Over 300,000 people a year now follow the yellow arrows and scallop-shell markers along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, home to one of Christendom’s holiest sites: the tomb believed to hold the remains of St James the Apostle (called Santiago in Spanish) inside the city’s magnificent cathedral.
Numbers on the caminos have multiplied tenfold since the late 1990s and many walkers today are seeking out less frequented alternatives to the classic Camino Francés. There are options long and short, hard and easy, to suit every pair of feet! Here are the most popular Camino de Santiago routes so you can choose the right one for you.
Three hikers are walking along a wall-lined path on part of the Camino de Santiago on a sunny day; there’s a stone marker with a carved yellow scallop-shell symbol and a red arrow pointing the way.
The scallop shell is the symbol of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage © Justin Folkes / Lonely Planet
The classic: long and extremely popular
The route with the richest tradition, still followed by more people than all other caminos combined: the Camino Francés (French Way) starts at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and crosses about 770km (around five weeks on foot) of northern Spain en route to Santiago de Compostela.
To many people this is the Camino de Santiago, a time-honoured penitential route and a demanding challenge requiring both mental and physical stamina. It passes through the vineyards of La Rioja, across the sparsely populated croplands of the meseta (Spain’s central plateau), and over 1300m-high hills into the rural greens of Galicia (Spain’s northwestern region, of which Santiago de Compostela is capital).
The facade of the Gothic cathedral in León, on the Camino Francés route on the Camino de Santiago; there’s a large circular stained glass window above the main entrance.
The Camino Francés route passes through León with its imposing Gothic cathedral © John Noble / Lonely Planet
You traverse isolated stone-built villages and sizeable cities like Pamplona, Burgos and León, many of them full of camino history, from ancient stone bridges to huge medieval cathedrals. The way can be blisteringly hot in summer and freezing cold in winter. Some stretches are rural tracks, others run alongside busy paved roads.
But only one person in five does the full distance from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, so the bulk of this camino is less busy than you might imagine. In fact, nearly half of Camino Francés travellers begin at Sarria, just 114km before Santiago – a modest Galician town that just happens to be the last starting point that meets the minimum 100km requirement for obtaining the official Camino de Santiago certificate, the ‘Compostela’.
A simple white building with red-painted doors and windows stands at Esposende harbour on the Camino Portugués de la Costa route. There are several small boats bobbing on the water.
The Camino Portugués de la Costa is a popular variant of the Portuguese Way © John Noble / Lonely Planet
A route for everyone
The Portuguese Way, second busiest of the Caminos de Santiago, runs more than 600km from Lisbon to Santiago (about 3½ weeks), but the most popular starting points are the enticing city of Porto in northern Portugal (some 240km from Santiago, about 10 days) and Tui, where the route enters Spain (115km). It’s within the capacity of any reasonably fit person, with few hills, though a lot of the walking is on hard surfaces (roads, pavements, cobbles) which can be tough on the feet.
The landscape gets greener as you proceed northward and the camino is practicable year-round, though it’s preferable to avoid the heat of July and August on the southern half. A popular variant, starting from Porto, is the Camino Portugués de la Costa (Portuguese Coastal Way) running close to the beach-strung Atlantic coast.
A coastal scene on the Camino del Norte; there’s a rocky beach with calm turquoise water backed by pasture and rugged hills.
There are some beautiful coastal stretches on the Camino del Norte © John Noble / Lonely Planet
Camino del Norte
Five weeks near Spain’s surprising north coast
Travelled by around 20,000 people a year, the Northern Way parallels Spain’s north coast for over 600km from Irún on the French border to Ribadeo, then heads inland across Galicia to Santiago de Compostela. Many Norte walkers are looking for a less travelled alternative to the Camino Francés. It’s similar in length, but was used by far fewer pilgrims in medieval times, as is the case today.
While some sections run alongside beautiful beaches and plunging cliffs, the majority of the route travels inland: some days you won’t see the sea at all. You pass through large cities – San Sebastián, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón – as well as pretty coastal towns like Comillas, Ribadesella and Luarca. There are a few longish stretches of road walking. The hilly early stages across the Basque Country provide some of the most beautiful scenery.
A large public square is dominated by the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela; there’s a bright blue sky and many people are milling around in the square.
All caminos lead to the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela © John Noble / Lonely Planet
Two weeks of gorgeous green countryside; relatively tough
The Camino Primitivo (Original Way), some 320km long, follows the footsteps of the first recorded pilgrimage to St James’ tomb – made by king Alfonso II of Asturias from Oviedo in the 820s.
It’s considered one of the tougher caminos because of the hilly terrain of its first eight or nine days (which can make it impracticable in the snowy winter months). But the ups and downs only enhance the beauty of the landscapes, and the route is manageable for any fit walker. Numbers on this camino are relatively light, just sufficient to provide good fellowship.
Once out of the hills, you reach the city of Lugo, encircled by 2.2km of wonderfully preserved Roman walls, and later join the Camino Francés for the final 55km to Santiago.
A town scene; a number of people are walking on a walled path leading into Lugo, on the Camino Primitivo.
The Camino Primitivo was the first recorded pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela © John Noble / Lonely Planet
Camino de Muxía-Finisterre
On from Santiago to the ‘end of the earth’
This route runs not to Santiago but from it, to the small fishing ports of Fisterra (Finisterre) and Muxía on Galicia’s dramatic coast. Believe it or not, plenty of camino walkers don’t want to stop when they reach Santiago. Three or four additional days to Fisterra or Muxía (four to six days for both places) can be the perfect coda to your odyssey.
The name Fisterra/Finisterre means Land’s End: cliff-girt, lighthouse-capped Cabo Fisterra (Cape Finisterre) certainly has an end-of-the-earth feel. At Muxía an 18th-century church on the rocky seashore marks a spot where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared in a stone boat.
It’s about 86km from Santiago de Compostela to either Fisterra or Muxía across mostly gentle countryside, and a 28km stretch links the two places.
Epic hikes around the world
Epic hikes around the world
Hike some of the most epic trails around the world, from steep climbs through Zion National Park to sweeping, scenic vistas along the Hong Kong Trail.
Short, relatively easy route within Galicia
The ‘English Way’ runs about 115km (five days) to Santiago from Ferrol in northern Galicia. It owes its name to medieval pilgrims from Britain, Ireland and other northern locations, who would sail to ports like Ferrol then complete their journey to Santiago overland.
Practicable year-round, this is an obvious choice if you have limited time, and the Inglés’ popularity has mushroomed in the last decade (15,000 people a year now). It combines stretches along picturesque rías (coastal inlets) with sections across green countryside and through the medieval towns Pontedeume and Betanzos. An alternative starting point is A Coruña, just two or three days’ walk from Santiago.
The caminos mentioned in this article are just the most popular ones. There are dozens of other established routes from all over Spain, from Portugal, France and even beyond. Two excellent resources for finding out more are the forum caminodesantiago.me and the blog Trepidatious Traveller by Maggie Woodward.
You might also like:
Hiking the Kumano Kodō: Japan’s ancient pilgrimage route
Best foot forward: hiking your way around the world
The world’s walking routes with the most traffic on Instagram
Make sure you’re ready for anything with travel insurance from our trusted partners.