whole hog will need to wait for low water and navigate the tidal
flats to the isle using the ancient waymarkers stuck in the mud.
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.
speedy Distance: 100km
Mount Kailash Kora
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
guesthouses along the way – but being 5,000m above sea level
provides challenges for even the fittest, most peppy hikers.
This article was first published 27 February 2020. It was
updated 13 February 2023.